Studio Ponoc Innovates in 2D Animation with Latest Film, "The Imaginary

Because the traditional hand-drawn animation pipeline remains a methodical process, Studio Ponoc's second animated feature, "The Imaginary," which premieres tomorrow, July 5, on Netflix, is six years in the making.

The film was released in Japan last December, and The Imaginary is the first title in Netflix's deal to acquire worldwide streaming rights to Studio Ponoc's animated feature films. The film is based on the 2014 children's book of the same name by A.F. Harold, and the screenplay was written by Yoshiaki Nishimura, founder of Studio Ponoc and the film's producer.

Nishimura, who has headed Studio Ponoc for nearly a decade, chose "Imaginary" as the feature-length sequel to the film to step out of their storytelling comfort zone, push the look of animation, and, most importantly, to bring together Studio Ghibli's legendary He says he was able to give animator Yoshiyuki Momose another feature film to direct.

"When I joined Studio Ghibli, of course Miyazaki and Takahata were the big names, but there was a third man, Yoshiyuki Momose, who had a special place in Studio Ghibli," Nishimura told Cartoon Brew. Unfortunately, he never got to direct a feature film at Studio Ghibli. So I vowed to myself that if I were in a position to choose a director for a feature film, I would love to have him direct it."

Nishimura also said that he had been working on a feature film for several years, and that he had been working on a feature film for several years.

Harold's book about a young, troubled English girl named Amanda and her imaginary friend, Ludger, immediately captured Nishimura's attention as a story suited to Momose's skill at emotional storytelling and ambitious world building.

"I realized that the world was born from the imagination of children," Nishimura says. But each child's imagination is different, so I couldn't portray it with one type of expression." When the decision was made to produce the film, I knew that Momose-san was the best choice to direct it."

Director Nishimura was also excited by the premise that picture books are very different from Japanese culture. Whereas Western children embrace and understand the concept of imaginary friends, Japanese children are drawn to spirits, ghosts, and yokai, as seen in many Studio Ghibli films.

To successfully sell this "strange" premise to the Studio Ponoc production team, Nishimura wrote a thorough 40-page adaptation proposal and submitted it to Momose. It was so detailed that Momose suggested he write a script and continue developing it with him.

On the story side, the two immersed themselves in building an emotional story that would drive the actions of Amanda, Ludger, and Emily, the experienced leader of the town of Imaginary. Nishimura said that they thought a lot about the origins of imagination for children and how their experiences with the world around them and the books they read help shape their interior spaces.

"We asked what Amanda's life is like, what does the bookstore mean to her, what is the situation between her mother Lizzie and her father," Nishimura said. In the original story, there is only one line about her father. When I thought about the character of Rudger, I thought it must have something to do with her understanding of who her father is. So in terms of the design and reason for that imagination, it's the father, or the absence of the father. That's how I built up the script and the characters."

As for the animation itself, both Nishimura and Momose were more than ready to make a film with techniques that would surpass anything they had done before.

"There were some frustrations," Nishimura admitted about the status quo mentality found in some parts of the Japanese 2-D animation industry. "Even when I made 'Mary and the Witch's Flower,' I thought, 'I'm going to go on for 30 years, or I'll get bored.'"

For the studio's anthology film "Modest Heroes," Nishimura's team dabbled in a new approach to 2D animation lighting and shading

Nishimura's team took a new approach to 2D animation lighting and shading.

In the studio's anthology film Modest Heroes, Nishimura's team dabbled in a new approach to lighting and shading in 2D animation. Imaginary was an opportunity to challenge themselves further with a collaboration with Les Films du Poisson Rouge in France, who helped develop the lighting techniques for Sergio Pavlos's Klaus.

"We didn't want to make the figures look more three-dimensional," said Pavlos. I thought that if I could control the shadows and lighting better, I could show the audience more of the psychological aspects and depth of the characters." Dealing with light and shadow deepens the story and deepens what the audience feels.

As production deepened, Nishimura contacted Poisson Rouge and asked their artists to finalize the extended shading and lighting, which would be overseen by the studio's lighting director, Anaëlle Segezzi, and producer Catherine Esteves. Nishimura said, "For the Japanese version, all the footage had been completed, so we sent it to Poisson Rouge, where the lighting director created the lighting and shadows."

The lighting director then created the lighting and shadows for the Japanese version.

Nishimura said that during the storyboarding phase, they also confirmed that they wanted to augment some key sequences with CG elements. Storyboards are typically divided into four parts of 25 minutes each. Once each part is completed, the main staff meets to decide how to handle the drawing and whether to hand-paint it. Or whether to focus on background art or what kind of CG to include. I would say 10% to 15% of the film. Especially for the space sequence and the origami bird sequence. However, we have a policy regarding the use of CG. Many Japanese animators like to use CG to simplify things or make things easier. But our policy is whether it helps the film to express itself.

Although these sequences were produced by an outside contractor, Nishimura said he is discussing internally whether Studio Ponoc should expand and bring CG capabilities in-house. We are basically outsourcing now," he said. Because outsourcing is faster, because they develop new methods of CG and use them faster.

With the positive reception of "Imaginary" in Japan and strong expectations for its worldwide release, Nishimura said he is even more determined to find ways to advance the art form while continuing to respect the tradition of 2D animation. Japanese hand-drawn animation has its limitations," he said. I think we are trying to push those boundaries at Studio Ponoc."