Goro Miyazaki Was Encouraged By Hayao Miyazaki To Direct CG-Animated 'Earwig And The Witch' [Interview]

When Goro Miyazaki returned to Studio Ghibli in 2015, he found the offices to be completely empty.

"Nobody was here and it was like storage, very empty," Miyazaki recalled in an interview with /Film over Zoom ahead of the release of his upcoming movie Earwig and the Witch. "And I thought, 'Okay, so I won't be making films anymore.'"

But it would be just three years later that Miyazaki would get back in the director's chair once again, for a kind of film that had never been done at Studio Ghibli before: a CG-animated movie. Earwig and the Witch was always conceived as a computer-animated film, but the Japanese anime industry more often uses that tech as a tool to imitate a cel-shaded/ hand-drawn look, as Miyazaki had recently done in the CG-animated TV series Ronja, the Robber's Daughter. But something about doing a fully CG-animated film appealed to Miyazaki because "here at Studio Ghibli, doing a cel look, emulating hand-drawn animation at a studio that specializes in hand-drawn animation didn't really make sense."

And it was Miyazaki's father, the legendary Ghibli filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, who actually encouraged him to pursue the film with this approach.

"It was actually recommended, or suggested, by Hayao Miyazaki and [longtime Studio Ghibli producer] Toshio Suzuki that I would do a film adaptation of this story," Miyazaki said.

Read our full interview with Goro Miyazaki on Earwig and the Witch below.

Earwig and the Witch is your first feature film in nine years. What was it about this story that drew you to the film and back to Studio Ghibli?

It was actually recommended, or suggested, by Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki that I would do a film adaptation of this story, of this book. So I went back and read the book and I really enjoyed it. And what I loved about the story was that Earwig is not your typical good girl. She's always direct. She is very honest about what she wants in life, how she wants to live her life. And if she has goals, she doesn't hesitate to manipulate people. If somebody treats her bad, she actually fights back. She's quite strong in that way, and I really, really loved how she was portrayed in the book so I wanted to make that into a film.

Studio Ghibli had shut down productions for three years before it was announced that it would be back in operation with the announcement of your film, Earwig and the Witch, and your father Hayao Miyazaki's How Do You Live? Can you describe for me the environment at Ghibli as the studio came back after so many years on hiatus?

I did Ronja, the Robber's Daughter, a TV series, with an outside studio. After doing that, when I came back to Studio Ghibli, nobody was here and it was like storage, very empty. And I thought, "Okay, so I won't be making films anymore." And when I saw Toshio Suzuki, our producer, he actually looked happy, and said, "I can retire now!" But then Hayao Miyazaki, he wasn't able to stay away that long. He needed to create something in order to live, basically. So he started with making a short film for the [Ghibli] museum, and then he went on to making his new feature-length film. And that is around the time that I started working on Earwig too, and everyone came back.

Hayao Miyazaki's wife, who is my mother, she used to say [to him], "I wish you would retire and take it easy and enjoy the rest of your life." But recently, she's come to accept the fact that he cannot stop creating, so she knows that, so she'll be like, "Okay, if you'd rather create until the end of your life, then go to the studio, go to the office everyday."

Speaking of Ronja, the Robber's Daughter, it was also a computer-animated project. Did your experience on that series help you in crafting Earwig and the Witch?

Yes, definitely. So with Ronja, we used computer graphics, but it was using cel-shading techniques, so basically emulating the hand-drawn animation look. So when we came back and did Earwig and the Witch here at Studio Ghibli, doing a cel look, emulating hand-drawn animation at a studio that specializes in hand-drawn animation didn't really make sense. So we decided we might as well go full 3D CG. It was a challenge, for sure.

So was Earwig and the Witch always conceived as a CG-animated movie or did that come a little later in the process?

So, I had already decided to go to do a CG film. It started as a CG film. However, I was wondering whether I should go for a cel shading approach, or a full CG. I decided to go full CG for the audience here in Japan.

Since this is Ghibli's first CG-animated movie, did you have to create or bring in the technology yourself?

Yes, because Studio Ghibli, we didn't have a system or hardware to create CG-3D films. So it started from hiring key staff members who are able to do that, and also building the system for us to be able to make 3D-CG films.

Can you tell me about the computer animation process? Did you start with hand-drawn animation then convert it into computer animation?

So the beginning of the process is pretty similar to what we do with hand-drawn animation. You start sketching the character designs and the set designs on sketchbooks using pencil. From there you start thinking about the plot, and the storyboard is also hand-drawn. Those processes are actually not that different with hand-drawn animation.

There were some intense, complicated scenes, especially the ones having to do with magic. What was the most difficult scene to animate in computer animation, that might have been different to animate as a hand-drawn scene?

It's hard to tell because every scene was very hard. It was very challenging. [Laughs]

So because each scene has its own challenges, there's not much difference in how they were in the level of [how challenging they were]. It's hard to say. Even in the quieter sequences, that requires the acting, and the facial expression, and the performance of the characters, while with action scenes, obviously, you need to create dynamics, so the camera moves a lot. There's a lot of different things required depending on what you're trying to portray in each scene, so each scene has different challenges. Having said that, the workshop where Earwig and the witch, Bella Yaga, are making potions and spells, that room took us a long time to create. The modeling of that particular room was done in the course of a year, a whole year by one artist who just devoted himself to that room.

A lot of CG animation movies nowadays is about trying to make things look as realistic as possible, but Earwig and the Witch doesn't do that. It retains that kind of anime style that you see in a lot of Studio Ghibli films, especially in the hair. When you approached the character designs for Earwig and the Witch, how did you decided how much realism you would have and how little?

You're exactly right. If you went the photorealistic path, you could go on forever, you could explore forever, and it's really not the Studio Ghibli style. "Where do I go?" was something that I thought about a lot. And what I referenced was stop-motion animation by studios like Laika and Aardman, especially with the level of deformation in the characters and also the sets. And so with the character design, I really referenced and made a similar look [to] the stop-motion animation, especially with something like the hair, like you mentioned, instead of trying to portray each strand of hair, we have captured it in big chunks.

Also, something like the pupils of the eyes, usually we have highlights in the pupils of the eyes. Instead of doing that with a CG approach, we use more of a hand drawn technique to draw those highlights.

In the future, do you hope to make more CG animated films under Ghibli? Or will you go back and forth between this and hand-drawn animation?

Well, if I were younger, I would be able to go back and forth between the two worlds and CG. But I'm not done young anymore so I probably don't have that much time left to do many films in my life. I would love to challenge a couple more films using CG.

As the first Ghibli film in four years, what do you hope Earwig and the Witch will signal for the new era of Ghibli?

That Ghibli will keep on making films nonstop. And I hope that this symbolize the fact that in order to stay true to our style here at Studio Ghibli, that necessarily doesn't mean that we should stick with hand drawn animation. I really believe that challenging new things within the studio is the key to staying true to ourselves.


Earwig and the Witch opens in select theaters February 3, 2021 before it makes its streaming debut on HBO Max on February 5, 2021.