Pascal Blanch on Akira
Currently Art Director at Ubisoft Canada, Pascal Blanchis one of the most distinctive 3D artists working today. Recently awarded the prestigious Expos Grand Master award for his work, he is also a huge fan of anime - particularly Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 movie adaptation of his own 2,000-page series of graphic novels. 3D World caught up with Pascal to discuss bikers, body horror, and the beauty of traditional animation.
3D World: Anime fans have a lot of movies to choose from. What makes Akira so special?
Pascal Blanch Akira is simply on a different level of quality to most other animated movies. It's also the first stepping stone towards projects aimed at a more mature audience, such as the Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell series. The story takes place after the Third World War, in the newly constructed Neo Tokyo, and concerns a secret military project codenamed Akira that turns a biker gang member into a rampaging psionic psychopath that only two kids and a group of psionics can stop.
How did you first find out about Otomo's work? How old were you at the time?
It was in 1988. I was 17 years old. I was living in Marseille at the time, and a friend of mine was reading the US coloured version of the original manga. Book number eight, in fact. I remember it clearly.
Did it have an immediate impact on you, or was it something that grew on you gradually?
After reading a few pages, I remember asking my friend for the whole package, rushing back home and reading it till two in the morning. I waited months for the ninth book. I'd even travel to Paris [almost 800 kilometres away] from time to time to find out if there were any new releases. I was totally addicted.
Was it an influence on your own career?
Absolutely! Both the anime and the manga had a huge influence on my approach to framing and lighting a scene, and even to animating characters. My taste for merging flesh with mechanical elements also comes from this period.
Watching the film, one thing that strikes you is the incredible attention to detail. Was Akira's visual style something that spoke to you?
It's not just Akira's amazing attention to detail: it's its approach to engineering. That's perhaps the biggest influence anime had on artists of my generation. Before anime, technology was only included in movies for its aesthetic properties. But animes are always taking place in real worlds, in futuristic and twisted cities - and the design of those possible technologies plays a huge role in the visuals. Mr Otomo understood that really well, and later [Ghost in the Shell creator] Masamune Shirow pushed the art even further.
There are a lot of things in the film that aren't easy to animate in 2D - smoke, flames and light trails from the bikes. If Otomo were to remake Akira now, do you think he would use 3D?
That's already happening with films like Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and Appleseed. But while CG is playing more and more of a role in anime, it will take time before directors find a good balance. Personally, I don't think Mr. Otomo would change a thing about his great work. At most, maybe little details in the second part of the movie - I heard that most of the budget went on the first 40 minutes and that the animators had to lower the quality a bit towards the end. If you watch closely, the effects and the compositing are simpler in the final half.
The editing of the film is incredibly kinetic. Is that sense of pace something that Western animators could learn from?
Mr. Otomo had mastered crazy camera angles even in his manga books, so the anime simply follows his early works. At the time, I was really blown away by the way he could communicate such a sense of movement in so few pictures. The animation style of Akira is something that I really love, and it's one that I've yet to see in any other movie. There's a kind of magic in the relationship between the stylisation of the characters and the stylisation of the way in which they move. The animation is almost snappy, and great attention is paid to the hands, postures, and direction of the eyes.
Akira is often described as a movie that even non-anime fans admire. Do you think that this is simply because it's better made than other anime? Or is it because it deals with bigger ideas?
Firstly, I'd say that it's because the design of the characters differs slightly from normal anime. In Akira, boys and girls are Japanese kids. They aren't perfect little dolls with big eyes and blue hair. The second part of its success lies in the way that the film-makers approached the project. It's more of a science-fiction movie than an anime. There are car chases, guns, fights, mad-scientist technology, explosions, big monsters, and a bit of romance and humour. What else could you want?
It's often a pretty nightmarish film. Some of its themes - particularly the mutation of the human body - are ones that seem to crop up in your own images. Is that darkness something you draw on in your own work?
Well! my work isn't that dark. Somehow, I don't feel like creating characters in pain. I sometimes merge machinery and flesh together, but it's always aesthetic, never painful to watch.
The one criticism sometimes made about Akira is that it's an adolescent power fantasy. Do you think that's a fair comment?
I don't really understand that. As far as I'm concerned, Star Wars is also an adolescent power fantasy. There's nothing wrong with that. As I said before, the only annoying thing about the movie is that it feels that the animators ran out of time and money at the end. And, as a huge fan of the manga, I would have loved to see more of it. Mr Otomo, if you read these lines€¦
Whenever I do these interviews, I look up the subject on CGTalk to find out what other 3D artists think about it. Normally, I turn up two or three threads. For Akira, I turned up hundreds. Why do you think it's so universally loved?
Akira is simply one of those influences that made CG professionals the people we are today. Speaking personally, you could add the Star Wars trilogy, Ray Harryhausen's movies, and The Dark Crystal. Akira is also perhaps the first anime to stand up against Disney. Not in terms of cash or quality (although those are debatable) but in terms of theme. Akira was the first adult animation to reach the same level of quality.
Given that many people reading this interview will already have seen the film, is there anything about Akira that gets overlooked by its fans?
Ha! Tough question! well, let's see. Maybe the soundtrack? Or maybe the fact that most of main characters are just a bunch of ordinary guys, thrown into an extraordinary situation? Or maybe even that Akira really taps into such huge classic movies that we all unconsciously feel a part of it:
Bike chases with flare trails: TRON.
Mad-scientist technology: Frankenstein.
Gang wars against The Clowns: The Warriors.
Huge futuristic city: Metropolis.
And I'm sure that I'm missing a lot of other movies, too...
Those sound like pretty good reasons to me. Is there anything else that you'd like to say about Akira?
Hmm. Maybe that it's the movie I've seen the greatest number of times in my life - after 30, I stopped counting. And hell! This interview has given me the need to watch it again!
Akira is released on DVD by Manga Entertainment. Pascal Blanch's personal 3D work can be viewed at the website:
www.3dluvr.com/pascalb (opens in new tab)