Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Studio Ghibli Layout Designs: Understanding the Secrets of Takahata/Miyazaki Animation at Musée Art Ludique

Animation is a strange and fascinating process, and just as strange to document and curate. Whereas the finished animated feature rarely lasts more than one hour and a half, its creation and process takes years, following meticulous, painstaking stages that will ultimately result in spontaneous, dynamic movement.

Maybe the reason I feel so strongly about animation and its display in museums is puposefully because it is so difficult to grasp from a single angle, but also because there is so much left to show and explore. Within an increasing trend in exhibiting animation, Musée Art Ludique has risen to the occasion in recent years, in sensitive, engaging and provocative ways. I loved their exhibition previously shown at MoMA, celebrating 25 years of Pixar Studios with lavish displays of concept art, storyboards and models that created a balance between Pixar’s technical CGI achievements and their artistic vision. In this exhibition the main impetus was truly to “dip” into every stage leading to the creation of an animated feature, but leaving little room for technical and in-depth exploration of each stage of the process. This time, the formula is different, taking a very precise and almost scientific slant while harking back to a much loved tradition: the art of the preparatory sketch.

The exhibition “Studio Ghibli Layout Designs: Understanding the Secrets of Takahata/Miyazaki Animation” is, indeed, very precise and focused on one particular animation process. Its very title shows that this is going to be an exhibition with a pedagogical as much as an artistic aim: to understand a very particular stage of animation, while admiring the mastery of such drawings. The exhibition was made in collaboration with Studio Ghibli as well as the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s celebrated films within the studio are known around the world and have a glowing thity-year record for hand-drawn animations that are known for their charm, creativity and insightfulness. As Miyazaki has announced his retirement and Studio Ghibli close their film production for now, this exhibition is a poignant tribute to their acheivements.

Layout design is a particular stage of the animated feature in between the rough storyboard creating the narrative and the finished animated scenes. It has a very specific technical purpose: to create defined visual references for the animated in terms of scenery, perspective and position of the characters. It will detail how these characters move but also how the camera may pan upwards, to the side, or zoom in on a particular moment. They are also used to define the exact timing of each scene and movement, as well as key notions in terms of lighting, shadow and mood.

Howl’s Moving Castle © 2004 Nibariki – GNDDDT

At this stage I need to take a step back from a personal passion about animation and see it from a more general viewpoint: does it sound dry and perhaps too technical? At first sight, perhaps. But this technicity goes hand in hand with the virtuosity and masterful nature of these clean and complex sketches. Their precision and artfulness, setting the founding visual keystones to the final animation, brings to mind the drafts and preparations of old Masters. This is all the more relevant because Studio Ghibli is one of the rare studios that still creates hand-drawn animated  features.

Howl’s Moving Castle © 2004 Nibariki – GNDDDT

The exhibition starts with a very theoretical overview of the key terms of animation layouts in japanese, but also basic terms of animation such as the transparent page on which the characters are drawn in motion (the celluloid), to be set against the immobile backdrop. At the same time, a range of tools of the animator are put on display. This is accompanied by a sweet short comic by the animators themselves detailling every stage as a small memo. A very didactic start, therefore, but that then allows time for the viewer to pore over the hundreds of layout drawings that have been classified in terms of animated projects, from the most recent to the oldest – with hidden gems such as the very beginnings of Miyazaki and Takahata at Toei Animation on television series. The entire display definitely revolves around these two figures, with a slight preeminence of Miyazaki due to the overwhelming popularity of films such as Howl’s Moving Castle, Chihiro’s Journey or Nausicäa.

Kiki’s Delivery Service © 1989 Eiko Kadono – Nibariki – GN

Interestingly enough, for an exhibition revolving around narrative-building drawings, the content and narrative of the films was not introduced or explained in depth: this was definitely not what could be qualified as a beginner’s introduction to Ghibli, but mainly an exhibition for pre-existing fans. This would probably be a flaw in any other country than France, where respect for animation is stronger Ghibli films are usually well-known in a mainstream way that is not neccessarily true for the UK, for instance.

Yet the lack of introduction or explanation of the drawings themselves allows for more space for their purely visual appeal. The cleaned-up and neat process of the layout drawings, in coloured pencils still retains an organic, spontaneous appeal, the mapping out of colours and movements creating a strange visual poetry that the visitor learns how to decipher throughout the visit. Perhaps this particular charm also derives from the fact that these are the raw key elements of the movies, lived through and analyzed, corrected to perfection while retaining an emotional depth. Through the scribbling of japanese peppered with a few english terms, the hand of the “Master” Miyazaki emerges as some of his comments and critiques are translated. Some indicate that the pencilling is too rough, or that the movement is not natural. Others are small lessons in animation. This creates a certain tone of perfectionism mingled with intimacy and humour, translating only a fraction of the rigour and hard work of the Ghibli studio – who work as a tight-knit group. The problem remains of a single name obscuring many other skills: even though I can’t compare Miyazaki to Disney since the former is actively involved in the drawing process of many of these layouts, they do remain figureheads that blot out other names, storyboarders and animators that remain unknown. Having a little insight into their experiences would have been a nice touch. To perhaps gain a more global understanding of Studio Ghibli’s day to day life I would definitely recommend the documentary of Spirited Away’s making-of – here is a heart-warming small extract.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea © 2008 Nibariki – GNDHDDT

Aside from acquiring the technical jargon neccessary to decipher the layout drawings in the first place, do we acquire any of these “secrets” to animation promised at the beginning of the exhibition? In many sense, yes. And the first is this: you need to cheat. This may come as a stab in the back or a consolation to many fellow artists but apparently perspective is also worthless in a geometrical/mathematical sense if it cannot be distorted to fit the requirements of the scene or the camera. For example, some elements can be distorted or made larger if the camera is creating a panning movement, such as a castle floating away into the sky, in order to create the illusion it is floating further away. Such examples always created a comparison between the finished production and the key layout sketches, allowing further deciphering of the scenes.

Castle in the Sky © 1986 Nibariki – G

This exhibition could appear as a bit too specific for a person with little to no acquaintance with Ghibli but I think that the hugely popular emotional appeal for these films managed to trigger a deep desire to understand their technical side further…and also simply indulge in the visual beauty of so many imaginative world and stories “in construction”. It created a many-layered display that never became heavy-handed. In an arthistorical context it established these hand-drawn animators as the inheritors of composition and draftsmanship of Renaissance artists and Old Masters, while debunking the myth that japanese animation or “anime” is somehow less complex due to its stylized characters. The choice to focus on an oft-forgotten stage of the hand-drawn animated process allowed for a reminder that such films are works of collective craftsmanship, while ironically or paradoxically keeping Miyazaki and Takahata in the spotlight. Despite a few flaws, however, this harmony of poetry and technicality was a pleasure to visit before viewing these animated classics again.

Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

The Art of Marvel Superheroes at Musée Art Ludique

Marvel superheroes are not, at first sight, the most museum-savvy creatures. After all, their bold and brightly colored designs are more familiar in the pages of a comic book or on the big screen with blockbusters such as Captain America, Iron Man or the Avengers. Yet Musée Art Ludique hardly bothers itself with such labels. Its previous exhibition on Pixar’s animation had already met an enthusiastic Parisian audience in its emplacement on the Austerlitz docks next to the Seine. Directly linked to Galerie Art Ludique, focused on an art market dedicated solely to entertainment art: video games, animation (stills and concept art) and of course, comics.

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©2014 Marvel

Comics have definitely acquired their own comfortable spot within the art world and its market – needless to say that an original Tintin page or a vintage Captain America comic from the 50s is going to attract wealthy collectors. Yet other smaller collectibles will also create a cheaper and more accessible market for many more collectors. The nostalgic power of the pages that we usually first perused as children and teenagers is strong, and the impulse to collect is even more intense with comics that create a saga over dozens if not hundreds of issues. As an avid reader of comics that has four bookshelves full of them, as well as art books, I can understand the appeal. And although the love of comics is universal, France in particular is known for its love and literary recognition of the genre.
The term comics is used here quite liberally of course: it can apply to Franco-Belgian comics, Japanese comics (also known as manga), indie comics and webcomics. American superhero comics are particular in that they possess a style and a narrative of their own that enters a kind of collective consciousness, even more than their European or Asian counterparts. Using a realistic yet exaggerated style with bright colours and muscular, heroic silhouettes, the spirit of comics is instantly recognizable. Creating an exhibition around Marvel’s superhero franchise is a clear celebration not only of their past evolution since the sixties and their present evolution within cinema. There is also a clear concern with the psychological and philosophical implications of superheroes and what they symbolize, as well as their future as cultural icons.

Stan Lee welcomes us in a video at the beginning of the exhibition and expresses his hopes to live long enough to see statues of Iron Man or Captain America being shown in museums around the world. Although any creator can deeply relate to this, there is another dimension to it: beyond their status as collectibles or movie heroes, these characters can transcend their format and become flexible within our collective imagination, become the point of focus of several stories and narratives…in short become a form of mythology in themselves.

This exhibition had an interesting format since it chose indeed not to focus category per category on comics then movies, but rather treat each character in relation to these various aspects. For example, we would move from Iron Man to Captain America along to Thor, etc. This meant that there was an immense amount of content to cover, which could have become a bit exhaustive; nevertheless the format worked, creating an mix between comic page originals and exhibits, sculpts and models from the films themselves, as well as concept art and storyboards.
The explanations showed a great balance between text and videos that were scattered throughout the exhibition, centered around various general themes: from colour symbolism to costume design through to historical and legendary origins. Stan Lee, as the co-creator of many of these characters is the centrepoint in most of them, as well as Adi Granov, the main concept artist for The Avengers’ movie franchise.

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©2014 Marvel

Yet it was an agreeable surprise to see that French voices had also been added to this discussion around comics, as a testimony to France’s serious dedication to the genre. Thus we heard from Olivier Copiel, a prominent French comics artist working for Marvel, but also from Joann Sfar and Zep, two important French artists whose work is, at first sight, quite different in its Franco-Belgian nature yet definitely inspired due to their own viewpoints and influences. A welcome presence was also that of the historian Franck Ferrand who added his own perspective on the birth of superheroes and their importance within our modern culture. For example, the fact that many of these superheroes, born in an era of Cold War and fear of the atomic bomb, were all created with a fragment of this atomic, radiation-related aspect, from a bite by a radioactive spider to a mutation in their genes caused by an elusive X chromosome. Fighting fear with a taste of its own medicine? Yes, but with an enduring flavour of athletic heroic prowess that dates back to Antiquity and that started with the Olympic Games.

Captain America: The First Avenger movie prop. ©2014 Marvel

The exhibition has an immense wealth of material to show alongside this extensive documentary aspect: original pages, concept art, even props and costumes from the films, including a peek at their new installment: Gardians of the Galaxy. The curatorial decision was to focus not on a travel through different formats but through different characters, furthermore emphasizing their adaptable nature. I would resent the overt advertising of the films themselves…but they do need to be considered as a huge part of Marvel’s influence and capacity to evolve with its time. As they explain and admit, there is a corny and kitsch aspect to a superhero that makes it difficult to adapt in a film format.

Concept Art for Captain America: First Avenger movie ©2014 Marvel

Yet Marvel pull it off very well. The element I appreciate the most about Marvel films (aside from the fact they managed to make Captain America’s uniform look dignified onscreen), is its refusal to sacrifice the main spirit and personality of their heroes in the process. DC has been veering towards increasingly dark territory in its film adaptations, easily enough with Batman but in a ridiculously far-fetched way with Superman, who became dark, gritty, prone to extreme violence and rebranded as the “Man of Steel”. Marvel keeps the ideals of its heroes at heart…as well as their weaknesses and the interest in the person behind the mask. And this ideal shines through this exhibition, touchingly intertwined with the hopes and fears of comics authors that wanted to make young people follow their dreams, or live them vicariously through their heroes.

L’Art des Super-Héros Marvel at Musée Art Ludique, from the 22nd of March to the 31st of August