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Interview with Pete Docter: When Miyazaki Met Pixar

by Peter Sobczynski

In the world of animated film, there are two acknowledged masters at work today–the legendary Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, whose works include such stunning achievements as “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away,” and the folks at Pixar, who have scored such critical and popular triumphs as the “Toy Story” films, “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles.” Therefore, it is only natural that the two would not only form a mutual admiration society but that they would eventually team up. In 2002, Miyazaki asked Pixar’s John Lasseter to supervise the English-language version of “Spirited Away” and the results led to a surprise Best Animated Film Oscar over the heavily-hyped likes of “Ice Age.”

For his latest work, the awe-inspiring fantasy “Howl’s Moving Castle,” Miyazaki once again sought the aid of Pixar and Pete Docter, whose directorial debut was a little thing called “Monsters Inc,” was selected to oversee the translation and the vocal performances from the likes of Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Blythe Danner, “Monsters Inc.” vet Billy Crystal and authentic screen legends Jean Simmons and Lauren Bacall. The result is another masterwork for Miyazaki–perhaps the most moving film of his long and distinguished career–and the additions supplement the film without causing any distractions. The casting, in fact, is filled with as many inspired choices as there are in a typical Pixar film–the roles have been filled with performers who are so perfect for their parts that it is difficult to imagine anyone else playing those roles.

Recently, Docter sat down to discuss the challenges of bringing “Howl’s Moving Castle” to American audiences, his admiration for the work of Miyazaki and his thoughts on what seems to be the dying days of traditional 2-D animation.

Considering the reputation that Hayao Miyazaki has among animators throughout the world, was you initial reaction to being asked to supervise the English translation of “Howl’s Moving Castle” one of excitement over the honor of being asked or one of terror of somehow screwing something up?

It was mostly excitement. The first time that the fear hit was when there was going to be a premiere in New York and he was said to be coming. I could just picture myself sitting in the theater next to him as the lights go down and watching him listening to the dub. I have since heard that he probably won’t go. He had heard the dub of one of his films–it wasn’t one that we had worked on–and felt as if his characters had grown up and left him and suddenly grown American accents. He just finds people that he trusts to do the translations and just leaves it in their hands.

My understanding about the agreement between Miyazaki and Disney is that they can redub the dialogue in his films but they are not allowed to alter them in any other way.

That is correct. We didn’t touch the music or the effects and even the dialogue was very closely scrutinized by Studio Ghibli. This was good because we wanted to remain faithful to the original.

Can you take us a little bit through the process of preparing the film for an American audience? Clearly, what you have done is more involved than simply dubbing it into English.

With Studio Ghibli, that is how they work in Japan–they animate first and then add the voices, which is basically what we are doing as well. It is fairly equivalent to how they work. The stylization of the movement of the mouths, the way they just open and close instead of forming to fit each and every word, is more forgiving and gives you more latitude as to what you say that still fits–that makes it easier for us to simply focus on the emotion of the scene.

The first time I saw the film was when a couple of Studio Ghibli folks came by Pixar and screened the film for John [Lasseter] and myself and a couple of others–we got to see it way in advance and right there, that was pretty cool. When they asked me to do it, we started with an exact word-for-word translation. From there, Don and Cindy Hewitt, who have been involved with a number of these films, wrote the U.S. version–not a literal translation but something that took the same information that was said in Japanese and make it fit the lip-flaps while taking out any specific cultural references that American audiences simply wouldn’t get. There were a number of difficulties. For whatever reason, the Japanese can use, say, five syllables to say a particular thing while in English, it would require twelve and we would have to somehow compress and contract things. A lot of times, we would adjust things on the stage with the actors while we were recording.

We would end up with a script page and bring it into the studio and it is a fairly traditional ADR looping session. The actors come in and say their lines–sometimes, we break the lines up into little chunks and do them one at a time–for about three or four takes. After that, it is a matter of taking it to the editor. In this case, Petra Bach was a really great dialogue editor–she came in and was able to salvage the great performances that maybe didn’t quite fit exactly. A lot of times, it is easy to get overly focused on how many frames you need and we have found that actors sometimes get so caught up in the technical performance that they start to lose some of the natural feeling.

In some cities, both the English-dub and the original Japanese versions of the film will be playing. Aside from the language, are there any significant differences at all between the two as a result of the translation?

No. It is really exact with one exception. There is a scene when Sophie closes a door as she steps out into town and there is some subtle discussion among some background characters about the prince that wasn’t there in the original. That is the only change to the original. John had seen it early on and said that by being able to simply hear it instead of having to read the subtitles, it allows your eye to take in all these great visuals.

How did the Miyazaki-Pixar connection, which began with the release of “Spirited Away” in 2002, come about? I know that when Miramax, another Disney division, released “Princess Mononoke” in 1999, there were some grumblings that it didn’t quite get the release that it deserved–that it was treated more like an art-house film instead of a family entertainment.

Basically, I think it just came about from mutual admiration for each others work. John has been a Miyazaki fan for a long time and struck up a friendship with him during his trips to Japan–when Miyazaki came to the U.S., he stayed at John’s house. I think out of that mutual respect for each others work, Miyazaki had asked John to supervise “Spirited Away.”

Strictly from the point-of-view of an animator such as yourself, what is it about the work of Miyazaki that makes it stand out from the efforts of others in the same line of work?

To me, he is awesome because he captures these real truths to life. He does it in many ways. Sometimes it is in the design–the way that a brook will flow over a rock that he captures so perfectly. For me, the most amazing is his observation of people and characters. In “My Neighbor Totoro,” the kids are so true in the way they act and behave through the whole film. When you see that, you think, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen kids do that.” The other aspect is that he takes the time and allows you to live in this world that is so rich and wonderful.

In the case of “Howl’s Moving Castle,” I was struck by the fact that even though the film tells a story that is perfectly entertaining and accessible to people of all ages and cultures, the sad truth is that there is no way that a film like this–which features a slower pace, no show-off star voices and a 90-year-old woman as a central character–could ever be produced in the American film industry.

Well, it is strange, but it is also understandable when you think about it. The way he works is very intuitive, it seems to me. The way that Pixar is set up, it is a communal group effort throughout the process–you are always pitching things to people in order to get approval or input. The fact that I have to explain the film to someone early on means that there are certain ephemeral things, the very things that Miyazaki just does intuitively and draws, that are going to drop out because they are hard to verbalize. He has reached a level of success where he doesn’t have to do that with anybody, he can just sit by himself and draw. He is the story room–at Pixar, there are usually eight people doing storyboards, there are screenwriters and others like Andrew and John kicking in ideas. It is very much a group effort while for him, and this could be partly a curse, it is just him alone and sheltered from the world to do what he knows, at least for the first act. At that point, he gives it to the animators and it opens up a bit. It is a very different process and I think the process itself allows for a certain dream quality to his films that would be hard to pitch to somebody.

Actually, even though there are plenty of spectacular visual treats in the film–especially the battle scenes towards the end and the title cast–my favorite moment is actually one of those quieter moments–it is the scene where the newly-cursed Sophie looks at her aged visage in the mirror. Instead of going for comedy or fright, the scene is treated realistically and he adds a surprising emotional edge by making the mirror a tri-cornered version that gives her and us different perspectives. It is a little thing, not to mention more complicated to do than just a single, simple reflection, but it adds so much detail and depth to the moment.

That scene is something that I could have easily seen as being done with shrieking and running around. It is underplayed in a very believable way and it just seems more true-to-life in a way.

One of the things that I liked about the English version is something that has always struck me about the voice casting for the Pixar films–instead of going for the big-name actors whose voices aren’t particularly distinctive but who will look good on the talk shows, you have leaned towards lesser-known names who are uncanny matches for their character. With “Howl’s Moving Castle,” I think the only one of the performers who has done any significant animated work was Billy Crystal but they have all turned out to be perfect choices. How did you go about casting the voices for this version?

The way we generally work is to listen to a snippet of dialogue that an actor has said in another film, usually without the picture and sometimes without even knowing who they are, and hearing the voice to see if it will fit the character. Sometimes you’ll have a bit of animation and you can put the two together to see if they match up. We try to use actors who have an ability to use their voice in a suggestive way so that even without the body and facial expressions, they can suggest things just by the voice.

How hard is it to get the actors who aren’t used to working in animation to convert their performance approach so that everything is conveyed solely through voice?

We would start by explaining the process as much as we could–both in terms of the technology and the story as a whole. With Lauren Bacall, she hadn’t had a chance to watch the film before she came in because she had been publicizing a book. We were kind of scared that she would finally look at her character and say “What are you people trying to say?” and leave. She loved it, especially when she turned into the blob. Generally, the biggest job I had was to explain the work and give them as many facts as I can that will inform them as to how to play the character. From there, I just step out of the way.

Did any of the actors have any familiarity with Miyazaki’s work when they signed on?

A couple of them had–Emily Mortimer was a fan. Billy Crystal had never heard of him and it was really because he had a great time on “Monsters Inc.” and his relationship with Lasseter that he decided to do it on faith.

The best thing about “Howl’s Moving Castle” is that it stands as a rebuke to those who are calling for the end of traditional 2-D animation for the 3-D CGI variety–it is so beautiful to look at, in fact, that I cannot imagine it being done in CGI. Considering that it was the success of the films that you worked on at Pixar that have led others to such a belief, what are your thoughts on the current status of traditional animation versus CGI?

I think it is totally absurd and very simplistic thinking to say that a film isn’t popular just because it is hand-drawn. That is like saying that people no longer want to see films shot on KodaChrome. There are so many advantages to hand-drawn that you just can’t get in any other medium. There is a distillation of gesture and expression in animation and having it come out of the hand of an artist, as you can see in this film, is quite spectacular. For whatever reason, the bells have been sounded for the death of 2-D animation. I think what will probably happen is that in about 3 or 4 years, someone will come out with a really great hand-drawn film, it will do huge box-office and 2-D will be the next hot thing.

Obviously, there has been much talk in the entertainment and business press in the last year or so about Pixar’s impending split from Disney when their contract ends with the release of the upcoming “Cars.” Given that, was there any sense that those tensions had any bearing or effect on the work being done on this film?

No. So many people at Disney are great at what they do and we are friends and we hang out with them. It was a very pleasant experience working with them on this film. There was no tension at all–that was only really on a higher level between Steve Jobs and Eisner and those people where it became a combative relationship at times and that is being ironed out.

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originally posted: 06/08/05 15:58:17
last updated: 09/24/05 07:26:05
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