SOLA DIGITAL ARTS welcomed EXILE NESMITH to get a behind the scenes look at their recent 3DCG ULTRAMAN series, continuing our recurring collaboration with Monthly EXILE magazine! After checking out the studio and their motion capture process he had the opportunity to sit down with CEO & Producer Joseph Chou, CCO & Director Shinji Aramaki, and COO & Producer Tomisaburo Hashimoto from SOLA DIGITAL ARTS to discuss their attention to detail, the making of ULTRAMAN, and 3DCG technology.
NESMITH: This time we’re at SOLA DIGITAL ARTS to talk about 3DCG and motion capture technology.
JOSEPH CHOU: (reading a previous issue of Monthly EXILE) Hey, m-flo appeared in this. VERBAL and I are actually old acquaintances. We went to the same church in Boston.
NESMITH: Whoa! Is that right?
JOSEPH CHOU: He’s actually a little younger than I am, and was a pastor candidate. But he suddenly said, “I’m off to Japan to do music.”
NESMITH: VERBAL has helped introduce me to people outside of Japan. I owe a lot to him as a manager at LDH, too.
JOSEPH CHOU: I couldn’t believe it when he said he was going to Japan, but wouldn’t you know it, now I live in Japan, too. *laughs*
NESMITH: We need to get VERBAL here! (laughs) Now, we just finished our tour of the studio, and I learned a lot about motion capture. I was aware of the concept given all its coverage in media, but this was my first time seeing the filming equipment in person. I knew it was used to capture motion from people, but I never thought it would be used to capture the motion of props or obstacles. Now I realize just how critical elements of film and theatre are in it.
TOMISABURO HASHIMOTO: We consider all kinds of details with our props, like the weight of a gun. Everything filmed will show up on screen, so it won’t be immersive if a gun looks too light.
NESMITH: It was a surprise to see even the motion of doors opening was captured. I always thought that at least could be animated in.
TOMISABURO HASHIMOTO: We make models to give a sense of “space” or reality to visuals, but the truth is that that it takes a lot of time and effort to fix things if we don’t have them right the first time. That’s why we build all manner of doors or desks to scale for our set.
NESMITH: And to get that perfect footage, you need studios like this.
JOSEPH CHOU: This studio was established about 10 years ago for work on “APPLESEED”, our first chance to work with Director Aramaki, who will be coming by later. Back then we worked on “EX MACHINA” and were gearing up for the next project, but the director and I wanted a stable “place” where we could make 3DCG. At the time, 3DCG was mostly used to support the production of video games, so there weren’t nearly enough CG producers or directors. We’d do our best and make a movie, but the team would disperse afterward, taking all that know-how with them. That made it harder for producers to feel confident in their planning, too. With that kind of environment, we just started this company without putting much thought into it. (laughs)
NESMITH: So, lacking a place to be, you decided to start a team and bring people in… Right?
JOSEPH CHOU: In any case, I wanted SOLA to be a solid foundation for making content… Oh, and here’s Director Aramaki.
NESMITH: Thanks for taking time out of your schedule! We were just talking about the foundation of SOLA.
SHINJI ARAMAKI: Sorry to interrupt. The motivation for making this studio came mostly from a desire to make 3DCG movies. If we couldn’t find one, we’d make one ourselves.
NESMITH: Considering present circumstances, I think we can say your work was a safe bet… Seeing the equipment at this studio, I reaffirmed just how different it is from 2D animation. And as incredible as it all is now, you get the feeling that it’s going to get more advanced and important as time goes on.
SHINJI ARAMAKI: Both our software and hardware are evolving, and you can’t be in this line of work if you don’t enjoy that. Even if you think you’ve got a solid production workflow, the software is updated every year, so you have to ask yourself how to get the most entertainment value out of it. That means every project is a challenge for us. *laughs* There’s still a lot we can’t do, but new things become possible with time, so we’re like “in our next project, we can do this.” The fun of that is something that keeps me going.
NESMITH: Wow… So in just a year, this technology can change wildly?
TOMISABURO HASHIMOTO: One interesting feature lately has been crowd simulation. We can automatically model the movement of background extras, a technique our staff told us about. The director and I were astonished.
NESMITH: Oh, like with the Shibuya scenes in “ULTRAMAN”?
SHINJI ARAMAKI: Right, right. With Shibuya you have lots of people crossing the street or stopping when the light turns red… We can model all that complex movement.
TOMISABURO HASHIMOTO: These days, we have to incorporate all the latest software or be left in the dust.
NESMITH: Doing that makes our work more and more efficient.
SHINJI ARAMAKI: Yeah. Leaving those parts to the computer, we can focus more on camerawork or the story.
NESMITH: Motion capture is a state-of-the-art technology, but it’s humans that operate it, so it takes work to implement it realistically.
SHINJI ARAMAKI: That’s right. It’s important to select good actors, and if the equipment keeps evolving, we can implement 100% of their acting into our visuals.
JOSEPH CHOU: The tools might be evolving, but there’s an analog part to it at the core. There’s both that and the digital, and that’s a fun part of our work. For actors, if our client is from outside Japan, we could use a motion capture actor from outside Japan. People from different places move differently.
SHINJI ARAMAKI: It’d be weird if an American was animated as bowing to greet people. *laughs*
JOSEPH CHOU: Anime has its own forms of “lies” and truths.
NESMITH: Now, I’ve definitely felt some elements of cinema in “ULTRAMAN”. The camerawork feels like a movie, and there’s no single way of framing the animation, so I feel like it could be approached as a movie.
SHINJI ARAMAKI: A lot of studios make anime with 3DCG, and many of them have 3D characters but drawn backgrounds to make them feel like anime. We make all of our backgrounds in 3D, too. That gives us more freedom in our camerawork. That desire for freedom is one reason why we do 3DCG.
JOSEPH CHOU: One reason Japan’s anime caught on overseas is the camerawork and visual representation you can’t find in live-action. But now Hollywood can do all that, too. To stand out, we’ll have use 3DCG ourselves and create a new defining appeal for anime. So, we’re competing with all forms of content, rather than just other anime series.
NESMITH: To be honest, I sometimes feel tripped up by 3DCG anime, wondering if it’s anime or something like live-action. But with similar works increasing in number, I think it was very Japan-esque for “ULTRAMAN” to come out at this time. It was shocking to see Ultraman depicted like this, and its character drama is richly depicted and feels more real than ever. It really feels like a whole new Ultraman.
JOSEPH CHOU: You know how Ultraman’s a kaiji-fighting “giant hero”. That means there are certain scene direction patterns that have to be observed. And that’s why in this series, there are a lot of parts where he’s just human-size. So the ideas from the original creators are incredible, and I also think Tsuburaya Productions was incredible for recognizing that.
NESMITH: Even as new Ultraman series come out one after another, this 3DCG anime Ultraman feels truly new.
JOSEPH CHOU: Evolution’s an important thing. However, the red and silver design of Ultraman is timeless. The design’s been around since Ultraman’s original series, and although Director Aramaki and Kamiyama made adjustments, Ultraman’s design as a look don’t lose out to Marvel’s heroes.
NESMITH: That color scheme really defines Ultraman, doesn’t it…
JOSEPH CHOU: There’s no refuting the strength of Japan’s IP. Even Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” featured characters from Japan all over the place. The same goes for Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph”. There are incredible elements of content and character creation in Japan that just don’t exist anywhere else. And amongst all that, I think Ultraman is one of Japan’s finest IPs.
NESMITH: They may have been reruns, but I used to watch Ultraman, Seven, and Taro, too. The original, Seven, and Ace show up in “ULTRAMAN” and you can feel the respect the series has for the original series.
SHINJI ARAMAKI: That’s our generation after all. *laughs*
NESMITH: But if you think of it that way, the original Ultraman was also an actor in a suit, which feels connected to the way you make “ULTRAMAN” here.
SHINJI ARAMAKI: That’s true. There are people inside 3DCG characters too, so I was always aware that we could do things like the suited actors used to. I’d like to emphasize how it’s a person in a suit. Like in the original series.
NESMITH: Yeah, definitely. Speaking of suit actors, I felt there was a whole lot of wrestling moves being used in the battle scenes. *laughs*
SHINJI ARAMAKI: And that’s to show respect for the original series. In the second episode where Shinjiro’s dad fights, he uses a style like classic pro wrestling. With each incident, that style gets more and more modern. That’s how it’s changed up to now. There’s a battle each episode, so we have to figure out how to throw in some variation, otherwise, it would get boring.
NESMITH: Each series has a different style of fighting. I felt that they each built off of the original Ultraman’s characteristics and abilities. That’s why watching “ULTRAMAN” makes me want to revisit past series.
TOMISABURO HASHIMOTO: Tsuburaya Productions gave us a lot of freedom in our production. They even allowed us to use classic sound effects.
JOSEPH CHOU: That’s what enabled us to begin episode one with a fight between the original Ultraman and Zetton.
NESMITH: There’s a lot of new possibilities when you use an actual person to act the part and use 3DCG to establish camerawork and action not possible in live-action. I feel like our concerts could use some of that motion capture footage.
SHINJI ARAMAKI: There’s the technology to do that in real time, too.
NESMITH: Huh! That would give a futuristic edge our concerts, wouldn’t it!
TOMISABURO HASHIMOTO: That’s how we made the heroine Rena’s concert scenes, with a choreographer and an audience. It was a lot of work, though. *laughs*
NESMITH: You motion captured the audience?
TOMISABURO HASHIMOTO: We even had them hold glowsticks they could sway to the music. *laughs*
SHINJI ARAMAKI: There aren’t any concert scenes in the original series. But she’s an artist, so it wouldn’t be right for her to not have any singing scenes.
TOMISABURO HASHIMOTO: But dance is suited for motion capture, so I’m glad we did it.
NESMITH: If changing the motion capture actor changes the appearance, then if we had our motion captured…
JOSEPH CHOU: Sounds like EXILE needs to become an anime. *laughs*
SHINJI ARAMAKI: Lately, I get the urge to ask people with good physical builds if I can capture their motion. (laughs)
NESMITH: Motion capture suits used to be covered in sensors like ping pong balls, but now those sensors have gotten small. Maybe in time, people will be able to perform in regular costume…
SHINJI ARAMAKI: That can already be done.
NESMITH: What?! Then that could be used for concerts! We could dance and have that relayed to virtual characters in real time. This is all getting personal. I feel like I ought to ask if we can use new technologies like these with our concerts and music videos.
SHINJI ARAMAKI: Feel free to consult with us.
NESMITH: Thank you very much! Next time, I’ll bring VERBAL with me. *laughs*
We want to thank Monthly EXILE Magazine for arranging this interview and EXILE NESMITH for conducting once again. Also huge thanks to Joseph Chou, Shinji Aramaki, Tomisaburo Hashimoto, and the team at SOLA DIGITAL ARTS for giving us behind the scene access to their studio!