Within the realms of both digital art and more recently animation, there are few international names more recognized than that of Ilya Kuvshinov. The 30-year-old illustrator-turned-character designer has been making waves of his own for quite some time now, but in recent years we’ve been seeing Japan’s animation industry tap into his prowess as a powerful tool for both international collaboration and striking design. The most recent to partake in this is Netflix’s upcoming Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 anime series in which Ilya has been tasked with handling character designs. No stranger to the series, Ilya’s take on characters such as Major Kusanagi both signal a long-term appreciation for the series, as well as a slight divergence towards something new. With this month focusing on Ghost in the Shell as our feature, myself and OTAQUEST Editor-In-Chief Eddie Lehecka sat down with Ilya Kuvshinov to discuss the series, his backstory, and what he might just have in store for the future:
Lachlan: To get things rolling, and I’m sure you’re going to do this a million times ahead of the release of Ghost in the Shell, can you give us a little bit of an introduction?
Ilya Kuvshinov: My name is Ilya, and I was born in Russia before moving to Japan about five years ago… that’s really it. (Laughs)
Lachlan: What was it that really drove you to make that jump five years ago in moving to Japan?
Ilya Kuvshinov: Well, I was working at a game development company and we had this side-project. It was like a motion comic platform. So, like, not animation, but not quite comics, but everything was constantly moving. I had the chance to direct one of these, it was sci-fi, something like Star Wars, and it was my first time trying to storyboard, and I really loved it. From there I decided I wanted to learn how the professionals do it, I wanted to work with industry professionals on it, then I had someone say that I should give it a try – I should move to Japan. I didn’t know how to do it, or how to get into the industry, so when I was in Russia, I would spend 2-4 hours a day studying how to do storyboards just to get my skills up so I’d have my own appeal to bring to Japanese projects. Then when I moved for the first two years, I was doing freelance work on American comics, Japanese video games, character designs, and then I just spent two years studying Japanese.
Lachlan: So, did you find that transition from the Russian motion comic industry into the Japanese animation industry was something that meshed well, or did you find it to be a little bit of a staggered transition?
Ilya Kuvshinov: Well, it was quite a smooth transition, but that was because I had been working in the video game industry for maybe 10 years at that time. During that time, I’d always be doing design and character design on the side, so if we’re talking about becoming a character designer, my work on games allowed me to know how to design in 3D, working on all sides of a character. That being said, the jump into the anime world was a little bit more challenging, especially on my first project Birthday Wonderland because of the traditional use of 2D animation. That was something I’d consider a really big jump, but Ghost in the Shell really worked well with what I knew.
Lachlan: When looking at a 2D project like Birthday Wonderland, and then a 3D project like Ghost in the Shell, what sort of differences and challenges do they present?
Ilya Kuvshinov: If you’re talking about just character design, it’s really quite different. The way I see character design, I don’t really like fine details and that really fit well with 2D animation because the less detail, the more you can draw in a smaller amount of time, it’s easier on the animators. In 3DCG though, you can add a lot of details because you only need to model things once, then you’re just moving and rendering it. You add little textures that make the character more fun and have more meaning, but in 3DCG animation you can’t bluff with camera angles and movement of clothing, so we couldn’t do things like kimono or yukata because the sleeves are quite long and move a lot of different ways, so I had to be mindful of that and several other things in handling character design.
Eddie: Moving from 2D to 3D, was that something you were looking to do? I know you mentioned you worked on games in the past, but going from 2D animation to 3D animation, was that something you sought out or did it just come along with the Ghost in the Shell project?
Ilya Kuvshinov: Well, to tell you the truth, I was working on Birthday Wonderland and Ghost in the Shell at the same time. So, it wasn’t so much a transition, as much as it was, I was doing a lot of different things and each had its own fun side. I’m a huge fan of games with 3DCG animation, I love to see how the technology is moving forward and I’m happy to be a part of that movement.
“I couldn’t believe it for almost a year that I had seen those first shots of Motoko, her first 3D models, then it kind of sunk in that this was happening – this was crazy.”
Eddie: You mentioned that prior to working in the Japanese animation industry you had a history in the motion comic field, and you have a very distinct style to the way you illustrate – when I see your artwork I know it’s yours. When doing Ghost in the Shell, it’s had so many different styles over the years; from the original manga, to the film and then ARISE, how did you tackle the project of making Major Kusanagi and Section 9 fit your style while still feeling familiar to the Ghost in the Shell universe?
Ilya Kuvshinov: I saw the first movie when I was six years old, and from that point on I was consuming every piece of Ghost in the Shell content. It’s all different, the original manga was different, the first movie was different – for example, the first movie is like this philosophical short story with dark tones, whereas Kenji Kamiyama’s Stand Alone Complex was more of a detective story with new designs for locations and such, you can say it’s kind of Cyberpunk. So when we were working on the designs for this new series, we were thinking not just about the long-time fans who have been there since the manga, we want to consider the first-time viewers; it was more about how do we translate the world of Ghost in the Shell into 3DCG. I think in this, the direction of both directors Kamiyama and Aramaki is great. They both know what they want, and they know what’s best for this animation. They’re also really good at expressing to me what they want from me in the characters – we’d spend hours discussing all the details. For example, the new Motoko, well, the Motoko this time, she has more human like motions. She’s less military, she’s got this beautiful motion to each of her actions; that’s why she was designed how she was. There was a lot of design choices like this; it’s still action, but it’s quite stylish. It’s something you need to see.
Eddie: It’s interesting that you mention that she has more human movements, because one of the things that stood out to me when the preview was released was that she had a softer look than previous adaptations and that she kind of looked, I don’t want to say realistic, but it kind of walks that line between comic book and animation and real life. But she definitely has that more real life-like air to her design.
Ilya Kuvshinov: Yeah, we needed her to have a fuller range of expressions so that’s why we added so many small details especially in the lips. We do a lot of close up shots, so we also made sure the eyelashes were full of detail too so the viewer can easily track how the eyes move.
Lachlan: So, you mention that you were working on both Birthday Wonderland and Ghost in the Shell at the same time, and that kind of ties into my next question quite well; what is it like being a foreigner in Japan working on a property handled by a global company like Netflix compared to a specifically Japanese company as you did on Birthday Wonderland?
Ilya Kuvshinov: I don’t particularly feel any difference when it comes to working with directors, but if it’s more about how I feel about the actual release of the product; Birthday Wonderland came out in Japan, and nobody outside of the country were able to watch it because it was only available in Japanese cinemas. I was really frustrated because I wanted to show it to anyone and everyone, but it was only in Japan, and I’d constantly get fans reaching out asking when they could watch it in their country. Now about a year later it’s finally coming out in Russia, France, North America, and such. But with Ghost in the Shell, it’s going to be available across the globe with subtitles and dubbing in all the languages including Russian at the same time, so you can really feel the reaction at a much larger scale.
In terms of working conditions, it’s all about working with the creator, so it’s not all that different between the two.
Lachlan: Going back to previous interviews you’ve done with other outlets in the past, it’s no secret that Ghost in the Shell was one of the first anime you ever watched, and proved a massive influence on you as a creator. Looking at it now, being involved in the latest installment, what kind of history do you hope to bring to the franchise?
Ilya Kuvshinov: Having seen everything, seeing how it evolved, I feel like I need to put a little bit of everything into this new work. Obviously, I’m not working on story, but I want viewers to be able to feel the evolutionary story of Motoko through her design. That’s why with her suit you can see her bones, you have her haircut – I wanted people who see this character to be able to feel all the previous designs as well.
Eddie: It’s something informed by the history of the franchise—
Ilya Kuvshinov: Yeah, it’s common for all the different Motoko’s to have different face proportions, so this design is more like the first movie and Stand Alone Complex mixed together but with a more energetic hairstyle.
Lachlan: So more so than it being a throwback to a singular part of the franchise, it’s more like a love letter to the entirety of Ghost in the Shell through your character designs.
Ilya Kuvshinov: Yes, that’s exactly how I feel about – exactly what I wanted to express.
Eddie: So, being a longtime fan of the series, having seen everything, I have to wonder how you felt when you first got the call to do this project?
Ilya: It actually came from something I did; when I was working with the director of Birthday Wonderland, he said to me “Hey, did you hear there’s a new Ghost in the Shell anime in production? Why don’t you send them an illustration of Motoko and see if anything comes from it” and I remember thinking “Wait, you can do that?”. When they got back to me and said let’s have you talk with the directors and get together, I was shocked. “Wait, is it possible? I can just meet Kamiyama?”. I couldn’t believe it for almost a year that I had seen those first shots of Motoko, her first 3D models, then it kind of sunk in that this was happening – this was crazy.
Lachlan: Not to step away from Ghost in the Shell again, but I wanted to spend a little time looking at you as an artist. You’ve been extremely active here in Japan over the last years, having just released your second artbook through a major publisher out here, and I wanted to know if there are any key differences between the illustration industry and the animation industry out here that some people might not realize.
Ilya Kuvshinov: Well, for me the first thing is that animation is a team effort. You talk with the directors, you get together and decide on everything, and it’s not just me sitting there working on an illustration. We’re all creating something bigger than just one person. For me, the biggest plus within the animation industry is that I get to meet all these people – all these directors that I spent so long looking up to. So many animators with over 30 years of experience in the industry, just all these professionals that I can learn from. That’s one of the biggest differences. Working on anime, you get to communicate a lot, and that really is one of the most fun parts – I’m honored to just be sitting in the same room as Kenji Kamiyama.
Eddie: Were there any moments with Kamiyama and Aramaki where they gave you suggestions and criticism that you weren’t already thinking of that really changed the way you approach design?
Ilya Kuvshinov: Yeah, when we started, I really didn’t get anything right. So, I started drawing sketches and concepts, and they’d look at me and say “That’s not exactly what we wanted… but we’ll explain the concept to you a little more”. Then when I started working on that, it really started coming together in my head. How I saw things, and how they saw things, it was a little different at times – the first meeting they said they weren’t sure if my designs were a good direction to go, so we worked and I learned a lot while doing all these design meetings, as well as the designs themselves.
Lachlan: So, just kind of jumping back to the artbook, your second artbook Eternal released at the end of last year; how would you say that it’s being received both internationally and in Japan, and would you say these artbooks are opening doors for you to work in other fields such as animation?
Ilya Kuvshinov: For me, being an illustrator was never actually the goal. Back in Russia, after working on my storyboard studies two or four hours, I’d just draw some fan art and personal illustrations, but I always wanted to just work in the industry whether that be as a designer, an animator, or a director. I still love story boards too, so that would be a lot of fun. But this artbook, it’s just my personal work being put out into the world – though it’s personal in a good way. It’s just me being me and I’m really grateful for all the fans; I’m so happy that there are people who enjoy what I do. These artbooks are really my way of communicating with my fans, as well as reaching out to those who might not yet be familiar who just pick up the book after seeing it on the shelf.
The books have both Japanese and English too, so they’re made to be enjoyed by fans from around the world. It works out well in the way that there’s a lot of fans who write online comments about my work, it makes me really happy to see all that.
Lachlan: You mentioned at the start of the interview, and again just now, that one of the things you really want to do is direct. You’ve got two major works under your belt right now with the previously released Birthday Wonderland and the upcoming Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045; if there was a project at this point that you could helm as director, what would it be?
Ilya Kuvshinov: I’ve got an entire list of things I’d like to direct honestly.
Lachlan: And if you had to pick just one?
Ilya Kuvshinov: I would start with my favorite novels and books, adapting them into animation for people all over the world to feel the deep concepts that made me fall in love with them.
Lachlan: And would you look at just Japanese literature, or would you look at bringing something from Russia and adapting it into animation to be enjoyed worldwide?
Ilya Kuvshinov: That’s actually a really great idea; there’s this one really famous Russian writer called Victor Pelevin and I’ve actually done some fan videos based on his books – that’s great actually. But I don’t feel the modern Russian works are good for international audiences, I’d be looking at more classical Science Fiction literature. I feel like Science Fiction works really well because there’s no exact country or culture most of the time, your kind of creating this whole new fantasy world. If I took a regular book there’s a disconnect between people’s awareness of real-world locations, but if you’re looking at science fiction, the viewers get drawn into this new fantasy world from the very beginning – you feel like it’s yours.
Eddie: I can definitely agree with that. Tying into that while bringing it back to Ghost in the Shell for a second, I think there’s a theme in Science Fiction to where everyone in the world can kind of experience diversity and I was curious if that was something you were mindful of when initially creating the world of Ghost in the Shell? I know you mentioned you wanted to create something original for the new fans as well.
Ilya Kuvshinov: It’s quite easy to be multicultural in a Cyberpunk/Science Fiction title because it’s in the future; you’re looking at a place no longer separated by where certain people can and can not live. I actually went to Los Angeles recently and there were so many different people from all over the world; I mean, you look at Japan which is still, what, 99% Japanese people, but I think in the future that’s going to change and people will be in places where they want to be – not just because they were born there, but because they have skills they want to bring to projects in different areas. I think language barriers will become less and less of a problem.
Lachlan: Building off that, for people who, like you, want to find themselves getting into the Japanese work industry, what advice would you give them as someone who has been living here for five years?
Ilya Kuvshinov: Unfortunately, we’re not living in that Science Fiction reality just yet, we still have this language barrier to push through. If not for my knowledge of the language, I couldn’t have worked on Ghost in the Shell. The biggest part of working on something like this is communication. The good thing about SOLA DIGITAL ARTS is that they have quite a few foreign staff members, and while they mostly speak in Japanese, you can see a lot of the other staff slowly getting better at English, so it’s starting to grow into something bigger.
Lachlan: I actually did an interview with another foreigner in the anime industry, Bahi JD, who said a similar thing about how you could be the best animator in the world, but if you can’t speak the language and communicate with those around you as a team member, you’re not going to get anywhere.
Ilya Kuvshinov: Even if you’re a super good artist, and the director asks you to draw a cow and you draw a cat, while I’m sure it’s a beautiful cat, it’s not what they asked for and they can’t really use it.
Eddie: Just to kind of wrap things up, I did want to ask one more thing. You’re extremely interactive with your fans online, I’ll regularly watch your Instagram account and you’ll do the thing where fans will send you pictures of themselves and you’ll illustrate them, and I love that about what you do. I feel like that level of interaction is really refreshing to see, especially from someone who is now inside the industry. So with that being said, knowing your fans are likely to be the ones reading this, is there anything you’d like to express to, not just your existing fans but new ones too?
Ilya Kuvshinov: There’s just one thing I guess I want to express to people and want them to be mindful about; anything in the entertainment industry, whether that be animation or games, it’s a lot of hard work. There’s a lot of people putting their heart and their soul into their work, and I hope that people can appreciate the miracle that is the fact that you get to watch these people’s effort put into motion. I think with Ghost in the Shell there’s an extremely talented team behind it at face value, but there’s also a bunch of extremely hard-working people behind the scenes, so I hope you can appreciate everything when it’s all put out.
Eddie: Excellent, well thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
Ilya Kuvshinov: No, thank you for the wonderful questions.
Ghost In The Shell: SAC_2045 hit Netflix worldwide on April 23rd 2020, so you can now see Ilya’s contributions come to life for yourself. For those interested in checking out additional information on the series, be sure to check out Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045’s official website.