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Mobile Suit Gundam: THE ORIGIN is an animation series, which is a prequel to Mobile Suit Gundam, a very famous TV animation series in Japan. In the early 1980s, Mobile Suit Gundam became a huge social phenomenon in Japan and has set a gold standard in Japanese robot animations. THE ORIGIN is based on the same-titled comic series written by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, who is the general director of the animation series as well.

The Animationweek editorial team has delivered to you an interview article with Osamu Taniguchi, the producer of THE ORIGIN and Mika Akitaka, one of the main mechanical designers of THE ORIGIN, in 2016*. This time, we could get the opportunity to hear about the character design for THE ORIGIN from Tsukasa Kotobuki, who has the role of character design and lead animator, and Atsuhiko Sekiguchi, the setting coordinator of the animation series.

*Event report and interview: “Gundam The Origin” – The secret of appealing mechanical design: http://animationweek.uk/mcm-gundam-the-origin/

left: Tsukasa Kotobuki, right: Atsuhiko Sekiguchi

Joining the project

Animationweek: What was your reaction when you were asked to design characters for The ORIGIN?

Tsukasa Kotobuki: It was a project to make a new start on the Gundam franchise for promoting the story and universe of Mobile Suit Gundam by making a new animation title based on Mr. Yasuhiko’s original comic series with new visual designs when the project was just started.

At that time, I had been working for an animation project for about one to two years. It was a robot animation project, which aims to fit the demand of the American market, and one of the producers was a big name in Hollywood. I was responsible for the character design and mechanical concept of the project. It was a good opportunity for me to learn that it is by no means easy to attract and satisfy foreign markets with robot animation, which is popular in Japan. Just after the American project, from which I could learn the differences of market demands between Japan and America, was frozen for a number of reasons, as it happens, I received a suggestion from Mr. Yasuhiko to re-design the characters in his original comics for the animation project to catch the heart of current young Japanese audience and also can be accepted international market.

Actually, at first, Mr. Yasuhiko planned to delegate the entire work of making his comics into an animation series within Sunrise’s discretion**, but he wanted Sunrise to reflect his opinion only on character design. So, he called me to the project as the character designer.

However, for a number of reasons, Mr. Yasuhiko decided to take the role of the general director and draw all the storyboards himself about half a year after I joined the project. It made some changes in the direction of the project. In terms of its visual design, emphasis shifted on the reproduction of the visual of original comics in a very high level, so it came to Mr. Yasuhiko designing the main characters and I design other characters with the same visual design of Mr. Yasuhiko’s original comics for the animation series.

**Sunrise is one of the big animation studio which has been developing all animations of the Gundam franchise

The workflow of the character design from THE ORIGIN

Animationweek: Could you please let us know the process of designing characters in the animation project, THE ORIGIN?

Atsuhiko Sekiguchi: I would like to tell you about the design process of the characters designed by Mr. Kotobuki.

  1. I check the storyboard of each episode and make a list of characters that might need to be newly designed for each episode.
  1. Mr. Yasuhiko, the general director, and the layout/animation director of each episode, have a discussion to decide which characters in the list I made should have a fresh character design for each episode.
  1. I allocate the characters to Mr. Yasuhiko and Mr. Kotobuki for design. If the character requesting the design is a soldier, the details of the character, such as the rank, are decided at this time.
  1. Mr. Kotobuki makes the rough design of the whole picture of the characters he is in charge of.
  1. The layout/animation director of each episode checks the rough designs.
  1. Yasuhiko, the general director, see the rough designs, which passes the layout/animation director’s assessment of Mr. Kotobuki’s character design for the first time.
  1. Mr. Kotobuki cleans up the rough designs (in line drawing).
  1. The layout/animation director check the cleaned up design illustrations.
  1. Yasuhiko, the general director, makes the final check of the designs.
  1. Hiroyuki Nishimura, the supervising animator, designates shadows to the final character design illustrations drawn by Mr. Kotobuki.
  1. At the very end of the character design process, the color stylist, Nagisa Abe, makes all the color settings for each character.

Then, we get the completed character design sheets to animate.

A rough design of Lino Fernandez by Tsukasa Kotobuki.

Design illustrations of Lino Fernandez, cleaned up by Tsukasa Kotobuki.

Hiroyuki Nishimura designates shadows to the final character design illustrations.

Nagisa Abe decides on all the color settings.

Tsukasa Kotobuki: In the case of a character appearing in the original comics, I receive a request to design the character like, “Please make the design of this person who appears in this frame on this page of the original comic book”, and I draw the character design illustrations of the person by imagine his/her full-length figure and facial expression from that one cut.

In my case, I serve as a lead animator concurrently, so that I check the characters I designed when I check keyframes and in-betweens, such as whether the features of each characters I designed intentionally and the points of the designs I want to be illustrated were drawn properly. If these are not good enough, I would make corrections, such as adding lacking parts of the design.

THE ORIGIN‘s unique design process

Animationweek: THE ORIGIN is based on the comics of the same title written by Mr. Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, the general director of the animation series. Are there any differences or difficulties in designing animation characters which have original visual designs in the original comics, compared to your experiences in designing original characters for animation from zero?

Tsukasa Kotobuki: In the case of designing characters from scratch by myself, I tend to get an order with no limitations in design. If I design new characters without constraint, it could be too flexible for me and it will make me work slower, on the contrary. So, to clarify and understand the client’s needs, I tend to ask them like, “I’d like you to tell me what you would like to have in design a little bit more concretely.”. On the other hand, in the case of THE ORIGIN, what I could design freely at my discretion for the characters was defined and what I was requested was clear, so that there was nothing to worry about in the direction of the design.

Actually, there was no clear line between Mr. Yasuhiko and me in the assignation of the main characters in THE ORIGIN. Basically, Mr. Yasuhiko designed the characters he has strong feelings for, and I followed his works by designing all other characters, including some of the main characters. In terms of my design of the non-main characters, there was almost no requests I’ve received to change the character designs later.

Regarding the design of the main characters, there are some main characters which I was assigned to design because Mr. Yasuhiko has too much personal attachment to the characters to design them by himself. For example, a character named M’Quve, who is one of the main characters. Mr. Yasuhiko had been able to draw the character without too much thinking, but afterwards, he started to think, “Oh, M’Quve might possibly be a cooler character than I’ve thought.”, he has not been able to draw M’Quve smoothly like before. Then, I was in charge of designing M’Quve.

Nevertheless, Mr. Yasuhiko has a firm image of M’Quve, even if it is a sort-of sensuous image. So, I thought that Mr. Yasuhiko could develop the image of M’Quve in his brain from a sensory thing to a more concrete image by watching the illustration of M’Quve designed and visualized by me, a third person. Hence, to make my illustration of M’Quve the same design as the concrete image he got in his head, he asked me to make a number of corrections.

Facial expressions of M’Quve designed by Tsukasa Kotobuki.

Full picture of M’Quve designed by Tsukasa Kotobuki.

Color settings for M’Quve.

M’Quve in the completed animation.

Tsukasa Kotobuki: I think that this is because Mr. Yasuhiko’s personal style for designing characters is not just blindly basing the animation on the original comics, but rather he thinks that the atmosphere of the character is more important than the design of the character itself. For instance, he requested me to fix up the ways of dressing military uniforms, such as the position to fasten the belt and the posture of the character like having it better to make a round-shouldered posture, or straightening the spine, because those kinds of things embody the personality of the character as its unique atmosphere.

On the other hand, Mr. Nishimura, the supervising animator, told me: “the illustrations of character sheets are for sharing the visuals of each character in details among all the animators, so please do not include directive elements in character sheets and instruct those kinds of elements when we work on keyframes”. It is only a category of my imagination, but it seemed like Mr. Yasuhiko was thinking that character setting includes such information. So, maybe, as once it was. Then it was changed to the system, which by Mr. Nishimura taught me after many years.

Costume designing by Takuhito Kusanagi

Animationweek: As you mentioned a little bit about the way of dressing a character with military uniform now, I think that one of the features of the Gundam franchise is the elaborate settings of every kind, which are very realistic. How did you gather materials for designing such things as each character’s clothes and space suit, named “normal suit” in the story? Also, could you please let us know about what you took care of and what you specifically focused on in designing them?

Tsukasa Kotobuki: Takuhito Kusanagi is participating in this project as a military equipment designer and doing costume design. It can be said that a character setting picture is completed by putting the clothes, which Mr. Kusanagi designed, on the character I designed. Mr. Kusanagi is good at designing realistic military equipment, but Mr. Yasuhiko’s characters have a variety of body types, including unusual body types as a soldier, such as a person with narrow shoulders and an obese person. So, there are some cases where details of Mr. Kusanagi’s design can not fall into place satisfactorily. For example, he made a very detailed design on the shoulder of the Principality of Zeon’s military uniform, but there is not enough space to draw the design on the uniform for a character with narrow shoulders. And also, that kind of his fine design is too complicated to draw on a number of in-betweens. Therefore, I did some minor adjustments of the designs to the extent which will not affect his design, and reduced the number of lines in his designs to make it more animate-able by repeating consultation with Ms. Nishimura. However, the detailed design is one of the characteristics of Mr. Kusanagi’s art works and also one of the reasons why this project asked him to join. So, we needed to understand his designs deeply to keep the characteristics and intention of them. It was a very difficult challenge.

As I said, my title in this project was only a character designer at the beginning of my participation in this project. But I have started to work as a lead animator as well from the 2nd or 3rd episode. And then, it was really hard for me to check keyframes one by one details of the characters’ visual, which I designed. So, I thought that I should have made the designs simpler by talking with Mr. Kusanagi (laughs).

One of Takuhito Kusanagi’s original military equipment designs.

One of Takuhito Kusanagi’s original military equipment designs.

Hiroyuki Nishimura’s final design (the number of lines were reduced).

Hiroyuki Nishimura’s final design (the number of lines were reduced).

Military equipment in the completed animation.

Military equipment in the completed animation.

Animationweek: Could you please let us know your favorite one in your designed characters?

Tsukasa Kotobuki: In the animated version of Mobile Suit Gundam: THE ORIGIN, there are some original scenes that are not depicted in the original comics. And Lino Fernandez, a man who knows the identity of Char Aznable, only appears in the third episode of the animation as an original character. He is my favorite character. I drew a rough design of him on the spot when I received the offer to design him, and I got the okay on the first design. Actually, I had a request of a few more different patterns of design later, just in case, so I drew a couple of new designs of him. But we decided to go with the first design, which left a strong impact, after all.

Persistence in “Mobs”*

Animationweek: What was the real charm of the character design in this work?

Tsukasa Kotobuki: I am the only one staff who was invited by Yasuhiko General Director individually among the whole members of this project, and thanks to that, I am in the credit as character designer in parallel with Mr. Yasuhiko in good faith. However, as I have talked so far, my work in this project is a bit unusual as a role of character design in animation. I am originally supposed to be a sub character design or a support designer of Mr. Yasuhiko’s character design works in the end role credits of this animation, I think. So, like the pleasure or fulfillment I feel from designing character of THE ORIGIN is slightly different from the real thrill of doing character designs in ordinary animation.

Anyway, I think it would be that I can make the universe of the story more realistic by giving life to the characters, which support the story of the main characters drawn by Professor Yasuhiko, while paying attention not make them too conspicuous in the story.

Animationweek: Thank you. Then, is it one of the reasons why this science fiction title has a strong realism, due to the staff’s huge amount of creative energy they put into, with not only the main characters, but also other side characters?

Tsukasa Kotobuki: It may be so. I think that there are some animation works in which only the main characters are rich in personality and other characters are not sharing the same world with them. On the other hand, I think that Mr. Yasuhiko does not want to show characters that disagree with the universe of the story in the back of the main characters on the same scene in this animation. I feel that his direction has the intention in making audience watch all the characters appearing on the whole screen, rather than spotting on a few specific characters.

For example, in terms of designing many other military characters behind the main characters, which we call “mobs”, Mr. Yasuhiko requested to me, “Please don’t think of them as the rest of the crowd. Every individual character in this animation has a life. I’d like to have a difference in each person as much as possible, irrespective of whether the character have lines or not”. So, I design the “mobs” to have different shapes of eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, and so on, among them as much as possible. However, there are some animators who draw all “mobs” with the same face, so that I try to correct such pictures according to character settings.

*Mob: A specific word in Japanese animation industry. It means background characters or extra in animation.

Atsuhiko Sekiguchi: As he said, in regard to THE ORIGIN, basically we draw and move many other characters behind the main characters with individuality and definition, even though we draw a crowd, a very huge number of people, in digital. For instance, we animated “mobs” well in the scenes of a victory celebration party in episode six.

In regard to “mobs” in the fifth episode, we made the character settings of patients in a hospital around Sayla Mass and the villagers who appear across scenes, and we shared them with all the animators in order to make each “mob” character be drawn as the same character design in all the different scenes. I selected some villagers in the original comics to be drawn as “mobs” at the meeting with the layout/animation director of episode five and we asked Mr. Kotobuki to design about 14 villagers in the end.

Designs of the 14 villagers by Tsukasa Kotobuki.

Designs of the 14 villagers by Tsukasa Kotobuki.

Designs of the 14 villagers by Tsukasa Kotobuki.

The 14 villagers in the completed animation.

The 14 villagers in the completed animation.

The 14 villagers in the completed animation.

Tsukasa Kotobuki: Those are characters that appear in only one or two cuts, but I designed detailed settings for them. I keep a lot of comics, which Mr. Yasuhiko drawn in the past, close at hand. When I design a character, which doesn’t appear in the original comics, I look for a character, which is close to the characteristics of the character I was requested to design, among the comics. And I make it the base of the design, in order to make the character match the visual style and atmosphere of the characters drawn by Mr. Yasuhiko.

Mr. Kotobuki at his working desk. There are a lot of Mr. Yasuhiko’s comics on the shelves.

Atsuhiko Sekiguchi: Actually, there are quite a few key animators who devise ideas for “mob’s” acting performance by themselves. Mr. Yasuhiko seems to prefer to receive those kinds of suggestions and he adopts some of them after modifying the “mob’s” actions. “If you suggest me an idea, let’s do it that way!”

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