Masanori Nishii on Ark of the Stars

We talk with the key man in Space Battleship Yamato 2199 mecha depiction!!

From Hobby Japan #553, July 2015 issue

Right after this issue was published, the Blu-ray and DVD of Yamato 2199 Ark of the Stars were finally released on May 27. In the time just before the release, we were able to interview Mr. Masanori Nishii, who served as Yamato 2199‘s Chief Mechanical Director. In fact, this is the second time we’ve interviewed him in this magazine (the first was in the May 2012 issue) about the mecha depiction in 2199 using both CG and animation. This time, while looking back on the series, he shared with us some deep, inside stories about the commitment he put into the mecha for Ark of the Stars.

Interviewer: In both Yamato 2199 and the feature film, I think the depiction of mecha was particularly amazing even compared to anime of recent years. The ships depicted in 3DCG all had size and weight and a feeling of texture. Please tell us about your considerations as Chief Mechanical Director, or the struggles you went through.

Nishii: 3DCG has the advantage of putting complex forms into motion without the shape collapsing. Getting them to move is much easier than it used to be with drawing, but because the impression of CG is different than hand-drawing, some people feel uncomfortable and shy away from it. Although CG is used in 2199, I was particular about how it moves, so it doesn’t seem to have the “CG is sort of…” prejudice. Still, the opinion of “it doesn’t look heavy, it seems too light” was still found here and there.

There was some truth to that, but while you could say, for example, “make Yamato move four times slower so it looks heavy,” in truth, that’s not feasible. In the case of a TV series, you have to fit an episode into a limit of about 21 minutes, and if you take a long time to make it move slowly, you can’t fit the whole story in. Still, it was initially slower at the time of production. When I saw the first check-movie, the fact was “no matter how you look at it, it seems to be hesitating”, so we could only settle on how fast a 3DCG battleship should move after some trial and error with the speed.

In Episode 1, there’s a shot of Yukikaze flipping over, and the production intention was to increase the feeling of Mamoru Kodai being in a hurry to join the fleet. Additionally, in the shot when Kirishima is coming about while returning fire, we intentionally sped up the movement in these two shots since it looked to us like you’d get that sense of speed in an actual battle in space.

When it comes to texture, rather than real 3D textures such as you would see in live action, we achieved an expression similar to anime cels by using Cel Shader. In anime, the technique of representing a three-dimensional object with line work and a strong color division is called “normal and shadow.” However, in the case of Yamato the atmosphere is tricky in Cel Shader because the hull has only two colors, grey and red. Sunrise D.I.D. was responsible for the 3DCG to make sure the surface of the hull didn’t become monotone, and to add a feeling of texture. After Sunrise D.I.D. delivered the 3DCG to us, we adjusted the brightness and color of each scene during photography for color representation in the final visuals.

Interviewer: Your attention to detail was definitely felt.

Nishii: Once you’ve done the modeling, adding small details in CG is a both a physical and a budget problem. Incorporating detail is good, but when you pull back (see it from a distance), fine detail always collapses. It’s likely to collapse into a dirty black lump that you can’t identify, so it has to be controlled to some extent. On the other hand, I could stop this in some shots, after I got designs from mecha designers Junichiro Tamamori and Yasushi Ishizu, by adding it to the CG modeling, or I could replace some shots entirely with hand-drawing.

I wasn’t always certain about shots that were occasionally sandwiched between CG and CG, when I wanted to show a stronger impression of detail. We had that sort of flow, and it turned into the way that we presented it. This project was first planned as a TV series and it was decided later to turn it into a theatrical event, but regardless of that I personally wanted to show scenes crammed with detail as a sort of coup de grace. Speaking in relation to Yamato, for Mr. Tamamori’s designs I’d ask, “Do we have this on this part?!” or “When this shape is just so, do these parts show up when you get close to it?!” and it’d end up making a good impact. Sometimes the flow went like that so we could take advantage of it.

Interviewer: In Ark of the Stars, Yamato is on its way home from Iscandar and its ultimate weapon, the Wave-Motion Gun, has been sealed. How were the highlights of the mecha depiction made?

Nishii: Talks about what to do with that started from the very beginning. Yamato fires the Wave Gun and you get a feeling of exhilaration from the breakthrough, but this time we had to get the best out of Yamato without relying on that. Therefore, in Ark of the Stars we used all the weapons that could not be depicted in the TV series. We used the Type-94 depth charge launcher, and we used the rear torpedo tubes several times, which weren’t used even once in the TV series. This was the first time the pulse lasers were used in direct anti-ship combat, and the rocket anchor was also finally used as a weapon. There was a scene in the original where it was used to beat Shulz’ battleship, but we were only able to use it as an anchor in the TV series, so I’m glad we could do it here.

Only the Wave Gun was not a highlight for Yamato, so how could we convey the quality of Yamato without using it? The gunnery chief, Yasuo Nanbu, suffers from not being able to use the Wave Gun, and there’s a scene where Kodai becomes a spokesman for us on the staff when he says, “All right! Yamato can do it even without the Wave-Motion Gun!”

Interviewer: That reminds me of when we did a previous interview with Mr. Tamamori, and he spoke passionately about the rocket anchor.

Nishii: That was understood, so we had to bring it out by all means. (Laughs) I wanted the third bridge to play an active part again, but it didn’t work out. It was in the script at an early stage, but it unfortunately disappeared as the flow of the story was developed. For things like the rocket anchor or the third bridge, we put a lot of effort into the design, so if we barely used them they’d just end up as throwaway gags. So, for that scene in particular, we wouldn’t simply use the design drawings; we wanted to use it to its fullest extent and present the scene as fully and properly as we could.

Interviewer: In Ark of the Stars, the Gatlantis fleet plays an active role as the new enemy of Yamato. They appeared briefly in Episode 11 of the TV series, but here they became 3DCG and some details were changed slightly. What was the process behind that?

Nishii: The Gatlantis ships that appeared in Episode 11 were hand drawn. Kazutaka Miyatake of Studio Nue designed the Nazca-class medium-size spacecraft carrier and the Lasceaux-class space cruiser, and General Director Yutaka Izubuchi did the Kukulkan-class space destroyer. For that occasion, those ships were only to appear in Episode 11 and making 3DCG models was deemed too much trouble, so we hand-drew them. But when Mr. Izubuchi wanted them to appear in the movie, I had to say, “we should have made them in 3DCG back then.” (Laughs) Since we couldn’t use 3DCG for the pass-image we did in Episode 11, Mr. Izubuchi updated the design of the Kukulkan while the other ships and the Devastator armored assault fighters were handled by Mr. Ishizu.

Because of time constraints, I asked Takeshi Takakura to do cleanup on the Lasceaux-class space cruiser. It was slightly changed from the designs for Episode 11 because certain points come out when we render it in CG…how this part can better connect to that part, for example. In fact, the Kiska was the first design to come up (Nazca-class space carrier Kiska), and it became the base for all the Gatlantis ships. Its design connects an upper hull and a lower hull with a configuration of multiple masses rather than just one. When you slice up the hull into cross-sections, each one of them is different, and it was necessary to design those sections for CG modeling. If we didn’t draw pictures to explain the joint surfaces and how each part connects, we couldn’t make it in CG. We couldn’t just do it as a six-sided figure. The Kiska in particular is a much more complex shape when compared to Garmillas ships, so the design took a lot of time.

(Translator’s note: let’s unpack some of the terminology in this answer. A “pass-image” is a single piece of art that passes through a scene without changing its angle or perspective. A six-sided figure in CG terms is a diagram of an object from front/back, top/bottom, and left/right. Configuring them into a box is usually the first step in building a CG model, then the task is to construct the object in a way that aligns with all six diagrams. Very complex objects, such as the Kiska, need more than six diagrams to account for all the internal shapes.)

Interviewer: The Medaluza-class annihilation-type heavy battleship Megaluda appears as the strongest enemy of Yamato, with impressive gimmicks such as the Flame Strike Gun. Could you tell us about the design points you worked on in particular?

Nishii: It was Mr. Izubuchi’s idea to let it appear and to use the Flame Strike Gun. It was based on the Medaluza from Yamato 2, but that was a fairly small ship. Because it is featured as the flagship of the enemy in this story, it got bigger. At first, the plan was for it to be the same size as Yamato, but it wasn’t intimidating enough…that’s what it was like. In the design stage, the part behind the bridge was extended. One idea after another was packed into it, such as having it carry fighters like Yamato even though it’s a battleship, and that’s how we arrived at a balance.

As for the large bow turrets, at first it was equipped with three disc-shaped turrets, but they gave it a surprisingly passive image. Therefore, we talked about giving it gun barrels for the story. They were also small at first, but we incorporated Makoto Kobayashi’s opinion that “bigger is cooler,” and it became a huge, ridiculous gun turret with five barrels. (Laughs) Since we developed the gimmick where the Flame Strike Gun unfolds and lowers, the modeling was very difficult. Instead of a substitute for Yamato‘s Wave-Motion Gun, which we couldn’t use in this project, the Flame Strike Gun is equivalent to a weapon of mass destruction. Therefore, we gave it these gimmicks to make it into a grandiose highlight. In the end it became big, but I think we showed it with a presence that is surprisingly close to the image of the Medaluza.

Interviewer: As for the Garmillas ships, the activity of the Gelvades-class battle carrier Mirangal was very impressive. Was it decided from the outset to have the Gelvades-class reappear?

Nishii: The Gelvades-class was Izubuchi’s idea. Although the Darold from the same class appeared in the TV series, it didn’t get many highlights in the Battle of the Rainbow Star Cluster. The Guipellon-class multi-deck carrier Lambea survived into this work, and that matched up with Mr. Izubuchi’s intention to have a Gelvades play an active part again. The Darold‘s color was all red, and Mr. Izubuchi wanted to camouflage it like the Garmillas ships of Goer’s fleet in the TV series. Since I wanted Fomto Berger to have a ship that would stand out, we put camouflage on the Mirangal. Putting aside whether or not camouflage has any use in space, it looks cool. (Laughs)

About the other ship, we put a lot of effort into coloring it green in the image of the battle carrier in Yamato 2, and that became the Nilvades. It’s more of a bluish-green than the Destoria’s green. In the TV series, the battle carrier Darold was equipped with the Galunt, but that wasn’t originally a carrier-based plane. The Gelvades-class has characteristics of both a carrier and a battleship, and when I thought about the most suitable craft for it, the one that came up was the DWG262 Czvarke.

Interviewer: I’d like to talk a little about models. Banda Hobby Division has released a lot of warship models. Were you involved in supervision?

Nishii: Regarding plamodels [plastic models], when I went to Sunrise D.I.D. to check on the CG, Hirofumi Kishiyama of Bandai Hobby Division was usually there. The checking was usually like, “We did that here. What about there?” and “It’s better to do it here.” At the stage when the Kiska design was in development, the 1/1000 plamodel was also in progress. Precise parts can’t be made without modeling data, and for that matter, neither can the movie itself. The question “When can it be done?” pushed up the time limits from various directions…anyway, it was tough. (Laughs)

Interviewer: Do you build 2199 models yourself? Also, is there something you want that hasn’t yet been commercialized as a model kit?

Nishii: As for models, of course I built them as a kid. I’m too busy with work these days. As for ship models that haven’t been done yet, I personally want a large-scale Yukikaze and Kirishima. They’ve come out at 1/1000 and Mecha Collection scale, but that’s still pretty small. It may be aimed at the core people, but 1/500 and 1/350 scale would allow them to make the fine detailed sections. By the way, Mr. Izubuchi always says he wants a 1/35 Garmillas tank (Saruba S-VI type heavy tank).

Interviewer: What do you look for in the modeling works of 2199?

Nishii: It’s a plamodel, so rather than sticking with what’s in the film, I think it’s better to say, “it might look cool if it’s done this way,” and add your own ideas. I think a three-dimensional object has interesting possibilities. “Oh, you did that with it, I didn’t think of that!” Isn’t it a good thing to do such arrangements with a plamodel? That reminds me of when the Darold was released, and someone immediately painted it the same green as a Garmillas ship, and I was like, “That’s how I would think.” (Laughs) I think it’s good when a three-dimensional object presents various challenges, including reproducing a scene.

Interviewer: What’s your favorite 2199 mecha?

Nishii: I have a fondness for every mecha, since it was painstakingly made and expressed through a struggle, so it’s hard to say which is better. If I had to choose, it would be the Earth fleet. In contrast to Yamato, I think the old-school design is very good. In fact, the overall balance is quite well-considered in the original designs. It might be hard to see what was changed at first glance, but it was fundamentally changed. It was rearranged by Junichiro Tamamori, and I think it has a very good taste.

Interviewer: Finally, please share a message with our readers about the Ark of the Stars video release.

Nishii: We haven’t added new scenes to the Blu-ray, but there is some brush-up on both the mecha and the characters, and the visuals are more beautiful. I think those who saw it in theaters should see it by all means, too.

(Conducted one day in April, Production I.G. headquarters)

The End

Special thanks to Neil Nadelman for translation support.

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