The Low-Key Power of 'The Portrait Studio'
Plus: animation news.
Welcome! This is our first public issue since we went on break in December — now, we’re back. Many of you are new, which is awesome to see. We hope you’ll enjoy what we do here.
On that note, our slate for today is:
1️⃣ The specialness of The Portrait Studio (2013) by Takashi Nakamura.
2️⃣ Animation news from around the world.
For readers not yet on our mailing list, signing up puts our Sunday issues right in your email inbox, weekly:
With that, we’re off.
1: A little marvel
Takashi Nakamura isn’t a household name. He played a big part in the animation and character designs of Akira, but few people know that beyond the anime industry and its superfans. Nakamura’s inspired features Catnapped! (1998) and The Tree of Palme (2002) both got international releases, but neither was a runaway hit.
He’s stayed a niche figure — yet one so talented and original, and so different from the industry norm, that his cult following continues to grow.
Take his film The Portrait Studio (2013). Whenever we share scenes from it on Twitter, people respond in a huge way. It’s an emotional piece with Nakamura’s personal stamp all over it. He didn’t just direct the film — he wrote it, storyboarded it, designed its characters and drew all of its key animation himself. The Portrait Studio, seen below, is a vision unique to Nakamura.
The film is about a Japanese photographer, and the family whose pictures he takes across the years. Their daughter, almost from the day she’s born, refuses to smile for the camera. As she grows up, she comes to the photographer’s studio at different points in her life. The Portrait Studio opens at the turn of the 20th century, at the end of the Meiji era, and continues into the 1960s. Japan is destroyed and rebuilt again and again. Yet, from one photo to the next, her signature scowl feels like it won’t ever fade.
It’s a wordless story — about life, time, Japan, change and death. “Unless we always have ‘death’ included in our stories,” Nakamura once explained, “I find that the people depicted tend to become superficial.”
The Portrait Studio was a passion project for Nakamura. Getting it made wasn’t a sure thing — “unless you have a massive hit or [are] really lucky, it is hard to get your project proposal to pass,” he’s said in recent years.
At first, Nakamura planned The Portrait Studio with animator Mitsunori Murata (Akira, Paprika). An outside company agreed to consider their pitch, but it went nowhere, recalled Nakamura. The project’s salvation was a chance meeting between Murata and a producer from Studio Colorido — a new outfit in Tokyo, on the hunt for pitches.
According to Murata:
That was when it came to mind: “Wasn’t Nakamura’s project still out there?” So, I asked him how about going with Nakamura’s project instead. The answer was “yes,” so it turned out Colorido’s producer was actually a big fan of Nakamura. That was how the project for The Portrait Studio came into fruition.
It would be an auteur piece with a small team, and with a vision clear from the outset. One of Nakamura’s first plot outlines, dated March 2012, reveals a take on The Portrait Studio very close to the final one. The charm of his initial watercolor concepts, drawn in his personal style, made it to screen as well.
Alongside Nakamura, a handful of artists defined The Portrait Studio’s look and feel. One of the most vital was background supervisor Shinji Kimura, a veteran painter with credits on Akira, My Neighbor Totoro and more.
Nakamura wanted to depict a flat world in a picture book style. It was one of the tricks he used to simplify and contain this film — making it more specific, more manageable. At the same time, he chose to pair flatness with a level of realism and detail. “I feel it is all down to Kimura-san’s skill that, although it is like a picture book, it is possible to feel the reality behind it,” Nakamura wrote.
Another area where Nakamura sought to add reality to abstraction was in the movement. The Portrait Studio animates mostly “on twos,” or at 12 drawings per second — sometimes climbing up to “ones” (24 drawings per second). This is a little unusual for anime. Here was Nakamura’s take:
The difference in 8 frames and 12 frames is basically the difference in how dense the space is. When you think about it, when we create an image with moving pictures, then there is a subtle space generated between the pictures. If we only animate 8 frames [per second], 6 frames, or even less, then there will be more still images and therefore the density of the images will be fainter due to the gap. By adding density to the animation by clearly and precisely animating at 12 frames, we can add a greater sense of existence to the objects.
It took Nakamura around seven months to animate The Portrait Studio — an incredible pace for a film of this length. He credited his speed to the nature of the project. “I think I was able to do the key animation all by myself because this piece was generally quiet and did not require a lot of emphasis on movement,” he wrote.
Although he key-animated the film himself, Nakamura went into The Portrait Studio feeling that the direction and story should dictate the animation. It’s impressive, but not loud. He focused on the emotional arc, on the needs of the film, over everything.
“[R]ather than trying to show my own character through animating, I think about the dramaturgy first,” he said.
As a director, one of Nakamura’s key influences is Hayao Miyazaki. While animating on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), he was struck by the way Miyazaki “always thought about how to depict the feel of things through cel animation through painting and processing cels,” down to the finest detail. When Nakamura finally watched Nausicaä, he was so engrossed that he ignored his own contributions to it — a first.
The Portrait Studio is a similarly whole work. We’re watching a film rather than a series of showy, disconnected shots. And yet it’s a film made to look like Nakamura’s art.
It was Mitsunori Murata, a main contributor to the in-betweens and animation checking for The Portrait Studio, who had the idea to cut the cleanup stage. He picked a style influenced by his own work on Cannon Fodder (1995). Nakamura’s original pencil drawings would be preserved, flaws and all.
“Nakamura was thinking of tracing the keyframes onto the [final drawings] as usual,” Murata said. “However, I thought that would kill Nakamura’s powerful lines.”
A bit like Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians, we see Nakamura’s lines on screen in The Portrait Studio. His drawings run before us, often untouched. That was a challenge for the team. It isn’t a closed-line style, so digital coloring was tricky. Nakamura called it “a relief” to have color designer Terumi Nakauchi (Cannon Fodder) on hand to oversee the painting of the characters, based on Kimura’s color work.
Another problem: in-betweening Nakamura’s key animation suddenly got harder. If the in-betweeners didn’t copy Nakamura’s style of line closely, the result was a mess.
That meant trial and error, plus a special requirement for this production: everyone had to use the same kind of pencil. In-betweening The Portrait Studio was a creative task, rather than a mechanical one. Murata noted that Nakamura is an animator who “gives leeway to the in-betweener in a good way.”
The Portrait Studio came together fairly fast. Colorido made it side-by-side with Sonny Boy & Dewdrop Girl (2013), and the two teams interacted along the way — Nakamura’s group full of veterans, and the other full of newcomers. Nakamura said that the younger team’s use of CGI made him jealous. While 3D objects appear in The Portrait Studio, they’re subtle. Sonny Boy goes all-in on vast 3D environments and set pieces.
Even so, that seems fitting. Nakamura said that a guiding idea behind The Portrait Studio was, “Don’t be too pushy.” He viewed it as a short story — and the appeal of short stories, for him, is that they bewitch the reader in a brief and effortless way. That’s what The Portrait Studio does.
It’s a film that sneaks up on you — something both sweet and melancholy. Without a word of dialogue, you find yourself invested in the characters and their complicated lives. You feel the emotional punch of it even before the end. The Portrait Studio is a little marvel, and a standout entry in Nakamura’s one-of-a-kind catalog.
2: Animation news worldwide
The return of Shanghai Animation
Shanghai Animation Film Studio is the most senior animation firm in China. Since its peak years between the ‘50s and ‘80s, though, it’s had a slow decline in relevance. Teams like Beijing’s Light Chaser (New Gods) rule the headlines today.
At least until now. Since January 1, Shanghai Animation has had a viral sensation on its hands with its streaming series Yao - Chinese Folktales, currently ongoing on Bilibili.
Yao wasn’t supposed to be a hit. The VP of Bilibili has confirmed that his company saw it as “not a very commercial project,” per one outlet. The series was never aimed at the mass market. Almost two years went into each episode, done simultaneously by different directors in different styles — all far from the look of mainstream animation in China. The goal was to root these stories in distinctly Chinese aesthetics.
But its success was immediate. As Animation Magazine reported almost a week ago, the project garnered:
… more than 10 million views in its first three days. Titled Yao - Chinese Folktales, the series launched January 1 and a week out is averaging a 9.6 out of 10 rating on Douban, with more than 60,000 reviews.
Yao’s numbers have climbed dramatically since that report. After 15 days, with four episodes online, the series has topped 99 million views on its Bilibili page — and they’re rising fast. Users of the movie site Douban are often harsh critics of Chinese animation, and yet Yao currently scores 9.4 there, based on more than 132,000 reviews.
By contrast, Bilibili’s long-awaited series The Three-Body Problem, a commercial megahit upon its release in December, languishes at 4.6 on Douban. It has over 300 million views, but it’s in a death spiral of negative word-of-mouth.
Zhang Shengyan, the Bilibili VP, feels that Yao owes its popularity to its ties to China. Not just in the stories and art, but in the Shanghai Animation name — most people in China, Zhang says, have fond memories of the studio’s classics. Yao channels this tradition of artistry for the 2020s, and it may be the start of a new era for the company. There’s already talk of a second season.
You can watch Yao, with English subtitles, for free on Bilibili. We recommend the episode Goose Mountain. Be sure to click the blue tab below the video to disable the “barrage” comments from viewers — there are so many, they crowd the screen.
In late December, the Chinese animator Yan Dingxian passed away at 86. He had a major hand in Uproar in Heaven (1964), and co-directed another of China’s greatest animated features: Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (1979).
There’s a trailer for the American stop-motion series Shape Island from Apple TV+.
One more exciting stop-motion story: South Korea’s feature Mother Land will open January 25. It’s a landmark film for its country. More details (in English) here.
The first episode of the Ukrainian cartoon Patron the Dog has racked up over 900,000 YouTube views since premiering on January 7. The series, based on a real-world bomb-hunting dog, is quite slick — the team at Studio Plastic Bag in Kyiv did impressive work on this. See it here with English subtitles.
Belarus has legalized the piracy of media from “unfriendly countries,” including Japan and America. Users now pay the Belarusian state for these products. Reportedly, rights holders can “file a claim” by a set time to retrieve their money.
In Japan, Makoto Shinkai’s Suzume kept burning up the charts while we were away. With a take above $92 million, it’s the country’s 10th-biggest anime film ever.
In Britain, the organization She Drew That has published a salary report based on survey results from 171 animators in the UK. An invaluable resource.
Toei’s Slam Dunk feature has been another hit in Japan, spending six weeks at #1 and taking in more than $58 million. (It went big in South Korea, too, despite the lingering “No Japan” boycott.) Between Slam Dunk and One Piece Film: Red, Toei’s box office returns in 2022 shattered its previous records, reaching $246 million.
Last of all, we wrote about the art of “frame-rate modulation,” an animation technique you may not know but have definitely seen.
Until next time!
From The Portrait Studio Archive, a digital book published by E-SAKUGA. It was the main reference for today’s lead story. There is no better source on the making of this film.
From Shashinkan Artworks, the booklet bundled with the Portrait Studio Blu-ray box set. Several quotes and details came from there.