By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Netflix.
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Netflix.
In an effort to curb European influence, Japan expelled foreigners in 1639 and carried on the isolationist policy for another two centuries; it is within this historical backdrop where Blue Eye Samurai Co-Creators and Executive Producers Amber Noizumi and Michael Green placed a renegade female warrior seeking to murder the four men responsible for her mixed heritage, which has resulted in a life filled with racial hatred and discrimination. The Netflix project that consists of eight episodes was animated by Blue Spirit in a 2D/3D hybrid style that unflinchingly depicts violence, sex and societal exploitation with a dose of dry humor.
Even though the project was sold to Netflix in 2019, the idea was born 16 years ago. “The story we wanted to tell could only have taken place in the Edo period,” Green states. “Plus, has there ever been a more beautiful era for design?” The decision to venture away from live-action was not a hard one. “Animation was the only way we could tell this character’s story without compromise – and with maximal beauty,” Noizumi notes. “The animation style came from conversation with all our partners. But it didn’t really come together until Jane Wu [our Producer and Supervising Director] came on board and showed us her inspirations.” Visual inspiration came from the art of Hokusai and other ukiyo-e prints from the Edo period. “Jane Wu brought the idea of bunraku puppetry as a touchstone for our character design,” Noizumi explains. “Our Costume Designer, Suttirat Anne Larlarb, did deep, extensive research on every aspect of the clothing of the era – the colors, the patterns, even the stitching.”
“For Blue Eye Samurai, we were targeting a 2D aesthetic inspired by Japanese woodblock print,” states Toby Wilson, Production Designer. “Of course, we need to light our scenes, but we wanted to avoid excessive volume lighting on our characters that would break the 2D look, and we wanted to avoid high-contrast photorealistic light in the environments. In order to achieve this aesthetic, I was pushing the Japanese principles of Notan: designing compositions with clear light over dark or dark over light in harmony with the visual story of the shots. Couple that with designed grouping of textures. Like woodblock prints, we would design our shapes and group textures within them. We would organize those textures so they are most concentrated and had the most contrast around the area of focus. And the shapes these textures were housed within, we would try to always design them inspired by our creative source materials from Japanese historical art.”
“Production took about 3.8 years to complete from start to finish,” Wu remarks. “The eight episodes were treated episodically, except for some of the action pieces that required martial arts choreography. We shot some of that ahead of the episodic launches due to the stunt artists’ availability.” Directing alongside Wu were Ryan O’Loughlin, Alan Wan, Michael Green, Earl A. Hibbert, Sunny Sun and Alan Taylor. “I tried to understand what each episode needed and ‘cast’ each director to their strong suit,” Wu states. “From there, I encouraged our directors to tell this story with our overall philosophical idea of ‘grounding the storytelling’ through live-action cameras and lensing. We even designed our camera package to the specs that Game of Thrones had, down to the film back to try to reproduce the same feel in each shot. In the forest canopy, I wanted the camera to follow Mizu and Ringo as they talked so you felt like you were walking with them and seeing the story unfold in real-time. The camera doesn’t always need to be straight front on characters to reveal emotions; body language and camera placement can do the trick and elevate storytelling at the same time.”
“Our challenges were similar to what you would find on many shows,” Wilson observes. “We had a story that traveled across Japan with many new locations and characters. We knew it was going to be an issue to stay on budget and schedule, so we devised systems in order to make this work. For locations, it was extremely helpful and authentic that Japanese architecture has an inherent modular nature to it. This allowed us to design new spaces while utilizing the shoji screens, tatami mats, window designs and plaster walls from previous sets. We were also able to build out the entire city of Edo using a modular building system. We used a similar modular system for our crowd characters. Fashion changes based on region in Japan, so [Character Design Lead] Brian Kesinger and his team devised a menu to create background characters so we didn’t have to build hundreds of unique characters. By using the menu system, we could dial different heads, kimonos, shoes and props to populate our streets and interior spaces.”
Intriguing discoveries were made during the historical research. “I remember when we first pulled up images of Edo period glasses and saw the ones that would eventually be Mizu’s,” Green recalls. “We could suddenly ‘see’ her, even before the character was designed. They just made her feel real to us. Here was her mask! Straight out of history – and now on our poster. And then came the idea that she would wear amber-tinted lenses to hide her eye color.” The mandate for the character designs, world-building and shot designs was to have viewers forget that they are watching animation. “We wanted them to sink into the story and our characters,” Noizumi remarks. “We wanted them to be as attached to Mizu in animation as they would be if she was played by a famous actor. All our choices were made to support that.”
Restraint and realism were the guiding principles for the character designs. “Designing a ‘bad guy’ for Blue Eye Samurai means having to design an imposing character without the usual tropes of giving him a scar on his face or an eye patch [to oversimplify, of course],” Kesinger states. “Rather, I had to play with more subtle cues of how this particular ruffian wears his kimono or how they carried himself in a pose or expression. Really subtle stuff. But it was all in service to the tone of the story.” Almost every character wears a kimono. “We did a deep dive into how kimonos were built, how they were worn by different genders and social classes. Thanks to Jane who would model them for us, we would study how they move so that we could work with our partner studio, Blue Spirit, to create a rig that would allow for realistic movement,” Kesinger says.
Silhouettes and poses provided an opportunity to explore the different social classes in Japan during the Edo period. “We took great care in making sure all our characters held themselves in an appropriate manner when it came to their social station and gender so that Mizu could stand out defiantly from that,” Kesinger remarks. “Details like how perpendicular a samurai wears their katana to their body or how long a kimono sleeve an older woman would wear versus a younger woman are just a couple examples of the level of detail we explored in coming up with poses. When we first meet Mizu, she is disguised as a man, so we made sure she walked, sat and even ate with more masculine mannerisms.” Outside of a few dream sequences, Blue Eye Samurai is not fantastical. Observes Kesinger, “These characters endure a lot, but they are not superheroes. When Mizu gets hit, we have to design a bruise for her and how that bruise develops over the course of the rest of the sequence. With a character like Ringo, it was important to show a character with a limb difference who was not defined by it.”
The previs was extensive. “The main objective of the previs was to create a smooth transition through the pipeline of all departments all the way to the vendor,” notes Earl A. Hibbert, Head of Previz and director. “The very complex scenes took an extensive amount of time. We implemented a scouting process with the directors early in the sequence construction. This would give the directors the opportunity to look through a set sometimes before the storyboard stage to explore ideas in the set and aid in the pitch process with the board artists so they had all the information they needed.” A large amount of previs was required for the dojo fight in Episode 101. Hibbert explains, “We had to work with the stunt and production design teams to design that very complex fight to fit within the boundaries of the set. In addition to the action scenes, many dramatic scenes were complex, too: in Episode 101, Mizu’s intro in the soba house, and the wonderful and traumatic scenes in Episode 102 with Mizu and Swordfather. In all of the dramatic scenes, we worked on compression and expanding space between characters to create and elevate tension.”
“While we aren’t trying to fool anyone into thinking this show was done in 2D, we all loved the idea of making it look like a drawing or an illustration and chose to do the animation ‘on 2s,’ as they used to call it back in the days of classic animation,” reveals Michael Greenholt, Animation Director. “If the film is at 24 frames per second, you are holding each drawing for two frames [essentially 12 frames per second]. Working on 2s in a 3D environment with moving cameras is a challenge, and we had to do lots of testing and experimenting to make it look right. If it’s done wrong, characters’ feet might slide on the ground as they walk, or they might seem to jitter as they move.” Having to animate blind and handless characters meant that familiar techniques were not enough. Greenholt comments, “You need to find people with similar challenges and see how they do it. How would Ringo hold the reins of a horse? If Swordfather is blind, you have to show him listening or feeling things. He can’t just be a magical man who happens to know where everything is around him. These sorts of characters keep a scene from being ‘just any old scene.’”
Nuances were essential in making the characters and situations believable. “There was a simple moment where Mizu and Ringo were walking along a narrow, snow-covered ledge,” Greenholt remarks. “We decided to have Mizu’s foot slip a little. It was just a small opportunity to show that she isn’t flawless. And it felt real in the moment and added a little peril to the situation.” Environments were adapted to better integrate the cast. “The characters were animated first, giving the animator freedom to have them walk however they needed to, then footprints were painted into the background later to match where the feet landed,” Greenholt says. Atmospherics have been incorporated into every shot whether it be falling snow or the steam coming off of hot food. “If there was a comprehensive attitude it was, ‘More, please,’” Green adds. “Everything about Blue Eye Samurai trades in elements. We wanted rain or wind or snow in every exterior shot. Smoke or flickering candles for interiors. Texture is everything.”
There is no shortage of sword fighting. “Every action set piece started with a concept on the page,” Green explains. “Even when you’re working with genius stunt directors [like Sunny Sun], it is up to the writer to make sure there is a concept for the action and that the action has a direct effect on character. Not just on story but on character. That’s what keeps action integral and a scene uncuttable. Once we’ve communicated those needs to our team, we stand back and let them be brilliant.” Mizu is driven to the edge of a cliff by the Four Fangs in Episode 102. “The cliff fight was a challenge because we didn’t have fight choreography to use,” Greenholt adds. “Our goal was to give all the characters realistic weight and balance to make these ‘impossible moves’ seem plausible.” In Episode 106, Mizu battles 20 guards at once. “In terms of camera and layout, it was complex because it was such a long shot without cutting,” Wu notes. “Then adding on to the complexity, we threw in the most difficult fight choreography. In the end, we got something that was spectacular!” There are also quiet moments. “In Episode 107, Mizu confides with Swordfather on the cliff,” Wu states. “It’s such a delicately directed scene, and the performances were so beautiful; it really was moving. I want to show the audience that animation isn’t a genre but a medium to tell deep complex characters and rich stories. I can’t wait for people to see that.”