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April 06
2022

ISSUE

Spring 2022

DISCOVERING THE VOICE OF BELLE IN THE VIRTUAL WORLD OF U

By TREVOR HOGG 

Images courtesy of Studio Chizu and GKIDS. 

Jin Kim reinterpreted the freckles on Suzu as a facial tattoo on her avatar Belle.

Jin Kim reinterpreted the freckles on Suzu as a facial tattoo on her avatar Belle. 

Exploring the impact of the Internet has been an ongoing fascination for Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda, beginning with the Digimon franchise onto Summer Wars and now Belle, which transposes the story of Beauty and the Beast into a virtual reality populated by avatars created from the biometrics of their users. Suzu Naito is a 17-year-old high school student traumatized by the childhood drowning of her mother, who rediscovers her singing voice in the virtual realm of U. 

“I’ve been making movies that deal with themes of the Internet for 20 years,” notes Mamoru Hosoda through a translator while attending the Animation is Film Festival in Los Angeles. “When I was making films like Digimon, I had this sense that this Internet was a brand-new world or space where the younger generation could smash the old world and create something new for themselves. Fast forward to today, and the Internet has become a necessity for all of us to live, and because of that, our reality and what exists inside the Internet have become much closer.” 

Unlike in America, where dialogue serves as the basis of the animation, in Japan the voice tracks are recorded afterwards, even with singing playing a major role in the narrative. “I wrote all of the storyboards first, from which the composers were able to create the music,” reveals Hosoda. “Then we animated, tried to lip sync and added the choreography to it.” 

By having the story unfold in reality and the virtual world of U, Hosoda was able to make use of 3D animation for the first time in order to contrast the environments. “It’s interesting that you bring up the three different animation styles,” notes Hosoda. “There is the 2D reality, 3D-generated U and the third one, which is the abstract labyrinth done by a company in Ireland called Cartoon Saloon and directed under the guidance of Tomm Moore [Wolfwalkers].” U was treated as a global melting pot of various cultures. “It’s a megacity and has this vitality where people can come express themselves. In contrast, the rural areas where Suzu comes from are losing their position in this globalized economy.” 

Belle witnesses the destructive side of U inhabitants.

Belle witnesses the destructive side of U inhabitants. 

“We asked the character designers to design their interpretation of both Belle and Dragon/Beast. Ultimately, we settled on Jin’s interpretation of what Belle looks like as probably the best. I recall having a lot of conversations with Jin about what it means between Belle and Suzu, and what appears to be these two extremes are actually the same person deep down.” 

—Mamoru Hosoda, Director 

Initially, U was modeled on the totem structure featured in Summer Wars, but the concept was abandoned. “At the time, the title was called Love Song,” explains Eric Wong, who served as a co-production designer on the project. “We started from a string of a harp, zoom into this world and pan down into the gathering hub. You get this beautiful central line of the equator running right down the middle of the city amongst this sea of skyscrapers and geometric shapes.” CAD program MicroStation made shifting between 2D and 3D sketches possible. “The sketchbook was helpful as it made the time I spent traveling to and from my full-time architectural job the most productive period,” states Wong, “as I was able to plan out the sheets and my ideas of what I was going to do each night.” A dominant visual concept was the idea of a bright night. “We went through various tests that explored changing the size of the moon, the opacity of it and the color of the night sky. Having a 3D model allowed me to adjust the night and the light around it as I pleased.” 

Abstracted puzzle pieces that took the form of screens were the central elements in the construction of the retractable spherical stadium. “I looked at Big Hero 6 as San Fransokyo, which is a portmanteau of San Francisco and Tokyo,” explains Wong. “The advert ring that surrounds the stadium was made straighter, much like the advertisements you get at football stadiums.” Corporate logos and user interfaces were simplified. “Capitalization gets reduced to lowercase lettering,” he says. “Drop shadows and bling get reduced to simple block colors. Text usually gets removed from the drawing and gets placed underneath. 

A major inspiration for Belle is Beauty and the Beast.

A major inspiration for Belle is Beauty and the Beast. 

The crescent-shaped moon creates a ‘u’ within the virtual realm.

The crescent-shaped moon creates a ‘u’ within the virtual realm. 

U is a virtual reality platform which echoes Mamoru Hosada’s belief that the Internet mirrors real life.

U is a virtual reality platform which echoes Mamoru Hosada’s belief that the Internet mirrors real life. 

Avatars of various shapes and sizes populate U.

Avatars of various shapes and sizes populate U. 

Character designs of Ruka Watanabe who serves as the main inspiration for Belle.

Character designs of Ruka Watanabe who serves as the main inspiration for Belle. 

Thin text gets replaced with thicker text.” Even how the app icon appeared on the smartphone had to be considered, Wong reports. “I tested different options of the interface; where it is City Strip U design, the U is along the edge of the outline, or the U touches the top, or be simply in the middle. If it is different, does that mean you interact with it differently? Do you swipe through it? Would the interface be different if you swiped up?” The white ballroom from 2001: A Space Odyssey was an inspiration for the gateway sequence when Suzu transforms into Belle and enters U for the first time. “The walls were removed and replaced with these curtains that Suzu could push through,” describes Wong. 

Several character designers, including Jin Kim (Over the Moon), worked on Belle. “We asked the character designers to design their interpretation of both Belle and Dragon/Beast,” states Hosoda. “Ultimately, we settled on Jin’s interpretation of what Belle looks like as probably the best. I recall having a lot of conversations with Jin about what it means between Belle and Suzu, and what appears to be these two extremes are actually the same person deep down.” Kim kept in mind he was creating an avatar. “She is not real,” states Kim. “I wanted to mix some modern feel and then fantasy. I looked at K-pop artists and opera singers. There is a famous Korean opera singer Sumi Jo. She is a classic singer, and I studied her gestures and attitude. That was the starting point of developing Belle.” Suzu also wants to look like popular classmate Ruka Watanabe. “Suzu wants to be popular amongst the group of friends,” adds Kim. “At the time, there was no design for Ruka in the real world. Director Hosoda wanted the Belle design first and then design Ruka.” 

A climatic moment occurs when Suzu decides to unveil herself inside of U.

A climatic moment occurs when Suzu decides to unveil herself inside of U. 

“[Belle] is not real. I wanted to mix some modern feel and then fantasy. I looked at K-pop artists and opera singers. There is a famous Korean opera singer Sumi Jo. She is a classic singer, and I studied her gestures and attitude. That was the starting point of developing Belle.” 

—Jin Kim, Character Designer 

However, a prominent physical trait of Suzu does appear on Belle. “I didn’t want to do random spots like real freckles, so I designed a cartoon face tattoo, and the director liked it.” Belle is frequently in the presence of whales, which is a favorite visual theme for Hosoda. Comments Kim, “The idea that someone is able to stand on this whale and sing shows that there is something special about Belle.” 

Prep time was minimal for animation. “We shaped our animation style as we created actual shots,” remarks Ryo Horibe, CG Director at Digital Frontier. “For scenes where characters sing, our animators looked at movements of Kaho Nakamura, who voiced Belle, as well as a contemporary dancer, and incorporated them into motions.”American animation was an influence. “Upon hearing the director’s vision, I came up with an idea of combining Japanese animation style [limited animation with 2s and 3s] with full-frame animation like Pixar’s,” remarks Horibe. “We kept body movements closer to Japanese style while incorporating Pixar’s style into facial expressions, especially eye movements. Obviously, we looked at Disney’s classic animation for reference as well. Having Jin Kim as the character designer [of Belle] also inspired us to create this style.” 

Hiroka Betsuyaku and Suzu Naito desperately seek the real identity of the Dragon.

Hiroka Betsuyaku and Suzu Naito desperately seek the real identity of the Dragon. 

Moments of stillness are used for dramatic and comedic effect.

Moments of stillness are used for dramatic and comedic effect. 

A standout comedic moment occurs when Suzu has to intervene on the behalf of embarrassed classmate Ruka Watanabe.

A standout comedic moment occurs when Suzu has to intervene on the behalf of embarrassed classmate Ruka Watanabe. 

Whales are a favorite visual motif for Mamoru Hosoda.

Whales are a favorite visual motif for Mamoru Hosoda.

Suzu attempts to sing after being unveiled to be Belle.

Suzu attempts to sing after being unveiled to be Belle.

It was important to portray the unveiling of Suzu as a painful but beautiful moment.

It was important to portray the unveiling of Suzu as a painful but beautiful moment. 

A lot of focus was placed upon expressing emotion through facial expressions and hand poses. Adds Horibe, “Though we had 3D models as a base, adjustments on facial parts and hand models were necessary, depending on the camera angle of each shot, in order to create a better expression. Also, we employed a system that allowed us to composite background colors and tones without going back to 3D applications, in order to quickly address feedback from the director.” 

“With the opening shot being long, we were careful with camera movements and time distribution,” remarks Horibe. “We also paid extra attention to the layout of buildings and details to make the world of U appear vast and grand.” Cartoon Saloon provided some surreal animation for the scenes taking place on the outskirts of U. “We received a 2D data of BG from Cartoon Saloon,” says Horibe. “We created scenes in 3D based on that data and added motions. In the process, we looked at their works as reference and created motions the design intended.” 

The castle of the Dragon gets destroyed. “For this spectacle scene where the castle burns up in flame,” Horibe explains, “we went through a lot of trial and error trying to find the right balance between frailty, as in a paper-crafted model burning up instantly, and the dynamics of flames as graphics. Flames and smoke were created in 3D, but adjustments were made so they look like 2D as well.” Many scenes required visual effects. “We used water effects for a countless number of avatars, and confetti in the opening sequence as well as for the performance at the theater,” confirms Horibe. “There were also spectacle effects like flames and castle destruction. Every effect needed to be matched with the stylized world of U, instead of being photorealistic, and that was a challenge. Also, we did a crowd simulation for many scenes as we had to place lots of avatars in backgrounds.” 

The performance of Belle was partially modeled on Korean opera singer Sumi Jo.

The performance of Belle was partially modeled on Korean opera singer Sumi Jo.

Effects had to be created for when Suzu unveils herself to be Belle. “Details of the effects used for the unveil scene were not included in storyboards,” states Horibe. “‘Unveil’ reveals someone’s identity, thus it causes some sort of pain. And we needed to portray Suzu’s determination to accept that pain beautifully. Using water current and bubbles as a motif, we were able to create an effect that gives Suzu the power to transform while making a link to her painful memory of her mother drowning in a river.” The climactic scene where Belle sings on top of the whale is linked to the opening scene. “Though her 3D model remains the same, Suzu as a character has grown a lot through the story, and we needed to communicate that through Belle’s singing and facial expressions. With the help of wonderful animators, effect artists and compositors, we were able to make this scene memorable.” Horibe adds, “As you can imagine, Belle was the most time-consuming of all, and her acting and expressions required the most iterations. As for environment, the interior of Dragon’s castle, digital noise effects and the live performance scene at the end took many hours.” 

Moments of stillness and silence are found throughout the movie. “There is this concept in Japanese culture called Ma, which in movie language translates to a gap or negative space,” explains Hosoda. “Through nonmovement you can actually express something. This is also something that you see when Suzu is on the bus and there are a lot of reflections across her face. Had Suzu been acting or moving exactly as the audience thought she would, then it would have taken the audience out of that moment.” That is not to say that there are not any extreme moments, as demonstrated by Suzu’s best friend in real life, Hiroka Betsuyaku, and as her avatar. Comments Hosoda, “The animator did a really good job of expressing that emotion and not wanting to be outperformed by the animation when voice actress Ikuta-san stepped up to the plate to deliver that evil laugh!”

Initially, Kim was not a fan of anime. “One main reason why I wasn’t a big fan of anime was the flow of the movement,” reveals Kim. “I understand that the productions want to save some money, so that’s why they started using limited animation, like using one drawing for a few frames. Hosoda does it cleverly in his movies. For the train station sequence, he used a minimum number of drawings, but the impact was so beautiful. If he used a lot of awkward movements, like in U.S. animation, it wouldn’t have had the same impact. I started to learn those things and began to appreciate anime.” 

Background artwork of the exterior of Suzu’s House.

Background artwork of the exterior of Suzu’s House.

A storyboard of Suzu’s bedroom which explores size and scale.

A storyboard of Suzu’s bedroom which explores size and scale.

Eric Wong made use of abstracted puzzle pieces to construct the spherical stadium.

Eric Wong made use of abstracted puzzle pieces to construct the spherical stadium.


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