Free! Timeless Medley Roundtable #2: Digital & Background Staff

This is a newly translated roundtable featuring the staff involved with the digital and background portions of Free! Timeless Medley (background art, painting, compositing, 3D animation). It was published in the “This is Who We Are Now!! 2017” book sold alongside tickets to the 2017 KyoAni & Do Event.

“Looking Back at Our Works”

Free! Timeless Medley

Interview 2:

Art Director: Jouji Unoguchi
Color Setting: Yuuka Yoneda
Director of Photography: Kazuya Takao
3D Director: Yuji Shibata

Cool, simple

– First, please tell us about the coloring, compositing, and backgrounds for the Free! TV series as well as High Speed! The Movie.

Yoneda: What started the Free! Series was the company commercial “Swimming” that was aired in March 2013. At that time, the novel that was the original work, “High Speed!” hadn’t gone on sale, so the title’s concept, “charming boys,” was the big appeal. Since Kyoto Animation and Animation Do hadn’t made a title with boys as the protagonists before, it was challenging. I wondered what would be good for the characters’ colors to appeal “cool!” to women. I thought so much about their upper bodies. This would be the first time that there would be so much skin on screen that at first I was completely perplexed what to do. (laughs)
Takao: Creating skin colors is really difficult isn’t it?
Yoneda: I worried so much about skin colors. Not just about the color itself, but how the compositing process would affect that. You also tried many things, didn’t you Takao-san?
Takao: I tried a lot of things to get good muscles. Eventually, I didn’t go with any processing, but only in scenes where I said “here!” (laughs) Also, we were going to change the characters skin colors, weren’t we?
Yoneda: We were going to change them. I had broadly categorized them into “standard,” “fair-skinned,” and “slightly dark” portions. Haruka and Rei were “standard,” Nagisa was “fair-skinned,” and Makoto was slightly dark.
Shibata: Wasn’t Rin fair-skinned?
Yoneda: We wanted to show Rin’s beauty, so we set him as slightly fair-skinned. Originally, we had planned for their skin to gradually get darker, but in the end we went along without changing it at all. Iwatobi has an outdoor pool, so in reality, they’d get considerably tan, wouldn’t they? (laughs)
Takao: The endcard after the final episode aired had a version where they were tan too.
Yoneda: It did. That was director (Hiroko) Utsumi-san’s wish to see them with a tan. (laughs) I thought “let’s give it a try” but after going through the whole season, it was difficult to create that. Of course we want to depict these boys as cool during this title, but I also wanted to carefully show their “beauty” too. If we darkened their shin, it felt like they would have this “wild” impression and more than anything else, I wanted to express the “beauty of youth” that boys have.
Shibata: Were you conscious of colors that women like when you were designing the colors?
Yoneda: I was aware of it to some extent, but the most difficult were their casual clothing. Character designer (Futoshi) Nishya-san would draw such cool clothing, so I took care to make sure I didn’t make it unfashionable with some colors. Also, it was important to fit the character too. For example, Rei shows a refined cleanliness to himself, so I couldn’t choose a shade of color that was too loose for him.
Unoguchi: When we were making the art boards for backgrounds, we first talked about where we should place the series in. After looking at several candidates that were towns outlooking onto the sea, we decided on the one in particular. While considering, we looked at photographs and I thought this town “was a beautiful harbor with a lovely feel to it,” so when I heard it became the model for Free!, I was really happy. Visiting there to do location scouting was quite memorable for me.
Yoneda: When we went to see it, it was such a calm harbor town that I couldn’t imagine that these stylish swimming club members would live there at first. (laughs)
Unoguchi: Whenever I was converting that scenery into drawings, I focused on “making the drawings simple and easy to understand.” This is largely my policy as an art director, but I decided this early to decide how we would proceed during production of any series, not just Free!. As a creator, you gradually start to include more and more in your drawings, so they become a bit complex to draw…..
All: Yes, yes (profoundly nodding)
Unoguchi: For Free!’s backgrounds, I gave simple and easy to understand instructions like “The sky is blue,” “clouds are white,” and “plants are green.”
Yoneda: Certainly whenever I see Free!’s summer blue, I think “Ah, this is Unoguchi-san’s color!”
Unoguchi: It’s an image that anyone can understand because it’s not complex. However, the staff around me kept saying “it’s so difficult for us!” (laughs)
Shibata: They also help make the characters look better on the screen too.
Unoguchi: Right. However, I paid attention not to make them too simple or else it’d appear too lonesome.
Yoneda: With the backgrounds for this series, wasn’t it difficult to convey the distance of the pool? You must have paid attention to the width of the lane ropes.
Takao: Depending on the cut, the pool would seem wide or narrow….. You wanted to depict the scenery differently depending on the emotions of the characters, right?
Unoguchi: That’s right. That type of expression isn’t unusual for anime; older series used it in the past too.  For example, in a baseball from the moment where a pitcher throws a ball until the batter hits it, that distance between them may lengthen or shrink depending on the scene. It’s balancing. I think it’s the same as that type of presentation.
Yoneda: There were portions where it would move around the character or narrow in on them to depict the characters as well.
Unoguchi: Looking back, I think the advice director Utsumi-san gave me for the retakes of art boards was quite unique. Things like “Haruka loves blue, so I want to place blue things here,” or “Makoto likes green, so his room should have a lot of green things.” It was the first time I had gotten advice like that, so it felt fresh.
Yoneda: Utsumi-san thinks about things from the characters’ perspective. When we were creating the colors, I worried a bit about a character having things be the same color, but she said “real people have colors they like and so they’ll have a lot of things that color, so it’s alright.” I feel she pursued the characters feeling like they were actually living when she thought about detailed things like the colors they like.
Unoguchi: She did. I thought it was immensely interesting. She wanted Rin to have a cool image, so his futon was black for example.
Yoneda: Rin was stubbornly black. We used black a lot in the first season because everyone hadn’t opened up their hearts.
Shibata: Wasn’t Samezuka Academy’s jerseys chosen to be black because it matched Rin?
Yoneda: That was a big factor. However, the simple thought of “boys look cool when they wear black” was the reason. We also gradually stressed the depth of black too.

The progress of expression

– So what techniques did you use in Free! Timeless Medley (referred afterwards as “Free! TM”)?
Takao: Since we used a lot of compositing filters for the Free! Series, when editing everything together for “Free! TM”, we had to do a lot of adjustments.
Yoneda: If you look at the finished visuals and compare it to an image that just has coloring on it, they feel completely different. I could understand how many filters were attached to the image during the compositing process.
Shibata: There isn’t any conformity to the compositing process for this title is there?
Takao: It’s Free!, so we’re free to do what we want. (laughs) Director (Eisaku) Kawanam-san is very flexible to our input, so we suggest various things to do.
Yoneda: He is like that. When we propose “we want to do this!,” he’ll often respond “that sounds great!”
Shibata: The light flickering over the screen quickly in the scene where Asahi is looking at the photograph in the OP for “Bond” was Takao-san’s idea. There wasn’t any reason for that instruction, but when he saw the visuals together with the music, he said “wouldn’t it be cool if I inserted some light here?” Ah, I got goosebumps when I saw that in the theatre…….
Takao: I didn’t think that at all! (laughs)
Yoneda: Oh, was that an ad-lib? Your taste is as great as ever Takao-san!
Takao: It’s the most uplifting point in the song, so I put it in thinking “shouldn’t we have something here?” It made me feel good that it fit.
Shibata: The director of High Speed! The Movie, (Yasuhiro) Takemoto-san, stressed reality quite a lot.
Takao: He did. Because of that, we didn’t attach many filters during compositing.
Shibata: When we were making swimmers in 3D, we sought to feel real during High Speed!, so we decreased their speed to half of the speed the swimmers in Free! Swam.
Yoneda: There was no enchanting scene where their goggles and caps are removed as they’re swimming in High Speed!. That type of imagination scene is Free!-ish.

– What types of improvements did you improve on from the TV series for “Free! TM”?
Shibata: Since it’s a film, we were always working to improve the quality.
Takao: As we re-organized several works together, we adjusted the shades and 3D in order to achieve a similar balance  visually. We had to revise nearly all the swimming scenes.
Shibata: Especially the water scenes since the treatment has greatly changed.
Takao: I feel it’s gotten considerably better since the first season of the TV series.
Yoneda: It has. Since there were a lot of scenes where there wasn’t any drawings in the water, it’s truly gotten a lot better since then.
Takao: Whenever someone enters the water and it bends, the water should appear to constrict around the body, right? That type of presentation is difficult, so we worked on it while getting support from the 3D section.
Shibata: We made a bucket where water would stick in 3D and when you composited it from above, it would warp and reflect like real water, but that took quite a lot of time to make. We still challenged ourselves to include 3D water in all of once scene in “Bond.”
Takao: It was a scene where Haruka was swimming in the Iwatobi High School pool by himself.
Shibata: After Amagata-sensei tells everyone “A scout came to see Haruka” he ignores her and goes off swimming. All of the water in that scene is made in 3D and I think it looks gorgeous.
Takao: It was an immense help to the compositing section that you sere able to make 3D water reflect the backgrounds. It would be nice to make everything with that sometime.
Shibata: The scene itself only lasts 3-4 seconds, but it took two hours to extract the data plus another hour to do additional work, so it’s still very challenging to use it in the main series.
Takao: We tried a lot of various processing inside the water, but I wanted to shrink the characters when they were in the water. Naturally, since the key animation would take into consideration reflections and draw them, it became a challenge.
Yoneda: You wanted to go that far…… I just looked at it and innocently thought “so pretty.” (laughs)
Takao: I wanted to at least have the women think it’s “so pretty” so we made the water shine a lot, so it makes me happy to hear you felt that way.
Yoneda: When water drops are sparkling, it makes the characters appear wonderful too.
Takao: It does. “All for the sake of the characters!” (laughs)
Shibata: If I can talk about things that people may not notice and know about, the course ropes also changed too. (laughs) In the TV series, those ropes were drawn by the background staff and the compositing section would adjust them, so they wouldn’t appear to move that much. But in “Free! TM” the course ropes were all 3D, so whenever the surrounding waves would hit them, they would appear to gently sway on the water’s surface.
Takao: Making the ropes in 3D helped bring out the plastic feeling in them too. When they were drawn by the background staff, they had a matte finish impression in spots, so I thought it felt nice to have them made in 3D.
Shibata: We only work on these things that don’t stand out. (laughs)
Takao: I think those techniques are as effective as a body blow. (laughs)
Yoneda: When you accumulate so many of those detailed expressions, the whole image looks so beautiful that I feel it ties together for the audience to admire.
Unoguchi: For backgrounds, I felt High Speed! was the perfect form of them, so when it came time for the new cuts, I wanted to work on them with the intent to get close to those backgrounds in quality.
Takao: I understand. It might be exaggerating to call it the summit, but I wanted to collect everything to that type of quality in the visuals.
Unoguchi: Naturally High Speed! was the culmination of all the experience we had throughout the TV series, so since it was the best work visually, I wanted “Free! TM” to aim towards it.

– At what points did the painting, background, and compositing staff collaborate?
Yoneda: Throughout the series, we worked to match the colors for “water drawn in the background” and “water drawn in the animation.” We didn’t have anything like meetings with the background staff either.
Unoguchi: For backgrounds, we wanted to represent this blue environment that’s unique to pools. Combined with a sense of cleanliness, that blue is a bit scary, isn’t it?
Shibata: I’ve been wondering this for a white, but how do you decide what mix of blue and green to make for the water in the pool?
Unoguchi: It changes depending on the location per sey. I worried “maybe setting a single color would be better,” but I put the Iwatobi Swimming Club pool as emerald green. And then the Samezuka pool was tinted just a little bit with that emerald green. Changing the color of the water in the pool likely made it more of a challenge when creating colors.
Yoneda: It was certainly difficult. In addition to the water colors changing depending on the pool, after the painting was complete, they went through the compositing process. We had to guess how the color would change at that time, so to a certain extent, we couldn’t decide on a color because of that prediction. Thinking about how to unify the colors after the compositing had been done was a challenge.
Takao: In our section too, we tried to process everything without spoiling the colors that the painting section applied, but as we worked, the colors gradually shifted. (laughs) Since we would apply CG to the water to make it rich, it was difficult to adjust things in order to become rich. The 3D section helped us out by providing the CG during the swimming portions.
Shibata: There should be waves behind the characters when they’re swimming, right? Those portions were made with 3D. That was something that could be done by either the compositing or 3D sections, but we were in charge of that. Whenever these “either section could do this” moments came around, we’d play it by ear to decide who handled it. Occasionally I thought “this would go smoother if the compositing section processed it wouldn’t it?” (laughs)
Yoneda: Takao-san mentioned once that “I wish the animators would draw the underwater portions too,” didn’t he? It would have been around the time we worked on Free! -Eternal Summer-.
Takao: Even though you could see the bottom of the pool, there were parts where the underwater part wasn’t drawn at all. We could make the underwater parts ourselves in compositing, but of course it would be a better scene if it was drawn at the animation side. At first there was no cohesion over which section would “draw this and that” like for the reflections, so as production progressed each section collaborated and the way we did things strengthened.
Yoneda: Everything came together with lots of collaboration to make the show.
Takao: I’d like to progress the representation of water even more in the future.
Yoneda: The background section drew the reflections in the water in High Speed!, right?
Unoguchi: That’s right. Like what Takao-san was talking about, we drew the materials that would be used in the reflections of the water. At first we turned over portions of the backgrounds, and intended to use them as reflections, but naturally they didn’t feel right.
Shibata: To make water feel as enchanting as water is, reflections are important.
Takao: Right. When I would consult with Unoguchi-san, he’d say “then there’s no choice but to draw this.”
Shibata: Warping the backgrounds without the materials being drawn is quite difficult isn’t it?
Unoguichi: Painting the backgrounds realistically even to the point of reflection makes the balance on screen feel a bit off for anime. It’s difficult because there’s this uneasy feeling that you don’t usually get. There’s a peculiar balance with anime where you need “an image to lie” to turn out well. Images that “perfectly represent reality” and “would look nice like this” are different. It’s the same case with the beautiful boys and girls that appear in anime too.
Yoneda: There aren’t any people with long legs or big eyes in reality.
Unoguchi: It’s the same for backgrounds. We take the reference material and weave it with “if we did this, then it’d be prettier,” as we draw images.

A Free! expression

– What is something representative of Free! TM for each of your sections?
Takao: Something easy to understand is how we strengthened the CG feeling in compositing. For other titles from our studio, we tried to make CG match the hand-drawn animation so there were many instances where you wouldn’t be able to tell it was CG, but for these films, we had many moments where we tried to make the hand-drawn animation fit to the CG.
Yoneda: What?! Where?
Takao: You’re joking. You didn’t notice?! Wait, where were you looking? (laughs) For example…..(drawing on a board)

When they’re swimming, look at the water that was drawn. We placed it on the CG!
Yoneda: This red line is the sparkling on the character?
Takao: That’s right! If it wasn’t there, then the image would look flat but we place it on CG and process it so that it feels like water is pushing against the character. We didn’t do this for the TV series, but it was a representation that we took from when we worked on High Speed!.
Unoguchi: Also the compositing staff used a displacement map on some materials to make the screen appear to have depth. They used a monochrome composite which makes lighter portions jut outward and darker portion appear to sink inwards.
Yoneda: To have all of that done…..and to have nothing feel off is incredible. It’s at the point where even we’re like “where is that?” here.
Takao: Certainly…. If you look at it from a compositing perspective, even the impression of “that’s surely CG” blends into the title itself incredibly smoothly. Wouldn’t you say the swimming motions were the most detailed Shibata-san?
Shibata: When making the 3D animation, we investigated swimming in lots of ways. I feel like there were some scenes that the 3D swimmers we made surpassed the hand-drawn ones. I think if you just look at them, you wouldn’t be able to tell which ones were hand-drawn.


Yoneda: For colors, the Free! series is characteristic in that the characters stand out in their colors because we hadn’t had a series where the main audience were women before. There were many colors because of the water when painting as well. We had so many questions about “where should we use a double exposure?” or “where should this color be transparent?” because the water is transparent, want then when swimming, especially during the climax scenes, there would be a close-up of the faces and water splashing around them and then their goggles would be transparent and inside them their eyes would be drawn, so we would have to use multiple layers of “water+goggle+eyes.” (laughs) For color designers, we know what the final color should feel like, but when it gets overly complex like those situations, the painting staff would ask “I don’t understand what color I should use here.” Water is truly something in how it gives us so many complexities with colors.
Unoguchi: For backgrounds, we strived for “good efficiency.” We would make easy to understand images because we wouldn’t change the colors too much depending on the scene. We would insert a line in the backgrounds as a sign. By putting those lines in, we would decide on the screen size. That way of drawing backgrounds was unique to Free!.

– What are your impressions now that production on “Free! TM” is completed?
Takao: Director Kawanami-san’s handling of it was good. He had the sense of balance on “where to pick up in the story” that I thought he would have. I think the films were really good at compiling everything together into a singular story.
Yoneda: I heard people audibly crying around me whenever I went to the theatre to see it. It made me very happy to see that our audience was able to enjoy the films.
Unoguchi: I also went to the theatre. I was surprised because at the beginning scene of “Bond” where it shows Haruka and Makoto’s childhood, I could already hear someone crying. But from that alone I could tell again that we had met the expectations of our audience.
Takao: This time I felt satisfied as a director of photography because we were able to deliver improved and prettier visuals because we did a lot of corrections to points that bothered me before.
Shibata: I’m satisfied that we were able to reflect the realistic nature of water with the 3D. We hadn’t tried to pursue this expression of real water before, so I’m glad that we were able to challenge ourselves with these films. I thought the color was also pretty too.
Yoneda: There were many times that what I proposed ended up in the final version, so I was immensely satisfied. I didn’t have much of a nostalgic feeling working on these films since I’ve continually worked on promotional images and such for the Free! series. Personally I’m glad to have depicted Haruka and Makoto’s childhood.
Unoguchi: I felt similarly to Yoneda-san; there wasn’t a spirit of nostalgic so I was able to proceed as usual. However, there were many times where I forgot the rules of the competition-style pools. There’s a lot of detailed regulations like “the lines are drawn 5 meters from the starting position” and “pins are placed to depict every set of meters or so” and I didn’t feel relieved until the very end. Going forward, I want to be continually be careful about the finer details like those.

– Thank you for your time today.

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