Violet Evergarden Roundtable #2: Digital & Background Staff

This is a newly translated roundtable featuring the staff involved with the digital and background portions of Violet Evergarden (background art, painting, compositing, 3D animation). It was published in the “This is Who We Are Now!! 2019” book sold alongside tickets to the 2019 KyoAni & Do Event and sold individually.

“Looking Back at Our Works”

Violet Evergarden series

Interview 2:

Art Director: Mikiko Watanabe
Color Designer: Yuuka Yoneda
Director of Composition: Kohei Funamoto
3D Director: Rin Yamamoto

A “realistic” fictional world

– What did you speak with director (Taichi) Ishidate-san about regarding production on Violet Evergarden?
Yoneda: I think he spoke with each section regarding “realism” in this title.
Watanabe: I agree. It was important for him that “even though this is a fictional world, it shouldn’t be a fantasy world.” While it was important for us to keep that feeling of European life that was present when you read the novels deeply, we also wanted to make it seem like there wouldn’t be any discomfort with super technological portions like “Violet’s hands.”
Yoneda: As means to obtain that, we aimed to depict life and culture realistically with the exception of her hands.
Watanabe: For us drawing the backgrounds, it was important for us to understand our reference materials so that we wouldn’t just make a drawing, but to have form and a lived in feeling inside the backgrounds. To do that, we went to places that (Takaaki) Suzuki-san, the person who created the design template for Violet’s world, told us he used as references. Other than that, the background staff would individually find places and pictures that could be used as references, so we also made use of those pictures as well.
Yoneda: For color design, we spoke about not having colors for the characters and props that would feel anime-ish. When creating anime colors, you want to enchant them with different colors if you have a lot of different characters, but we didn’t do that this time. We thought about unifying the characters for a “realistic” approach.
Funamoto: For compositing, Ishidate-san spoke to me about constructing the visuals with “the feeling of a western painting or TV series” as our objective, but what really solidified our compositing processing was working on the novel commercials. I would listen to what Ishidate-san imagined and then gave my own ideas and our direction for how to process the show hardened together.
Yamamoto: It’s certainly more like a movie presentation without any sparking sensation to it. For us in the 3D section, we concentrated on presenting spectacles from that era like passing-by people, vehicles, and horse-drawn carriages. When we were creating the pedestrians, we didn’t know what kind of clothing that they would wear, so we made them while we researched.
Yoneda: People in that type of world wouldn’t wear belts; suspenders would be the common apparel.
Yamamoto: That’s right. Men wouldn’t have the giant variation of clothes we have today, but they would have a lot of styles of wearing shirts. Sleeves would be damaged, so they’d have to roll up their sleeves, and you could tell the difference in class because those people would wear suits. For women, mostly all of them wore skirts, but having the skirts sway was difficult.

– Was there something unique to Violet that you had to handle?
Watanabe: If there’s something special about Violet that comes to mind easily, it would have to be the “time lapses” where you see background scenery change over time, wouldn’t it?
Funamoto: That is special. Each section collaborated on those. They were characteristic of this title. Live-action and longer videos would have the playback speed rushed at times, but that type of presentation and materials to create time flows aren’t done in anime. You would typically need to create colors that changed that degree, but for Violet, the painting section would create base colors for morning, noon, dusk, and night and the compositing section would complement the colors in-between.
Watanabe: The “moving shadows” presentation was also difficult too. We had to talk together about what would be the most efficient way to create something great together.
Yoneda: If we worked and created just the small details, then it would be about the same amount of work as an entire anime series.
Yamamoto: There were lots of sections where the clouds in the “time lapses” that moved were created in 3D, but it wasn’t that the clouds were drawn and we moved them, the clouds were created from scratch in 3D. It took a lot of time to create the process of “moving clouds from scratch” on our computers, so it was quite the difficult technique….
Yoneda: For coloring, I feel that how we handed reflected light was unique to this title. We would incorporate background color into the painted hand-drawn animation. For example, if a character was around grass, we would include green and if they were in dusk, then we’d reflect orange light on them. There were a lot of cases where we had to go by our senses, especially with the bustling town at noon with the sun shining down. That was quite the challenge. There would be skylight, but since there were a lot of buildings around, we didn’t have a clear “we will reflect this color” decision. So if the cut was a joyful cut, then we’d use a warm color and if it was sad, then we would use a cold color and change it depending on the impression of the scene. We spoke earlier about wanting “realism,” so while we had expressions similar to other titles where we would adjust the colors so that you could see their faces in dark scenes, we wouldn’t forcibly show spots that you couldn’t see in Violet similar to reality. Actually, since we chose colors that were so close to pitch black, was it tough for the compositing staff to process night scenes?
Funamoto: It was tough. As part of the realistic presentation that Ishidate-san wanted to apply to anime, we had to be aware of “how light sources cast shadows in real-life spaces and real darkness.” We had to stay focused on how we used light during compositing.
Watanabe: The light balance between backgrounds and compositing processing was difficult to achieve. Take for example a background with fire in it. Would they adjust the dark portions of that background lighter or would they adjust the bright portions darker…… The backgrounds we drew would be adjusted depending on what made the visuals look better. Achieving that kind of balance for light made this work difficult. Also we had to make sure there wasn’t any uncomfortable feeling matching the characters and props together with the backgrounds.
Yoneda: How to blend the background and characters together was a big topic this time.
Watanabe: When you adjust everything depending on the cut, it adds more work for the next section, but we continued to do that steadily for Violet.
Yamamoto: If it was another title, then we wouldn’t try to blend everything together as much.
Yoneda: For most of our other titles, we could have the characters and props feel a bit floating on top of the background and not blended it, but it was the opposite for Violet. Even with the way we shaded things, we thought about how to be more realistic. With other titles, we would have an overhead light source and round shadows near the bottom of the room inside, but since there would be distinct light sources shown in Violet, we would have distinct shadow directions from those sources. Matching that first with backgrounds and animation was difficult already…..
Watanabe: Even in the same room, the way that light shined inside the room would change as you moved further from the window. As you go towards the center, the effect of light from the window dims while light from above strengthens, so we blend those as needed….
Yoneda: While we would apply backlighting for shadows for characters that would stand next to a window, we wouldn’t apply the same shading to characters further back in the same room nor on the backgrounds for that room. Due to that, we had to create different colors for the same rooms. That’s why Violet had such an immense workload to it.

To shrink the distance between anime and reality

Funamoto: In compositing, we adjust each cut based off the primary lines’ color……… Violet had so many cut that it was difficult for us. And then since there were a lot of lines in each drawing, even if we had one primary line color for the cut after the painting section finished, then the characters would be floating and not blended into the background.
Yoneda: Since there were a lot of lines, there were a lot of contenders for which lines were primary. Also, primary lines are something presented in anime, which went against the realistic approach that we were aiming for. To shrink the distance between anime presentation and reality, you created a special program didn’t you Funamoto-san?
Funamoto: I did. I made a special program just for Violet where we would select the colors of the primary lines and then draw in the surrounding colors into those lines. Character primary lines are usually black or other darker colors, but with Violet, we added additional colors into those lines based on the surrounding colors. In short, you can see the primary lines became more gradated.
Yamamoto: So if Violet’s hair and clothing had black in their primary lines, would you blend those colors in?
Funamoto: We would. All of the cuts in Violet were processed, so there was nothing with the same color as the primary line. Also in cases where “we don’t need to process this portion because it’s a dark color,” we could specify what area to process in that program!
Yoneda: Since we don’t want portions like eyes and such to be processed, we’ll stress other portions like putting skin color into eyelashes to blur them so they’re not visible on cuts where we want to stress those portions where you can see the main lines. It’s truly an amazing program!
Funamoto: Actually, when I showed Ishidate-san how the visuals looked after using this program, he wanted to use it for all the cuts of the show after seeing how well it blended everything to make the characters feel softer.
Yoneda: We also aggressively changed the main line colors scene-by-scene to blend them during painting as well. Of course we didn’t change everything the same; the colors would differ depending on the scene.  However, we had to balance the darkness of the main lines to blend with all the background art. Beside overly bright areas, the main line is clearly visible while by dark areas, the main line appears to float over it, so we were very thankful that it was able to be processed to prevent that weird feeling. For other titles, we would mainly change the line colors for dark scenes, but for Violet, we changed those colors depending where they were at and also depending on how strong the light was even in the same place. That’s why there weren’t any colors that we could call “normal colors.”
Watanabe: That’s the biggest characteristic of this title.
Yoneda: We usually make a color sample sheet to decide what colors to use for the characters to match the backgrounds, but there were a lot of those compared to other titles. It took a lot of time to decide the colors compared to those titles too. That was a lot of work for each episode’s color coordinator; they had to decide colors for each individual cut.

– How was working on Violet for the 3D section?
Yamamoto: What made me go “what?!” at the beginning of production was hearing that they wanted us to make a 3D layout of Liden’s streets. I really thought I had misheard them. (laughs) A simple 3D model would have been good for them, but they needed to know which buildings were placed where, how high the buildings were, and how wide the streets would be as well. That alone was quite difficult…… I had a simple layout map, but I still had to build steps like the three-dimensionality of it from nothing, so it was quite fulfilling to complete it. However, since there’s lots of stories where Violet travels to different places, there’s a lot of towns that appear besides Liden, so the streets of Liden aren’t seen that much. (cries)
Watanabe: 3D backgrounds supervisor (Joji) Unoguchi-san drew some of the location designs for Violet and at the same time, he diligently created materials to be used for 3D backgrounds.
Yamamoto: He didn’t just work on designs; he created a lot of 3D scenery like the steel bridge that appears in the final episode. The structure is complex and conveying the scale of it was quite difficult. Actually, Unoguchi-san also created the forest that the train runs through in the final episode. The 3D section was in charge of the camerawork as the train ran through the forest. There’s hand-drawn background art in the regions where the 3D background isn’t moving, so we used that in cuts where the camera itself moved like when it was chasing the train.

– Violet’s artificial hands appeared 3D as well…..
Yamamoto: Her hands were hand-drawn. Since artificial hands would directly connect to a character’s skin, it would be difficult to link 3D and hand-drawn together….
Funamoto: The reason why they appear to be 3D is because of how humans view light and shadow. Depending on how we see that, we see depth to objects and they appear to be three-dimensional. In compositing, we might be able to attach some type of replicated presentation in our processing to make objects feel three-dimensional ourselves.
Yoneda: Violet’s artificial hands are a very important part of her character’s design, so I wanted them to stand out. For people and clothing, we don’t really create colors that show a difference between light and dark shades of that color, but as there’d be shadowy portions of her hands, we focused on deepening the dark colors and brightening the highlights to bring out that difference and make them feel shiny and three-dimensional.

Inquiring and fixations

– Please tell us various portions of production that your sections focused on.
Yoneda: We paid a lot of attention to showing wear and tear on items and clothing. Because of how characters lived and their economic statuses differ, how they used items would also differ. So we chose colors as we thought about “if this was used for a while until it became old, it would turn this kind of color.” When thinking about how things deteriorate over time, we have an image of things around us that are commonplace, so we don’t normally think that deep about creating colors for those objects, but Violet’s era and world are different than ours, so we had to firmly think about how those people lived in order to choose proper colors. So when we went to investigate older colors, the photographs were in black and white, so we were truly troubled. (laughs) So we looked at antiques and items that still remain here today and created those colors while trying to picture what they would have been like during that time.
Watanabe: Sometimes we would get to see the actual items, but usually we wondered if what we were referencing was made in plastic today or not. (laughs)
Yoneda: That’s true. I was always curious if something actually existed today or not.
Yamamoto: Fundamentally the 3D section would take the designs that (Hiroyuki) Takahashi-san and (Minoru) Oota-san made and make them into 3D models. The typewriter that Oota-san made in great detail was faithfully re-created in 3D. Except for the times where it was close-up on the screen or a “hand-drawn” feeling was wanted, it was mostly 3D when shown in the series. At first, all the close-up cuts were planned to be hand-drawn, but as work progressed and there wasn’t any discomfort seeing the 3D model, the number of cuts that used the 3D model typewriter increased.
Yoneda: We had an actual typewriter in the studio to use as reference.

Yamamoto: That we did. It helped us tremendously. If we didn’t have an actual typewriter nearby when we were making the 3D model, we wouldn’t know a single thing about how it would move. It wasn’t just for the typewriter either; this is a title with lots of items that we don’t use in our daily lives. So we would use antiques like Yoneda-san mentioned as references and went to museums. Also, in other titles we have to do a lot of “subtraction” work, but for Violet, since the amount of detail in the backgrounds and hand-drawn portions was so high, we didn’t decrease any information in 3D. In fact we actively added more. For example, we would make trains, but we would add the touch lines that expressed stains to our 3D model to bring out a feeling that the train was actively being used. I think that was successful.
Watanabe: I spoke about this at the beginning, but for the backgrounds we went to our limit trying to think how to bring out a realistic feeling. I would think about the era I referenced and recall more trash along the side of the street but that wouldn’t be a beautiful background. Violet isn’t a title where I wanted to convey the impression of “that’s a filthy street” to those watching, so while I wanted to keep the realistic era backgrounds for the show, I also paid attention to balancing realism and beauty in how to draw the scenery.
By the way, the backgrounds for Violet weren’t fully drawn digitally; each episode had a mixture of analog and digital backgrounds. This is just our background staff’s stance, but since each tool has its benefits and drawbacks, we don’t limit ourselves to just using normal tools, we feel that it’s good as long as it’ll make the best backgrounds! For Violet, we left it to the staff to decide how to use the tools whether it was using this tool to create something beautiful or to drawing a portion digitally first before using another tool to improve the overall background. Having a wide range of freedom to draw something makes it more fun, so I think having that breadth when working is good. It’s a feeling like “usually we use poster colors when drawing backgrounds, but if you want to use water colors, then that’s okay too!”
Funamoto: Since we aimed for a sense of reality in Violet, we paid attention to how natural phenomenon work. Usually, people can instantly tell if something is off in the representation of light, heat, water, air, or how plants sway. Even if the water surface was slightly off, I’d think “don’t look at the water!” We were immensely attentive to not have that odd sensation when watching it. Also we made sure to not have any visual differences between hand-drawn and CG animation. Hand-drawn animation is on certain frames, so on 2s you see an image for two frames, on 3s you see an image for 3 frames. In compositing we did a similar technique of “dropping” where effects like fire were made to change at the same time the animation changed. However, it wasn’t uniform. There were changes in what was dropped, so I think you may understand better if you watch the video back frame-by-frame. Lampposts for example are very easy to understand. Real flames flicker fast and strong, but if you capture that in animation exactly the same, then it appears to be too fast and looks strange. We wanted to represent that so there wouldn’t be any discomfort when watching them.
Yoneda: It’s a “if you replicate it the same as reality it looks weird” curiosity, isn’t it?
Watanabe: Wasn’t it difficult to find out how it felt uncomfortable when presented in animation?
Funamoto: It was. From the production side, I’d consider it a success if there wasn’t anything that felt odd. Naturally I think people should watch the visuals until they see these small details!

– Please tell us some stories during production that remain with you.
Yamamoto: Speaking of memories….. We made horses in 3D, but we couldn’t get their heads to turn. However, midway through production we had grass-eating horses appear. I was flustered, “what?! Eating grass?!” After all, it’s not as simple as “make a 3D model and then move it,” it takes quite the effort to arrange how to move it. If we moved the original models we made, then the curve of the head would look quite strange…… To think moving the head of a horse would be that difficult…..
Yoneda: For painting, I remember making a lot of colors for the 3D people around Liden.
Yamamoto: I made parts for the 3D model of hair, upper bodies, and lower bodies, and then handed them off to Yoneda-san. “Please take care of the colors!”
Yoneda: I recall even designing colors for horses too. (laughs)
Yamamoto: That’s right, I remember that. For horses as well you designed the colors, but we said “we can’t use this color here, please choose another one.”
Yoneda: You did say that. With horses you requested something like “generally use light brown, but in the city, please use colors on the extremes like white or black.” I created colors for many different variations of 3D vehicles for other titles, but this was the reverse where I was requested to “please give us many variations of white and black colors.” However, it feels weird to not have any vehicles with color, so I did have some that had colors to stand out. Colors themselves help preserve the scenery as well.
Yamamoto: That’s right. It makes it feel like everyone uses different colors in how they dress and how they live.
Watanabe: How to represent light was incredibly difficult during work on backgrounds. This was linked with the compositing process, so even when we had light coming in from the left side of the screen, they would insert lighting from the opposite side and we’d talk about “which source of light should take priority?” when there wasn’t a mistake on either side. We mentioned earlier about “it’s fine as long as it makes the visuals beautiful,” but whenever I saw the completed visuals, I would think “next let’s do it like this!”
Funamoto: When you’re making visuals, and when you’re able to spend the day finishing one set of materials, you try a lot of different things wondering if it would improve the presentation or not.
Yoneda: In that sense, Violet had a lot of re-takes.
Funamoto: Actually, after we had finished the visuals for the various world premieres of Violet, there were some points where I thought “wouldn’t it be better if we composited it like this?” so I prepared some sample footage how I wanted and talked with Ishidate-san about it, and we re-composited all the cuts that we had made prior to that. There was some delayed compositing processing as well. I was tinkering with whether something would look better or not up until around episode 5, so we had to re-do the compositing in a limited amount of time. That’s how much Violet Evergarden is a title filled with fixations.

– Thank you for your time today.

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