A new film from Studio Ghibli is always a cinematic event, but their latest feels even more so: Earwig and the Witch is the first ever CGI movie in the studio’s history.
Despite the new look and feel which bears little resemblance to any films from their past, many of the features you’d find in a traditional Studio Ghibli film are still here – from its good-versus-evil plot to the characters who find magic in the ordinary. It has plenty of other surprises too: not least a character voiced in part by country singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves.
NME caught up with the director of Earwig and the Witch, Gorō Miyazaki, to talk about the studio’s huge change in direction – and what fans can look forward to in the future.
CGI is the way forward…
Moving away from hand-drawn, 2D animation is a monumental change for the Japanese Studio. Indeed, Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki had previously described CGI as “shallow” and even “fake.” His son Gorō says they had to try something new to help ensure the studio’s future. They needed to find a quicker way of making films (the next all hand-drawn Ghibli film is still reportedly three years away, for example).
“I thought that if it was slower than it is now, I would become a grandpa,” Gorō laughs, referring to the painstaking effort it takes to hand-draw their films. “We’re still a very small studio: we’re not as super efficient like those huge Hollywood animation studios… there may be no future for us without [CGI].”
…but they’re watching fan reactions closely
Gorō Miyazaki says the change was a nerve-wracking one – especially for their fans in Japan. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous at all going into CGI, especially here in Japan where people still treasure and love sole animation more than 3D CG,” he says. “They don’t mind watching 3D CG works from overseas productions like Disney or Pixar, but when it comes to the domestic productions, they would much prefer seeing them in animation.
“There was a little bit of trepidation, but we decided to go ahead into new territory: we thought it was important to do something new,” he adds.
New film Earwig and the Witch is classic Ghibli
Despite the move to CGI, Earwig And The Witch has many recognisable features of a traditional Ghibli film. The young female lead character, Earwig (Taylor Henderson), is a fiery young orphan who is forced into a life of domestic drudgery by her new adopted parents – Bela Yaga (Vanessa Marshall), a mean old witch, and the demon-like figure of the Mandrake (Richard E. Grant). Like many Ghibli tales, this is about finding beauty in the everyday: Earwig promises to work as their hired help in return for the witch teaching her all she knows about magic.
The planned theme park remains on schedule
Gorō began his career not as a filmmaker, but as a landscape architect. He switched to filmmaking in 2006, directing Tales From Earthsea and later Up On Poppy Hill and Ghibli’s first series Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter. Now, he’s combining his past and present by working on the design and structure of Ghibli’s new theme park which is set to open next year just outside of Nagoya, Japan. Despite the pandemic, there have been no delays.
“Fortunately it’s not delayed yet but then we don’t know what’s going to happen next year. The plan is to open in 2022 but we can’t predict the future so we’ll have to wait and see,” he says. “We are planning to build the witch’s house that appears in [Earwig and the Witch] and the work room where Earwig is most of the time.”
Hand-drawn animation isn’t dead
Gorō says the project has brought a lot of challenges – not least having to train an entirely new team from scratch in how to use CGI technology. The future, he says, could be a mixture of their old and new working ways to get a balance between the old and new.
“I would say that well after trying 3D CGI here at Studio Ghibli, it was a plus that we found out that we were capable of doing it. When you look at sole animation and 3D animation, obviously they’re two different art forms,” he says. “However, there’s also a lot of similarities; discovering those similarities was also a plus and has paved the way for future projects…. I think we will make both in the future.”
‘Earwig and the Witch’ is out now in UK cinemas