Art Beat

When Satoshi asked me if I’d go to the hospital with him, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. He was so young! My Japanese ability wasn’t even equipped to find out why. I asked him what was wrong and got a series of staccato jigu jago Japanese syllables. It’s easy to get mixed up if the vocabulary isn’t familiar. Shuy? is a tumor. Sh?yu is soy sauce, and I didn’t want to press him for clarification. Meekly, I said I’d be there for him, and tagged along.

“Come on,” he said, “we’ll get a cab!”

In Tokyo, a taxi across town was an incredible indulgence. I began to suspect the worst. Whatever was sending him to the hospital was going to be a big deal, and one that left him happy to splash out, like there was no point in saving his paycheck any more.

We sat in silence as the green car stopped and started through the usual traffic, a slow-moving river of other vehicles, never quite getting up to speed. The driver had a partly finished sudoku on his lap, and a TV on the dash board that sprang to life whenever the wheels stopped moving.

Was Satoshi really dying? He was barely in his thirties, and he looked no worse than usual. He was pale, sure, but that’s what you get when you spend all day in front of a computer in a dark room. Satoshi was one of the whiz kids of the computer revolution. Back when Japanese animation was farming all the colouring and in-betweening to Korea and Taiwan, he’d specialised in computer animation. When gaming money flooded anime in the late 1990s, he’d been there specialising in motion capture. Satoshi did computer effects, and that meant he was one the golden boys of the new generation.

To break the silence, I asked him what he was working on now.

It was just silly things, he said. Background stuff to keep the screen busy while talking heads droned on in the foreground. Not every anime scene could involve wizards throwing thunderbolts and spaceships in dogfights. Sometimes, you just had to have two people explaining bit of plots to each other, and that could get very boring. In the live-action world, you might have a “walk-and-talk” in the style of the West Wing, where boring data-dumps of information could be spruced up by delivering them on the move. But in animation, doing something on the move could end up costing you as much as one of the dogfights. Satoshi explained that if there were just two guys chatting in a scene, his director liked to have something going on in the background to liven things up.

I nodded, and went back to looking out the window.

“The thing is,” Satoshi explained, “the director wants the Professor to explain how the aliens are attacking, but he wants a viewscreen behind him with a few dots and blips on it, you know just to have a bit of motion.”

“Right,” I said, “like a heart monitor.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “a bit of jigu jagu.”

The car pulled up in front of the hospital.

“Hey!” he said brightly. “We’re there!” And with that he was out of the car with sprightly bounce, while I stammered and stuttered and all but threw ten thousand yen at the driver.

“Wait!” I yelled. “This is about zigzags! You’re here for zigzags?” but he was through the double doors and into the brightly lit hospital interior.

I caught up with him somewhere near the cardio-thoracic ward, where he blundered up to the nurse station and assailed a gaggle of petrified girls in pink uniforms.

“Let me through!” he intoned, flashing his Schoolgirl Milky Crisis fan club membership card like it was a police badge. “I’m an animator!”

“Ah yes,” said Pink Lady number one, with the faintest whiff of disdain. “We’ve been expecting you.”

I called Satoshi a series of rude names, but not as loudly as I wanted. There was something about the hospital environment that made me keep it quiet.

“I thought you were ill!” I hissed angrily.

“Dude,” he said, attaching electrodes to his chest. “I’m not ill, I’m working.”

With a flourish, he shoved a connector on his laptop into the heart monitor, and smiled proudly at his handiwork.

On the screen in front of him, a zigzag of bright green life blipped on the screen, followed by another.

Satoshi cackled to himself like a madman.

“Look at that!” he said. “Look at that! 24 frames a second, in real time!”

There was another blip from his heart, recorded in perfect digital format.

“That’s another one! That’s like, 20 minutes of animation time saved!” he giggled.

People like Satoshi are the blessing and the curse of modern anime. They haven’t been reared as artists, which means they never look for the artistic solution to a problem. They cut corners, sometimes with impressive originality, and sometimes to their work’s detriment. Today, I wasn’t sure which category we were looking at, but one thing was certain, Satoshi was compressing entire days of animation time into mere minutes by digitising his own heartbeat.

“Man, this is too slow,” he frowned after a time. “Get me a coffee. No! Get me six coffees!”

I stumbled out of the ward in search of a vending machine. When I came back, struggling with an armful of hot and cold cans, Satoshi was causing a stir. He’d given up waiting for me and was trying to speed up his heart rate by jumping up and down, screaming, and waving his arms.

“Can you get rid of him?” asked Pink Lady. “He’s freaking out my patients.”

Angrily, I silenced Satoshi with a scowl, and told him it was time to go.

“But the zigzags aren’t fast enough yet!” he wailed, breathlessly.

“You’ve got the raw data,” I said. “So take it back to the studio and speed it up.”

He sighed with relief and pulled the electrodes from his chest.

“Dude,” he said. “You’ve got the right mindset for this!”

(from PiQ magazine, June 2008)

2 thoughts on “Art Beat

  1. Fantastic twist, that. Apart from the fact that he nearly gave YOU a coronary out of worry, it’s a pretty nifty piece of lateral thinking! I swear I’ll never look at the Gainax/Shaft cost-cutting art techniques in the same light again…

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