Sei Nakashima is an art director with extremely diverse design skills, developed teams of artists with exceptional knowledge, precision and superior aesthetics required in servicing major film studios, agencies, game and theme park clients worldwide. His clients include Square Enix, Dreamworks, Production I.G and Toei. You can see his work in the latest film ‘Seventh Son’. We sit down and talk to him about his job, his creative process, and more. Read below for the full Q&A…
Does Rhythm & Hues Studios ever get compared to Industrial Light & Magic? Both studious do amazing things for movies on the big screen. What kind of things does your studio create that makes you unique?
Sei: It’s hard to compare the two since I’ve never worked at ILM but R&H has been always run in small pap & mom shop style than it is at ILM I think. Creating the at-home environment for free and creative atmosphere was John’s vision. This creative environment include allowing employee to bring their dogs in. This actually became handy when we had to create CGI animals for movies, looking at dogs for fur texture, or study the anatomy, etc.
Having worked in video games, film, and more, how are you able to cross genre’s developing a multi disciplinary skillset? Was it hard at first, or your skills can transcend into other mediums fairly easy?
Sei: Being versatile is always one of my desire as artist. I’m always curious for different type of art. Luckily my young days at R&H there was many different divisions and I was encouraged to hop around and get trained in different departments. At the beginning, I didn’t know how to apply myself to different genres. Sometimes my head spins having to deal with so many styles and tasks day after day. It sure was painful but I somehow learned one of the important skills which is to find the interest in anything. I think the art skills can be picked up at some point in a career but understanding how to keep the passion and interest is very important.
What is your creative process like? Do you start out with a loose sketch and then taking it into PS for a refinement and ending up with a rendering? Or do you work off photography?
Sei: Almost always rough out sketches first. Even in today’s most technically advanced world, I still believed in the traditional medium (drawing), especially for generating initial ideas and concepts. Digital tools such as Photoshop come in handy in the production as we need to revise the imagery so many times. But long ago, I decided to stick with what works for me — the pencil and paper. But when I’m in the digital side, I’m not against using anything at all, even photos and textures. The trick is to be cautious and remain in control of myself. It’s the advantage of being in the digital world that there’s no rules. And for hi-end VFX work I have to use anything I can, to meet the required level of finish.
I found your work on Oblivion Island to be quite extraordinary. You stated that the challenge was ‘How do you adapt Japanese Anime character into CG?’ Visually, you showed us your response to that question, but could you tell us how you initially approached it?
Sei: For years and years this was one of my personal trials. So when I was approached by Production I.G from Japan I sort of knew how I would like to approach it. My approach was to take elements I loved about Japanese Anime then carefully experiment them with visual language that used in Western CG cartoon while maintaining some of the stylization rules of both animation worlds. The key was not to ignore my inner voice in my creative process ie: “is this Western cute or Japanese Kawaii?” I know in the past, some Japanese couldn’t accept some of the U.S generated cute characters. Japan’s sense of KAWAII is very strong yet vague. I could never explain well to someone what’s Kawaii. Kawaii covers so much than ‘cute’. So I ended up mostly depending on my Japanese sensitivity for dimensionalized Anime character on this project.
What is your opinion on animation movies moving away from 2D and traditional drawing and migrating towards CG? Do you feel artists are progressing with technological advances, or loosing the essence of what made early animated movies so great?
Sei: It makes sense for me to go CG animation almost for everyone, but probably not Japan, yet. I think Japanese animation evolved differently than the other Western countries through cel animation. With their particular tradition of Ukiyo-e, etc Anime took a form of using flat planes and not volumes. The Western 2D animation was easily translated in to CGI, because of the way they animated with volume in mind. Flat-plane based Japanese Anime may require some re-wiring in adapting themselves into CGI, especially if they are to keep all the great things and essence they have developed. High-end CGI may not be the only solution for Japanese Anime but in ways it’ll likely to take some time and trials to figure out what’s the best use of tools in the future of Japanese CGI Anime.
Speaking of which, what are some of your favorite Anime films?
Sei: Laputa, Totoro, Gundam, Galaxy Express 999, and Princess Mononoke.
A concept artist should be a team player, able to execute a task given whether he agrees with its directive or not. How are you able to handle situations where you might disagree with the direction a film is going in?
Sei: What I normally do is to try dig deeper into Director’s mind by asking a lot of questions and showing reference materials. By doing so I usually start sensing there’s common ground between his/her vision and mine. But it’s not guaranteed to find it all the time. I’ll then just try throw as many ideas as I can. In this industry more ideas are always better than less. i guess my approach has been to find out how I can plus and make the original idea better, unless director asks me how I would do it. Which I hope it to happen more often.
Do you have any explanation as to why your gecko design for Geico became one of your most popular designs? Can you ever anticipate the popularity of a design?
Sei: To be honest, I had no idea. It’s amazing to see how many people knows and likes this character. I remember it was very smaller job at the beginning. But then it took off. I even wonder why it’s him and was not the other characters I designed. I think the key for the character success is a continuous promotion. I feel like how the agency promote the character is equally if not more important than it is to give a birth to a character sometimes. And also the subtle upgrade and maintenance to keep the character current is also important.
You are making your return to the big screen with the new Jeff Bridges film, ‘Seventh Son’. What can you tell us about this project and was it an overall positive experience?
Sei: This was one of the most unique experience I ever had. The demand was great from all directions pushing VFX to be unique. A lot had happened during a year and half production time but over all it’s all positive. Working closely with VFX Sup to create never seen imagery and creatures was nothing but fun. Creating dragons and massive creatures are something I dreamed whenI was in elementary school. It was also pleasure having to work with such a great team of artist on this, from concept designers to amazing zBrush artists, powerful pre-lighters to incredeblly smart rigging artists, and of course magician-like compositors who puts hundreds of our elements together. Under super tight budget and schedule we were in, I felt like we went to battle but ended up building the huge castle.
Lastly, as an art director what advice can you give to budding creatives out there?
Sei: I’d say know your strength first. Either if it’s the creature design, or environment art, or color and lighting. Then go out and do as many other things that you don’t normally feel comfortable doing on your own. One day this will help to feed you to expand. Have access to traditional medium so that you can keep use your all natural 5 senses by touching medium. Unfortunately digital tool can’t inspire you the same way. Your senses are critical when it comes to creating good art, specially if you want to reach someone’s heart.
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