Art director Hiromasa Ogura looks back on the process of crafting the 1995 film that would fundamentally alter our visions of the future

Was there a film more influential in bringing anime to western audiences than 1995s Ghost in the Shell? Long before 2017s controversial Hollywood remake, the Japanese cyberpunk classics moody depictions of futuristic urban sprawl were a turning point in how science fiction was depicted on screen.

The man behind much of Ghost in the Shells beautiful, moody aesthetic is Hiromasa Ogura, a veteran art director. Ogura is in Sydney for the Anime Architecture exhibition, a series focusing on the background art of classic anime works. Its one of his rare public appearances; apart from a brief, slightly boozy depiction in anime-about-making-anime Shirobako (Im nothing like that! he laughs), his name is more common among academics and scholars than fans, at least in the west.

The exhibition, which began in Berlin in 2011, took a long time to come together, partly because the artists involved whose work is so often literally behind-the-scenes didnt believe people actually wanted to look at the background artworks separate from the films themselves. It gave me great joy to see them exhibited, Ogura tells Guardian Australia. It wasnt something I really expected when I was first asked to work on this story. Its actually quite moving.

Hiromasa

  • Hiromasa Ogura, art director and background artist. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian.

Drawn to artistic endeavours from a young age, Ogura didnt initially intend to go into working in landscapes. Its more like I was looking for any work at all, and the work that I got was to do with backgrounds, he says, smiling. When I was young, it wasnt like there were a lot of art careers to be had.

One day I saw an ad where they were hoping to get people to do drawing, and I saw anime, so I gave them a call. They basically said, look: what we do are the backgrounds. The scenery. And that was basically the start of it.

Ogura already had a storied career before he came to Ghost in the Shell, having worked on classics like Ninja Scroll and Wings of Honnamise.

Usually the projects that get brought to me are on the basis of stuff Ive already done, he says. When he was introduced to Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii, he was surprised by how much the man simply wanted to explore ideas.

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  • Ghost in the Shell, location scouting in Hong Kong. 35 mm negative prints, 180 240 mm. Photo by Haruhiko Higami.

He would just talk, and talk, and talk, and it got to the point where I thought: this is really peculiar, and this is really interesting it would be worthwhile following through on this just to see what kind of film gets made.

In what has become a standard in anime production, Oshii deployed concept photographers to find real-world locations to serve as inspirations for the backgrounds of his movies.

Oshii liked doing that sort of thing, Ogura says. When we did [1989 film] Patlabor with him, we went around Haneda airport, both the land side and the ocean side, and got as much material as we could.

Another

  • Ghost in the Shell, location scouting in Hong Kong. 35 mm negative prints, 180 240 mm. Location photographer Haruhiko Higami collected shots of Hong Kong over several trips in preparation for the film, shot in monochrome to avoid hampering Oguras choice of colour palette.

As they cruised the waterways that led into Tokyo Bay the waterways are really old, they date back to the shogunate they came across Nihonbashi, a beautiful old stone bridge that sits directly in the shadow of the motorway that runs above the canals.

We didnt see it from any of the normal angles, he says, gesturing animatedly. That sudden change in perspective had a profound influence on the atmosphere of his works: We were down at the water looking up at the bridge, and I remember that as an impactful image, and thats what stayed with me. It left this impression.

The

  • Nihonbashi bridge in Tokyo, Japan. Photo from Alamy.

Hong Kong specifically, the crowded, crumbling Kowloon Walled City, an open-air black market for drugs and electronics before being demolished in 1993 served as the inspiration for the films brutalist, concrete-neon backdrops.

The story of Ghost in the Shell goes from this deteriorating urban landscape towards these high-rise buildings. So we had that in mind based on what we saw in Hong Kong. We really wanted to capture that feel.

Hong

Location

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  • Oguras camera lens misted up after he left an air-conditioned shop for the humid Hong Kong night. The resulting halations inspired the hazy, dream-like lighting of the rain-soaked megacity.

When we made the film, Tokyo didnt have so many high-rises at all. That didnt exist back then, but if you went to Hong Kong … to actually have a visceral image you could work with, you actually had to go there.

Image

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  • These image boards were painted by Ogura in gouache. Oshii pushed for greater visual complexity and detail in the final backgrounds compared to these more painterly compositions.

After concept art comes image boarding, which establishes a films general look and atmosphere. Its here that early sets are designed, while palettes and lighting effects serve as a guide for other artists as they work on more detailed backgrounds later.

Layouts follow: the detailed, accurate drawings for every single shot (called cuts in an animated work) in a scene. They define details such as perspective and camera movements, as well as positions of figures and other moving objects.

[Oshii] wasnt particularly picky about how it was; hed give it to you in vague terms and let you develop it, says Ogura.

#2

  • #2 concept design for Scene 59, cut 5 of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004). Layout artist Takashi Watabe drew meticulously detailed pencil sketches, inventing fictitious yet realistic environments of dazzling complexity.

So youd be working on something, and youd think thats too bright, or too dark, and you would reference it with the other sequences you were working on and youd start to build up something that was consistent, that had a narrative to it, that related to what the director wanted to do.

But if you ask Oshii today [about me], he grins, hell just say That guy, he never listens to anything you tell him!

Traditionally, the final backgrounds are painted in gouache on either paper or transparent celluloid, otherwise known as cels. Cels are physically layered on top of one another to create the illusion of perspective, with the background as a base and the foreground above though over the last two decades, computers have taken over much of this work.

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  • A final background painting for Ghost in the Shell, cut 341, watercolour on paper. The scene in which this piece was used is entirely wordless, the warm tones of the old town contrasting with the harsh blue tones of the new city above (main image).

The greatest change was the arrival of digital, says Ogura. It accelerated at a great rate. It all became digital, pretty much overnight.

Japanese animation studios have historically tended not to consider the actual background images themselves as worthy of display or even of preservation, with boxes and boxes of original drawings and cels filling studio storerooms or occasionally discarded outright.

[Studio] Ghibli were the big exception they have everything, they preserve it, there are pieces of art that the artists themselves cant get to look at anymore because theyve packed it all away so beautifully, says Ogura. But in the most part, its not like that at all.

Stefan Riekeles, the curator of the Anime Architecture exhibition, says many images were only saved because the artists had taken them home for safekeeping. Some were damaged and yellowed from second-hand cigarette smoke, others wrinkled and worn by storage in less-than-ideal conditions. He chalked up the neglect of these pieces to the pervasive attitude at the time that they were only by-products of the real artwork: the final movie.

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