Fully Digital Anime: Spirited Away

Hayao Miyazaki

In 1990s, Japan began incorporating computers into the animation process. The pioneering works such as Ghost in the Shell and Princess Mononoke melded cel animation with computer-generated images. By the late 1990s, many studios had begun drawing cels digitally instead of by hand. The bold announcement of Fuji Films about the halt of cel animation industry sped up the transferring to digital production. Generally there're two approaches of digital animation: 1) computers are used to manipulate hand-drawn images and add appropriate visual and special effects without obliterating the two-dimensional look of the handicraft; and 2) animators draw directly in the computer which transforms 2D images to 3D objects. While Ghibli opts for the former mode, Pixar and Disney prefer the latter. The film Spirited Away was theatrically released in Japan on 20th July, 2001 by distributor Toho, and has become the most commercially successful film in Japanese history, grossing over $289 million around the world. Also successful in audience's rating and criticism, it has been frequently ranked among the greatest films ever made. For example, it was named the second "Best Film of the 21st Century So Far" in 2017 by The New York Times

Miyazaki spoke of his motive for filmmaking in the interview with Animage in May 2001: “We have made Totoro, which was for small children, Laputa, in which a boy sets out on a journey, and Kiki's Delivery Service, in which a teenager has to live with herself. We have not made a film for 10-year-old girls, who are in the first stage of their adolescence……I felt this country only offered such things as crushes and romance to 10-year-old girls, though, and looking at my young friends, I felt this was not what they held dear in their hearts, not what they wanted. And so I wondered if I could make a movie in which they could be heroines…” And the fact that computers could better manipulate images to create impressive scenes saturated with idea and emotion won over the "traditional-animation purist" Miyazaki, after his staff demonstrated to him how they could seamlessly and dazzlingly blend elements through CGI. No longer only using traditional drawing boards, Ghibli has moved towards drawing on computer tablets and editing hand-drawn images on the screen with mouses. 

Production of Spirited Away was launched in 2000 on a budget of $15 million with Disney's investment of 10% of the cost for the right of first refusal for American distribution. Beginning with Princess Mononoke (1997) which was mostly hand-drawn with some use of computer animation in a five-minute footage during the film, Miyazaki and his staff experimented further with digital animation in the new century. As in Studio Ghibli’s previous feature, Isao Takahata’s My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), all drawings, characters and sets were first hand-painted before being digitalized for animation and coloring, which preserved "the feel of traditional animation that humanizes the movie in a way pure digital animation never can". This may explain why Ghibi characters can be distinguished very quickly from Disney's or Pixar's ones. "There're about 150 people presently working here. Within that group, we have three sections using computers for production -- 10 people work on ink and paint, 4 in composition and 7 of us in 3D-CG. We mainly use Silicon Graphics workstations, with over 30 CPUs, including those used as servers. We also use Linux and Mac OS computers." (From the 3D-CG supervisor) With the use of more computer programs such as Softimage (from Microsoft), the staff used the technology carefully to polish the story but not let it overwhelm the show. Each character was firstly hand-drawn with Miyazaki working alongside his animators to check their tasks and progress everyday. According to the crew, the most difficult part in making the film was to reduce its length. At the beginning of the production, Miyazaki realized the screening would be over three hours if he made it all based on his plot. So he had to delete many scenes from the original story, and tried to reduce the "eye-candy" in the film. For example, Miyazaki didn't want the heroine to be such a "pretty girl" as in many shojo (a Japanese word for maidens, teenage girls) manga. As the entire film was processed digitally, the production team "dealt primarily with complicated scenes impossible to create solely by hand, including intense 3D camera work and object animation", and they also had to "work even harder to paint natural-looking backgrounds that could tolerate digital processing". A number of spectacular transformation sequences are achieved by digital means (e.g. A 'stink spirit' with hideous appearance arrives at the bathhouse and then is cleaned by Sen.), while other metamorphic effects in traditional way (e.g. The sootballs become sprites and move coal into the furnace). Finally the installation of computers tremendously helped complete the film in a desirable way prior to the Japanese premiere date.


Lucken, Michael. Imitation and Creativity in Japanese Arts : From Kishida Ryusei to Miyazaki Hayao, Columbia University Press, 2016.

Cavallaro, Dani.The Animé Art of Hayao Miyazaki, McFarland, 2006.