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Cross Talk with Character Artists

March 29,2010

VGS' Logo

          I would like to begin the crosstalk interview between Character Artists, Effect Artists and Itagaki-san. Hello.
Everyone Hello.
          Let's start with some self introductions.
Harakawa My name's Tomoyuki Harakawa and I'm the leader of the character art team. I make 3D character models, concept art, and manage the work flow and schedule of the team.
Tomoyuki Harakawa (Lead Character Artist)
Representative Titles:
- NINJA GAIDEN 2 (Xbox360 / 2008) Character Artist
- DEAD OR ALIVE Xtreme 2 (Xbox360 / 2006) Item Modeler
- DEAD OR ALIVE 4 (Xbox360 / 2005) Online Lobby Character Artist
(The above are developed and published by Tecmo)
Fujiki I'm Nobuyuki Fujiki. I am in charge of character art. In addition to 3D model creation, I verify various things and make reports.
Nobuyuki Fujiki (Character Artist) : sent from AVANT Inc.
Representative Titles:
- Virtua Fighter 5 (Arcade / 2006) Character Artist
(Developed by Sega)
- Has been involved in high-end character creation for more than ten other titles.
Katakura I'm Katakura and I do character 3D modeling, and concept art.
Taisuke Katakura (Character Artist)
Representative Titles:
- Monster Farm 4 (PS3 / 2003) Character Artist
- Rygar (PS2 / 2002) Character Artist
- Monster Rancher 3 (PS2 / 2001) Background Artist
(The above are developed and published by Tecmo)
- Pachinko Slot (2004~2008)
- Rio Series Background Artist (C)NET CORPORATION (C)TECMO, LTD.
Worked for over 10 other titles as a Background Artist
- Bust a Move Dance Tengoku MIXMIX (PS / 1999) Background Artist (C)METRO/Flame Graphics/FBIJ/Enix
Hiragami I'm Effect Artist Hiragami. I do mostly effects, and sometimes help out with UI art. I did the company logo and name cards.
Daisuke Hiragami (Effect Artist)
Representative Titles:
- NINJA GAIDEN 2 (Xbox 360 / 2008) UI Artist
- NINJA GAIDEN Σ (PS3 / 2007) UI Artist
- DEAD OR ALIVE Paradise (Mobile / 2006) Artist
- Otakara Dungeon (Mobile / 2006) Artist
- Tora no Ana website (Mobile / 2005-2007) WEB design lead
- Moe Sugo (Mobile / 2004) Artist
(The above are developed and published by Tecmo)
          Hiragami-san made the VGS logo?
Hiragami I made it with the art director, Matsui-san.
          With what image in mind was the logo designed?
Hiragami Well, Valhalla in Norse mythology is a sanctum where all the rowdy Vikings long to visit! It's an image of Vikings trying to widen their sphere of activities beyond the raging waves.
Itagaki It's kinda like he and Matsui made something doubled with our thoughts. I really like it.

Cool and Emotional

          How about telling us about working with Itagaki-san? Let's start with Harakawa-san.
Harakawa Itagaki-san left his impression on me when we worked on NINJA GAIDEN 2. I was in charge of the enemy designs.
Itagaki Such as Giant Skelton Fiend(*1).
*1   Giant Skelton Fiend is a boss character in NINJA GAIDEN 2. It swings around and bashes its head against the wall as if no one was around. Official name is "Fiend Gogumagogu".
Harakawa That's right, that just completely changed my impression of Itagaki-san forever.
          How so?
Harakawa Itagaki-san makes the boss action image first in text, then shares it with the staff by the team's site. Then he asked me to draw illustrations for it.
          A picture to fit the image?
Harakawa Yup. And what he wrote is incredibly interesting. I still remember. In the game, Giant Skelton Fiend holds Hayabusa between his teeth and bangs his head against the wall many times. Itagaki-san's description says, "He behaves like a sporty main character who makes a fatal mistake and bangs his head against the gym wall again and again". It reminded me of a typical scene often seen in Japanese sports comics. (laughs)
Everyone (laughs )
Harakawa Like an ill-bred drunk who behaves menacingly and glares around (laughs )
Itagaki Did I write such a thing? (laughs )
Harakawa Yeah, you did. Don't play innocent. (laughs) You wrote Giant Skelton Fiend suddenly comes to his senses after being satisfied from going wild. Then, he looks up the sky. That is exactly the way an ill-natured drunk does". (laughs)
Everyone (giant laughter)
Harakawa He writes things that are not only humorous, but leave a strong image with you. You start feeling like 'I wanna see the next bit so I can draw something for that too!'
          That sounds really fun.
Harakawa When I don't fully grasp the image, Itagaki-san comes up behind me and guides me by acting stuff out. For example, "Hey, Harakawa. A drunken guy walking around menacingly' is like this".
Itagaki Yeah, yeah, you are right. I did that for sure. (laughs)
          Itagaki-san did that himself?!
Harakawa Yeah. Although he had a cool image in my mind, he's actually very emotional. He is dead serious about making something fun, and the process of creation is entertaining in itself.
Itagaki That was fun. (laughs) I made a bet with Okamoto, the producer, to see how many people I could get to laugh with the description, but he just said "just make me the loser and get on with writing it as soon as possible!" (laughs)
Everyone (giant laughter)
Itagaki It's because I have to be satisfied with it before posting it.
          You don't publicize it until it's done?
Itagaki Nah, the specifications have been done already. It's just a matter of description. I have to write something more precise to bring out the image. The entire staff has to see it in their minds to be able to work on it.
Harakawa I spent half the time thinking "Will this really make it into the game?" while drawing these crazy pictures, but in the end almost everything does. 
          That's amazing.
Harakawa Oh yeah, now I remember. Death Megalo Flyer (*2) GigaDeath in English versions) was also awesome. (laughs) We added facial animations (*3) for firing the face motion blast, but you can't see it in the game since you're usually busy dodging it. (laughs)
*2   Death Megalo Flyer is a giant fish with a human face that fires wave motion blasts. Gamers have had their spirits crushed by it. Some staff severely opposed against its naming, saying that the funny words do not exist in English. But, "Death Megalo Flyer" was preserved as an official name for the Japanese version because one guy firmly insisted.
*3   Facial animation is an animation to move the entire face for expressions.
Itagaki That's meaningless. (laughs)
Everyone (laughs)
Harakawa The description said 'Like Munch's Scream expression, changing into Crimson King's Palace Jacket's helpless expression'.
Itagaki Matsui wrote that, not me.
Harakawa Perhaps, I don't think anyone got it but me. (laughs)
          So you work closely with Matsui-san.
Itagaki Harakawa draws concept art under Matsui's direction. While concept artists work on them, they have a 'This enemy should act like this' image in mind. But, when I look at the pictures, new ideas of new gameplay form immediately.
          Concept art brings you new ideas?
Itagaki But if I say "It's more interesting this way", I won't care about their original idea that much, so it's got to be humorous. Otherwise people start saying 'He wants to have everything his own way'. (laughs) I mean humor and laughter are necessary in a work place to make game more fun after all.
Harakawa So an enemy that already has a rocket launcher might escalate into "give him a gatling missile pod that can fire 9 shots'. (laughs)
Itagaki That's right, the more we play with the ingredients, the more it gets interesting. But, that was too much, I guess. It didn't match with the enemies' arrangement.
          Changing it flexibly?
Harakawa Also, one of the more impressive things was that his direction was "super high speed".
          Very fast?
Harakawa He comes to my seat, spends a small time directing me the essence then leaves in an instant.
Itagaki It might seem like that in your seat, but I do that to everyone. (laughs)
Everyone (laughs)
Itagaki But this isn't empty praise or anything, since Harakawa usually takes the least time. He thinks deeply about what I say.
          I see.
Itagaki Yes. That's why I have to give a demonstration for what is hard to figure out such as how 'a badly drunken guy walking around menacingly' and 'suddenly come to one's senses' are like. Things like that.
          You perform those behaviors yourself?
Itagaki Yeah. Because it's the quickest way. (laughs) But, I really loved the Giant Skelton Fiend. So, after all, I drank and had myself motion-captured. You can find my name as a motion actor in the credits. (laughs)
Everyone (giant laughter)

Body Language

          How did Fujiki-san meet with Itagaki-san? I heard you worked on Virtua Fighter.
Fujiki Before I came here, I worked in Sega's AM2 department, and participated around the making of the arcade version of Virtua Fighter 5. I was one of the first designers.
Itagaki I had a chance to drink with him once before coming to VGS. I heard he was in charge of the female characters modeling, but when we drank nothing got through. "Sara looks great this time," I would say, and he would just mechanically reply "something like that."
Everyone (laughs)
Itagaki I thought he's such a person who doesn't put anything into making the characters at first, but then I heard he worked on the male characters instead. (laughs)
          So it was a big misunderstanding. (laughs)
Itagaki So, the VF5 males are all cool, and it just moved onto him coming to work with me.
          So that's how you met.
Itagaki During that drinking occasion, he tackled me.
          He tackled you in the bar?
Itagaki No, on the road.
Everyone (laughs)
Itagaki So I got tackled on the road, and since I was drunk too, we both fell down. But what I heard afterwards, it wasn't really a tackle but... what was it?
Fujiki Body language.
Everyone (laughs)
          So what did you want to tell him with that body language?
Fujiki He was hugging other people with a 'Let's make great games !!' feeling about it, so I wanted to get close to give a 'yes let's!', and we just fell down.
Itagaki You ran towards me! (laughs)
Fujiki I was that excited.
Everyone (laughs)
          You really have that in excess. (laughs) What was your first impression of Itagaki-san?
Fujiki Well, other than hugging him before coming to VGS, he was really charismatic. I also felt really at home then, something like, 'hey, this isn't so bad'. He leads a whole crew of different personalities, and I can see why he's admired so much.
          Thank you very much. Katakura-san, how long have you been working with Itagaki-san?
Katakura I only started working for Itagaki-san since I entered this company.
          What were you doing before that?
Katakura Rygar (*4), under Kanematsu (VGS' CEO), as well as enemy character designs and modeling. 
*4   Rygar is a revival of 1986 arcade game Rygar on the Playstation 2. The beautiful and magnificent worldview and the full orchestra soundtrack recorded by VGS CEO Kanematsu, recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London and Moscow, were much talked about in the industry those days. (Developed and published by Tecmo)
Itagaki He's number one in the world for drawing monsters.
Harakawa That's right. When I first started this job, Katakura-san's art for Rygar sent tingles down my spine. It never made it into the game, but there was a Hydra, a snake from Greece mythology that has nine heads.
          What was it like?
Harakawa When you draw a normal Hydra, there's a snake body with 9 heads branching out at one end. That's the norm. Katakura-san's art is different. Inside the mouth of a giant head of a hairy beast are 9 small beast heads. In those heads are yet smaller heads and 9 of them form 1 snake. Well, if you only take the keywords, it's correct.
          That really is something.
Harakawa My thinking was, it would be really fun to work with someone who can play with his wits like this, although I was still a new to the company then.
Katakura You flatter me.
Harakawa It's in Rygar's settings material book, so anyone who has it should take a look. It's really amazing.
Itagaki It seems Harakawa is explaining everything instead of Katakura. (laughs)
Everyone (laughs)
          This is just something I heard, but Katakura-san seems to be researching upon gravure idols in magazines.
Katakura No, no, I don't do that at all.
Everyone (laughs)
Hiragami Katakura-san often stops by my table to look at the idols and say "that's nice... ", then goes back.
Itagaki That just means you're the one reading "Yanjan" (*5) during work, and he only looked at them over your shoulder. (laughs)
*5   "Yanjan" is the abbreviation of "Young Jump", a weekly comic magazine for young adults published by Shueisha in Japan. The publisher really throws itself into Idol Gravure as well as manga for this magazine and those gravures are featured on its cover and the top pages.
Katakura In actuality, I'm using the time to incorporate it into my work. Character design and modeling and such.
Harakawa It's true.
          It reflects upon your work?
Itagaki By the way, did you know? Gravure comes from "Rotogravure".
Itagaki Yeah. It is a type of printing process for pictures, and since it came to be done for lots of pin-up photos and portraits of pretty girls, the Japanese just call it Gravure.
          So it originated from a printing process, I had no idea. This is educational.
Itagaki I don't mean to apply my whole knowledge here. This is for a translator. Otherwise, he'll have a hard time to translate our words into English.


          By the way, Hiragami-san, you said you got married recently?
Hiragami Yes, I recently got married, and Itagaki-san was the matchmaker.
Itagaki Once, Hiragami and I went drinking. He asked me, "How do I propose...", and I said "Just call her", and I made him pick up the phone.
          While you were drinking?!
Itagaki Yeah. But she didn't pick up the phone since it was pretty late...
Hiragami At 2 am.
Harakawa Of course no one would pick up. (laughs)
Itagaki So he left a proposal message in the inbox.
          You proposed to the answering machine?!
Hiragami Well, I only managed to talk 20~30 seconds. Itagaki-san talked for about 5 minutes.
Everyone (giant laughter)
Itagaki I talked that long to tell her how good he is. (laughs) Hiragami told me he would marry her sooner or later at that time. So, I said "Faster is better, rather than saying such a thing". I also felt she was waiting for his proposal from what I heard from Hiragami.
Hiragami But, proposing to the answering machine isn't normal.
Itagaki Is that so? But, your wife was glad and said she would keep that voice memo forever, right?
Hiragami Yeah, but she said that was automatically deleted one week later due to the AU(*6) phone's function. It was really a "roar of laughter" sort of stuff. (laughs)
*6   AU is a brand name for the mobile phone service provided by KDDI Corporation, one of biggest electric communication companies in Japan. Its domestic share is ranked as No.2 (as of March 2010).
Itagaki No way!!
Everyone (laughs)
Itagaki Well, it seemed like I was managing their relationship in the middle, so I became the matchmaker, taking that occasion as something special for me as well.
          Not just in form, but you really became a matchmaker.
Hiragami That's right.
Itagaki They were going to get married anyway, so I said it would be better to do it early. There's the child raising matter to think of, too.
          I see. Itagaki-san is this frank under normal circumstances as well?
Hiragami Something like that. I play a lot of Mahjong with him.
          Mahjong, eh? It seems to come up a lot in VGS...
Everyone (laughs)
Itagaki Hiragami has become a lot stronger.
Hiragami Thank you. Although I knew the rules before, I never actually sat at the table until I started working here, and have been learning ever since.
Itagaki He's a quick learner. Very agile.
          That's great.
Itagaki That's why his work is fast too. But, once he is done with his work, he starts reading Yanjan.
Everyone (laughs)
Hiragami Sorry. (laughs) I might look like I'm always fooling around to other people.
Itagaki That's why you're misunderstood. I've seen hundreds of developers, and the better you are at your job, the easier it is to be misunderstood.
          I see... this is just something that's been picking at me, but were you specially preparing today's fashion choice?
Everyone (laughs)
Hiragami No, this is my casual wear. It's becoming warmer, so I opened up my chest.
          It's spring, so it's fine to show off?
Hiragami What do you mean?!
Everyone (laughs)

Strong Uniqueness

          What kind of work is everyone involved with usually? Fujiki-san, how about you?
Fujiki I've been doing mainly character concept art and 3D modeling for them. Rather than what I want to express, I create what others want to express in 3D. And when it exceeds the expectation of those around me, it's immensely satisfying.
          You mean working for others is your joy?
Fujiki Yes. I've received great comments from those I work with, and I feel I have left something worthy myself. But in VGS, I feel the "expressing oneself" part is more important.
Itagaki It's a gathering of such people after all.
          How about Hiragami-san?
Hiragami I'm working not just on effects art, but also many other things, and learning from these opportunities. It's very fun being able to challenge different areas, and to work for Itagaki-san, who provides such opportunities, is a great pleasure.
          That's good. How about Katakura-san?
Katakura Well... hm...
          For example, what is on your mind when you make characters?
Itagaki I would like to know too.
Katakura Well, something like... first, I get the attraction of the models and figurines on my table, and raise my motivation... and then... what I think... um...
          ... In other words you don't really think about anything?
Everyone (laughs)
Itagaki Well let's lend a hand here. It's not really about work here. Fujiki is also pretty nervous, and speaking articulately for our web audience is a tough job. But what Katakura just said just makes you want to cut in with "just what do you mean?!" (laughs)
Katakura But, sometimes I really fall into a state of "don't think about it at all". When I think too much, I get fixated on things.
Itagaki Oh, I see.
Katakura When my uniqueness comes out, sometimes it's not good, as I would like to draw as undisturbed as possible.
          Uniqueness is often spoken of in good terms, but it's different for you?
Itagaki No, he wants to say his uniqueness is so strong that if you don't take it away, normal people can't accept what he draws.
Katakura It just comes out.
Harakawa I also think the hardest part of character design is that even though I may think "I did well incorporating the ideas", it may receive bad remarks. The reverse is true too. "There's only 5 minutes till the deadlines, I'll just whip something up" and everyone likes it. Even though I've done this for a long time, it's not something that can be controlled.
          So "undisturbed" is an important element.
Katakura Something like that. For example, the Hydra example from before. There's far too much fixation on making it look like what the artist wants it to be. That's why it wasn't used.
Itagaki This was mentioned in the Background Artist crosstalk as well, but to inject passion in a passionless person is very difficult. The same thing can be told for someone without uniqueness. But when it comes to people with uniqueness, there are many ways such as pulling away something from too much uniqueness and directing it towards another direction.
          I see.
Itagaki When I say it this way, everyone here is overflowing with uniqueness.
          Just like lumps of uniqueness.
Itagaki It's quite something. (laughs) They're humble by mouth, but once they start drawing, it spirals out of control.
Harakawa I would have loved to show you our work.
Itagaki That's for a later time.
          I'll be waiting in anticipation.

Be absolute, not relative

          Well then, a message for those who would work with you from now on.
Harakawa The distinguishing feature of VGS is that each section's bonds and air vents are great. Although others have said this already, character artists need 'good tools'.
Harakawa PC, monitor, application, etc are all cutting edge. Even the development floor illumination is nitpicked to perfection. In other words, artists need to have an environment in which they can realize their full potential.
          We spoke about the lighting before.
Harakawa Yeah, I was very surprised to know Itagaki-san was particular about even color temperature. I would like to see someone use this environment and kick up a storm. "I thought up something real fun" is something he would say without fear, and brings his ideas forward without hesitation.
          But if people like that came wouldn't you be swamped?
Harakawa I already am. (laughs)
Everyone (laughs)
          How about Itagaki-san? Are you swamped by them?
Itagaki No no, it's fun to be with them. It's because fun people create fun stuff, and that is why a person must always have a fun element to him.
          Instead of skill as an artist, one must be fun first?
Harakawa First, someone who's fun as a person would be great. I don't think fun stuff can be created by beating your head with work topics, so it's better to crack jokes while polishing ideas.
Itagaki Yup. That's how many new things could be created.
Katakura The people here are all skilled in their own field, and highly motivated. That's what work is really about. I could feel this way because I have great comrades.
          What about effect artists?
Hiragami Someone who can build upon himself would be good. Someone who has both skill and passion throwing ideas at me to brainstorm would improve both of us immensely. In fact, it would be great to have someone who's more skilled than me come, since I like working as the challenger seeking higher places.
          Building upon each other to reach higher?
Hiragami Something like that. Simply put, if you just work on what you are told, there's nothing fun about it. Effects are made to bring out an extra taste to the one created in other sections, so someone who can bring out overly gorgeous effects would be great. Like what Itagaki-san said about passion, someone who can take control and decrease the amount of "I thought of something this gorgeous".
          I see, understood.
Hiragami That's why someone going off walls would be good. Not just in skill but also as a person.
          Even fashion?
Everyone (laughs)
Hiragami Fashion can be normal. (laughs)
          You're all really unique. (laughs) Lastly, something from Itagaki-san as well please.
Itagaki I personally think passion is a given to everyone. But sometimes people throw that away.
          Throw away?
Itagaki I don't think there are many people who hated drawing when they were still kids. But here in Japan, as they become elementary school students, only their parents praise their drawings, only kids who draw well are praised and they would get comments from others like "what's this trash" or "that's terrible". So as they are discouraged or don't want to show off their shameful side anymore, they stray away from drawing. This applies to everything, even sports.
          I see.
Itagaki As a kid, you loved running. But in a race, rankings are everything and you're ranked as No.1, No.2 or the bottom. So, rather than trying your best to be ranked as the bottom, you start running not seriously and making lame excuse like "I came last on purpose."
          That does sound familiar.
Itagaki How high you can reach, you don't have to know. But if you don't try to slant yourself, and can hold yourself high with "I will become the absolute best of this area", that's what I call "passion".
          I see.
Itagaki I say "Be absolute, not relative", and what I mean is you have to absolutely believe yourself, and I want such people. I believe there are lots of them in this world.
          Someone who can see their absolute self.
Itagaki Don't evaluate yourself. The person in charge of that is me. . You may hear such a cliche often in a Japanese company. But, don't let yourself be misunderstood. It's only a rhetoric used to keep someone obedient. What can you do if you can't believe yourself? It's meaningless if you get disappointed looking up, or you become conceited looking down. But those who can see themselves "as is" and try hard aiming for the top can do anything.
          When I look at you all, I really do feel that people who hold on to their spirits are very strong. Thank you very much for today.
Everyone Thank you very much.

Photo: Ryuga Shinno (C)Itagaki Productions.