An Interview with Atsuko Miyake, Stop-Motion Animator on JUNK HEAD

Welcome to the world of JUNK HEAD

 JUNK HEAD is a dark, dystopian sci-fi-horror film that alternates between the grotesque and the cute. Told through the medium of stop-motion animation, it presents a unique film world and unforgettable dolls animated to perfection in an experience that has wowed all who have seen it.

Its story is set in the far future at a time when humanity has achieved immortality through gene manipulation, but has lost the ability to procreate. An explorer is sent deep bowels of the Earth to recover genetic information from mutants. His journey across a landscape dank industrial landscape is always gripping due to the dense atmosphere created by moody lighting and highly detailed sets, highly cinematic due to camerawork, editing and animating that conveys thrilling action, and really fun to follow due to the dangerous creatures and demented characters who crash together over the course of the story.

The film is a true indie work in that it is the singular vision of its director, Takahide Hori. He is an interior director by trade but he had a sci-fi story he needed to tell and created an award-winning 30-minute version that attracted attention. Soon after, he quit his job to work as writer, director, editor, actor, (and more – watch the credits) with a small team over the course of seven years to complete the project, everyone creating sets, dolls, and special effects and then animating everything to bring the feature film to the big screen. His team included freelance creatives like stop-motion animator Atsuko Miyake, Ken Makino and Yuji Sugiyama who made props, sets, and worked on technical aspects like using Adobe After Effects to bring to life this unique and twisted animated vision. Once the film was finished, professional translator Emily Balistrieri, a freelance translator who has worked on novels like The Night is Short, Walk on Girl (here’s my review of the film), brought the language of the characters to life with puns and neologisms that fit the world perfectly – probably best seen in the “mashroom” scene where the main character goes on a mushroom hunt for a weird-looking penis-like vegetable growths that crawl around once plucked from their grotesque “beds.”

Atsuko Miyake is animating

Earlier this year, JUNK HEAD became a word-of-mouth hit in Japan where it played to sold-out screenings at mini-theatres for many weeks. It has since been picked up for festival play at the New York Asian Film Festival and Fantasia, and prospects for theatrical releases seem good. I have had the chance to watch the film as part of the New York Asian Film Festival (review here) and now Atsuko Miyake, the film’s stop-motion animator, has generously given me the opportunity of an interview to explain her inspirations, her part in the production, what it was like working on the project for so long, and what she hopes happens next for the world of JUNK HEAD.

Can you explain what inspired you to become a stop-motion animator and what it is like to work as a freelancer?

When I was a child I enjoyed watching a TV programme that showed Sesame Street and Misseri Studio’s short animations for children and other stop-motion films. I was more interested in the stop-motion of moving objects which was shown in between Sesame Streets puppet sections.

I didn’t know that there was a dedicated profession for stop-motion animators, so I didn’t specifically look for a job doing it. I became a freelancer by participating in several different projects individually.

Can you describe what is special about stop-motion?

Unlike 2D animation, there are real sets and puppets that you can touch. We have to make them before shooting. There may be more spatial restrictions than 2D animation and we must battle gravity every time we shoot.

Can you talk about how you create a stop-motion shot?

We use a single-lens reflex camera and a PC which has Dragon Frame, special software for stop-motion animation. We pose the puppets and shoot an image and import it to the computer. JUNK HEAD needed 24 still images to make one second. If you connect those still images and play them, they will appear to move.

There are two main methods of shooting depending upon the position of the camera. One is to shoot from the side and the other is to place an object on glass and shoot from directly above (semi-three-dimensional).

Things that can move should be moved intentionally, and things that should not move should be completely fixed to the set.

I would like to know how you joined this project. How did director Hori pitch it to you and what was your first reaction?

I had heard that director Hori was making JUNK HEAD, and when the 30-minute version was completed in 2013, he had an independent screening at a mini theatre. At that time I went to watch it as an audience member.

Director Hori made the 30-minute version of JUNK HEAD entirely by himself. When the 30-minute version was screened at some film festivals, investors appeared and production began to make it a feature film.

When I heard that JUNK HEAD would be a feature film, I wanted to participate in the production, but I thought I couldn’t because Hori had prepared a male-only sharehouse for his staff. However, due to lack of staff, armature engineer Tetsu Kawamura (website) introduced me to director Hori. I visited the studio and had a test to animate a puppet by making it walk. I passed and started to participate in the project. During my first visit to his studio, I saw that there was a huge set for Valve Village. It was amazing to see such a huge set. It was so finely crafted but not all of the details appear in the camera.

I was supposed to join the project as an animator but there were so few staff members that I had to do other duties such as work as a voice actress, on VFX and sound effects, and even singing the silly ending song, too.

It is an indie movie so you must have had to work on other things. How did you balance working on this movie and on other projects?

I was involved in shooting other projects for a few weeks while shooting JUNK HEAD. While the full animation for JUNK HEAD was recorded to move 24 times per second, the other projects I worked on moved just 10 times per second or 12 times per second, so I was confused because I got used to animating 24 times per second. I went to the JUNK HEAD studio four days a week and did other work three days a week, so I didn’t have any days off while I was participating in JUNK HEAD. I was working from 7am to 10pm at the JUNK HEAD studio, so it was very hard.

JUNK HEAD is a sci-fi stop-motion movie. It’s not common for stop-motion films to be based in the sci-fi genre, right? Are there any examples I should know (apart from The Clangers)?

I think that stop-motion has been used as a special shooting technique in live-action movies, but I can’t think of a movie that is made entirely through stop-motion. However, I think science-fiction and stop-motion go well together.

What are your sci-fi inspiration and what is director Hori’s? I definitely got a Tsutomu Nihei vibe from this.

I don’t really have any particular sci-fi inspirations. I can say that director Hori is a fan of Tsutomu Nihei, and he lent me the whole BLAME! manga while shooting JUNK HEAD. He also showed me the Russian live-action sci-fi movie Kin-dza-dza! (1986) which is his favourite film. I liked it, too.

The landscapes and characters are really, really detailed. So much care and attention has been put into things. Did director Hori ever consider using another medium to tell the story?

It’s difficult to make a big Hollywood -style sci-fi live-action movie in Japan on a budget, but he thought that with stop-motion he could make a film that can be enjoyed enough even in the genre of sci-fi. (I’m quoting this from what director Hori wrote in the pamphlet that accompanied the JUNK HEAD screening)

For him, to make sets and puppets is easier than other mediums like CG or live-action.

Can you talk a little about the production, such as how long it took to build sets?

The largest set in Valve Village took our small team about 6 months to make. The other sets were mostly made by Sugiyama-san, and when all the scenes in Valve Village were completed, they broke Valve Village and used the resulting material to build other sets like, for example, the place where the hero meets Nico for the first time. The main sets and puppets were made on a 1/6 scale and, depending on the scene, like a wide-shot scene, a smaller set was made to make it look wider. For example, the elevator was 1/6 scale and a smaller size was used for wide shots. There were two rooms in the studio to shoot, and while we were shooting other scenes, Sugiyama-san was assembling the set for the next scene in the other room. So, in general, it’s hard to say how long it took to make a set. Some took months, others were made in a few days. We were producing multiple sets and parts at the same time.

How long did it take to make dolls?

It depends upon the characters. The puppets contain armatures with metal joints, and the skin is made out of foam latex. To make one puppet, there is a complicated process: skeleton → clay prototype → plaster mould → foam latex → colouring → decoration (clothes, accessories). The material called foam latex is made by whipping a special liquid into a mould and baking it in an oven, so the process is like a science experiment. Director Hori even made the oven himself. While shooting, if the puppet was damaged, we had to bake another one.

What is the strength of stop-motion that made it the right medium for this film?

I don’t think CG can make a monster have a presence as if it is physically there. It takes a lot of space and money to create a life-size live-action film and I think the atmosphere will change depending upon the cast. I think it was necessary to use stop-motion materials and scales so that Hori could control them in order to faithfully reproduce all of his ideas. All of the characters were animated based on the acting of director Hori.

What was the toughest effect to shoot in the film and what was the most satisfying challenge to overcome?

This is a basic road movie, so there are many walking scenes. Animating walking is sometimes dull, time consuming, and difficult. The most difficult scene was to have multiple characters walk at the same time with their whole body visible. There is a hole in the instep of the puppet’s foot, which is screwed into the set every time the foot lands. It takes about 40 minutes to animate two bodies walking one step at a time.

The scene was shot using a motion control camera. The camera moves each frame, so I had to calculate how the camera would move and how the character would look in the frame. I had to calculate exactly how far the character would move at the IN and OUT points of the camera. If I made a mistake in the calculation, the camera would move forward and the character would be cut out.

There are many great creepy monsters and loveable characters and evocative environments in this film. I particularly loved the landscape and the three idiots that go hunting. What is your favourite scene to animate and what were your favourite scenes and props?

The mashroom shop scene. In the scene, the mashrooms move in a basket. When shooting, fishing line was prepared for each mashroom and the fishing line was attached to Hori’s finger with adhesive so that we could animate it. He couldn’t press the shutter (enter key) to record so I did it.

Basically, everyday scenes were animated by myself but in the final scenes, where there is a fight with a monster, director Hori did the main animation and I assisted him. Because the monster doll was heavy, we had to move it while supporting it.

My favourite prop is the toolbox which the three idiots carry. And the wigs which the main character tries on.

This is the first of a planned trilogy. What do you hope to achieve in the next two films?

Although JUNK HEAD is advertised as the first chapter, it is actually the second chapter in the chronology of the story.

There is JUNK WORLD, which is the first chapter or epilogue, and the story following JUNK HEAD is JUNK END, which will be the last chapter. Director Hori has already written the scenario and storyboard of JUNK WORLD and I have read it. It has a magnificent scale that suggests it may not fit into two hours.

In any case, I hope director Hori can add more staff, have more time, and a bigger budget so that we can work in a better environment with plenty of time for better work hours, like 9:00-17:00.

I have mastered lip-syncing techniques in other projects, so I would like to make use of it at JUNK HEAD. The characters will probably continue to speak their own JUNK HEAD language, though.

Which stop-motion directors inspire you and what are your future goals?

Jan Švankmajer, Břetislav Pojar (Czech), and the Brothers Quay

My future goal is to participate in all of the remaining chapters of JUNK HEAD in a great working environment 😉

My thanks go out to Atsuko Miyake for participating in this interview.

JUNK HEAD plays theatrically at the New York Asian Film Festival 2021 on Saturday Aug 21, 9:45pm at the SVA Theatre!

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