For more than 35 years, Studio Ghibli has enchanted audiences around the globe with meticulously crafted 2D animation. From the storybook vistas of My Neighbor Totoro to the fantastical carnage of Princess Mononoke and the surreal, line-painted style of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, each Ghibli film emphasizes how craft can draw us deeper into a character’s personal journey than even a photographed human face. A Studio Ghibli movie is always an event.
The studio’s new movie, Earwig and the Witch, may also be its riskiest. Directed by Goro Miyazaki (director of Tales from Earthsea, From Up on Poppy Hill), Earwig adapts a novel by British fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, who provided the source material for Ghibli’s 2004 movie Howl’s Moving Castle. Earwig tells the story of a 10-year-old orphanage resident who happens to be a witch’s daughter. When another magical woman, Bella Yaga, adopts her, Earwig’s supernatural origins come to a head. In many ways, the film checks the boxes of Ghibli storytelling traditions, but it’s also the studio’s first film to be completely animated with 3D CG. The pivot was a gamble Goro was willing to bet on to diversify the studio’s output and ensure a future for the company, despite his father Hayao Miyazaki’s reservations over the medium.
With Earwig and the Witch set for North American theatrical release on Feb. 3, with a debut on HBO Max soon after on Feb. 5, Polygon spoke to Goro Miyazaki to discuss Studio Ghibli’s jump to 3D CG, his investment in the style, and what his father ultimately thought of the film.
This interview was conducted through a translator, and has been edited for clarity and concision.
Earwig, the girl at the center of your film, has a rebellious streak. Are you a rebellious guy? Were you that way as a kid? How much do you connect with her?
Goro Miyazaki: No, I wouldn’t say I’m rebellious. I’m a bit unconventional. Contrary? As a kid, I was quite shy and quiet. So I’m not an extrovert, but then I hated when people kind of put me in a box. So, in that sense, I’m rebellious. Here in Japan, in school, back in the day, they had a lot of rules, for hairstyle and what kind of clothes you can wear at school and all that. So when I was in junior high school, I wasn’t bold enough to actually rebel against teachers. But I was always questioning why they had all these rules that we needed to follow. I hated rules that they forced upon us without substantial, proper reason.
Do you feel the same way today?
A part of me still has that. Earwig is taught by Bella Yaga the witch to do some chores. And she asks why she needs to. But [Bella] says, “Shut up, silly girl, you just do what you’re told.” That kind of attitude really upsets me, too. If somebody wants me to do something, I really want them to explain to me why that is necessary. So I can relate to it that way.
In reading about Japanese animation and speaking to directors, I get the sense that artists still don’t value 3D CG animation as much as traditional 2D. Was there any resistance to doing the film at Studio Ghibli? What made this film prime for 3D CG?
I don’t mean to break rules or rebel against the norm of Japanese animation, but there’s a big part of me that wants to try something new. I felt that the original novel had all the right elements for us to make an adaptation, because this being our first 3D CG at Studio Ghibli, we really didn’t want to take on a huge epic story where there were a lot of characters and a lot of different locations and sceneries. As you know, with 3D CG, everything has to go through the modeling process, and we didn’t have the capacity to do that [with a large cast]. This story had a very small number of characters, and then it’s set in a limited, very confined space. It had all the right elements of offers 3D CG.
And then there was the story. The story basically follows the journey of this one girl, and I felt that CG is very good in bringing out a lot of expressions and acting and performances from the characters. So in that sense it was very satisfying for me to to use 3D CG.
Was it a challenge for the Ghibli animators to adapt to the CG technology and style?
So the team, this time, we worked with different studios that already have experience with 3D CG, whether it’s the animation process or the composite or modeling — we have been supporters. But the core team members were all freelancers who we’ve worked with before. So the only staff member here at Studio Ghibli who was involved with Earwig was the head of digital imaging and two people from post-production. The rest of the people at Studio Ghibli were very busy working on Hayao Miyazaki’s new film.
Was there an animation sequence or character model that kept you up at night? Something that was particularly challenging to get just right?
I spent a lot of nights not being able to sleep. [Laughs.] Once again, it really came down to performance, her expressions and showing her emotion. But the workshop that Earwig and the witch spend a lot of time in together making potions and spells, that room we spent a lot of time creating and making it perfect, because I wanted to create a space that was very cluttered and disorganized, but beautiful at the same time.
I’ve heard you say that one of the advantages of 3D CG is that you don’t have to be as meticulous, citing the animation of hair as one relief in the making of this film. How did the style help you in that regard?
Obviously with 3D CG, it’s possible to capture and recreate the hair with each strand, but it kind of loses the appeal and the beauty of the actual character as a three-dimensional form. So I wanted to create more of a character based on what the character designer designed, with the horn-like, curly hair, a sort of larger-than-life character. I didn’t feel that a photorealistic approach often used in 3D CG was fitting for these characters. So rather I looked toward stop-motion animation, with the likes of Studio Laika’s Kubo as a reference.
Are you planning more 3D CG features at Studio Ghibli?
I wish that Studio Ghibli would continue to do both. If I were to take on my next project, it would probably be 3D CG, but Hayao Miyazaki, like with everything he does, he will probably stick with hand-drawn animation. I don’t know how much longer he will continue to do this, but even after him, I don’t think the studio would stop creating hand-drawn animation. So my hope is that we continue both.
Hayao Miyazaki has shown strong feelings about 3D CG animation in the past. Did he have much to say during the making of this film? What did he think of Studio Ghibli’s entry into this style?
I would say, since he didn’t understand much about 3D CG, he didn’t butt in, and he didn’t say anything. So I had a lot of freedom in doing what I wanted to do. He has seen [the finished film] and said it was very interesting. He said that, finally, we were able to make something that is as good as Pixar. I think he felt a little bit of competitiveness or rivalry toward Pixar.