Like it or not, Studio Ghibli has finally embraced CG with the magical fantasy, “Earwig and the Witch” (GKids), directed by Goro Miyazaki (“From Up on Poppy Hill,” “Tales of Earthsea”), son of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a controversial step, to be sure, departing from Ghibli’s renowned hand-drawn 2D legacy, but Goro found it necessary, both for his artistic independence and for Ghibli’s continued survival during its current downsizing.
“For Studio Ghibli, it’s important for us to constantly try new things, whether it goes down well or not,” said the younger Miyazaki. “It’s not enough just to carry on the legacy of what they have built because it would only be a copy and an inferior version of that even. And, for me, that was to try the first CG movie at the studio. I’ve seen hand-drawn animators, who have huge talent and have done great work outside of Studio Ghibli, [struggle] because of the pressure. So CG was a good way for us and we made this without the huge pressure.”
It was actually his father and producer Toshio Suzuki who first approached Miyazaki about adapting Diana Wynne’s children’s book into a movie. It had been a decade since he last directed “Poppy Hill,” but he was instantly drawn to the simple story of a young orphan named Earwig, who lives with a selfish witch (Bella Yaga) and mercurial, music loving demon (The Mandrake). Earwig was atypical of the familiar Studio Ghibli heroine: she was fearless and outspoken. Plus the dark, British humor appealed to the director, who emphasized a prog rock score (composed by Satoshi Takebe) to go along with the ’70s English vibe.
“What’s wonderful about her is that she’s a child but she’s able to make grownups do as she likes them to do,” he said. “Normally, when you’re an orphan and you’re taken in by a very selfish witch, you’re treated badly, you cry, and try to run away, but in her case, she tries to take advantage of [Bella’s] suspicion and control the witch. I thought this would be an inspiration for kids in real life to stand up for themselves.”
Miyazaki stood up for himself in requiring that “Earwig and the Witch” be animated in CG, and management complied. Miyazaki had already taken a partial CG plunge with the toon-shaded TV series, “Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter” (co-produced by Ghibli). But he saw interesting possibilities for going full CG with this character-driven story with greater realism and more tactile performances. So Ghibli set up a new pipeline and Miyazaki flew under the radar with a small, eager, young team of animators.
However, the elder Miyazaki had one critical note early on: He didn’t understand Earwig, who spends most of the movie playing a subservient Cinderella until she realizes her magical powers of persuasion. “I told him that I did and I think I can portray her,” Miyazaki said. “And from there on, he wasn’t involved at all.” To him, she represented an independent spirit, free to make her own choices and to change minds. “I think it’s probably better that the younger generation do manipulate adults now, in these times,” he added.
As for the challenges of adopting CG without totally abandoning the Ghibli style, Miyazaki said they struggled early on. Earwig looked somewhat like an anime character, but the witch and demon were much more caricatured. “I really wanted to maintain Studio Ghibli’s hand-drawn aesthetic, so I tried to find that balance,” he added. “There’s always an element of deformation that needs to be involved in creating these shapes, so we tried to lean more heavily towards stop-motion.”
In fact, that came as a result of a visit to Ghibli by some Laika members with puppets from “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Ghibli was having a difficult time translating the drawings into 3D models, especially the abundance of bushy, massive hair on the characters. “You lose the force of volume with each strand of hair and the larger than life presence of these characters,” Miyazaki said. “So we were wondering what we should do. [Laika] put a lot of visual work into the puppets, and that was very inspiring.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic has made the film even more relevant, according to Miyazaki: “Here in Japan, because of the pandemic, things have changed so much,” he said. “We see a lot of people being very upset, saying, ‘Why can’t we we live like we used to?’ So this is a story about coping with the circumstances that you are forced into and it may be something that the grownups need more so than children.”