Shinji Aramaki has been working in animation for more than 30 years. In that time he has directed 10 films and worked on countless others. He brings a stunning visual sensibility to the field of 3-D CGI animation, pulling from his background as a mechanical designer. Appledseed Alpha, his latest adaptation of Shirow Masamune’s manga, was released last week. This weekend, Aramaki traveled to San Diego Comic-Con where he spoke with Comics Bulletin critic Chase Magnett.
Note: This interview was conducted with the aid of a translator.

Chase Magnett for Comics Buletin: This is the third adaptation of the Appleseed manga that you have directed. How do you approach adapting Shirow Masamune’s work from the comics medium to an animated film?

Shinji Aramaki: This time I wanted to return to the start of these characters. It goes back to the very first pages of the first volume. It could have been a series, but it is a feature film. We wanted to take a section of the first volume and tell the story of the two characters before they reached Olympus. We wanted to talk about their background and how they started out. Normally, when I get an idea I would take a portion of the manga and, maybe, arrange some elements from different volumes to create the plot which I would discuss with Shirow-san. I would get his comments, then turn it into a script. That is the process I go to arrive at the story.
This time the intent was to really simplify and strip away all of the complex human dramas, landscapes, and characters that are in Olympus and take the characters back to their roots. We now have a new starting point, sort of a reboot, for the franchise.
Magnett: In the process of adapting the original works to film, you’ve chosen to animate the stories, specifically using 3-D CGI animation. What attracts you to this format?
Aramaki: When it comes to 2-D animation, you have the cels ready and the layout and can tell how it’s going to turn out before you get into the final animation. You can see what it will end up as. Not to say it is a simple or easy process, but today it is more easy to anticipate what kind of look and quality it will have. When it comes to CG, you start with rough models, then start to add rough animatics. At the beginning there is no texture. There’s nothing. When you see how it is being made, you really cannot imagine what the final output will be.
It is an incredibly collaborative process, where the creative staff and artists I work with all bring something to the table. So when you get to the final stage where you are rendering and compositing and finally seeing the results, it can be much more than what you ever anticipated. You get an unexpected visual that is beyond your initial imagination. If it doesn’t go well with the staff, then you may end up with something completely different.
I like that process; imagining something in my head and having to try to visualize what the final look will be, then being surprised by it. I enjoy the complex collaboration process very much and like the final outcome. That’s why CG is much more interesting to me than 2-D animation.
Magnett: One thing that I think comes through well in the CG animation is that the designs reveal a lot of personality, specifically the mechs. Beyond your capacity as the director, how involved are you in designing the models for the film?
Aramaki: I am a mechanical designer by trade. That is my origin as an artist. I pay a lot of attention to the visual design of the film, and the look of the film, and how characters and models get designed and are finalized.
For example, when you look at a character like Iris, she looks very different like she is from another world. So when you get to the end and are told that she is a clone, you are able to understand that. There is some type of storytelling that is happening visually, by design. How does Tallus look and what does that imply about him? Even if we don’t get into the storytelling of his background, there’s a lot of storytelling that needs to be conveyed through design. That’s something I pay a lot of attention to.
Storytelling is not just about talking. It’s also about design and looks. I think the film is successful if the design conveys that. That is reflected in the mechanical designs as well.
Magnett: As someone who studies comics and visual design, I think that is clear. The characters personalities are present before they ever speak.
One other interesting design element of the film is the juxtaposition of the natural with the mechanical. Amidst blue skies, desert terrain, and human characters like Deunan, you have mechs and ruined cityscapes. Is there a different approach to designing the two and did you have a specific idea when placing these two subjects side-by-side?
Aramaki: It’s a difficult question, but the biggest visual reference I have when creating these films is the source material. Shirow Masamune is someone that almost stands toe-to-toe with Otomo Katsuhiro who did Akria, when it comes to designing this type of post-apocalyptic landscape and how they actually interact with futuristic elements.
It is a matter of the modern versus the future. By combining them together it shows people the time period and helps people understand and agree it is that time period. It is a very interesting balance to strike. Whenever I create a landscape or visual cue for the film, it is very important for me to return to Shirow Masamune’s original works and see how they balance these elements. It is pretty amazing to think that when he first created the manga, he was able to see the world like that. He makes it clear to people that it is the future, but at the same time it is a modern landscape. It is the work of a genius and I really appreciate it. A lot of that visual balance can be attributed to Masamune’s works.
Magnett: Thank you both so much for your time today.
Aramaki: Absolutely. Thank you.