As the Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale film begins its worldwide screenings, our collaborator megax decided to translate some interviews with the key creators on the series. This one relates to the production of the first season and features its Chief Animation Director duo giving plenty of insight into the project, as well as their feelings towards the title.
Chief Animation Director interview
Shingo Adachi & Tetsuya Kawakami
Sword Art Online fascinated Adachi-san and Kawakami-san
– How did you two come to participate in Sword Art Online?
Kawakami: I received the first novel from Aniplex’s producer (Shinichiro) Kashiwada-san who said “We’re going to do this,” and so I read it. Since it was entertaining, I requested “please give me the second volume.” (laughs) I had turned into an ordinary reader.
Adachi: I was busy working on Wagnaria!! / Working!! when I was asked “who do you think would be good to serve as character designer on SAO?” However, after a while, the animation producer (Jin) Katou-san came to me and said “since your name has come up as a candidate, I’d like you to read the novel.” I believe it was on a Sunday night and I was eating at a family restaurant when I started to read it and thought it was good. I continued reading it until morning. My work on Wagnaria!! had completely come to a halt. (laughs) So when I left the restaurant, I called Katou-san and said “It’s good, so please let me work on it.” (laughs)
– What were your impressions of the illustrations drawn by abec?
Adachi: I’d thought that abec-san was an amazingly talented person even before that.
Kawakami: They drew some detailed images, didn’t they? I wondered how we could portray that delicacy in an anime.
– What were some troubles that you encountered while designing the characters for the anime?
Adachi: Probably that the designs themselves had changed.
Kawakami: The illustrations from when the first novel was published and the current novels have evolved a lot when it comes to the designs.
Adachi: I thought a lot about which time period to base the designs on, but abec-san created a set of designs to use for the anime. At first, I thought it would just be designs for clothing that wasn’t used in the illustrations, but he continued to give us designs for things like expressions and such. Since these would be considered the base work, I stayed faithful to the anime groundwork that abec-san drew for the character designs in the Aincrad arc.
– abec-san certainly drew an immense amount of designs for the anime.
Kawakami: It’s unusual for the source material side to send over this many detailed documents. We’re incredibly grateful for their considerable collaboration efforts.
Adachi: There’s a lot of illustrations that don’t show the full body in the novels, so there were a lot of points where I didn’t know the structure of their shoes or skirts. That’s why abec-san’s clothing designs were especially important for SAO. One characteristic of SAO’s clothing are the lines with 2 solid edges and color inserted in-between them. Portraying those in the anime was very difficult. For example, if you pull the camera back and the character becomes very small, those two lines start to come together and you can’t insert any color between them. In the end, we had to go with one line that was colored, but scenes where the camera moved away for a while and the characters move around were hard to depict.
– By the way, which of the requests for your positions (chief animation director or minor character designer) came first Kawakami-san?
Kawakami: Minor character designer. I believe Adachi-san had already joined us by the time we had our training camp.
Adachi: I had joined.
– Training camp?
Kawakami: We had a training camp at the beginning of 2012, the year the first season was scheduled for broadcast. The main staff members were taken to something like the shore of a lone island. (laughs)
Adachi: I drew character designs. Director Ito drew storyboards. Producers Katou-san and Kashiwada-san did something on their laptops. (laughs)
Kawakami: We were really pressed for time, weren’t we? (laughs) It was a 3 day 2 night camp where we wondered if we should sleep or keep working. We stuffed all the character designing process in that camp.
Adachi: We also decided what to do with the anime key visual too. As starters, I drew an image that presented the tragedy and suspense that’s stuffed in the Aincrad arc. It was pulled back more than it is now so you saw everyone’s bodies inserted. But I was told “We want you to draw the characters bigger,” and “We don’t want something sad; we want something with the feeling of ‘We’re going to battle.’” I grumbled “Don’t we have differences in what we imagine the content of SAO being?” (laughs)
Kawakami: We all viewed it differently. (laughs)
Adachi: Eventually, Kawakami-kun proposed an idea “wouldn’t it be nice if we have them coming together feeling like they’re watching his back?”. Everyone discussed it and decided on that. Despite still being busy on Wagnaria!! I couldn’t help myself from drawing it…..
Kawakami: I was disconnected while we were working on episode 1 too. My previous job kept pulling me along. (laughs)
Adachi: It’s really tough to suddenly switch like that. We’re not copy machines. We have to battle with our mental images to make the drawings look good. Of course, thinking about “what does the committee expect of me here” is also important, though I don’t think that’s a completely separate issue.
Kawakami: Everyone tasked with animation can relate.
– By the way, was this the first job that you two worked together on?
Adachi: Wasn’t the training camp the first time we met? I seem to remember you saying something like “Adachi? What kind of small fry is this underling?” when you saw me. (laughs)
Kawakami: Why would I say that?! (laughs)
Adachi: There was no need for you to have been here at all, even in the meetings we had. (laughs)
Kawakami: No, no, what are you saying?! (laughs) Speaking seriously, I drew based off of the copies I saw of Adachi-san’s corrections. He was the chief AD for episodes 1-2, so I used those as a base for my corrections. Since then, I’ve seen him gain popularity and display his strengths. Working with him on SAO was my big chance. While I’m working on Nanana’s Buried Treasure now, I’m still using what was cultivated in me during SAO.
Superior animation directors supported the work for SAO
– What impressions do you recall from the work environment?
Kawakami: It was difficult, but the workload was easily divided amongst many people working around on this show. If you have a bad workflow, there’s constant wasted effort in situations like someone correcting an animator’s drawing, passing it onto the next station, and then them having to re-do everything due to fundamental problems. But for SAO, the Animation Directors, Action ADs, and Chief ADs all performed very well. Since our main animator (Atsushi) Saito-san was given an immense amount of cuts and there were a lot of solid ADs around, the production within the company went smoothly.
– Are there any impressions that you recall where you said “the key animation for this scene is really good”?
Kawakami: (Naoto) Nakamura-san was in charge of the gutsy episodes.
Adachi: He also handled episode 10. I wanted to handle the scene where Kirito and Asuna kiss. (laughs) Also (Masaru) Yonezawa-kun, who handled episode 22, is fast and talented.
Kawakami: He also drew tons of key animation too, nearly 100 cuts.
Adachi: There was an episode of Big Windup where he handled all the key animation.
Kawakami: Also the action ADs, (Takahiro) Shikama-kun and (Ryuuta) Yanagi-kun also gave us good work.
– Each of the action ADs have their own field of work, don’t they?
Adachi: I thought about it a lot, but I think Yanagi-kun suited the effects of magic and light in the ALO arc. He presented immensely elaborate details in the scene in episode 23 where Kirito plunges his sword through.
Kawakami: The pressure that Shikama-kun put on us chief ADs on whether or not to correct drawings was pretty bad. (laughs)
Adachi: They were good. I felt that if we put a strange correction in a scene, it would kill the energy it already had. That’s why I thought that if a sequence deviated from the designs, it would be fine if the face was altered just a little bit. The expressions drawn on the scenes handed to us were so good that I wondered “isn’t this way better?”. I think the moment in episode 2 where Illfang is killed and the battle with Eugene in episode 20 show Shikama-kun’s real abilities. So cool. So amazing.
Kawakami: His explosions were amazing too.
Adachi: Just like a flower. He also handled the scene in episode 22 where Kirito gets skewered, but he made it move so much more dynamically than the storyboards. There’s not many people who could create an atmosphere like he can.
Kawakami: Speaking of talented, that could also apply to episode 8’s AD, (Mai) Yoneyama-san.
– By the way, there’s two chief ADs and two action ADs. Did you foresee how many people you would need?
Adachi: This is a production with action at its core. If we were to do 2 consecutive cour with just one AD, they would get frazzled out, so we switched to 2 ADs for each. We could’ve done this with just one, but we’ll blame the decision on wanting to be healthy and live longer. (laughs)
– As chief ADs, what were some points where you went beyond mere corrections into focusing on bringing out the expressions of the characters?
Kawakami: Kirito’s designs for the ALO arc were completely different. He grew up a bit and became somewhat more mature.
Adachi: Asuna also changed. The Titania Asuna I drew was very good in my opinion. She is pretty popular it seems like, but I don’t know if I can personally say that’s the best I drew of her. (laughs) That doesn’t mean that there weren’t big characteristics in her design though.
– So who is the cutest character in your opinions?
Adachi: If you pressure me to say someone, it’s Suguha.
Kawakami: Same for me.
– Why is she the cutest?
Adachi: Her images are cute, so therefore. (laughs)
Kawakami: She’s somewhat the cutest. It may be simply because I like the short-cut hairstyle on girls.
Adachi: Maybe because she has this cool atmosphere around her. I really like the clothes she wears, but maybe it’s because I don’t have a little sister. (laughs) In the end, I think a character’s appeal is about how kind they are as a person. In SAO, Suguha is the kindest character. She falls for her older brother and realizes that’s a bad idea, so she goes into the game world and finds this person who will make her forget about her older brother, and then he turns out to actually be her older brother. It’s easy to understand how her emotions change. At that point, you realize how superhuman Kirito and Asuna are and how difficult it is for an ordinary person to chase after them.
– Kirito and Asuna appear to be popular among middle and high school students.
Adachi: Because they’re strong. It’s easy to picture them saying “Kirito’s so cool!”
While aware of each other’s episodes, they enjoyed them like a viewer
– Looking back during the production, are there any scenes that still leave an impression on you?
Adachi: I personally can’t look at an episode I handled objectively. (laughs) While it may be “the key animation is really good here,” I’m still thinking “couldn’t we have gone even further?”
Kawakami: I’m comparatively calmer.
Adachi: You’re the kind of person who thinks “Ah, we could do this next time.”
Kawakami: If I didn’t think about that, then wouldn’t this job get boring?
Adachi: On the other hand, I’d say that you handled about half of SAO. I was plainly aware of the episodes that you were in charge of. (laughs)
Kawakami: I was intrigued by the episodes that were in your hands. (laughs)
– What about each other’s episodes did you notice?
Kawakami: Since I couldn’t see the episodes I didn’t handle until they were finished, there wasn’t any difference in me seeing them the first time and the audience seeing them.
Adachi: It was kinda fun in that manner.
Kawakami: Simply, I was mainly interested in the drawings of his episodes. Things like “this Asuna is so cute.”
– You two also drew a lot of promotional illustrations too.
Adachi: I love promotional illustrations.
Kawakami: Before SAO aired, Adachi-san began drawing on a tablet. Because of that, I kept asking him “how do you do this?” when I would go to his desk. (laughs)
Adachi: I said “Eventually, everyone is going to move digitally, so if I have to go sooner or later, I think sooner would be the better choice.” (laughs)
Kawakami: Due to his influence, I also drew the promotional illustrations and designs on a tablet. I was recommended a newer model that had just gone on sale.
Adachi: That version was a new version of the model that I had just bought 3 months earlier, so I was annoyed. I wanted to divert my attention away from it. (laughs) I was a perfect shill for the company that manufactured it. (laughs)
Kawakami: But it was fun trying to draw promotional illustrations with it and learning via trial and error.
Adachi: It is fun. I’ve been working in this industry for over 10 years now, so drawing with pencil on paper doesn’t feel fresh anymore. (laughs) When you switch to a digital environment, you have to learn new ways to draw, so it’s a bit more entertaining that way. There are things that you can’t do, but there are new things you discover as well. It’s fun to add to your list of things you can do and spontaneously draw something. I already don’t want to return to drawing with pencils. Of course, if we were still working on film, I’d draw with a pencil. It’s amazingly inconvenient not to have an undo button. Erasers are annoying. (laughs)
– What is your favorite promotional illustration?
Adachi: I think Kawakami-kun’s first promotional illustration was too cool. I remember saying “Would it be alright if I quit since he can draw better than I can? (laughs)” It was an image of Kirito in the front, Kayaba behind him, and some other characters there too. I really love it.
Kawakami: But when I look at it now myself… (laughs)
Adachi: Well, that’s what anyone who draws thinks when they look back at their old work. (laughs) But when I look at your illustration now, I still think it’s cool.
What is the charm of SAO, which keeps leading to hits?
– SAO has not only become a hit with its novels; it’s also become a hit anime series and has popular games. What do you think its charm is?
Adachi: By the way, Kawakami also drew the illustration on the cover for the Hollow Fragment PS Vita game. It was really cool.
Kawakami: Thank you very much. I appreciate that more than the game being popular. There have been many games like SAO sold to consumers before, so it has to be the charm of the characters. We start with Kirito and Asuna at the beginning, but gradually new characters appear with their own appeal as well.
Adachi: I’m part of the generation that loved Record of Lodoss War, and had experienced fantasy novels prospering. I was somewhat sick of it by then. So when I saw the cover for SAO, I thought “Really? A fantasy novel…” but it was the story of an online game. When I realized that, I thought this could be good.
– So it wasn’t that you expected it to be in the fantasy genre?
Adachi: We think stories in a completely fictional world are a bit hard-to-believe. If you say directly “there exists a fantasy world like this,” you’re also thinking “well, not really.” However, if you say “there is one called ‘Aincrad’ within a videogame called ‘Sword Art Online’”, then that’s something that could really happen if a lot of us played an online game like SAO. Other people are feeling that way as well. You could say that fantasy games are in a resurgence now, but I think they’re a bit different from fantasy games of the past.
Kawakami: If it’s within a game, you have a chance for anyone to relate more, so it’s easy for readers to get hooked into SAO.
Adachi: Bringing the reader into this land was big.
Kawakami: Presenting those game elements in the anime like menus was pretty difficult.
Adachi: SAO’s user interface was the result of trial-and-error. Eventually, we gathered the game consoles our friends had, and imagined what the future of gaming would be 10-20 years. We extracted many things from that discussion like how the menu would be converted into icons so that you wouldn’t need to think about translating it into languages, so for SAO the menu’s first layer is all visual. Since our concept of SAO was not to visualize it into a simple fantasy world from the very start of production, we weren’t picky about having the art boards be in medieval Europe either. Our main point was to make a game world that you could see in the near future. I’m glad that we combined the imagination of game designers and specialists in the visuals we created.
Interview originally published in 『ソードアート・オンライン』ノ全テ, which you can still purchase on Amazon JP and similar stores.
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