If you’re in the mood for obsessively precise character acting, we’re here to offer the translation of a long roundtable with A Silent Voice’s director Naoko Yamada and some of the individuals who commanded the movie’s animation production, where they reveal many details about its making.
Director: Naoko Yamada
Character Designer: Futoshi Nishiya
Prop Designer: Seiichi Akitake
Key Animator: Tatsuya Satou
Interview originally published within KyoAni’s 2017 Watashitachi wa, Ima!! books, which are sadly no longer on sale. Translated by megax and checked by bitmap.
A larger canvas and animation trickery
— This is the first time you’ve kicked off a theatrical project as a standalone movie, as opposed to as a continuation of a TV series. Did that lead to any differences?
Satou: This is just my personal opinion, but I don’t think there are any big differences between making a TV series and a movie. It’s not a simpler process because it’s a TV series; the desired quality of the drawings is about the same.
Yamada: There’s almost no difference in the quality between movies and TV series. I think you’ll agree if you watch Sound! Euphonium 2, which was broadcast right after A Silent Voice premiered.
Satou: While the physical workload didn’t change, there were places where I felt I had to give it my all for the drawings, seeing how A Silent Voice was based off of a manga.
Yamada: There are a lot of fans who really love the manga, so we worked on this film with the feeling that we couldn’t betray their expectations.
— I heard there’s a difference in paper size for films compared to TV productions.
Nishiya: That’s right. It’s our biggest size to date: B4 (257 mm x 364 mm).
Akitake: At first I was like, “B4 paper sure is big…” But as we started working, we all got used to it.
Yamada: I remember when we switched to a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio, we started drawing on A4 paper. After that, it got a little bigger, but the switch to A4 alone felt as vast as wandering through the desert.
Satou: To the point where it’s difficult to flip the pages in your hands because they’re so big. (laughs)
Yamada: I was like, “I can’t do this! They’re too heavy!” And then this time we went even larger, so I’m sure it must have been difficult for the animators. But I was thankful for the extra space at the bottom, in terms of camerawork.
Akitake: Everyone on staff was kind enough to draw all the way to the bottom of the page, even though these are the portions that wouldn’t be shown on-screen.
Yamada: Usually during retakes, when you want to shift the camera down a bit, the conversation ends with, “there’s nothing drawn below here, we can’t move it any lower!” It was a big help that we could freely make corrections this time, because everyone had done this work.
Nishiya: Speaking of parts with a lot of drawn details, the elementary school scenes that Satou was in charge of were particularly difficult, but I was left impressed with the great job he did.
Satou: There was a lot to draw for the classroom for that part, as well as a lot of people on screen, so it was quite difficult to be honest. (laughs) But with everyone’s help, I was able to see it through to the end.
Yamada: In order to bring out the feeling of clutteredness in the classroom, we went through some trial and error adjusting the positions of the desks for some visual trickery.
Satou: I was asked to correct the layouts as well, which were originally in 3D.
Nishiya: They were marvelous layouts.
Satou: We were working with a fairly realistic space in order for each cut to have drawings with satisfying layouts. So I was filled with doubts as to whether it was really all right to change so much from the 3D.
Yamada: But I think that sort of trickery is essential when laying out a scene. It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at the 3D layouts and thinking of it as the absolute source of truth, regardless of whether that’s the right choice at an artistic level. But you didn’t stop there, and thought beyond that while making your corrections.
Akitake: For the full view of the classroom, all of the classmates had to be drawn, as well as giving them detailed gestures, and drawing the surrounding props on their desks too. So the layouts alone took about a day to draw.
Yamada: On top of that, we actually had not one but three different kinds of desks for this movie. There were the cel-painted desks, the harmony* desks, and then the Ogawa desks.
* Harmony: Process in which the outlines are drawn in an animation layer, but the coloring is done in a background one.
— What kind of desk is the Ogawa desk?
Yamada: If you were to follow the animation pipeline to draw the tables, they’d end up looking smooth at the painting stage, and you’d lose the wooden feeling somewhat. After some thought as to how to convey this additional visual information, unit director (Taichi) Ogawa suggested having the background art team paint over their surfaces. With that, we ended up adopting this process of cel harmony, where we combine hand-drawn outlines for the desks with surfaces painted by the background team. It requires both the efforts of the animation and art pipelines, which means it’s a more laborious process than usual, but we made use of it on a per-cut basis.
Akitake: For cuts where the camera came close to the desks, we would use this special harmony processing, which got nicknamed Ogawa desk.
Delicacy expressed in the lines
— How did you decide how to draw the characters and props?
Nishiya: We wanted to keep them fundamentally simple. We had set out to draw simple and delicate expressions, but as the production went on, we found ourselves gradually adding more and more lines.
Satou: Nishiya added a considerable amount of lines in his corrections as chief animation director.
Yamada: Rather than additional lines, it felt like there were more strokes—like increasing stroke counts for kanji.
Satou: We would go out of our way to break up lines here and there. It’s the kind of attention to detail that was unique to A Silent Voice.
Yamada: I thought it turned out to be really effective. Breaking up the lines like that is a distinctive trait of Nishiya’s art to begin with.
Nishiya: I wanted to have as much control over the lines as possible, but it turned out to be difficult. The norm for anime is to have solid lines, so we had to tell the key animators that certain lines should not connect. And since the in-betweens have these disconnected gaps, we also had to add in lines in colored pencil to ease digital painting. So it was a labor-intensive animation process.
Yamada: Changing the topic a bit, the cut at the beginning of the film with the three boys carrying flowers has amazing destructive energy.
Nishiya: Satou, you were in charge of that cut, right?
Satou: Yes, that was me.
Yamada: I remember opening the cut envelope and almost yelling from the emotion. The power of those drawings is so magnificent. There’s a sense of trust I get in having Satou as a part of the chief animation staff—a feeling that we made the right decision. Even with just a bit of explanation for the direction in the storyboards, Satou’s key animation always comes back just the way I envisioned it. The cut of Shouya hanging from the balcony and pulling up Shouko by the arm is also magnificent.
Nishiya: Yes, that one’s great.
Yamada: You only see Shouya’s arm, but there’s a real sense of weight there and you can really tell how much he’s struggling to hold her up.
Satou: The key animators for that scene did real-life reenactments by laying some desks down on the ground and taking the same position as Shouya. I thought my abs were going to tear just from supporting my own body weight, never mind pulling up someone else. (laughs)
Nishiya: Do you always act out scenes like that?
Satou: For times where I wouldn’t know how to draw it otherwise, I make sure by acting it out myself.
Yamada: Animation is an accumulation of different actions, so you can tell right away when someone has paid close attention to that sort of thing. I was thrilled to see that was the case here in such an important scene. In terms of the workload, it was delicate animation after animation, so I imagine there was some frustration on the part of the people actually drawing everything.
Satou: I felt I needed to preserve that ever so important delicacy in the artwork for A Silent Voice.
Yamada: Looking over Satou’s key animation corrections, even the most energetic of drawings were filled with steady, strict corrections. As a result, we were able to achieve what became a characteristic look for the film, but I wonder if it didn’t cause any conflict among the key animation staff.
Satou: The storyboards were drawn very precisely and delicately, so I wanted to keep that aspect.
Nishiya: I think without those drawings in the storyboards, we would not have reached the level of perfection that we did.
Satou: Even from the storyboarding stage, I could tell how much passion was going into this film.
Yamada: From a directorial perspective, I couldn’t be more grateful that the ambience of the work was preserved, but at the same time I worry that I ended up suppressing the excitement that comes from having free rein as animators.
Satou: In that regard, Nagatsuka was the one character who we could have some fun with in terms of the art style. I remember thinking, “Please let me get some cuts with Nagatsuka!“
Yamada: Nagatsuka sure is popular! (laughs) I feel like Sahara is the kind of character that you end up wanting to draw as well. I don’t think we as a studio have characters with that kind of design or body shape too often.
Nishiya: Now that you mention it, our works have a fair amount of shapely girls, but Sahara is very slender.
Akitake: While they follow the manga’s drawings, these truly became Nishiya’s designs. Shouko’s was difficult. She seems to have a simple design, but it’s surprisingly hard drawing her on model.
Yamada: Getting the right balance for Shouko seems like it would be hard.
Nishiya: I finally felt like I had gotten it down myself with the final cut with everyone smiling. Up until then, it was all trial and error. (laughs) That one is my best shot.
Akitake: As for the props, the manga draws them in great detail, and they serve the realism and lived-in feel of the work as a whole, so I wanted to stick as close to that philosophy as possible. There were parts that we weren’t sure would be finished in time, and I ended up having to add corrections even after the painting process. Other than that, I also made sure that they made sense with the characters, and wouldn’t feel out of place. There are a lot of fine details drawn in as well, like Yuzuru’s camera which is carefully drawn down to the thinnest lines, even though you can’t make out most of it once it’s painted black.
Yamada: But it’s because those lines are there that it pops out at you.
Akitake: Without those lines, it would feel like there’s something missing, so I learned the importance of properly drawing everything in. There are times where you need those detailed lines as well, depending on how close the shot is.
Satou: It was difficult since Yuzuru’s always carrying it around with her.
Nishiya: It ended up being quite the number of drawings.
Yamada: I thought Akitake must have had a rough time as the prop designer. Though, that reminds me of the time I looked over one of his prop design sheets for writing utensils, and I saw a marker pen labeled Ackie. That’s when I thought he was gonna be fine—Ackie must have come from Akitake after all. (laughs)
Nishiya: I had no idea there was a playful nod like that hidden in there.
Yamada: Since he took the time to put in something like that, I knew that he must be enjoying his work, rough as it may be.
Akitake: That’s right. I thought that I might as well have some fun.
Yamada: I thought it was a really nice touch to bring out Shouya’s punk kid side and give him a utility knife and a chisel in his elementary school pencil case. I remember learning how to sharpen a pencil with a knife in class.
Satou: What kind of elementary school did you attend, Yamada?
Yamada: Huh? I’m totally serious! Is this what they call regional cultural differences?! (laughs)
Subtle movements and charming characters
— It must have been a big challenge to handle sign language in the animation of A Silent Voice. What was it like working with that?
Satou: We had a sign language supervisor check over the animation for the sign language, which was a valuable learning experience.
Akitake: I wasn’t responsible for too many sign language cuts, but the key animators on those cuts really struggled with it. Even after trying to copy the reference videos, the sign language supervisor would return their cuts after checking over them, so I hear it was quite difficult.
Nishiya: There are cases where the slightest difference changes the meaning of what’s being said, so I learned just how subtle and complex the hand movements of sign language really were.
Satou: This was bound to happen, but the timing for a movement to feel good as a piece of animation is different from the timing in actual sign language, so bringing those two together was very tough. There were times when you’d get conflicting directions from the animation staff and the sign language supervisor as well.
Yamada: For those who use sign language on an everyday basis, this is their primary means of communication, so even very slight hand movements will look like absolutely different words.
Satou: We needed to get rid of some of the mannerisms you see in anime.
Yamada: From an artistic perspective, having the fingers slightly bent back may result in a nicer-looking silhouette, but apparently that can change the meaning in sign language. For cases where it may change the intended meaning, such as the timing of when words are signed, we had no choice to adjust it on a frame-by-frame basis. The sign language supervisor would eagerly and thoroughly check over errors we were not aware of, so I am grateful for their assistance.
— What did you pay attention to in Shouko’s movements as a deaf character?
Yamada: Shouko is constantly looking at peoples’ mouths and hands while signing, so we made sure we didn’t divert her gaze elsewhere. Also, we made sure not to have there be a delay in her grasping information. The hard of hearing people I’ve met are very attentive to nonverbal communication signs, as though their other senses were heightened, which is why we chose not to overdramatize Shouko’s deafness.
— Were there parts where you gave certain characters distinctive movements?
Akitake: We recorded video of someone on staff walking like Shouya and used that as reference. It was very helpful in properly capturing the feel of a boy walking slightly bent forward.
Yamada: Shouya’s walking speed and posture change as well depending on whether he’s alone or with others. His self-preservation instincts kick in when he’s with others, so he shrinks in his body while walking.
Nishiya: We took great care to make him look naturally hunched over without it feeling like a stiff pose.
Yamada: In the elementary school scenes, it feels nice and realistic how the kids all sit with bad postures.
Satou: We did research looking at all sorts of materials for the kids. Also, we made sure there was a difference in the way Nagatsuka and Shouya hold their chopsticks.
Yamada: Nagatsuka grips his chopsticks adorably with his plump hands, whereas Shouya doesn’t hold his chopsticks properly. You can see their personalities come out here.
Nishiya: Their characters shine through these kinds of slight gestures. I’m glad Nagatsuka gets to carry himself in a truly Nagatsuka-like fashion. What makes him unique is how, try as he may to act cool, he never does, and his cuteness stands out instead.
Yamada: He’s got that kind of charm as a person.
Satou: Nagatsuka is so cute, so I don’t understand why he was a loner in school. (laughs)
Yamada: You’d think he’d be popular! (laughs) Maybe it’s because he doesn’t know how to keep his distance with others.
Satou: Shimada feels scary just from the aura he exudes.
Yamada: He has a boyish mystery about him, compounded by the fact that he hides his mouth with his sleeve.
Akitake: His eyes are scary because they don’t have any highlights in them.
Nishiya: I wanted to draw Shouya’s friends a bit more.
Yamada: Hirose was also very cute.
Satou: There were times when I would do my checks and only add corrections for Hirose.
Yamada: You sure were very picky about Hirose, Satou! Thanks to your work, Hirose ended up very consistent throughout.
Nishiya: What about Yuzuru?
Yamada: Taken as a whole, everyone drew her without a lot of discrepancies.
Akitake: I always ended up with the firm image in my head of a young boy instead of a girl whenever I drew her.
Nishiya: This film has some cuts where the characters’ eyelashes are touched up for close-ups. I didn’t want it to be too anime-ish, so there are more added details instead of just being a solid black fill. It’s subtle, but I think it ended up being effective.
Satou: I noticed lots of little things like that whenever I took a look at the corrections that came back from Nishiya.
— Were there any parts where you thought something had to be animated traditionally?
Nishiya: Near the end of the film, Shouko has a dream of the social services building, which relies on background animation. The depiction is remarkably thorough.
Akitake: I remember being amazed when I reviewed the finished in-betweens.
Yamada: I had spoken with the unit director for that scene, (Eisaku) Kawanami from our Animation Do branch, telling him that I thought the camera should zoom in just a bit here and there. But when it came back, the camera was changing rapidly as it moved, and the whole thing had fully animated backgrounds! It was a spectacular cut, but I was really surprised. (laughs) What goes on inside Kawanami’s head?
Satou: Even the floor tiles were properly drawn.
Akitake: The reflections from the corridor were drawn very well too.
Yamada: And the distortions from the camera lens.
Satou: When I saw the finished product, I was left wondering if he’d mentioned it’d turn out like this at the animation meeting.
Yamada: I had worried about how to depict that scene, and said something like, “I want the camera to move upwards to Shouko’s eye level.” And from that suggestion alone came this completed footage!
Akitake: It really was a marvelous cut.
Yamada: I was shocked. (laughs) But that cut being what it is makes all the difference. As for scenes where the hand-drawn quality is evident, there’s also Shouya’s dream after he reunites with Shouko. There’s a real arthouse animation feel to it. The key animation for that scene was really interesting and pretty, with many different variants for the color traces.
Satou: We used hand-drawn animation and CG animation for the carp and water plants as well, didn’t we?
Yamada: Whenever the camera peeked through the water surface, they were hand-drawn.
Satou: Also, in the scene when Shouya is going to high school, even though the students in the hall have Xs over their faces, everyone one of them is properly drawn underneath.
Yamada: Thanks to that, it became a truly wonderful scene. It’s one of my favorites as well.
Nishiya: It just may have had the most number of drawings.
Yamada: That scene where Shouya is walking uses up a lot of drawings. The fact that it’s actually animated in slow motion is incredible. We’re not dragging it out with the editing, but actually controlling the speed with the number of drawings.
Satou: You can make out the kinds of motions that wouldn’t normally be there as well.
Nishiya: The scene where Shouya and Shouko are fighting in the classroom as kids is similarly substantial. The animator in charge of that part was (Minoru) Ota from Animation Do.
Yamada: That scene left a deep impression on me as well. I wonder what was going through Ota’s head when he drew that scene.
Satou: There’s a rugby pitch near Ota’s house, so he said that he drew that scene while remembering some of the scrimmages that the children had there.
Yamada: Ah! So that’s where he got those ideas from!
Satou: Also, the animator in charge of cleanup for that scene handled quite the number of drawings as well.
Yamada: I bet it seemed like it was a never-ending pile of work.
Nishiya: It really is a lot of drawings. And by just two people, at that.
Satou: For cuts like these with a lot of drawings, you need to carefully animate frame-by-frame. In order to prevent discrepancies in things like the size, you always place the drawing you’re starting from underneath.
Akitake: It’s scary if you don’t put in well-defined drawings in between to act as anchors.
Yamada: An act of discipline akin to hand-copying sutras, one might say.
Nishiya: It’s work that requires you to draw slowly and steadily.
Yamada: It truly is a fantastic level of concentration.
— Finally, please tell us about any events from producing A Silent Voice that left an impression on you.
Satou: As a chief animator, I will fondly remember huddling together with the staff to play back key animated sequences on the computer screen, and making progress on the film while holding discussions that were more thorough than I was used to.
Yamada: It would have to be the feeling of being there on the scene. This was something the entire studio came together to tackle as a team, and as director, I was able to maintain the vision that I believed in to the very end. I remember feeling a great sense of relief after the internal screening when I saw everyone’s beaming faces, brighter than usual. There are a lot of us here who are very harsh on themselves, so after a film is screened, you’ll often see people with dark expressions on their faces after finding their own faults in it. But for A Silent Voice, it felt like each staff member had given everything they possibly could.
Akitake: I remember a lot of things happening while we were working on the film, but now that it’s over, it’s surprisingly hard to recall any of it. (laughs)
Yamada: This time in particular, since it was a standalone film and didn’t have the slow build-up of a TV series, it felt like it passed by in the blink of an eye. I’m sure everyone was incredibly focused at the time, but since you’re creating the movie in a very short amount of time riding on a surge of momentum, it’s different from working on a TV series for however many months. It’s no wonder that there’s a lot you can’t remember.
Nishiya: You end up forgetting all of it. But at the time I was quite immersed in it.
Yamada: It felt like Nishiya opened his third eye to become Hyper Nishiya back then!
Akitake: It’s true that he did check over every single cut. One part of how the staff came together to work as one was that we were able to progress with amazing speed, where we would hold a meeting amongst the animators and then the rough drafts of the key animation would be ready the next day. You could tell that we were all of one mind as we pushed forward.
Nishiya: Speaking of fun memories, I enjoyed working on the opening scenes. Those animator meetings were the most fun.
Yamada: Everyone chimed in, so they felt like a free-for-all brainstorming session. (laughs) We found out that we were really going to use the song I wanted, and so I got overexcited and lost my nerve. I was having a lot of trouble drawing the storyboards, and so Ogawa—the unit director for that part—teased me by asking if I’d gotten cold feet because of the song. I strongly denied it… then I ended up having a hard time after all. (laughs)
Satou: The opening scenes feature Shouya living it up to the fullest as a punk who thinks he’ll never die, so I drew them filled with similar energy.
— Thank you for your time today.