Of all the museums in the city, I seem to find myself back at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum the most often (somewhat annoying, given it’s probably the one that’s also the furthest away from me!), and the latest exhibition to entice me over to the Shing Mun River was Studio Ghibli Layout Designs: Understanding the Secrets of Takahata and Miyazaki Animation. I can’t claim to be a devoted Hayao Miyazaki fan – but like everyone else, I love Spirited Away and think Totoro is really cute, so why not?!
Spirited Away room, from news.gov.hk
The Studio Ghibli Layout Designs exhibition comprises over 1,300 drawings from the animation process behind the films of Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki – from their earliest works on television shows like Heidi: A Girl Of The Alps and Sherlock Hound, right through to the studio’s latest film releases The Wind Rises (Miyazaki’s last film) and The Tale of The Princess Kaguya.
Unlike many animation houses, Studio Ghibli continues to make all its films using traditional hand-drawn methods; rather than cute character studies, the works shown are more the backgrounds of scenes (layouts are regarded as blueprints for the film and are vital for its continuity), displaying the director’s ideas on colour, perspective, motion and other camera effects – and these sketches are practically artworks in themselves.
Drawings from Howl’s Moving Castle and My Neighbour Totoro, from Hong Kong Heritage Museum
Getting up close and personal with the layouts, you can see the awe-inspiring amount of work that goes into every single drawing; the level of detail is immense, the number of pencil strokes infinite… and sometimes, they don’t even fit onto one sheet of A4, instead comprising numerous sheets all stuck together with Sellotape (alas, no fancy special Miyazaki gadget for that… yup, genius animators are just like us!). Even crazier is when the exhibition displays a layout design next to the section of film that uses it – and the realisation that what looks like hours’ worth of detailed drawing equals only about seven seconds of actual film, which you barely even register properly within the context of the whole finished work. Yeah… I’m definitely happier sticking to watching these films rather than making them!
Drawings from Ponyo and Spirited Away, from Hong Kong Heritage Museum
The exhibition takes you through two rooms of drawings, with by far the largest amount of work dedicated to Spirited Away. There’s a whole section for Miyazaki and Takahata’s television days (where it sounds like they basically drove themselves crazy drawing weekly episodes, often barely making their deadlines), although some films have zero or very few drawings on display at all, simply because none were preserved by the studio (I remember there not being many for My Neighbour Totoro).
Other than that, there is not much actual narrative to the exhibition and the majority of drawings are presented without any description other than what film they are from; although there is an audio commentary tour on headphones, I didn’t think it was terribly social to go visit an exhibition with your boyfriend only to then decide to shut each other out for a few hours! There’s also a cute section suited more for younger visitors where you can draw your own Spirited Away soot spirit to add to a massive wall of drawings, although I doubt this will take you much more than five minutes.
I’d have appreciated more comparisons between the drawings and films, and more insight into how Studio Ghibli’s animator team works and get inspiration, or into how they develop the stories themselves. There is a not terribly dynamic Miyazaki interview that runs on a screen within the exhibition room but given its length, it’s near impossible to time happening upon it to ensure you see it from beginning to end, rather than plonking yourself confusingly in the middle.
The only other tidbits of information are strictly technical – brief explanations of animator jargon that relate to the film-making process itself. In that sense, Studio Ghibli Layout Designs may prove interesting if you are keen to understand more about the animation production process, although I have to confess much of it went over my head (not helped by me deciding we should enter the exhibition backwards, meaning we didn’t see the massive glossary of terms and flow chart of production until the end… ooops). And if you’re coming just to ogle at cute fluffy Totoro, I fear you may be sadly disappointed!
For me, Studio Ghibli Layout Designs was not as interesting as the Heritage Museum’s 2011 Pixar: 25 Years Of Animation exhibition – partly because I’m just not as familiar with Ghibli’s body of work in comparison to Pixar’s, but also because the art itself just starts to feel rather monotonous after a while. Unlike Pixar, who often have very different artwork styles and inspirations for each film, Studio Ghibli’s drawing style remains absolutely distinctive throughout the decades – a style that is utterly charming, but which doesn’t exactly make for a very exciting, surprisingly or intriguing trawl through the archives.
Totoro photo opp, from news.gov.hk
As expected, the biggest queues at the Studio Ghibli Layout Designs exhibition are for the cute photo opportunities (see above)… and the gift shop. Beware: lots of things were already sold out when I visited, and they won’t give you a carrier bag if your purchase is under $200 – which meant I had to cart around my A4 Miyazaki print for our entire train journey home (including three transfers!). Thanks Hong Kong Heritage Museum.
Given the city’s obsession with all things Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli Layout Designs is definitely destined to be another uber popular exhibition for the Hong Kong Heritage Museum – and at only $20 for an entrance ticket, you can’t really complain (although my boyfriend did… vocally). A wander round the Ghibli archives certainly makes for a lovely, tranquil afternoon if you have a couple of hours to spare; if you have even longer and stump up an extra ten bucks to make it $30, you can also gain access to the rest of the Heritage Museum’s other exhibits – including a mind-bogglingly WTF history of the world’s chairs (YES REALLY) and the much more interesting permanent Bruce Lee exhibition, which I found much more interesting.
Although the beauty of the art is undeniable, I reckon that Studio Ghibli Layout Designs is best enjoyed by those who are true Miyazaki diehards or animation aficionados wanting a real in-depth look at the production process, rather than passing fans like myself. I’m sure that won’t stop everyone Instagramming the shiz out of it though!
Studio Ghibli Layout Designs: Understanding the Secrets of Takahata and Miyazaki Animation runs from 14 May-31 August 2014 (closed Tuesdays); $20 admission ($10 on Wednesday) or $30 including access to all museum exhibits
Hong Kong Heritage Museum, 1 Man Lam Road, Sha Tin, Hong Kong, 2180 8188