In the animation industry, and particularly in the Japanese animation industry, Hayao Miyazaki is a revered elder statesman. The sort of person that any young, up-and-coming talent would shit a brick before presenting their work to.
Which is exactly why these experimental CGI animators shouldn’t have.
Miyazaki is a humanist artist, creator of some of the most touching, gentle, and hopeful films in the animated canon. He’s also an outspoken idealist with no obvious inhibitions about expressing his opinion, and in a daily series for Ghibli Week, we’re highlighting some of the things the reclusive director has famously disdained.
So let’s talk about this AI-driven animation project.
A hand-drawn animation fan by history and heart, Miyazaki has largely declined to incorporate computer-generated animation into his movies, except in the most minimal ways. But he has made one 10-minute all-CGI film: Kemushi no Boro, or Boro the Caterpillar, which can only be seen at the Mitaka Forest Ghibli Museum near Tokyo.
In late 2016, Miyazaki participated in a special television documentary about Kemushi no Boro, which recorded him sitting with Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki (the guy who reportedly sent Harvey Weinstein a katana as a threat) as they attended a presentation at the Dwango Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Tokyo.
A few members of Dwango’s staff sat down with the famed animators to present a program they’d created in which an AI generated methods of locomotion for a humanoid form. There are plenty of AI labs interested in recreating human movement, in the hopes of someday creating computers that can interact with a real environment the same way humans do. Usually, the results are pretty goofy.
But at Dwango, experts had given their AI program a grotesque form, with mismatched limbs and sickly, mottled skin. The most efficient forms of locomotion their program had found was various shambling crawls using its hips, neck, and shoulders — it all looked pretty painful. So they’d made it look like a zombie, and were presenting it to Miyazaki and Suzuki as a potential moviemaking tool.
Miyazaki was not pleased, and said as much. You can see his reaction in the video below, but fair warning: It’s devastating.
The first thing Miyazaki does is point out that demonizing this kind of cramped movement demonizes real people who may lack a full range of movement, including a close friend of his.
“I strongly feel that this is an insult to life itself,” he continues, and says that he’ll never use a technique like this in his work.
During the gut-wrenching silence that follows, the camera pans over to the suddenly tearful faces of three researchers. And then Suzuki asks them what their goal is for the program, which is where this writer, for one, loses a bit of sympathy.
“Well,” one answers with a straight face, “we would like to build a machine that can draw pictures like humans do.”
Then why are you showing it to two guys who built their careers on drawing pictures, my dude? It’s enough that people feel like machines are coming to replace them without sitting them down and introducing them to their replacements.
At least Miyazaki seems confident that the AI isn’t taking his job anytime soon. But he certainly isn’t a fan of the attempt. “I feel like we are nearing to the end of times,” he mutters, immediately after the meeting.