Japanese animator Aya Suzuki on bringing your favourite films to life

(Courtesy of Aya Suzuki)

(Courtesy of Aya Suzuki)


You’ll recognise her work from “Isle of Dogs,” “The Wind Rises,” “Sherlock Gnomes” or the upcoming live-action version of “Aladdin.”

An avid drawer and cinephile from a young age, Aya Suzuki was 13 years old when she realised she could turn her passions into a profession, thanks to acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki.

“In Japan, every summer when his [Miyazaki’s] films were out, everybody would go see his movies because they were insanely popular,” she explains. Miyazaki is known for directing films like “Spirited Away,” “The Castle of Cagliostro” and “Princess Mononoke.” Aya shares that because of his fame, “it became quite normal to see the behind-the-scenes footage of how animated films are created on daytime news.”

Watching hundreds of people sketch professionally captivated her: “That had a huge impact on me, to see grown adults every day going into work and drawing and making a living of it… I just knew that I wanted to make film.”

Aya spent her high school years working towards that goal — she attended schools in the U.S. and the U.K. after her father’s job at Mitsubishi transferred him overseas. Her teachers helped prepare her for art college by recommending which classes to take and explaining how to create a portfolio. Aya’s hard work paid off — she earned her bachelor’s in film and animation at the Arts University Bournemouth in the U.K.

Since graduating, Aya’s animation career has taken her around the world to work on films like “Isle of Dogs,” “The Wind Rises,” “Wolf Children” and Disney’s upcoming “Aladdin.” Aya is a freelance artist, meaning she works on a project-by-project basis, rather than for one specific studio. This allows her to have more creative freedom when choosing opportunities. When she’s considering a job, she often asks herself: “What can I learn from that environment or what am I gaining for the future?”

Using this criterion has led Aya to working with the most prestigious directors in the animation industry, including Masaaki Yuasa, Wes Anderson, Sylvain Chomet and Mamoru Hosoda. “I wanted to experience working with these directors because their films I very much enjoy and I wanted to learn from them,” she shares.

Aya recognises that not every project can be a creative dream job: “Sometimes the situation is simply financial. I took on lots of commercial works between feature films whenever I’d have a gap. Sometimes you need to make sure the money is coming so you can pay the rent.”  

Having worked in both the Japanese anime industry and commercial Hollywood, Aya sees budget as the main differences between the two industries. “I’ve worked on Hollywood films where the budget was over $200 million and I’ve worked on Japanese films where the budget was probably $1 million,” she explains. “[In Japanese films], the teams are smaller, the schedules are tighter.” For major Hollywood films to be a financial success, the market has to be international, while in Japan, domestic success is enough to be profitable so those films are usually “made for a Japanese audience.”

Aya working on “The Illusionist.” (Courtesy of  Aya Sen Twitter )

Aya working on “The Illusionist.” (Courtesy of Aya Sen Twitter)

Many viewers don’t realise the amount of effort it takes to create an animated film — and Aya likes it that way: “As a creative, we don’t want the viewers to be thinking about the people who are behind the scenes. The aim for the film is to entertain the audience.”

Lifting back the veil, Aya explains that the creative process of making an animated film begins with a story, which is then molded into a screenplay. Next, artists are brought in to begin the storyboarding process. “We start drawing every single frame that you see on screen, designing and drawing out what the film will be like. And then we’ll see how that comes together,” shares Aya. “There’s a lot of rewrites for the movie, there’s a lot of redrawing of storyboards, this process can take years to get right and then we go through the process of animating.”

Aya describes animators as “the equivalent of the actors.” Instead of actors going on set, artists work together to either hand draw the animation, build the stop-motion frames or create the animations on the computer. After that, all the footage is digitally enhanced and edited together, the sound is incorporated and the film eventually makes its way to the screen. For some animated films, this process can take over a decade.

Now that Aya has been working in the animation industry for almost 15 years, she sees how the academic side of her university degree informs her work. Much of Aya’s time as an animator is spent researching to understand the context of what she’s drawing: “When you’re animating, you’re animating a particular period or a particular age character and you really have to observe these things and research them… People have this idea that I am drawing all the time at work. From 9 to 6, I’m just drawing and that’s it. It’s really not true. More than half the time, I’m researching. If I’m on the story team, I am researching like mad.”


For example, when Aya was working on “Sherlock Gnomes,” she read all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books: “I even went to a point where I would dig out every single note he made about the character development of Sherlock. So I discovered stuff like, things that are not in the book. Like the third sibling of the Holmes brothers, and so on. I knew all of these things and this is what was so useful when I was working on the story for Sherlock.”

Aya believes she wouldn’t be as successful at her job without the academic skills she learned at university: “It educates you how to research, it educates you how to learn. So even though the books I read weren’t 100% relevant, at least I know how I can find that information. So academic education, strangely enough, is relevant even in the creative industry.”

This is an exciting time to be part of the animation industry — Aya sees artists of different mediums coming together to work on different types of films like never before. As a traditional artist whose “only skill is drawing,” Aya didn’t think her skills would ever be needed on 3D, stop-motion or live-action productions, but she has recently worked on all three types of films. According to Aya, 2D animators are now supporting 3D animators on live-action sets and contributing to stop-motion films, puppeteers are supporting digitally created characters. “The advancement of computers have allowed all these skills to come in one place and work together,” Aya explains. “I can’t even explain how excited I am.”

This piece is available in Japanese.

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Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.