Who Acts in Animated Films?
- An interview with concept creator Liang Boya

Liang Boya and her twin sister share the pen name “Niuya”. After leaving high school in 2007, they went to Japan to study animation, and began careers in the animation industry there after graduation. Boya works as concept creator at Madhouse. She has participated in the making of works such as Hunter × Hunter, Chihayafuru, The Princess and the Pilot, and Wolf Children. In 2013, she joined the Young Animator Training Project and made her debut in the industry with the OVA of Death Billiards. She was among the major animation designers for Death Parade, broadcast in 2015, and served as the animation director for the first time. She shares her working experience with us and tells the stories behind the animated films.


Q: Why did you choose to go into animation as a career? What role does a concept creator play in the industry?

A: Before I went to Japan, I had always been in love with Japanese cartoons and animation. My sister was the same, so we decided to go there to pick up some professional skills. The work visa for animation is easier to obtain than the cartoon equivalent, and we wanted to work for a few years in Japan before returning home. Before that, I had encountered some bottlenecks in photography design and expression. I preferred animation to graphic design, and hoped to make some breakthroughs by pursuing it. After studying animation for two years, I applied for a job at Madhouse – a famous Japanese animation studio. I went through interviews and skill tests, and joined the company the following year.

Before studying animation, I knew very little about the industry. I was unfamiliar with the major animation studios and the influential people. It was only later that I got to know more. Madhouse was the first company I applied to. Since I unexpectedly got a job there straight away, I didn’t apply to any others.

Something interesting happened before I was recruited. The director of Madbox, a subsidiary of Madhouse, saw my work at an exhibition held at my school and wanted to see me, but I wasn’t there that day. Later, my teacher told me excitedly that the director liked my work, and reminded me to take my portfolio when I visited the company. I did as my teacher told me and met with the director. As the business of the subsidiary focuses on post-production and 3D and the parent company focuses on hand-painted animation, the director recommended me to Ms. Oshima, a highly experienced animation supervisor at Madhouse. I used to draw cartoons, so my overall style is quite cartoonish. However, I favor the rich lines used in Japanese animation. After meeting me, Ms. Oshima said, “A person who understands these lines can definitely make it.” Later, I submitted my resume and was recruited by Madhouse, which was a major stroke of luck.

The major work of a Japanese concept creator is to design everything that appears in the scene and present the lens effect as designed in the storyboard. The layout and action design are completed by the same person in Japanese animation, while in American animation the two are done separately. The concept creator, like the actors, designs the actions or ‘key frames’, and hands them to other animation makers to make the picture smooth.


Q: In Hunter × Hunter, which was adapted from the classic cartoon by Yoshihiro Togashi in 1998 and published on Weekly Shōnen Jump, we can see your special way of handling the expression of emotion. Generally speaking, how do you design the atmosphere of a picture?

A: Let me give you an example – a scene of Episode 116 in the new Hunter × Hunter.

Beforehand, I read the original work and made a detailed comparison with the storyboard. Initially, in the original work, two frames are used to show the changes of facial expression of the role; yet in the storyboard, three frames are used and O.L and T.U are used three times to show the gradual change in his feelings in a deeper way.

In the meeting, to ensure consistency, I was asked to refer to this scene to arrange the positions of the three roles.

Therefore, the position of the characters and their next action will affect the composition of the picture to some extent. It is thus suggested that the concept artist check the positions of the characters before designing the animation.

After defining the positional relationship, he emphasized that live action should be used, rather than impression setting, to create an immersive effect. To augment the feeling of uncertainty, I added the effect of a hand-held camera in the L.O. It seemed that in post-production, the effect was added with a discontinuous blur.

Furthermore, the last big close-up is intended to express the feelings of the character with rough lines. In the original, rough lines are used when people get angry.

In terms of the design of acting skills, it is much easier to keep the body still, and only add a slight shake of the shoulder or changes of the shape of the mouth. However, this cannot fully express the changes of the feeling of the character.

Xiaojie has always believed that he represents justice in the fight against evil, but now he sees the “bad guy” begging him and trying his best to save people. It is by no means easy to express the complex feelings of a character through animation. Without disrupting the consistency of the three scenes, I first made the body shake slightly. As the camera moves, the body shakes more intensely; the head also shakes, and the shape of the mouth shows greater change. My intention was to express the accumulated emotion of the character and pave the way for an outburst.

The above is the process of how I design a scene.


Q: Based on a serial sports cartoon created by Japanese cartoonist Haruichi Furudate and published on Weekly Shōnen Jump since November, 2012, Haikyū!! is a popular animation broadcast from 2014. You participated in the concept design. How did this come about?

A: I happened to watch the animation of Haikyū!! and was struck by its story and high quality. By then the team was already preparing to make Haikyū!! II. I immediately asked my colleague to contact the production team. Initially, I expect to join from the second episode, but took a trip back home instead, joining for the eighth episode. After one month, I wanted to learn more, so I applied to my company to allow me to work for a period of time in the Production Department. In the process, what left the deepest impression on me was the making of game scenes, so I decided to focus exclusively on this aspect.


Q: Haikyū!! contains many sport and action scenes. What should designers consider in terms of sport scenes, and what are the different techniques? 

First of all, you need to know the basic rules of volleyball. For me, I had no experience in volleyball and knew nothing about spike, catch, positioning, or scoring. I was used to scenes of daily life and emotion. I needed to learn quickly, so I spent time studying the work of action designers.
The Haikyū!! Scenes set in the gym all referred to the 3D L.O, yet the size and position of the characters were not fixed. They had to be adjusted to fit with the overall atmosphere. In addition, when drawing the character it is smaller than the model, to make it more stereoscopic.

In the process, special attention must be paid to the direction of the volleyball’s rotation, the number of revolutions, and the overall trajectory. The supervisor taught the team some simple physics, about the relationship between rotation and the air. There are some common mistakes in the post of a spike; for example, in the moment of the spike the hand is often on the axis of the leg opposite to the strong hand. The turn of the hand after the spike, and the shift of the center of gravity when catching the ball, easily result in the drawing of an excessively high waist position, as well as details concerning the interval between hitting the ball and landing. As we all draw on paper, we sometimes had to lie on it when the trajectory required a larger space.

If we draw according to the textbook, the post might be beautiful, but there will be a lack of presence in the game. Thus, it is suggested that designers watch more games and look for details such as the twist of the body, the folding of the clothes, and the push and run.


Q: Many children dream of being a concept creator. Is it possible in China, and what advice do you have for them?

A: We are seeing more and more opportunities for cooperation between China and Japan, so it is much easier to be exposed to Japanese animation. If financial conditions permit, young people can study at specialized animation schools in Japan; then they can apply for jobs at Japanese animation studios after graduation. Some animation studios are founded by students who studied in Japan, so these companies will inevitably cooperate. Whatever channels you choose, patience is needed, as it can be very dull and boring at the beginning. Once you gain the right skills, you can find plenty of opportunities in the field. The key is to find the right direction.