The following interview is from the animation works booklet that comes with the special edition release of Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky. I highly recommend it for anyone, because the illustrations in it are fantastic. Also, be sure to follow Waki on twitter!
— What kind of request did you receive from the director (Kou) Matsuo while you worked on Gundam Thunderbolt?
Kentaro Waki: In the beginning, Matsuo requested that I help to raise the edge’s overall sharpness within the cels—that I didn’t need to add anything like a filter to diffuse the light. I was on board with that idea. Instead of using the filter, we applied contrast to the characters and mechs by hand, depending on the cut. This is a strenuous work style that makes it difficult to do with a TV series, but it seemed possible with the OVAs.
— How do you add contrast by hand?
Waki: To start, mobile suits are a very intricate 3D object, and that’s usually expressed by drawing lots of lines. However, for time management reasons, only simple shadows are added. There are plenty of times where we think a certain scene would look a lot better if we were just able to add more shadows, but things don’t always work out. This time, though, in parts that weren’t different color layers, we adjusted the lighting with a gradation technique, and the mobile suits started standing out more like a 3D object should. Even if Matsuo hadn’t asked for it, I would have started with this method on my own. Regardless, I’m glad we were both in favor of it.
— In the finished product, points like the lights from the mobile suits’ thrusters and the Big Gun’s beam effects are very impactful.
Waki: I worked through that by going back and forth with the animator (Nobuhiko) Genma. We split the thrusters’ coloring into three parts—the core, the surrounding area, and the edges—and then spread them outward. Some of the animators ended up drawing the edges too thin, though. Even if they’re thin, they should be visible, or else having edges is waste. That’s when we decided we wouldn’t uniformly shade things. Instead, we would make it easier to see the separation by making some parts shaded, some not, some parts thicker, and others thinner. For the beams, we demonstrated their strength by drawing different energy effects. The more powerful the beam, the more energy you could see surrounding it, the stronger it felt. We wanted it to be something the viewers noticed.
— It’s like the digital techniques supported the hand-drawn ones.
Waki: Yes, it is. And speaking of the beams, it was Genma’s idea to have the core of the Gundam’s beam be just a little bit darker.
— Speaking of core, the lightning was also a big focal point of the anime.
Waki: For the lightning, I actually created it while referencing the lightning from (Shingo) Tamagawa ‘s cels (C-5 ~ C-7) in episode one to make it feel like it was being drawn as it cracked through space. I also used it as the lightning for the thunderbolt prone area. In the manga, it’s like flashes of lightning are jumping between nebulas, but Matsuo wasn’t too keen on the clouds and instead just wanted it to appear as if the bolt was dashing through space. For the special lightning that interfered with the beam of the Big Gun in episode two, I had it hand-drawn first, then I went in and made adjustments afterward.
— How did you approach editing the characters?
Waki: Initially, I added the same gradation effect on the characters that I added to the mechs. Unfortunately, that big of a contrast didn’t fit as well, so I didn’t add it to the same degree as I did with the mechs. I made it so that even in dark scenes, it’s easy to discern the characters’ expressions and the look in their eyes. You’ll notice this if you look at the characters’ faces when they’re in their cockpit and even more so in the episode one scene where Karla comes up to Daryl while he’s eating. With how dark the area around them is, there was no way their faces would light up that much. Think of it like reflectors being held up to reflect the light onto the characters’ faces.
— There was quite a lot of intricate lighting done for the characters.
Waki: We had discussed adding in a more abrasive take for the lighting, so I decided to try my hand at seamlessly brushing in the light the last scene of Daryl’s close-up. That was rejected, however. We wanted the lighting to be something that stood out on its own, so we stuck to the basics and didn’t add anything extra. Instead of using it to fill out the characters, we added lighting that’s similar to flow lines in manga. When you hand draw those, they tend to end up too thick, so we went in and digitally added smaller sharper lines.
— Were there any other interesting points about the photography?
Waki: The smoke and debris during the fight between The Psycho Zaku and the Full Armor Gundam in episode four were made with 3DCG. When explosions are drawn by hand, the smoke and the core transmitted light tend to become two separate things—the burning of the core and the billowing smoke. So while I was working with the contouring lines and timing, I layered in a 3DCG explosion.
— How do you feel now that it’s all done?
Waki: The animators and the animation directors breathed life into each and every episode, meaning I was also trying out many different photography techniques. It’s a very fulfilling feeling that’s different than when working on TV series, and I’m thrilled I was able to work on it.