The visionary director behind Gravity Cat and Snow Beauty on exploring time, finding beauty in decay and doing ‘emotional maths’
In an age of disposable churn, director Show Yanagisawa stands out as a craftsman who won’t cut corners and compromise his creative vision. Gravity Cat, the spot for PS4 game Gravity Rush 2, is a case in point. Show decided to mimic the effect of shifting gravity by building an entire set that rotated around a horizontal axis, like a gigantic tombola drum. But his careful, clever approach isn’t about constructing immutable edifices – Show’s work is inherently dynamic, an exploration of time and transience. Just think of his one-shot study of wilting flowers, Decay, or his whimsical love story about two lovers trapped in time, Snow Beauty.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Show to pick his brilliant brains as he joins forces with Blink for UK and European representation.
LBB> As I understand it, you were a graffiti artist and painter before moving into film… When did you start experimenting with moving image?
SY> When I was in college, my friends and I filmed ourselves drawing for an entire week and made this footage into a short film.
This project was just for fun but I really enjoyed it and this sparked my interest in working with moving images.
LBB> And what does film allow you to express creatively that still imagery doesn’t?
SY> Film allows me to express a sense of change and time that still imagery doesn't. That is why often the themes in my work are about change and time, for example, Shiseido High School Girls or Decay. Saying that, I think a sophisticated painting can be a beautiful expression of creativity.
LBB> Do you still paint? If so, what sort of thing do you do?
SY> I’m not painting right now. While I have the energy, I want to work on films and large group projects. I’ll start painting again when I’m around 70 years old! I really enjoy the sensational feeling of controlling the blank canvas in front of me. But at the moment I want to concentrate on making films.
LBB> Whereas painting can be a fairly solitary pursuit, directing involves a lot of collaboration. How do you like to work with crews and cast to get the best from them?
SY> That’s a very difficult question. I think about it all the time. But one thing I can say is that I always trust my vision, and I share that vision with the team around me.
LBB> The production design in all of your projects is exquisite and the attention to detail is incredible – what is your process when it comes to developing the look and visual details?
SY> After understanding the core of the idea, I add things from pure instinct and it can feel random at first. But as I gather these random things, it always synchronises itself and it surprises me. I always ask myself, ‘do I love each frame’ as I believe that is very important. And funnily enough, looking through my recent projects, I’ve noticed that I love the colour light blue!
LBB> When it comes to commercial projects, how do you decide which ones that you would like to work on?
SY> I ask myself:
Can it portray humanity with new visuals?
Can it portray humanity with new technology?
LBB> Gravity Cat is so much fun – and I’ve seen the crazy rig you created! Why did you decide to create the gravity shifting effect in-camera?
SY> Usually when you get that sort of script, you would either split the shots, create the cat by CGI, or cheat with camera angles. However, I thought that if I can do all three of these in camera at once I could make something that’s never been seen before. So, at first we talked and decided on what our final goal would be: to make a sophisticated piece, which is accurate to the script, or take on the challenge and create something new and experimental. Both the agency and the client love challenging themselves, so we picked the latter option.
LBB> How did you get involved with Gravity Cat in the first place?
SY> I’ve worked with the creative director Mr Okuyama on various projects such as commercials for Google and Pokémon GO. He knows me very well, and often calls me up with challenging projects.
LBB> Snow Beauty is a really beautiful love story. How do you work with your actors to make sure that human emotion and connection shines through?
SY> I like to create an ‘emotional fence’ and have them act freely in there. When they go over the ‘emotional fence’ it means that they’re not syncing with the piece and it becomes unrealistic, so I correct that. Besides that, I try to give them the freedom to surprise us.
LBB> Decay is such a great example of a smart, simple idea that also says so much. What was the production like on that?
SY> This was for a children’s educational program on NHK. The aim of the program was for kids and students to develop an interest in film through shooting techniques. The subject given to me was ‘time control’. I’ve always liked the Ikebana artist Mr Yukio Nakagawa. His flower arrangements seem grotesque at first, but if you look at it carefully, you start finding the beauty that wouldn’t exist in living flowers. I wanted to express the beauty of old things and withered things through time.
LBB> And what did you learn from the experience of making it?
SY> A lot of things. I learned that in advertising it is important to get the attention of those that are not interested. In film it’s important to make your audience, the people that are interested, think.
LBB> Which aspects of the filmmaking process are most enjoyable for you?
SY> Offline editing and online post production. And also when I’m drawing the storyboards. The first part is about editing; the joy of swimming in the ocean with unlimited opportunities. The second part is the joy of seeing your initial ideas take shape.
Other aspects include making constant decisions based on reality!
LBB> What sort of film/TV do you personally enjoy watching?
SY> Fight Club, Boiling Point, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blue Velvet, The Lego Movie, Memories of Murder, Fantastic Mr Fox, Incendies.
LBB> Where do you like to look for inspiration? Are you a director who keeps lots and lots of sketchbooks or references for the future, or do you like to start every project as a blank canvas?
SY> I have an ’equation to retain attention’, and I use this every time. It’s like emotional maths. I don’t really use my brain, but instead put everything in this equation and complete the story. Of course, the result is a mess. Next, I watch the story as a viewer in an objective way. Then I start my editing process. The important thing is to stay objective. Another important thing is to have a complete base story from beginning to end.
Once the story is complete I sprinkle the things I like over the whole piece. This is the decoration. It could be a technique or a tone or an aesthetic. The most fun part.
So I start with maths and we end with a beautiful film.