Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and Heron” (which won the NYFCC Best Animated Feature award) marks the first Studio Ghibli film to get an IMAX release. It opens December 8 for a one-week run on approximately 200 North American screens through GKids, after premiering on IMAX in Japan on July 14 (under the title “How Do You Live?”) with the highest opening weekend gross for an anime feature. The IMAX screenings will provide both the Japanese-language version and the English dub (boasting a voice cast led by Christian Bale, Robert Pattinson, and Florence Pugh).

However, Miyazaki needed convincing to release his most personal film in IMAX. But the large-format giant spent years developing a strategy to woo the legendary anime director and Studio Ghibli co-founder.

“IMAX has been consistently looking to support telling big stories from international filmmakers all around the world, and that includes anime,” Christopher Tillman, VP of international development and distribution, told IndieWire. “We’ve done previous releases with Makoto Shinkai, including ‘Suzume,’ and Hayao Akiyama, the director of ‘Shin Godzilla’ and the ‘Evangelion’ films. But the white whale is Hayao Miyazaki. And that conveniently helped us out when ‘The Boy and the Heron‘ was announced because it gave us years to establish a rapport, get ourselves established in the market, and familiarize audiences with the IMAX format.

“So whenever we started doing local language titles in Japan, it was kind of like a gold stamp that audiences were a little intrigued by,” Tillman continued. “But it was also kind of experimental for IMAX in Japan. It was something that was a little bit outside the traditional offering. So working with the right filmmakers, programming the right titles got them to the point where it had become a lot more mainstream that IMAX in Japan was known for releasing these big blockbuster-scale anime titles [culminating with the highest-grossing ‘Demon Slayer’ in 2020].”

"The Boy and the Heron"
“The Boy and the Heron”GKIDS

The process began with an IMAX corporate trip to Japan in 2019 to meet with distributor Toho, which resulted in a five-film slate that included “Demon Slayer” and “Suzume,” but also an untitled film that eventually turned out to be “The Boy and the Heron.” Toho was instrumental in helping persuade Miyazaki and his team that anime was a successful fit for IMAX, and that “The Boy and the Heron” could benefit from the large-format experience.

But the task of bringing “The Boy and the Heron” to IMAX took more than a year of planning, negotiating, testing, reviewing, and QC sessions that were conducted by IMAX and Miyazaki’s team (which included close consultation with cinematographer Atsushi Okui).

“You can imagine, given Hayao Miyazaki’s prowess and notoriety in Japan, there were a lot of procedures and protocols that you go through when considering doing something a little bit different and outside the box with one of his films,” added Tillman. “Ultimately, that wound up being a process where we did multiple iterations of tests where we were showing them different content in the IMAX screens, going through different processes, incorporating different levels of IMAX’s technology through our DMR [Digital Media Remastering] process in order to make sure that what we were doing to enhance the film ultimately aligned with Hayao Miyazaki’s creative vision. We also worked with them to create the unique IMAX sound mix.”

The film’s aspect ratio of 1.85 aligned perfectly with IMAX’s 1.90 formatting, but Tillman said Ghibli was deeply interested in the proprietary DMR process of conversion that involves noise reduction and grain removal. They were adamant that the image wasn’t too sharp or glossy. “They wanted to make sure there was the presence of grain to their satisfaction,” Tillman added. “They felt that the way the film was drawn, presented, and grain incorporated into it was all very intentional. And they wanted to make sure that that was preserved, and in some cases even enhanced, in the IMAX presentation.”

On the Ghibli side, it was a matter of understanding and being comfortable with how IMAX worked before handing “The Boy and the Heron” over to them. “But, luckily, since there was a lot of time between the completion of the picture to its release, we were able to clarify or make clear any doubts or questions that we had until, ultimately, we had no qualms in handing it over to IMAX,” Atsushi told IndieWire over Zoom through an interpreter.

The main visual concern wasn’t actually enhancing the hand-drawn cel look in IMAX, but accurately representing it and achieving consistency throughout all versions that screened in theaters. “I would say that, because we didn’t have in mind that it would be shown on such a big screen, when a character is there right smack dab in the middle of a scene, it leaves me with a bit of concern as to, is that too much?” added Atsushi.

But the IMAX conversion worked out to the cinematographer’s satisfaction, including one of the most difficult scenes to animate, where a gust of wind blows at the entrance of the golden gate to the alternate reality. This makes everything sway, from the clothes on the characters to the blades of grass and the flowers to the drifting clouds. “We wanted the scene to have a lot of impact,” Atsushi said. “We wanted you to really be able to see the wind there, so once you enter that other world, and it’s very still and there’s no wind, you bring that contrast up. So that’s where we put a lot of effort.”

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