In order to tell a compelling and effective story, storytellers must construct an immersive world in which that story takes place, a process known as world-building. Some stories require more detailed world-building than others but in the end the point is the same: suspend our disbelief, draw us in, make us buy into the world you’ve created. I’d like to explore the films of Studio Ghibli through the lens of world-building and how they use world-building to achieve a sense of immersive realism, a quality I have long admired in all of Ghibli’s films. Through masterful animation and attention to detail, Studio Ghibli consistently crafts immersive, unique films that strike a difficult balance between fantasy and reality. Worldbuilding is a daunting task for animators because every visual element in a film must be created from scratch. There’s nothing there until it’s drawn. This is where Ghibli excels. Their animators demonstrate a mastery of technique and a strict attention to detail with every single scene, to really bring the world that was in the writer’s mind, the storyteller’s mind, to life. No matter how far-fetched and imaginary the story, the world of a Ghibli film consistently feels tactile and realistic. To quote Hayao Miyazaki: “Anime may depict fictional worlds, but I nonetheless believe that at its core it must have a certain realism. Even if the world depicted is a lie the trick is to make it seem as real as possible. Stated another way, the animator must fabricate a lie that seems so real viewers will think the world depicted might possibly exist.” Consider Ghibli’s approach to animating movement. Watch how their characters run and interact with their environment, how their clothes and their hair move—the illusion of physics. Animators must construct a sense of scale, gravity, weight, and momentum from frame to frame to emulate the semblance of physical world where there isn’t one. This is the unique challenge of animation: to create a realistic world through an inherently unrealistic medium. This trait isn’t unique to Ghibli’s films, but they consistently achieve a realistic, tactile, seemingly effortless sense of realism through their approach to movement. This helps ground us within the reality of the animated world, even if that world is far removed from our own. Think about that word: animate. It means “to bring to life” This is acting. Miyazaki argues that animators are themselves actors; they must understand and empathize with their characters. Animators share in part of the actor’s process. They must consider: what is their character’s motivation in the scene? In the words of Hayao Miyazaki: “their emotions will become yours. And, as is often said, you’ll become both an animator and an actor.” Of course, voice actors to a lot of the acting, but voice acting is disembodied until it’s attached to a drawn character. A character’s unspoken mannerisms and facial expressions are equally important in establishing a character as what they say, so an animator’s mastery of technique must be tempered by an empathy for the character being animated. To get a better sense of this let’s look at running in animation. To convey the illusion of running, because animation is an illusion, animators use what’s called a run cycle. It’s an animated sequence that depicts running strides of a character, so when you loop it looks like the character’s running. Of course there are many different ways of running and every character runs a little bit differently depending on the circumstances and their reason for running. Running almost always has a clear motivation and is an opportunity for an animator to communicate something about that character; it’s a chance for the animator to act. Whenever you see a character running in a Ghibli film, the animators considered the character’s motivation for running, and imparted that motivation into the way the character moves. Quick side note here: achieving realistic movement in animation is so notoriously difficult to accomplish that many filmmakers have used the technique of tracing live-action footage as an easier shortcut to accomplish a realistic result. It’s a process known as rotoscoping. The thing is though, it usually ends up looking kind of creepy to be honest. It just lands right in the uncanny valley. Take Ralph Bakshi’s infamous animated adaptation of “Lord of the Rings” for example. But, that’s a topic for another video. Point is, it was never animation’s task to emulate real-life exactly. It’s instead just to create an analog, so to speak, some imaginary world adjacent to and reminiscent of our own but not necessarily identical. Animators can take the rules of our world and bend or break them however they wish, that’s part of the magic of animation, but to achieve a level of immersive realism as Ghibli so often does there must exist in underlying familiarity with the characters and the world where the story takes place. All this comes back to how Ghibli depicts movement in animation. Movement must be used to convey a sense of relative scale and weight. Ghibli not only accomplishes this with grace but also conveys the emotions and traits of their characters through attention to minute details of their behavior. “The scene where she wrote puts her feet into her shoe, and it would just be a very simple scene, you might just animate it and she puts her shoes on and moves, runs off. But [Miyazaki’s] observed the way a real little girl does it, she doesn’t just put her feet in her shoes she make sure that it’s snug and tight and in this scene you can see her kind of tap her toes into there and then she goes running off. And it’s these little just magic moments that convince you that this is not an imaginary world this is real.” In Spirited Away, the bathhouse feels alive and real. While it’s inherently unbelievable, we believe it exists in the context of the world of Spirited Away because it’s so well established. There are employees with jobs to do, sleeping quarters, a coal-powered furnace that heats the baths, different kinds of soap for different clients, even a process by which to call certain kinds of soap for different kinds of baths. If you followed another employee, what would their day be like? That’s fun to imagine. With all of these details it feels like there are untold stories unfolding in the background. This is the importance of proper world-building. It doesn’t feel like a cheap facade put up for the convenience of the story we’re being told; instead, there’s depth and richness to the world. It feels like it extends beyond the edges of the frame. Case in point, Princess Mononoke. It’s set in a medieval world inspired by Japanese folklore. Despite the fantasy elements of Princess Mononoke it’s not an overtly outrageous film. It feels grounded by its realistic, nuanced characters and attention to detail. The film exhibits Ghibli’s signature style of animated movement complemented by an established society and even infrastructure. Look at Iron Town as an example: the society and culture is established to the point where we can infer clear gender roles; the women work the bellows while the men venture out with Lady Eboshi to collect resources. These details aren’t the focus of the film but they build a periphery which strengthens the main story. They help create a world believable to the audience. Their attention to detail is best exemplified whenever Ghibli uses wide establishing shots, especially in towns and cities with lots of people. This illustrates the immensity of the animator’s task: to create every single element of a world from scratch. Notice how every background character is placed, the actions they’re given, the intentions they may have. In animation, everything is on screen on purpose. Watch the background. See what the animators put there for you to find, consciously or not, to help create a sense of realism and a well-rounded world that extends beyond the edges of the screen. Pay attention to the ordinary, the inconsequential, seemingly unimportant actions and elements of the background. Every single one was a conscious choice. Another unique quality you’ll notice of Ghibli’s filmography is the range of stories that they tell. Studio Ghibli is often referred to synonymously with Hayao Miyazaki, their famous, imaginative, and visionary director of fantasy stories. There are, though, a few other Studio Ghibli films that favor subtle, subdued storylines. Look at films like Ocean Waves, From Up on Poppy Hill, and Only Yesterday, which tell minimal understated stories with a strong yet subtle emotional core. These stories would be difficult to pull off with a lesser mastery of animation. On their surface these are hardly films you’d expect of animation. For the most part they very well could have been live action but they weren’t. Animation seems to suit these stories perfectly well, and through another medium they’d be inherently different. It’s by telling stories like these; at once understated, extravagant, mature, magical, nostalgic, and emotional; that Ghibli films epitomize the coming of age of a medium. After all, as Ghibli has so eloquently proven, animation is a medium, not a novelty, valuable not only for its vivid expression of fantastical worlds and magic, but for communicating universal ideas and pure emotions in a way that only animation can. The films of Studio Ghibli circumvent our expectations of what animation can be; leaving us vulnerable to their magic.