Yu Yu Hakusho SFX Artist EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Masakazu Murakami on new Netflix drama

Special Effects Artist, Masakazu Murakami, talks about the new series, his favorite movie and the power of collaboration

Known for water, dust and fire explosion effects in content like Iron Man 3, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and Game of Thrones, he explains how it all comes together

Now on Netflix, live-action-drama Yu Yu Hakusho lands like a tsunami. It’s 5 episodes follow the basic plotline of the 112 anime episodes, encapsulating key story arcs. As confirmed by our own reviewers, there are so many effects, it’s practically another character.

An all-encompassing character created by an army of visual effects artists. Murakami, collaborating through Stormborn Studios, is one of the 100+ artists working on the drama under the overarching Netflix Original umbrella. He explains the meticulous and concerted process of making one scene with effects.

“The production company explains the story to us through concept art. In Yu Yu Hakusho, there’s a whole magical world, much of which is shot on green screen. Even the actors have to imagine it. Along with the artwork and scripts, we may receive a video ‘visualization’ clip of their thinking as a starting point for research and development. From there, we create ideas, review them internally, then send the best to the client. With feedback, we make improvements. It goes back and forth until we’ve created the vision, then we deliver it.”

Scene in Ep 5, Yu Yu Hakusho now on Netflix. Crumbling path special effect created by senior effects artist Masakazu Murakami.

So, if you’re designing something for an actor to use, what’s the sequence? Do actors know what they’re supposed to be wielding? We refer specifically to Yu Yu Hakusho scenes that include magic weapons, like when Takumi Kitamura, as Yusuke, trains with his spirit gun or Kuwabara, played by Shuhei Uesugi, slashes with his spirit sword.

CREATING MAGIC

“Having a reference is important – the actors see the concept art as well. And the director and visual effects supervisor know how to build this kind of shot with an actor. Then they send us the plate to replace the green screen or add 3D graphics to an item, like the spikey magical sphere. We may test a few different types of visuals until they tell us to keep going on something, develop it more. There’s a lot of communication happening.”

For how complex and detailed some effects may seem, the key factor seems to be collaboration. “Most 3D artists specialize in an element. For example, if I make the dust, there’s another artist who makes the building or perhaps bricks on a street. Then there might be another animator who breaks the building. When I finish a piece, I hand it over to ‘lighting’ for rendering – someone who creates the light. Then eventually it goes to a compositor who takes all the elements and assembles everything into one picture. That’s for one frame or scene. Typically, one shot is 40-120 frames which equals 1.5 to maybe 5 seconds. In order to make a perfect few seconds, we may create 50 or even 100 versions.”

From start to finish, the live-action Yu Yu Hakusho – less than five hours of content – has taken close to five years to come to life. Murakami confirms it typically takes from six months to a year to create effects in post-production, depending on the amount and complexity. And suggests that a film like Avatar would have taken closer to three years to pin down effects.

TEST OF TIME

Born in Japan, Murakami has worked all over the world as an effects artist, including Hollywood, Canada, Germany and now Osaka, focusing on hit movies with significant visual effects. With a four-year degree, he spent another three years determinedly facing hardships to pursue his dream job, eventually joining Scanline in LA. There he learned and improved with every job, launching with Narnia 2. Now, he’s been in the game so long he can typically name the team that’s worked on a given scene.

So, having a conversation with someone who knows the inside scoop on movie magic, there’s a curiosity over personal favorites. He notes the pieces that ignited his interest in the industry, “Terminator 2 and The Matrix. I don’t know how many times I’ve replayed them.” Both works that have undoubtably survived the test of time.

Which leads us to the obvious next question. If you could work on anything, what would be your wish? “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. The main characters are not only Japanese but from multiple countries, so it can become a international blockbuster. It has so much potential.” It’s another live-action opportunity to build from a solid manga/anime base. And with the anime conveniently hosted on Netflix, surely there’s a strong possibility of it coming to life in live-action at some point.

MARKET EFFECTS

To no one’s surprise, anime culture is mountainous in Japan. But what has amazed Murakami is how far behind other countries are in Japanese content – like a current hit elsewhere may be 15 years old in Japan. Or comics gaining traction that were never particularly notable in Japan while one that’s popular there may be tricky to find on Western shelves. “It must be down to marketing and trying to figure out what kinds of stories could sell in other markets.” Perhaps a story for another day.

He also notes it may have something to do with ratings. “The ratings scale for comic books in Japan is quite low, encouraging huge variety. For example, they can do a lot more with blood and gore – like organs getting ripped out – even with children as readers.”

It’s compelling, as we talk about how cautious Japan is when it comes to other things like physical safety, taking years to approve electric micro scooters for street use, for example. Yet with manga storytelling, cautions over young eyes don’t seem to be an issue. With that wide open space, what’s his favorite? “Dragon Ball – it’s wonderful – and my favorite anime is Gundam.’

I embarrass myself here as I’ve never heard of Gundam, but looking it up, the robots do look kind of familiar… or is it simply a Transformers vibe? “That’s crazy – Gundam is insanely popular.” Conversely, he’s not acquainted with my all-time favorite anime, Tokyo Ghoul. And that fast we’re back to the target marketing spiral.

 


What’s your favorite SFX-driven movie or series? Chances are, if it features complex scenes with water or dust, it may be Murakami’s work. Check out his showreel at the top of the story.  And shout your favorites in the comments below.

Click the links to catch more Yu Yu Hakusho live-action episode reviews, character guide, 10 anime like Yu Yu, or 10 manga like Yu Yu.

For more Japanese content, click here. To check out our other interviews, click here.

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