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15 Fascinating Facts About Spirited Away

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Studio Ghibli

As an Academy Award winner and Japan’s highest grossing movie of all time, Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away has captured the hearts of viewers all over the world. Fall in love with the movie all over again, with these little-known facts.

1. Spirited Away was created without a script

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Despite having a rich plot with developed characters, Spirited Away was not made with a script. In fact, Miyazaki’s films never had scripts. “I don't have the story finished and ready when we start work on a film,” the filmmaker told Midnight Eye. “I usually don't have the time. So the story develops when I start drawing storyboards. The production starts very soon thereafter, while the storyboards are still developing.”

Miyazaki does not know where the plot is going, and he lets it happen organically. “It's not me who makes the film. The film makes itself and I have no choice but to follow”

2. Miyazaki does everything

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Miyazaki wrote, directed, and drew the storyboards for the movie; essentially writing the movie with drawings. When you watch the film, you’re seeing one man’s work and vision. The filmmaker is so influential and involved in the production, the New Yorker once called him “the auteur of anime.”

3. Chihiro was inspired by the daughter of one of the director’s friends

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After announcing his retirement in 1997, the filmmaker took friends to his mountain cabin. His friend’s daughter and her peers inspired Miyazaki, as they were on the verge of adolescence and extremely apathetic. The auteur decided he needed to make a movie for ten-year-old girls. There wasn’t a lot out there for them; their magazines were heavily focused on romance and crushes. “I felt this was not what they held dear in their hearts, not what they wanted,” the filmmaker recalled. “And so I wondered if I could make a movie in which they could be heroines.”

Miyazaki wanted a movie that was made for regular ten-year-olds. The main character had to be ordinary, with no special abilities or traits. The girls needed someone human to relate to and show them that they could be heroines too. The main character, Chihiro, was made with the girls from the cabin in mind. “Every time I wrote or drew something concerning the character of Chihiro and her actions, I asked myself the question whether my friend's daughter or her friends would be capable of doing it,” Miyazaki explained.

4. Small details make it feel real

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Miyazaki is often praised for creating gorgeous, immersive movies that feel almost real. Part of the reason for this is the close attention to detail. Small additions like dirt on the bottoms of feet, chopsticks falling over when bumped, or a zipper catching the sunlight contribute to the overall feel of the film. In the beginning of the movie, when Chihiro’s father exclaims he has four-wheel drive, he does! He is driving a first-generation Audi A4 Sedan complete with the trademark "Quattro" four-wheel drive system.

This attention to detail is also a useful tool for developing characters. Chihiro is supposed to be a typical ten-year-old, so she behaves as such. When she puts on her shoes, she does so with extra care and taps the toe of each shoe to make sure they fit properly. In another scene, the girl’s parents call for her, but she doesn’t answer until the second time; many of the movie’s staff even suggested that she shouldn’t reply until the third time, because of the unresponsive nature of young girls.

5. The river spirit was inspired by Miyazaki’s experience cleaning a river

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In one scene, a “stink spirit” comes to the bathhouse to get clean. Chihiro finds a bicycle handle sticking out the gunky creature’s side. After wrapping a rope around the handle and pulling it out, the gooey beast is revealed to be the spirit of a polluted river.

This scene is actually based on a real experience. “I cleaned a river once,” Miyazaki said. “My local river. And there really was a bicycle. It was stuck in there. Ten of us wrapped a rope around the bars and slowly pulled it out. We really cleaned up the river, and the fish are back. And that’s why I added that scene.”

6. The little extra scenes are called 'ma'

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Quiet scenes of inaction, where a character might glance off into the distance or sit quietly, are a common occurrence in Miyazaki’s films. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Miyazaki explained the usefulness of these. "If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it's just busyness, But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb."

7. Pixar’s John Lasseter championed the film

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John Lasseter is the chief creative officer of Pixar and is responsible for the Toy Story and Cars franchises. When he was a young animator at Disney, members of Miyazaki's company, Studio Ghibli, came to visit the office to learn the American style of animation. Wowed by the Japanese animators, Lasseter became inspired.

After working with computer animation, Lasseter visited Studio Ghibli in 1987. Ignoring warnings that Miyazaki hated computer animation, Lasseter showed the filmmaker Luxo Jr. and Red’s Dream. The videos were a hit and a friendship was born.

The first screening of Spirited Away outside of Japan was at Pixar Studios. Miyazaki then asked Lasseter to help him with the English dub. The Pixar director convinced Disney to buy the distribution rights, and went on to be the executive producer of the film’s American version. Thanks to his tireless campaigning, the movie was a hit.

8. Disney wasn’t the first American studio to try to court Ghibli

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Studio Ghibli has always been a highly sought-after business. For over 20 years, American studios had tried to acquire the studio. Toshio Suzuki, the producer of Spirited Away, turned these offers down, but Disney finally came up with a unique deal. There were two pre-conditions: they wanted all the films, and they would not alter or the cut the films at all. Suzuki found these terms favorable and accepted.

9. Miyazaki explained how many of the scenes should be animated with animal analogies

To help the animators understand how the characters moved, Miyazaki would ask them to draw inspiration from animals. When explaining the scene when an injured Haku falls into the boiler room, the filmmaker uses three animals to describe the action. The dragon clings to the wall like a gecko, before falling to the ground like a snake. When Chihiro feeds Haku the medicine, Miyazaki asks the animators to use a dog’s mouth as a model. No one on the team had a dog, so they went to a veterinarian’s office with a camera.

10. Spirited Away broke box-office records

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The movie earned 30.4 billion yen, making it the highest grossing film in Japanese history, overtaking Titanic at the box office. The record has yet to be broken, but some expect Frozen to be a strong contender.

11. The characters' names reflect who they are

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Boh means little boy or son, Kamaji means old boiler man, Yubaba means bathhouse witch, and Zeniba means money witch. The heroine Chihiro means a thousand fathoms or searches, while her worker name, Sen, just means thousand.

12. Dialog was added to clarify certain elements in the America version

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There are several times in the American version where Chihiro seems to narrate what she sees or what’s going on This was added in and was not part of the original. In an interview with John Lasseter, he explained that it was a necessary addition to help clarify certain elements for American audiences. For example, what is clearly a bathhouse to a Japanese viewer might not be apparent to an American viewer, so this translation issue was fixed by having the character explain, “Oh, it’s a bathhouse.”

13. You probably know the American voice actress for Chihiro

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If the voice of the American Chihiro sounds familiar to you, it might be because you saw Lilo & Stitch (Spirited Away’s direct competition for Best Animated Feature the same year). The American voice actress of Chihiro, Daveigh Chase, played Lilo. You might also know her as the sister in Donnie Darko, Rhonda from Big Love, or Samara from The Ring.

14. Miyazaki did not attend the 2003 Academy Awards Due to His Opposition to the Iraq War

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Despite the fact that Spirited Away was nominated for Best Animated Feature (and won!), Miyazaki quietly declined to attend the ceremony. He did not publicly explain why until 2009, when he opened up to The New York Times at Comic-Con. The filmmaker was against America’s invasion of Iraq, but the producer of Spirited Away requested that he did not vocalize these opinions.

15. You can visit the setting for Spirited Away in real life

The packed streets and elaborate bathhouse of the movie can thank downtown Juifen in Taiwan for its beautiful design. Here you can find familiar sights and sounds that resemble the bustling spirit town. Miyazaki is said to have visited a popular teahouse while staying there that showed up in the movie as the bathhouse. If you ever find yourself in Taiwan, it is definitely worth the visit to relive all the magic of the movie.

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15 Things You May Not Know About Close Encounters of the Third Kind
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Columbia Pictures

We are not alone. Here are a few facts about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, on its 40th anniversary.

1. IT WAS INITIALLY A VERY DIFFERENT FILM.

Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.

2. IT’S NAMED AFTER LEGITIMATE UFO RESEARCH.


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Spielberg partly based his idea on the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book who eventually admitted that 11 percent of the study’s findings about unidentified flying objects could not be explained using science.

The title (which is never specifically explained in the movie) is actually derived from Hynek’s own alien close encounter classification system: A close encounter of the first kind is sighting of a UFO; the second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien; and the third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

3. THERE’S A CAMEO FROM THE GODFATHER OF UFO RESEARCH.

Hynek, who also served as a technical advisor on the movie, makes an uncredited cameo in the final scene of the movie. You can spot him pretty easily—he’s the goateed man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens.

4. NOBODY WANTED THE STARRING ROLE.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Columbia Pictures

The director first offered the part of Roy Neary to actor Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he said he couldn’t cry on cue, something he saw as essential to the character. Spielberg then went to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan who all turned him down as well before asking his friend Richard Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Spielberg on Jaws, to take the part.

5. BUT IT WASN'T THE MOST DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.

Spielberg approached French actors like Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Claude Lacombe—who was based on famous UFO researcher Jacques Vallée—before settling on director and sometimes-actor François Truffaut. The initially skeptical Truffaut, who was nervous about appearing in a big budget Hollywood movie, accepted the role because he wanted to compile research for a book about acting (he never did write the book).

6. MERYL STREEP COULD HAVE PLAYED ROY'S WIFE.

Many actresses—including a then-unknown Yale Drama School grad named Meryl Streep—auditioned for the part of Roy’s wife Ronnie, but he ultimately cast actress Teri Garr because he saw her in a coffee commercial and loved the way she was able to convey a wide range of emotions in a 30-second clip.

7. THEY SHOT IN A DISUSED AIR FORCE HANGAR.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg wanted to shoot in real suburban locations rather than studio backlots, but the production had trouble finding locations. The biggest question: Where could Spielberg shoot the climactic canyon sequence with the mothership?

The production looked for huge indoor enclosures that would allow for the massive scale of the scene, though they only found ones with center support dividers that spoiled the openness Spielberg wanted for the UFO runway. The only location producers found without center dividers was a 300 foot by 300 foot disused hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama.

8. THE TEAM BOUGHT A HOUSE FOR THE PRODUCTION—AND SOLD IT FOR A PROFIT.

The Nearys' house, which is located at 1613 Carlisle Drive East in Mobile, was actually purchased by the production for $35,000 so they could do whatever they wanted with the interiors. It was later sold for $50,000 after production wrapped, netting a $15,000 surplus that went back into the film’s budget.

9. THE MEMORABLE 5-NOTE TONES TOOK A LONG TIME TO FIGURE OUT

Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.

10. SPIELBERG USED TRICKS TO GET THE PERFORMANCE OUT OF HIS CHILD ACTOR.


Columbia Pictures

Cary Guffey, who plays little Barry Guiler, had never acted before, so Spielberg set up ways to coax a performance out of the 3-year-old. To get a shot of Guffey reacting to the aliens first approaching the Guiler house, Spielberg slowly unwrapped a present for the young actor just off camera, making him smile. Guffey even exclaims “Toys! Toys!” in the final take.

To get the boy to react to the aliens offscreen, Spielberg had Guffey walk up to his mark where—unbeknownst to the little actor—two crewmembers were dressed as a gorilla and a clown standing behind cardboard blinds. When Guffey entered the kitchen, Spielberg dropped the first blind revealing the clown to scare him, and then dropped the other blind to reveal the gorilla, which scared him even more. The gorilla then took off his mask, revealing the film’s makeup man, Bob Westmoreland, who Guffey recognized, causing him to laugh and smile in the final take.

11. THE MOVIE NEARLY FEATURED VERY EARLY CGI.

Spielberg originally toyed with the idea of using computer generated images to create the aliens and their ships, even going so far as to have animator Colin Cantwell create a CGI test of three UFOs floating over a stadium. The single-shot test, which took three weeks to complete and was one of the first computer generated images ever created for a film, proved to be unfeasible for the whole movie—so the idea was dropped.

12. THERE WERE SOME UNORTHODOX IDEAS FOR CREATING THE ALIENS.

Spielberg wanted the aliens to be non-human beings that glided instead of walked, and he had a weird idea to pull it off: An orangutan dressed in a specially-made suit. For a screen test, the production team outfitted an orangutan in grey spandex and strapped it into roller skates. The orangutan immediately took off the skates and crawled to its owner, so a full test couldn’t be completed, and the team scrapped the idea. The majority of the small aliens in the final movie were played by local elementary school girls from Mobile in specially made grey suits and masks who were heavily backlit to create the final alien silhouette effect.

13. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FEATURES A PRECURSOR TO E.T.


Columbia Pictures

To create the alien who bids farewell using the musical hand signals at the end of the film, Spielberg enlisted the help of Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who designed a fully articulated steel, aluminum, and fiberglass animatronic puppet that Spielberg nicknamed “Puck.” Puck’s expressions were based on photos of Guffey. The puppet was operated by a crew of seven puppeteers, with Spielberg himself controlling the final articulation before the alien leaves to go to the mothership.

Puck would help inspire E.T. after Spielberg asked himself, “What if this little guy didn’t get back on the mothership?” Rambaldi would also go on to design the character of E.T.

14. SPIELBERG BET AGAINST HIS OWN MOVIE—AND REALLY CASHED IN.

Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas both had new movies coming out in 1977; Lucas’s was a little movie called Star Wars. Lucas thought his ramshackle space movie wouldn’t make back its budget, and he knew his friend’s new movie would break box office records just like Jaws had done, so he offered Spielberg a friendly wager. Both agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of the profits of their respective films. Lucas grossly underestimated his movie, which went on to become the second highest grossing movie of all time if adjusted for inflation (in comparison, Close Encounters is #71). The difference ended up being $40 million.

15. SPIELBERG DIDN'T LIKE THE VERSION THAT WAS INITIALLY RELEASED.

Spielberg wanted to release Close Encounters in the summer of 1978, which would have given him ample time to edit the film and finish its special effects—but Columbia Pictures, which was going through major financial troubles, insisted he have it ready for a November 1977 release, leaving the director with a final cut on a movie he didn’t feel was completely ready. 

Three years later, the company allowed Spielberg to “finish” the movie under one condition: That he show the inside of the mothership, which would give the studio’s marketing department an angle to sell this new version. The director capitulated, adding new scenes and cutting others to create a “Special Edition.” The director was unhappy with the scene, though, and later cut it for the Collector's Edition home video release.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:Blu-ray special features; Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic FilmClose Encounters of the Third Kind Diary.

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What Happens to Films Selected for Preservation by the Library of Congress?
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On Wednesday morning, the Library of Congress announced its latest slate of movies selected for permanent safekeeping in the National Film Registry. As always, the picks varied widely. The National Film Registry’s class of 2017 includes Dumbo (1941), The Goonies (1985), Die Hard (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), and Titanic (1997), plus the home movies of a Mexican-American family of life in Corpus Christi, Texas in the 1920s.

Originally established in 1988, the National Film Preservation Act tasks the board with selecting American films that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically" significant. They can pick up to 25 per year, and the movies must be at least 10 years old. The National Film Preservation Board is made up of representatives from a number of industry organizations, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Directors Guild of America, and the National Society of Film Critics. With the new selections, there are 725 films in the registry.

Selection for the registry is an honor, of course, but what does it mean beyond that? How does the Library of Congress, the U.S. legislature’s storage agency for documents and media, go about preserving movies?

According to Steve Leggett, program coordinator for the National Film Preservation Board, selection implores the Library of Congress to get the best possible copy of the film in its original format and store it in their vaults at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. This ensures the film will be available to future generations.

For Hollywood movies, the process is usually pretty easy. “We simply ask the studio to donate a copy,” Leggett told Mental Floss in 2015. In some cases, that isn’t even necessary. The Library of Congress has more than 1 million films on file, many of them sent by studios or filmmakers for the sake of copyright registry. When the original Star Wars was selected in 1989, Leggett says, congressional librarians simply checked that the 35 millimeter print submitted with Lucasfilm’s copyright application was in good shape. It was, so no further action was needed.

For older and more esoteric selections like newsreels, silent films, documentaries, and early technical achievements in filmmaking, Leggett says the library often seeks out a copy from the community of preservationists. Universities, private foundations, and hobbyists that preserve old films might get a call from the Library of Congress if they have a good copy of a National Film Registry selection. In rare cases, the library will barter for the film, using redundant materials on its shelves. Other times, it will make a copy or pay the archivist to make a new 35 millimeter copy for them. The Culpeper facility stores nitrate prints, the original film stock for many early movies, in specialty lockers because the material is highly volatile and flammable.

Silent films can be tricky because studios often released, revised, and then re-released versions of the film. When one is selected, Library of Congress archivists collect as many aspects and versions of the film as they can, which might mean contacting several studios and archivists.

Of particular challenge in 2015 was the induction of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, William Greaves’s quasi-documentary of his 1968 theatrical project staged in Central Park. The film was screened often through the years, as Greaves gained a cult following. It was released on DVD in 2006, but the National Film Preservation Act specified that the library should seek a copy in the original format, which it didn’t have. Leggett said Greaves’s 1968 original cut was “lost,” but the library worked with the late filmmaker's estate to create a new 35 millimeter version that resembled it.

The Audio-Visual Conservation Center itself, buried on a mountainside, has storage space controlled to stay cool and dry. “A film could survive for hundreds of years there,” Leggett says. He admits the audiovisual center wouldn’t survive a nuclear strike—in the event of World War III, the world might lose its best copy of Buster Keaton’s The General—“but it did survive an earthquake with all materials intact.”

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