Behind The Model: How 'Spirited Away' Inspired Haneko to Start VTuber Rigging

VTuber riggers are an important part of the community, and Haneko wears that heavy crown with pride.

Haneko took a less than traditional path into one of VTubing’s most important roles.

Inspired by old school Studio Ghibli animations growing up, they knew they wanted to have a career in animation from the moment they set eyes on Spirited Away. But back then, animation was a very closeted space to break into.

Years later, Haneko took the dive. They had spent their childhood drawing in that classic anime style, but the animation schools in the West tried to steer away from that. After being told their work wasn’t good enough before and during college, they went solo.

“The anime style, as I mentioned, is the more popular style in the eastern countries. I grew up on it and that’s the style I’m used to,” they explained.

“There was a lot of discouragement around at the time. There was a lack of self-confidence in my own art. If you say I want to be an artist, people who care about you will usually be like ‘are you sure you can make it? Do you think you have what it takes to succeed?’

“And I wasn’t sure, and I’m still not. I just know it’s something I want to do.”

With Live2D joining the fray as Fire Emblem: Fates and VTubing came onto the block, there was a new pathway for the aspiring animator—even if there were a few roadblocks to jump through given the program wasn’t even translated at this point.

“I remember I was just having trouble exporting the model or getting it to move and stay at an angle,” they laughed. “I didn’t know what all the buttons meant. It was a lot of trial and error.

“It’s a weird tangent but it reminded me of when I played Pokemon in Japanese because I didn’t have the Korean or English version. I didn’t know how to save so I just had to remember the katakana for ‘save’. It reminded me of those days.”

Nowadays, rigging models in Live2D and other similar programs isn’t some hobby activity. The animation space has found a new medium, bringing individual models alive for virtual stars to shine with just a cutout and a webcam.

That’s a gross oversimplification of the depth of VTuber rigging in 2023, but before the 2020 boom, the community didn’t have anywhere near the level of resources available today.

“It’s just constantly updating and it’s so good to see the programmers continue to improve the tools we have to make even cooler models in the future.

“One of the more recent tools I still need to learn about is called Blend Shape. I heard it helps with the mouth movements. You can also change the color of parts of your model without having to go into Photoshop and you can use that to key your model and change colors live without being much of a hassle.

“There’s so many things they’re improving and I’m excited to see one day when schools like the one I went to have Live2D as a program to teach.”

Haneko has gone on to partake in industry-defining projects, including the Apex Legends Gaiden event collaboration. They had a hand in rigging two VTuber models for Respawn and EA, as well as helping get the entire project off the ground.

“When the person who was in charge of the project was given the [approval] to plan out the scope of things, he asked me for help for an idea of how the process works. I introduced him to some artists, I talked about my process a bit, and he got a team together.

“He felt my rigging was good enough for the project, so I was very honored. I would have felt good just helping out a bit at the beginning, but it made me really happy I got to work on such a cool project and meet a bunch of different artists in the community and make great relationships with them.”

However, when it comes down to it, Haneko is here to “help people reach those dreams.” The reason they got into animation was because they saw a little bit of themselves in Spirited Away’s Chihiro. Now they can bring that fantasy of being an anime character to life.

“Most riggers usually end up starting off with a wish and a hope to become an anime character because they’re all little nerds like me.

“You know 2wintails? I collabed with her a bit when we were starting out. She used a VRoid model at the time. She started out wanting to be an anime character and doing silly things together.

“There’s a little bit of all of us who wants to be a cartoon character inside, and afterwards, it becomes a matter of wanting to help other people achieve that dream because it’s been a great journey for me.”

As the space continues to evolve with major 3D debuts daily and massive improvements in rigging technology, Haneko is here for the ride ⁠— and hopefully make a full-time career out of it.

“I would say I can’t see myself doing anything else. Even if I’m not successful, this is something I wanted to do always, and sometimes that’s life I guess.”

Watch Haneko’s full story in their Behind The Model episode below.