In simple terms, what you see when watching an anime is the culmination of two different visual elements – the animation, which is the things that move, and the art, which is the static backdrop. After the director approves the layout for a cut, which is like the rough blueprint of how each shot will look, the anime production model generally splits these elements into two separate streams, with both the animation production and the art department using the layout as the basis to develop their side of it. The person responsible for delivering the art is credited as Art Director, usually a series-wide role. The art is often hand-painted on large sheets using a variety of techniques or is sometimes drawn digitally.
When complete and scanned digitally, the two streams are reunited by the photography/compositing stage of production which will then lead into any finishing effects work. Why am I telling you this? Because this season two anime in particular made me break my usual focus on animation appreciation and made me take a good hard look at the other side of the fence. They made me, dammit!
The two anime in question are Orange and Prisma Ilya 3rei Hertz, and their art snatched my attention for totally opposite reasons. Put frankly, those reasons are that Illya was utterly pathetic while Orange is very good. But before I get into kicking heads and patting backs on these two, I want to speak more generally on how anime uses background art.
Anime has been traditionally known as being geared towards effective layouts rather than pure animation and one of the ways this manifests is in a strong focus on the art stream. Anime considered to be ‘high quality’ and anime with large budgets also tend to have high-quality background art. Movies such as Miyazaki’s Ghibli outings, down to television anime like Attack on Titan or even Kill la Kill create rich, attractive works of art as a canvas for their animation. If you want to ogle at such high-grade backgrounds, head over to http://anime-backgrounds.tumblr.com/, from which I pinched some examples:
In some cases, the background art is given even more attention, becoming a driving artistic component of the series. A good example of this is Ghost in the Shell, where Mamoru Oshii ensured that every deeply detailed background helped build the richly textured and absorbing near-future world of the story. In Revolutionary Girl Utena director Kunihiko Ikuhara’s entangled his backgrounds with his narrative, using abstraction, architecture and visual metaphor to speak to the audience. This striking use of background art has become a defining trait of his.
Generally speaking, anime can at least put out settings and background art that act as an unobtrusive back-drop. Mediocre series from several prolific studios take this route, producing basic, bland still art that’s almost schematic in nature. When they need a house in the background it’s just a house; the backgrounds are technically not lacking but do not portray a lived-in and realistic feeling or any sense of artistic beauty or creativity. This kind of art direction is doing its job if you don’t notice it at all.
I’ve only rarely seen anime with art poor enough to actually make itself jump out at you for the wrong reasons, and when it happens it’s like a rude slap in the face, totally taking you out of the scene. The anime slapping me without restraint this season is Illya. It first hit me when Illya and friends walk into Miyu’s beachside ‘mansion’.
I say mansion, but it actually looks like more of a repurposed storage warehouse decorated by a photoshop artist. This is the kind of ugly monstrosity of a house I probably designed in The Sims when I was a kid. This vast, empty entrance hall with its absolutely illogical design and awkward symmetry actually gave off an unsettling surreal feeling. For what purpose would such a room have been designed? An amphitheatre-like internal balcony, spare of all furniture save for a single cupboard, the lack of decoration, the fact there are no supporting columns, the placement of the rooms, it’s all so unnatural. I could go on, but I think it’s pretty clear that no one would build a house like this.
It’s also clear that the artist who did it copied and pasted objects into some kind of 3D schematic instead of drawing it. The windows, doors and railing posts are all identical, even down to the shading. That process isn’t intrinsically a bad thing, but it is when it is so glaringly evident as this. The castle of the Ainsworth family is just as bad, only on a much grander scale:
Every part of it looks like it’s been copied from another part and I don’t believe for a second that anyone with such extreme wealth would build a castle so ugly and lacking in any kind of architectural personality. Maybe they could only afford a kit-home castle. Gross.
By the time later episodes introduced the snow-laden abandoned school I was legitimately disturbed by what I saw:
You’ll need to click through to the full size images for these ones to see the problems:
On top of that, the layouts are totally dull and uninspired, seemingly framing scenes in such a way as to make the background art and composition job as simple as possible. Wherever they can, scenes are made flat, straight and symmetrical, often lined up with one or more structural geometries in the backgrounds. There is a clear attempt to avoid any difficult three-dimensional perspectives.
The composition and touch-up in post-production also seems intent on doing as little work as possible, with no interesting shadow, glare, glint or transparency effects being used. Illya has wowed me with its action animation in the past, and it usually animates itself passably, but if you look past the cute girls for a moment you’ll realise it’s a very ugly series.
Fortunately, the anime Orange achieved the opposite, bringing genuine beauty to the realistic setting of mountain-straddling urban Japan that borders on breathtaking at times.
Orange is also set in and around a Japanese school, which makes it all the more easy to compare and contrast with Illya’s abominable attempt.The difference is gobsmacking because Orange’s setting actually looks like a school rather than an unfinished soviet war prison.
Notice a few key points on Orange’s art:
- You can see through the windows into the room detail.
- The windows show reflection and glare.
- The curtains are actually slightly transparent and they are all drawn at slightly different positions, kind of like how they would be IN REALITY.
- The ground isn’t just a flat concrete texture as far as the eye can see but has stains, marks, manholes, joints, etc.
- There is glare of harsh sunlight and shadows cast naturally throughout all of the background objects rather than starkly applied only when a cel or object clearly calls for it. The absence of sun or shadow in Illya’s world is a big part of how lifeless it feels.
- All of the signs, noticeboards etc are not copied in from some other templates but drawn as part of the background.
- The scenes are often shot at interesting angles not aligned dead-on with building edges and faces.
- The blackboards have clear chalk-rub smears.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Orange good, Illya bad.
The man in charge of Illya’s art is Hiroshi Morikawa, associated with Studio Kaimu, who has an extensive history generating backgrounds but is brand new to the role of art director. This is a change – Takeshi Tateishi, associated with the preferable Studio Tulip, handled the previous two seasons. A note on Takeshi – he has two ANN entries (1 , 2) but is actually the one person.
The change is certainly noticeable – although IIlya has always had the same kind of approach to art direction, in this latest season it has demonstrably fallen in terms of quality. The episode credits for background art reveal that it’s largely handled by three studios, the aforementioned Kaimu, and the Korean companies DR MOVIE and GACHI PRODUCTION. The involvement of DR MOVIE and GACHI PRODUCTION doesn’t say a lot in and of itself, as they are widespread in the industry and are secondary artists supporting Kaimu (GACHI PRODUCTION even had a hand in production art on an Orange episode). However, the last time Morikawa, Kaimu and these two companies comprised the art department for a series was Subete ga F ni Naru and that show had similarly bland background work.
This time, Morikawa has been elevated from just a background artist to the art director. I also suspect that, as Illya’s Studio Kaimu credits lists no names under it, it largely refers to Morikawa himself. A stretched one-man lead background artist with no experienced art director oversight and only offshore companies to back him up is a recipe for disaster.
Was the change in art direction to try and tackle the alternate winter world in a different way? Maybe. To be fair to Morikawa, the few ‘money-shot’ depictions of snow-covered forests didn’t look too shabby. Or perhaps it was an economic measure. I suspect Morikawa comes cheap, given his obvious skill for copying and pasting objects, stretching textures and using few staff. This would certainly save a lot of effort and time compared to hand painted artworks such as those used on Orange. Whatever the reason, it backfired and it’s a bad look for directors Masato Jinbo and Shin Oonuma. The higher-ups of the Illya franchise need to have a good hard think about whether they still care about the series or not, because it sure looks like they don’t.
At the end of the day here, the real difference is that the art direction in Orange is geared toward a fine art approach, which is probably considered to be the norm for anime. It’s particularly good at it, but it’s not the talent of the artists behind this show that so starkly differentiates it from Illya – the fact is that Illya takes a wholly different approach. Illya’s art direction is about constructing a perfunctory back-drop – it just has to be a place with the requisite details and objects present. The episode director asks for a scene in a school and he gets the bare-bones recognition level school we see. There’s no art in it at all, it does not portray a world or support the atmosphere of the show, it’s just there. However this season of Illya is even worse – it’s not ‘just there’, it’s glaringly, overwhelmingly bad.