I’ve been really enjoying this new season of Attack on Titan so far. Of course, we’re only two episodes in and I know that’s not saying much when we’re talking about a WIT production, but it’s already streets ahead of last year. Season 2 seemed to be deeply unsure of itself, intent on recapturing the spirit of the original blockbuster hit series but also desperately worried that the audience would fall asleep if it didn’t keep them entertained with constant action and campy effects. Attack on Titan has always worked best when it embraces its strengths as a unique character driven storie, only punctuated by moments of furious action. I was afraid that assistant-made-director Masashi Koizuka would never understand that, but he seems to have reflected on the missteps of last year.
This latest episode definitely got that mix right, taking the time to advance its plot in detail, and dwell on the personal impacts of the violent encounters on its strangely loveable cast. And violent encounters there were, with Levi and his squad’s shockingly sudden and ferocious face-off against rival soldiers through the streets of the city being probably the most impressive sequence of action animation the title has ever pulled off.
It still didn’t quite match the dramatic impact of the original episodes, but it was the first time in a hell of a long time that Attack on Titan had me teetering on the edge of my seat and in awe of the raw speed, power and skill on display.
From an animation perspective there were two particularly stand out cuts, which really took things to the next level.
But the cut that I found more exciting that I’ll focus on a bit was the very next beat.
For want of a better pun, this is right up my alley. Both of these sequences are blatant, unapologetic showing off in the best way possible, taking the ideas at the heart of the show’s action animation – sheer, adrenaline fueled speed and dynamism – and pushing it as far as it can go.
From the very first season, Attack on Titan saw the 3D maneuver gear combat as not just a unique challenge in producing the show, but also an opportunity to create action the like of which people hadn’t really seen before. The thing they had to get right was making the audience really feel the acceleration and momentum that these characters were thrusting themselves into. We have to be right there with them as they swing and propel themselves between buildings, launching from the shoulders of hungry titans or pivoting from ledge to ledge.
The most obvious and probably critical tool in Titan’s arsenal is the use of 3D backgrounds. Most anime use static background layers, even in their actions shots. 3D backgrounds are a lot more work to produce and are generally only be used for important cuts where the camera has to rotate (like how KyoAni used it in Keion’s OP). Of course, you can still create riveting action sequences with 2D backdrops – just look at Masahiro Andou’s work in the currently airing Sirious the Jaeger. But if you want to create the kind of battles that Titan has, you need the camera to truly move with the character, keeping pace with their extreme speed and aerobatic techniques.
Animated backgrounds used to be the only way to do this, but 3DCG backgrounds are far more suited to this kind of task as they allow detailed renders that match the fine art qualities of a normal 2D background to move with the camera in absolutely realistic ways. The realistic sense of space and proportions of the background while in fast motion ensure our disbelief is kept suspended while all the little details – individual tiles, bricks and windows flying past the screen work to make our eyes understand the velocity with a grounded sense of scale.
I’m making it sound easy, but it obviously takes more work than most projects are willing or able to invest and this week’s Titan has done it exceptionally well. Especially in the latter sequence; the dense lived-in feel of the buildings down the alley and the way the bar approaches at the end is just great.
But it takes a lot more than 3D backgrounds to make a moment this exhilarating. Picture that gif without Levi and the effects in it; you could tell it was fast, sure, but you wouldn’t feel the speed. It would be boring, to be honest.
The remarkable thing about this sequence is the fact that the animator (Arifumi Irai) went to the nth degree to do everything in their power to portray the thrilling motion. Every frame seems to have some hidden facet to it that, in sum with the others, brings the whole scene to perfect fruition.
As Levi bounds from wall to wall, his body is stretched and contorted, his hair blows back, his shirt presses against his chest; the forces of momentum, gravity and air resistance are all on display, underscoring the physicality of it.
The layered and detailed effects that occur in mere instants are not grandstanded but are humbly used just to ramp up the overall intensity and heat of the chase. These frames are quite impressive on their own but they barely have time to feel like key frames. I also think this frame of Levi’s face reflected in a passing window is a great example of how much detail went into storyboarding and creating this fleeting sequence.
Here Levi leaps onto a wooden scaffold, jumping over a box, avoiding an explosion, scraping his gear along a stone wall and finally flinging off the end. Honestly, it could have just been a wooden surface – the box and the rice bags aren’t essential. And I didn’t even notice the detail of his gear hitting the brick until I freeze-framed it. But again, it’s the extra effort that went into these furnishings that make the scene remarkable and not just good. Interacting with the objects around him gives Levi’s flight a certain kineticism that it wouldn’t have it he was just free-flying in open space.
It’s probably a good time to talk about the impressive undertaking it would have been to animate these cuts with the combined factors of high speed, rotating camera, and layers of effects. Remember that Levi and the sparks and flames surrounding him are just 2D layers totally divorced from the 3 dimensionality of the backgrounds. The buildings in the background will perfectly match every whim of the camera, but when it comes to the drawings, the animator needs to make sure the angles and proportions of their subjects evoke the same effect.
Only very careful planning and strong technical skills can ensure that from frame to frame Levi is realistically in step with the velocity of the camera and the vectors of every object around him. Dealing with any one of these is often a technical challenge, but all three must be quite maddening. Nonetheless Imai was more than up to the task.
The use of relative smearing in that last screenshot is also interesting – the speed being emphasized closer to the camera is an added dash of faux realism alluding to both speed and dynamic depth.
All of these aspects are put to work in the next part – Levi scrapes and rebounds off the ground with true momentum, creating a fuhror of effects as he then dodges a blast before firing his gear at the screen which is strongly emphasised with smears to give it that extra degree of dynamism. Make no mistake, this is a kind of fast, frenetic and furious action that we have rarely seen in anime before period.
It’s got enough thought put into it that it could have been a storyboard for at least a whole episode of a typical anime yet it was over in just a matter of seconds. It’s taking this expanse of deeply considered ideas and work and then compressing it into a fleeting moment that I believe truly makes us feel the speed in the way the creators hoped.
From what I’ve heard, the entire sequence was not only solo key animated but also single-handedly storyboarded by the series’ lead action animator, Arifumi Imai. It also took him about a month to complete the storyboard for it – which really is longer than a lot of anime get for entire episodes. It’s not at all surprising that this kind of sequence was both envisioned and executed by one talented individual – I think difficult sequences this complex need the hands of someone who has the perfect picture of it in their own head.
So, all praise to Imai. I just really hope that the series has another of his solo efforts up their sleeves for a a later episode!