Depth in Anime – Photography, Compositing and Animation

So I watched the first episode of A-1 Picture’s ‘Granblue Fantasy the Animation’ last night. Not sure I’m a fan. Like so many other anime these days, Granblue appears to be a victim of its own ambition. On the surface of it, it has all the hallmarks of a big-win production – ornate, beautiful characters, battle sequences, lots of lavish detail. But put into practice, these building blocks of greatness don’t fall into place. There are signs of production stress all throughout – symptoms of the issues that caused them to delay the release of the anime by a season. This is all too common in TV anime today, but the reason I am picking on Granblue Fantasy is because its issues are harder to put a finger on. It’s not like there are blatantly disfigured drawings of the characters or incomplete cuts. Rather, there’s just this jarring sense of something not being right – it doesn’t feel like quality animation.

This is because the detail in the raw drawings are not the issue. As drawings, they are fine, but by the time they hit our screen they often come off looking flat and awkward against their backdrops. This is an issue that’s often a lot harder for people to pinpoint than shoddy pencil draftsmanship. It’s the product of a web of processes and techniques, of approaches to animation, and the art of compositing in photography. In this case, the drawings come off looking flat and out of place because these factors have failed to produce a sense of depth to the scenes, or of natural distance between layers. When the opposite occurs and skillful photography seamlessly binds artful animation, anime can take your breathe away with rich, cinematic depth.

Photography in Anime Production

Most of the sense of depth in anime is injected in the photography stage of production. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s make sure we’re all across the basics – what is photography in anime? To convey this, I’ll run through the whole process briefly to show how it fits in. If you already know how things work, feel free to skip this section! In the first instance, I’m also going to talk about the process as it was back in the days when it was produced by physically filming cels. It is easy to think about the concepts of photography by relating it back to analogue era and then seeing how new digital technologies now replicate the same approach within computer software.

The storyboard is broken up into a series of cuts (generally marked by a change in camera angle or transition). The key animator usually draws the layout for a cut, which is like the blue-print for the composition of the shot/sequence – what actors/objects will be in it, where they will be placed in what layers, and what the background is going to be. From this point, the fine arts team work on the backgrounds, while the animation department works on the key frame drawings and the in-betweens.

In anime nowadays, there is further work on the key animation, with varying amounts of touch-up, animation direction (senior animators correcting the drawings to the character designs and tweaking the movements). Once the drawings are done, they are handed over to painters. Traditionally, they meticulously painted each frame onto celluloid (clear plastic sheets), cleaning them up at the same time. These finished product are referred to as cels. Nowadays, this painting is done digitally after scanning the drawings. Either way, these cels are then delivered to photography.

Originally the photography department loaded the cels into the animation stand. The animation stand is a production apparatus and system that allows the cels to be systematically loaded into a rack over the top of each other, forming layers. A camera is mounted above the stand, facing down, to capture them on film. Between each layer, lighting can be applied to stop shadowing creeping in or for other effects. In the most primitive form, you load the background sheet on the bottom layer, and then have one cel in a layer directly above it (say a person standing at a bus stop). If the bus needed to pull up in front of the person, the bus would be added in the rack over the top of the other two, creating a third layer. The work of utilising these layers and their interactions is called compositing.

Each frame is then captured on film with a mounted camera. Between each shot, the cels can be re-ordered, swapped in or out, or simply moved horizontally or vertically. The two sources of motion that can be seen of anime are therefore changes in pose with different cels, or relative movement of cels and/or background. Again, this work is referred to as compositing.

In addition, there are a whole suite of effects that are applied at this photography stage, such as making more distant layers blurrier than others, and adding other digital effects. One example might be making everything overlaid with a pale white colour during a snow scene, or applying enhanced shine of the sun of metallic surfaces or the glimmer on the water. These effects are handled by the photography team because they must work across all layers, bridging them together with holistic consideration for lighting and distance.

Although it may appear to be 3DCG at first glance, this effect from Mushishi was achieved by applying effects to hand-drawn cels during photography.

To summarise, the photography department take on the completed, coloured drawings and all other elements that are featured in a particular cut (such as background art and 3DCG) and combine them into a recording, adding any effects that can act across all the layers. These days, the elements are combined in computer software rather than an anime stand, but the approach and scope has largely carried through – dealing with the various layers, moving them between frames, and handling lighting and effects.

One of the new challenges in photography these days is compositing with both 2D and 3DCG animation and not creating an uneven sense of space and depth between them. This is getting better and better. Take a look at Fuuka, in this band scene. Coordinating the 3DCG of the instruments and 2D animation of the characters would likely have been difficult, but even a relatively poorly produced anime like this can pull it off.

Anime has started to become proficient in having 2D and 3D layers interact as shown by the characters playing 3DCG instruments.

Photography as Animation

Part of the final product we call animation is actually the direct outcome of photography – movement achieved by shifting the layers relative to each other to produce motion.

Take this walking shot. The key animation defines the convincing walk cycle, but it is the photography work that actually depicts them as moving forward by pulling the background across behind them. More specifically, this cut implies that the camera is panning along, following them. Going back to the example of the animation stand, the camera does not need to be moved, just the layers it is filming.

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On the flip side, the background can be left static, and the cels or other layers can be shifted frame-by-frame to indicate that they are moving. This gives the effect that the camera is fixed while the actors or objects are moving.

Either way, it is the work of photography that creates the real motion by shifting layers, while they key animation creates the pose cycles that make it convincing. Clouds parting, doors opening, objects falling, mouths moving, many small pieces of movement within a scene are not brought to movement by an animator but by photography.

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The movement of the castle in this cut from Howl’s moving castle is done by moving static 2D drawings.

 

Only through careful compositing can you pull off all of these kinds of camera movements and layer movements in a convincing way. If the audience perceives an incongruence in the relative movement of layers or the space between them, the intended effect can be off-putting and feel cheap. Picture the example of a car driving along a road – in the worst case the viewer might not get the sense that the car is moving. Sure, you can work out that that’s probably what’s happening by the images involved, but it certainly won’t feel realistic or natural.

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In addition to hilariously bad key animation, this cut from Higurashi Kai feels wrong because the relative movement of layers is unnatural – the cel layer feels detached, as though it’s just floating.

Another thing that compositing can get right to bring out the space between layers is the relativity of movement during pans. If all layers moved together it would look like they were sliding awkwardly together across the backdrop. Instead, the pan of the camera is implied by the layers moving, and how fast one layer moves over another creates space between them. Notice in the Inuyasha gif above, there are two background layers that are moving at different speeds to imply depth – if the fence and the cityscape moved together it would not have felt succiciently three-dimensional to be believable.

Cinematic Depth

The keyword that I just reached is depth. While there are certainly contrarian examples that I’ll get to later, generally speaking anime aims to replicate a sense of reality and a cinematic flavour. In other words, it wants its shots to feel like they are occurring in a full-bodied, three dimensional natural world and to present them so that the audience can feel drawn in. Anime striving for cinematic tones will attempt to imbue their shots with visual depth – when you look into them you feel like your glance can penetrate ever deeper and deeper into the cut into infinity.

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Orange (top) has very good compositing that gives a cinematic sense of depth while Granblue Fantasy (Bottom) feels flat and unrealistic at times due to poor compositing. When looking at the top example your eyes feel like they can penetrate the shot, whereas Granblue doesn’t feel natural to look deeply into.

Through effective compositing, photography must then create visual depth with only a few flat layers. Unfortunately, human visual perception is a funny thing, it’s easy to trick but also hard to convince. The first way to get around it is using proportions – obviously layers that are meant to be further away should be proportionally smaller. Getting this balance right to portray correct distances is important to the viewer feeling that the layers are in a believable spatial relationship.

Another often used trick is done with lighting, by creating differentials of vibrancy in the layers, depth is very quickly established. Going back to the anime stand, this could be controlled with the actual lighting in the machine. These days, digital lighting can be easily tweaked in similar fashion. A common way to instill depth that I’ve observed is to have exaggerated lighting, with say a diagonal ray of light hitting half the room. This allows you to easily cast characters in certain amounts of light to produce a palpable sense of space. Much more common now is the use of blur at different layers to simulate camera focus and therefore imply depth.

One of the best ways to make something feel cinematic is to have the camera move forward, pulling the audience into the scene. This is called movement into depth, and is a lot harder to nail in 2D animation than in full 3D animation or when filming a movie. Returning again to the animation stand, the camera is fixed above the mounted layers. You can’t simply move the camera down towards the layers, or the space between them will instantly leap out as being unnatural.

Thomas LaMarre discusses this in his fantastic book ‘The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation’ and uses a great example:

Say that you want to create the sensation of a person walking toward a barn under the full moon. You begin with a background sheet with the barn and moon drawn on it. You might try changing the focus of the camera (zooming in or out), or try moving the camera closer or farther away from the picture. The problem is that, as the barn gets bigger, so does everything around it in the picture. The moon, for instance, also grows larger— rather than remaining the same size, as our conventional sense of the world dictates. Piling on additional layers doesn’t help with this problem. You might try drawing the moon on a separate sheet. But the same problem will arise. The problem does not lie in the number of layers but in the relation between layers

The camera essentially stays fixed and you need separate layers for the distinct  levels of distance. You would then need to move these layers closer to the camera at different rates to portray the right sense of distance and speed of movement. This movement into depth is something that Walt Disney was apparently obsessed over early in Disney’s leap into cinema, going as far as to patent (though arguable not invent) the multi-planar anime stand, which allowed for the layers to be shifted not just horizontally but also vertically for this very purpose.

Even with this stand, it is a difficult effect to achieve, and requires especially precise compositing to impart the proper sense of space. Due to limited resources, anime has traditionally shied away from these movement into depth shots. This has begun to change recently with the exploration of 3D backgrounds and improved integration of 3D and the 2D layers in compositing. One anime film to seriously explore this potential was Ghost in the Shell Innocence. Mamori Oshii has a clear cinematic approach to animation production and it is plain to see he relished the opportunity to break through the surfaces of his layers in his compositing.

Other applications are starting to sneak into every day TV animation. K-ON! had a strikingly well-executed 360 degree pan around the band as they played their instruments, and examples like this are becoming much more common.

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K-ON! impressed with a technically challenging 360-pan in the second season’s OP, using a 3DCG backdrop.

In general though, the anime looks to other avenues to deal with space and depth in compositing.

Animating Space

This isn’t all the magic of the photography department, of course; it is clear that the animators play a key role in suggesting depth. Although a layer is just  2D drawing, the way that drawing is posed, and the way the model changes between each frame does impart depth as well as motion. The first principle of course is to animate movements multi-dimensionally. For example if you have a character walk, don’t have them walk a flat x-axis, but also change their proportions so that they are moving slightly towards and/or away from the screen. This obviously adds an extra level of complexity in animating, but immediately gives the cut depth.

Yasuo Otsuka, famous as being a linchpin figure in the formative years of the anime industry and bringing animation to life with dynamic timing and expert detail, used a technique called the ‘peg hole’ technique (named as such due to the fact that he literally rotated subsequent genga around the hole at the top of the sheet). This technique added a roughness to the arc of movement of a character – instead of running in a straight line they would pivot into and out of the motion. It adds both a sense of energy and weight to his sequences, with the feeling that his character’s vitality is only barely bounded by gravity. The other effect is that it looks like his cels are grounded to the backgrounds, placing them nicely into the natural world and thereby delivering an innate kind of depth.

Yasuo Otsuka’s ‘peg hole technique’ adds both energy and a sense of natural, grounded relationship between layers.

Yoshinori Kanada is famous for the cool poses and playful timing he uses in his key-frames, but what’s sometimes overlooked is the fact that those poses included exaggerated perspective, often referred to as the ‘Kanada Perspective’. Wherever possible, the poses would have arms and legs spread out towards or away from the camera, going from one extreme to the other throughout the motion. These poses worked within wide angle lens and fish-eye distortions to expand the stage. This perspective made for wildly dynamic action sequences because they felt like they were frenetically moving through a space.

Yoshinori Kanada’s drawings create their own space with exaggerated, angular poses and perspectives.

Where I’ve discussed depth perception previously as being the feel of space between layers, addressed through compositing, here, Kanada’s layers forcefully create their own space. By their perspective posing, the layers have carved out depth within themselves, avoiding the need for careful compositing.

The eponymous Itano circus is another avenue for animating space. Popularised by Ichiro Itano, they have become a staple in anime.  Trailing schools of ballistics traverse the full breadth of the scene, with self-propelled trajectory and speed. The geometric patterns these trails form etch out their own fields of space, as deep and vast as the animator can will it. A reason these scenes are so great to watch is the way the ballistics drive the photography; their geometries and paths very easily establish both depth and speed. The physical camera may be still but is carried rapidly and wildly through the trajectories of the missiles.

The Itano circus elicits space and speed through the ballistic pathways.

Shinya Ohira is a master at animating with a view to compositing, using a myriad of layers in complex interaction with distinct timing and multi-planar movements to give his shots an unparalleled cinematic quality. When he draws a character running, they don’t just follow a run cycle across the screen, they lunge to and fro in multiple dimensions, coming closer to the camera and farther. He also favours characters running into the shot from behind the camera, or into the camera. These kind of shots not only serve to place you in the scene but can also implicitly portray movement into depth.

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Shinya Ohira’s animation creates a world of depth through many layers in complex interaction

Ohira is one of the only animators I have seen who animates a whole world within his cuts, a world of space infinitely deep and wide.

Ohira creates depth through multi-dimensional movement of many layers, but, as I have discussed, true sense of movement into or out of depth is always going to be extremely difficult to obtain while you have a static background layer. One way to get around this is to do away with the static background and animate every layer. This is known as background animation.

One of the first people to really start unveiling the potential of background animation in anime is Masahito Yamashita, whose part in the climax of Urusei Yatsura Beautiful Dreamers grabbed a lot of people’s attention. The sequence followed Lum flying through the school, with the feel of the camera following. The fact that you felt like you were zooming into the world along with her gave the sequence that depth and cinematicness typically missing from anime.

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Masahito Yamashita’s turned heads with his thrilling background animation in Urusei Yatsura Beautiful Dreamer 

Others have built on this over the years and it has become a go-to tool in anime’s repertoire to deliver wow-factor sequences. Interestingly, 3DCG backgrounds are starting to replace this particular art-form. While I admit they are probably better suited to most such applications, there’ll always be something special about this kind of cut. I suppose the fact that every line and shape is drawn frame-by-frame means there’s an unconscious energy in the  unpredictability of it all; at any time, our perception of space can be turned on its head – the edges of the walls or the stairs could bend and and warp into new perspectives. When we see a background we can trust that it’s going to be static, but in these shots there’s nothing you can trust to do what you expect, it’s all in the hands of the animator.

Background animation can deliver movement into depth but it also seriously undermines the potential for depth between layers. Instead of the detailed, painted backgrounds, suddenly the background has to be simplified into looking like a cel (for all practical, commercial purposes anyway). This means there’s no obvious distinction between background and foreground. In one sense, this serves to make the shots feel flatter. Although the camera is moving into depth, our eyes don’t penetrate into depth in the same way.

Flat Compositing

When the feel of depth between layers is suppressed, this can be referred to as flat compositing. This is an intentional style in which both background, foreground, and all layers in between are given equal prominence on the screen. Instead of aiming to draw your eye in to some point of depth, your eyes are encouraged to wonder and take everything in holistically.  Background animation usually implies flat compositing because the background feels like a cel in the same way as the characters acting over it might (in fact in many cases they are the one layer). In other cases, it’s about harmonising background and foreground.

Urara Meirochou brings it background to the fore with a harmonised vibrancy

Flattening in composition minimises the sense that the background is further away than the foreground, one of the fundamental notions underpinning the more traditionally cinematic approach. A key facet of this is depth is colour. As Urara Meirochou (and many other anime in recent) years attest to, when the background art is coloured with equal vibrancy to the foreground it removes the most intrinsic sense of depth and brings both into a single layer of perception, flattened. Many other anime carry this look very well.

There’s flat, and there’s superflat. A term coined by the artist Murakami, he drew from a number of Japanese sources to define an art movement that highlights the beauty of flattened depth. Hopefully I can explain what that means in the context of animation! One of the first things he cited was animation by Yoshinori Kanada – his ubiquitous fire dragon erupting from the volcano from Haramgeddon.

Kanada’s fire dragon defines form through shapes of colour rather than clear linework, a facet of Murakami’s superflat art movement.

The style of Kanada’s fire dragon feeds into a major element of Murakami’s superflat look, and that is the supression of outlines that define depth. The painted colours of his dragon are drawn with geometries that signify body and form without the use of clear lines. It’s a beautiful abstraction but our minds can still unpack the relative colours into the three-dimensional figure.

This flat kind of compositing is very explicitly used in the Dirty Pair movie opening. Essentially the idea is to portray the scene as flat, drawing your eyes to patterns and colours to unpack the space between layers that were projected into the flat surface at the screen.

Super-flattening in the sense of Murakami’s work goes a step further by breaking the rules of perception and flattens multiple perspectives of an object into a single orthogonal view point. SHAFT’s Bakemonogatari exhibits striking compositing that follows this superflat style – notice the sheer flatness of the imagery. Even thought there are clearly layers from a functional anime perspective there is no inherit sense of depth. Furthermore, even though we are looking dead-on at the shot, it hints at diagonal perspectives all throughout its artwork. The objects like houses and desks do not feel oriented in a real 3D space but exhibit 3-dimensional traits in their flattened form.

Bakemonogatari’s compositing  and artwork flattens a sense of different perspectives in a ‘superflat’ manner

Both with Bakemonogatari’s superflat, schematic art and Urarara Meirochou’s equalised background and foreground, they feel very different to look at than your typical anime. That’s because most anime chase that cinematic perspective, setting your eyes up for a journey into the depths of the shot, whereas this flat compositing has your eyes drifting and meandering across the image, taking it in laterally.

Parting Words

With the healthy growth of the sakuga community over the last year or so, there has been a kind of awakening in the western anime community. Suddenly, people understand the talent behind animation and appreciate the value of creative and technically difficult movements. From my experience though, the discourse around the final presentation of an anime, the gravitas of its visual appeal, can lack the same sophistication. The visual side of anime production tends to be talked about as either ‘art’ or ‘animation’, however the overarching approach to tying the two together is just as important.

Both animation and art need to be consciously tackled with the goal of producing a sense of depth or an attractive kind of flat aesthetic, and then photography must harmonise all of the elements with well-crafted compositing. That’s how you get anime that pack the most powerful visual punch, when animation, art, 3DCG are all singing in chorus.

Frankly, this is where the role of the director steps into the limelight. With the sakuga communities’ general focus on key animation, it may often seem as though the director is more of a paper-pushing producer than anything else. However, the best directors can exert their creative power by harnessing all of these elements to reach a final vision for the visuals.

If anything, I hope this post might prompt someone to think further about the interplay between art, animation and photography rather than focusing on them independantly.

 

Kabaneri’s ‘Make-Up Animation’

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If you’ve seen Koutetsu no Kabaneri I think it’s safe to assume you noticed that a few times every episode, a particular shot would rear its head as particularly beautiful and well-drawn. I know a lot of people, myself included, found the effect a little jarring – in addition to blowing me away with those special shots it made me realise how bland it looked the rest of the time. That said, it got me wondering, how did they achieve the effect, and perhaps more importantly, why? I did a bit of digging, and what I found has given me a lot more respect for what they were trying to achieve and the skill and effort that went into these ‘make-up animation’ shots.

The story of Kabaneri’s animation style all starts with the drawings of one man, Haruhiko Mikimoto. Mikimoto was a major formative player in the 80s anime aesthetic, working extensively alongside Shoji Kawamori, he was responsible for the character design work for the original Macross and the subsequent sequels up until the Macross 7 series. He also designed the characters for GAINAX’s seminal Gunbuster OVA.  As a designer who is pure illustrator rather than of animator origins, the degree to which he was embedded in the anime look during the 80s was certainly unusual. He was even credited with animation director (Character Director, specifically) on Super Dimension Fortress Macross, which is definitely rare for a non-animator, and kind of unheard of nowadays. He has a gentle art style that lends itself to beautiful girls, with an element of realism and a soft beauty, his designs stand the test of time.

Since his heyday he has bowed out of the anime industry to some degree, but has remained active as an illustrator and manga artist. Fleeting chances at a major comeback have slipped by over the years, the most recent being the designer for the adaptation of his manga, Tytania. Sadly, that series fell far short of being a grand success. He had previously stated that he thought he may not get any more opportunities to design in anime due to the fact that he pursues the use of shadow and delicate line-work to express his characters which runs counter to the direction of the industry, tending to favour simple designs with crisp lines.

This all changed, however, when the director of Kabaneri, Tetsurou Araki, reached out to him for his individual style to mark a triumphant return to the medium. To help his revival of his classic look, he discussed with director Araki what they could do on Kabaneri and came up with the idea of not using the standard 1 or 2 grade shadows but instead using ‘0.5 grade shadows’. Before getting into the hype ‘0.5 grade shadows’ buzz term, let me quickly touch on what shadow grades mean.

Basically most anime is done with 1-grade shadows, back in the 80s and the 90s to some degree, the design work and aesthetic was such that it was popular to ramp that up to 2-grade shadows. This means you have 3 dimensions of shading that the key animators have to apply to their drawings. 1 grade usually means a character can have one shade of shadow, 2 grades means they can have a deeper level of shadow within a shadow. These grades have different predefined coloured lines/shading within the genga.

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In this image, you can see that the character is drawn to 2-grade shadows. There is a shadow shading on the hair (1影) and then a deeper shade (2影). They have also used a highlight shade (ハイライト).

You might be confused then as to what 0.5 grade means. How can you have half a grade? Apparently, so was Mikimoto, who originally thought that shadow would be used sparsely and with somewhat faint colours so as to not make them too bold. However, the idea was to diminish the clear definition of shadow lines altogether. Put very simply, the concept of 0.5 grade shadow is that instead of producing anime with rigid, line-defined areas of shadow, the animation would have the feel of an illustration, using soft gradients and brushes to apply shading.

As you might imagine, this is a massively ambitious shift in the production norm and very difficult to apply. If you are familiar with the work of a key animator you would know that their work is taken by someone else to be digitised into computer format before being coloured. The lines of the animators guide the colouring staff as to how the shading and highlight should be applied. This means that the key animator cannot simply apply gradient and brush shading directly in their key-frames. To tackle this approach, director Araki had to reform the production process itself with the creation of a brand new production credit, the ‘make-up animator’

A kind-of similar credit already exists, and is also used in Kabaneri, called Special Effect (特殊効果). Special effects also involves touching up the digitised drawings but is generally used for mechanical objects such as guns or mecha. Director Araki allowed Kabaneri’s special effects artist, Chiemi Irisa (入佐芽詠美) to share some examples of her work on twitter, offering a rare glance of the position at work. What a different show Kabaneri would have been without this!

But the make-up animator credit is different in a number of ways. The most obvious distinction is that it’s being applied to characters, sometimes in motion, rather than static objects. As you can imagine, illustrating people and mechanical detail require a very different skillset. However,the differences aren’t purely cosmetic (pardon the pun) – the make-up animator has a much bigger part in the animation production process.

Normally, the key animator’s drawings are in-betweened and digitised and then passed on to touch-up and colouring. Once the colouring is done, the Special Effects role steps in and adds detail, as seen in the above picture. The make-up animator, however, takes the reigns from the in-betweening stage, being responsible for the digitisation, colouring and then their own brand of beautification. Various techniques are applied to transform a normal cut into more of an illustration following the ‘0.5 grade shading’ philosophy. Brushes, special linework, and gradient colouring are digitally painted to evoke the gentle, delicate artistry of Mikimoto’s original illustrations.

The example below shows this being applied.

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In this case, you can see that the genga is already quite detailed and uses 2-grade shadows, plus highlights. These shadows and highlight lines defined by the genga are strictly coloured in the next section by the make-up animator. The final image shows the completed frame with the ‘make-up’ effects applied.

This example clearly shows the application of digitally painted brush, shine and soft lines on the face, hair and eyes. They really are applying make-up to bring out the beauty of the character and the 0.5 grade shading is a clear part of that. In the final image, the shadows are no longer clear-cut levels but naturally gradient. The result is quite stunning and does reflect the soft beauty in some of Mikimoto’s illustrations.

This work was done buy a team of Make-Up Animators led by Sachiko Matsumoto  with a series-wide credit of chief make-up animator. Sachiko has been thriving in a the photography/compositing area of production for some time, doing great work on Guilty Crown back before WIT was spawned from from I.G. The surprising shift to a more drawing-based role that even involves work with in-between drawing is made possible by her original fondness for drawing and her art school graduation.

Sachiko looked deeply into Mikimoto’s illustrations, observing the radiance that comes from his blurred colours and the soulful highlight in his pupils, and the way his hair feels like one long, gentle stream. She also drew inspiration from Osamu Dezaki’s harmony cuts, where the shot turns into a painting with cel and background seamlessly coming together into one artwork. This inspiration is very clear in some of the made-up shots.

If anyone remembers the remarkable, completely over-promising trailer for Kabaneri? If not, I’ve inserted it below. The extensive use of make-up animation and special effects in every shot of this trailer was a massive part of its wow-factor (and subsequent over-hype).

The studio invested in a new piece of software called 「TVPaint Animation」for this work on the trailer. The software is for digital genga, providing a lot of advanced tools including a range of brush effects.Only a small team of people with digital genga experience were at WIT studio and they had a lot of trial an error with learning the software. When the production started on the full show, they were pulled together to form the make-up animator team.

Kabaneri’s Make-up Animators

松本幸子 市万田千恵子 藤井苑美 広瀬いづみ 山﨑千恵

中愛夏 (from episode 9 onward)

The limitations of the make-up animator approach is that it would be a prohibitively expensive undertaking to do it frame-by-frame for whole sequences. Where the trailer could afford to deliver a concentrated, uninterrupted hit of highly touched-up animation, the series fell well short of this. Despite the hype surrounding this new credit, the reality was that it could only be applied to certain key moments, mainly money shots of the characters. The team worked on about 10 cuts per episode.

While those cuts certainly look fantastic, I think the overall experience for a lot of people was a jarring one. Those spotlight moments, it turns out, also tend to illuminate how bland and flat the show looks like without its make-up on. I have no doubt that, especially given it’s poor production values further into the series, their workload would have been better refocused on the basics of dynamic and expressive animation. That said, I cannot fault it as a marketing technique – the trailer certainly rammed this series into many people’s ‘must-watch’ baskets, and I have no doubt that those made-up ‘money-shots’ of Mumei did a lot for her bishoujo marketability.

Director Araki is guilty of putting hype and sales pitch over making a good anime, but he’s also guilty of boldly trying something new in the production lifecycle, and trying something new for all the right reasons. The make-up animation wasn’t thought-up to make production easier or more efficient, it was dreamed up to take the look and feel of 2D animation to a new level of beauty and prowess and to conjure the tender beauty of an old pro’s illustration work. Sometimes in the anime medium, whether an attempt like this was a technical success or not is far less important than the fact that people cared enough to try.

And who knows, maybe make-up animation may well become another staple weapon in the young Wit Studio and director Araki’s arsenal when they tackle their next big project.

 

 

Interviews Read:

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Postponement of Regalia: The Three Sacred Stars

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Phew, that was close! I was almost a tragic victim of irony. You see, I was just about to sit down and polish off a new blog post extolling the 2D hand-drawn mecha animation and surprising levels of enjoyment I was getting out of Regalia: The Three Sacred Stars when BAM, the show’s production committee dropped the bomb. They announced that they are taking the extreme measure of suspending the broadcast of the series after episode 4, delaying the release of the blu-ray and planning to re-air the series from the beginning again in September. Their reason? They didn’t feel that the show was meeting the quality that they wanted to deliver. If even the show’s own production committee gave their show a bad review, I’d feel a bit silly holding a favourable opinion.

That said, I thought I’d have a look around Japanese blogs and see if they were as scathing as the series’ sponsors. I found a lot of comments about the story being confusing, sure, but there was no chorus of controversy, no outrage. Fans of moe were responding amicably to the cute girls of the series, and fans of mecha animation seemed to be quite impressed by the fact that they were pulling off hand-drawn mecha. I don’t think anyone had delusions that this was more than a mediocre outing, but it seemed to entertain. It entertained me for the same reasons: cute girls and cool mecha. There are certainly worse shows airing right now both in terms of animation quality (D Gray man Hollow) and writing (QUALDEA CODE).

The fact that this wasn’t a response to any backlash from fans makes the already rare move of intervention from the committee all the more surprising. To be sure, there were signs of a schedule that was beginning to falter, a danger flag this early in the series. The series is split quite neatly into two streams, character animation helmed by Kimitake Nishio and Kentaro Tokiwa and mecha animation handled by Kanta Suzuki. While the mecha animation appeared to be going strong, and I’ll get into that a bit more later, the character animation was showing the symptoms: jittery movement belying a lack of in-between animation, occasional poor drawings slipping into the key animation, bad compositing and lazy layouts. The signs were there but it hadn’t yet hit the tipping point into the dark place of missing cuts and glaringly unfinished animation.

The only way I can reconcile this play by the committee is that the symptoms didn’t fully indicate the extent of the problem. Perhaps they bent over backwards just to get this episode complete and the schedule ran away from them to the point where the next few episodes would have been rendered unairable. But even then, schedule hell is not a rare thing in the unforgiving world of TV anime.

Most anime in this situation take the hit of one or two very bad episodes to try scramble back into a feasible timeline. Even big-name shows like Shingeki no Kyoujin suffered this fate, with many cuts in important action sequences replaced by shots of background art. Ping Pong aired an episode with several missing cuts, and there are many other examples of this happening. But they usually fight tooth and nail to get the episode on air and make it work somehow. This is probably because TV timeslots in Japan cost money – skipping a week isn’t just an inconvenience to the audience, it’s a hit to the proverbial wallet of the sponsors. Regalia may have been able to wrangle a less disastrous deal with the TV stations, but it’s still a very big decision to take it off air, especially for this amount of time.

Given that so many other series have continued to linger on television blissfully unaware of the fact that they’re terrible, why the punitive measures from the committee, and why go so far as to blame the poor quality of the episodes aired to date? If I put my cynicism aside for a moment I wonder if there is some sincerity behind the announcement, perhaps the production committee had high hopes for a great anime and their pride forced their hand. It’s probably the right decision, but it’s certainly a brave one and almost certainly an expensive one.

There’s another mystery here and that is, where did it all go wrong? Sure, anime schedules often end up on a knife’s edge, but this looks more like a fundamental quality issue rather than a lack of time – something is not working right in the core production staff. The main producer, 永谷敬之 (Takayuki Nagatani) went to twitter to clarify the committee’s vague comments about ‘poor quality’ and revealed the following:

  • The issue is not with the story, which will remain fundamentally the same aside from some new scenes
  • The problems are in the quality control of the animation quality, the production area, and the sound direction.

I think this sort to clear up a general confusion among fans that perhaps the story was to blame, since it seemed confusing and many of those fans weren’t too phased over the animation standard. It’s interesting that sound direction was specifically called out – I noticed a number of viewers found the sound effects a bit of an earful. They certainly leaped out at you more than many other series, with loud, offensive scraping and crushing noises being slung around during the action sequences. Personally I thought they were refreshing as they really sounded like unnatural, giant contorting hunks of metal. I think I might be alone on that, just me and the sound effects creator Yasumasu Koyama, or sound director Yoshikazu Iwanami. Oddly enough, these two guys are some of the most pervasive sound staff in the business, so much so that they were both given cameos in Shirobako.

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I think the key point he wanted to make is that this isn’t about being punitive and playing the blame game – there is an overarching problem with the production not one staff member.

One person who definitely can’t be blamed and can walk away from the show with his head held high: mechanical designer/animation director Kanta Suzuki. With a background as a notable action animator and successful mecha designer/animator, Suzuki has an increasingly rare gift in handling hand-drawn mecha. His mecha sequences in the first three episodes have all been exhilarating and brought some new to the table. Seeped in homages, and even bringing in some old-school talent such as the superb Masahito Yamashita, he has well and truly tackled the task of animating hand-drawn mecha and pinned it to the ground in forceful submission.

There is the possibility that he spent too long on these first few episodes and thereby doomed the schedule, but I see no evidence of that.

Of course, the director is ultimately responsible for the work. I suspect that Director Susumo Tosaka lacked the experience or talent to bring a show to life that had ambitious elements like 2D mecha. His only previous work at the show-wide level was ‘Series Director’ on Infinite Stratos 2. I thought Infinite Stratos 2 was terrible, and he wasn’t even the highest ranked director for the series with oversight by Yasuhito Kikuchi. With such a limited resume, it’s a wonder how he was given the opportunity to direct an original anime like this.

It’s pure speculation, but my guess is that the two chief animation directors were at the very least perfunctory in their roles but the director did not handle the reigns of communication, collaboration and organisation inherit in animation production. The lack of in-between animation, and poor polish in post-production are, to my mind, signs of a director without control. It may be telling that the director did not make comment or announcement himself, perhaps suggesting that it is not a decision he made or pushed for.

At the end of the day though, Regalia was not a show that was a failure in the eyes of many viewers, so I can only see the decision from the producers to postpone and revise it as a bold move to save the show born out of a want to make it a good anime rather than a mediocre one. I’ll raise my glass to that! Although I only mildly enjoyed the show thus far, I will definitely be awaiting its return in September, with corrected animation, improved production values and, probably some changes to production/direction staff. When it comes back, I’ll write about the mecha animation!

 

The Magic of Mitsuo Iso

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Mitsuo Iso is my favourite animator – that’s an unequivocal fact. Regrettably, it hasn’t been a good decade to be a fan of Iso. Since his work as director on the commercially unsuccessful Denno Coil, he has been an elusive, enigmatic figure, making only scant appearances uncredited here and there. Recently though, we’ve had good news from abroad: Mitsuo Iso has been found alive and well and a French company has dragged him into working on a new animated feature film of theirs, Les Pirates de la Réunion, le réveil des dodos! If you saw that news article pop up on your crunchyroll or ANN feed and didn’t know what all the fuss was about, then this post is for you.

To celebrate the return of the chosen one, I thought I’d gush all over my keyboard for a couple of hours so that the world can at least know the depths of my love for this man. Rather than a detailed break-down of his style and work, it’s more of an indulgent propaganda piece.

Iso is a testament to the fact that, contrary to the frothing gibberish that many western animation purists purport, more frames does not equal better animation. Anyone out there who flatly believes that the more fluid animation is, the better it is, or the more realistic it is, needs to stop and listen to the message Iso conveys through his work.

Throughout his long and industrious career Iso has delved deeper into understanding expressing movement than any other major animator I have seen, which has given him the ability to craft animation in a way no one else in the world can, and that’s no hyperbole. The way in which he shows movement that feels both realistic and organic yet intrinsically ‘animation’ is so perfect and so difficult to break down technically that it’s nothing short of magical. There’s no doubt he has a gift that can’t be learned. When his animation craft is woven into a climactic moment of the right anime, it has the ability to take your breath away.

In my early days of anime fandom, when I didn’t even know what an animation director was, one such scene floored me: Asuka fighting the mass production Evas in the End of Evangelion movie. I actually watched it again recently and that only confirmed its uncontested status as my favourite sequence of animation. I suggest everyone give it another watch (spoiler alert):

It’s not my favourite sequence because it’s the most technically impressive, because it has the best drawing quality or the most realistic movement – I could reel off plenty of examples that best it in any one category. It’s not one quality I can put my finger on but there’s something intangible and transcendent in there.

Perhaps it’s the sense of weight and gravity of the Evas colliding and swinging their joints, the visceral power of their lunges and the way they reel back from the sheer forces involved in the battle. Maybe it’s the way, even though Evangelion is a giant ‘mecha’ its every movement evokes the cathartic willpower of Asuka’s last few breaths – it’s a desperate, violent scramble for survival on a grander scale. Or maybe it’s the fact that every detail is accounted for – the speed at which debris fall, the way leaves ripped from trees are whisked around by momentum, the uniquely real spurting and splattering of blood or the trailing wisps of smoke from the clashing swords. It’s not one of these things, it’s all of them and more. It’s Mitsuo Iso. It doesn’t matter how much money or how many animators you could throw at a movie, we have one man to thank for the animation in this sequence and it could never be done without him. Never.

Every Frame is Key

With the “full-limited” style he developed and frequently used he shuns the traditional approach of having the key animator drawing the key poses in a cut and having in-betweeners draw the frames between. Instead, he exerts complete control over his cuts, doing every drawing himself. But there’s more to it than that, he doesn’t just do away with in-between animators, he does away with the whole concept of in-between frames – by treating every drawing as key. This means he is never drawing just to get from one pose to the next, but every frame takes the movement forward in a totally organic way. This avoids any semblance of the old animation problem of characters looking as though they are awkwardly snapping into poses and revolutionises our understanding of what it means for animation to be realistic.

An army of in-betweeners could make animation that moved at real-life speeds of 60 frames per second plus, but that wouldn’t make it any more realistic if the movement wasn’t happening in a realistic way. By the same token, if the characters are moving in a realistic manner, they don’t NEED to move at 60fps for it to feel entirely real and authentic. And even if a key animator had a prodigious grasp of anatomy and movement, if the movement is being planned out by only a portion of the frame total it will never feel truly real.

Mitsuo Iso’s animation is limited in the sense that he doesn’t draw 24 frames per second, but with a lot less drawings (limited animation) he is able to give the same impression as if it were full. He does this by having a masterful understanding of how things move at their very core. There is absolutely no redundant movement in his animation; each frame is a discrete evolution in the broader motion going on. As a result, things can constantly be accelerating, decelerating or changing course which gives his motion a sense of vitality, of being alive. That’s why his animation gives the impression of realism without moving with the same framerate.

Master of Motion

But it’s not enough to make things be constantly moving arbitrarily (as many other animators are guilty of); Mitsuo Iso also has a genius understanding of how things should move. His animation doesn’t come from repeated textbook learning but from some deeply innate knowledge of how to translate what he observes in real life into a sequence of drawings. This is where the magic of Iso comes into play.

When he animated that End of Evangelion scene, the Evas moved with weight the of giant robots and also the will of humans.

In the ghost in the shell sequence, the spider tanked crept around like an arachnid yet also moved with a robotic, mechanised purpose.

And don’t worry, he’s not just a mecha animator! His portrayal of every-day human movement is so natural it can be profound such as the crying scene in the Digimon movie, or the running in Umi ga Kikoeru.

To top it off, he is one of the best effects animators out there, portraying explosions, smoke and water with a kind of enigmatic authenticity that is hard to match. His climactic scene in FLCL or his explosion in Blood+ are good examples of this.

At the end of the day, Mitsuo Iso’s realism doesn’t mimic real life it recreates it. Instead of a dull straight-forward reproduction of real movement, he harnesses the power and potential of animation to create evocative sequences that merely use a grounding in reality to further enhance their impact and visceral beauty.

A True Creator

Like many other accomplished animators before him, Mitsuo Iso began to spread his wings to soar above the whole creative process, with a resounding effort at pretty much everything with the renowned Raxephon episode 15 where he handled production, writing, storyboard, 2D  digital effects and key animation – an unheard of feat for TV anime. He bought along the same philosophy that informed his key animation career and wanted to show that you can make a high-quality product within the confines of limited budget and schedule by cutting out the challenge of trying to interpret and execute another person’s vision. This is taking his demolishing of in-between frames to a higher level. He proved his point with an a moody, cinematic and completely satisfying episode. He also proved that he was cut out for creating stories, not just telling other people’s stories with his animation.

This change in tack for his craft led him to being in charge of his very first major project: Denno Coil. Iso came up with this one from the ground up, as creator, director and screenwriter. A fascinating blend of neighborhood-roaming childhood coming-of-age and near-future augmented-reality science fiction, Denno Coil was unique, thoroughly entertaining and richly animated. Unfortunately it was not a resounding success, failing to make an impact or garner strong sales despite a generous TV time-slot. Although mostly hearsay it also indicated that Iso may not be suited to the director’s chair, his perfectionism and instinct-driven style poorly matched to entrusting animators under him. This may have caused a falling out with the previous brother-in-arms, Takeshi Honda, who was the chief animator for the series.

It is also probably the reason he vanished into a distant myth ever since. However, with the news that he is coming back with a feature film, all heads should be turned as no one can doubt the capacity of Iso to create something amazing.

 

 

Further Reading

 

 

Erased – Digging Deeper

Over the last couple of years, I can see that my focus on this blog has pivoted from general anime enthusiasm toward celebrating a very particular strain of anime with a gushing, obsessive level of discussion. The kind of anime I’m talking about here isn’t just ‘good anime’, an anime that ticks all the boxes of entertainment, or even anime that I think are amazingly produced. Rather, it’s that anime that comes along once in a while and strikes a chord within me in some intangible and unexpected way. There was Love Lab with its effervescent characterful animation, Ping Pong with its wobbly, skewed aesthetic and Yozakura Quartet that blew me away with its fresh, vivacious webgen production, and of course many more that I haven’t been able to talk about yet. But the thing I’ve found with each of them is that their resonating charm was fuelled by the very personal creative impulses, ambitions and talents of the people behind them. The latest series to move me in this way was Erased, or Boku Dake ga Inai Machi.

Boku ga Inai Machi (or Erased) is an anime adaptation of a popular seinen manga series by Kei Sanbe, and seems to have been met with universal praise from viewers around the world. The author takes the basic ingredients of crime-thriller and childhood coming-of-age drama, throws in a hint of time travel and seamlessly blends them together into a riveting, and suspenseful story. After being framed for murder the protagonist, Satoru, is unwittingly thrown back in time to his childhood where he must reach out to those around him and muster his personal resolve to try and outwit a cunning and cruel serial killer. Much has been written about the show’s riveting story but most critics seem unable to put their finger on why they appreciated the production side of things. I am going to try put my finger on it! Looking into it, I soon found that, counter to the case in many anime, its excellence is largely due to the man in the proverbial director’s chair, Ito Tomohiko.

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Tomohiko Ito

Director Ito has already proven himself worthy as a producer with his directorial work on Sword Art Online and Silver Spoon at A-1 Productions. An antithesis to studios like Trigger or Kyoto Animation, A-1 Pictures’ core, permanent staff are just a small group of producers and digital effect/CG artists – their animators are employed on a casual as-need basis. This is why there is no A-1 Pictures ‘look’ beyond their post-production finish standards and CG work. As such, it falls to the director to assemble the key creative team that will drive the style and quality of the production, and Ito was easily up to the task. But while these previous outings were polished and successful, Erased is perhaps the first time we’ve seen Ito rise well above the perfunctory and flex his creative muscles as director.

One reason for this might be that he has both a history and an interest in the thriller genre, and originally started in the industry at Madhouse working on serious anime with a suspenseful edge such as Monster and Death Note. Since moving on from Madhouse and being in charge of more light-hearted quintessentially ‘anime’ works he has expressed a desire to sink his teeth into something more in this vein. When one of his colleagues showed him the Erased manga years ago it obviously resonated with him as he set to work rallying Aniplex (A-1 Picture’s parent company) directly to launch an anime adaptation with him as director.

As a fan of thrillers, he has clearly relished the role. He made a conscious effort to ramp up the feeling of suspense and excitement in the show by drawing inspiration from Hollywood thrillers rather than following the approach of Japanese TV thrillers or similar anime. For example, while the show is set in real parts of Hokkaido, the stark and sombre way they portrayed their locations was strongly influenced by the Danish crime drama series The Killing, set in Copenhagen. Ito has said that the butterfly that appears throughout the show whenever Satoru jumps through time is an homage to another thriller work (but won’t say which one! – he did say it’s not Butterfly Effect though). Overall, there was a push to make Erased feel exciting and cinematic in a Hollywood thriller kind of way.

The butterfly imagery id a homage to a thriller
The butterfly imagery id a homage to a thriller

This push was made possible by Ito’s industrious style of directing, as someone who really throws himself at every production. When he took on Silver Spoon he visited agricultural schools and ate a lot of food to understand the setting of the series. For Sword Art Online, he spent a solid week going to net cafes after work and staying up late into the night playing MMORPGs to get a sense of how people interacted in online games. For the later series of Sword Art, to help portray realistic gun battles he went shooting. Let’s hope no practical experience was needed in portraying the dark kidnappings of Erased! But this all goes to show that Ito truly pursues every avenue to excel, tinkering with many realms of production that many directors are happy to overlook. This may be truer in the case of Erased than ever before.

One thing I noticed pretty quickly when watching the show is that it didn’t sound like just another run-of-the-mill anime; the voice acting felt refreshing and somehow more natural. Rather than the crisp, familiar voices of the industry staples, the protagonist was handled by film actors, both for his young and old versions. To make the two voices feel like they really belonged to the same character, all of young Satoru’s lines were read by his older counterpart, so that his adult inflections and tones could be better reflected. Going even further, in order to increase the natural, conversational feel of the dialogue there was a conscious decision to ensure that the voice actors were together to record their lines in, rather than allowing them to record their lines independently (a common occurrence in the industry for in-demand seiyuu). The sound effects too, were consciously used to add suspense, drawing from  western fields and the way they use bangs, rumbles or other noises to surprise and unsettle the viewer.

However, Ito’s stamp leaves its biggest imprint on the series’ visual design. Rather than being forged from the fires of animation like many notable directors, Ito hails from a storyboarding and production setting background, and that enables him to expertly and holistically control the look of the show from the ground up. He put a huge creative signature on the show by going against the grain of the normal adaptation storyboarding process, instructing his storyboarders not to replicate panels from the manga but to envision how the layouts and scenes can evoke a cinematic feel that would keep people’s attention hooked. He used a number of approaches to try and achieve this.

Attention was paid to the use of visual effects to keep the series from feeling flat – flicking to shots of the spinning wheel of film and other visually compelling shots were used to spice up the flow.

Perhaps his most apparent imprints on the look of the series is his instruction to staff to pay close attention to backlighting – how light from outside windows, streetlights, etc can cast visual depth into shots. This may be something he picked up an appreciation for when working on Guilty Crown, which used lighting to superb effect. The general aesthetic of the show bows to this edict wherever possible and gives it a strong cinematic flavour. At times the use of light and shadow is used to dramatically ramp up the tension, other times it simply adds to the realistic feel the show aims for by ensuring that the lighting of each scene is carefully rendered as it would be in real life – no scenes are simply bright for the sake of presenting the characters and many occur only under the light cast from a TV or nearby street lamps. The characters being enclosed by darkness in these night scenes gives a sense of dread and unease.

Ito didn’t just ensure that the series felt realistic and visually engaging.  As a storyboarder inspired to join the industry after seeing Evangelion, it certainly looks as though he carried the influence of Hideki Anno’s work throughout his career and it’s no less apparent here. Ito uses the space between characters as well as stark lighting to symbolic effect, treating layouts more as paintings and works of art than stages for the characters. By that I don’t just mean he just tries to make them pretty, but he crafts them to convey visual metaphor and evoke particular emotions. He’ll do things like place two characters on either side of a clear division between light and shadow, or use perspective and composition to emphasise which character is in control or more powerful. Similarly, he’ll use open spaces to depict emotional distance, and occasionally jarringly centred shots to show urgency or tension. This is something that Evangelion in particular is famous for.

Erased (Ito Tomohiko Storyboarded):

Evangelion (Hideaki Anno Storyboarded):

As a result, the series has a very conscious use of layout and composition to help underpin the emotion of the scenes. The childhood scenes pull the camera back so that characters appear small, placing them in large, open spaces.  This, combined with the very deliberate effort to frame many shots as though the children are being watched, gives a real sense of helplessness and danger.

His repertoire is taken a step further in Erased, introducing a very strong focus on the use of colours in shots to symbolise emotions. All throughout the series, he paints with reds and blues at every possible opportunity to reinforce the mood of the scene.

Early in the series, it becomes clear that red is associated with danger and isolation while blue is associated with safety and family as a kind of dichotomy between Satoru with a loving mother and the lonely victim Kayo whose only family are relentlessly abusive. As the series develops I think the director used this association to deliver extra suspense and tension in many of his scenes. Maybe even subconsciously, I suspect much of Erased audience felt a wave of dread when the background changed to red in the sequence with Satoru in the car with the killer because this colour association had been woven through the show up until that point. Of course, none of this is brand new in the realm of visual storytelling, but Ito ensures it is delivered with just enough nuance that you feel its impact without necessarily noticing it on screen.

Ito’s deft handling of storyboarding, layout and general direction may have developed while working under super-director Mamoru Hosoda, having served as assistant director on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars.  Given his Eva influences it’s no surprise that his work contains the creative DNA of Kunihiko Ikuhara and Osamu Dezaki.  Like Hosoda, Ito takes a naturalistic approach to symbolic framing, preferring to place his characters in a real space, rather than the surreal and arbitrary stages of Ikuhara and Dezaki.  His use of framing seems to parallel some Anno’s cinematic inspirations, such as the use of minimalist camera work.

Layouts from Ito’s Kekkai Sensen 11:

Ikuhara’s style:

Hideaki Anno style:

His background may not be in genga, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate animation. Like Sword Art Online before it, Erased has its fair share of charismatic animation. Again, it may be his time under Hosoda that gave him some of this appreciation, or at least the production know-how to getting this animation created. He certainly picked the right chief animation director for SAO, and Keigo Sasaki is a similarly good fit for Erased, bringing consistent, polished art and moments of realistic, yet emotive character animation. The animation highlight of the series was undoubtedly episode 3, spearheaded by Takahiro Shikama.

Shikama was the director, storyboarder and animation director for that episode and he really shines, delivering what is, in my view, the best episode of the series. It’s certainly the episode that first made me feel like Erased was something special. His storyboarding work applies Ito’s direction to superb effect creating an episode that is brimming with dramatic tension at every step. He harnesses a number of animators to delivery some powerful scenes of animation such as the ice-skating race (handled by Shikama himself) and the romantic scene at the end of Satoru and Kayo being surrounded by running foxes (handled by Takahito Sakazume). Takahiro Shikama was a major player in the production of Sword Art Online, being the main action animation director for the first season. But this is the first time he has had the opportunity to show his mettle at the director level. I hope he gets the opportunity more in the future!

One area it’s clear that director Ito is not as confident in is the writing. Erased requires delicate portrayals of family life and domestic abuse, whereas Ito had trouble even trying to portray intimate moments between Asuna and Kirito (as apparently all the staff were single). So it’s very fortunate that he found a great screenwriter in Taku Kishimoto.

More than just a thriller, Erased scratches beneath the surface of events and evokes profound human drama in its storytelling. From the harrowed Hinazuki trapped in a miserable life of abuse at the hands of her mother, to the protagonist’s encountering true feeling and meaning his life through reliving his past, Erased is steeped in emotion. Taku Kishimoto is in charge of the story for the series and almost certainly is to thank for this, having written the entire script for the anime adaptation of Usagi Drop and Silver Spoon (also under director Ito). Erased is an-edge-of-your seat thriller made all the more intense because you feel so much for those involved that every dangerous development is like a kick in the gut; the killer isn’t just after a random kid, they’re after Hinazuki.

Interestingly, I don’t think the episodes that Ito storyboarded himself were the strongest. While he has a history of storyboarding work, on review, I don’t see him as being particularly talented at it (except maybe for Kekkai Sensen episode 11). Ito isn’t a great anime director because he is a great artist but, more in the vein of Kenji Kamiyama or Mamoru Oshii, it’s because he is full of high-level ideas and has the ability to harness the creative talents of those under him to weave those ideas through every level and every facet of his productions. He doesn’t fall into the trap of many anime directors, of focusing on just he animation, or just the story, but he is able to take a step back and see the whole picture, how every part of an anime production can be utilised in symphony to render a vision. I see real potential for Ito to fall into the hall of great anime director’s and avidly await his first opportunity to direct an original series.

 

 

Ryo-Chimo & The Digital Animation Movement

Illustration by Ryo-chimo, featuring his own mascot character on the right
Illustration by Ryo-chimo, featuring his own mascot character on the right

3 months ago I started writing a blog entry on one of my favourite ‘under-appreciated’ anime from the last few years, Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta (NOT to be confused with the mind-numbingly dreadful original Yozakura Quartet TV anime adaptation!). Other than singing its praises, I wanted to hit home the fact that the series was a giant step forward for a fascinating new generation of animators and a landmark series in the use of digital animation in commercial anime production.

But, as I was putting it together, it quickly became apparent that this little aside was becoming not as little as I thought, and that it had actually become a post unto itself! So now, after my research into the topic uncovered an interesting story to be told, I present to you a dive into web-generation animators, their use of digital animation and how one especially famous animator, Ryo-chimo, has paved the way for them to take the anime world by storm in recent years!

Web-animators, gif-animators

Before we delve any further, I need to get two terms that are often batted about in the Japanese animation fandom straight with you:

The ‘web-generation’ (web-gen) rabble are termed so because they are a pioneering generation who grew up with the advent of the internet and the rapid improvement of tools and software for digital drawing. This put them in a position where they could easily hone their skills as a hobby using Flash and drawing tablets, creating gif animation and putting their talent on display on websites and blogs for the world (and future employers looking to scout them) to see. ‘Gif-animators’ more specifically refers to those who created and shared digital gifs as the means of learning animation. These web-gen guys would often get scouted and pulled onto mainstream animation projects by some of the more avant-garde directors looking for new talent to spice up their projects with some fresh faces. This self-made kind of career is in stark contrast to the traditional avenues for entering the Japanese anime industry.

The fact that they didn’t originate from an animation school or through the rigorous training of a particular studio but learnt themselves and got where they were by showing off their individual talents makes these guys an interesting presence in the industry. Without learning animation through guided training or experience as a key-animator they rapidly develop their own styles from scratch or by adopting and playing with the styles of other animators they follow ( something which has been made far easier for them to consume by the flood of animators now running blogs and using twitter). The result is often that they revel in a flashy, idiosyncratic style yet are not as proficient in the fundamentals of animation – being able to draw convincing movement of their subjects in line with the models/designs of the production.

The latter is a common concern among many industry veterans, but the former is a boon to anime as these guys are often called in for certain scenes or episodes to make them crazy and stand-out-ish. When these webgen staff are herded together on the right project with the right oversight they are a force to be reckoned with, and that’s exactly what happened on Yozakura Quartet, the series that really made me notice the potential of these new faces. We’ll look at a few such anime throughout this post.

There are a few cliques of these guys active these days, like those revolving around producer Shouta Umehara at Dougakobo who worked on Yuruyuri, Love Lab and the Mikakunin PV, or the associates of Tatsuya Yoshihara, responsible for some of the more interesting animation from Muromi-san, Barakamon and, most recently, Yoru no Yatterman.

But the group of people I want to hone in on with this post is the old-guard, the forerunners who heralded the dawn of the web-generation. Kenichi Kutsuna, Ryo-chimo  and Shingo Yamashita were the first wave to go pro from their hobby animations and gifs, scouted by animators such as Satoru Utsunomiya or directors like Osamu Kobayashi. These guys have really pursued and pushed the cause of harnessing digital animation technique in their creations. They have set the ball rolling by pioneering the use of digital animation work in TV anime such as Birdy the Mighty Decode and Yozakura Quartet Hana no Uta.

Digital Animation

I’ve mentioned digital animation a few times so far, and it’s because drawing digitally is inexorably linked to the new kind of movement and visual style that these web-gen guys are bringing into play across the industry.

Put simply, digital animation is animation created from a series of digital drawings drawn on a tablet in a computer software environment, usually Flash. The important thing to stress is that the role of Flash here is simply to replace pencil and paper as the tool to draw the frames that will ultimately be composed into the final animation product – it’s used as a drawing tool NOT an animation tool. There is no automatic in-betweening, it’s not used to colour the frames and it’s not used to actually render the finished animation; the digital animation is a series of discrete drawings. When people talk about flash animation in the west they think of auto in-betweened stuff used in children’s cartoons, which have an awkwardly smooth and dull kind of motion, but in Japan the animator still creates the movement totally by hand with drawings, and thank god for that!

Examples of digital drawings by Shingo Yamashita:

In fact, very often the digital drawings are treated the same as regular key drawings (called ‘genga’) – they are printed and scanned to be coloured and finally composited into the end product in a software package called RETAS. In-betweening and animation direction can work as normal, with the printed key-frames being sent to the other parties to work on, or the flash file being shared with them if they too are working digitally.

The only time I’ve heard of flash being used to render the animation right through was in the recent series Ping Pong, in which Masaaki Yuasa’s Science Saru production team seem to have developed a technique to use Flash’s auto-in-between tools to produce certain movements that don’t look totally vapid (but they’re certainly a little unusual):

Perks of Digital Animation

With all that said, there definitely are differences between analog and digital animation, mainly stemming from the fact that in flash you can very efficiently plan out, modify and test the timing of your animation cuts, because the timeline is shown right on the screen. This makes it much easier to plan out the sequence and play with the timing, replaying the animation back instantly to test how it’s looking. This easy playback also enables the animator to experiment more with a sense of dynamic ‘camerawork’ on their cuts. This is why many gif-animators have a highly-evolved grasp on how to create animation that feels like it’s totally free in a 3D space, with spinning cameras and lots of background animation.

Drawing within flash also allows much more efficient management of layers to animation, granting the ability to toggle on and off any number of layers on the screen at the click of a button rather than trying to coordinate sets of drawings. I don’t think this has really started to be taken full advantage of yet but certainly it enabled BahiJD to play around with scenes packed with many layers of Space Dandy to an exciting effect.

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Another interesting stylistic thing you notice with a lot of digitally-animated sequences from gif-animators is that they’ll use forms of colour with minimal linework or even NO linework. This is especially true of their effects animation, which often portrays magic, flame, laser beams, etc. as borderless streams or shapes of colour. The simple reason for this is that in drawing digitally you can very easily use the solid paint tool to draw. These digital genga from Birdy illustrate the use of this tool:

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This sort of globular, borderless colour is a distinctly new style that these guys are bringing to anime and allows for some effects to be created much quicker than having to draw the extent of the shapes with linework or paint. As it’s quicker to create, effect animation of this variety can often be made extremely fluid and fast.

uozakura-effects

Perhaps the most evolved example of this style comes from Shin Sekai Yori, by its number one user, Shingo Yamashita. This is the ED from that show, which he animated. It’s striking and unique because of the way it feels painted rather than drawn, and that comes from this approach.

Limitations of Digital Animation

That said, it also serves to highlight the downside to digital animation – the ability to be expressive in animation through changing-up the linework, like making it rough or gritty to add raw intensity to a cut. I can’t imagine things like Yoshimichi Kameda’s sumi-e brush style animation being possible on a tablet.

kamedagengaKameda and others using rough and experimental shading and linework on paper create some truly powerful moments of animation and drawings that digital animation would really struggle to replicate.

A certain amount of finesse and subtlety  is also lost when drawing with a tablet. Although they are improving every year, the precision of digital drawing may never match the absolute control an artist has with pencil or paint on paper.

For some of these animators, particularly those in the ameteur stage of their career, there may actually be a risk that these ease of modifying the drawings across their timeline reinforces some bad habits. It allows for gif animators’ tendency to make characters move extravagantly and wildly for movement’s sake. There may well be less value placed on getting each key-frame right, and therefore the animation is less through-conceived and more created on the fly, the final product being more dynamic but with less gravity and impact.

Ryo-chimo & The Evolution of Digital Animation

Although many of these web-animators have had experience creating animation with flash for their own hobby gifs and side-projects, many are faced with entering an industry that remains largely powered by pencil-and-paper drawings. That said, it has come a long way in the last few years towards facilitating the use of digital animation in normal commercial productions. This change hasn’t happened on its own, animators have had to push for it, and no one has pushed harder or further than a man named Ryo-chimo.

chimo
Ryo-chimo in the top left feature in a Newtype magazine segment ‘This creator is amazing!’

Ryo-chimo (real name: Ryousuke Sawa),  is pretty recognisable as the vanguard of the web generation of animators, being one of the first to turn professional after being scouted for his gifs  (Kenichi Kutsuna is generally considered to be the first). From there, he very quickly rose to prominence as a central figure in the ongoing movement towards digital animation. He’s also one of the best examples of a preternaturally talented animator whose lack of a formal animation training background does not seem to have in any way impeded his ability to tackle any kind of animation.

In his youth he was an avid anime fan and otaku and this led him into illustration and animation as a hobby. After briefly working at a game company, he got his foot in the industry’s door back in 2004 when he was scouted by the illustrious Osamu Kobayashi for his new anime, BECK. Kobayashi saw the gifs Ryo-chimo had put together on his website and, being Osamu Kobayashi, thought it worth giving him an opportunity to see what he could do. In an almost unprecedented move, without spending any time at all doing in-between work, Ryo-chimo leapt straight into doing key animation in the first episode and became a mainstay animator of the series.

Soon after, he was invited to work on Sousei no Aquarion where he first worked with an animator he considers to be a god, Satoru Utsunomiya, who was largely in charge of episode 19. Satoru Utsunomiya deserves a lot of credit for scouting and providing opportunity to several important digital animators at this time, such as Kenichi Kutsuna, and being a proponent of the use of digital tools. During Sousei Aquarion he pushed the use of digital, 3D layouts (animation drafts), which are now commonplace in anime production. Thanks to Utsunomiya,  Ryo-chimo’s work here on episode 19 is actually the first time he was able to draw digitally in his professional anime career (which you can see his raw key frames for here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U08rIirZrTo ).

Ryo-chimo’s next big gig, also with Utsunomiya, was just around the corner: the awesome and experimental anime called Noein. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend checking it out. Not only does it have a very unique and fascinating sci-fi story, it’s also unusual in terms of its production,  opting not to to have a series animation director; each episode’s animation director’s own style crept through with their uncorrected take on the character designs. On this series he was a regular animator and essentially studied under Utsunomiya and the illustrious Norio Matsumoto. When given the chance to key animate a climactic battle scene in episode 12, he produced a sequence that really put him in the spotlight as a young star animator.

The smooth yet intense animation had a thrilling gravitas to it that made it one of the most memorable parts of the whole show. I remember sitting up and being totally struck by the power of the animation in this scene, and that was back before I was interested in animation specifically. Norio Matsumoto was the animation director on that episode and gave Ryo-chimo that part to work on. Apparently it was Norio Matsumoto’s idea to use the rough line-work in the scene that gave it that visceral edge. This explains why, on the surface, it’s not quite Ryo-chimo’s usual style, which favours minimalistic, very clean and nuanced linework.

The next indicator of Ryo-chimo’s greatness was probably his scene from Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo, which is his own, personal favourite bit of work to date. He animated the scene of Makoto running down the street followed by the camera. In an interesting twist on the sequence, she starts to falter from exhaustion and is overtaken by the camera, only to regain her strength off-screen and push herself back into the frame. It’s fun ideas like these that can really make animation interesting! The sequence showed that Ryo-chimo was able to draw convincing character movement to a high degree of realism.

Apparently he got the idea for the strong portrayal of her exhaustion using reference footage of him actually running down the street as fast as he could, with other film crew driving alongside him to film it. The cut was extended out to a much longer sequence that originally intended following his work.

kakeru

From there, after a couple of years worth of more compelling animation, including a scene from Mitsuo Iso’s enigmatic TV anime Denno Coil,  Ryo-chimo moved up a level to the position of character designer/chief animation director of Birdy the Mighty Decode. Ryo-chimo was well established as a popular illustrator and he created some unapologetically attractive and charismatic character designs for Birdy Decode. Belying his origins as an otaku, his predilection for drawing lascivious and moe characters was on full display, but he also showed his ability to create characters with an indescribable vivid depth and personality . Very much in the web-generation philosophy he designs characters which favour simple linework and bold colours over the luscious detail and highlights associated with the previous era of anime.

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His characters come to life with vibrant colours and striking expressions. This web-generation style is quickly rising to prominence as a dominant new, modern look for anime, with many other series like Rolling Girls, Yoru no Yatterman, etc, that have these younger people involved leaning towards it. But Ryo-chimo really paved the way with Birdy.

But he did more than just succeed as a character designer for that series, he also seized the opportunity to introduce the use of digital animation. To overcome a general sense of resistance from many at the studio (A-1 Pictures), Ryo-chimo went about assembling a team of people who were on-board with implementing the use of digital tools. With the backing he needed, he managed the first implementation and support of digital animation on such a scale, with whole swaths of the series being drawn in Flash. This really fully came about in season 2 and gave a number of these web-gen animators the chance to better show off what they could do with their native platform. The result was sequences like this:

Birdy also allowed for several other animators to be introduced to the use of flash and digital animation, perhaps most notably Tomoyuki Niho, who is now well-known as a web-generation animator (incidentally, Niho’s professional debut was on Noein). The series courted some degree of controversy in season 2 when the Ryo-chimo and the director decided that they would let the animators draw fully in their own style without supervision in episode 7 (and 12). The result was an action-heavy episode that presented radically different animation styles between shots, many of them looking totally unlike the usual presentation of the show. This segment was from Tomoyuki Niho:

The borderline abstract, angular geometrical forms are actually in his style, not the result of the show ‘running out of money’ or being grossly ‘behind schedule’ as was commonly asserted (I suspect there was some time pressure, if only due to the absence of the correcting power of a supervising animator). Whatever the case, the experiment was not well-received by the fan-base and the episodes were heavily corrected for the DVD release (here’s Tomoyuki Niho’s bit corrected).

Birdy’s experimentation may have been hit and miss, but when it hit it delivered punchy and jaw-dropping action sequences with a kind of speed and ferociousness I hadn’t ever seen before.

The next step in his career came with the chance to direct the 3-episode OVA reboot of Yozakura Quartet (Yozakura Quartet: Hoshi no Umi). For this, he got together many of his associates for a web-gen animator laden explosion of stunning animation and sleek, modern production work.

Following that success, a series was announced. Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta was brought to TV with Ryo-chimo as director, character designer and chief animation director (for all but one episode). Being a chief animation director (CAD) on an anime TV series is a phenomenal effort, but being the director AND CAD is just astronomical, and really quite a rare thing. Ryo-chimo must have not slept for months! No wonder he says his career focus is on short anime works now (as sad as that is to hear). Needless to say, he didn’t get to do any key animation on this series.

But with the level of ownership he had of this series, he was able to assemble a team of digital animators to further what he started with Birdy. For the very first episode he achieved the goal of creating an episode entirely with digital key-animation, something that hadn’t yet been done, to my knowledge. Unlike the rougher experiments on Birdy, this episode turned out to be a remarkably polished and charming gem, and webgen-styled through and through.  Detailed design and art-focus was traded in for playful movement and liveliness, but it was more carefully crafted and tempered than web-animators had been known for. Here,  Ryo-chimo proved the viability of the digital animation production process for commercial TV anime.

To make this happen, Ryo-chimo leant heavily on frequent collaborator and Flash-animator extraordinaire, Shingo Yamashita. Often called ‘yama’ for short, Shingo Yamashita is easily the best animator out there who uses flash for his work. He created my personal favourite bit of animation in Hoshi no Umi OVA, which is another one of those special bits of animation that awoke me to how awesome animation itself can be.

To this day it remains one of my favourite segments of animation for its wild, kinetic energy. Ryo-chimo bought him on board for Yozakura Quartet knowing full well that, to make it work, he would need someone with vast digital experience and talent to guide and supervise the relatively young digital animator team he had assembled. Shingo Yamashita bought his own colleagues on board for the project as well, forming a trio with Sakazume Takahito and Enokido Shun throughout the series.

The team he led, who also came back for episode 6 and other parts of the series, included the following names:

  • 関弘光 (Hiromitsu Seki)
  • 小笠原真 (Shin Ogawara)
  • 亀澤蘭 (Norifumi Kugai)
  • 加藤ふみ
  • 黒岩志摩 (Shima Kuroiawa)
  • 藤澤研一 (Kenichi Fujiwara)
  • 伊勢鷹人 (Ise Takahito)
  • 川野達朗  (Kawano Tatsurou, the digital animation director for the episode)

Many of these guys are now established digital animator names in the industry, appearing on web-gen friendly series like Love Lab, Space Dandy (episode 13 in particular), Yama no Susume season episode 13, Ping Pong, Naruto and Yoru no Yatterman. At one point or another almost all notable web-gen animators were involved in the creation of Hana no Uta.

But he did more than just reel in the right animators for the work, he implemented a digital production process at studio Tatsunoko which remains alive and well today. Much like what web-gen animators did for studio Dougakobo after Yuruyuri, his work with Tatsunoko on Yozakura Quartet brought about a revitalisation to the studio, whose works since have become known for their fun, energetic animation and visual cool-factor. A legacy of Ryo-chimo’s efforts, Tatsunoko Productions is one of the biggest users of digital animation and now provides their animators with tablets if it is their tool of choice (whereas you’d normally have to pay for your own).

You can see that Tatsunoko is fostering quite a bit of web-gen talent through their series since, such as Yoru no Yatterman, which features a large array of these guys, led by Tatsuya Yoshihara,  creating pretty much all of its stand-out moments of animation.

Ryo-chimo himself, meanwhile has created his own company, Time Note Animation, where he lists himself as an animator and illustrator. He seems to have parted ways with Tatsunoko somewhat and is now looking more at the animated short production space rather than commercial TV works. The most recent example of this was ME! ME! ME!, the short created for Hideaki Anno’s Animator Expo initiative, for which Ryo-chimo was listed as a planning advisor. He also appears to be a vocal proponent and teacher of digital animation, often giving lectures at animation schools on the topic or participating in industry events.

Wrap-up

Nowadays a lot of the most arresting and exciting animated scenes in TV anime are being brought to you by the new web generation and, thanks largely to the efforts of people like Ryo-chimo and Shingo Yamashita, they are increasingly able to create using their weapon of choice: digital animation. This is rapidly changing the face of anime as we know it, ushering in a new flavour of modernism which endows their work flashy, hyperactive animation and simple yet elegant character designs with vivid, iridescent colour schemes. The hangover of the detail and realism oriented 90s is being superseded by this bold new look and it’s breathing a fresh life into the medium, exemplified by series like Kyousogiga, Yozakura Quartet and P.A Works’ Uchoten Kazoku.

Digital animation has already introduced some new techniques that have added to the repertoire of animation, but at the same time, others out there like Yoshimichi Kameda are highlighting that there’s just some things pencil and paper will always offer over digital drawing. Right now the industry is benefiting from both sides of the story – digital animation styles are being experimented with right alongside analog animation and the new web-generation are showing their own brand of charismatic animation in the same series as some of the highly-trained veterans are producing astounding sequences with the utmost technical prowess.

So we’re experiencing the best of both worlds. But if the institutional training style of the traditional industry subsides to the tide of brash, self-made gif animators jumping into the fray, there’s a real risk that we’ll eventually lose animators of a certain calibre: those with the meticulous draftsmanship, unwavering professionalism and a studious attention to the art of movement that gave us films like Ghost in the Shell, Jin-Roh and Akira. Fortunately, studios like Ghibli, Kyoto Animation and Production I.G continue to carefully nurture and train their own animators in the more conventional way (and it really shows in their works too).

 

 

Shirobako – It’s the people, dammit!

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Within the diverse, colourful spectrum of overzealous anime fans across the world there exists a small but growing number of us with a particular bent. If you’re like me, then, at some point, being able to just enjoy good anime wasn’t enough – to satisfy a growing curiosity I had to know why it was good. As it turns out, this was the first tumble down a very slippery, very long slope which would eventually lead me to such depraved depths as spending a good few hours researching the credits a short anime review on a series I’m not even particularly passionate about! If you’re a part of this faction of the anime fandom you may exhibit symptoms such as:

  • You see an anime and feel violent urges to pick it apart, down to its skeletal core of production values and staff credits.
  • You might actually be bothered wanting to know who in particular animated the smoke in the background of a fight scene.
  • You could find yourself watching anime you really hate just because it has some interesting staff in the credits.
  • You might find yourself becoming irrationally angry at ANN reviews.
  • You become a highly efficient, streamlined twitter-stalking machine for anime staff.

To others, this may seem like nitpickery, or even an obsession taken to creepy levels. Most people are perfectly happy seeing something that looks good and talking about the story and the characters. Conversely, they’re unhappy seeing things that they feel don’t look good.

And that’s perfectly fine. Let’s face it, that makes sense. But if you happen to have stumbled into that slippery slope, it can be hard to look back. That’s because you gain an appreciation of just how much work goes into anime from everyone involved, and how much of that work is creative, personal and born from a deep-seated attachment to the industry and the anime. Blood sweat and tears and donuts are the secret ingredients behind nearly every good anime, and even many of the mediocre ones. And those ingredients can’t just be bought in bulk by the studio or director of the day – they’re shed by people. So many of the names on the credit list that most people skip at the end of each episode are absolutely vital to helping make the episode what it was.

And it doesn’t just lead to nitpicking, for me, this deeper appreciation of the people behind anime has  unlocked a new, visceral love for the medium. In the climactic animation sequences of Space Dandy’s finale I got goosebumps seeing the work of animators Yoshimichi Kameda, BahiJD and Yutaka Nakamura, because I was in awe of their talent. 5 years ago I might have thought it looked ‘kinda cool’ and then quickly forgotten about it. But now I know: no other three people could have produced a sequence that looked quite like that. And I know that their efforts represent a new step in a career of hard-work and personal growth.

On Shirobako

Enter Shirobako: the anime about cute girls making anime about cute girls. In just 7 episodes, this anime has done more to convey exactly what I’m talking about than I could have in a thousand blog posts (even if people actually read my blog!). Not only does it do a great job of very realistically showing the production process of TV anime in great detail, but it also scratches beneath the technical workflows and gets into the motivations, aspirations, foibles and challenges of the many people behind it. Make no mistake, although these are fictional characters, their passion for the job, the struggles they deal with are all very real reflections of the very real people behind the industry.

I’m actually surprised it’s taken this long for something like Shirobako to come along (the closest thing I can think of would be the more comedic Animation Runner Kuromi). I’m not sure whether it’s because directors and producers have shied away from the topic for fear that there was no appetite among anime fans for this setting, or that they thought it would be too awkwardly introspective to create, but it’s been a long time coming. The men who finally made it happen are Kenji Horikawa (founder, director, and main driving force of P.A Works) and director Tsutomu Mizushima. Apparently, the idea for the anime started while they shared a train ride together around 3 years ago (possibly when they were working together on Another). They had the desire to bring the personal side of anime production to light and to explore every facet of production, connecting the many often isolated sections that operate in the industry into a story. Together, they originally nutted out ideas such as the beginning sequence of the group wanting to make a school-project anime and get into the industry, and the street-racing scene from the first episode.

makers

But only now have they got it off the ground. There’s no denying this is their work, and their idea (mainly Horikawa’s by the sound of it). Both of them have a wealth of experience in the industry: Horikawa has worked at Production I.G, Tatsunoko Productions and Bee Train before finally starting up P.A Works. As the founder of the company, it’s clearly his experience managing all areas of production which has laid the groundwork for the show’s storytelling. Mizushima Tsutomu, with a prolific and rock-solid career behind him, including works such as Blood-C, xxxHolic, Squid Girl, etc, brings an effective directorial presence. The show’s production has been polished (albeit not very charismatic), and, being known for his comedy anime, he brings a much needed sense of humour to what might have otherwise been too dry of an anime to swallow. Interestingly, he’s also sound director on this anime which, as far as I’m aware, is quite unusual. His familiarity with music predates his career in anime though, as he originally wanted to be a music teacher after finished high school, before winding up in anime after not being able to get into that profession. Still, the director credit is usually enough work for one person, so he must really be stretched thin.

He would have bought on writer Michiko Yokote to this project, having worked extensively with her on the past on his projects, and she delivers a strong script packed with interesting interpersonal drama and multiple layers of story development with well-written female characters. As a side note, it’s rumoured that Michiko Yokote is actually a team of 3 female writers based on a blog post she wrote some time ago (a rumour that many English websites have echoed as fact). However, given the jovial tone of the post and the fact that it seems impractical, I’m inclined to believe it’s not true. Alongside her writes the accomplished Reiko Yoshida (Keion, Kaleido Star, REC, Scrapped Princess, and many more) who I actually think delivers more resonant and interesting episodes.

For an anime that brings to light the talents and hard-work of charismatic animators, the production is almost ironically mute in execution. There’s little room for expressionistic or idiosyncratic animation, except in the meta anime that the staff are producing. But the strength of Shirobako is in its fascinating look at the internal guts of the industry.

Exploration of the Industry

Shirobako is set in a fictional studio called Musashino Animation (look, the even made a fake website for the studio) who are currently working on a new anime series, Exodus. Musashino animation is a small Tokyo-based studio the likes of which comprise the majority of anime companies out there. Through this setting it tells the story of  5 girls who are living and working towards their high-school dream of creating anime together. There’s a rookie voice actress, a production assistant, a key animator, a 3DCG operator, and an aspiring script-writer The anime explores their lives in the industry as well as the many other production staff that surround them. Some interesting things they’ve covered include:

Schedule Hell

Your favourite anime
Your favourite anime

The apocalyptic struggle of one overworked production assistant against a tsunami of work and a tight schedule is vividly portrayed throughout Shirobako, and is the focus of episode 3. In the episode, Aoi faces an uphill battle to get an episode finished after it is derailed by a collapsed animator and a grossly indecisive director. TV anime typically run on tight schedules, going to air with only a handful of completed episodes to act as a buffer before inevitably being caught, pants-down in a frantic race to finish every episode. Stories of animators pulling all nighters or virtually living in the studio are commonplace, and it’s not all that rare for episodes to only just be completed in time for airing.

[HorribleSubs] Shirobako - 01 [720p].mkv_snapshot_22.57_[2014.12.01_19.13.08]
Typical lazy animator
In this climate of fast-paced production it’s no surprise that anime are frequently derailed into ‘production hell’ . The server being down in episode 3 of Shirobako is apparently something that actually happened at P.A Works during work on the final episode of Hanasaku Iroha. While that case ended happily, sometimes episodes end up going to air incomplete or not at all. Episode 10 of Bakemonogatari went to air disturbingly unfinished, with many cuts being substituted with a black screen and some text, and I recall this being blamed on staff illness. Even successful shows that are generally considered well produced often have their feet scorched by the fiery furnace of hell below. On several occasions Shingeki no Kyoujin employed over 10 animation directors on a single episode, which is a clear sign of a rushed anime with a lot of poor drawings needing correction, and there were even calls on twitter trying to recruit animators to the project mid-production. Episode 13 showed the result, with a bunch of awkwardly long still shots and many action cuts being substituted by scenic shots of the city.

Wow, such a great battle sequence!
Wow, such a great battle sequence!

Time is money, but money can’t buy time when things go to hell. Hopefully Shirobako’s glimpse into a studio grappling with the schedule demons might dispel the myth that drops in anime quality are caused by a studio ‘running out of money’. While this can happen, it’s very rare and extraordinary, yet it seems to be the go-to explanation for a shoddy episode by most anime fans.

The References to Real people

Shirobako is packed full with references to real people, places and events within the industry. Some of them are subtle, others not so much, but it’s a lot of fun to try keep an eye out for them! Probably the most obvious ones are the oafish, man-child director, who is modelled after Seiji Mizushima and the aloof, inexplicably culinary company president, who is based on the CEO of studio Mappa (and co-founder of Madhouse), Masao Maruyama. Given his real-life parallel, Seiji Mizushima’s character is portrayed in a surprisingly unflattering light, but he’s presumably in on the joke after he uploaded this photo of himself in a matching blue-polo shirt!!

B1R9Ce4CMAA7OjM.jpg large

I’m not sure where the proclivity for cooking in Masao’s character comes from, but it seems to be a running joke. I actually saw a photo of Maruyama cooking with a pot on the internet, but now I can’t seem to track it down again!

Studios and other anime series are often mentioned with bastardised or cryptic names, and the seiyuus actually appear as themselves! It’s a lot of fun for someone with an existing interest in the faces behind anime. As a point of interest, director Mizushima Tsutomu calls Tarou, the most annoying character int he show, his former self (hopefully he’s joking!)

JUST STOP. STOP BEING ALIVE.
JUST STOP. STOP BEING ALIVE.

CG versus 2D

The was palpable sense of tension between CG animators and traditional animators in episode 5. Apparently they actually consulted with the legendary Ichiro Itano for this episode, who actually went into direction with CG from his origins as a 2D animator (traitor!!). He also I saw somewhere that Itano might be participating in a commentary for the episode’s Blu-ray release, which should prove interesting.

Shoulda capped that bitch
Shoulda capped that bitch

Although obviously exaggerated here, I’d guess that there is an air of conflict in the anime industry between these two sides of the fence. The encroachment of 3DCG into more and more areas of the medium is like a dark, ominous cloud hanging over the industry. When anime first started to use 3DCG it was experimental and used for specific things that would either be too hard to animate traditionally or which were clearly suitable for a CG treatment like spaceships and mecha. It was used to add value to anime in specific ways like having a lot of moving background characters that would have been impossibly expensive and time-consuming for a TV-anime. This all enabled animators to focus more on better foreground, character drawings (and certain studios kept the 2D mecha tradition alive). But now we’re getting whole anime done in CG – clearly it’s gone from being a complement to the 2D industry to a rival.

Personally I think it’s about time we started drawing clear battle-lines here when it comes to CG. The western 2D animation industry basically immediately evaporated after directors and producers jumped ship when they saw the new shiny, trendy 3D animation, but Japan has so far not succumbed so readily. It’s like a last bastion of hope for fans of 2D animation (and I’m talking about GOOD animation, not flash-in-betweened rubbish). CG, while still taking skill in and of itself, is a form of animation that is more science than it is art – it lacks the raw creative spark that comes from the hand and the many nuances of drawn animation.

Let's see CG do this!!!
Let’s see CG do this!!!

So, to be honest, I was totally onside with the animator. CG can have its place, but now that we’ve got whole anime being done in the style, it represents a real threat to the industry and I say we should push back!

The Animator Crunch

The look into Ema’s struggle with starting out as a key animator. Just getting into the job, she is facing the crunch that most animators need to get through, the first big hurdle: the ability to draw both quickly and well, and being able to aptly juggle these two opposing forces in her daily work.

I think this is really interesting to see play out on a personal level, and I hope people watching take home the fact that there’s a lot more to being a good animator than simply being able to draw. Being flagged as someone with potential for character design, Ema is obviously a good drawer and a competent animator, but she is struggling with just 10 cuts under time pressure. Unless you have a reputation as a star animator, it’s not enough to be good, you have to be good and fast!  It really serves to highlight the herculean efforts of some animators who are able to draw entire episodes by themselves and maintain a high level of quality, or who are able to actually create animation that is thrilling on an individualistic level after just starting out.

Many animators-to-be quit the job because they can’t push past this roadblock with either talent or sheer guts and determination, so let’s give due respect those who do overcome it!

Pay discrepancies

Although it’s not exactly anything we didn’t know before, the Shirobako website posted a neat little info-graphic showing the salaries of the various people involved. It’s not news that the salary of a fresh key animator is terribly low, but it’s still frightening seeing such a stark comparison. With the much more attractive salary of an animation director/character designer it’s easy to see why most good animators work their way up to that role, or turn towards storyboarding and direction (although being an animation director is very tough work that doesn’t pay especially well on a per-cut basis).

Those animators who stick with key animation in the long-run are few and far between and tend to be the rare, prodigious individual who is talented enough to make a name for themselves as a top, sought after resource. These people find themselves with proper salaries or a much higher per-drawing pay-rate. Some animators who seem like they were born to walk the path of a pure animator include the likes of Shinya Ohira, Yutaka Nakamura, Toshiyuki Inoue, etc.  These days it’s usually better to be talented in a stand-out way than to work hard at progressing as an animator.

What I do like is how they subtly touch on the money issue without being preachy or self-pitying in the process. Although not well-paid, young animators take pride in their job and are driven by their love for it.

Interestingly, the role of Sound Director is not included here. A few years ago, a report from the Japanese Animation Creators Association which highlighted (and perhaps exaggerated) the plight of young animators caused a bit of stir. Yamasaki Osamu wrote for them discussing pay inequities within the industry and pointed out that sound directors are paid a little over half as much as episode director’s per episode, but are able to finish an episode in two days rather than a matter of weeks. As a result, they often juggle 2-3 series at a time and can commonly end up with salaries of $200,000 or more, more than the executive producer on the chart above. With that said, it sure is intriguing that Mizushima Tsutomu is also sound director on this anime! I certainly can’t tell any difference from other anime!

In the end..

maxresdefault
There’s a story behind every anime

If you think back to a scene in anime that struck you as being awesomely animated and it was almost certainly thanks to the tireless work of a particular animator. Look at Yoshimichi Kameda’s scene from Space Dandy #26, the electric, swirling fire dragon was all animated by him and is a sentimental bow to the animator who inspired and influenced him from the beginning, the recently deceased legend Yoshinori Kanada; the action climax of the ghost in the Shell movie was animated by Mitsuo Iso who apparently studied a spider he’d captured in a jar to help craft the movements of the spider-tank; Ichiro Itano’s famous, twirling, spiraling missiles were drawn from his memories of strapping fireworks to his bike and riding as they shot out around him; hell, Gainax was founded by a bunch of university drop-out nerds who bound together to animate an intro to a sci-fi convention. We’re used to watching interesting stories play out in our favourite anime, but what Shirobako reveals is that those anime are often built on fascinating, real-life stories of the people involved. The more I look into the many remarkable people working in this medium the more I discover that they are driven by a passion for animation and storytelling.

I’m confident that Shirobako has lifted the veil over the anime industry for a lot of people, both in Japan and abroad, and all we can do is hope that this fosters more interest in and better understanding of the people who pour their life into the anime we enjoy every week. I’d love to see more people join me in the tireless pursuit of uncovering these people and stories behind anime! At the very least, some mainstream reviews might be able to start giving credit where credit where it’s due a little better instead of lumping it all at the foot of the director or any name they happen recognise.

Further reading:

Staff roles/pay:

http://bakudon.net/news/2008/02/27/financials-heaven-hell-reality-three-looks-at-the-business-of-animation-production-part-3-an-examination-of-the-production-costs-of-bamboo-blade

Is it True? Everyone Working in Anime is Poor?

How anime is made:

https://washiblog.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/anime-production-detailed-guide-to-how-anime-is-made-and-the-talent-behind-it/

http://www.pelleas.net/aniTOP/index.php/the-anime-production-line

 

The Animation of Love Lab & The Dogakobo Gang

https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/TIcxO_Mysq0UXFgc_FYqlCdsRGBpuv6rcXivc3vsSpNHq2cc5DC_7dL1cxaFeYUiWhgJxVpg26q8wsMrDeaTRfuEElalOK2sR-wGmxzSecOu38rusxB7S-om8qkDX0bCbg

Love Lab is a romantic school comedy based on a four-panel manga straight from the pen-hand of Ruri Miyahara. The premise is simple – the student council at a respectable all-girls are drawn into their president’s whirlwind of naive romance fantasies, ultimately becoming a club for practicing at the art of finding love. At first it didn’t sound like it was worth the effort of giving a go, but I think fate must have been at play; I ended up stumbling into it anyway, and, when I did stumble into it, I fell head over heels in love. Yep, as it turns out, Love Lab has a hell of a lot more going for it than its synopsis belies. Beneath that thin veneer of been-done romantic comedy genre clone, Love Lab has a beating heart and a healthy pulse. Its characters are earnest and charming, its jokes are genuinely funny, and its production is unexpectedly fresh and energised. Make no mistake, this is one of those series that just has something about it, a spring in its step, a glint in its eye, a certain buzz that makes it feel really alive. At its best, Love Lab is totally irresistible and kind of electric to watch. But don’t take my word for it, please go check it out!

Even if you don’t, let’s take a look at why it turned out the way it did; why wasn’t Love Lab just another cute-girls-messing-around-in-school comedy destined to be relegated to the bargain bin of forgotten mediocrity? Maybe it’s the exemplary voice acting work of the main cast (especially Chinatsu Akasaki as the elegant and lovably weird Maki ). Maybe it’s because it was spearheaded by perhaps the most notable director-writer duo of the anime industry’s comedy corner: director Ohta Masahiko and writer Aoshima Takashi. Bordering on not actually being separate people, Aoshima has been the series composer and main writer for every last one of Ohta’s works. Together, they had left a string of well-received comedy series in their wake by this point, from Minami-ke, through to Mitsudomoe and Yuruyuri. Aoshima is a natural at writing scripts that juggle comedy and endearing characters and stories, which definitely comes through here. Ohta meanwhile is known for the extra-animated, energetic visual comedy he often puts into his work.

But never have these two struck success as they did with the breakaway hit Yuruyuri. Why? I would argue that it’s because of the group of animators that was assembled across that show’s two seasons who were able to go that extra mile in injecting fun and interesting animation. Ohta’s other shows certainly have memorable moments of animation, but not with the intensity or pizazz of Yuruyuri. That same team were reunited for Love Lab a year later and in their resurgence they pushed the quality and charisma of their animation to new heights! Many anime out there have exceptional voice acting and solid scripts, but fewer can compete with Love Lab when it comes to the vigour and personality of their animation.

The Animation of Love Lab

If you think of the directors and the writers as building the frame, then the animators are the ones that put in all the hand-made details and final touches. It’s their finish which can either make or break an anime which is good by design. Love Lab was one of the fortunate ones, with an enamoring animation quality that really made the anime the engrossing and fun series that it was.

https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/ABfu29HEzygY3viJSohCaQwtyjGrnnJ4_jETRSYwtVWtF6fUSmVNgGWrCv1_Yt3aeEQ1EKQ0LaP4I6BkSEBttWApo_sAkO-sxo_xVaYb7jmGpyJqIXNWTiDLv6u5FZq7uA https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/YrDq4nwnROQq_nLSnsZY9uFmqtyhpuEYFAjTzP4miz9cFAaPUt-0tK2ynX7MR5jbT1Lm0uDBo2e8cI9Cvjfgud23wgzlUAvJHr82TNpgTz0L8pMfGf9-DbY0LX8bdi4xvQ

https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/y3fHxazmUb2XnMaiCtW4_UorWraB-drZbPL6DNpKJw8Fcy9fGdzMIVCViT6pDQfoVssbLHku0qxDcsh-U6N8HO8FJmbDVVsg01S0ouZfQ_-W5qpgD1MCeP0ZlZzLG_-9QQ https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/uKeLzOLuOI6pP1Rheg_UAFa83UmX_1YhYlwAKcJOJjlCW8re0bk_zxghGPNKFGnXusCHYYu6ZHS7mAqB8W1rZiZVqRNbVlKuvvBhzYKK7UmuXQ43mRDQ_mYHmObI_PeaBg

https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/epKUla-W46AnNZHTf43vuj9jJD3R885pxn5OviZ97VLxcF9NhZpcsM-vKdXUxFozUlCT9-h4TYvPg8UPns05MfR5LqjoPWhcMzF-g8Xfx-GGduUGl_p1tWOcXuIuQrNJ2Q https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/RBIvqZ98t-NLi9k_a3sQCPvYyjVXNpakMvrrNKpDuXIzIILgY61vKtdrOC4Axwg9He-uYa0K0Sod-oUvfz9HGx_XB-WrYj3iFa7FgyMhaniNBJ08gMpmDIvA59FA78SQXw

https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/bza9al7kvkNUWijav22St-5jwmXyDlRBXizU78stpRosTLCZ7MhMddgU1QleYv24uaK3mhfOcA1nMffKUcqlbdtCt-EmtscLkL-r_r4t2gM4fTV5c7SHgz7mDZiQfr96Yg https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/JrLKEPTqBMSN-_fF8bdPSDQwU8birLsV-NX4pmVqCSHqxs_wJkbCXvoneopM5LfycyJCetXczm2pCWk_EbMml9or7BMqR2m8Qjd30HC6qwzEqfUFB2Nse_AcoW2fGCn9Ig

The animation on the whole has a vibe to it that I haven’t seen anywhere else: at times it’s unabashedly limited animation, lavished with intricate detail such as lusciously-drawn, swaying hair or precisely folding clothes; other times it’s fluidly realised with cartoonish distortions and expressions. But, remarkably, although it casually flickers between eclectic styles, it feels coherent in its own playful kind of way. There’s just something natural about the way these animators work together that makes their styles compliment each other and add attitude and richness to the series instead of clashing. And above all there’s this feeling emanating from the animation – that it’s the product of an aspiring and talented young generation, of their extra effort and the pride they took in their work.

Often, animation quality is a topic that gets left behind (or completely misrepresented) in most fan reviews and discussions, but I doubt there would be many viewers who didn’t sit up and notice it in Love Lab, especially in some key episodes. Maki’s sensuous twirls as her cross-dressing counter part, Suzune’s clumsy flusters, Riko’s raw, fierce punches – the colourful and charismatic way the characters move in Love Lab defines their personalities as much as the things they say. And it wasn’t just the joke cuts either –  the scene of Riko being upset in the hallway in episode 3 portrayed Riko with an unspoken tenderness and vulnerability that we never would have seen without the creative spark of the animator behind it. This is what I mean by the animators being the ones who put in the finishing touches. There are plenty of anime out there with more expensive and technically impressive animation, but Love Lab is a shining example of how a handful of animators can bring a character to life in ways that the director and writer couldn’t possibly envision. There are a few studios and directors out there who should pay attention to this fact. You can spend thousands of frames making a character walk around fluidly and say a whole lot less than a turn of the cheek, a shudder or a glance can in just a few.

The Dogakobo Yuruyuri Gang

The dynamism in Love Lab’s animation comes from a group of younger, up-and-comers working at or associated with studio Dogakobo. The studio has actually been around for some time: it was founded in 1973 as a pure animation workshop and, since Nausicaa Valley of the Wind that year, has done considerable work on Ghibli movies. It changed tack in 2005 by making a push to producing its own works. It gained a reputation as a studio for mediocre eroge adaptations such as Koihime Musou and Hoshizora e Kakaru Hashi with its subsequent works. But between 2011 and 2012 a kind of revolution happened at the company, hand-in-hand with the success of Yuruyuri. The studio has now become known for quality animation and popular comedy series. The company hired up at this time, opening its doors to a new generation of animators. The 2012 sequel to Yuruyuri gave them the first real opportunity show what they could do, and it was glaringly obvious that they had struck some real talent with their new employees and those other young animators they gathered for the project.

https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/91SWW3ZGJRXrNXrQhMj9PMwq3y3kN6fnQ9lXMR2KcGCdcc52UocI029IHhQ4_kSj0UbVnnrEbpP7uEnqLTzTbJBMjiRl4WRdrYPE2egWUPdD6EFxcUJ6x47WxAYUxmD72A
source: http://www.jec.ac.jp/anime/2012/09/post_54.html

Yuryuri was transformative for Dogakobo and a pivotal career launching point for this group of skilled animators. In that sense, it was an important anime in terms of the broader industry as well, as these guys are out there and very active today. Only a year later, Love Lab was the very next step that this group would take all together and they proved they weren’t a one hit wonder, raising the stakes and delivering their best work yet. The vigour of these fresh animators at Dogakobo is put on great display in Love Lab.

Let’s look of some of the most notable people in this group:

Nakajima Chiaki (Dogakobo) (中島千明)

The one with the most obvious stamp on the show’s look has got to be the character designer, Nakajima Chiaki. Nakajima is an animator and Dogakobo employee who has been active since 2005. She resumes the role of character designer/chief AD after having done it for the first time on Yuruyuri. Her designs for Love Lab are stellar, undeniably cute but also full of character and zest. She didn’t get to do any actual key animation on the show, but the visual roadmap she laid out with her designs and animation oversight work make her a major part of its charming look. Although she was integral in both Yuruyuri and Love Lab, I don’t see her as being part of the following group of animators as much as she is just a prominent Dogakobo staffer. The reason for this is that she hasn’t often worked alongside them in a key animation capacity.

Ooshima Enishi (Freelance) (大島縁)

Ooshima Enishi left a huge imprint on Love Lab, being a major animator on several episodes (there’s a good chance he did more animation than anyone else). But he wasn’t just a mindless workhorse of the show – the style and charisma he wove into his animation was a major part of Love Lab’s aesthetic. His drawing style is distinctively crisp and highly detailed, while his motions are an exhilarating mix of swaying hair and clothes and boppy, cutesy character acting. His predilection for eloquently detailed hair is definitely noticeable in Love Lab. He also gives me the impression of an animator who takes great pride in their work and is willing to work himself that extra mile. He recently gained a lot of attention for animating all of Gochuumon wa Usagi-desu-ka alongside only one other person (key animation). Although not a Dogakobo employee, he has worked closely with them since Yuruyuri season 2.

https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/nS0awN1qnqXFigArgO9fep-lqO1oNTK6cKPgRugohBNn6T-FQa6RD22_anoVdudzkKJHst-smWeGU6nKrlEVgUtBHAEmBnv1XDRAtY8jJ5Ut7Kb0yw8nPuUAxWoWFJ4kMQ

Yuuki Watanabe (Dogakobo) (渡邉祐記) {https://twitter.com/aninabe05}

Yuuki Watanabe is another animator who has only just burst into the animation industry. He has rapidly risen to become one of Dogakobo’s most valuable assets. From doing animation on only one episode of the 2012 Yuruyuri, he stepped up to doing a significant amount of key animation for a whopping 5 episodes of Love Lab, and even more for their following series, Mikakunin de Shinkoukei . He brings the more whacky and cartoony moments to the show, with very fast, fluid movements and fun, inventive distortions such as people’s body parts being left behind between frames. The mix of his comical, expressive animation and Ooshima’s more flamboyant, detailed work, these two probably had the biggest hand in crafting Love Lab’s memorable, charismatic animation palette.

https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/GLWQHPlVa15T7yZOCnZqzeslO2epxJP7s4MD9n4iaOXZc-g05otJrqyRFxgSmb00iyOSq60rvCD7tfLWGytYtcIvT7nkRKXK0LH8a2ZskofSNLP7H7pQB-LyTuNUIs80pg

Nishii Ryousuke (Freelance?) (西井涼輔)

Although he doesn’t seem to be a Dogakobo employee (the sakuga wiki postulates that he’s freelance), he has much the same career path as these guys and he is often associated with Dogakobo works. Like Yuuki Watanabe, his first credit is on the second season of Yuruyuri, on which he did key animation for 3 episodes. And, like all the others, his involvement ramped up for Love Lab – doing key animation for 5 episodes. Quite different again to Ooshima or Yuuki, Nishii’s style seems to be quite gentle and densely fluid with natural movements. He’s clearly quite a skilled and industrious young animator who I hope will get more opportunities to show of what he can do in the years to come. He hasn’t been that active lately, but did do some key animation in Ping Pong episode 6.

https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/8Q4mONwreHfsxlZlfA7g19RzAdcDSAP83zI6_U_ywK5cIZso3o5wgoVDnDR4XuDspXh3JL-tjbMHGPgHI5kc2F5xqxg8qGYVIOcUoS1wrVbYGRFYvv76xpka39SRmkLHbw https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/kJjjGfxArnk35914Bvp6YFQc1CGbhI0SUlcSssQUJP--Z8UzC-sEELvlZTztdrXn3UZDX7EFHaeRoS7z183gMa08LG9zOaAJSq04pTV_Ej3Vcl-kvA4okobouzX4qVaMjQ

(source: http://sajiya.blog89.fc2.com/blog-entry-389.html, presumed)

Nonaka Masayuki (Freelance) (野中正幸)

Probably the most prolific of all these animators, Nonaka Masayuki started out at J.C Staff and produced a large volume of work for them on many of their main anime starting from 2009’s Hayate Gotoku. She did key animation for one episode of Yuruyuri in 2011 and then returned with a bigger presence in the second season in 2012. There’s a good chance this was a pivotal point in her career as well, since she went freelance around this time, and has since enjoyed constant work on a variety of different shows. She returned to work alongside Dogakobo for Love Lab in 3 episodes. She has a knack for embodying a very full, lively sense of movement in her animation, even when it is quite limited. Her characters seem to have this bouncy pep to them which means she fits in perfectly with this group.

https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/PgKJawDLCOOJekL0_Z0iQL2pbVzf8lsQ2VDo57DaJiT-xjtVgjkb0_-zdsyRsMoriY3L9NQ_Gep2nW44PDYH47alSVwGacfUX2sak2CubZRrJy5Etzsnq5g6tCjQAccuzg

Yoshida Kanako (Freelance?) (吉田奏子)

A quieter achiever of the bunch, Yoshida Kanako is a young key animator who seems to have been active for the past 5 years or so. She was involved with both seasons of Yuruyuri and since then she has also been a regular on Dogakobo anime, including 5 episodes of Love Lab (2 as an animator and 3 as an AD). She has an understated animation quality, which is a gentle kind of limited animation, creating soft yet lively and captivating movement. Her recent work on Ishuukan Friends has gained attention for this reason.

https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/Q23-6ClxXeL-mDouw4t7gOWYUJFOlviOeW3QEofepR3fUBzJLfHtrnyQ9BejSSEHuk3b6r4aKdKgHOYIETOX2zorsbXUHgfKnsJxC1OzW45oQmUXWPvGnPgRQ8wkHMQmlw

The Golden Episodes

What’s interesting is that this isn’t just a list of animators who worked on the same series, their efforts were concentrated in several key episodes. This means they directly worked with other on the series.

Dogakobo seem to have developed a very clear strategy in their scheduling which results in this particular clique of animators all working together in a concentrated set of episodes. In Yuruyuri season 2, it was episodes 1,6, 7 and 11 and in Love Lab it was episodes 1,3,5 and 12. It is no coincidence then, that these episodes are striking for their animation quality and intensity. Even to a fan who doesn’t know the first thing about animation, these episodes are clearly stand-out affairs, while the rest of the show is, mostly, simply ‘good quality’. To illustrate just how aligned these animators were for these episodes, I prepared this table:

eptable

As you can see, the episodes given to this team of animators are closely aligned with the episodes the series director and  main writer worked on. It makes sense that the director would consider these key episodes and arrange the best staff. On top of the main staff, some good freelance animators were bought in for these episodes (e.g Kouno Megumi in episode 1). Episode 13 is probably an exception because it was more about the emotional payoff than the comedy and therefore required less eccentric animation. The episodes outside of this set are frequently more outsourced and, in the case of 6 and 7, required character designer Chiaki Nakamura to act as a chief animation director.

Also an interesting thing to note is that these four episodes (and only these four) had a ‘Production Advancement’ credit. The person credited with this is Dogakobo employee Umehara Shouta (梅原翔太). Given that there’s little internal information or interviews available with Dogakobo staff, it’s hard to determine his importance in all of this, but the fact is he is intrinsically linked with these animators.

He was credited with production advancement in those key episodes of Yuruyuri as well. In fact, in pretty much any case where Dogakobo assembles some of these animators, he has this credit. If you see his name attached to an episode, you know it’s going to be a good one! And it’s not just the internal staff, but the freelance animators who worked on these episodes also rarely work alongside Dogakobo except when Umehara is involved. But until I know more, I’ll stop short of saying he was key in scouting and assembling this staff, since it could just be that those key episodes require more overall oversight/collaboration work which requires him to act in this capacity.

Was it the director, Ohta who pulled these animators together for Yuruyuri and again for Love Lab? Or was it Dogakobo, through Umehara or otherwise? And who developed the approach of scheduling them all into a handful of episodes? I’d love to know more, but we’ll probably never know.

Looking Ahead

It was the unified effort of these guys that bought Love Lab to our screens with the kind of gusto and energy that made it such an entertaining series. Despite their short terms in the job, these younger animators have already shown they have a brash idiosyncratic style and the ability to beat par when it comes to the quality of their work. In an industry that seems to becoming increasingly fractured, with most young, talented animators going freelance quickly, it’s too rare to see a group like this being assembled.

Soon after Love Lab, all of these animators joined forces again for Dogakobo on the Mikakunin de Shinkoukei Music Video (which has 9 animators in total), which was a promotional video released prior to the show.

This video is a concentrated rush of exactly the kind of lively, fresh and surprising kind of animation they whipped up for Love Lab. It’s cutesy, boppy and fun in a way that I can’t really recall seeing elsewhere in anime. It’s probably their best work as a team so far, but I just hope it isn’t their group’s swan song.

Mikakunin de Shinkoukei itself featured only some of these animators on different episodes, and subsequent Dogakobo productions haven’t ‘bought the gang back together’ so to speak. Director Ohta Masahiko seems to have moved on, now releasing a new anime with Studio Pierrot as the animation studio. Meanwhile, Dogakobo is working on Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun. Since they’ll be essentially competing this season, I don’t see Dogakobo sharing its resources, so our only hope is for Shoujo Nozaki-kun to make an effort to reunite this Love Lab lot, freelancers included. It seems unlikely, but even if we don’t see them all working together again, I will be keeping an eye on their careers.

 

Yoshinori Kanada’s Fire Dragon and Homages

If you’ve been to my blog before, you’ve probably heard me mention the name Yoshinori Kanada. I’m not going to write another biography on the guy, but I will say he died in 2009 as a legend to the anime industry and its fans. His charismatic approach to his work as animator broke down many barriers and showed that animators could stand-out and express their own styles in their work.

You can read a good overview of this guy here (I do recommend it). But I’m going to focus on just one of his many achievements: his immortal fire dragon from the move Harmaggedon (anime adaptation of the manga Genma Taisen). Perhaps not the most iconic product of his career, it is probably his most remarkable from an animation point of view, and certainly a milestone in the history of anime.

The fire dragon carried on the spirit of his stand-out sequence from Adieu Galaxy Express 999 (1981), which depicted a ghost formed from liquid and smoke. That ghost already impressed audiences and animators, but the style of effects animation would be pushed to a new level just a couple of years later in Harmaggedon (1983).

The fire dragon, the climax of the film, perfected a thrilling new form of effects animation, which combined a sense of stylism and abstraction with an organic approach to motion. The dragon moves as a visual cacophony of wildly undulating lines and swirling, churning, leaping geometries which depicts a body of fire in a very natural and enthralling way. It’s an achievement in animation, the magic of which probably won’t be captured again elsewhere.

The abstraction is to do with the use of a few colors, and a lack of shading which simplistically but beautifully captures an image in a 2-dimensional space. Kanada’s Adieu Galaxy Express ghost and Harmaggedon fire dragon featured in Takashi Murakami’s Superflat, where he compared it to the style seen in traditional Japanese wood paintings by Katsushika Hokusai. I’m far from being an expert on art, but what I like about it is how it elegantly represents reality as forms of overlapping color.

While I don’t think the glory of this dragon can be replicated, it is a tribute to its persevering influence among animators that it is often paid homage to in their works. This video contains a collection of homages and similar effects dragons (and also the original!).

I thought it might be worth having a look at a few of these (and I would love if someone else can help me identify the ones I don’t know).

Appropriately, the very first homage is undoubtedly the work or idea of Imaishi Hiroyuki. I say appropriately because, as you probably all know, Imaishi is a devout follower of Kanada’s style and someone with a great deal of respect for him. He has adopted, and exaggerated further, Kanada’s extreme perspectives, crazy character poses, and heavy usage of effects animation. Gurren Lagann is a massive throwback, with love, to the super robot genre that Kanada was such a pivotal influence upon. But before Gurren Lagann, Imaishi got his Kanada on when he was episode director/storyboarder/animation director for the crazy GAINAX comedy Abenobashi, which is where this clip comes from.

It was a riotous episode, and Imaishi got some great animators on board to play with his brand of Kanada (Keisuke Watabe, You Yoshinari (and Kou Yoshinari), Sushio, Tokoyuki Matsutake). The episode felt like the precursor to Gurren Lagann.

Actually, Imaishi worked on a more subtle reference to the fire dragon in episode 7 of the just-finished Black Rock Shooter. I sadly haven’t seen the episode yet, but a friend of mine pointed it out to me.

Imaishi Hiroyuki storyboarded and directed the other-world scenes in most episodes of BRS. In episode 7 it was alongside one of his main animators on Gurren Lagann, and probably someone who he has influenced/mentored a lot himself: Akira Amemiya. One of them had the cheek to sneak it in there!

But going back to the video. The dragon that bursts from the cooking pot at 00.48 is the animation work of Seiya Numata (working on 2×2=Shinobuden), another big Kanada fan.

Although his style isn’t so directly reminiscent of Kanada’s as Imaishi’s, Kanada’s rebellious and experimental spirit has definitely been picked up by him. he has a big impact on an anime when he’s involved, and always leaves a footprint. Check out this article on Ani no Miyako for more on this guy.

But funnily enough, he too appears to have worked in a fire dragon reference into his new season of Milky Holmes. Being character designer, he is heavily involved in that show, and often in a more behind-the-scenes capacity. He was animation director on episode 7, which means he was especially involved in this episode. Whether he animated it uncredited or not, there’s a good chance it was his idea!

I haven’t actually seen the other anime in this video, so if anyone wants to enlighten us as to their origins, that would be great! A friend identified the clip with multiple dragons in space at ~3.10 as being from X (and an earlier clip with a pure-red dragon attacking a guy in a ball). It would be cool to know the story behind these ones.

Actually, I could keep this post linked in the sidebar and updated whenever we see another fire dragon pop up in anime or can unearth one of these older ones! Please contribute or just share your thoughts!

Black Rock Shooter, Trigger, Imaishi Hiroyuki

So, as promised, here’s my first new post. Be warned, this one might be a little over-informative. I’ve also changed the layout because something in the other layout changed and made it more difficult to read.

So one of the few shows I have been watching and enjoying this season is Black Rock Shooter. I have to admit, I’m one of the many out there who was swept up in the hype frenzy of BRS around the time the first OVA came out. But I also have to admit I’m not one of the many who were subsequently disappointed when the OVA didn’t meet their monumental expectations. It wasn’t all it could have been, but I enjoyed it. This series might have me in the same position.

While I haven’t exactly been running polls on this or anything, it seems to me that this new Black Rock Shooter also has had a divided response among fans. It expands upon the high-school drama side of things from the OVA that some people seem to detest, but gives it a more melodramatic and dark flavour. Me? I’m lapping it up! I don’t know why people can’t seem to get behind the high-school part of Black Rock Shooter. Some fans just wanted a monotonous, grim and dialogue-free action fest I guess. Although I feel that it’s much too fast paced in this series (a symptom of only having 8 episodes to work with), I’m still a sucker for melodrama. Especially when it’s so well presented.

Not everyone agrees with me on this, but I’m enjoying the animation work on BRS. Raito-kun at Ani no Miyako clearly isn’t liking the anime from a technical (or any other) perspective. He also discusses the state of Ordet, which is an interesting read. Let’s put the 3DCG work aside for the moment. Certainly, purely in terms of the 2D animation, it hasn’t offered anything particularly great. To my memory there hasn’t really been any charismatic character animation, or anything technically impressive. But, personally, I’m fond of the storyboard and layout work on most of the episodes. Subtlety isn’t one of its flavours, but the way this series is framed keeps the visuals feeling fresh and engaging at every turn and serves to give the emotional moments a real kick. Episode 4 stood out for me in this department.

But, and I didn’t think I would ever say this, the highlights are the CG battle sequences. The reason I can say that about BRS is because of the work of Hiroyuki Imaishi.

Imaishi at the brand new Studio Trigger

You should know Imaishi as the director of Gurren Lagann and Panty & Stocking. After being an impressive animator at Gainax since Evangelion, he recently left and started his own new studio (or rather joined Masahiko Otsuka and Kazuya Masumoto in starting it): Studio Trigger. Check out the very cool-looking official website. It’s interesting that his departure coincides with the commercial failure of Panty & Stocking. I definitely get the feeling that, even despite his role as a premier director, Imaishi’s creative instincts were somewhat curtailed at Gainax (and money probably had a part to play too). He also took Yoshinori Yoh with him, definitely one of GAINAX’s most valuable assets as an animator.

Masahiko Otsuka, co-founder and the director, describes the motivations for starting it in this translated interview, and also confirms that they are already working on an original animation project (I can’t wait to see it previewed!). There’s an implication that they could do more Panty & Stocking if they liked (just like Khara did with Evangelion). But it’s clear that Studio Trigger was formed to create original and ambitious works, as well as in response to what the founders see as a shift in the industry’s approach to creating animation. I’m not too sure what they are getting at with that last part, but it should become clear in their future works.

Imaishi’s illustration to celebrate their work on IM@S 17

So far, the studio has done an episode of Idol M@ster (17), sub-contracted from A-1 Pictures (yet more GAINAX – or Ex-GAINAX influence on that anime!). Sushio, who was also a member of Gainax until relatively recently (he’s now freelance) was animation director on that episode too. And now Imaishi has also cooperated with Ordet, who are actually an affiliated company now, on Black Rock Shooter in an unexpected capacity: as CG Battle Director.

Unlike in the original OVA, the other-world battles are done entirely in CG (except for 2D effect animation), even the characters themselves. You might notice Imaishi is also co-credited with storyboard and direction in episodes. What this clearly means is that he explicitly directed and storyboarded the CG battle sequences – he had control of them. The staff of BRS seem to be pretty discretely split between the real-world and imaginary world content.

What’s the result of this unusual involvement from Imaishi? Well, I find myself enjoying those action scenes a lot, when I’m normally totally opposed to CG for animating anything other than mecha (and even then give me 2D any day please). If you look at Strike Witches and the new Last Exile, the use of CG for the characters is really awkward – it sticks out immediately, looks ugly and doesn’t move the same way as the rest of the animation. When I heard this I was curious to see what Imaishi could bring to the table when his background is clearly in 2D-animation, and a very “anime” kind of animation at that.

Imaishi has over-come all of this. Not only are the action scenes great because his storyboards are as awesome as ever, with plenty of cool angles and interesting action shots, but he has bought a 2D limited animation approach to the CG sequences. Limited animation refers to animating at lower that full-framerate and is the style that classically defines the anime medium since TV-anime came about. Anime uses it to good effect by making the framerate dynamic – fast at key moments that need an impact and more choppy in others. Imaishi is known for using limited animation in the Yoshinori Kanada vein – with a focus on cool poses and drawings and varying the framerate a lot.

Imaishi’s Storyboards looking as crazy as usual!

This is reflected in the CG battle scenes here, which, at some points, have a very purposefully dynamic framerate to create the same interesting kind of moment that you would see in a Gurren Lagann action scene, for example. Limiting the framerate of CG in anime definitely isn’t new. Of course, there’s no limit to the framerate you can animate CG as, but when it’s left at full-framerate it not only looks more unnatural, it does not fit alongside traditional 2D animation, with its limited frames. Ghost in the Shell:Stand Alone Complex very effectively animated the Tachikomas at a limited framerate so that they would blend in with the 2D ‘cels’. But it’s taken a step further here and done very well.

It’d be nice if I could upload a clip to illustrate this, but I can’t think of a good place to put videos these days.

Perhaps the biggest thing is he adds to these sequences is a lot of well-blended 2D effects. With smoke, fragments of dust, lighting effects and other grit flying across the scene, the CG doesn’t feel too clean and the shots are much more exciting to watch. I’m really impressed by these sequences.

Imaishi handled them for episodes 1-4, and I guess he bought on the other person who would handle the next couple (at least): GAINAX animator Amemiya Akira.

Akira Amemiya (left), Sushio (right)

Funnily enough, Akira is one of the main animators at GAINAX that people are keenly watching in the void that Imaishi left behind. He is best known for his mecha work, and he was one of the top animators who worked on Gurren Lagann ( and recently Gundam Age). He was also called in on both Idol M@ster (which was overrun with Gainax and Ex-Gainax staff at some points!) and Boku ha Tomodachi ga Sukunai to handle their mecha parody segments.

Like Imaishi his animation is very much in the Kanada School class, with the style of his effects and frivilous cool ‘poses’ that are awesome to watch. That should be pretty clear in this MAD of some of his work.

He has done a lot of work both as a key animator and as an animation director, and I think it won’t be long until we see him take on more of a director’s role. In many ways, his involvement in BRS is a step towards that. His credits so far are:

Storyboard/Assistant Director: 5,6
Layout: 1,5
Key Animation: 6 (CG-Part)

Episode 5
Episode 6

So he storyboarded and directed the CG battle scenes in 5 and 6 (and it looks like Imaishi got him to draw some layouts for him in episode 1 too). His work carries on what Imaishi started without dropping the ball at all. His storyboards/layouts create really exciting action sequences here, and the CG is handled in the same way, by approaching it more as a style of 2D animation.

Black Rock Shooter is an interesting step in a new way of looking at CG, which lends BRS’s fight sequences a kind of gravitas that I would not have expected from CG in a TV-anime. Of course, CG can never replace 2D animation. The kinds of interesting distortions, movements and linework that can come from a charismatic animator with a pencil in hand can’t be replicated. But perhaps there is a place for it.

But, all this aside, I also think it’s enjoyable in its own right, even if it’s a bit quick to turn its characters into psychopaths. Luckily, believably isn’t one of my make-or-break criteria for anime (or I wouldn’t be watching much!).