Anime Snapshot: Kameda Burns Lust (FMA Brotherhood)

Spoiler warning: Significant spoilers for Full Metal Alchemist

It’s been a long while since I watched Full metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Names of characters, the beats  of the story and most of the dramatic climaxes have faded to a distant haze. But one brief moment of the 60-odd episode saga still leaps to mind with perfect clarity and that is the death of Lust by Roy Mustang’s barrage of fire attacks.

It was about a third of the way through the series, and by this point these sinful villains had put the heroes through all manners of torment and, with the regenerative power of the philosopher’s stone seemed to be utterly indestructible. This moment marked a turning point with the sheer power of Roy’s sustained attacks overcoming their supposed immortality and finally defeating one of them for good. It was important to the story, but that’s not what made it so memorable.

It was one of those moments where the power of animation took a good scene and made it an unforgettable one. And the impact of this one short scene on viewers and even the industry as a whole can’t be understated – after all, it was a rare instance where it wasn’t just die hard sakugabros who got weak at the knees. Fans of all kinds were united in awe by Yoshimichi Kameda’s unique, visceral and powerful animation and it was the true launchpad for his career that now has him as one of the most well-known charisma animators of our time. I dare say the sakuga community gained a few members that day – it certainly left an impression on me too.

But what’s so good about it? Kameda took a character’s death scene and cut through all the usual shounen anime niceties of neatly drawn, attractive characters to focus on sheer, untamed intensity of being burnt alive using whatever methods he could. He threw out the book and used rough, contorted but extremely detailed drawings, and depicted withering figures in the flames with pure shadow, barely recognisable as human. It’s probably fair to say that TV animation hadn’t seen something quite like this before.

The first couple of cuts waste no time in making a statement with the realistic disfigurement underscoring the real violence of the sequence – while fire in anime is too often treated as some kind of orange magical essence that reduces a characters HP until they’re arbitrarily defeated, here it burns away the skin to muscle and bone and singes the hair. Already his drawings show carefully defined gritty details well beyond the level of the rest of the anime up until this point.

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But this is only the beginning; Lust is again and again engulfed in a furnace of flames, burning away her form until she becomes this writhing, flickering contortion. Here Kameda is no longer using lines and shading for Lust, depicting her purely with ink and brush. While it’s relatively common for this kind of cut to do away with standard linework for other techniques, Kameda’s execution with the brush is unique and exceptional. His drawings strike just the right balance between form and distortion so that this scorched horror is still strikingly human. Combined this with the jittery, flailing motion he creates with his frames and the overall effect is as unsettling as it is exciting.

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His animation throughout this sequence has such unrestrained intensity to it that impact frames might seem redundant, but he still breaks them out as yet another tool in his arsenal to take the power of Roy’s inferno to the next level. And they are a sight to behold, a primal clash of light and dark.

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Lust’s final screaming lunge – a last furious, escape from the jaws of a fiery death is the real money shot here that sells the whole scene, using Kameda’s creative gusto not just for wow factor but for vivid emotion.

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Here, Kameda’s raw, messy drawings are imbued with the very essence of desperate rage. Again the conventions of character design and crisp linework are left behind in the dust, but now more intimately, as every scrawl and stroke becomes a perfect etching of agony, hatred and desolation.

Looking into Lust’s eyes in the caps below you can really feel the anger emanating from her. I don’t know about you, but it reaches right into my heart. I don’t think drawings like this can be taught, it’s Kameda’s pure artistic vision incarnate and a profound demonstration of his talent.

The use of the flickering trail of the reflection in Lust’s eyes is a clever way to add speed and force to her charge.

It’s also a fine example of his use of the calligraphy brush (sumi-e brush) to add a visceral, textural aesthetic to the genga. You can see this used for her hair in the screenshots above and also in the genga below (from a different episode altogether)

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While he’s very capable of nuance and telling through motion, the sheer impact of his drawings carry the lion’s share of Kameda’s power. Each of his key frames is a piece of art in its own right, especially in this sequence, which remains one of his best to this day.

It almost goes without saying, but he was credited for in-betweens this episode so it’s fair to assume his sequence was completely animated by him. I think the concept of in-betweens doesn’t even really apply to Kameda’s efforts anyway – that would imply there’s some comprehensible logic separating his frames.

The thing about Kameda’s animation on FMA is that it did away with the staples of action anime, the crisp linework, stringent on-model animation and elegant choreography. That stuff is all fun of course, but it feels like a mere farce when Kameda  enters the stage. All the designing, planning and teams of directors in the world don’t hold a candle to the innate talent of this one man let loose. His animation is rough, wild and unconventional but it’s not trying to be. The vibe I get from his work is that he’s not throwing in techniques just because they’re different or to imitate his sakuga forbears; he just earnestly throws everything he has at a scene to make it as good as it can be. And it works.

In his animation is a kind of truth that is almost impossible to grasp, and that is why he’s the real deal, a truly dynamic charisma animator in the spirit of Yoshinori Kanada.

Anime Snapshot: Attack on Titan 39 – Levi’s Chase

I’ve been really enjoying this new season of Attack on Titan so far. Of course, we’re only two episodes in and I know that’s not saying much when we’re talking about a WIT production, but it’s already streets ahead of last year. Season 2 seemed to be deeply unsure of itself, intent on recapturing the spirit of the original blockbuster hit series but also desperately worried that the audience would fall asleep if it didn’t keep them entertained with constant action and campy effects.  Attack on Titan has always worked best when it embraces its strengths as a unique character driven storie, only punctuated by moments of furious action. I was afraid that assistant-made-director Masashi Koizuka would never understand that, but he seems to have reflected on the missteps of last year.

This latest episode definitely got that mix right, taking the time to advance its plot in detail, and dwell on the personal impacts of the violent encounters on its strangely loveable cast. And violent encounters there were, with Levi and his squad’s shockingly sudden and ferocious face-off against rival soldiers through the streets of the city being probably the most impressive sequence of action animation the title has ever pulled off.

It still didn’t quite match the dramatic impact of the original episodes, but it was the first time in a hell of a long time that Attack on Titan had me teetering on the edge of my seat and in awe of the raw speed, power and skill on display.

From an animation perspective there were two particularly stand out cuts, which really took things to the next level.

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Levi narrowly avoids gunfire, in a desperate evasion down the main streets

But the cut that I found more exciting that I’ll focus on a bit was the very next beat.

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Levi takes the chase down a narrow side street

For want of a better pun, this is right up my alley. Both of these sequences are blatant, unapologetic showing off in the best way possible, taking the ideas at the heart of the show’s action animation – sheer, adrenaline fueled speed and dynamism – and pushing it as far as it can go.

From the very first season, Attack on Titan saw the 3D maneuver gear combat as not just a unique challenge in producing the show, but also an opportunity to create action the like of which people hadn’t really seen before. The thing they had to get right was making the audience really feel the acceleration and momentum that these characters were thrusting themselves into. We have to be right there with them as they swing and propel themselves between buildings, launching from the shoulders of hungry titans or pivoting from ledge to ledge.

The most obvious and probably critical tool in Titan’s arsenal is the use of 3D backgrounds. Most anime use static background layers, even in their actions shots. 3D backgrounds are a lot more work to produce and are generally only be used for important cuts where the camera has to rotate (like how KyoAni used it in Keion’s OP). Of course, you can still create riveting action sequences with 2D backdrops – just look at Masahiro Andou’s work in the currently airing Sirious the Jaeger. But if you want to create the kind of battles that Titan has, you need the camera to truly move with the character, keeping pace with their extreme speed and aerobatic techniques.

Animated backgrounds used to be the only way to do this, but 3DCG backgrounds are far more suited to this kind of task as they allow detailed renders that match the fine art qualities of a normal 2D background to move with the camera in absolutely realistic ways. The realistic sense of space and proportions of the background while in fast motion ensure our disbelief is kept suspended while all the little details – individual tiles, bricks and windows flying past the screen work to make our eyes understand the velocity with a grounded sense of scale.

I’m making it sound easy, but it obviously takes more work than most projects are willing or able to invest and this week’s Titan has done it exceptionally well. Especially in the latter sequence; the dense lived-in feel of the buildings down the alley and the way the bar approaches at the end is just great.

But it takes a lot more than 3D backgrounds to make a moment this exhilarating. Picture that gif without Levi and the effects in it; you could tell it was fast, sure, but you wouldn’t feel the speed. It would be boring, to be honest.

The remarkable thing about this sequence is the fact that the animator (Arifumi Irai) went to the nth degree to do everything in their power to portray the thrilling motion. Every frame seems to have some hidden facet to it that, in sum with the others, brings the whole scene to perfect fruition.

As Levi bounds from wall to wall, his body is stretched and contorted, his hair blows back, his shirt presses against his chest; the forces of momentum, gravity and air resistance are all on display, underscoring the physicality of it.

The layered and detailed effects that occur in mere instants are not grandstanded but are humbly used just to ramp up the overall intensity and heat of the chase. These frames are quite impressive on their own but they barely have time to feel like key frames. I also think this frame of Levi’s face reflected in a passing window is a great example of how much detail went into storyboarding and creating this fleeting sequence.

Here Levi leaps onto a wooden scaffold, jumping over a box, avoiding an explosion, scraping his gear along a stone wall and finally flinging off the end. Honestly, it could have just been a wooden surface – the box and the rice bags aren’t essential. And I didn’t even notice the detail of his gear hitting the brick until I freeze-framed it. But again, it’s the extra effort that went into these furnishings that make the scene remarkable and not just good. Interacting with the objects around him gives Levi’s flight a certain kineticism that it wouldn’t have it he was just free-flying in open space.

It’s probably a good time to talk about the impressive undertaking it would have been to animate these cuts with the combined factors of high speed, rotating camera, and layers of effects. Remember that Levi and the sparks and flames surrounding him are just 2D layers totally divorced from the 3 dimensionality of the backgrounds. The buildings in the background will perfectly match every whim of the camera, but when it comes to the drawings, the animator needs to make sure the angles and proportions of their subjects evoke the same effect.

Only very careful planning and strong technical skills can ensure that from frame to frame Levi is realistically in step with the velocity of the camera and the vectors of every object around him. Dealing with any one of these is often a technical challenge, but all three must be quite maddening. Nonetheless Imai was more than up to the task.

The use of relative smearing in that last screenshot is also interesting – the speed being emphasized closer to the camera is an added dash of faux realism alluding to both speed and dynamic depth.

All of these aspects are put to work in the next part – Levi scrapes and rebounds off the ground with true momentum, creating a fuhror of effects as he then dodges a blast before firing his gear at the screen which is strongly emphasised with smears to give it that extra degree of dynamism. Make no mistake, this is a kind of fast, frenetic and furious action that we have rarely seen in anime before period.

It’s got enough thought put into it that it could have been a storyboard for at least a whole episode of a typical anime yet it was over in just a matter of seconds. It’s taking this expanse of deeply considered ideas and work and then compressing it into a fleeting moment that I believe truly makes us feel the speed in the way the creators hoped.

From what I’ve heard, the entire sequence was not only solo key animated but also single-handedly storyboarded by the series’ lead action animator, Arifumi Imai. It also took him about a month to complete the storyboard for it – which really is longer than a lot of anime get for entire episodes. It’s not at all surprising that this kind of sequence was both envisioned and executed by one talented individual – I think difficult sequences this complex need the hands of someone who has the perfect picture of it in their own head.

So, all praise to Imai. I just really hope that the series has another of his solo efforts up their sleeves for a a later episode!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why 3DCG Cannot be Allowed to Replace 2D Animation!

In the late 90s, after Gegege no Kitarou 4 went digicel after the 64th episode, the Japanese animation industry quickly transitioned from being filmed with a camera to being scanned and composited in computer software. Over the last decade, there has now been some further evolution with stylus and tablet often replacing pencil and paper to with the new generation of animators. Although we have lost some finishing touches along this technological journey (and gained some!), the fundamental principal has never changed: piecing together a moving image from layers of hand-drawn frames. That’s the underlying tenet behind the anime we all grew up with.

Some people make a mistake here and see 3DCG animation as the next logical step on the horizon, a kind of inevitable technological break-through for animation. Perhaps this is a western perspective that is in tune with the movements of our own industry, which has always been quick to jump on new innovations, first using Flash automation to eliminate the need for inbetween frames, then pushing forth into fully computer generated animation. Over the last few years, more and more Japanese directors are embracing this and creating wholly/largely 3DCG animation such as Arpeggio of Blue Steel, Knights of Sidonia and Houseki no Kuni.

It’s a trend I have been diligently ignoring for the last couple of years in the hope that it would just somehow go away. Recently though, I had the misfortune to sit down and watch an entire episode of such a creation: the first episode of High Score Girl. It was a grim reminder if how not into the whole thing I am.

But that’s just my opinion – plenty of people out there are singing to the tune of 3DCG (Houseki no Kuni in particular got a lot of praise), and I’m not here to tell them they’re wrong. But I do want to make one thing crystal clear:

This kind of animation and traditional 2D animation are not the same thing.

I mean, sure, they’re both just making something move. But that’s like saying photography and painting are the same thing because they both produce a picture. They’re both animation, strictly speaking, but I argue that they’re wholly different art-forms.

As a sakuga fan, I’ve talked often and deeply about the power of animation. But more, specifically, sakuga is the power of traditional 2D animation. I’d argue that true sakuga in 3DCG anime is virtually impossible. You can have as much technological innovation and creative ideas as you like, but at the end of the day it can only strive to emulate the brand of charisma that 2D animation can evoke. You see, in traditional animation, every frame can be a world of its own, with limitless potential to create its own space and illustrative beauty.

In 2D animation there’s theoretically no need to stick to the model – in fact, even if you wanted to you, it’s practically impossible. Each frame can and will have a life of its own, a cat could become a plane from one instant to the next, or one if its whiskers could could bend with an almost imperceptible tweak. The point is that there’s no limit – each moment is a canvas of infinite potential which can tell any kind of story about what came before and what is to come.

This potential is used especially well by the Japanese industry where animators have long been given the freedom to experiment with it in commercial productions and not have their personal styles over-corrected into dull uniformity. This road, paved with the deeds and misdeeds of many a pioneering animator, has lead to an environment where animators are truly creating every frame and not just replicating a drawing in a set pose.

From the rawness and boldness etched with every tiny line, the surreal warping of proportions, perspective that defies any real logic, or even just the finer details of intricate beauty that they might pour into a money-shot, the hands of animators can do anything. The most charismatic animators know this well and can tell a breathtaking visual story as they fly from one frame to another, each one introducing new ideas and unexpected twists.

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The boundless potential of 2D animation, where each frame is an art piece in a journey of motion – here, the dramatic posing of Reigen and the mind-warping power of Mob merge together
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2D animation can pour amazing detail and refinement into a drawing at any moment – Studio WIT’s makeup animation case in point

Even when they’re imitating life, most of the best realistic animators use this freedom of the frame and the space between frames. They understand that animation doesn’t have to look precisely real, to feel genuinely believable. They might exaggerate small, subtle movements that our minds pick up on as realistic, or hone in on the most powerful expressive movements that our hearts can relate to – the stifling of tears, the heavy breathing, or the spring in our step when we feel elated. In the same way that a simple drawing can inspire great beauty, animation can concentrate and make abstract these innate gestures, amplifying them into powerful emotion.

Only masters with control over each key drawing, and every precise detail can tell such a story with mere motion.

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Shinya Ohira uses a surreal kind of realism – it doesn’t look REALISTIC but the desperation and confusion is palpable
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Mitsuo Iso hones in on nuanced movements that create powerful emotion from subtle gestures. The finite expression of a model can never achieve this.

3DCG can’t really do any of this, at least, not in the same way.

You see, with 3DCG you create a model and then you move it for each frame you want. Sure, you can pose it however you like, and you can add some funky touches to spruce up different frames if you want, but at the end of the day that’s why you’re using 3D -so that you don’t need to recreate each moment from scratch. It’s more akin to a puppet show than it is to 2D animation. Some companies are getting better at fooling us with dynamic timing, and effects to mask the fact that they’re just posing a virtual dummy, but it doesn’t matter how good they get – they will never be able to create the same kind of sequences that 2D can.

When you’re posing a model, it doesn’t matter what you do, you lose the ability to instill that visceral feeling of a hand crafted moving image with all its natural flaws and human touches. Our minds and the natural world are complex beyond imagination and explanation, and the pencil/stylus in an animator’s hand is a raw conduit to that.

Then there’s compositing. In traditional ‘cel’ animation you’re dealing with creating a sense of depth through discrete, flat layers. It’s a challenge and an art in and of itself that I discuss at length in this blog post. With artful use of compositing, you can create wholly different visual experiences with the same layers and the same anime can flirt with different approaches between cuts. The rich colourscapes crafted by ‘superflat’ styles, or the cinematic depth created with simple lighting and shading, the space between layers is another great playgound of potential.

 

 

In 3DCG, you can happily zoom in, out and spin around your model with ease – it’s not a layer, it’s an object in virtual space. As you might expect, this makes tricky, dynamic camera work and even lighting effects a lot easier. Directors might feel like they have more freedom, but in truth they’re missing out on the potential that 2D anime photography can offer in terms of interweaving characters and backgrounds into a singular artistic vision. This is because you’re filming a real (albeit virtual) object in a defined space, instead of crafting the space yourself with every shot.

2D animation may be more logistically challenging and technically constrained, but its artistic potential is virtually limitless within these bounds, and when it does hit a high note it’s something truly magnificent.

I’m not here trying to say that 3DCG anime shouldn’t exist, or that people are wrong for liking it. And there’s certainly a lot of talent that goes into creating these works. I just want us all to understand that they are not one in the same. 2D animation isn’t an old way of doing things, it’s a wholly different artform, and one that I and many others love dearly. If we allow 3DCG to be the future and not just an alternative, anime will lose something forever.

What I would like to see, is the two approaches continue to evolve side-by-side and overlap in interesting ways.

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.

 

Episode Spotlight: Needless 13

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Storyboard & Director: 沼田誠也 (Seiya Numata)

Animation Director: 坂井久太 (Kyuuta Sakai)

Animation: 沼田誠也 (Seiya Numata), 坂井久太 (Kyuuta Sakai)


It was late at night after a long week. Lying on the couch with my partner powering through a few episodes of anime,  my eyes were starting to close on their own as sleep overcame me. It was at this point that I was introduced to the 13th episode of the boisterous TV anime adaptation of Needless. Suddenly I was wide awake, eyes pried open and fixated to the screen. Right off the bat, there was something very different about this episode, something uniquely exhilarating.

I didn’t know this going in, but when I looked up the staff after the episode finished I was astounded to see that the episode was pretty much the handiwork of just two people, and those creators were none other than the devious duo of Seiya Numata and  Kyuuta Sakai!

Before Seiya Numata was swallowed into the eternal pit of no escape that is Milky Holmes, he was a star animator making waves across the industry with attention-grabbing cuts on a myriad of works such as Tora Dora, Gurren Lagann and Higurashi. His ability to pull of dynamic action made him a popular choice for handling fight sequences. His scenes often divided opinions due to his unusual style, but he certainly made a name for himself. His fight from Toradora turned a lot of heads.

Personally I’ve never really been a huge fan of his brand of animation style with its gelatinous warping and stretching, but I admire his magnetism as an animator. He is a devotee of the original charisma animator Yoshinori Kanada, frequently referencing his work and chasing a kindred creative freedom. Alongside Jun Arai, he forms a central pillar to Needless’s aesthetic, which is an uninhibited ode to Kanada and his epoch. Numata exerted a lot of influence with the role of ‘Design Works’ throughout the show as well as ‘Technical Director’.

And it’s difficult to talk about Numata without mentioning Kyuuta Sakai, his sister-in-arms who he brought into most of his projects around this time and has a strong personal friendship with. Sakai is probably a name fresh in most people’s minds as she is the accomplished character designer for the brand new hit Re:Zero. She is now pretty much exclusively a character designer/chief animation director and thrives as an illustrator.

Probably a key uniting factor between the two is their shared fondness for drawing sexy young girls, and the term ‘lolimator’ was coined for them during their days together. If you don’t believe me, the first Needless ED, also featured in this episode is their work and one of the most carnal, intoxicating hits of fanservice I have ever been fortunate enough to witness.

Before Sakai went to White Fox with her work on Steins;Gate, these two were inseparable, and this episode of Needless is one of the best things to come from their early union. The episode is directed and storyboarded by Numata, and, excluding oversight from the chief animation director, entirely and exclusively key-animated by the two of them. It’s a concentrated hit of the Numata and Sakai pair!

As a result, the episode stands out clearly from all the others. Numata’s storyboard and direction immediately make an impact, forgoing convention to deliver an episode that is uniquely tense and weirdly intimate. Numata takes the idea of a stage-play approach and runs with it, focusing on the dialogue and expressions of the characters to the exclusion of all else. There’s no attempt to hide this approach – the episode opens with the room darkened like a stage and all the characters placed under a literal spotlight. Many cuts are plane with an audience line of site, and dramatic lighting is abused like nothing else.

The style actually reminds me of early Akiyuki Shinbou with it’s Ikuhara-esque shots and focus on striking colour design. Numata applied bold neon colouring to many of his sense to deliver the sense of exaggerated drama and also a cool-factor. Some of the shots definitely delivered.

In addition to the darkness enshrouding the scene and the striking lighting, Numata applies a focus on intense facial expressions in close-up which includes detail such as sweat forming and rolling down people’s faces. This all makes for a potent sense of tension and claustrophobia despite the vast open room the events occur within. The moment in which the main villain makes his entrance in particular casts a palpable sense of dread making for one of the most suspenseful moments Needless ever had.

The animation itself is surprisingly active given the fact that it was only key animated by the two of them. Numata works his usual magic with the action highlight that features frenetic movement, spinning camerawork and distorted drawings to ram-home a sense of force. The portion of the fight that is completely upside down is one of those quirky moments that really defines Needless.

One of his most memorable cuts from the episode is not from an action scene but rather this pretty inexplicable cut of Setsuna’s nose bursting into a nosebleed with the intense rage overcoming her. This is an example of Numata’s contorted style works really well as her face twists into this sharp glare of focused fury. I challenge you to find my an anime character looking more angry than this.

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The cuts that were presumably handled by Sakai meanwhile were simple fluid animation. The smooth moments stood out to help build up the sense of excitement and differentiate the episode from the normal limited kanada-school style of the rest of the series. There’s also this indescribable sense of style to her movements. Stepping up to being a prolific animation director indicates that she was a powerhouse animator back in her day on the front lines. She apparently has a special skill where she holds both pencil and colour pencil in the one hand and can swiftly use the colour pencil to add shadow lines.

My rewatch of Needless has been an enjoyable affair on the whole, but this episode turned it up a notch, from mildly bemusing to genuinely exciting. Seiya Numata’s unconventional design sense and bold stage-play approach combined with the animation goods delivered by partner-in-crime Sakai make this a grandstand episode.

This episode is not only one of the most condensed examples of Numata and Sakai working together, especially when you include the ED that was exclusively handled by them, but it also appears to be the climax of Numata’s extensive involvement in the series with no major credits on any episode thereafter. He is technical director and a design contributor on the show throughout, but no front-line involvement as an animator. Beyond just Needless this is the most interesting work I have seen of Numata’s in terms of storytelling and direction.

 

Anime Snapshots: Mob Psycho #10 Fire Scene

Sometimes an anime struts along that is charismatic from beginning to end, a complete package that is so much more than the some of its parts . And sometimes a more run-of-the-mill series can break form and produce a wondrous episode that you can neatly lift out and up onto a pedestal. But once in a while this glory lasts only a fleeting moment – a shot, a cut or a scene that punches through and reaches a short-lived apex. These posts are dedicated to those honorary instants.

I have already lauded the animation power of Mob Pscyho through my reviews of its standout episodes 1 and 8, but there was a particular beat in episode 10 that stretched my jaw to the floor. I’m talking, of course, about the fire scene. Fire is one of those raw, innate pillars of effect animation that we have all been exposed to many times over our years of service in the anime fandom. Alongside water, lightning and smoke, fire has been the pursuit of many a talented animator and it’s tempting to think it’s been rendered in every possible way already. From the sparse and boldly coloured forms of Yoshinori Kanada and Masahito Yamsahita’s flames to the intense realism of Mitsuo Iso’s carefully crafted billowing fire, this is a field with a rich creative history. Yoshinori Kanada’s fire dragon is one of the most iconic, oft-homaged pieces of animation ever created.

So it’s rare that quality fire animation can jump out and make an impression these days. It certainly did here. This sequence, lasting only a couple of minutes, stole the show! The roaring, intense heat of the fire enveloping the characters, and at times the whole screen, could really be felt. And it’s not just the way the fire looked and moved in any conventional sense – it’s the way it really felt like it was sucking the characters in to this epicenter of unimaginable inferno, whipping around them and blasting them like a furious storm.

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The opening cut, handled by animator Kazuto Arai exemplifies this, with the fire bursting down the hallway and washing over Terada drowning him, and soon the audience, in a sea of heat. The aqueous movement of the fire was very deliberate, with the animator using shots of the crashing waves of the ocean for reference.

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Straight after that we’re into the more sketchy style with more conventional flickering flame motion. After being awash with flames we’re now in the hearth, surrounding by burning flame. This part is more conventional but straddles a good balance between realism and animation abstraction and has a more classically ‘mob psycho’ feel to it with its rough pencil lines.

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The next shot is distinctly digital genga apparently from web-gen animator, Shin Ogasawara. I have always had a soft-spot for web-gen effects animation. The fact that is is digitally drawn means that it is not drawn with lines forming shapes but directly painted with digital brushes. This means that it’s so much easier to create fluid and intricate effects animation such as splashing colours and leaping sparks. This strength of digital animation is used to good effect here creating a layered and fast shot of the fire that helps to convey its intensity.

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And finally the inferno retreats to a fireball as Terada entraps his opponent. This is the best animation of the scene, with fine, detailed linework and a swirling, pulsating movement that’s so reminiscent of Hironori Tanaka that it’s thought to be uncredited work from him. He has a habit of going credit bare on many series, so it would not surprise me for him to turn up here. The tail end of this fireball scene raises the bar again, however, with a segment that is a cut above the rest in terms of intensity.

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Although the movement and linework is similar to the previous gif, can you feel the difference in animation power? There’s just something more visceral and violent about this fire; it burns brighter and with more fury.  Although there’s definitely still clear defined grades of colour, the linework is less crisp, instead the colours flow into each other in an undulating blur of heat. This is probably as close as you can get to actually being burnt watching anime. The depiction of the figure within the flames is also different, less fine lines and more thick, dirty graphite flickering out of form. I sense the magic of Kameda here. Although he’s not credited with genga this episode, there’s something about the scrawled figure and the ashy debri after the fireball dissipates that makes me wonder! Perhaps he just supervised this part of Tanaka’s (or whoever it was) work.

But what is so interesting about this is that this furnace was depicted by so many animators. In your typical anime this whole sequence would be probably be given to an effects animator specialist and that one animator would create the whole feel of the fire. But Mob Psycho’s mantra is to use different anime styles and techniques to keep the audience on their toes, never knowing what the visuals are going to do next. I suspect the choice to split this up and let several animators realise their own creative ideas of how the fire should look was very deliberate.

Arai gave the feeling of suddenly being overwhelmed with his crashing wave of heat, Ogasawara depicted its powerful speed while the animators of the fireball sequence, whoever these nameless heroes may be, really ramped the intensity up to the next level.

 

Episode Spotlight: Mob Psycho 100 #8

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Director: 立川譲 (Toshiyuki Takei)

Storyboard: 立川譲 重原克也 (Yuzuru Tachikawa  Katsuya Shigehara )

Animation Director: 亀田祥倫 (Yoshimichi Kameda)

Yoshimichi Kameda is undoubtedly the pedestal animation force behind this series. Although he was responsible for the character design, he did not take up the credit of chief animation director that usually accompanies this. Generally the chief animation director is the single overruling source of truth for close-ups and facial shots of their character designs so they spend their time furiously correcting and supervising the work of the episode animation supervisors below them throughout the whole show. For a series like New Game, the precise appeal of the beautiful characters is a major selling point, making this role critical. Mob Psycho has no such aspiration, instead Kameda’s drive for the series was to allow it to thrive on chaos and disorder, whipping a cacophony of different animation styles into a charismatic chorus, a heaving, messy swell of excitement. He is best placed to do this closer to the front lines; serving as animation director for an episode allows him to supervise the animation, not just the drawings.

Episode 8 is the only episode since the first that he taken up arms, to orchestrate the animation of a Mob Psycho episode. The results are astounding. Much like the greatest of the great charismatic animators before him, Kameda has again surpassed expectations, blowing to pieces the conventional anime style and making it his toy.

Kameda has proven himself a great animation director because he has been able to weave each of the animator’s individual styles into a cohesive tapestry of animation. In my view, there is no one grand-standing piece of animation – all of the more prominent animators’ styles are celebrated with equal gusto. Usually when you get a charismatic animator on an episode, their segment stands out like a sore thumb. This episode makes it into my list of greats because only a show like Mob Psycho with an animation director like Yoshimichi Kameda could we get an episode so invigoratingly animated that the individuality of the animation doesn’t feel at all idiosyncratic.

Both in terms of his drawings and his movements, Kameda’s animation style is rough, gritty and visceral. In his break-out work on Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, that grit, that rawness made the sequence where Roy Mustang incinerated a certain character (spoiler dodge!) unforgettable. It took the glamour out of death and perfectly reflected his vengeful frame of mind. In Mob Psycho, Kameda’s roughness both compliments the playfully dirty design manifesto of the series but also, more importantly, takes the glamour out of his battle sequences. While other shows portray sleek, cool fights, Mob Psycho degrades and brutalises those involved in the skirmishes. This plays nicely into Mob’s stand-point of not wanting to fight and hurt others.

Kameda obtains this roughness in his work through a variety of techniques, including the use of an Ukiyo-e brush and rough pencil work. One thing is for sure, his genga are the anything but clean:

This style has clearly been imparted to the key animators who worked on this episode, who have implemented it in different ways. Bold, brush-like lines, sketchy pencil marks, scraggly linework and dirty smears are pervasive throughout the episode. There are several moments that nail the style so perfectly that you get the sense that Kameda made divine intervention as supervisor and roughed up the genga himself. Such moments are fleeting but very carefully interspersed at impact moments throughout the action so that you feel the force of Kameda without him betraying the style of the key animator.

Probably the tidbit of animation that grabbed me the most this episode was this:

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The way the hackled lines undulate with a kind of electric energy, as if yearning to explode into formless scrawl is a powerful statement of Mob’s wrath. Again, I feel Kameda’s hand in this but I’d love to know how this cut turned out this way! Sakugabooru has it included as part of Yutaka Nakamura’s scene, but I can’t be sure.

I was fascinated to see Yuuto Kaneko at the top of the genga list for the episode (meaning he contributed the most). Kaneko is one of the most ascendant young animators associated with studio Trigger who came onboard as part of the Little Witch Academia training project after jumping ship from GAINAX. He proved himself by becoming a core animator on Kill la Kill, and reaching the status of a stand-out animator on Kiznaiver and Luluco. He also contributed to episode 3, but this is in my view his best work to date. In particular, this sequence was astounding.

Although much noise has been made about Yutaka Nakamura’s piece at the climax of the fight, this segment was perhaps more interesting animation wise, the rough deformation and sketchiness of it being classically Mob Psycho. Kaneko has adopted a strength from his Trigger brethren Akira Amemiya and Imaishi that plays neatly into Kameda’s aesthetic – the crayon-like thick lines, chalky effect dashes and pencil scrawled smears are incorporated into his animation to spectacular effect this episode.

Another segment that caught my eye was likely by Akira Yamashita (presumed so because he tweeted about drawing the delinquents with a picture of a particular pose). If this is is indeed his work, it’s also very impressive and revels well in the dirty feel of the episode. The crass contortions of the faces is so fun to watch in motion and his drawings feature a lot of rough line detail and charcoal style.

Of course, I can’t forget to mention the climactic finish to the sequence, handled by none other than Bones resident star animator Yutaka Nakamura. Nakamura rarely fails to produce exhilarating animation, and this is far from an exception, with some smooth background animation, an explosion of effects and weighty, realistic kinetics as Mob throws his opponent down. To top it off there’s a fade to formless sketch as  mob’s fury hits its pinnacle.

Topping the web-generation episode 5, this takes the cake for being the best animated episode of Mob Psycho and even managed to squeeze in our first taste of legitimate plot with the introduction of the evil organisation, Claw. I am not expecting that crown to be passed on until the final episode, which will almost certainly be spearheaded by Kameda again and sit in BONES’ all-out sakuga finale hall of fame.
Key Animation

金子雄人 篠田知宏 宇佐美萌 宗圓祐輔 武藤信宏
増田伸孝 前田義宏 鈴木優太郎 島田佳 舛田裕美
宮島直樹 加藤滉介 五十嵐祐貴 石橋翔祐

光田史亮 わしお 山下滉 長坂慶太 工藤糸織
佐藤由貴 阿部尚人 高山朋浩 佐藤利幸 中村豊

ボンズ作画部
橋本治奈 平田有加

 

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!

 

Episode Spotlight: Mob Pycho 100 #1

Staff:

Director & Storyboard: 立川譲 (Yuzuru Tachikawa) [Series Director]

Writer: 瀬古浩司 (Hiroshi Seko) [Series Composition]

Animation Director: 亀田祥倫 (Yoshimichi Kameda) [Series Chief Animation Director]

If you have an appreciation of animation, Mob Psycho will grab your attention and mercilessly pound it into absolute submission. I’m still in intensive care, but they’re letting me write this post under heavy sedation and monitoring. If you don’t appreciate animation you might see it as an anime with a ‘weird art style’ that’s still somehow awesome. But whatever your background, I think we can all agree that Mob Psycho 100 has a certain kick to it that perhaps no other anime does, and the force behind that kick comes from its animation production.

As intended, the writing is dry, the characters unpalatable and the story, at least in this early stage, no more than a premise for shounen gags. Don’t expect to be deeply moved or intellectually engaged by this series; it knows exactly what genre it is and throws everything at being the very beast shounen comedy it can be. Being descendant from the same original creator, Mob Psycho definitely has a likeness to the previously successful One Punch Man. The shounen topic, the style of comedy and the comic faces are closely aligned. Both series also have great animation, but Mob Psycho is a very different beast in this arena.

Unlike One Punch man, the show is relentlessly kinetic. Ever since the early days of TV-anime, most anime have a status quo animation style and all the creative energy and gusto would be thrown into the ‘money shots’. One Punch man was rightly lauded for its animation quality, but it still followed that pattern, that praise almost entirely referring to its frequent but fleeting action sequences. Sure, some of Mob Psycho’s greatest moments of animation come from the scenes where Mob uses his telekenetic powers, but the difference in energy is less clear-cut.

All throughout, this episode of Mob Psycho is stylistically restless, bursting at the seems with new ideas, and raw, unfiltered animation of totally different faculties. There’s some clear strains of Kanada-esque, or even Imaishi-school limited animation, some rich set-piece movement in the vein of Hironori Tanaka, web-gen digitally drawn effect work reminiscent of Shingo Yamashita.

The crumpled, hyper-emotional gag expressions remind me of the drawings from classic comedy anime GTO or, more recently, Azazel-san.

There’s an abundance of ambitious and unfiltered key animation work on display. There’s even some animation done using oil-painting on glass.

So, in this episode at least, there’s no status-quo – it’s a complete piece of animation. But there is a stylistic presence that stitches it all together, and that is of chief animation director Yoshimichi Kameda.

Mob Psycho is yet another break-out career moment for the ascendant Kameda, the man who is the embodiment of the primal ‘charisma animator’. I have been following him intently ever since his arresting action sequences as a young key animator in Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, his rough, charcoaly lines, coarse shading and unique effects proving to be the most iconic and memorable animation from the series. False prophets have come and gone, and countless animators have emulated his style, but Kameda is the only one out there that has Yoshinori Kanada’s particular brand of charisma – the drive to push the boundaries, to constantly exceed and upend expectations and with free and flamboyant animation. Like Kanada, his animation has the power to drive the production, not the other way around.

Kameda always goes over the top. He always gives you a bit more than you ask for (Laughs). If you imply that you want him to do his absolute best, to give it 100%, he’ll go away and return with 150%. I think he works best when you ask him to operate at around 80% capacity. –director Tachikawa

That charisma approach is at the beating heart of Mob Psycho, and his pioneering sumi-e brush aesthetic is clearly in play throughout the episode.

Animation aside, director Yuzuru Tachikawa’s storyboard and layout work give this episode a fast-cut pace and rich composition that means the character cels and the background art don’t feel starkly separate. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with having cels stand-out, but it’s refreshing to see an anime that follows a different path.

The dynamic, near-formless animation created under Kameda combined with Tachikawa’s layouts mean that Mob Psycho has few obvious traces of a standard TV animation production. It’s less of an anime and more of a manga that’s come to life.

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