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

 

 

Episode Spotlight: Re:Zero 15

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Staff:

Director: 土屋浩幸 (Hiroyuki Tsuchiya) [9,15]

Writer: 梅原英司 (Eiji Umehara) [14,15]

Storyboard: 細田直人 (Naoto Hosoda) [10,15]

Monster Animation Director: 小柳達也 (Tatsuya Koyanagi) [Show-wide]

Last night I watched an episode of anime the visceral impact of which took the wind out of me and left me lost for words. I had to just watch the credits roll, silent and still as my spiraling thoughts slowly came back to me. After a night’s rest, I’m ready to get it off my chest: Re:Zero episode 15 was amazing!

Re:Zero has been a consistent surprise to me since it began last season. The product of famous action animator-just-turned-director Gorou Sessha and prolific yet forgettable writer Masahiro Yokotani, Re:Zero is a light-novel adaptation with a very light-novel premise: average guy ends up in a fantasy world surrounded by cute girls and a special power (the ability to restart his day when he dies). Like any healthy grown man, I was skeptical at first. But, ever since its first episode cut short the slow-burning cute and humorous antics by brutally eviscerating all the main characters it has chipped away at all of my doubts before finally obliterating them this week.

This episode kicks the latest arc of the show into gear, pitting our hero Subaru and his doting side-kick Rem against a disturbed cult and a giant ice-bringing monster who is probably the Jealous Witch herself. It’s easily the most suspenseful episode of the show, as, more than ever before, there’s a looming sense of impending doom and a true malevolent villain. On top of that, the emotion is as strong as ever, as Rem’s blooming love for Subaru and her hatred of the cult adds tragedy and yearning to the shocking events that unfold.

Re:Zero has been carefully building its characters from the start to fully capitalise on their foils, passion and drive in moments like this. It’s an anime that many other could learn from in that it has the confidence to slow down and give itself breathing space. There’s time for back-story, there’s time for Rem and Subaru to go shopping together or just talk about their day. Where other light novel series would keep Rem and Ram as cute fanservice maids, Re:Zero has let us witness them grow well beyond their archetype. Other light novel series would have their male protagonist unwavering in his resolve and personality, but Re:Zero gave Subaru a whole episode to wallow in self-pity after ruining his friendship with the heroine. And when this show needs to fire a punch it throws all the weight of its character development behind it and lands a truly crushing blow.

This week was one massive swing to the gut, a gripping ride of suspense, sorrow, fear, rage and an almost suffocating feeling of hapless despair. It hit me in a place that anime usually doesn’t even try to. I’ve seen more violent anime before, but I don’t recall many anime being so brutal to a character as sweet and cherished as Rem or going to such lengths to crush the soul of its main character.

The potency of this episode was further honed by some impressive animation work. The four main animators responsible for the episode are (listed in order of the amount of animation they contributed):

中村和久 (Kazuhisa Nakamura) [15] https://twitter.com/wfoxviper

木宮亮介 (Ryosuke Kimiya) [2,9,15]

又賀大介 (Daisuke Mataga) [3,9,13,15] https://twitter.com/matagadaisuke33

岩田景子 (Keiko Iwata) [1,8,9,15]

These guys are all  credited with both animation direction and key animation, meaning they had a great deal of responsibility and creative control over their sequences. While most of the episode was well executed, the most interesting animation-wise by far was the long scene in the cave with Subaru chained up and tormented by the maniacal cult leader.

This sequence was handled by Kazuhisa Nakamura, which is why he did the most animation on the episode. A new animation director for the show, and someone who is new to me, Nakamura displayed a strong understanding of how animation can be used to deliver atmosphere and impact.

Now I have seen my share of creepy cult anime villains waving their arms around and talking in an insane voice, but the way Nakamura crafted his movements is what made him creepy and unsettling rather than just comical. Nakamura had him cut unpredictably from jerky, nervous contortions into super-smooth, confident movements really gave credence to his vocal lunacy.

Similarly, Rem’s fury as she entered the cave and Subaru’s desperate rage as he watched her die was made so intense by the raw, visceral movements and drawings.

It’s hard to imagine 3DCG or even live-action conveying this scene with such fierce emotional power.

The closing shot of the episode was the final kick to an audience already down, a display of the monstrous power and evil Subaru is now helpless against. The staff involved knew they had made something special and gave it the ED-less credit roll, a well-earned cinematic send-off.

[HorribleSubs] Re Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu - 15 [1080p].mkv_snapshot_21.59_[2016.07.12_11.22.11].jpg

 

 

Farewell Dandy

[HorribleSubs] Space Dandy 2 - 13 [720p].mkv_snapshot_18.58_[2014.10.02_22.06.17]With an utterly dazzling final salvo, Space Dandy has reached the end of its eclectic journey. I don’t have a lot of time on my hands these days to get drawn into discussions on anime, but I had to make an exception here. Following the path of its other recent top-tier title, Star Driver, BONES have concentrated a staggering well of talent, money and effort into ensuring Dandy’s last step is a remarkable one, and one that is brilliantly animated. But bluntly, they succeeded. I haven’t seen such an intense combination of animation of this caliber from so many vastly different styles packed into 20 minutes since Shinya Ohira directed the animation spectacle that was Azura’s Wrath 11.5! It was an entertaining, climactic rush, but more importantly, I got that feeling again. That visceral, gut feeling of being swept away by animation that isn’t just competent or technically impressive but is also alive with creative energy and spirit.

It kicked off with the furious speed of Hiroyuki Aoyama’s cuts of the Aloha Oe entering the battlefield, spinning and spazzing, really sucked me in with the smooth momentum of Keiichiro Watanabe’s chase scene, pushed higher with the jittery humor and raw drive of Norifumi Kugai’s work and then hit a resounding high-note with truly fantastic animation from arguably the biggest talents in Dandy: Yoshimichi Kameda, Yutaka Nakamura and BahiJD. These people all put the passion for their work on full display this episode, and you could really feel it breathing in every frame. There’s no doubt they were given free reign over their cuts to make them as great as they could.

Keiichiro Watanabe may have achieved his best work to date here with very tricky background animation work and a great sense of movement – I could really see the thrust of a powerful rocket behind the advance of the Aloha Oe. Meanwhile, Norifumi Kugai definitely reached new heights with his efforts here, being a relative newcomer to the industry. The sheer speed and determination of the ship could be felt as it pushed to the top of the tower.

Yoshimichi Kameda contributed a blatant reference to Yoshinori Kanada’s famous fire dragon, but it’s not just a throwaway nod to the animator that inspired him and so many others – it’s a full bow. Of all the allusions that animators have made to that dragon, this is the first time that anyone has come close to matching the original undulating beauty of its twisting, formless movement. Kameda has pushed himself to match the work of his predecessor and has really evoked his spirit in doing so.

Yutaka Nakamura handles the next beat, which is Dandy cutting the the space eels with the sword and then nakedly erupting from his mecha for a final push towards the centre of the weapon. Not to be outdone, he imbues it with his usual effortless gravitas and thrilling choreography. But this episode was also noteworthy for him because, as Bahi explained on his twitter, he was inspired to try drawing some of his raw animation digitally (using a tablet). It’s interesting to see the inter-generational influence going on in places like Bones. Bahi himself animated the final high-note of animation, ending with the awesome zoom-in to Dandy’s eye. His work on Dandy speaks for itself – as a young animator only really just starting in the industry, his achievements are remarkable and his skill undeniable.

Other than the animation, there wasn’t a whole lot going on with this final episode, but that’s the way it should be. As a show that has made no excuse for being almost solely about profiling the visual storytelling skills of a wide swath of the anime industry, there could be no better send-off. Someone gave Shinichiro Watanabe a whole bunch of money with few strings attached, and he did what any great anime director/producer would do and gave as many creatively-charged staff from across the industry a free stage to do what they do best.

As a series overall, Dandy isn’t especially memorable, but as an ode to so many of the talented people that make up the most alive and interesting 2D animation industry in the world, it was worth every second. It’s just a shame that even more people couldn’t have been involved – but uniting all the best anime staff is just a dream, not a possibility.

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.