Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: October 2008, 30

Thursday, October 30, 2008

11:22:25 pm , 1565 words, 4268 views     Categories: Animation


Bones is one of the most consistent studios active today in terms of maintaining a high standard of quality from one show to the next, and from one episode to the next. I can't say I'm always into the shows they produce (which is not to say they don't dedicate an equal amount to creating intricately thought-out characters, worlds and stories - and their use of original material is all the more notable in an industry drowning in manga adaptations), but I am impressed by their dedication to bringing on a variety of staff both young and old from all over the industry to maintain the quality of their work. It would be too much work to go through all the talent that's been involved at various times over the years in Bones shows, both in the animation and directing and other roles, but I find that there's always good work being done somewhere or other, whether I recognize any names or not. They are also innovative in organizing staff and bringing on people in unusual configurations to bolster the quality, creating staff configurations suited to the project at hand. Just as they seek out good animators, they also seek out good directors. Sometimes they'll gamble on young staff like ex-Ghibli directors, while other times they'll bring in time-tested talent like Toei alumni Takuya Igarashi.

What I most like about them, of course, is that the quality of the animation is always paramount in every project, and there are always a number of figures with proven talent supporting the animation, whatever the project. Bones is unique in that in almost all of their projects they always have a featured "main animator", if not several. Yutaka Nakamura is the most veteran and most identifiable linchpin of Bones' animation, but there are many other talented figures featured prominently, like Yasushi Muraki, Hidetsugu Itoh, et al. More often than not in their projects these days, though, I don't recognize the names, so in addition to using veterans, they're clearly training a lot of younger but talented animators, which creates a great balance that keeps the quality getting better. I suspect there's a sort of self-perpetuating aspect to the cycle of bringing on good main staff - the good people know the quality they need, so they in turn want to bring on talent that can provide that quality.

Indicative of their unique focus on the animation is a special page they've put up on their site for their latest big project, Xam'd, featuring the raw (inbetweened) key animation for a number of good scenes from the show so far. They're deservedly proud of the good work they do, and it's a respectful gesture to the fans of good animation who like to see this sort of thing that they've put up the little feature.

In episode 5 of Xam'd, there was an excellent piece of animation around midway of a character running that I wondered about in a comment not long ago. I didn't recognize any names in the credits, so clearly it was by someone I'd never heard of. I was dying to know who it was, but didn't think I'd ever find out. Lo and behold, I was happy to discover that Bones recently added a shot from that exact scene to the key animation page on their site (#05 C-212), revealing that it was the work of a young animator named Yasuo Muroi. I would never have known, as I don't know him at all - although upon looking into it I realized that he was apparently heavily involved in the second half of Denno Coil. (Again, a subsequent episode featured good work by other ex-Coil folks. The show's defining feature, though - if it wasn't obvious enough from the surface - is that its staff is dominated by ex-Ghibli people.)

The short commentary text by the main animation director, Masashi Okumura, reveals what was very clear from the animation - that Muroi studied himself in the mirror acting things out to help get the expressions and actions right. This sequence stands out dramatically not just from the rest of the animation in the show, but from most anime. It's the kind of animation I'd wish more animators would create - particularly so in anime, where a convincing feeling of timing and weight of the kind that makes Muroi's work here feel so great, with the reactions happening exactly in the right way to convince you of a particular movement or moment, making the character's behavior believable and by extension pulling you into the moment of the narrative, seems obviously to be something that would be critical in many situations where the audience has to believe in the 'reality' of the situation, but is all too often completely lacking. It's an amazingly important thing, but there doesn't seem to be much interest in digging deeper to figure out how to give the movement real conviction, or perhaps knowledge of how to go about doing it.

What I like about this innocuous shot is that I can believe in every little detail of the movement. The character slows down gradually with his body facing forward but his head tilted backwards just so, bounding forward a few times on momentum, as he scans behind him and pauses to see what the monster is going to do next. Then, in an instant, as soon as he realizes it's not down for the count, first his head snaps around, and his arms jump up for a frame or two as he gets in gear to start running again. It's the way he nails these little split second reactions that makes me like the movement so much. Every little element of the motion down to the millisecond-precise timing of how he snaps his head around at exactly the right moment, is totally convincing. You get the sense that Muroi has sat down, thought about what's going on, and thought through how he might behave in such a situation. It seems like an obvious thing to do, but I've long been baffled why I didn't see more animation in anime imbued with this sort of convincingly enacted, thought-through behavior. Muroi here proves that it's entirely doable and even a stylistic fit within the context of anime. TV anime is so special because you can run across so many different approaches to animation. From one shot to the next like this you are privy to the mind of an army of animators, each with their own predilections and skill levels, and if you've got talent, you can show it off. I can't think of many industries where that is not only the case occasionally, but a defining feature.

I've been enjoying Bones' other show, Soul Eater, too, as it also maintains a consistent level in terms of the animation and directing. Yutaka Nakamura's occasional presence is always exciting, but even besides this the animation is always stable and works very well with the show's sleek directing and visual style. I've been impressed how the directing in particular has been quite consistent across the board, with almost no exceptions, which I suspect is partly testament to chief director Takuya Igarashi's skills as a director. Most of the episode directors I'm not familiar with, although that other flamboyant ex-Toei director, Kunihiko Ikuhara, was in for a great storyboard recently. The latest episode, #30, was really nice in every sense, a classic case of the stable quality of the show, so I was wondering who was behind it. The episode was storyboarded and directed by a person named Shin Matsuo. He was also listed first in the animator credits, revealing that he animated a large portion of his own episode.

I'd never heard of Shin Matsuo, but upon looking into it I now realize that I've probably seen his name quite often, as he's actually something of a veteran, having been working as an animator since about the time of Zeta Gundam in 1985. He's been quite prolific, having been involved in everything from Venus Wars to Dangaioh to Genocyber to Run Melos to Lain to Death Note. Like many animators do, lately he's shifted to directing, and this is just the latest episode he's storyboarded/directed over the last few years. I guess it's revealing of his background as an animator that in addition to storyboarding and directing he should have gone so far as to do animation, too, and the most animation at that. He reminds me of Akitoshi Yokoyama in that sense.

Matsuo also did eps 11 and 23 of Soul Eater, as well as Samurai Gun 9, Gallery Fake 37 and Host Club 23, which was incidentally the first Igarashi joint for Bones. He's got a dynamic and kind of whacked out style, so it made sense to discover that he was behind a show I used to like when I first started watching anime - the whacked out KO Century Beast. He directed and animated the two openings, and did storyboard/directing/animation directing/animation for episode 3 of the first series. He had a pretty wild style back in the day, echoes of which can actually be felt in this latest episode of Soul Eater, with its extreme angles and constant motion. This is another example of Bones using talented veterans in the industry, not to mention an example of how hard it is to remember so many people.