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: November 2008, 07

Friday, November 7, 2008

01:16:45 am , 3422 words, 12287 views     Categories: Animation

What makes animation interesting?

What makes animation interesting is that there can be as many answers to that question as there are people. What it is about an animated short, TV series or movie that enthralls us and makes us fall in love with the medium can range from anything as precise and specific as piece of animation in a particular shot, to any number of the many other elements without which animation could not be made - be it a story that enthralls with its epic scale and imaginative twists and turns, a character you can relate to, a powerful performance by a voice-actor, or a scene directed with hair-raising intensity. Animation can range from a massive team effort taking years to complete to a one-man project completed in a matter of weeks. Not only are the possibilities of the media that can be used to create animation limited only by your imagination, but different individuals may find inspiration in different aspects of a work of animation. In both creation and interpretation, animation offers considerable possibilities.

I can pinpoint the moment of magic that pulled me into the vortex of animation fandom to any number of very specific moments (and aspects) of animated filmmaking. When at a young age I happened across Heidi on TV in France knowing nothing about filmmaking or animation, I didn't appreciate the revolutionary nature of what Isao Takahata was doing by going to such extreme lengths to depict - not the dramatic exclamation points of conventional drama - but the little moments in our everyday lives that make up real life, in animation of all things. Nor did I catch on to Yoichi Kotabe's delicate and magnificently sensitive animation, or the authentic soundtrack leavened with Austrian folk melodies and instruments by Takeo Watanabe. But I sensed something was different. Everyone, regardless of their level of knowledge about animation, at some point has a similar gut reaction to animation that draws them in. And in my case, once I got back into animation many years later and re-discovered these memorable aspects of Heidi, that process has pretty much never stopped. I've never known everything, and never will, so I'm always discovering something new in animation, some new spark that keeps me watching and wanting to experience that spark again.

When I stumbled across anime many years later, the first spark was the eye-opening experience of seeing with Akira that it was possible to make dark, serious, complex stories that went beyond kids programming to both depict brutality as well as address complex themes. Another spark of a very different nature but that was equally significant to me came later with my discovery of the sumptuous beauty and deep-felt humanism of Frederic Back's flowing, painterly animation, which I related to on a deep level, and which showed me that it was possible to go in different directions with regards to aspects like the style, the texture of the screen, and the approach to storytelling. Again, in another case, it was seeing in Yasuji Mori's Hilda in Horus, Prince of the Sun a three-dimensional character who went beyond cartoon platitudes, who was torn apart by conflict, who was morally ambivalent - a complex character I could relate to, struggling to figure out her place in the world. In yet another case, it was the sumptuous, dreamy atmosphere and gorgeously rich, baroque visuals of Jiri Trnka's Midsummer Night's Dream, which showed me that it was possible to create not only beautiful animation but great animated filmmaking in contexts other than hand-drawn animation. In yet another case, it was Shinji Otsuka's animation of Hana berating Gin in Tokyo Godfathers, with its pliable and constantly changing expressions combining with brilliant lines and voice acting, which was one of the funniest single shots of character acting I've ever seen and showed me how much richer characters became when the animators were imaginative and got into the mind of the character. In a similar spirit, it was a shot of Milo spouting in a static shot for 30 seconds by John Pomeroy at the end of Disney's Atlantis, and any number of other shots of its ilk elsewhere.

The examples could go on and on. It was also the creatively empowering example of Tadanari Okamoto, who worked solo year after year, with a skeleton crew, to create his own small, handmade, personal films - each time forcing himself to take a creative new approach to the medium, using yarn for one film, then papier mache for the next, then engravings for the next, and so on right up until the moment of his premature death - a life lived for animation. It was the brilliantly humorous, ironic and satirical writing of scriptwriter Takeshi Shudo on shows like Minky Momo that refused to be bound by the context of children's shows and probed questions of identity and purpose in life. It was the poetic fire and sophistication of Yuri Norstein's films. The visionary genius of Oskar Fischinger, who revealed to me the pure physical pleasure of imaginatively conceived movement, with the way he eliminating backgrounds, narration and other extraneous elements to focus on the core element of animated movement in its purest form - in the process showing that animation could range beyond the classical, Victorian obsession with anthropomorphism, into unknown realms yet to be explored but only accessible via animation. It was the climax of Mind Game, where through intense, hair-raising animation of individuals engaging in an act of superhuman exertion, Masaaki Yuasa created a scene that was both powerful as animation and spoke on a meaningful level about both the nature of life and the struggle it always involves if we're to try to achieve anything, and by extension, of the act of animation, which in its highest form is an empowering struggle against a blank slate.

What unites many of these is the primacy of the animated element in accounting for what makes them appealing. Heidi would not have been as convincing were it not for Yoichi Kotabe's dedication to packing it with pared down but realistically influenced animation, achieving a watershed stable level of quality for such a tight schedule and such a small team. Hilda would not have moved with the stately grace and sensitivity of expression she does had any animator other than Yasuji Mori supervised her animation, bringing to his work as he did a somewhat more old-fashioned craftsman's delicacy and attention to detail befitting this veteran animator from the 1950s. The animation of Hana berating Gin in Tokyo Godfathers, with its more choppy motion and exaggerated poses, benefited from a different approach to timing than that of other scenes even in the same film, such as the scene of the bickering in the trash heap at the beginning by Hideki Hamasu, with its more fluid and heavy style, by dint of Otsuka's hand in its creation, as he tends to adopt a more 'limited' style (meaning using less animated drawings) in order partly to exert more control over the movement from moment to moment. As the animator of the climax of Mind Game, Nobutake Ito was no doubt in large part responsible for its impact by creating animation of the characters running that was full of dynamic exaggeration and in constant motion, conveying the urgency of their life-on-the-line exertion by making that exertion seem simultaneously mortally frail and superhumanly powerful. Films like those of Fischinger exist in a more rarefied place where the animation is in itself the appeal of the film.

There are likewise cases were it's not possible to narrow down the appeal of a film or TV show to any one element, animation or otherwise. In a case like Omohide Poroporo, the film would be equally inconceivable without its closely observed animation of gestures and expressions by Yoshifumi Kondo as it would be without its measured pacing, meticulous layout, beautiful paintings of the Japanese countryside, realistic script sensitively exploring a woman's experience growing up in modern Japan, unforced performances by the voice actors, intriguing soundtrack, and deft directing that melds all of these elements together into a seamless whole. The same could be said about Tokyo Godfathers and Mind Game. In the best situations in commercial animated productions, the animated element acts like a fully-functioning sub-unit that achieves a powerful effect on its own while making an indispensable contribution to the production that, like an actor in a film, isn't the entire production, but acts as the mouth through which the film communicates. With good animation, a film communicates more effectively.

Five or six years ago, I discovered something that kind of renewed the waning spark of my enthusiasm for anime: a set of Japanese animators creating flamboyantly stylish animation that was exciting like no animation I'd ever seen. It was the discovery of the existence within the anime industry of a coterie of animators with a deeply creative spark like Masaaki Yuasa, Shinya Ohira, Satoru Utsunomiya, Atsuko Fukushima, Yoshinori Kanada and Takeshi Koike - each working within the industry, yet managing to carve out a stylistic niche of the kind that elsewhere might only be attainable in the capacity of an independent animator - that renewed my faith in the power of animation, and showed me that some of the most exciting animation being made today was being made by these people in Japan. These animators heightened my awareness of the animated element in animation, and expanded my appreciation of the importance of movement in animation. But more than that, the sheer audacity and brashness of their individuality opened my eyes to a rich vein of creativity in the Japanese animation industry. There have been many great animators over the decades in Japan, and these animators continuing that tradition opened my eyes to a hidden narrative of anime history that broadened my appreciation of anime and renewed my faith in its potential.

In an interview with me posted on Anime News Network a few days ago, I felt there were some lingering questions about what exactly it is that sets animators apart from each other in anime that I hadn't addressed well enough, so I wanted to try to do that here.

It's not a judgment or a matter of taste to state that different animators exhibit different styles in Japan. It's a fact of life. Whether or not the viewer sees it, animators are unable to all draw and animate the same way, and stylistic disparity is an inescapable aspect of production that must either be fought against or embraced - both of which the industry does to varying degrees, depending on the context. The main tool the industry has devised to address this issue is the animation director system that has been used in nearly every anime since 1963, in which someone corrects keys to maintain at least some semblance of uniformity over a production. But this tool is overwhelmed by its placement of the onus on a single individual, and inevitably, idiosyncrasy creeps through, if not in the drawings, then in the movement. Animation industries elsewhere undoubtedly pride themselves on lacking such undesirable human idiosyncrasy in their product, because such disparity is often viewed as a fly in the ointment, sometimes rightly so. Yet in Japan, that disparity often not only works despite itself, but often achieves greatness in its own right.

Naturally, many of the greatest animators in Japan are the animators who are able to adapt stylistically while still doing great work. But the fact is, their work remains identifiable by its intrinsic qualities in terms of its technique, or its creativity of movement or acting. A production such as Jin-Roh might be said to fall at one end of the scale, where ample scheduling permits thorough polishing of all aspects that renders it more difficult to differentiate between animators merely on the basis of obvious idiosyncratic style, which would be a distraction in the context. At the opposite end of the sale, a film such as Dead Leaves benefits from a more spontaneous and playful approach to the animation that not only permits animator idiosyncrasy but deliberately foregrounds it, and makes an asset of it.

To some extent, all anime could be said to fall somewhere along a continuum between these two extremes. Even when it's not intentional, there is usually some variation between animators present, even if barely noticeable. Although on occasion such variation is a deliberate stylistic decision, it is more often than not simply an inevitable part of the production process, with all of its rushed deadlines and geographically scattered freelance staff. However, whether intentional or unintentional, the strength of anime is that this stylistic variety often gives its animation a richness and unpredictability that is in itself unique and appealing. They've wrested what could have been a systemic weakness into a major appeal point.

This approach in which different animators are permitted to bring different styles to the table, without first being passed through a process of stylistic homogenization, may be part of the reason that Japan now boasts such a wide range of animation styles within its industry. A number of animators who grew out of that system to develop pronounced individual styles, such as Hiroyuki Imaishi and Masaaki Yuasa, received commensurate recognition and went on to head some of the most compelling Japanese productions of the last few years - precisely because they were given the opportunity to pursue their predilections and allow their talent to flower within their industry. This larger format in turn attracts similar talent of the next generation drawn to the work of these interesting animators, providing them with an opportunity to pool their talent to the benefit of the production and at the same time learn from one another, in a self-perpetuating loop of creative influencing and development that strikes me as one of the industry's creative wellsprings.

What sets animators apart from one another?

Although the issue of whether animator idiosyncrasy is desirable in a production is probably a contentious one, and whether it works will often depend on the viewer, the fact is that different approaches to animation are on display, and it can heighten enjoyment of anime to be able to appreciate different animators' contributions, so I wanted to get down a few simple pointers that I thought might point people in the right direction who are having a hard time 'seeing' the difference.

First a quick overview of the process. Based on the storyboard, the key animator creates a layout that acts as the frame within which the action takes place and defines the relationship of the animation to the background. The key animator then designs the motion by drawing 'key' poses at various points across the arc of a movement, and specifies where the other drawings should come to fill out the movement (on what's called a time sheet). The inbetweener then fills in the missing drawings to make the movement smooth. There are a number of other roles that can be involved in the animation before or after, and of course it's more complicated than this, but this is essentially how a movement is made.

There are a number of concrete ways (key) animators can differ.

Tell two people to draw a drawing of the same person, and it will come out more or less different in how the volumes and lines of the figure are expressed. It's the same in animation, since animation is just a series of drawings in sequence. Inevitably, whether they will it or not, each animator has his or her own style of line and way of drawing forms. This is why a sakuga kantoku or "animation director" (more like a key animation supervisor) is needed to correct the drawings by the key animators 'to model'.

Animation is made by stringing drawings together, and the timing is how much of a space is placed between the drawings. Different animators might favor different timing styles. One might keep the drawings spaced smoothly, while another might place drawings more erratically. The timing dramatically alters the impact of the drawings.

The actual meat of animation. How the animator makes a character act out an instruction on the storyboard, be it by body language or facial expression. The drawings might be corrected, obscuring that aspect of the animator's style, but it's the plan of the acting that is the core of the piece of animation. Inevitably, each animator will come up with their own interpretation reflecting their skill level, predilections and imaginative capacity.

Some combination of these will account for most differences between animators.

Needless to say, it is by no means necessary to always be on the lookout for animators or to be struggling to identify the animator of each different scene. That is counterproductive and putting the cart before the horse. The whole point is that, just as we might follow a director or actor whose work we know we tend to like, sometimes while watching a TV show or movie there will be moments when the animation catches your eye or is particularly pleasing to you, and you wish you could see more like it; it's in situations like this that it can be nice to be able to articulate what you like, and to know who was behind that work, so that you can find more like it if you want.

Animation by Yoshinori Kanada (like this) and his followers like Masahito Yamashita and Hiroyuki Imaishi, for example, will usually contain some amount of uneven timing, with things kind of jumping around at odd moments, and liberal sprays of lines, geometric flashes and other assorted effects and playful insertions (like UFOs) appearing for a single frame at a time. The characters move not smoothly like in Jin-Roh but jumping almost randomly been assorted crazy poses. The drawings tend to be very loose and not highly worked. Their animation is more about having fun and creating animation that is exciting to watch than creating nuanced character animation. So these guys are identifiable through drawing, timing and acting.

The last shot of the kitten bumping into the cat in this clip by Shinya Ohira from FLCL is a good example of the opposite approach to timing - each drawing coming at the same interval, like ticks of a metronome. The drawings here are also very free and characteristic of Ohira. This is a rare case when drawings this idiosyncratic are left through into the final product without being corrected (hence the subtitles of the characters names for identification purposes). The acting is very different from the preceding Kanada-school animators. Rather than jumping around between extreme crazy poses and zooming around the screen wildly, Ohira tends to keep a shot fixed and use lots of drawings closely spaced to follow a movement through more closely from one pose to the next. So this animator is also identifiable, in his own very different way, through drawing, timing and acting.

The swimming animation here by Mitsuo Iso (of Denno Coil fame) is a similar example of animation that isn't about crazy timing and extreme jumps between drawings, but about following a movement through from moment to moment. The style here is not so much identifiable by the drawings and timing as simply by the unusual richness of the acting, with some new pose or reaction occurring in virtually every second over the thirty second span of the shot, as opposed to, say, a several-second loop of a set of the same drawings showing Kintaro swimming the freestyle stroke. In both this and the former case, the animation is unusual because it was probably drawn entirely by the key animator, without inbetweens. Inbetweens are a time-saving measure, but they also reduce the animator's control over a movement, relegating the little details to another person. Some animators don't like that, and have a very precise sense of what they want to achieve, so they draw everything themselves. So another identifying factor is this 'density', or the amount of control exerted by the key animator. An animator like Yoshiaki Kawajiri might rely a lot more on inbetweens, for example, to achieve his very smooth movements.

The differences are sometimes quite obvious, and other times rather difficult to put your finger on and articulate in words, although you sense that something is different. And there are obviously many other approaches to animation that I haven't covered here. But I hope this begins to give a sense of how it is that animators can differ from one another.

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