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: January 2009, 15

Thursday, January 15, 2009

10:31:32 pm , 2613 words, 4070 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Shoichi Masuo

The Japanese animation industry has a long tradition of great effects animators dating back at least to the 1940s. But the difference with the west is that there is no clear systemic difference between the two, and as a result, at least until relatively recently, often they haven't been credited separately. Recently, particularly since Steam Boy, it's become more common to see the post of Effects Animation Director. But at least during the 1970s and 1980s, there were a number of great FX animators, but it was hard to pick them out if you didn't know who you were looking for. Also, the concept of FX was often melded with the mecha animation, so that any effects work you got would be on the mecha shots, as the two were kind of synonymous.

Starting in the 1980s, effects seems to have begun to be divorced from purely mecha associations and come unto its own. Toshiaki Hontani was one of the main figures behind the resurgence of FX animation in Japan, with his animation in Akira and on other shows over the preceding years. So was Shinya Ohira. Both of these figures were big influences behind at the very least Takashi Hashimoto, who is the current figure synonymous with FX animation in Japan. Both Hontani and Ohira, of course, were preceded by figures like Hideaki Anno, Ichiro Itano before him, Kazuhide Tomonaga before him, etc, etc, all of whose styles are to some extent influenced by or distantly related to one another - with each figure having made his own distinct contribution to that development. Much of what makes FX animation so great has been all of the inter-influencing that's gone on over the years.

Another figure from the late 1980s who was one of the important figures of FX animation is Shoichi Masuo. I've been reading over the book of key animation drawings that was released for Nadia over the last week or so, and it's afforded me a greater understanding of the style of his work. At a more basic level, it made me realize that he was the figure behind all of the great mecha/FX animation that had always so impressed me in the series. He's only credited as mecha animation director in the last two episodes, so it had never even occurred to me until now that he was the figure responsible. There are almost certainly a number of mecha/FX shots not done by him, but looking over the book made me realize that the bulk of the mecha and effects work in the series was of his hand, and that he was the one who defined the overall style of the mecha/FX animation of the show. The mecha/FX aspect of the show had impressed me back in the day when I first watched the show around 1992, with its distinctive fluid, realistically timed animation giving the action scenes a feeling of richness and realism. The show was nicely animated otherwise, but the mecha animation stood out as very different. It's like suddenly, when the mecha shots came on, the animation became incredibly rich and smooth. It was like a different show. That had always amazed me. The realism of the effects, at least in my case, had definitely been one of the factors that helped give the show its unusual impact. It's nice to be able to connect the dots after all this time.

(Note that there aren't any specific credits for any shots in the book, so I've had to guess what his shots might be based on stylistic similarity.)

I don't really know much about Shoichi Masuo's origins or influences other than the fact that he debuted as an animator at a small but venerable subcontracting studio called Studio Giants. This studio was the training ground for any number of more well-known animators such as Masayuki, Kazuya Tsurumaki, Yuriko Chiba and Toshiyuki Tsuru. Giants were renowned among fans in their heyday in the early 80s for the loose and crazy work that they always did on their rotation episodes. The work of Tadashi Shida and Masayuki on Sasuga no Sarutobi (1982-84) in particular seems to best reflect that style. (you can catch a whiff of that atmosphere in the wild animation of the boars that Masayuki did for episode 30 of Nadia - getting the keys for which was the whole reason I bought the key animation book in the first place) Presumably sometime around 1985, Masuo left Studio Giants to join another studio, Graviton, where he worked as mecha animation director of Project A-Ko in 1986, which brought him some recognition. It was presumably soon after this that he joined Gainax, where he worked on Aim for the Top and Honneamise as an assistant director, even contributing some animation to Akira, although I'm not sure what part. It must have been soon after this that he set to work on Nadia.

One of the things that immediately sets his work apart, particularly from the rest of the shots in the book, is the time sheets. More than the style of drawing, or anything like that, it's how densely packed the time sheets are. The amazing amount of planning that is bespoken by the intricately devised time sheets is as far away as I could imagine from the sort of freewheeling animation I associate with Studio Giants. It has the distinctive feeling of someone with a director's sensibility, rather than an animator's. He has a clear map in his mind of what he wants to show in the screen, and he breaks the screen down into its constituent components to go about doing it as systematically and efficiently as possible. When you're watching the animation on screen, it's impressive, but it doesn't come across as laborious. The labor that went in is invisible. That's partly because the shots he did often involve rather minute and precise movement rather than wild, outlandish shots of character antics. It's also because, for all the work that went into the shots, they're quite short. Masuo's shots are a classic case of quality over quantity.

Time sheets were actually included almost exclusively for Shoichi Masuo's shots in the book in question. And the reason is pretty obvious. At the most basic level, the intricacy of the planning of the shots means that you need the time sheet to understand what's going on in the various drawings, which are usually scattered over at least 5 layers. His time sheets are a work of art in and of themselves in the amount of thought and planning that they represent. I think the origins of the person who put together the book, the director (himself a famous FX animator), comes through pretty clearly in that sense. He himself knows how to make great FX animation, and therefore knows how to appreciate great FX animation. A few other time sheets were included, and in each case, although the piece of animation is quite nice and well timed, it's different from Masuo's animation in that, usually, everything takes place on one layer. There isn't the need for meticulous planning and division of parts of the kind seen in Masuo's shots. Each of Masuo's shots comes across like a miniature film.

Take for example this shot of the Nautilus being bombarded with depth charges from above by the enemy sub from episode 4. It passes by very quickly, but has that characteristic punch and vividness that brings alive the battles in this series. The contrast with the character scenes is quite striking. Yet it works wonderfully. It's clearly well done, but it passes by quickly, and all of the work that went into it doesn't really jump out at you immediately. But looking at a selection of the keys for this shot, and especially the densely packed time sheet, reveals just how much planning was required to make even a passing shot like this have the intended effect.

The time sheet looks chaotic at first glance, but basically it consists of instructions for, in this case, six layers over the span of each of the 24 frames in roughly four and a half seconds. The layers are indicated by "ABCDEF" on the top left. 'A' would be the cel on the bottom of the stack, and 'F' the cel on the top. Masuo has actually had to write in two extra layers because the default four layers wasn't enough(!). Note that there are two versions of these columns. The first, labeled 'Action', is for indicating the placement of keys vis-a-vis inbetweens, and the second, labeled 'Cell', is for indicating the total number of final, inbetweened drawings.

This is my guess as to the breakdown of the layers:

A. Explosion on floor in middle (starting at second 2.75)
B. Dirt kicked up by the Nautilus (starting at second 0)
C. Not sure - bubbles? (starting at second 3.25)
D. Still of Nautilus rising (starting at second 0)
E. Explosion in the center (starting at second 2)
F. Depth charges falling until sec 2.70, then explosions on floor

One interesting thing here is that he provides instructions for the use of "wave glass" to simulate the water in front of the camera swirling around chaotically, starting from the end of the third second. You can see it indicated as a black wedge near the bottom. "F.I." stands for fade in. Another trick he uses is to blacken the screen for one frame at a time. You can see a total of 8 of these little shaded boxes on the right-hand side, representing the flashes from the explosions of the depth charges. The term he uses to indicate this is "saburina", which is short for subliminal shot. Using a single frame like this for the flash of an explosion is very common, although usually it's with a white frame. At the top he mentions applying a "DF filter", which refers to a diffusion filter. The term "book", incidentally, refers to foreground (i.e., as opposed to background), in this case the ocean floor. It's a drawing painted by the art department, like the background, but it is placed between cel layers. You'll notice that he moved the placement from between layer C and D to the very top. I was wondering why he didn't split the descending depth charges and their explosions of layer F into different layers, but perhaps he was already maxed out.

The indication of the motion of the depth charges falling is rather interesting. Although the drawing isn't provided, he presumably drew the first drawing of the depth charges, and the rest were inbetweened according to the notches shown on the vector line provided for each of the depth charges. From the moment of the explosion, he switches to keys of the explosion. He uses the keys quite sparingly, but cunningly, and through a great deal of careful planning the effect is quite seamless.

In this shot from episode 21, we have a similar shot of explosions and the Nautilus, but this time in mid-air, and this time of the Nautilus itself exploding. The keys are here. The time sheet is easier to understand this time around. For some reason layer A is empty. A drawing marked A1 (meaning the first key of layer A) shows clouds, but this was obviously done with a background and not an animation drawing. B is a still of the debris trapped by the magnetic field. C is a still of the Nautilus. D is the explosion. E is the flash effect.

The instructions at the top read: Saburina, E cel lith mask backlighting (white), strongish DF. Interestingly, the instructions have been translated into Korean. I checked the credits to see if the inbetweens for this episode had been farmed out to a Korean studio, but there are no credits for the inbetweens for this episode. Presumably either the inbetweening or the photography was done in Korea.

This shot is more straightforward than the previous shot. Basically the only layer with animation here is layer D - the explosion. The explosion comes in just after the one second mark, and you can see that a total of 7 keys were drawn, with a total of 17 inbetweened drawings. You can see saburina flashes again, this time white. The top layer is what is called a toukakou or backlighting mask. More specifically, this is a particular kind of backlighting called lith backlighting. I've read descriptions of the term to attempt to understand the difference, but I'm still somewhat unclear on the specifics of how it's used. Basically, lith backlighting was used to create smaller backlit shapes, such as the backlit horizontal line that appears for a frame at a time in this shot to signify the flash of the explosion.

One of the things that Takashi Hashimoto says he learned from studying Shoichi Masuo's animation is precisely the sort of layering that you see in the examples provided here - the way he splits each constituent portion of the effect into a different layer in order to be able to pile on the various layers and create a feeling of depth and richness. Mitsuo Iso went through a similar process as an animator, towards greater density and complexity. Rather than just animating a character, he moved towards controlling every parameter of the screen. Which is what Masuo was doing many years before in Nadia. Some of the most exciting animation of recent years has been FX animation by latter-day masters like Hideki Kakita and Takashi Hashimoto, and Shoichi Masuo was one of the figures who influenced the development of the current state of FX animation in anime by making his effects not a perfunctory tack-on, but laboriously devised creations that in themselves were worthy of study and admiration.

Shoichi Masuo was a key animator in episodes 8, 21, 34, 36 and 37. He storyboarded and directed episodes 2 and 15, and was the mecha animation director of the last two episodes, episodes 38 and 39. He also helped out a bit with the animation of episodes 22 and 26. (He's the last key animator listed.) The two episodes that stand out as representing the high point of his work on this series are perhaps episodes 15 and 21, which are both climactic episodes. They're the two episodes I remember most impressing me back in the day. Many of the other episodes are great because the story, characters, storyboard and everything are great. But it's through Masuo's animation that the mecha and effects come alive.

Masuo has been quite active since Nadia, of course. He worked on episodes 1, 3 and 4 of Doomed Megalopolis, and was heavily involved in Eva. In the recent remake, he's credited as "tokugi kantoku" (action choreographer), a title that was created for Ichiro Itano on Macross Plus. I was a big fan of Irresponsible Captain Tylor back in the day, and quite enjoyed the opening. I just found out recently that the characters in the opening were animated by Shinsaku Kozuma, and Masuo handled the mecha. It makes sense. The mecha animation has the same feeling of fluidity and weighty timing as Masuo's mecha work on Nadia. He was in episodes 1, 2 and 3 of Aim for the Top 2, and was the effect animation director of Gonzo's Agito and an animation director and animator in Brave Story. He was also heavily involved in two obscure OVAs - Six Angels in 2002 and Submarine 707R in 2003. The latter was one of Masuo's few directing efforts, and the former has quite a bad reputation as a film, but appears to have been one of his major efforts of the last few years in his capacity as an FX animator, so both would seem to be worth a look to see how this great FX animator has developed in recent years.