An Examination of Shot Composition in Psycho Pass 1&2


Text version: Shot composition is the most important thing in film and animation that never gets talked about. It’s not easy to describe what good composition looks like without providing a frame-by-frame analysis, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do in this video. I’ll be comparing the first episodes of Psycho-Pass seasons one and two, and showing how the drastic differences in shot composition and art quality cause one to look stunning, while the other looks mediocre. Technically there will be Psycho-Pass spoilers, but I’ll try to keep them as vague and meaningless as possible. In order to make this fair, I’ll be using the original TV broadcast version of Psycho-Pass, since the show was touched up on the blu-ray and re-broadcast versions. Anyways, let’s dive right in. Episode one of Psycho-Pass opens up by replicating classic film helicopter shots as it invites us to a shining blue city, which stands above the submerged rubble of another city. Helicopters weave between different layers of background amid shining billboards–all of which clearly evokes the feeling of the famous intro to Bladerunner, or even the beginning of this team’s previous work, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. In-between rows of familiar-looking cars, a train of unfamiliar robots emerges, and a close-up shows their head-like pieces seemingly observing the surroundings. Overhead shots reveal intense amounts of traffic, and we pan up to a massive, strange-looking building in cinematic fashion. These first thirty or so seconds have already established the look and feel of the world of Psycho-Pass. The heavy use of blues gives a distinct futuristic cyberpunk flair, and we immediately understand both the scope and the pristine nature of this city. It resembles our own world enough with its cars and helicopters for us to know that it’s not too far from the present, but the existence of these little robots clues us in that it’s set in at least a somewhat futuristic science-fiction world. The variety of colors on the billboards and the brightness of the city make it feel lively and detailed, even though we’ve barely seen any people. It can’t be overstated just how many lights there are in this city–every building has most of its lights on, and when the police robots go by, we see different colored lights reflecting off of them and the street. Everything in this scene is explicitly designed to make the city look shiny and living. Psycho-Pass 2 attempts to do something similar, but on a much smaller scale, and with far less cinematic scope. The opening shot is set at dusk and still captures the bright city lights, but instead of feeling like a sweeping helicopter shot, it’s just a panning shot of a stationary background scrolling across the screen. Compared to the multi-layered opening shots of the first season, it obviously leaves something to be desired. At this point, you’re probably realizing already that these differences seem pretty minor and negligible, and if you’re not inclined to pay attention to these things, then that’s an understandable position. However, I see this as the difference between a really striking and memorable way to open up a show, and a really average way to open up a show. The opening shots of Psycho-Pass remind me of the opening shots of The Dark Knight, which has some of my favorite cinematography in film, while Psycho-Pass 2 reminds me of… nothing. It cuts from that first panning shot to a shot of someone’s hand holding a phone, so our vantage point has already switched to ground level. In the next shot, we see some bland-looking people walking around in the foreground, and because of the lack of a horizon line, it kind of just looks like they’re walking in the middle of the road in totally random directions. I had to seriously study this scene to realize that this shot took place in front of this building–each of these shots feels disconnected from the last, with totally nonsensical vantage points. It’s weird though, because if you really study each of these shots, it’s obvious that they spent a lot of time planning out this little area and all the details of its setup, but it’s presented with so little flair, and the scene is over so quickly, that you can’t get a real sense for anything. For the sake of keeping these two shows relatively in parallel, I’m going to skip the whole flash-forward scene between Kogami and Makishima in the first season and go right to where both shows present their first mission. Psycho-Pass once again opens up with a Bladerunner-eqsue cityscape shot, this time in the rain. You may be thinking that this episode has so many shots like this because it’s the first episode and they had to establish the setting, but the thing is that Psycho-Pass had TONS of shots like this throughout the entire run of the show. After all, the setting was kind of EVERYTHING in Psycho-Pass. The entire point of the show was exploring this sci-fi world, to the point that the city and its systems could almost be considered the main character. Not to mention, the interplay of bright blue lights beaming out of an all-encompassing darkness immediately creates a cyber-noir tone that gives us a good sense of what we’re in for. Psycho-Pass 2 starts with a generic shot of flashing police lights in cheap-looking CGI, followed by a weirdly cramped shot of police vehicles heading down the road. Psycho-Pass pans down on a junky-looking alley as a character approaches, shrouded in darkness and rain. We can barely see her, but we can tell she’s holding something over her head to keep rain out of her eyes. A gorgeous close shot has her running by as the title flashes on-screen, and it hangs there to transition us into another air shot of an interesting and subtly mysterious array of weird police robots. Meanwhile Psycho-Pass 2 cuts to a computer map screen with a bunch of floating windows on it. Even though the pictures are detailed, they’re too blown out and go by too fast for us to get any idea of what they’re showing. This just feels like a throwaway shot because we have no context for what we’re seeing or time to process it. From here, we launch into an exposition scene, and while it isn’t handled poorly, it feels like a jarring thrust into the action when compared to the first episode of season one. I can understand where maybe they wanted to start off fast because this is the second season, but it doesn’t end up being necessary, since this episode actually manages to establish fewer new concepts than the first season did. Most of the episode feels like it’s just trying to reacquaint us with the setting and characters, while briefly showing us who the new characters are, but the city doesn’t even feel as familiar as it did within a single episode of the first season because it does so little to acclimate us to the tone and feel of the setting. Look at just how much the first episode of season one does to set the scene, with all these overhead shots, incredibly detailed placement of police robots, and shots of Ginoza getting out of the car. This shot where Akane bursts through a crowd of onlookers to face an illusory robot which is being disrupted by the rain communicates a fuckton of information all at once. Compare that against this fucking awful shot of her police car pulling up to… a wall? And her stepping out onto a backdrop of this weird green industrial complex… place? In Psycho-Pass, Akane runs up to a tented off area, which is already a detail I’ve never even seen in any anime before and, out of breath and soaked, greets her new partner, with a shot that feels like a proper introduction. This shot is duplicated at the end of the first season for Akane’s new partner, but that doesn’t change how boring it is for both Akane and her partner to start the second season sitting in a car. At around the same time in both shows, the commanding officer looks over the mission details on a projection from their watch, and if this doesn’t tell you everything about the difference, I don’t know what will. In the original, the holographic HUD takes up the majority of the screen, and the out-of-focus background features bright, but nondescript details, which make the whole frame look pretty, but doesn’t distract from the abundance of details on screen. Season two has a much less detailed and overall uglier HUD which is poorly framed against a massive background, half of which is occupied by a police car, and the other half of which is just an expanse of nothingness. It doesn’t even obey the law of thirds, which is like the most basic tenet of photography. Plus, the angle of Akane’s arm makes no sense. The next shot, though, was the moment when watching Psycho-Pass 2 wherein the gravity of the bad shot composition really hit me. In this shot, Akane and her partner are just standing against a vast expanse of featureless red ground. Just… why? First of all, why does the ground look like that? Why is it red, why does it not look like road at all, why is there just an infinite amount of light shining from I guess directly above them? What the hell kind of camera angle is this? There’s no horizon line, no sense of space or height, how’d they get so far away from the police car, why does the angle of their faces suggest that we’re facing them, even though we’d have to be like twelve feet above them to get this shot? Why go for a wide-angle shot if it was going to mean drawing tiny details on tiny characters, which is always going to look like shit? Why are they standing directly in the middle of the fucking frame? Look at the comparable scene from the first season. Holy fuck. We’ve got this awesome angle where we can see over Ginoza’s shoulder to his watch, while also seeing Akane’s full body, and she’s got this fantastic facial expression. We’ve got a horizon line, objects in the background, and even this tentpole in the mid-ground, which all gives us a perfect sense of space; and not only does the ground have markings on it, but there’s an interplay of different light sources on the pavement. This shot is so detailed, that when you stop to think about the fact that this was all planned out and drawn by a team of people, it’s kind of mind-blowing. They didn’t film this with real people standing under a real tent in a real lot with real police robots in the background, they had to draw all that shit, and it looks totally real and immersive. This shot from Psycho-Pass 2 could not possibly be recreated in live action because the perspective is impossible. Look at how both shows have almost identical scenes of the dominator machines opening, but in the original it’s bright and impactful, while in the sequel it’s dark and hard to make out. Also the pavement is now grey instead of red. I could go on through both of these episodes and talk about how the first one feels like a cohesive and linear journey through an interesting part of town with interesting characters and a good sense of what the target is up to, while the second show feels like a disorganized and jumpy mess that goes all over town, never gives a hint of personality to any of its characters, and barely gives any sense of what the target is doing along the way, but all of that falls more on the writing and directing side. I just wanted to cut to the heart of how these show’s differ visually. One has its final confrontation in a dank and terrifying warehouse, while the other has it on a rooftop where the color of the sky is different in like every shot for some reason. Both shows roll credits on an identical cityscape shot, but one comes after some hyper-detailed shots of a murky industrial harbor, and the other comes after some like… mall… building? I don’t know. I don’t necessarily expect other people to care about or notice this kind of stuff the way I do, and I also won’t pretend like I was breaking all this stuff down to this extent in my head while I was watching the shows. All I knew was that the first episode of Psycho-Pass had blown my mind back when I first watched it, and when I kicked up the first episode of the sequel, I quickly thought, “huh this kinda looks like shit.” Considering that Psycho-Pass is one of my top five favorite anime largely because of the strength of its aesthetic and setting, it was a huge letdown to see that the staff responsible for season two dropped the ball so hard in those areas. Maybe this won’t affect your viewing of Psycho-Pass 2, but it certainly affected mine, and I hope that even if I can’t make you care about these things, I’ve at least done enough to make you understand where I’m coming from.

4 thoughts on “An Examination of Shot Composition in Psycho Pass 1&2

  1. One, i have to say that it’s great to see someone online who actually has knowledge of shot composition, artistic structure (thank you art class), and actually understands (to some degree) what goes into art and animation and the differences between the two. It’s a breath of fresh air and i dont normally see a lot of ppl online pay attention tho those details, though honestly, most people watch things to be told a story and they are hooked by what’s happening onscreen, that’s all they need; you on the other hand have a great eye for detail.

    I will say though that my thoughts about the shot composition differences has to do with what each series is/was inherently trying to accomplish. The first season of psycho-pass’ goal was to create a futuristic world and flesh it out with themes and concerns that Urobuchi wanted to tackle in a world such as this. It is for that reason that psycho-pass wasnt all that strong in the character department which arguably brought down the show at times though not significantly. It’s focus necessitated the need for film-style composition. Season 2 on the other hand is more concerned about involving the characters in cases while playing with their perception and so the shot composition has been put on the back burner for creating an almost distorted looking world of color; by that i mean there are scenes where some of the color schemes are irregular (which is actually one of the plot points this season); adding a sort of surrealism to its world.

    To be honest though, the first season of psycho-pass’ animation took major dips here and there and the shot composition never stayed as exquisite as it did in the first ep (take a look at more of the eps; then again i didnt watch the blu-ray releases so im not sure if they ever got fixed). Not to mention that character designs, due to their complexity, didnt always animate so well (it’s funny that you mention akane’s facial expression, which always looked weird to me in subsequent eps as well as other characters to at times). In this season of psycho-pass however, the character designs have been tweaked so that they animate better. In my opinion, seems like there are both positive and negative trade-offs with psycho-pass switching production companies, and while i will miss the shot compositions of some of season 1 of psycho-pass, im fairly satisfied with what tatsunoko has done with season 2 (their cg is not as good as production I.G’s tho, which sort of hurts the city design at times because for the most part, psycho-pass heavily relied on cg to render their city and landscapes). I want to see what they and their writing and directing staff add to the table and so far, in terms of the story anyway, im seeing some potentially good stuff that will actually make our character’s feel a bit more 3-dimensional when it’s all over.

    • I only watched Psycho-Pass after the blu-rays were already out, and they definitely fixed most of the errors. I never noticed anything really bad looking in my initial view. I only heard about the problems with the TV broadcast later, which is why I was sure to use the TV version for this comparison (though for the first ep it didn’t really matter).

  2. Pingback: Original Psycho-Pass 2 - Trang 2

  3. Pingback: Psycho-Pass 2 ep 1-6 impressions | Brave New Moe

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