Visual Cohesion and Flow in Animation

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Way back in 1940, Walt Disney Productions released their second full-length animated feature, Pinnochio–which, like all of the studio’s early work, was massively influential to the world of animation. Of all the critical analysis I’ve seen regarding the film, the most interesting point comes from Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review, in which he describes how Disney began to experiment with the idea that there was space in each scene which existed outside of the frame.

The best example of this comes from the scene wherein Pinocchio and his father are being pushed and pulled by the sneezes of a giant whale. We see the whale expel them out of the left side of the frame–and then in the next shot, the characters move from right to left, before being pulled back from left to right, into the direction of the whale. We intuitively understand that the whale’s breath is pulling the characters back across the frame, because we know that that’s the direction wherein we last saw the whale; creating the sensation that the whale exists off to the right side of the screen, even though the space outside of the frame does not really exist at all.

This technique may sound pretty basic and intuitive, and it was common to live-action film (in which it’s easier to convey a sense of space because that space actually exists); however, this had never really been done in animation before. And sadly, in spite of how old this technique is now, and how many great films have utilized it over the years, a lot of modern films (animated or otherwise) seem to have neglected this visual tool.

When you hear movie critics (such as myself) complaining that the action sequences in modern blockbusters are “incomprehensible,” they’re probably describing the way that shots tend to flow into one-another in a lot of big action films. When a bunch of cuts are smashed together from random angles without accounting for how they flow into one-another, or establishing a sense of space, those visuals tend to be harder to follow, and end up leaving less of an impact.

Unfortunately, outside of the most classic films by the most legendary directors, this kind of visual flow is also very uncommon to anime–most likely as the result of differences in the genesis of modern Japanese animation, as well as in the genesis of Japanese cinematography.

Even without getting into Japanese animation specifically, I think it’s important to note that Japanese films in general often utilize a sense of shot composition and flow which is nothing like what is common to Hollywood films. For instance, one of the most legendary and influential Japanese directors, Yasujiro Ozu, was known for breaking conventions, by having characters walk out of one end of the frame, and then emerge from somewhere else; or by having actors face the camera when speaking to someone off-screen instead of looking off-camera, and even using lots of low-angle shots which emphasized the entire layout of the room as opposed to the main subject of the shot. While it would be unfair to criticize Ozu’s films for lacking flow, since the artistic decisions made in those films clearly serve a deeper purpose, it nonetheless sets a precedent for the way that Japanese filmmaking tends to follow a different set of rules from Western filmmaking.

Osamu Tezuka, universally recognized as the father of anime and manga, pioneered the animation techniques which allowed for the creation of cost-effective animated TV shows in Japan; and these techniques largely set the standard for what anime would become over the next sixty years. His shows were largely adapted directly from the panels of his own manga, and were focused less on making the characters move fluidly, and more on displaying cool-looking individual frames.

Even though Japanese animation has evolved dramatically over the decades while taking in lots of other influences and styles; the majority of anime still tends to put a focus on impressive key frames over fluid animation; and still features a “moving manga” aesthetic, even in shows which aren’t directly adapted from manga. This is hardly surprising, considering that the majority of the currently existing anime studios were created by branching out of the original ones which existed in the 60s and 70s; and considering that many of the directors working on original anime today have made their way up in the industry by working on manga adaptations, or on other productions lead by other long-time directors, over the course of their careers. Plus, animation remains expensive to produce, and Japanese animation remains relatively unprofitable, so experimentation and costly animation techniques are still difficult to implement.

However, in places wherein modern animation HAS become more experimental, I’ve started to see more anime that tries to incorporate filmic or experimental directing techniques; as well as shows which try to bridge the gap between the moving-manga aesthetic, and more freely-moving animated scenes. These shows that exist sort of halfway in-between manga and film styles make for a great place to study the problems that come with manga adaptation.

For instance, let’s take a look at the 2008 Studio Bones adaptation of Atsushi Ookubo’s Soul Eater manga. Studio Bones is home to virtually unparalleled talent when it comes to choreographing and animating action sequences–and Soul Eater does a great job of showcasing those skills. However, it also shows us how certain things which make sense in the presentation of a manga page don’t necessarily translate well into animation.

Take, for instance, the repetitive and obnoxious Shinigami Chop jokes which occur during the climactic action sequence of the first episode. In the original manga, there are a few random, tiny panels in the middle of the first chapter’s big action sequence, which display the interactions between Maka’s father and Shinigami. Because manga reads much faster than anime plays, these panels don’t take up much time; and because they’re so small, they don’t disrupt or pull us out of the flow of the action. The important scene is still happening at the start and end of the page, so these little asides don’t disrupt the focus of the drama. However, when each of these cutaways is given the focus of the entire screen, and is fully voiced and animated, they turn into a massive and obtrusive distraction which hinders the sense of pacing and tension in the action. As a result, in spite of featuring superior artwork, animation, designs, colors, voice acting, etc., the flow of the anime adaptation ends up feeling less satisfying than that of the original manga.

Not every manga adaptation necessarily suffers as a result of being directed this way. A lot of comedy and slice-of-life shows, which revolve more around comedic timing than dramatic tension, are not really effected by the moving-manga style of animation. However, the range of what could be accomplished in both action and comedy shows would be seriously expanded if more series tapped into the use of good visual flow.

Thankfully, there seem to be a handful of directors emerging in recent years who know how to utilize good visual flow–and it might not be too surprising that most of them were originally key animators who were known for their extremely high-energy movement. Hiroyuki Imaishi is arguably the absolute master of this, with shows like Kill la Kill, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, and Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt standing as the premiere sources of visual flow in TV animation. (If you haven’t seen my video on the visual flow in the opening scene of Kill la Kill, be sure and check it out.) Veteran animators Mitsuo Iso and ryo-timo also show an understanding of these techniques in series like Dennou Coul and Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta.

For an example of how to accomplish great visual flow in a slice-of-life comedy series, you need look no further than Tamako Market. Watch how in the opening scene, the main characters happily explore a series of fantastic setting shots, while the layout of the roads, and the directions of the characters’ movements, draw the viewer’s eyes naturally through the scene. We get so swept up in the consistent left-to-right motion of the shots, that when the girls pass their destination and come to a stop, and then Tamako’s friends depart from the right side of the frame before Tamako turns to go left, we feel a strange sense of tugging as we get pulled in the opposite direction from where we’ve been headed.

It probably says a lot that all of the shows I’ve just named were original animation projects which weren’t adapted from anything–meaning that their directors would’ve had to put more thought into the layout of the setting and movement of characters through the frame than they would have if they were just copying images out of a source material. It might be a bit harder and take a bit more thought to animate this way, but I’d love to see a lot more of it in anime, and I will definitely continue to celebrate every instance of it that I find in the future.

If you’ve noticed that certain shows seem to flow better than others, then let me know about your experiences in the comments. Be sure and stick around on my channel for more videos like this, and if you’d like to support my content, consider becoming a patron or donating via paypal. See you in the next one!

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