Want to impress you friends by throwing around fancy cinematography language? Want to convince them anime is a serious art by analyzing classical methods and their use in an animated medium? Well you’ve come to the right place! Unless your friends know anything about cinematography or proper usage of fancy words. Then we’re both screwed…
Lately, I’ve been fascinated by the use of cinematic language in anime. I’ve always had a certain affinity for the use of colour in any visual medium but in the past year or so that has extended to the use of camera work and blocking/framing in anime.
It’s one thing to play around with different angles or perspectives in a real life medium. To me, there’s something just inherently more logical to moving a camera around in a 3-dimensional environment. Recreating the same effect (and then some) through 2D images is just a little different. It requires a lot more planning and forethought. Re-shooting any scene from a different angle isn’t great for a production. It requires time and a lot of money. But redrawing the entire thing, to me, seems much more difficult. You have to re-plot and re-plan each frame, get your entire staff back together and then try adding that 10° just to see if it’s better… Ridiculous!
That’s why I’m always impressed by camera effects in anime. I understand that my knowledge of actual production is very limited, and I may be completely off on this. It’s entirely possible that modern animation techniques include scanning your beautifully hand painted image into a computer which will plot it out in 3D and allow you to distort and rotate it any way your want within second AND automatically generate all the in between frames… If that’s not the way it’s done now, it probably will be very soon. It’s logical. It’s just not terribly romantic. So, I’m going to keep pretending it’s exactly like what I saw in Shirobako and keep being impressed by camera angles.
I am 300 words in and I’ve yet to even mention what a Dutch angle is… I don’t know if I should be impressed with myself or exasperated. I guess both at once is the safe bet.
So first off, what is a Dutch angle. You may have heard the term before, it’s a pretty common and fairly old technique. Almost 100 years old! Whoa! It’s really just a fancy (and shorted) way of saying that the camera is tilted at an angle so that the vertical lines in the shot end up diagonal instead.
This sort of composition has a few effects. It gives the viewer a sense of unease or unsteadiness. Since the horizon is no longer level with the bottom of the screen, it visually simulates being on unsteady terrain (or being really drunk…) In some cases it can be a pot element (if the character really is very drunk OR maybe if there’s an earthquake), in other it’s to set up a mood, give a vague sense of dread or ominous foreshadowing.
This is a fairly basic idea of the dutch angle. In animation I guess you could just that your image and tilt it a bit. Nothing too exciting here.
It gets more interesting hen the angle starts playing with perspective. A slight dutch angle with a foreground character and vertical background can allow you to fit tall buildings in a frame without having to pull away too far from your character. It generally has the effect of making the taller element seem to really loom over the shorter one. It’s immediate and generally gives off the visceral effect of having the smaller element seem helpless or overwhelmed. It also artificially stretches the shot making it look taller than it is.
Cinema screens are usually wider than they are taller. It’s a ratio we’ve learn to associate with big budget productions. Flipping that and creating a shot which is taller rather than wider, even if it is an illusion, creates a much more intimate (i.e. small screen) effect which grounds the story in spite of what may actually be happening. Traditionally, this type of framing is favoured for gritty crime dramas or thrillers where you want the audience to think they’re watching this from a window (or for more contemporary audiences, on a smartphone).
Shot composition rather than camera angle is often used the other way around, to make images appear wider thereby giving off a more cinematic or polished effect. Which generally is considered more suitable for stories with a lot of fantastic elements such as fantasy or superhero movies…
The thing about these more subtle dutch angles is that they play with depth of field. When in an actual 3-dimensional environment, there is often a slight curve to the rendered image such that the angle won’t affect things very close to the camera in the same way as things very far from it. This means that simply spinning your drawing a little will not give you the same effect in anime. To really get it right, you have to draw it that way. (Or a computer will do it for you, stop shattering my dreams!)
In live action cinema, dutch angles are a very obvious technique that can be and often is overused. As such, it can easily go from an interesting, mood enhancing effect to making your movie or show look amateurish and give people motion sickness. In anime however, because these shots have to get planned out more carefully, it’s still fairly unusual and generally only used with good reason.
I remember there ae a handful of these angles in the fifth season of Natsume’s Book of Friends. Oddly, for me they d=created a sense of space and clam when compared to the steadier head on shots we’d been getting in the 4 first seasons. That’s sort of the opposite of what the technique is supposed to be used for but Natsume is special in very many ways so we shouldn’t use it as an example.
More recently, the 3rd season of Bungo Stray Dogs (one of the most impressive productions I’d seen in a while) had subtle but consistent use of dutch angles. They were used in the traditional way, with single characters in frame to give off a sense of dread or loss of control on the character’s part. Not often though.
Most of the time, we saw them used in the city, on fairly neutral transition scenes. It’s an odd choice. Why use this particular cinematic technique on shots that are not meant to convey anything in particular and just hold the story together. It seems like a bit of a waste. Of course, it’s not a waste. First, they set up the next shot and get the audience in the appropriate mindset for whatever action there is to come. That enough would have been a great reason.
However, I think there’s a touch more to it. I’m just guessing here. Let me share my thinking with you. Season 3 of Bungo Stray Dogs was very particular and deliberate of framing. Scenes were often really well and unusually composed.
Keeping that in mind, I thought it would be unlikely for the director to throw in a bunch of random angled shots just for fun. The greater lore of Bungo Stray Dogs puts heavy emphasis on the city of Yokohama. Both the Detective Agency and the Port Mafia are created to keep the balance in the city (along with the Special Ability Department) and ultimately allow it to prosper. We’ve seen both Mori and Fukuzawa express that the welfare of Yokohoma itself was more important than their own lives or organizations. Their means differ drastically.
To me, these angled and wide shots of the city create a sense of dimension to the landscapes. It makes the city itself look a little odd without adding any surreal elements to it and it makes the city itself more like its own entity in the audience’s mind. This allows the viewers to connect with the reactions of the characters better and get more invested in the overarching story line.
I could be wrong but even if I am, it’s still what happened for me!
Personally, the idea of recreating practical effects in animation has always been a source of wonder. The fact that something so simple as an angle can be used create such an effect on the viewers is modern day witchcraft and I adore that anime directors are using it to their own ends.