Let me make this clear right from the start, I don’t know much about cinematography. I have never taken a cinema course or even photography and most of my “insight” comes from casual observation. Basically I enjoy movies and anime, and I’ve watched a lot. That’s pretty much the extend of my expertise. However, I’ve always been very interested in the mechanics of making cinema and lately I’ve been particularly curious about how they apply to anime. I was super excited about my post dutch angles in anime for instance. Think of these posts not so much as me teaching anyone anything and more and us discovering some things together!
First let’s get some vocabulary down. I’m using terms that do exist and mean something however, there’s a chance I’m not using them exactly as I should. There are varying definitions for these terms of art so I figure I should pin down which one I’m going by.
In some ways, I do use these two terms interchangeably as they are rather close concepts. I could also use staging instead of framing I suppose. So to me framing is essentially disposing all your elements within a shot. The background, foreground, props and actors, and how they are placed within the boundaries of the film or cell. Sometimes you will just pause a show and think, huh, that a great image, regardless of the quality of the designs, but just because it’s nicely composed.
I hope I’m making sense here because it gets a bit denser when we talk about blocking.
Blocking is similar but more involved and dynamic. Blocking doesn’t just consider the physical elements of a scene, it takes into account light and movement (both movement that’s happening on screen, animation in this case, and camera movement). The initial blocking figures out where each character is at the beginning of a scene and then keeps that in mind as they move around throughout the scene. A bit like a choreography that includes the environment and the camera as well.
I’ve been noticing both of these elements more and more in anime. They are a tribute to the director’s “eye” and aesthetic. I think it’s very easy to get lost in designs and art styles when it comes to anime because it’s the first thing that hits you and the impact can overwhelm all other visual elements very easily.
I’m sure most of us have watched a show with fairly janky animation but gorgeous character designs and called it beautiful. I have! I think that’s to be excepted. One of the major draws of animation are the pretty drawings after all. And if designs can overshadow something as flashy as animation or as obvious as colour palettes, of course they’re going to leave more subtle parts of film-making in the dust.
However, designs are a very specific and for lack of a better word, controlled part of anime. In many cases, anime is based on manga and therefore the character designs and general look is already dictated by the source material. A lot goes in to adapting static 2D visuals to moving 360 degree ones but that a whole different post. Also, a character designer takes care of that part. What I’m saying is that directors rarely get much say in that part of the process unless they are working on an original work, adapting their own material or just powerful enough in the industry to exercise influence on that front.
You are much more likely to see the individual traces of the production in the animation and in the blocking. And unlike animation, blocking isn’t so highly dependent on budget which makes it a fairer comparison point. And I think a very underrated aspect of the visuals in anime.
And it’s not just about the general look of a show. As I mentioned, blocking is a bit like an elaborate choreography. If you’ve ever watched a fantastically animated fight scene but you just couldn’t quite keep up with it because there was so much happening on screen, that’s blocking. A good director knows where to put the important elements on the screen so that your eye will naturally go to them and they are easy to follow without the audience having to actively think about it.
Now, it can be that a director will make a fight scene confusing on purpose. To heighten tension, or make the outcome ambiguous for instance. There are reason to create a bit of sensory overload in your audience. But considering how difficult blocking can be, and how many directors fail at it, I tend to believe that it’s often a case of the director not quite pulling off the blocking.
And animation pauses an additional challenge in this regard. Detailed storyboards can help a lot. Detailed storyboards are one of the most important parts of anime crafting in my opinion and I’m always amazed when a production says they don’t use them. To be fair that’s very rare. Unfortunately, unlike live action, you can’t just somewhat easily reshoot a sequence in order to move a lamp or pack the extras of the left side of the screen instead of the right. You can manipulate the light or literally paste on another layer but that’s going to mean more animation, more storyboards, more time and money. It’s not a medium where you can just “try something”.
That’s why when you see an anime that has these beautifully composed shots that look like they belong in a magazine spread or something, and that has precise movement where you can pick out tiny little gestures that betray a character’s inner thoughts or personality without looking for them and you know exactly what’s happening no matter how much is going on on the screen, that’s a sign of a very good director. It means the production took all of those things into account more or less from the start. They took the time and care to figure and plan it all out so it would end up so smooth and fluid that the audience wouldn’t even notice all the work that had been put into it.
I think that’s pretty amazing. Do any of you pay attention to the placement of stuff in anime? I always feel like I’m the only one who cars about this type of stuff. The thing is, when it’s done right you don’t really notice it so it’s difficult to talk about.