Friday, December 5, 2008

Re-definition of “Limited Animation”

Re-definition of “Limited Animation”
Makoto Shinkai is a Japanese independent animator who does his work individually. The 5 minute animated short “Their Standing Points” released in 1999 is his first stunning animated film, for its extremely high visual quality and the unique style of storytelling. When it was reported that the entire film was actually made all by one person, the studio CoMix Wave began investing in his independent animation. This risky investment is finally justified by the success of Shinkai’s feature film in 2004 “The Place We Promised In Our Early Day.” Till now, Shinkai has done a huge amount of animation on his own using his original process of animation making to impress the audience. In his works, he creatively uses his photorealistic backgrounds, precise digital effects and cinematic camera angles to construct a special world that is derived and recreated from his aesthetics of photography, and based on his impression of the reality. This process also helps Shinkai achieve a great quality both visually and narratively with less amount of work. Compared to the big studios in western animation, Shinkai’s process can also be similar to the theory of “limited animation” which allows the filmmakers to make more money by costing less. However, his creativity in using the modern techniques redefines this theory, with his visual aesthetics that seems unbelievably complicated to achieve nowadays, making it possible to be done by one person. Being the leader of using “limited animation,” the western animation industry has now been shocked and satirized by Shinkai’s inventive workflow, both conceptually and technically.
Any type of animation requires visual movement from frame to frame, so theoretically the more frames it involves, the better quality the animation has. That is why the pioneer animators, such as Winsor McCay and Emil Colh, spent months and months, drew more than a thousand of pictures only for making a 10 minute animation. Making a animated film was extremely time-consuming process for animators at that time, so “for economic reasons, TV series are made as simply as possible from the animation point of view.”(Whitaker 10) Especially after the TV became popular, animation studios wanted and developed a theory in order to produce animations in a more efficient and economical way. This theory is named “limited animation,” which “is a process of making animated cartoons that does not follow a ‘realistic’ approach.”( Namely, it allows the animators to use the simplified drawings and lower number of separate frames to accomplish a same amount of work and lever of visual quality. Such an approach could be sighted clearly in Disney’s animations, the UPA animations, and some comedy animations like South Park, Simpson and Family Guy, as well as Makoto Shinkai’s.
Makoto Shinkai is famous for his ability to depict numerous tiny details from the reality to the backgrounds for all of his works, whereas in the western animation, such detailed paintings require a huge amount of work. That’s also why the visual quality in his works has always been appealing, but backgrounds in films are regarded as a part of time-consuming work and need to be devalued based on “limited animation.” However, as Shinkai mentions on his art book The Sky of The Longing for Memories, he explains that the process of his backgrounds making is actually for reducing his effort. As Fig. 1 indicates, firstly he takes a photograph from a real scene, and it would be uploaded digitally to his computer; then he uses color corrections on the photo to get an image that owns a desirable color palette for the scene he needs; to convert this image with his style into the background, he also draws right on top of the photo so that the textures would look painted by brush and the detailed objects would be captured easily; finally he removes anything unnecessary on the image and adding a sun light using the Adobe software called After Effect to complete the background. In fact, this process that he invents is very logical, efficient, fast, accessible and original. Compared to the Disney studio, the studio system wants some professional employees to work on the visual development to decide a style, some for the draft making, and some for the actual painting and coloring for the background. This Hollywood mainstream method obviously takes a much longer time and more money in terms of employment, art supplies, and uses of computers and machines. Comparatively, Makoto Shinkai’s invention of his process of background making can save more time and effort, and requires only one individual to work on it.

Fig. 1, Shinkai, Makoto, The Sky of The Longing for Memories , Japan: CoMix Wave Films, 2008

Makoto Shinkai is also able to depict the detailed movements in every single place for his scenes, and this depiction gives all of his static images a realistic feeling. Teamwork is always suggested in western animation industry for a better quality in films, as the idea of “full animation” requires “that every single frame of the 24 frames within the second is animated in order to achieve an illusion of fluidity on the screen. Neither time nor money is spared on animation. As a rule only, TV commercials and feature-length animated films can afford this luxury.”(10 Whitaker) From Disney’s traditional style to Pixar’s 3D style, the western history in animation proves that the more delicate animations work better if using “full animation,” namely it is the more amount of work that does a better job. However, Shinkai creates a method disproving this theory for creating and accomplishing a reality on screens. In almost all of the shots of his films, he does not let the big objects, such as the characters and the cars,(see Fig. 2) move, rather he intends to animate the background, the volumic light or even the shadows.(see Fig. 2) Having the leaves falling down, the sunlight flashing and the hot steam rising up, Shinkai immediately turns his still backgrounds to be lively. The subtle change of the little objects, that are always ignore or simplified by the “limited animation,” gives Shinkai’s works an extremely natural feeling, so that the audience unconsciously regards the images as complicated animations. Achieving the same high quality that requires a huge amount of effort by groups of people, Shinkai successfully cheats on the audience’s eyes and their visual impression by depicting the subtlety in daily life and human’s vision through the screen.

Fig. 2, Shinkai, Makoto. Other Voices., Date Unknown.

Being able to create the atmosphere within each scene, Shinkai also uses his aesthetics of photography to help himself quickly begin this process, while the pre-production is still a big part of the rich companies’ filmmaking process. Since he works directly on digital photos, he again reduces the time of designing a set for his storyboard. At the same time, the use of photography allows him to easily capture images with different times, seasons, weathers and proportions in different lens, as well as to easily create a collection for future to select shots with different angles. However, rich studios nowadays, like DreamWorks and Pixar, have more inclinations on just spending money on researches and testing, as they pay the visual development and photography workers to draw numerous pictures with distinct styles just for filtering the least favorable styles and get the best one. This western mainstream process can be also described as a “luxury(10 Whitaker)” use of “full animation,” for their great awareness of the audience impression and taste. In comparison with Shinkai’s method, he skips this process, and merges the long workflows of choosing a style and the layout into one, directly jumping to the middle of the production. Such a distinct choice of making animation is also not similar to the theory of “limited animation,” as it mostly suggests reducing the time and money by limiting “the amount of movement,” repeating “the motions routinely,” and “constructing the movement with fewer individual frames.”(Bulter 336) The emphasis on simplifying the look of the character is devalued by Shinkai, and he rather turns the focus onto the look of the entire image in his films. That’s why the use of photography becomes significant for him to begin the work quickly.
Under the influence by Hollywood live-actions, the camera angle in most “limited animations” tends to be one style and on one eye level to “not follow a ‘realistic’ approach,” ( whereas Shinkai’s animations always change the camera angle with different emotions and purposes, using the composition to express his and the character’s feelings at that moment. Fig. 2 is from the beginning of his film “5 centimeter per second” where the main characters are introduced. Looking back to the traditional Disney style of introducing a character, the protagonist Cinderella was introduced by shooting her in the center of the frame. Centering the character would result into a great amount of work in animating the movement of the characters like her body, birds and the bed. Shinkai makes a decision on not showing the characters right in the middle, but rather putting them far away in the right corner of the background.(see Fig. 2) Hence the character can barely be seen in this frame, so he again uses the aesthetic of photography in this image, directing the audience’s attention, from left walls to the middle, and finally to right side where the characters are. Because the roads are generally declining from the left the right, the characters tend to have more gravity in this composition and the viewers would look down to them naturally. This process of using the composition to tell the story is extremely economical but successful, for it only uses one single background and only a subtle animation for the falling leaves. Meanwhile, this economical composition expresses a feeling and atmosphere of that particular moment, when is very quiet, peaceful and beautiful. Plus the details on the light and shadows behind the little characters, Shinkai wants the viewers to see them far away just like normal people walking on the street, rendering a sense of reality in viewers’ mind. His economical intention does not just “not follow a "realistic" approach,” but also reuses it to establish a method of presenting characters in his own way.
As the most influential factor changing the animation’s history, computer technologies have also helped Shinkai to build up his own style of “limited animation,” especially on backgrounds and final compositing. As he mentions on his art book, he uses the 3D software to build a model and render the outlines of the shapes, then he uses the lines for compositing the backgrounds. 3D graphics are much easier to make sure the proportion is correct when there is a scene not possible to find through photographs. By using 3D, Shinkai is able to get any angle he needs to present images with a realistic feeling, combining the use of photography. This method largely reduces the time for drafting and is very convenient to do later adjustment, as well as allowing Shinkai to save the 3D model as footage for later use. Compared to the American animations, the most popular animations after “Toy Story” all became the fully 3D generated animations instead of the traditional animation before. Even the “limited animation” is still alive as it also uses 3D to help the animators to reduce the effort, such as South Park. In the interview at the, it mentions that “To duplicate that analog jumpiness today, the animation crew employs Adobe Photoshop and Maya. “It’s incredibly fast,” says Stough. “It used to take three months to do a show. We’ve gotten it down to six days.”(Driver, Therefore, it is believable that the 3D technology in western industry has become one of the most important media for them to actually render the images, while Shinkai just takes it as a tool to improve the speed of the process as well as the quality of the imagery compositing. Nowadays technologies also give a huge opportunity to Shinkai to work individually, as the computer and software programs are getting more popular and affordable. The easy controls in Adobe software have as well allowed him to creatively utilize any effects from either the field of animation or the live-action, creating a much more realistic feeling. Light effects, layer masking, camera movement and lens blur used to be extremely hard to achieve even in “full animation,” but the computer technologies have now been capable of doing all of these. Having used and juggled with the combination of the 3D, 2D, photographs and effect software, Shinkai’s works own "the ability of combining poetry, art, and technical skills with animation and new technologies; a touching and deep-rooted story; and a model direction. Every element of the movie, from the screenplay to the editing, is realized with great professionalism and inspiration.”(
“Limited Animation” also thinks that “Animation is expensive, non-animation is cheaper. So to keep the films lively the plots are usually carried along by means of dialogue.”( The western animation, especially on TV, has a strong inclination of using dialogue to keep the story going without drawing too much difficult motion on characters. However, Shinkai indeed uses dialogues, but at the same time, he uses his editing style to keep the story going with a specific emotion throughout. In the picture examples, the last five minutes of the film has mostly shown shots without the characters’ frontal faces, and that is completely violating the Hollywood style of storytelling that is commonly considered as the golden rule of filmmaking. His editing style sometimes contains the point of view of the protagonist, the extremely low eye level shot, legs of the characters, half second of one shot and 5 shots in 2 seconds. This unusual way of editing creates not only the feeling of Shinkai’s vision, but also forces the audience to touch from the special world in the story. Therefore, he is using the repeating of backgrounds to express the emotions at that particular moment without drawing frames to let the characters act or speak. Such an invention also reinforces Shinkai’s creativity to find every single possibility for enabling him to complete a film with great quality individually or with the least amount of work.
In the eyes of Makoto Shinkai, there is no impossible effect or feeling to create. In his original process of making animation, there is also no absolute disadvantage of reducing the effort. Even though “limited animation” has influenced a large group of animators and studios to produce their works through simplifying the reality and stylize the characters, Makoto Shinkai uses his unbelievably intelligent creativity, and his spirit of making economical animations to invent a brand new method of creating an animated film, through the technologies, the personal style of vision and the cinematic language, with the least amount of effort.

1, Whitaker, Harold. Halas, John. Timing for Animation, Focal Press, 1981
2, Butler, Jeremy G. Elevision: Critical Methods and Applications, Routledge, 2007
3, Shinkai, Makoto. The Sky of The Longing for Memories . Japan: CoMix Wave Films. 2008
3, 01-22-2008. AnimeNewsNetwork. 01-23-2008 .
4, Spiritus-temporis. Unknown date. .

The Power of The Unusualness
A grandpa with a huge white beard sits in the foreground of villages, playing chess with his grandson. Behind them, there is a landscape of an urbanized city, full of grey buildings with shinning neon lights. Everything looks peaceful until the trains crash together and create a lot of smoke, but the grandpa is still slowly trying to pick up his chessman. Then a UFO comes across them and flies into the city, sucking people up, but the grandpa and grandson are just paying attention to their chess. Even when Military airplanes start flying across the sky with rumbling noises, and one airplane throws a bomb creating a big explosion and a big hole in the city, the grandson still waits for his grandpa for his next move on the chessboard. Finally, as one airplane throws an atomic bomb down in the center of the city, the entire screen goes white due to this explosion. After the screen fades back in, the whole city in the background gets totally destroyed except the sky and the ocean. The village in the foreground is still the same, as the grandson and grandpa are playing their chess, enjoying their life. At the same time, some ducks come in, walking and quacking.
I was really touched and a bit shocked when one graduate student ran to me after seeing the screening of this piece, and said: “I like your animation, I really like it.” The excitement shown on her face told me that she really did. As an animator, I’ve never felt so encouraged because she seemed to have received my “signal,” and understood it. Since the traditional storytelling always makes me sleepy, I intend to create a personal style that speaks to me in my story. However, because the traditional style in Hollywood excites most people and indeed produces a lot of successful examples, I always felt pressured that my audience would not be patient with my experimental story. Therefore, such a simple and positive response from her satisfies all my expectations on this technically complicated, conceptually ambiguous and experimental project. My attempt is to explore more stylistic possibilities in animated films, and to seek some original ideas of storytelling through animation to communicate with the audience.
This school project “G136” is the second film that I’ve created and the only one so far that represents my experimental spirit with my own animation both technically and stylistically. The way of storytelling in “G136” can be described as two straight lines: one stands for the destructive events on the city, and one stands for the peaceful life of the grandson and grandpa in the village. These two “lines” go straight in the same direction but never intersect. Practically speaking, a war story should never talk about a suburban life, but a thought like this is very conservative to me. I intentionally looked for an appropriate way of combining the two in order to develop this parallel relation into a more interesting story.
The idea of this “two lines” structure began one day when I was trying to think of a funny story for my animation class. I was sitting on my chair, struggling for the entire two hours while having only one hour before class. Suddenly as I remembered the moment when I laughed at the spectators’ simultaneous reaction to the ball in a tennis match, I had a brainwave about my story. The unique funniness in this moment is that the insiders do not notice their simultaneous reaction to the ball, and I found that reaction very comical. I loved this unusual funniness and was hence inspired by it to explore further for my project.
“So what other occasions are funny like that?” To catch the attention, the story usually has a funny, overt and extreme content, so I brainstormed an amount of combinations that could make me laugh when coming across my mind, such as fairy tale characters plus the UFO. However, it’s a weird feeling when I laughed at something that makes no sense and is irrelevant to any kind of culture. This “brainwave” mysteriously and evilly affected me to laugh, as the funniness comes out nowhere logical or reasonable. Based on all these strange combinations, I began developing short stories for each one. Ultimately I got to the idea of having a contrastive image that a grandpa and grandson are playing chess while the big urbanized metropolis is being destroyed by different disasters. I was impressed how this contrast is visually funny, but at the same time, makes me think even more for the “why.”
Normally no one would like to see strange and random things unless there is a purpose, as I used to believe. However, by having composed the draft for the first panel in my storyboard, I noticed that I was wrong about this theory. I kept laughing at the weirdness that fully saturates my drawing: Grandpa with a huge white beard contrasting to grandson with no hair; a huge explosion that is frightening the entire city, but not the grandpa and grandson; ducks walking through after the atomic bomb. This first image contains all the random ideas that were totally generated with no specific implication from my mind. I used my instinct to create contents in the composition for the sake of entertaining myself firstly.
Thanks to this instinct to visualize, I was able to, in a very short time, develop this composition in an absurd way: This absurdity was not logically created, but emotionally or instinctively trashed. Although the composition might look incomprehensible or even meaningless at first sight, through a longer time, it gradually becomes a very articulate and purposefully structured image. This observation immediately inspired my next decision: letting this composition last a longer time. I risked doing that for two reasons: it works well visually; secondly, there is only 15 minutes left before class. In fact, I later found out that the experiment of having one single shot going on the entire three minutes is technically very difficult and dangerous to achieve, but I still said “I love challenging myself before graduation” due to my obstinateness. The issue of the ducks, as I thought, would be complaint by the audience, but not many of them mentioned it even if it truly came from my random thought. Unexpectedly, by extending the time, the composition gets visually much more interesting and stronger so that it enables the whole image to look like a well-thought-out plan.
Successfully and luckily, my emotional instinct and rational attempt arise the absurdity with a deeper and more compelling thought. Thanks to this unintentional absurdity, my film has never failed to at least surprise the first viewers. Instead of developing logic within my story, the film simply presents moving images about a grandpa, a grandson, trains, airplanes, bombs and ducks on an unreal background. None of these subjects has absolute reasons to appear in the film necessarily, but the gathering of them has an unknown charm, that I was excited with, to interact with the audience. This charm is the attitude of my film that forces the audience not to be passive about what is being shown, but rather to read and to give themselves a second thought. “Why are the grandson and grandpa not reacting to the disasters?” and “Does the duck have some meanings?” were the questions I intended to throw out from the absurd events. However, it is also a resultant of the fact that I looked for some excuses to deal with my nervousness with this experimental exercise. Therefore, for me, as an animator, I take my film as a multifunctional project which firstly satisfies my personal curiosity about the “unusual funniness” in animation, and secondly challenges me to keep this animated film away from being meaningless or boring to the public.
My selfishness of exploring the “unusual way” for making a funny animated film hence allows me to try making a film differently, but also gives me an unconscious guiltiness. I keep hearing people questioning the reason and purpose of this project, including the meaning of detailed elements, and some people think that my concept is very pretentious after knowing it. Unfortunately, I have been an obstinate person so that I would never regret what I’ve decided and been excited about. Indeed, public opinions affect my thought and confidence throughout the whole time, so I often feel sorry, even at the moment of the first screening of “G136.” However, I convert my guiltiness into my strong motivation and belief in confronting with the technical problems for this film.
Unlike live-action film, animation needs the animator to work on creating everything that would appear on the screen. “G136” challenged me the most on the background painting, the airplanes’ modeling, explosion effects, the timing, the entire composition and rendering. This experience meant that I’ve only finished 1% of my film when the composition was planed out. There were more than ten technical issues complicating all the ideas that I had before. I owned ideas that might have been added to the scene, like a tsunami, a volcano, a robot and many crazy subjects in my original storyboard, for presenting more amounts of distracting events to raise the contrast within the composition. In the process of achieving this project, I gave up so many of those possibilities due to the technical difficulties. Nevertheless, I still kept myself open to the new, simple but good ideas, such as the most random subject in my film: the ducks. Although this practical issue limited a bunch of my original ideas, thankfully afterwards, I realized that this obstacle enables me to send my focus on the process of the presentation, rather than on what to be presented.
“G136” is the title made at the very last moment before the deadline, and it’s actually the name of the lab’s number where I’d been working on my film. One student raised his hand after my screening, saying: “Why is it called G136?” “Because this film is about randomness, so why not just keep up with it?” I was surprised how fluently and confidently I was speaking about this to the entire 100 audiences, while my real reason for giving this title was just that I almost forgot to do so until the last moment. This experimental project is challenging and risky, as it could have become meaningless if it fails to make people laugh. However, I am glad that I did not follow my logic to complete this film, not for the success of winning the laughs and compliments, but simply for the fact that the original inspiration, the brainstorming, the technical approach and the conceptual presentation are all derived directly from my mind. Based on this experimental project of exploring my way to tell a story, I succeed to communicate with the audience visually, as well as myself. I’d rather play chess everyday in the countryside, not being contaminated by the world that sees my “unusualness” as “the rest.”