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. .

No comments: