Great animation is amazing. Good animators can make two-dimensional drawings move and feel like they’re real. The clip above was animated entirely by hand by one person. If animation like that interests you, you might be a sakuga fan.
“Sakuga (作画) (lit., “drawing pictures”) is a term used in anime to describe moments in a show or movie when the quality of the animation improves drastically…”
The sakuga fandom searches out, appreciates and discusses great 2D animation. This article will help get you up to speed on what great animation is, how it’s made and where you can find it.
A compilation of animation that includes work from the people and media talked about below.
A Brief History of Animation
Traditional animation is approached differently around the world. However, two of perhaps the most popular sources are Western studios like Disney or Dreamworks and Japanese studios like Ghibli or Madhouse.
Western 2D, or cel, animation (named for the transparent sheets called cels that animated characters were drawn onto) gained popularity in the early 20th century. This was largely thanks to studios like Disney who revolutionised the animation process. Disney’s animation was simple and comedic at first. However, in Snow White, the world’s first feature length animated film, the studio used what they had learned in short animated films to do something different- placing importance on smooth movement and expressive, more realistic characters. Film reels generally play 24 frames a second, so Disney films are often animated at 24 frames a second to create this sense of fluid movement.
Animation from Disney’s Fantasia.
In most Western animated films, each character is assigned a supervising animator who leads a team of in-between, or clean-up, animators. The supervising animator will direct the animation for their character and often draw a lot of their key frames. Clean-up animators will draw inbetween frames and sometimes key frames for their character (usually in less important shots). Key frames are the broad movements a character goes through. For example, if a character is eating an apple, the key animator might draw a frame of them raising it to their mouth, one of them biting down and three of them moving the apple away and chewing. Inbetween frames are drawings that go inbetween key frames, connecting them to make an action look more smooth.
Simply put, key animators are responsible for how a character moves in a shot. The best key animators will draw as many frames as possible to add detail. Notice the way Peter Pan’s feather sways realistically, or the subtle way his right arm responds to movement in the rest of his body in the gif to the right. Another way of creating believable movement, especially in early animation, was to trace over footage of actors playing out a scene. This process is called rotoscoping.
Snow White’s movements in this clip are rotoscoped.
A team of animators nicknamed The Nine Old Men were integral in developing animation techniques at Disney.
Click on their names to see some of their work.
Two of the Old Men, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, wrote a book detailing Disney’s production methods and most importantly their “Twelve Basic Principles of Animation” . These principles were techniques developed by the animators that they believed produced good animation. Disney’s use of these principles had a significant impact on how animation was produced worldwide.
Left: An illustration from Johnston and Thomas’ book The Illusion of Life explaining one of the Twelve Principles, Squash and Stretch.
Animating anything, making flat objects move believably, is difficult and time consuming. One second of animation often takes weeks to produce. Look at how animator Milt Kahl renders the fabric of Roger’s coat and how it bends around his figure in the gif below.
Western animation experimented with different styles in the late 20th century. Ex-Disney animators Don Bluth and Richard Williams focused on preserving older styles of animation and fluidity respectively in their animation. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit cel animated characters interact with live-action actors. Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings uses rotoscoping extensively. The British films Watership Down and Plague Dogs use choppy animation that complements their grim art style. Something that characterises Western animation as a whole, however, is that character focused (as opposed to action focused) animation is prioritised.
A sequence from Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH (1982). Bluth is a former Disney animator who worked on movies like The Rescuers and Robin Hood. His works retain Disney’s rougher animation style from the 1970s.
On the other side of the world there’s the Japanese animation, or anime, industry. Early anime was heavily influenced by Disney. Cute, exaggerated characters and an emphasis on smooth movement were imported straight from the West. As anime gained popularity, manga (Japanese comic books) series like Astro Boy were given animated adaptations. Because of this connection, drawing techniques and styles used in manga became widely seen in anime.
As demand for anime increased, its production became different to what was practiced in the West. Animation in anime is generally choppier- 12 frames a second is the standard for anime shows and films to help facilitate weekly episodes. To make it less time consuming voice acting is recorded after the animation is finished. This makes lip syncing less exact than in Western works where the animation is often influenced by voice actors’ performances. Japanese animators also draw all moving elements in a shot as opposed to one character, giving individual animators more control over a scene. These differences helped push anime to focus on stylized action as opposed to realism.
The 60s were anime’s early period. Osamu Tezuka, nicknamed the Godfather of anime, started producing animation in this decade. Shows like Astro Boy, Tiger Mask and Speed Racer were some of the most popular of the 60s. Animation in this era is generally choppier than what we’re used to seeing today, but some animators like Hayao Miyazaki and Keiichiro Kimura began to made sequences that involved complex camera work and choreography unseen in Western animation.
The 70s saw an increase in the popularity of TV anime. The careers of animators like Yoshinori Kanada and Kazuhide Tomonaga began in this decade and their work helped popularise complex action shots. Hayao Miyazaki began his career as a director on the 1970s TV adaptation of the Lupin III manga and directed The Castle of Cagliostro, the second movie in the franchise. The film was a critical and commercial success and its popularity helped to usher in an anime revolution in the 80s.
The revolution in the 80s saw tv shows like Dragon Ball and films like Akira being released to global popularity. This coincided with a growing prevalence of more complex animation from a new generation of animators. Toshiyuki Inoue, Shinya Ohira and Hiroyuki Okiura are just some of the eclectic and memorable animators whose work gained prominence in this decade.
This revolution continued into the 90s with shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop that experimented with genres and archetypes. Animation styles diversified in these decades, bringing realist animators like Hiroyuki Okiura, action animators like Yutaka Nakamura, abstract animators like Shinji Hashimoto and all rounders like Takeshi Honda to the fore front. The influences of animators from past decades like Yoshinori Kanada and Kazuhide Tomonaga could still be felt in this new wave of animators, who were often trained by them directly.
Today there’s even more variety in the way the animation can look in anime. Animators who began their careers on the internet, like Bahi JD and Ryo-Timo, have worked on big budget shows like Gurren Lagann and One Punch Man. These internet based animators are called the web generation or web-gen for short. Their styles are characterized by complicated, semi-realistic movements that feel like a mix between internet flash animation and classic anime styles. Many famous animators who worked in the 60s-90s are also still animating today. This has resulted in great diversity in the way anime can look and feel today.
A list of some great animators, their trademarks and examples of their work.
Milt Kahl– One of Disney’s Nine Old Men. He worked on almost every animated Disney film from Snow White to the Rescuers. Was the supervising animator for Shere Khan, Robin Hood and Roger from 101 Dalmatians among many others. He’s a master of virtually everything, having animated realistic and cartoony animation with a skill that often sees him recognised as the world’s best animator.
James Baxter– A modern Disney animator who supervised the animation of Rafiki in The Lion King, Spirit in Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and the traditionally animated opening to Kung Fu Panda. His characters usually have smooth physics and a soft, appealing visual style.
Richard Williams– An animator who’s best known for directing animation on Roger Rabbit. He made a well-known manual called The Animator’s Survival Kit and worked for over 30 years on a film called Thief and the Cobbler which is talked about more below. His animation style is extremely fluid without sacrificing detail, making it very time-consuming.
Glen Keane– Another modern Disney animator who animated several famous sequences in 90s Disney films. He key animated Ariel in the song Part of Your World, the pastel sequence in Colours of the Wind and the Beast’s transformation. He was the supervising animator of Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Beast in Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin among others. His characters often have behavioural or visual idiosyncrasies that make them stand out.
Andreas Deja– A modern Disney animator best known for animating Scar from the Lion King and Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. His characters are often villains but he has a lot of range and can animate characters with different tones very well. More recently he supervised the animation for Lilo in Lilo and Stitch and Tigger in Winnie the Pooh (2011).
Don Bluth– An animator who worked on Disney productions like The Rescuers and Robin Hood. He went on to found his own production company where he made films like The Land Before Time and An American Tail among many others, becoming Disney’s biggest rival in the 80s/early 90s. While Disney’s animation style became more rounded and soft over time, Bluth kept the rougher look of Disney’s 70s productions alive in his works.
This scene from Bluth’s All Dogs Go To Heaven probably wasn’t animated by Bluth but is an example of his style.
10 More Great Western Animators
Bruce W Smith
Jonathan Djob Nkondo
Yutaka Nakamura– Known for his work on Cowboy Bebop, the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime and Sword of the Stranger, but he’s prolific. He’s known for complex fight choreography and camera angles. He also likes to draw debris as cubes (although other animators have imitated this).
Shinji Hashimoto– Known for his work on Spriggan, The Animatrix and many other films. His animation has flowing movement that has a sense of realism to it. He often works with Shinya Ohira, another great animator, who also draws in a loose, sketchy style.
Mitsuo Iso– An animator who draws all the frames in his shots- he doesn’t use inbetween animators. His sequences tend to have movements that are highly detailed despite him using less frames per second than what is normal- a technique he calls “full limited animation”. He’s prolific but maybe best known for his work in Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Yoshimichi Kameda– My favourite animator. Came to prominence with his work in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and One Punch Man. His style is dramatic and manga-like with strong poses, dynamic camera angles and heavy inking used for emphasis.
Hiroyuki Imaishi– An animator and director mostly known for directing Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, talked about below. His animation is fast and frenetic. Shots he draws have a lot of crazy energy and characters are usually in zany poses in each of his frames.
Norio Matsumoto– An animator specialising in fight animation who is best known for his work in Naruto. His fights look very smooth and usually have fast choreography with a relatively simple visual style.
Yoh Yoshinari– An animator maybe best known for his work in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. His animation is smooth and his trademarks are complex one shot cinematography, geometric shapes and high energy.
Takeshi Honda– A prolific animator who’s done sequences in works like like Perfect Blue and Neon Genesis Evangelion. His shots generally have realistic physics. A lot of the “walk cycles” of his characters are very realistic.
10 More Great Japanese Animators
Works Known for Having Great Animation
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann– A mecha anime from studio Gainax. Giant robots transform, combine and grow more powerful according to the willpower of their pilots. The animation is consistently great with few drops in quality. The last 4 episodes have such impressive animation that they were rumored to have cost 40% of the show’s budget. Its stand out animators are Yoh Yoshinari, Akira Ameniya and Sushio.
Fantasia– The third theatrical Disney film. It’s an animated music video for pieces of classical music. It has amazing animation, especially the Night on Bald Mountain section which has a depiction of the devil (animated by Bill Tytla) whose movements are meticulously detailed. You can get insight into the production of this section and discussion of its animation in this blog post, written by animator Andreas Deja.
Akira– A landmark anime from the 80s. It’s directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, who drew and wrote the manga it’s loosely based on. The film’s famous for its high quality of animation. More shots than what is usual for anime are 24 frames a second, mixing the fluidity of Western animation with complex sequences almost unique to anime. Even the backgrounds are nearly all multi-layered and intricate. At two hours it’s also longer than most animated films. The story is too complex to do justice to in a short summary, but it’s more than worthy of the animation it comes with.
Cowboy Bebop– A critically acclaimed anime series about a group of space bounty hunters. It blends sci-fi, film noir and Hong Kong cinema action with a jazz soundtrack. It follows bounty hunters on a space ship called the Bebop who get roped into adventures that often shed light on their pasts. Animation wise Yutaka Nakamura did some of his best work here. A movie based on the series was made with the same staff and it maintains the same high quality of action animation.
Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood– A recent adaptation of a popular manga series. Two young brothers attempt to bring their mother back from the dead and lose their bodies in the process. They become members of a government branch of alchemists as they search for the Philosopher’s Stone, which they believe can bring their bodies back. Animation wise this is where my favourite animator Yoshimichi Kameda got his big break. The series’ trademark alchemy is accompanied with lightning that Kameda draws in a way that makes it look fast and powerful. Fight scenes make smart use of characters’ abilities and are well choreographed. Even in non-action scenes the series has atmospheric lighting and staging that creates a noir-like atmosphere.
The Thief and the Cobbler– Animator Richard Williams worked on this film for 30 years before a studio heavily edited it and released it as a generic musical. The animation he got done however is extremely fluid and detailed. An edit called the re-cobbled cut was made recently that restores the film to close to what it was intended to be. You can watch and download this edit here. The film is about a cobbler who falls in love with the daughter of the king in an Arabian city. I don’t think the plot’s that interesting, but it’s a movie you watch for the complex animation as opposed to the story.
Works with Interesting Animation Styles
Mindgame-. A boy cheats death and goes on a rampage that ends with him being swallowed by a whale. There’s not much logical progression in the movie but it makes sense on an emotional level. Great animators like Shinya Ohira and Masaaki Yuasa (who directed the film) do great abstract sequences in it. The film is crudely drawn in some scenes, uses photos of real people in others and sometimes goes completely abstract.
The Old Man and the Sea & My Love– Two short movies animated entirely with oil paint on glass by two brothers, Aleksander and Dmitri Petrov. They’re adaptations of novels of the same name. The films look beautiful and the romantic visual style complements the stories.
The Lord of the Rings (1971)– Also known as Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. It’s an adaptation of thr first two LoTR books that uses rotoscoping for most of its animation. It received mixed reviews but its animation style makes the supernatural elements of the series feel appropriately threatening.
Waltz With Bashir– A film that uses a hybrid of cel and flash animation. It’s directed by a former Israeli army soldier. The film follows the director as he visits friends he served with during the Lebanon War. The movie animates recorded conversations the director had with his friends and flashback sequences to the war as they try to piece together everything they went through.
When the Wind Blows– A film that mixes cel animated characters with physical sets, making it a blend of cel and stop motion animation. It’s about a quaint British couple who survive a nuclear bomb blast and witness its after effects. It’s sad, but the couple’s ignorance of their situation makes it funny sometimes. It’s made by the same team who made The Snowman.
Animation Terms and Glossary
Key-frame– A frame drawn by a key animator.
Inbetween/Tween-frame– A frame drawn by an in-between artist.
Smears– When an object loses its shape in key frames to show movement it’s called a smear.
Impact frame– Frame inserted to emphasise an action. It’s usually stark black and/or white.
MAD– Stands for Music Anime Douga. Another term for AMV or Anime Music Video.
Animating on 1s- Animating at 24 frames a second.
Animating on 2s– Animating at 12 frames a second.
Animating on 3s– Animating at 8 frames a second.
Limited animation– Refers to the process of using less frames per second than is usual. Can be a stylistic choice or one decided by a work’s budget.
Genga– A rough drawing by the key animator that will be used to create the final cel frame.
Douga– The drawing that the final cel will be based off of.*
*As far as I can tell there’s some disagreement as to what the distincition between genga and douga is, but these definitions come from a source I think is the most reliable.
Websites & Blogs
- Sakugabooru– A huge database of Sakuga clips.
- SAKUGA BLOG– The official blog of Sakugabooru.
- Wave Motion Cannon
- Washi’s Blog
- Ani no Miyako
- Sakuga Powah
- The Vanishing Trooper Incident
- Sakuga Daichi’s Animation Report
- A Humble Professor– A great blog that focuses on animation. It has a great video about Milt Kahl’s animation in The Rescuers.
- Deja View– A blog run by Andreas Deja, a man I included in the great Western animators section. He writes about animation and posts pencil tests from Disney movies.
- Living Lines Library– A large collection of pencil tests from Western animators and films.
- 2D Traditional Animation– Another blog pencil tests from Western animated movies and it has info for aspiring animators.
- Ockham’s Toothbrush– A blog run by James Baxter, another animator in my great Western Animators list. He uploads pencil tests of some of his work.
How Anime is Made at JC Staff– A thorough behind the scenes look at how anime tv series are produced. While the series it looks at doesn’t seem interesting in my opinion you see the amount of work involved and the steps anime goes through from script to finished product.
Making of Little Witch Academia– Little Witch Academia is a short film directed by Yoh Yoshinari, a man on my Great Japanese animators list. This behind the scenes video isn’t as thorough as the one above but it gives you insight into how animators think. This clip shows how much thought went into a two second shot in the film.
Waking Sleeping Beauty– A documentary made by the producer of films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King about the Disney renaissance. It’s an interesting film that shows you how these films got made and you get to see animators in their natural environment.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness– A documentary about Studio Ghibli and its co-founder/icon Hayao Miyazaki. It takes place during the making of his “final film”, The Wind Rises. It gives you an insight into daily life at the studio and Miyazaki’s interesting character.
Extra Curricular with Hideaki Anno– In Japan taking extra-curricular classes is expected. This TV series asks celebrities to teach kids in one of these classes for a day. In this one animator and director of Neon Genesis Evangelion Hideaki Anno teaches the class about animation principles. It’s an interesting look at animation and the man himself.
10 Sakuga MAD Creators
Sakuga MADs are fan made compilations of great animation.
- Blue Sakuga
- Sakuga Daichi
- Hobbes Sakuga– My YouTube channel
- KCG Upload
- My list of all the Sakuga MAD Makers I could find
Pencil Tests and Demo Reels– Over 100 pencil tests and demo reels from Western animated works.
keyframe animation– A playlist of over 100 pencil tests and storyboard sequences from anime series’ and movies. Includes some sakuga videos.
Animation– A general animation related playlist I made. Mostly has videos about the behind the scenes of animation and animators themselves.