Post #2 in a 5 part blog series, uploaded every week (previously every 2 days), where I:
- Share 3 Songs
- Write a short article about animation or the animation community
- Ask 3 questions
- Share 5 images
- Share 5 sakuga clips
I’ve realised a few things since Sunday. For one, bi-daily doesn’t mean what I thought it meant. It means twice a day, not once every 2 days. But it sounds right so I’ll keep the name lol. Also the number of clips/songs/images I share is a rough number, I’ll add more on some days.
The article today is long, well over the limit I gave myself. It has a pretty in depth analysis of a sequence in Akira and a discussion about how relevant the 12 principles of animation are when analysing great animation.
Akira & The Principles Of Animation
What do non-sakuga fans say are examples of great animation? In my experience, Todoroki vs. Midorya and James Baxter’s shot in the Stephen Universe movie are often mentioned. When asked why they’re well animated people usually say one of two things. Either “It looks smooth” or “It looks detailed”.
The question of “What is it that makes a cut of animation great?” is one that we can’t answer in a narrow way. We might as well ask “how do we make great art?”. There are broad, often vague answers that talk about artistic techniques or principles. But it’s a stretch to say that every shot of great animation followed the same set of rules.
Despite this there are two often talked about supposed trademarks of great animation. One, that great animation uses more frames than bad animation (an opinion more popular outside the sakuga fandom). I’ll call this the “more frames” view. And two, that great animation uses the 12 principles of animation effectively (an opinion more popular inside the fandom). I’ll call this the “12 principles view”.
Here’s an argument you might see from the “more frames” camp:
“Animated films run at 24 frames per second (i.e. every second of an animated film is made up of 24 still images). Disney films look smooth because they put a new drawing in every frame. Anime is animated at 12fps, they only put a drawing in every 2 frames. This practice of using less frames is called limited animation and this is why anime looks choppy. Moments when anime breaks out of limited animation (when it’s animated at 24fps ) are called sakuga.”
This is only partly true.
Here’s something a believer in the “12 principles” view might say:
“There are 12 principles of animation, set out by Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas in the book The Illusion of Life. These principles gives us comprehensive guidelines that we must follow to create great animation. The principles are:
- Squash & Stretch
- Straight Ahead Action & Pose to Pose
- Follow Through & Overlapping Action
- Slow In & Slow Out
- Secondary Action
- Solid Drawing
All great animation uses these techniques in appropriate ways to create an illusion of life.”
(Read more about the principles here)
This view is more comprehensive and useful than the “more frames” view. However, its questionable whether either accurately describes what makes a certain cut of animation great.
We can test these ideas by analysing the bike chase sequence in Akira.
Click the video and press the “” keys to go through the animation frame by frame. Frame count is on the bottom left and shot count on the bottom right.
Akira is often advertised as combining the 24 frames per second fluidity of Western animation with action only seen in anime (example). This scene in particular is often cited as an example of great animation. Let’s see if we can find evidence that supports the “more frames” or “12 principles” view in this sequence.
- Animation on 1s– There is a new drawing on every frame- i.e. the animation runs at 24 frames per second. This kind of animation is often used for fast motions.
- Animation on 2s– There is a new drawing on every second frame- i.e. the animation runs at 12 frames per second. This kind of animation is often used for moderately paced or slow motions.
- Animation on 3s- There is a new drawing on every third frame- i.e. the animation runs at 8 frames per second. Animation can also be on 4s, 5s etc.
- Selling– Making an action feel convincing. For example, “Drawing fire on the soccer ball when it was being kicked really sold the power of the kick”.
- Moving Hold– A kind of follow through animation where a character doesn’t perform a new action but the last action they perform has frames added to it so the character doesn’t appear still.
This sequence is 23 seconds long, comprised of 12 shots and 562 frames.
(Note: The gifs play at 40% of the original animation speed for the sake of clarity)
This is an tracking shot where the camera follows Clown gang members’ approach to a tunnel. This is animated entirely on 1s as the riders, the ground beneath them and effects like the bike headlights are redrawn in every frame. While the tunnel entrance is a static background drawing (it only pans to the left) the inside of the tunnel is animated. Our perspective of the inside of the tunnel shifts slightly in each frame.
A plume of dust, kicked up by the bike on the left, creates anticipation and emphasis for a burst of speed. The speedburst is also given power by the traffic cones kicked up by the bike which fly into the camera, leading into the next shot.
Speedlines on the road add great ambient detail. They’re animated on 1s and carry into all future moving shots. The clothes on the riders move believably with the wind. The omnipresent background animation takes into account quick changes in perspective brought on by the speed-burst. For example, the white dividing line becomes more sharply curved at the 2 second mark as the riders cross the road. Lastly, the traffic cones rotate with convincing 3-Dimensionality as they fly into the screen.
Kaneda’s gang move from the background into the foreground and from screen right to screen left. Eight searchlights behind a background plate move in different directions as the traffic cones from the previous shot fall into the background.
While the ground, effects and background are still animated on 1s, Kaneda and his gang are animated on 2s. The Clown gang, who moved on 1s in the previous shot, appear more skittish in comparison. Kaneda’s gang move more slowly, more confidently into the shot. They are visually distinct from the speed of the background animation as they move at a different framerate. The circular flash from Kaneda’s headlight at the end is on 1s, reintroducing a sense of speed as it switches to the next shot.
This is the first time we see several framerates used in one cut.
A Clown gang member throws a molotov cocktail into the camera. As in cut #2 the background is animated on 1s and the riders on 2s. As it did for Kaneda’s gang, this effect makes the rider stand out from the background. This makes his movements feel more deliberate and readable. The rider tests the liquid in the cocktail, swirling it around in his hand and showing it off to the camera. He brings it close to his chest before throwing it behind. Parts of his animation at the apex of his throw are animated on 1s, making the action of throwing look faster.
Ambient details like the wind blowing through the clothes of the riders and the focal rider easing slowly into the shot enhance the appeal of this cut.
Kaneda’s gang rounds the corner as the cocktail explodes on the road. This is still a moving shot. The background, cocktail and explosion are constantly moving away from the camera. Anticipation for the explosion is created by the animators changing up the framerate. The cocktail flies through the air on 1s but falls to the ground on 2s. Similarly Kaneda’s gang enters the shot on 1s and go to moving on 2s at the same time the cocktail does. This creates a subtle slow down of the action right before the explosion to give it more impact.
An impact frame lasts for 3 frames before the explosion erupts on 2s, illuminating the tunnel around it.
A quick shot where the camera follows Kaneda’s perspective as he drives through the explosion. The animation is entirely on 1s. Background parallax is visible through the flames. As the explosion gets closer the flames climb higher, making them appear more violent. This zoom in on 1s feels especially fast when juxtaposed with the explosion on 2s in the previous shot. While the animation of the explosion on 2s in cut #4 created anticipation effectively, the animation on 1s here shows the ferocity of the fire.
Kaneda rides through the flames and puts his foot out to skid his bike to a halt. The fire is animated on 1s. The plume of smoke goes from moving on 1s to moving on 2s, telling us that the smoke is settling. In the beginning of the shot Kaneda angles his body and tenses his leg in anticipation of putting his foot down.
He rides through the flames on 2s (making him visually distinct from the fire on 1s), swerves his bike to a stop on 1s and puts his foot out to steady himself on 2s. The complex timing highlights the speed of the swerve and also the effort made by Kaneda to slow the bike. This is also the first non-moving shot (although there is a hard to notice zoom out here), further selling the the suddenness of the stop.
The change in momentum brought on by the stop is highlighted as Kaneda steadies himself on the bike. This shot probably wasn’t necessary, but adds to the power of the sudden shift in momentum. The speed built up by Kaneda in the shots before is seen in full force here. Sparks fly off Kaneda’s face and bike as he slams into place, scattering and filling the screen.
The timing of the animation is irregular, highlighting the awkwardness of the sudden stop. Kaneda enters the shot on 2s, jerks forward from the momentum on 1s, attempts to regain composure on 2s, rises on 1s then goes into a moving hold on 2s. This timing makes the stop feel harsher as putting the jerking motions on 1s make them too fast to notice. If this cut was all on 1s or 2s there would be less emphasis on the important motions- the stop would have less oomph.
The smoke is animated on 2s, making it distinct from Kaneda. Another nice detail is that Kaneda’s goggles refract the light from the sides of the tunnel. There’s also great secondary action shown in the physics of his hair.
Extinguishers on both sides of the tunnel try to put out the fire. This is my favourite shot in the sequence. The cut is animated entirely on 2s. The smoothness of the extinguisher fluid isn’t created by a fast framerate. The initial burst of fluid is given emphasis by the spray pattern that blossoms out from the nozzle. As the streams of fluid meet in the centre, they don’t fall to the ground straight away. The streams coagulate and grow larger in the centre before branching out. This is how the animators show the thickness of the fluid. Globules form and peter off from the jets in every direction, including upwards. The jets of fluid aren’t pristine either as messy globs keep breaking off from their body. These artistic choices create the texture and fluidity, not the framerate.
The thickness of the fluids is juxtaposed by the indifference of the plume of smoke. It’s built like a large tree, with its roots (base) and branches (apex) filling the screen at the top and bottom while its trunk is skinny, making the actions of the extinguishers more readable. The smoke is made up of bulbous clouds that become larger as they float towards the top of the screen. The only visible effect the fluid has on the fire it that some of the “bulbs” of smoke near the converging fluid break off and float independently of the main plume. These design choices make the smoke appear strong and menacing, an effect made stronger by the harsh orange light of the tunnel.
This cut is a great example of fluid feeling animation that isn’t on 1s.
We see the fire has been brought under control by the extinguishers and Tetsuo rides out of the pool of fluid. The smoke and fluid are again on 2s while Tetsuo moves on 1s. As before, this makes him visually distinct from the effects. Everything that was said about the effects animation in the last cut can be said here. A difference now is that the fluids build up at the bottom of the screen and not the centre. The globules that come off the jets of fluid are bigger in this cut, showing us that the fluid is winning the fight.
A reaction shot of Kaneda watching Tetsuo emerge from the fluid. Even an unremarkable shot like this has detail animation. A still shot of Kaneda would have worked here. Instead Kaneda doesn’t just do one action, or have one motion arc. He lifts his head, takes his hand off the handle to look to the side, then begins to relax his body as his eyes follow Tetsuo.
Fluid flies off Tetsuo and his bike as he rides across the screen. The background pans on 1s while Tetsuo and the fluid move on 2s. By having Tetsuo move at the same frame rate as the fluid (note that Kaneda and the flames in cut #6 moved on different framerates) the fluid appears to weigh Tetsuo down.
The fluid on the windscreen and front of the bike peel off more gradually as the liquid sticks to the chassis. The fluid on the sides of the bike and on Tetsuo’s body comes off more easily as it has less to hold onto. Tetsuo’s body language helps sell the uncomfortableness of the fluid as he writhes in discomfort- only sitting up fully as the fluid comes unstuck. The bike also subtly rotates as Tetsuo crosses the screen.
Tetsuo rides off into the background. This closing shot mirrors cut #1. Tetsuo follows the same motion arc as the Clown gang in cut #1 and also moves from screen right to screen left. Light trails from the tail of his bike reintroduce the sense of speed taken away by the explosion. Even the fluid splashing onto the ground sells a sense of speed. The splash to the right of the camera frames Tetsuo in the background nicely- it almost looks like the splash is propelling him forward.
So how useful were the “more frames” and “12 principles” views when analysing these cuts? While there’s a lot of animation on 1s, some of the most impressive cuts are on 2s and many cuts have different frame rates for different elements. We can see that not all great animation is 24 frames per second.
Using less frames can make a shot feel more intricate and deliberate. Many shots in Disney films are animated on 2s or even 3s. The authors of The Illusion of Life say that many actions don’t need to be on 1s (The Illusion of Life, Page 65). Don Bluth’s films are almost always animated on 2s, the standard anime frame rate, and still appear smooth. It seems like fluidity in animation isn’t necessarily dependent on the framerate.
Almost all of these great shots are animated at 12 frames a second or less. The only exception: less than a second of the Jungle Book clip (just after Bagheera lands) is animated on 1s.
While I referenced the 12 principles when analysing the cuts in Akira, the principles by themselves come up short when trying to pin down what makes each shot great. There was a specific kind of anticipation, or timing or secondary action that made the animation in the shots great. The 12 principles are arguably broad enough that we can see aspects of them in all animation. What they don’t do is define exactly what kinds of staging, what kinds of anticipation etc. are effective. While The Illusion of Life goes into how Disney utilised the principles, the authors didn’t foresee how films like Akira could use these principles in wholly different ways. To fully understand great animation we need to do more than show that it follows the 12 principles. We need to understand how the principles are used and identify other choices the animators made that may not correspond neatly with any one principles.
Neither view can give us a full understanding of how to create great animation.
They do give us useful jargon we can use, however. There are clearly benefits to animating on 1s and animation on 1s can go a long way in making a cut feel smooth. See James Baxter’s animation, which is almost always on 1s.
The 12 principles bring attention to effective techniques in animation. It’s hard to imagine talking about any piece of animation without making reference to them in some way. The 12 principles view shouldn’t be discarded for being too broad but should be taken into account with other views on animation principles. Teachers like Richard Williams or Tonika Pantoja talk about the importance of other principles like flexibility or momentum for example. We can also borrow film language by talking about cinematography, lighting, types of lenses and so on. By taking into account different perspectives on how to create great animation we can arrive at a more complete understanding as to why some shots of animation are well made.
It’s too narrow to say that all shots of great animation follow certain rules. The 12 principles can guide animators to a broad understanding of how to create great animation, but no one view is sufficient when describing how great animation is made. We should look to broaden our language when analysing cuts of animation- appreciating all the choices an animator made and the effects they have on the shot.
- What are the most important principles of animation?
- Is the language we have now enough to analyse great animation or do we need to create more terms to be able to describe animation techniques accurately?
- What are the biggest benefits of animating on 2s and 3s?
6 Sakuga Clips
Turn on subtitles to see the list of sources & animators.
The song used is Goodness by Emancipator.