Chicks On Anime
A Look at Key Animation

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, S. Pocock, Nov 4th 2008

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Casey is a freelance journalist, and also writes reviews for ANN.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.

This week on Chicks on Anime, we wanted to cover something a little different. Rather than talking about a general topic like fan art, or talking to someone in the industry, we wanted to cover something that many anime fans don't often think about—the faces behind key animation, and just how important it is to the medium we all love.

Our guest today is Benjamin Ettinger, the owner of AniPages, a valuable resource for fans about many of the most renowned animators and animators-turned-directors in the Japanese industry. He was generous enough to spend time with us and talk first about key animation, and also about some of the more well-respected directors whose roots are in animation. The first topic is being presented today, while the next one will be posted next week. There are also some clips to fan-made videos that highlight some of these animators' works, so you can really get a sense of what he's talking about.

This is a subject that's also very dear to Sara, our resident animator, so she took the reins this week and directed the conversation. I learned a lot during this talk, and I hope you will too!


Sara: I'd first like to start out by introducing Benjamin Ettinger, who is considered one of the North American experts on the subject of independent animators and keyframe animators in Japan. Can you introduce yourself, Ben?

Benjamin: Thank you very much. Let me see... Really, I'm just a fan. I'm a translator by trade (Japanese to English), and animation has been a passion for me for about the last 15-20 years. Animation of all stripes, not just Japanese. It started out for me with my discovering Akira and Nausicaä during high school, which got me hooked. I got involved with the anime club at my university, and it's basically just kept going from there.

Sara: What first drew you into auteur animators, and the kind of content discussed in AniPages? Or has it fascinated you from the beginning?

Benjamin: No, that is a relatively recent development. I was quite ignorant of the animation side of things—or at least, about the specific animators behind the work, up until just about five or six years ago. Really, I'd always been interested in the staff behind the work, but I'd focused mainly on the directors, because those are the easiest names to find information about. I think that accounts for why people in the West know a lot about directors and little about the animators. There just aren't a lot of interviews and such. That's partly why I made it a point to translate interviews with animators periodically on my blog, to rectify that.

Bamboo: Your website has a very detailed listing of some of the more renowned key animators in the industry. What is it, to you, that makes key animators unique from their in-between counterparts? Does their individual style help mold the works that they contribute to—or do the directors they work with help mold their animation style?

Benjamin: That's a chicken and egg question that's not easily answered in a few words, but I think there are elements of both at work.

Sara: I discovered your website in 2005, and it was the first time I ever really thought about anime in terms of actual animators. I was studying animation in college at the time, and while I knew the names of a number of Western animators, both on the independent scene and in the big studios, it was the first time I took a close look at the people who actually bring character animation to life in Japan. It's an aspect of anime that is often overlooked. Once you begin to learn some basic names and stylistic traits, suddenly work coming from a specific person begins to manifest qualities that isn't clearly noticeable to the untrained eye.

Benjamin: Yes, it's overlooked, and yet it's an integral part of the animated process, which I found to be a real problem with the understanding and appreciation of anime among fans over here. I came to realize that a lot of what I myself appreciated about anime had to do with, very specifically, the animation side of things, and not just the directing side or what have you.

Casey: I was a bit confused by the phrase "auteur anime" at first because I'd always heard "auteur" used in reference to a theory of the interpretation of films. But really, it seems that you're identifying a perspective on animation more than a type of animation per se. Would that be a fair characterization?

Benjamin: I think auteur is a misleading term and I wouldn't use it in this context, although I did on my Karisuma Animators page for the sake of simplicity. I like to believe that what I am talking about when I speak of differences between animators is a very concrete and objective thing. It's quantifiable.

Sara: Yes. There are a number of animators in the anime industry that have distinct traits in the timing and movements of their animation.

Bamboo: Upon looking at examples of key animator's works, one of the examples that some cite was the scene from Golden Boy episode 4 where Kintaro is swimming, a scene animated by Mitsuo Iso. What makes this scene different from "the norm?" What should regular fans look for?

Benjamin: For example, in the Golden Boy scene by Mitsuo Iso, there's a richness of movement there that is unique.

Bamboo: What do you mean?

Casey: Is that "richness of movement" really quantifiable? What are you counting here?

Benjamin: There's a truism equating the animator in animation with the actor in live action, and I think when we're talking about character animation, what can make a character really come alive is the imagination of the animator in coming up with a rich array of movement, or actions that bring alive what a character is thinking or feeling in that situation.

Casey: Isn't "richness of movement" an aesthetic category?

Benjamin: Not necessarily. Take one second of animation. We can create a piece of animation that consists of 12 animation drawings. The first and last are key frames, and the rest, animation drawings 2-11, are in-betweens that create a smooth movement between the two extremes. On the other hand, in another second of animation, you might have 12 animation drawings that were each drawn by the key animator. In terms of density of movement, there's the same number of drawings. It moves just as smoothly.

Sara: Yes, this is the point I was about to bring up. The vast majority of "mainstream" anime is animated in a Pose A-to-Pose B style, with few expressive keyframes and more work given to in-betweeners.

Benjamin: But the key animator, who is the one responsible for coming up with the actions of the character, is there filling the movement with ideas. When an action is merely in-betweened between extremes, you could say it's not quite as richly conceived. The example by Iso you cite is an excellent example of this.

Bamboo: But that richness—that's dictated by the director, isn't it? Or does the key animator have a certain amount of creative license with which to work with?

Sara: If the director is smart, he'll hire good key animators. Iso as an animator fascinates me, because of his attention to realistic timing. His work almost looks like it's rotoscoped.

Benjamin: That is precisely what makes Japanese animation so interesting. There is so much artistic license given to the animator. A creative animator like Iso can take a simple shot that was nothing in the storyboard: “character swims”—and turn it into magic that speaks through the animation and dramatically heightens the directing. In another animator's hands, that swimming scene might have been a throwaway shot that didn't elicit the kind of laughter it does.

Casey: But you just described two cases that have the same number of drawings. Isn't assigning more value to a clip where a key animator did all twelve frames than one where an in-betweener did ten a qualitative judgment? Can you dig deeper into what it is about the work of a good animator or director entails?

Sara: We're getting into kind of nitty-gritty details about the process here, but the more keyframes contained in a clip of animation, the better it will look. Especially depending on the skill of the animator.

Benjamin: First of all, I'd like to make it clear that I'm not dogmatic about animation. I enjoy Jiri Trnka's puppet animation, the brilliant animation of Disney movies, Oskar Fischinger's abstract films. There are different contexts.

Casey: Of course not. It's rare to hear someone talk about animation from a very production-oriented perspective, so I'm digging for specifics on purpose.

Benjamin: It's a great question, but a tough one. In the context of the shot we're speaking of, and in the context of character- and narrative-based anime, I think an important element is bringing characters alive, bringing psychology alive, and making characters connect with the viewers and elicit emotion or what have you. So in my mind, to an extent the audience has to believe in the character for the director's aims to be achieved.

Sara: Yes, but what is so interesting about the process in anime, like Ben said, is that the animators get so much free reign, compared to a Disney animator who is expected to follow the 12 principles to the letter, so his animation blends fluidly with the rest of film. You have animators in Japan that have a distinct, recognizable style, once you learn their "quirks."

Benjamin: And between a shot where a character is badly drawn and moving in a wooden fashion, and a shot where that character is shown to be moving in a way that suggests that a soul inhabits the character, there is all the difference in the world, and that difference dramatically impacts the final product.

Bamboo: So let me ask you something about artistic license, then. The three of us were discussing animation a bit before this conversation, and Yoshinori Kanada's name came up as an example of an animator whose style is so distinguished that others have used his style. Is that because he's a role model, and others look up to his style? Or is it something that directors can demand of their animators?

Benjamin: Yoshinori Kanada is an interesting figure. In a lot of ways, he's one of the fathers of all this stuff. I don't necessarily think he's unique, but he sort of represents what makes Japanese animation unique. It's definitely him who developed that style, of his own will. He developed a fan following because of the unique style he came up with. In turn, directors would call on him specifically, knowing the kind of work he did, integrating him into their projects in a way that best took advantage of their particular quirks. The climax of Genma Taisen (Harmageddon) is a classic case of this. Kanada drew the wildly morphing fire dragon that brings the film to such a thrilling climax.

I don't have a definite answer to why it is that a figure like Kanada, or any other Japanese animator, should have developed the way he did, but I think it has to do with the way the animation industry evolved in Japan. As Sara said before, there wasn't the sort of rigid teaching of a classical approach to animation in the industry, though there are of course schools now.

Sara: Right, and because this idea of individualistic animation is probably so new to some of our readers, I want to make sure that this point is as clear as possible. I think we should compare a few names and describe how their animation is specific to their style.

Bamboo: That would be terrific.

Sara: I was thinking about Shinya Ohira, first of all, since his animation style is so distinct. It will give our readers a clear idea of what Ben is talking about.

Benjamin: Ohira is one-of-a-kind. What more need be said? His animation says it all.

Bamboo: Well, to your eye, perhaps. But to a casual fan who's never really thought about key animation before, what is it about his style that makes his work pop out? Because many fans would watch FLCL and, say, Spirited Away, and not know that the same person was involved in both.

Benjamin: Ohira is out to thrill you. Basically, that's what I love about his animation. I equate Ohira with a great dance choreographer. He creates movement that simply gives you a visceral thrill that makes your hairs stand on end. Ohira has a lot of different faces. He started out making animation heavily influenced by another animator, then developed his own style. His work is based on reality, so that it convinces you, but he adds a sort of expressive interpretation to it that pushes it beyond the merely literal.

Sara: His keyframes are wildly imaginative and almost seem too disconnected to play out successfully in sequence. And yet somehow it works.

Casey: But you're describing a subjective impression here. You said there were quantifiable differences earlier. What can you show to a person who looks at that clip and says, "Meh. I don't see anything."...? Are there specific camera angles, types of shots?

Sara: I think what makes Ohira so interesting is his willingness to stray from model sheets and morph the characters into shapes that look strange when you watch it freeze-framed.

Casey: So dramatic distortion of the human figure?

Sara: That, but it's also a sense of timing. I realize I keep using this word and it's very animator-centric.

Benjamin: Well, a lot of what I love about animation is certainly subjective. I won't argue that. But Ohira certainly has traits... You can analyze any animator by the way they draw and their approach to timing. Ohira would use a more constant frame rate, while constantly morphing a character and adding lots of expressive, noisy touches to the image.

Sara: But it refers the rhythm in the time of the animation, rather than the drawings themselves.

Benjamin: An animator like Kanada would use a more erratic frame rate.

Casey: When you talk about erratic timing, would that mean something like 12 frames one second and only two the next and then maybe seven in the second after that?

Benjamin: The core feels very real, but it's as if covered in a sort of dense haze of lines and distortion that heighten the effect of the movement.

Sara: What would be your pick as the polar opposite of Ohira, Ben? So we have something to compare it to?

Benjamin: About the timing, when I say erratic, take a single second of animation again... There are 24 frames. Kanada might stick a drawing at the first frame, then the fourth frame, then three frames later, then five frames later. Other animators stick to a uniform rate.

Animators these days have gotten very good at manipulating the frame rate to achieve their effect, probably influenced by this sort of thing. It's hard to say who might be Ohira's opposite. Not exactly opposite, but someone like Toshiyuki Inoue is at the opposite end of the scale in terms of flamboyant idiosyncrasy. He is the picture of the professional animator who adapts his work to the project at hand, where Ohira is the picture of the artist who rams through his own vision.

Bamboo: In Japan, do these key animators have fan followings?

Benjamin: Yes, and Kanada is a good animator to mention related to that. He was one of the first who sort of accrued a fan following in the late 1970s, and he paved the way for the other idiosyncratic animators who came later. There's a whole interesting dynamic between the fans and the production side in the late 70s, early 80s in Japan that I think heavily influenced the situation today. Basically, this was the period when fans became more educated about the mechanics of animation, and began to lionize their herioes, be it Kanada, or Miyazaki.

Sara: Now may be a good time to mention the recent use of the word "sakuga" in this particular following.

Benjamin: Sakuga just means animation, really, but Japanese fans of this kind of talented animator have appropriated the word as an inclusive term to refer to any kind of interesting animation that kind of sticks out for its style or quality. I think it's kind of counter-productive to use cliquish words like that, so I've never used it myself.

Casey: What about the future of this sort of work? All of the animators discussed this far are male and, I would hazard, at least middle-aged at this point. Is there a place for new blood, or as some are suggesting, is there very little interest in Japan anymore? Or is the torch being passed to other countries such as Korea and Taiwan?

Benjamin: Traditional hand-drawn animation boasts a richer variety today than it ever has as far as I can tell. The younger generation in Japan are, against the odds, continuing to follow in the footsteps of this kind of animator. Every week I hear of a new young face who is producing animation that is obviously the product of his or her, and there are definitely talented women animators in Japan, past and present, eagerness to pursue interesting animation.

Sara: Especially when we have people like Yuasa, who seem to have a knack for sniffing out new talent.

Casey: So you two must be optimists when it comes to the state of the Japanese anime industry.

Benjamin: Definitely. You see lots of new faces flowering under the talent like Yuasa and Imaishi. I'm impressed with its vitality.

Sara: I know I am!

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