Why Does Old TV Anime Have Jerky Splices?

by Justin Sevakis,

K.o.R asked:

Why, on a lot of older anime series, does the picture appear to jerk sideways whenever there is a cut? It's noticeable on things like the original release of Evangelion, for example.

In the years before anime went all-digital, TV shows were edited entirely the "old fashioned way". Each shot was photographed on film -- usually 16mm -- as they were finished. Then the film was developed overnight at a film lab, the finished negative then printed onto a positive, and shipped back to the studio. An editor would then sit with the finished cuts and the timing sheet, splicing each cut into its proper place in the film reel.

16mm film, if you've never seen one, is tiny. While the film itself is 16mm (just over a half-inch wide), the actual picture is even smaller, and there's almost no space between the frames. All this is to say that splicing the film together physically, without seams and obvious marks giving away each cut, is pretty much impossible. You have to have SOME surface area to join together.

The "right" way of editing film, on 35mm anyway, was to make all of the edits on a rough-and-ready print of the film, joining each piece together with Scotch tape, and then to take the negative to a special craftsman, known as a negative cutter, who would carefully conform the original camera negative to whatever had been done to the work print. They would use special cement to delicately join each cut together, taking great care not to dirty or damage the negative. The final assembled negative would then go back to the lab for color adjustment, duplication, and the rest of the laborious process.

In the famously last-minute always-behind-schedule-and-over-budget land of anime TV production, that was all way too time consuming and expensive. What ended up happening was that only a single print of the negatives would be made, that print would be assembled, and THAT would be the only copy of the final film elements. In some extremely low-budget cases there would be no negative at all: reversal film would be used, which would be shot and developed and turn directly into a single positive print.

Splicing each cut together in a way that would hold was quite a process. It required carefully scraping each side of the splice, applying a thin layer of what looked like clear nail polish, and sandwiching two ends together until the glue cured. The speed at which anime was assembled meant using a "hot splicer" was mandatory. Hot splicers were a tool to make these edits that also included a heating element to make the glue dry faster. That heating element sometimes shrank a small area of the film slightly.

Why were TV series cut manually on film for so long? I've never gotten a good answer for that. OVAs were very often edited on video, which was far easier and had no such ill effects. (Movies, of course, had to stay on film, but usually didn't cut corners with the post-production.) The good news is that, due to the film elements being physically put together in this way, the archives of most anime TV series aren't too hard to keep track of and restore. That's partly why we've gotten so many HD restorations in recent years. (OVAs, transferred to video in pieces and assembled afterwards, can prove nearly impossible to reassemble today.)

The bad news is that, with this method, each splice is pretty visible now that everybody has a nice HD display. The hot splicer may have warped the frame surrounding each splice. The splice itself, being a conspicuous lump along the strip of film, would audibly bump and rattle the projector or telecine gate as it passed through.

The jumpiness has been alleviated somewhat by new scanning technology, and digital restoration can undo the damage to the frames caused by the editing process. But most shows will never get this treatment -- it's simply too expensive. And so, we're stuck with these big, ugly frames of splicing on most anime made in the 90s or earlier. What can I say, other than you can probably get used to it?

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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