Why Does Anime Rely So Much On Still Shots?

by Justin Sevakis,

Rafael asked:

In film, the camera is one of the most basic yet powerful tools of expression in a filmmaker's arsenal. As you are a film scholar, I'm sure you already know the power of a well-composed shot. My question is this: Anime relies a lot on static shots, largely for budgetary reasons (moving backgrounds, characters on a rotating dolly shot, etc. are hard to animate as perspective changes). There's not a lot of tracking/dolly/crane/steadicam shots in anime. Knowing how much the movement of the shot (or lack thereof) influences how the audience views a scene emotionally, how do you think has anime's reliance on static shots influenced its cinematic language? Do you think they've explored techniques in the static shot enough so that they don't have to rely so much on tracking shots to communicate the same emotions? I'm aware that there are numerous other things that affect the shot composition, but I wanted to ask about static shots specifically.

Moving the camera is actually something that didn't pop up much in motion picture history until relatively late. Early silent film cameras were bulky and heavy, and moving them was just too difficult. (You may have seen footage of a giant merry-go-round built for doing chase scenes in the silent era. The merry-go-round was for the actors and set, while the camera stayed on the ground.) This started to become less of a problem towards the end of the silent era, but then when talkies came the additional burden of the sound equipment and having to stay absolutely silent during shooting put a damper on adventurous camera technique. It took a long time for cinema to recover from the stiffness introduced by microphones. While cameras might have been able to shift around in place on a tripod, actually moving the camera, and the devices with which that could be done smoothly like dollies or jibs (mini-cranes for cameras) were things that had to be invented after that point, starting in the late 1930s. Hand-holding the camera was often too shaky until the Steadicam was invented, and that didn't become commonplace until the late 1980s.

Animation had similar limitations in that you could always move the camera, but doing so was a lot more trouble than it was usually worth. The low-budget nature of anime also meant that new inventions that made such things easier were slow in coming to Japan. Multi-plane animation techniques pioneered by Disney in the 30s and 40s (which you see as different layers of backgrounds panning across the screen at different speeds) didn't get used much in anime until the 1970s. And Japan pretty much skipped the early computer-aided drafting era of animation in the late 80s, not integrating computers into their workflows until early 2000s. So, for a very, very, very long time -- until the last decade, really -- anime creators were pretty much stuck with only the camera techniques they could draw by hand.

Luckily, this worked quite well when combined with Japanese filmmaking, which leans heavily on the Yasujiro Ozu school of long, still shots, with cuts to close-ups for dramatic effect, and cuts to random little asides (a piece of litter, a glass of water -- Ozu called these "pillow shots") as a rhythmic pause, as if the life of a scene is taking a breath. The technical limitations of anime and that style of filmmaking work very well together, which is probably why the art form is so heavily influenced by it, whereas Japanese live action filmmaking has long since moved on.

I think the economy with which the camera moves in anime tends to inherently give those shots more importance. A moving point of view shot happens so seldom, and the craft in which things move is so labored and clearly difficult, that it can't help but make an impression. It's similar to how body language is portrayed in anime: every twitch of a finger, every eye movement was a deliberate choice by the animators, and is important; it's never because an actor had a fly land on them or has an itch. That extra motion doesn't happen very often, so when it does, we take notice, and try to observe why it's happening. It adds meaning to a scene.

There are still moving camera shots that take my breath away: hand drawn ones like the subway shoot-out in Kite, or the opening shot in The Heroic Legend of Arslan. There are moving camera shots that make me chuckle because they couldn't quite pull it off, like an early scene in Black Magic M-66 where the camera chases two people running through the woods, and the perspective of all of the passing trees gets completely screwed up. Even Paprika, which was an all-digital work, made innovative use of changing perspective in several shots, to breathtaking effect.

Lately, I think some of the best, most pioneering work in terms of changing-perspective animation can be found in some of the insanely intricate swimming scenes in the current season of Free! That show is visually mind-blowing, even if all of the exposed flesh in that show does nothing for you. And that's to say nothing of all rapid camera movement made possible by the recent advancements in cel-shaded 3D, like in Land of the Lustrous... although to be honest I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

Thank you for reading Answerman!

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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