Morphing cuts and sequences involve the animated transition of a subject from one form to another. These are pretty complex on the basis that they take many factors into account in order to deliver the appropriate amount of impact that is required for the scene, episode, or even the entire series. What makes these so difficult to grasp is the lack of homogeneity between them. There is no stylistic precedent set for animating morphing due to the fact that how it is tackled is largely reliant on the nature of the piece it is a part of. To gain a better understanding of morphing animation’s role in the anime we love, we must look at the animation principles they hone in on, alongside how they incorporate the themes of the story being told.
Even without a perfect formula for morphing, the technique focuses heavily on how shapes are manipulated throughout the transformation period. How the subjects move are also influenced by how they are timed within the sequence they play a part in. I highly recommend Matteo Watzky’s article on Timing and Spacing for a more in-depth insight into these fundamental principles of animation. In this piece, I will be taking a look at how these can be applied to create brilliant morphing sequences!
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Attack On Titan #31 contains a great display of these principles. The video demonstration shows how the scene (animated by Erika Nishihara & Kyohei Tezuka) relies heavily on the shift from 2s to 1s, making Eren’s transformation come across as unearthly and potentially intimidating. The Titan is composed of smaller shreds of flesh which mostly circulate off-camera to conveniently connect with the head which rapidly grows on the edge of the frame. By animating in 1s, his anger becomes amplified by the freakish sense of urgency and rapidity, an impressive illusion created by the timing being used. By contrasting between 1s and 2s, the abnormality of the transformation stage becomes much more apparent, reminding us how absurd ‘Titan shifting’ is as an idea, but also how the growing form is a reflection of the character’s desire for strength at the specific point in time.
The latter half of the sequence progresses from exclusively synthesising muscle to growing skin and hair; from here, a more straightforward, layered approach is taken. What I find so engaging about Nishihara and Tezuka’s sequence is that it is one of the few moments in the series which provides us with an insight into a Titan’s anatomy, by showing how and where the bones intersect with the muscle layer, as well as how the skin coats over the body so quickly. Morphing sequences, in some instances, have the potential to take us to places we have hardly been before. Those who make these moments work (animators and storyboarders) can expand the horizons of the viewer from the visual level.
Unlike the one we will explore next, Nishihara and Tezuka’s sequence concentrates predominantly on the transformation of an individual subject. This puts it in a great position to exemplify the unique composition of Eren’s Titan form. The big thing to take away from this cut is that this type of animation has the ability to zero in on smaller details that make up a bigger whole. But as I said before, the next cut tells a very different story.
Morphing scenes are not limited to displaying external transformations. Famous key animator Yoh Yoshinari, who requires no introduction to sakuga fans, demonstrates how the technique can reflect one’s internal dynamic. By manipulating not only the subjects we see on our screens but our sense of space and distance too, Yoshinari effectively reminds us of what Gurren Lagann is all about in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann: Parallel Works #08.
Yoshinari’s morphing sequences are driven by his vibrant approach to shape. By constructing the entity with irregular shapes that protrude outwards, Yoshinari is able to take apart one form and rebuild the next almost seamlessly. The entire sequence, which was done on paper, primarily moves in 2s and 3s, while the critical transition points are animated on 1s to hastily shift between camera angles. This allows us to view subjects from unique and surprising places. Collectively, these features allow us to comprehend the core concept of Imaishi’s mecha-action series: the infinite potential of living beings that flows within all of us. The animator’s cut is a testament to how embedded these themes are within every corner of the anime.
Yoshinari put together a visual experience that dominated the entire screen from the beginning to the very end, ultimately tapping into the hyperbolic tone of the anime. The animator’s cut sets itself apart from most morphing sequences out there in the way that it takes the viewer to the scene of the transformation, as opposed to typically observing it from the outside. In short, he took morphing to another level.
A similar idea was also communicated in one of Yoshinari’s older sequences within Neon Genesis Evangelion #26. Although the cut would appear much tamer in comparison to his work on Gurren Lagann, Yoshinari’s way of morphing here is still underpinned by his personal concept of shape and timing. Each and every frame works towards the goal of establishing the upcoming form; the complete form is used as the base for the next and the cycle continues, just like his Gurren Lagann cut that would come into being over a decade later. The beauty of Yoh Yoshinari’s morphing work comes from his ability to constantly keep us guessing as to how he will string each item together and unsurprisingly he manages to deliver every time. The flexibility and fluid nature of this only adds to one of the central philosophical debates of the anime: what is the nature of human existence? Yoshinari provides us with a concise answer to this question within a few seconds of animation – our existence simply has no limits.
Morphing is much more than a technique – it is an art. An art that allows the viewer to understand how significant the fundamental components of animation are to any scene, no matter how complicated it may look. From the layered approach of Nishihara and Tezuka, to the unpredictability of Yoshinari, morphing cuts are a reminder that animation is largely informed by the narrative and context they find themselves in. Animation staff go to great lengths to ensure that every cut taps into the overarching story being told and these are no exception.
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