Sakuga Espresso is a daily column about appreciating great animation in a format short enough to be read along with a shot of Espresso. ☕️
What makes a scene stand out? How do the drawings convey emotions?
Join us as we breakdown what makes stunning animation.

Illustration by Guillaume Carobbio

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Sakuga Espresso #8 – Lupin the 3rd (1971)

What I find most interesting about this clip is how little it actually shows us. This clip from the 1971 Lupin the 3rd is only seven seconds long, and has seven cuts. Easy math tells us that each cut only lasts on screen for a second, so it’s quite fast. But when you actually watch the clip, you realize that a lot of these smaller ‘subjects’ (as we will call them) are even faster than a second, given that the bulk of the scene is a slow motion slash taking up half the run time.

That being said, the speed is only one factor. What I mean by “how little” is how the camera hones in on those subjects. A springing foot. Lupin and Jigen, diving through the air. Goemon slashing with his katana. A single, hairy hand landing. Finally, Jigen rolling to safety as Goemon slashes through an airborne tatami mat. The way I’m writing it might make these subjects sound inconsequential, after all, on their own they would be. But in this context, it actually paints a very comprehensive picture of the situation.

In sequential art, this is referred to as an subject-to-subject transition. And what is anime if not sequential art? In order for this type of transition to make sense, we have to consider what happened before, and what happens after. It promotes the understanding that these actions are happening in response to, or because of what is occurring out of frame. As such, it encourages audience participation as each subject must be added together like different ingredients that make a whole.

Given this, the scene reads as Lupin and Jigen preemptively moving to escape Goemon, being quick on their feet and diving out of the way. But Goemon is so deadly that the two just barely make it in time. That danger is suspended by the increased spacing between each drawing, creating a slow-mo effect of the tatami mat being cleaved clean in two. 

So what makes this scene impressive if this is all par for the course in cinema? It is actually here that we return to the speed in which it all occurs.

One of the strengths of animation is how little it needs to be on screen to convey its message. Even though both live action and animation are displayed at the same frame rate of 24 frames per second, actions that take only a few seconds to complete take a massive amount of frames, where animation can display a similar (if not the same) action with only a few frames.

Our animator Osamu Kobayashi (小林治, for clarification) leverages this advantage to make this scene feel more intense. He even sneaks in expressions of glee on Lupin and Jigen’s faces as they jump (something that would be next to impossible to capture in live action).

But nothing about this scene feels rushed. We are allowed to breathe as we reach the pinnacle of the action. It’s a combination of framerate modulation (which we’ve mentioned before in a previous Sakuga Espresso!) and elegant storyboarding by Tameo Kohanawa.

Displaying action is one thing, it’s another to make it exciting! 

So what makes this scene impressive if this is all par for the course in cinema? It is actually here that we return to the speed in which it all occurs.

One of the strengths of animation is how little it needs to be on screen to convey its message. Even though both live action and animation are displayed at the same frame rate of 24 frames per second, actions that take only a few seconds to complete take a massive amount of frames, where animation can display a similar (if not the same) action with only a few frames.

Our animator Osamu Kobayashi (小林治, for clarification) leverages this advantage to make this scene feel more intense. He even sneaks in expressions of glee on Lupin and Jigen’s faces as they jump (something that would be next to impossible to capture in live action).

But nothing about this scene feels rushed. We are allowed to breathe as we reach the pinnacle of the action. It’s a combination of framerate modulation (which we’ve mentioned before in a previous Sakuga Espresso!) and elegant storyboarding by Tameo Kohanawa.

Displaying action is one thing, it’s another to make it exciting! 

Sakuga Espresso #7 – Ping Pong

I think sometimes we forget that good animation does not have to be flashy or lavish to be considered good. Yes, an objective element of technicality does have a large influence in the value judgement of a piece, but technicality and flashy are not the same thing. Sometimes a more basic approach with respect to the fundamentals goes a long way. Case and point, today’s cut from Masaaki Yuasa‘s Ping Pong.

The most important thing for food to do is to look delicious. But a lot goes into making the image of food invoke the viewer’s sense of taste. First, it must look good to the eye!

One of the first things you’ll notice in this cut is the movement. Fingers slowly kneed and fold the dough, giving way to new colors. What’s key here is the placement of the movement in the frame, especially since this shot pans upwards to another pair of hands performing a similar action.

Our first set of hands occupies a space that divides the frame into an equilateral triangle. Taking up one third of the screen space, the placement of the bowl and dough cloth behind the hands help extend this shape and balance the composition. As the camera pans up, the second pair of hands comes into view, but this time taking up the space in the triangle to the left. To completely balance out the cut, the folded dumplings are placed onto a try on the far right side of the screen, the last unused triangle.

This sequential showcase of movement gently leads the eye around the screen. During the course of this one cut, each sector of the frame is used with a subtle, but well planned efficiency. So even if you weren’t craving dumplings, you enjoy watching them being made.

The second piece of the equation is to make the food look like it’s, well, actually food. Looking closely at the textures in the composition, there’s a very strong relationship between the colors and lines of the objects onscreen.

Lines are used sparingly, giving objects shape, while the color is used to create depth. And since we instinctively look for color in food (veggies should be green, meats should be brown/red, etc.), it’s a much more natural way of depicting food.

So while it may not be the flashiest work of animation, or the most action packed battle scene, it is still an effective piece of cinema that incorporates a style and structure unique to animation! ☕ 

The most important thing for food to do is to look delicious. But a lot goes into making the image of food invoke the viewer’s sense of taste. First, it must look good to the eye!

One of the first things you’ll notice in this cut is the movement. Fingers slowly kneed and fold the dough, giving way to new colors. What’s key here is the placement of the movement in the frame, especially since this shot pans upwards to another pair of hands performing a similar action.

Our first set of hands occupies a space that divides the frame into an equilateral triangle. Taking up one third of the screen space, the placement of the bowl and dough cloth behind the hands help extend this shape and balance the composition. As the camera pans up, the second pair of hands comes into view, but this time taking up the space in the triangle to the left. To completely balance out the cut, the folded dumplings are placed onto a try on the far right side of the screen, the last unused triangle.

This sequential showcase of movement gently leads the eye around the screen. During the course of this one cut, each sector of the frame is used with a subtle, but well planned efficiency. So even if you weren’t craving dumplings, you enjoy watching them being made.

The second piece of the equation is to make the food look like it’s, well, actually food. Looking closely at the textures in the composition, there’s a very strong relationship between the colors and lines of the objects onscreen.

Lines are used sparingly, giving objects shape, while the color is used to create depth. And since we instinctively look for color in food (veggies should be green, meats should be brown/red, etc.), it’s a much more natural way of depicting food.

So while it may not be the flashiest work of animation, or the most action packed battle scene, it is still an effective piece of cinema that incorporates a style and structure unique to animation! ☕ 

Sakuga Espresso #6 – Jo Jo’s Bizarre Adventure: Golden Wind

Let’s talk a little bit about ‘being on modal’.

In animation, there are visual references that are established to help things looking consistent. Unlike live action films, the actors, sets, and scenery must all be drawn, and doing so where everything looks ‘as it should’ can be a monumental task.

After all without a semblance of consistency, characters would look different from scene to scene, maybe even unrecognizable in some cases. But it’s not only visuals that can suffer without these guidelines, tone and plot integrity can be jeopardized as well if the work doesn’t look polished and professional.

In anime, these reference materials are called settei (short for setting). Character designs/modals, architecture, and other important visual elements are drawn by the designer design team at multiple angles to give the animators a clear vision of what and how to draw what is needed. In this case we are going to focus on the character designs for Giorno from Jo Jo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 5, Golden Wind.

So why deviate from the designs that a painstaking amount of time and effort is put into keeping consistent? To figure that out, we need to ask, ‘What aspects of the animation are deviating?’ and ‘What does it do for the animation?’

Let’s talk a little bit about ‘being on modal’.

In animation, there are visual references that are established to help things looking consistent. Unlike live action films, the actors, sets, and scenery must all be drawn, and doing so where everything looks ‘as it should’ can be a monumental task.

After all without a semblance of consistency, characters would look different from scene to scene, maybe even unrecognizable in some cases. But it’s not only visuals that can suffer without these guidelines, tone and plot integrity can be jeopardized as well if the work doesn’t look polished and professional.

In anime, these reference materials are called settei (short for setting). Character designs/modals, architecture, and other important visual elements are drawn by the designer design team at multiple angles to give the animators a clear vision of what and how to draw what is needed. In this case we are going to focus on the character designs for Giorno from Jo Jo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 5, Golden Wind.

So why deviate from the designs that a painstaking amount of time and effort is put into keeping consistent? To figure that out, we need to ask, ‘What aspects of the animation are deviating?’ and ‘What does it do for the animation?’

The first thing we can notice is the added texture.

The characters on the screen appear coarse, almost scratchy. And even though it’s not ‘real to life’ per se, it’s an added layer that we can relate to. Involving all five senses is a challenge in cinema.

At the end of the day, all cinema is are images projected onto a two-dimensional surface, often accompanied by sound. Typically, taste and smell are ruled out (though not always) leaving visual, auditory, and surprisingly, our sense of touch. Perhaps that’s the reason the key animator, Takahiro Kishida, deviated ‘off modal’ – to further involve us as viewers in what’s happening onscreen.

This added texture also allows intricate details of muscles moving under the skin, or the malleable squishyness of Girono’s ear, to be captured in greater detail. Something that might have come off stiff in the highly polished and structured character designs that Jo Jo’s is known for.

Instead, Kishida leverages the stylization to draw out the action in a slow burn, little movements are made in a constant a consistent pulse like a drum roll that then pop or snap with a short bursts of larger movements.

This works especially well given the overlapping movements between the three characters onscreen. Standard practice with limited animation is to have only one subject move at a time, but instead we have characters clothes shifting, speaking, blinking, and ears popping all within the same span of time – just as it would if real actors occupied their space.

Since this is one of our first interactions with Giorno, the illusion that this character lives and breathes (or that we can imagine them living and breathing in our world) is a triumph of animation, character modals be damned!

The first thing we can notice is the added texture.

The characters on the screen appear coarse, almost scratchy. And even though it’s not ‘real to life’ per se, it’s an added layer that we can relate to. Involving all five senses is a challenge in cinema.

At the end of the day, all cinema is are images projected onto a two-dimensional surface, often accompanied by sound. Typically, taste and smell are ruled out (though not always) leaving visual, auditory, and surprisingly, our sense of touch. Perhaps that’s the reason the key animator, Takahiro Kishida, deviated ‘off modal’ – to further involve us as viewers in what’s happening onscreen.

This added texture also allows intricate details of muscles moving under the skin, or the malleable squishyness of Girono’s ear, to be captured in greater detail. Something that might have come off stiff in the highly polished and structured character designs that Jo Jo’s is known for.

Instead, Kishida leverages the stylization to draw out the action in a slow burn, little movements are made in a constant a consistent pulse like a drum roll that then pop or snap with a short bursts of larger movements.

This works especially well given the overlapping movements between the three characters onscreen. Standard practice with limited animation is to have only one subject move at a time, but instead we have characters clothes shifting, speaking, blinking, and ears popping all within the same span of time – just as it would if real actors occupied their space.

Since this is one of our first interactions with Giorno, the illusion that this character lives and breathes (or that we can imagine them living and breathing in our world) is a triumph of animation, character modals be damned!

Sakuga Expresso #5 – My Hero Academia

What makes Yutaka Nakamura’s animation so special ? There are a lot of potential answers to that question, but here’s mine : among other things, it comes from the incredible sense of fluidity his animation has. To put it in other words, it feels like his characters and effects don’t move and act in the same world as we do – they’re not really bound by matter, but are beings made of pure movement.

Bakugo’s flight here is a spectacular example of that : after a spectacular explosion, he just flies away like it was nothing, as if he was just carried by the wind. This is in part simply due to the number of frame he uses : most of this cut is either on ones or twos, meaning that each new frame, or one frame in two, has a new image. But Bakugo’s attitude itself gives him an air of ease, as if this was just some simple exercise : for most of his trajectory, he’s just standing straight in the air, as if we wasn’t actually flying – and it’s the background rushing by that informs us about his actual speed.

As if Nakamura was showing off himself, he also switches between very schematic and detailed animation : when the hands join, he uses heavy smears that make shapes disappear in favor of pure movement, but when the camera centers on Bakugo talking, every little detail is animated, from the little motions of his hands, his hair, and even his shoelaces. This gives a sense of realism, as we can feel the wind ourselves, but most importantly the impression that everything is moving : there’s not a single still image, but pure movement and fluidity. And even though we know that animation is a grueling work, Yutaka Nakamura’s power is to make it seem effortless, as if things were moving on their own and by their own energy. This feeling of ease and power is what makes him so special.

Sakuga Espresso #4 – Kizumonogatari

In animation, a line means everything. Take this scene in Kizumonogatari for example:

Panicked and afraid, Araragi’s gaze pierces us. He trembles until his panic overtakes him, clambering to get away. The action feels frantic. Part of that is due to the fact that animator Yuuya Geshi decides to contort Araragi’s outline, but I want to point out the smaller lines that assist the action. Speedlines are nothing new, they’ve been used since the dawn of animation, and before then in the still images of manga.

In animation, lines are the words that are used to convey meaning. Sometimes many words are needed to tap into the realism of an object. Other times profound thoughts are stated in simplicity. This concept is perfectly encapsulated in Yuuya Geshi’s cuts as just described. Too often the term ‘sakuga’ is all about movement, and while that’s not wrong, it’s important to remember that movement is often how and (more importantly) when lines appear.

But what makes Geshi’s next cut so visceral is how those lines evolve. Frantically, our hero (if he can be called that) flees. His limbs flail wildly, clawing at a chance to escape in a brazen display of pathos. His face sours from terror. All of this emotion is captured in the thickness of the lines that distort Araragi’s true shape. The lines bleed his hysteria, and give each action the perception of actual physical weight which only heightens the sensationalism.

Geshi’s depiction of running taps into a deep subconscious understanding that we have developed as a species: being able to guess what an object will feel like just by looking at it. This is a critical ability when it comes to discussing animation. Physical characteristics (like weight, speed, malleability, etc) as well as emotional characteristics (heavy, gentle, openness, vulnerability); all this information is conveyed with lines. In this case, the strength and thickness of the lines translates into the savageness of Araragi’s retreat.

Further punctuating the drama are closeups of Kisshot’s crying. As she lays helpless on the ground, abased and bloody, Kisshot’s face conveys her torture. But she stays beautiful. Relatively few lines touch her face in comparison. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition between using less lines and using many. 

Sakuga Espresso #3 – Digimon

Mitsuo Iso is an animator who perhaps needs no introduction. As soon as you start talking about Sakuga, he is probably one of the first names you think of and to good avail. He is the ambassador of Full Limited Animation, a method consisting of animating scenes only with key animation and no intervals. It is a habit he has taken from the flipbooks he used to draw as a child and through which he has learned to animate. This technique emphasizes movement, weight, and, combined with Iso’s care for detail, is why his style is referred to as “ultra-realism.”

To show examples of Iso’s style, people will commonly show some of the awe-inspiring action cuts he did, for instance, these scenes for The End of Evangelion or Ghost in the Shell.
But today, I would like to show how Iso’s ultra-realism translates when used for character acting.

I love Hosoda’s Digimon movie. It is among the last animes to use celluloids, which, coupled to the use of Kagenashi – the practice of not using any shadows for its characters – gives off a unique, flat aesthetic, putting forward the paint on the celluloids and the color palettes used.

You may notice in the scene that characters are always moving, even if only a little as a result of Full Limited. You feel the weight of Taichi’s body as he is trying to take a breath because of how detailed his shoulder move. The movement feels genuine and likely because each tiny movement and expression is exaggerated by the quantity of strong, key poses. You may particularly feel it when Hikari is out of breath and starts coughing and snorting; this shot feels more real than real because of the timing and detail of each frame and movement.

As such, it is to my eye a prime example of ultra-realism where exaggerated movement is perceived as likely, more-so even than real movements.

 

When watching Iso’s acting for Digimon, I can’t help but think of a previous scene he did: his cut for the climax of 1995’s movie Junkers, come here. When I talked about this scene with Iso, he exclaimed how hard it was to animate because of the number of drawings he had to produce.

You can notice how similar they feel—constant, subtle, but exaggerated movement highlighting the characters’ emotions and feelings. I like the accent that is put on the shoulders alongside each breath but also the detailed facial expressions. The editing is very well-timed as each shot – counter shot allows us to absorb the emotions spilled out by the scene.

I think these two scenes do a great job of demonstrating how the use of Full Limited animation enhances the feelings of the scene through a seemingly realistic use of exaggerated movement. ☕

Sakuga Espresso #2 – Yu Yu Hakusho

It is no question in my mind that animator Atsushi Wakabayashi (nicknamed Kaba-san by peers because that name is a mouthful!) embodies the aesthetic of anime. The way his characters dart in and out with smooth kineticism, from far in the background to right up into your face – it’s a feast for the eye! And as wild and frantic as it may be, it’s easy to follow yet at the same time, never predictable.

In order to achieve such fluid movement, Wakabayashi abandons character modals, leveraging a more rounded and simplified design to depict the subject from multiple angles in a single cut. You start to see this most around the 8 second mark, as the Masked fighter dodges Shishiwakamaru’s attacks, flipping into the distant background only to handspring back into the foreground. And even though the camera moves very little, and the background is relatively flat, there’s a tangible sense of the characters inhabiting a three-dimensional space.

 

Because of this we are drawn in. Wakabayashi transports us into the ring instead of merely viewing the spectacle from the sidelines. That’s powerful. Like being able to watch a basketball game while standing in the middle of the court. Characters have a perceptible volume instead of being flat images on the screen. This volume translates into weight, making each movement more meaningful to us.

What’s more is that Kaba-san is ever mindful of perspective. When the Masked Fighter flips into the air it is beautifully reminiscent of old Kamen Rider reruns, mimicking the blocking and camera placement. When Shishiwakamaru lands, not only does it feel psychically weighted due to masterful follow through animation, it feels emotionally weighted since it’s right in your face! This use of the foreshortened perspective adds more to the illusion of volume, and grabs you by the sholders and screams, ‘Hey this is a real person!’ even if it isn’t. ☕ 

It is no question in my mind that animator Atsushi Wakabayashi (nicknamed Kaba-san by peers because that name is a mouthful!) embodies the aesthetic of anime. The way his characters dart in and out with smooth kineticism, from far in the background to right up into your face – it’s a feast for the eye! And as wild and frantic as it may be, it’s easy to follow yet at the same time, never predictable.

In order to achieve such fluid movement, Wakabayashi abandons character modals, leveraging a more rounded and simplified design to depict the subject from multiple angles in a single cut. You start to see this most around the 8 second mark, as the Masked fighter dodges Shishiwakamaru’s attacks, flipping into the distant background only to handspring back into the foreground. And even though the camera moves very little, and the background is relatively flat, there’s a tangible sense of the characters inhabiting a three-dimensional space.

And because of this we are drawn in. Wakabayashi transports us into the ring instead of merely viewing the spectacle from the sidelines. That’s powerful. Like being able to watch a basketball game while standing in the middle of the court. Characters have a perceptible volume instead of being flat images on the screen. This volume translates into weight, making each movement more meaningful to us.

What’s more is that Kaba-san is ever mindful of perspective. When the Masked Fighter flips into the air it is beautifully reminiscent of old Kamen Rider reruns, mimicking the blocking and camera placement. When Shishiwakamaru lands, not only does it feel psychically weighted due to masterful follow through animation, it feels emotionally weighted since it’s right in your face! This use of the foreshortened perspective adds more to the illusion of volume, and grabs you by the shoulders and screams, ‘Hey this is a real person!’ even if it isn’t. ☕ 

Sakuga Espresso #1 – Ghost in the Shell

You are reading the inaugural of Full Frontal’s news series of daily animation articles, Sakuga Espresso! Our goal is to bring you, dear reader, a dose of anime appreciation timed just right to your morning coffee, allowing you to sip on both an espresso, and the sakuga. Today’s subject is Mamorou Oshii’s 1995 masterpiece, Ghost in the Shell☕ 

This whole cut is to help us relate to Motoko, to make her seem human. It comes as a contrast to the scene before it, where Motoko’s naked, robotic frame floats listlessly, skin being applied like it was an item in a factory. So here, the animation carries a great storytelling significance. After seeing her at her most inhuman, we now see her at her most human.

Our vehicle to peer into the character of Motoko Kusanagi, is through the mundane; waking up the next day and rubbing the sleep from her eyes. It’s a universally shared human experience. But since it is one we all are so familiar with, there’s a high expectation set for the animation to communicate how she wakes up. Subconsciously we will compare and contrast, taking notes on similarities and differences between the character’s routine and ours.

When Motoko first gets up there’s a very real sense of weight. The technique being used here is framerate modulation or the amount of time between each new drawing. When you first wake up you feel heavy, and slow. That’s very realistically depicted in this cut; Motoko’s lumbering entry from the bottom of the frame does well to emulate the feeling of raising out of bed.

Contrast that to when the light pours into the room from the open blinds: see how quickly and evenly that was animated by comparison? That clues us in that the awkward, almost clumsiness that we saw before was purposefully depicted. That it’s the character who is gauche, not the animation.

The remainder of the shot allows us to focus on the cityscape through the newly opened frame. This opens a dialog with the viewer about the definition of identity through one’s social surroundings, the thesis of the film. To promote this invisible discussion between the viewer and art, Motoko is reduced to a silhouette. However, there is a special care in the animation  to detail her humanity. She stands up, and her arm awkwardly swings at her side as she runs her fingers through her hair. She opens a door to grab her jacket, and we see her shadow on the floor.

But my favorite part is not until the very end of the clip. Against the light, we see Makoto don her jacket, and walk towards us, but just off frame, ending the scene. But as she puts on her jacket, we see a remarkable understanding and control of weight, texture, and how these materials move through space, not just in a 2 dimensional, but a three dimensional space.

Putting on a jacket is also a commonly shared human experience. It’s simple. Because the animation is so simplistic (remember, it’s still just a silhouette) yet detailed, I know (or have a pretty good idea) what that jacket feels like.

The way one sleeve hangs, the way it dangles, betrays it’s weight. The way we can still see the solid object of Motoko’s arm move through the flow of the fabric illustrates the lack of stiffness of the texture. And all of this is happening as she moves towards us, making that world feel real and immersive. Animation, at it’s most human!

This whole cut is to help us relate to Makoto, to make her seem human. It comes as a contrast to the scene before it, where Makoto’s naked, robotic frame floats listlessly, skin being applied like it was an item in a factory. So here, the animation carries a great storytelling significance. After seeing her at her most inhuman, we now see her at her most human.

Our vehicle to peer into the character of Makoto Kusanagi, is through the mundane; waking up the next day and rubbing the sleep from her eyes. It’s a universally shared human experience. But since it is one we all are so familiar with, there’s a high expectation set for the animation to communicate how she wakes up. Subconsciously we will compare and contrast, taking notes on similarities and differences between the character’s routine and ours.

When Makoto first gets up there’s a very real sense of weight. The technique being used here is framerate modulation or the amount of time between each new drawing. When you first wake up you feel heavy, and slow. That’s very realistically depicted in this cut; Makoto’s lumbering entry from the bottom of the frame does well to emulate the feeling of raising out of bed.

Contrast that to when the light pours into the room from the open blinds: see how quickly and evenly that was animated by comparison? That clues us in that the awkward, almost clumsiness that we saw before was purposefully depicted. That it’s the character who is gauche, not the animation.

 

The remainder of the shot allows us to focus on the cityscape through the newly opened frame. This opens a dialog with the viewer about the definition of identity through one’s social surroundings, the thesis of the film. To promote this invisible discussion between the viewer and art, Makoto is reduced to a silhouette. However, there is a special care in the animation  to detail her humanity. She stands up, and her arm awkwardly swings at her side as she runs her fingers through her hair. She opens a door to grab her jacket, and we see her shadow on the floor.

But my favorite part is not until the very end of the clip. Against the light, we see Makoto don her jacket, and walk towards us, but just off frame, ending the scene. But as she puts on her jacket, we see a remarkable understanding and control of weight, texture, and how these materials move through space, not just in a 2 dimensional, but a three dimensional space.

Putting on a jacket is also a commonly shared human experience. It’s simple. Because the animation is so simplistic (remember, it’s still just a silhouette) yet detailed, I know (or have a pretty good idea) what that jacket feels like.

The way one sleeve hangs, the way it dangles, betrays it’s weight. The way we can still see the solid object of Makoto’s arm move through the flow of the fabric illustrates the lack of stiffness of the texture. And all of this is happening as she moves towards us, making that world feel real and immersive. Animation, at it’s most human!