Sakuga Espresso is our 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 expresso #14 – Yu Yu Hakusho

We’ve talked about the idea of “off-model” on this series before : to ensure that, in a show where different animators with different styles work together, the visual identity stays the same, the anime production process has some special measures. One is the animation director : often the character designer, he corrects all finished cuts to ensure that they’re good enough and all follow the same style ; another is the characters models. Each animator works with detailed character sheets made by the character designer which he refers to when he’s drawing.

However, sometimes, the animator doesn’t respect the character sheets, and the animation director doesn’t do corrections. That’s often intentional : by allowing the animation to go off-model, the animation director lets the animator’s personality completely express itself. That’s a double-edged sword, because some viewers might react badly to the different style of some scenes, and unknowingly call that “bad animation” because it’s not consistent. On the other hand, going off-model lets the animator more freedom to play with shapes and create dynamic movement. That’s precisely the case of this cut from Yu Yu Hakusho, animated by Shinsaku Kozuma.

The show’s character designs are normally very angular, especially Hiei’s, whose face is just a triangle. But in this cut, Kozuma totally disregarded it, and Hiei becomes completely circular. His face and ears get rounder, and in the first shot, he stretches on the frame in an almost unnatural manner – which helps, however, make his running more dynamic. 

As the camera faces Hiei, this becomes even more pronounced : he jerks from side to side in an elliptic movement, his open mouth makes a big circle, and even his spiky hair becomes curved and less pronounced. As he runs to attack, his body becomes almost gelatinous and seems to lose its consistency – but his movement stays fluid, which is apparently the animator’s priority here. If you add to this the stark contrasts in lighting (blue/red and black/white) and the much more angular fire effects of his attack, you get a cut that uses strong oppositions for the sake of expression. 

While off-model and this kind of wobbly animation are surely disconcerting, that’s precisely their strength : they surprise the viewer, and end up leaving a strong impact, which is what sakuga is all about.

Sakuga Espresso #13 – The Tale of Princess Kaguya

One of the defining characteristics of The Tale of Princess Kaguya is how textured the entire film is. The climax of the titular princesses’ emotional journey is brought to life an amazing scene by the animator Shinji Hashimoto. The young Kaguya flees her home in a furious sprint. She is is angry, hurt. But how do we know that?

Part of it is the story/dialog contextualization, but I would argue that the actual emotion lies within the texture of the lines. At the same time, animation is the story. How something plays out, the actors on screen, the actual story only plays out if it is drawn. With animation, the animator is an actor, a cameraman, an artist, the special effects crew, and (last, but not least) a storyteller.

So let’s examine the clip:

Nothing in this shot seems stabilized. The camera is bouncing, almost struggling to keep subjects in frame. We cut to the moon as is fights (and fails) to stay centered. The ground shifts, straying up and down from the lower third of the picture. Princess Kaguya becomes reduced to a flailing, geometric figure. Her run is frantic, crawl-like, animalistic. It’s instinctual, without a goal, with no focus other than just running.

The background/foreground is inconsistent. The Princess is lost, and must stay lost. Where the frame to stop, it would allow us a viewers to orient ourselves, take in our surroundings. But that is the message of the scene; it’s all too much for Kaguya to take in at once. Her home changes. Her social circle, shifting. Shes maturing into a woman. So much has happened in the film up until this point. Her surroundings are never the same. As she navigates through this tumult, she stumbles, loses her footing, and falls.

All of this is owed to Hashimoto’s brushwork. The unruly, unpredictable nature of painting with a brush exacerbates this message. It speaks to the emotional instability of the character, bringing us into her world and showing us her perspective. This brushwork also provides a rhythmic pulse to the cut, as stands of hair are repeatedly brushed back by the wind, as dirt is clawed from the ground, fabric taking flight. Details become lost, foliage reduced to singular strokes of the brush. But yet the texture remains.

Story-boarder and character designer Osamu Tanabe was the brilliant mind to strike a balance between preserving details in the art while stripping away all other unnecessary details in a minimalist expression. To do this, the animation was drawn small, then enlarged. This method allows the natural grain to breathe life into the animation, capturing the lively spirit of art being made right before your eyes. But more than that, it speaks to the emotional integrity of the art.

It’s a moment where the everything, style, technicality, and feeling come together for a greater whole.

Sakuga Espresso #12 – Miraculous Ladybug

Every morning, my daughter wakes up and asks for two things: chocolate milk and Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir. It’s how we start every morning, and I can’t complain, the show isn’t that bad for a CG kids’ show. But come to find out there originally was an anime project planned by Toei, I had to check it out. Turns out, it’s animated really well!

Unfortunately, all that exists of the project is a 2013 PV (short for preview, basically a trailer/concept reel), but some of these cuts are absolutely superb! Today’s clip is no exception! Presumed to be animated by Toei ace, Naoki Tate, what caught my eye was the movement and perspective used to give this action sequence a smooth (yet exciting) flow.

We start of with Ladybug’s heroic leap from above, stylishly tumbling and twirling into a kick. The smears and snapped key poses work together by contrasting each other. Let’s look at the former first. Half way through the fall to give a sense of energy and speed, Ladybug becomes one noodlely smear with only her head having a recognizable shape. Immediately there after, the latter kicks back in, snapping our heroine into a voguish pose (even sneaking in a wink). All of this happens rather quickly before the end of the jump, as Ladybug’s knee comes towards the camera.

On the technical side of things, there are a couple of core animation principles at work here. The first being ‘Slow in & Slow Out‘, a technique used that eases our eyes into and out of an action. We have plenty of time to establish that Ladybug is falling toward the camera, which allows us to focus more on how she is falling.

Another technique employed in this shot is the use of closure, or the mind’s ability to assume movement between the drawings. I mentioned the “noodlely smear” – anatomically, the isolated drawing makes no sense, but since we are used to assuming movement, we interpret the split-second frame as speed, the motion being too fast for us to track. A real life application would be the blades of a fan, they move too fast to track individually, but that doesn’t stop us from ‘seeing’ the movement.

The rest of this scene boasts impressive ‘camera work’. I put that in quotations because in 2D animation, there is no camera. This poses the obvious problem of ‘moving the camera’, since there is no camera to move. Instead, the animator must draw each frame with a shifting perspective.

Even with a stationary object, this would be a challenge, but factor in an action sequence with rapidly moving subjects on screen… now you see just what an impressive feat of animation this is! Each subject has to remain anchored enough that the shifting perspective makes us (the camera) feel like we are the ones rotating around the action. And yet not too anchored as to feel stiff and inappropriately heavy. It’s a perfect balance that’s simply miraculous!

Sakuga Espresso #11 – Neon Genesis Evangelion

It’s not every day that you get to see an animator’s raw creative and unbridled ability on display. What I mean by that are these little moments when the animator has such complete creative control over what they are drawing – today’s cut from the final episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion is such an example.

It’s not every day that you get to see an animator’s raw creative and unbridled ability on display. What I mean by that are these little moments when the animator has such complete creative control over what they are drawing – today’s cut from the final episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion is such an example.

It’s no secret that the finale of Evangelion ran into production issues (putting it lightly) during its finale. A large portion of those final two episodes was incomplete, to the point that ‘next time’ previews for each respective episode were unfinished, having only rough key frames (some of which never made it into the episodes and was instead moved to the conclusive film) to show. That said, the story boards too were in a similar disarray.

The animator for the cut we’re focusing on today, the legendary Yoh Yoshinari, had this to say about the storyboards:

There were only brief indications about the content on the storyboard… The context was quite special too. The production was hard-pushed, and we didn’t even know if the episode could air in time, so it almost felt like we could draw whatever we wanted to.

Interview with AnimeStyle, 03/2013

Looking at the original storyboards for this cut, we can see that Yoshinari is being quite modest when he says “brief indications”. Instructions in the margins are vague, to say the least. Director Hideaki Anno’s notes boil down to phrases like, ‘use different color markers’ and ‘some transformations here’, the most detailed being a ‘flappy metamorphosis’.

Using what little he has to go on, Yoshinari works his magic, as he goes through a series of shapes and forms seamlessly. To achieve this, Yoshinari alternates between animating on the 1’s and 2’s (a new image every one to two frames respectively).

It’s really quite lavish the way he does so, having explosions of movement and transformations between shapes on the 1’s, and solid forms on the 2’s. The slower (on the 2’s) animation allows the forms on screen to retain a sense of weight, and gives our eyes a rhythm to follow so we rest can catch up.

The other element that makes this piece of animation so special is that the lines scene are the actual marks made by Yoshinari, untouched by post processing effects or even transferred onto a painted cel for that matter.

Instead the actual genga (original drawings) was passed though a tracing machine. That rawness of the art speaks to the rawness of the story on screen. Our protagonist, Shinji, does not know what to make of himself, and thus the animation reflects that.

But notice how each form has roughly the same amount of mass. Shinji is still the same value no matter what his shape is. The art encapsulates the message of the show. ☕ 

It’s no secret that the finale of Evangelion ran into production issues (putting it lightly) during its finale. A large portion of those final two episodes was incomplete, to the point that ‘next time’ previews for each respective episode were unfinished, having only rough key frames (some of which never made it into the episodes and was instead moved to the conclusive film) to show. That said, the story boards too were in a similar disarray.

The animator for the cut we’re focusing on today, the legendary Yoh Yoshinari, had this to say about the storyboards:

There were only brief indications about the content on the storyboard… The context was quite special too. The production was hard-pushed, and we didn’t even know if the episode could air in time, so it almost felt like we could draw whatever we wanted to.

Interview with AnimeStyle, 03/2013

Using what little he has to go on, Yoshinari works his magic, as he goes through a series of shapes and forms seamlessly.

To achieve this, Yoshinari alternates between animating on the 1’s and 2’s (a new image every one to two frames respectively).

It’s really quite lavish the way he does so, having explosions of movement and transformations between shapes on the 1’s, and solid forms on the 2’s. The slower (on the 2’s) animation allows the forms on screen to retain a sense of weight, and gives our eyes a rhythm to follow so we rest can catch up.

The other element that makes this piece of animation so special is that the lines scene are the actual marks made by Yoshinari, untouched by post processing effects or even transferred onto a painted cel for that matter.

Instead the actual genga (original drawings) was passed though a tracing machine. That rawness of the art speaks to the rawness of the story on screen. Our protagonist, Shinji, does not know what to make of himself, and thus the animation reflects that.

But notice how each form has roughly the same amount of mass. Shinji is still the same value no matter what his shape is. The art encapsulates the message of the show. ☕ 

Sakuga Espresso #10 – Haikyuu!! To the top

For the finale of Haikyuu!!’s fourth season, Sachiko Fukuda presents us with some action-packed cuts. This scene, in particular, shows how her style has evolved throughout the series, inspired by Takashi Mukouda.

The dynamic run at the start is breathtaking: the tempo of the animation suddenly accelerates the rhythm of the match. The immersion is accentuated by the camera angle, which focuses on the character’s legs and ending on a closeup of the deformed, stretched foot, which allows for an impactful transition to the next cut.

The wind effects, coupled with smears, enhance the strength put into the initiation of the jump.
The rhythm of the scene abruptly slows down as Hinata is in the air, leaving us to admire Hinata, the animation of his clothes and hair highlight his pose and prepare for the highlight of the scene: the hit of Karasuno’s 10.
The sequence is very reminiscent of the following scene by Takashi Mukouda.

Notice how, from 9 seconds onward, we have a similar closeup forerunning the jump, followed by the use of special effects to enhance the jump’s impact. The use of smears, as well as the model’s deformation through stretching, supply the speed, put into the action.

I love how the similarity of the two scenes serves narrative purposes. By successfully achieving the same jump as Hoshiumi shows his growth as a character and how close he is to become a Little Giant, like his Senpai. At the same time, it shows Sachiko Fukuda’s development as an animator, who is herself catching up to her senior.

After Hinata’s anticlimatic failure, the subtle smears when he lands are a great detail emphasizing the strength put in the jump.
The heavy use of speed lines in the last cut, as well as the frenetic movement, accentuate the comedic aspect of the attack’s failure ending the sequence with as much intensity as it started.

Sakuga Espresso #9 – Dragon Ball Super: Broly

I think my favorite part of the clip for today’s Sakuga Espresso has got to be the first 15 seconds of Ryo Onishi’s cut from Dragonball Super: Broly. I find the way Goku moves absolutely captivating, so bouncy and child-like. I remember watching the clip when I was sitting out on my porch, sipping coffee, and the smile that came to my face. The entire spirit of Sakuga Espresso!

What Onishi has achieved is grade-A character acting. There are several elements that are perfectly balanced to bring this moment to life. From the character designs and storyboards, to the actual animation itself – it all comes together as parts of a greater whole.

Examining the animation, Onishi’s timing and sense of weight are fantastic – or you could say that Onishi’s timing is the sense of weight. The speed of ascent and fall on Goku’s jump has a very real pulse that makes his presence on screen feel physically weighted.

A perfect number of frames are spent on the squash and stretch during the closeup of Goku’s feet as he flexes and springs into the air. That squash and stretch is an essential building block of animation to depict mass and rigidity, and here it’s faultless.

But as we zoom out, we see more than just Goku bouncing one foot to the other, his shoulders raise and lower, he whips his head to loosen his neck – he’s preparing for a fight. What pushes this animation over the top for me is that it’s a very ‘Goku thing’ to do; the animation is portraying the personality of a long established character in a way that feels honest and authentic.

Pat of this is owed to the character designs of Naohiro Shintani. The previous designs of Tadayoshi Yamamuro are more detailed and intense, where as Shintani is more rounded, friendly, and playful; more like the original Dragonball look in my opinion. That plays in very well to the actual movement Goku opens with as Broly is powering up, it’s playful and almost childlike.

Another boon of the Shintani designs is that the use of shadow becomes more coded. The more shadow, the more intense the emotion. And in a series like Dragonball, that’s a very effective style. Notice how shaded Broly is compared to Goku, establishing him as the threat in this scene, while Goku remains virtually untouched by shadows, keeping him lively. ☕ 

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! ☕ 

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