What is it that makes effects animation so pleasant? Why do we find such pleasure in the movement of natural phenomena (fire, smoke, water) or scenes of destruction (explosions, debris)? This is an especially important question for Japanese animation, since it has historically developed without adhering to the Disney-inspired credo of the “illusion of life” and the way it favors character animation understood as “acting”. Since effects are fundamentally not alive, the way they work and become enjoyable is necessarily different: we can’t say that it is “lifelike” or “emotional”. In order to understand what is effects animation, how it functions and why we like it, let us turn to the work of one of the greatest effects animators in Japan: Takashi Hashimoto.

A first basic – and for that reason, crucial – element in the pleasure created by effects animation is probably that we just enjoy things being blown up. In a scene such as the one above, taken from Gundam Unicorn, there is no wide-scale destruction but the way the explosions play out is beautiful in its own right. There is visual symmetry, such as in the shots between 0:05 and 0:08, but also a distinct sense of rhythm created by the animation. The debris work here is minimal, and we have little information relating to exactly how much is being destroyed; but just seeing the explosions play out in sequence creates both accumulation and a certain kind of harmony.

If we like things being blown up, it is that, to some extent, destruction expresses power. In terms of animation and cinematography, there are multiple options to convey this feeling and to make the viewer share it – whether as a victim or someone who takes part in it. Here, ideas such as scale are created through variety: rather than just one huge explosion that sweeps everything away, we are treated to a series of explosions seen from different perspectives: sometimes very close, sometimes more distant.

In such a scene, most animators or directors would just do a few explosions that they would copy and paste over the screen: they would basically repeat the same few frames in cycle. If the cycled animation is good enough, this device would be perfectly effective, and no more work would be needed. But Takashi Hashimoto went the hard way, as every single explosion in this sequence is unique. This brings us to the second appeal of effects: diversity and singularity.

As noted earlier, effects are not alive, and it is impossible to imbue them with “personality”. But they still have an individuality of their own. It comes from the way they move and are drawn, and ultimately from the individuality of the animator. Here, it is not only the shapes of the explosions that vary, but their motion: Hashimoto has taken the way each explosion affects the others into consideration, which means that no explosion exists separately from the others. Let’s take two examples.

The first is the two explosions in the background at 0:04. They are both animated on 2s, which enables Hashimoto to use a sort of alternate movement: when one explosion moves, the other doesn’t, and vice-versa. This keeps the movement constant, even though there are immobile frames. And then, a third explosion happens in the foreground – it is closer to us, and to give that impression, it is animated on 1s.

The other example is the explosions at 0:09. At first, we have two symmetrical explosions – both on 1s. Diversity is kept mostly through the colors, as the explosion on the left is mostly made up of smoke (and is in darker brown), while the one on the right seems like it contains a larger combusting core (and has more orange). On the pole between the two, we first have a bright blue flash – a strong contrast which signals the bomb going off. Then a yellow flash and a new explosion in the middle, first a bright yellow that progressively darkens as it expands and cools down. During all that process, the new explosion pushes the billowing smoke on the sides further, having them almost disappear under the blaze.

I just discussed color a lot here, and that brings us to a third element: texture. Effects, and especially explosions, are particularly dense objects, that one may very well break down in a series of small, constituent parts. You can decompose water down to each single droplet, and an explosion to each particle of smoke and debris. Hashimoto is no stranger to this approach, but here he decided to focus on a different kind of detail: what happens in the explosion itself, in terms of movement and physical forces.

What makes Hashimoto’s explosions distinct is the way they seem to inflate, as if each explosion gave rise to another, new explosion within itself. To create that impression, Hashimoto puts a lot of importance on the coloring, as it is the color gradients within the explosion that suggest shapes and movement. Here, the hues go from bright yellow to orange and red until dark brown, suggesting different levels of heat and different physical states (from a blaze to thick smoke).

For such a sense of detail to work, the animator must be in close contact with the coloring staff; but he must also work in tandem with the compositing artists. Indeed, here we have different color hues, but also different levels of brightness, under the responsibility of the photography department. The last shot of this sequence is a good example of the synergy between animation and compositing: the far-off explosions are once again extremely bright, and we see a series of small debris flying all around the screen. They themselves emit some light, while there is another layer of almost transparent smoke on top.

This is probably the case for all effects animators, but because Hashimoto has such a sense of detail, compositing is a key step in making his animation what it is. When the animator is working with a competent staff on a good schedule, the results are awe-inspiring; when the conditions aren’t as good, they may be disappointing as the animation vanishes into a blur.

Animation in general is ridiculously complex: the creation of movement frame-by-frame, involving extremely diverse people, all with their own expertise and interests. Moreover, each category of animation has its own requirements: what one expects from character animation is not the same as what one expects in effects. Here, Hashimoto’s animation uses three principles: power, singularity and texture. One might add two other governing ideas of his general philosophy: fluidity and reference-based realism. 

What, then, does this amount to? To come back to our original question, how do these “principles” create pleasure for the viewer? In my mind, the answer is as follows. Like all figurative animation, effects animation recreates the movement of objects – here, of natural phenomena. In realist animation such as Hashimoto’s, we are not only impressed by the scale and destructive force of the explosions: we are also shown their internal workings. Through the animation, we can apprehend in visual terms the interplay of physical forces such as weight and heat.

The key word here is force: if we go even further, it is possible to say that effects animation is all about energy. Indeed, what is an explosion but pent-up energy that is suddenly released? What is enjoyable, then, is that, in the course of its release, this energy takes on varied, unexpected, and sometimes truly beautiful shapes. Character animation is also about energies – the “illusion of life” philosophy often presupposes an inner life force – but those are constrained by the shape of the body. Such is not the case in effects: they are a domain of pure freedom, where the driving force behind both the animator and the objects they animate are liberated.