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  • Writer's pictureMary

Making a Case for Animation (and fist-fighting haters in the parking lot)

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

(This definitely didn't come about because I remembered that Disney's "Live Action" The Lion King (2019 remake) is currently the highest grossing animated film of all time and it made me mad. Nope. Nothing like that. I'm definitely not still salty about that...)

If you don't already know me super well, I'm a big animation fan. My sisters are as well. We go to Pixar movies in theaters and coo over the background and lighting design, watch shows made for preschoolers and talk about character design and why they look a certain way, and entrench ourselves in the often disastrous world of anime like explorers in a swamp who happened upon a diamond. We have a really good time.

People seem confused why I, a 25 year old woman who got her degree in creative writing and humanistic studies, would be so enthralled by a movie or TV show that is entirely animated. This often comes after they make an exasperated comment about...I don't know, how their son/brother/nephew is obsessed with Yu-Gi-Oh!, or something like that, and I brighten up and say, "Oh, I LOVE Yu-Gi-Oh!!"

This is unusual to them. I read The Brother's Karamazov, why on earth do I like Yu-Gi-Oh!?

Eh, different sides of the same coin. The Brother's Karamazov is the entrée of the meal. Yu-Gi-Oh! is my light appetizer, or possibly my piece of candy at the end of the meal. I love them both for wildly different reasons.

So let me tell you about why I love animation. And, yes, Yu-Gi-Oh!.

Powerful Stories Told in Animation

I want to start with establishing that animation is a medium, not a genre. Animation is not just a way to tell stories to children, or for those who want to kick back and not think too hard about the piece of media. Animation can carry just as much weight as any other art form. Take, for instance, The Breadwinner (2017).

"The Breadwinner" (Cartoon Saloon)

The Breadwinner is an animated drama film following a young girl in Afghanistan in 2001, living under the rule of the Taliban. The film is made in traditional 2D drawn animation (a staple of Cartoon Saloon, an animation company based out of Ireland). The girl tells stories throughout the film, all of which are animated in a style that utilizes a combination of styles, emulating both cut pieces of paper overlaid to give depth, along with silhouettes and shadow shows. Many of the pieces look simply like Afghani artwork come to life on screen.

A side note, this isn't unusual for Cartoon Saloon either, whose debut film The Secret of Kells (also a fantastic film), has characters and backgrounds designed to look like an animated version of illuminated manuscripts.

The animation for The Breadwinner is smooth and flowing, using cell shading for lighting, black outlines to give it a distinctly illustrated look to it (these lines all but disappear in some of the storytelling sequences, you might notice, as they switch animation techniques). The character designs are distinct, not shying away from wrinkles and wisps of stray hair. Like all good animation, it evokes a feeling. It left me in awe of the obvious time and care that went into animating the backgrounds and the characters.

The Breadwinner is absolutely gorgeous, and was unsurprisingly nominated for an Academy Award. My one regret is that I began watching it at 11 pm, alone in my dorm room on a Saturday evening. An hour and a half later when it ended, I was an emotional mess, and I could hardly sleep.

Regardless of the achievements in animation, this film is often the one I point to when I am told that cartoons are for children. The Breadwinner is weighty and heartbreaking and powerful, but the first time you see a young man walk on screen with an assault rifle, it still shocks you. It's sobering.

In many ways, film can get away with a lot more than a serialized show, which is understandable, but sad. I do find myself often frustrated when a great animated show is cancelled because the show is starting to get heavier. A film like The Breadwinner doesn't often have to face the possibility of getting cancelled.

If you have HBO Max, you might have seen Infinity Train (2019). I remember watching this show back when it was just a pilot uploaded to YouTube, where the creator was hoping to build up enough of a fanbase to get it greenlit. It worked, and Infinity Train came to HBO Max for four seasons. The show is an anthology, with each season standing apart on its own. And to HBO's credit, it is dark.

The show's premise surrounds a magical train. Each car on the train is weird and strange, and the passengers have to complete tasks to move to the next car. The passengers are brought to the train when they have something they need to work through, and can leave the train entirely when they are able to process what they have been struggling with. It's got goofy moments and lighthearted moments, but it does get into some heavier topics. Morality and ethics are common themes, as well as what makes a person human, whether bad thoughts make you a bad person or not, and the achingly long process of change and suffering consequences for your actions.

A lot of animation, especially in shows, is like this. They have more layers than you might initially realize. When people assume that animation is a medium made for children, then we end up losing shows like Infinity Train, which was cancelled after its 4th season.

Animation: Doing What Live Action Can't Do

Animation can be used to tell stories in a truly unique ways that may not work in other mediums. There are many, many instances where films are made through animation that simply wouldn't work in live-action movies.

For example, stop motion animation: the first foray most kids have into filmmaking! What kid hasn't pulled out an old camera, set up their stuffed animals into different positions, and snapped photos to make it look like they're drinking tea or at school? (Am I the only one who did this? Really?)

When my sisters and I talk about animation, we almost always stop to mention LAIKA, one of the few studios to still do stop-motion animation filmmaking. They're the studio behind Corpse Bride (2005), Coraline (2009), Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), and most recently, Missing Link (2019). All of their feature films have been nominated for Academy Awards, mostly on account of stop-motion animation being so rare, but none have won. In fact, when Missing Link won a Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature Film, beating out Toy Story 4, How To Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World, Frozen II, and The Lion King (2019 remake), no one was more stunned than Missing Link's director and writer Chris Butler, who reportedly looked entirely stunned as he walked on stage and said he was "flabbergasted" and that he hadn't prepared anything because he honestly hadn't been expecting to win anything at all.

"Missing Link" (LAIKA, 2019)

"I haven't even seen Missing Link," my sister Sarah said when we read the news in the paper about the Golden Globes, "but good for them. I don't care how good the writing is, the fact that it's stop-motion means it should win more awards." And I agree. Stop-motion is an art form that is fairly niche now, which is a tragedy. It's a classic medium, now largely forgotten along computer animated films.

Stop-motion is a fun medium because it can be so stylized, which is one of the appealing parts of using animation. You aren't bound by the laws of reality. If it can be dreamed up, it can be created using one form of animation or another.

There are a lot of great examples of the more common 3D computer animation that utilize the opportunity to create something wildly unique, but I can never resist talking about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018).

I have an iffy relationship with Sony Pictures Animation, who created Spider-Verse. They have an interesting slew of films, some of which are fantastic (Hotel Transylvania and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs utilize amazing stretch-and-squash animation techniques on a 3D level) and some of which are total garbage (we will not speak of the Emoji Movie and its absolute triteness). But what its films regularly have in common is that they have incredibly distinct styles from film to film that are extremely unique for that film and that film alone (or series).

Spider-Verse is a masterpiece on many levels, but stylistically and technically, it's like a masterclass on animation used properly as a medium. When you sit down and watch the film, it becomes very obvious what it's designed to look like: a comic book.

Animated to look like it uses screentones

Look at the light on the left side of Miles' face. Look at how the light is animated in using tiny dots as opposed to a smooth cell-shade. The whole film is like this. It makes the film look like it's been covered in screentone, a technique used by comic artists to apply texture to pages without having to go to all the work of hatching in that same space to give it shadows or light.

Screentone used in "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World"

The animation is also "animated on twos", which adds to the feeling of the film being made like a comic book. This is a technical term meaning that for every frame per second created, the picture holds for two frames as opposed to one frame, giving it a stuttering sort of look. Standard films are made at 24 frames per second, but Spider-Verse only uses 12 frames every second, so it doesn't look as smooth. This technique only adds to the feeling that this film is really just a series of drawings come to life, and it's brilliant. You might also be reminded of The Lego Movie, also animated on twos and threes (one frame holding for the time of three normal frames), which has the same effect. It makes films like The Lego Movie look like they've been captured using stop motion animation when they haven't been.

Spider-Verse uses so many other fascinating techniques to tie it to the comic book style it's going for. It puts words on the screen a la 1960s Batman. It utilizes simplistic background changes to draw attention to characters in the moment. It uses lines and symbols and doodles on the screen to remind us that this is a film that can do anything, and that it is not tied to realism. And it works. Even for just a moment, you might forget that you're watching a film, and remember reading old comic books.

If you haven't already watched Spider-Verse before, I highly recommend it. Even if superheroes aren't your cup-of-tea, this is a film that reminds you why animation can be such an incredible medium. There is no way to get that same feeling of reading a comic book alive on screen in live-action film.

And just in case you still need convincing, here's the famous "What's Up Danger" scene. It still gives me chills, even when I was skimming through it to embed it here.

Yes, I'm a Weeb...

In general, I don't tend to start with the fact that I like anime. People tend to have...extreme reactions when they discover that someone in their presence likes anime. Here are some of the classic people I meet along the way:

  1. Someone who' into anime and doesn't have a lot of anime-loving friends: "You like anime too??? Want to see my OCs??????"

  2. Someone who knows someone who's really into anime and I seem like a nice and well-adjusted young woman who has a social life, despite my liking anime: "You like anime? My cousin/nephew/son/coworker likes anime too! I should introduce you!"

  3. Someone who wants to debate you on anime because they have opinions and want to know if you're a real anime fan: "Oh you like anime? What do you think about (*tosses out either entirely obscure anime that no one has ever heard of, or currently hotly debated anime that people either love or hate*)?"

  4. Someone who catches sight of my Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Dark Side of Dimensions DVD on my shelf and doesn't know why I have it: "Why...?"

  5. Someone who suddenly has no idea what to think of me and all their preconceived notions of anime are now up for debate: "...Really?"

I'm not going to sit here and tell you that all anime is created equal, because like all animation, it's not (I shudder against remembering The Emoji Movie). There's terrible anime, full of stuff you really don't need to see. But again, as I said before:

[Animation is a medium, not a genre]

We're all clear? Okay, let me talk about anime for a sec.

"Anime" is a term that means animation, either hand drawn or computer-animated, that originates from Japan. In Japan itself, "anime" is just their word for animation of all kinds, regardless of where it came from. Outside of Japan, however, the word "anime" refers specifically to animation made in Japan. This can be confusing, because there are a lot of anime-inspired works made outside of Japan that look and feel very similar, such as Avatar: The Last Airbender, RWBY, and Voltron: Legendary Defender. All of these were made in the United States, and are heavily inspired by anime, but therefore are not considered anime themselves.

Whether or not you've actually watched any anime yourself, there are a slew of anime titles that you've probably heard of, either from family members or friends or acquaintances. Naruto and Dragon Ball come to mind immediately, as do Death Note, Ghost in the Shell, Sailor Moon, and Akira. And of course, my first love, Yu-Gi-Oh!.

Yes, I own this on DVD

I swear I'm not going to use Yu-Gi-Oh! as my example of great animation, but I do have to explain it a little bit because it was my first foray into anime. Imagine, if you will, a 9-or-10 year old Mary, with her long fluffy hair and sparkling eyes, watching cartoons on a Saturday morning. She flips through the channels, because NBCUniversal's Qubo Channel lineup of Zula Patrol and Jane and the Dragon aren't really doing much for her anymore. And she happens upon the infamous 4K!ds TV block on the Fox channel, and happens to see a commercial for Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters and its upcoming season.

You do not know how hard I tried to find this commercial. It seems to be lost to time, which is an absolute shame, because the words "DRAGONS. GODS. DRAGONS. GODS. DRAGONS VERSUS GODS" will forever be burned into my brain for what sparked my tiny child imagination to go "yes. yeS. YES." and hooked me on Yu-Gi-Oh! forever.

My good and concerned mom discovered me watching this, and told me that I wasn't allowed to watch it any more (the monsters are weird looking, I'll give her that). I whined and complained and huffed dramatically, but I obediently turned it off.

The next weekend, I snuck out of my room to watch it again, the volume turned way down. I also sneak-watched Sonic X, another show on the 4K!ds network that I wasn't supposed to watch. I would hurry back to give updates to my sister Sarah underneath the cover of a blanket in hushed tones so she would know what had happened in the latest episode.

My mom probably knew all of this, but if you didn't...sorry, Mom ;)

From an art and animation perspective, there are a few reasons that anime has become a bit of a cultural phenomenon. It often utilizes a 2D art style, which is becoming rarer and rarer in the United States. The hand-drawn art is dynamic and uses vibrant colors and dramatic character designs to spark interest. Art styles are extremely distinct between studios and directors. And with English voices being dubbed over the Japanese ones, it's more accessible than ever before.

So, now that I have defended anime as it's own medium/art form, I'm gonna sell all y'all anime haters out there on a film to watch. It's a quiet film. It's a slow film. It's a film about growing up and changing and not knowing how to deal with that, and coming to terms with the fact that the world will continue to change and you cannot remain stagnant in it.

Even if you aren't into anime, you might have heard about Hayao Miyazaki. Heralded as the "Disney of Japan", Miyazaki has created some of the most influential and popular anime films ever made. His 2001 film Spirited Away won Best Animated Film at the 75th Academy Awards, making it the only hand-drawn animated film to ever win, as well as the only non-English-language film to ever win (this isn't really a surprise, however, as the Academy notoriously hates the animated film category and have admitted to just voting for whatever movie they went to see in theaters with their kids that year, and I know I'm getting off topic but it fills me with rage...)

The first film from Miyazaki's animation company, Studio Ghibli, that I ever watched was Kiki's Delivery Service (1989). The story follows a young witch named Kiki, who leaves home and moves to a large city for the first time in her life. She uses her ability to fly on a broomstick to work at a bakery as a delivery girl. It's an adorable slice-of-life film about growing up and coming into yourself.

All of Miyazaki's films are stunning from an art and animation perspective. His films feature hand-drawn animation and watercolor painted backgrounds. When working on this particular film, he stated that because Kiki always wore dresses, he had to learn to draw skirts in motion, something he hadn't had to do very often. He took his sketchbook to a train station nearby and watched the women pass by, sketching the movement of the fabric of their skirts. Watching this film, you'd have no idea that it was something he had to learn. When Kiki stands up and the wind whips around her legs, you can practically feel the snap of fabric against your own. Despite the soft, rounded style of Miyazaki's characters, there is something almost deceptively simple about the way he animates. The characters have a weighted presence on the film, drawn into perfect backgrounds.

Speaking of backgrounds, the backgrounds stunned me the first time I watched this film, and with every subsequent film of his that I watched, the more I realized that backgrounds and atmosphere are important to Miyazaki's animation and storytelling. There are long moments in nearly every one of his films where the camera pans over a hand-painted landscape, soft music playing behind it. It invites you to take a moment and breathe, admiring the hard work that went into each frame. There's a moment in one of his later films, Howl's Moving Castle (2004), where the story pauses for the characters to hang up their laundry and sit in font of a lake, looking out to the mountains. It was so peaceful and beautiful. A thought came to my mind: "I want to write books the way that Miyazaki makes films."

There are newer anime films that I would absolutely also recommend that are not created by Miyazaki (Makoto Shinkai's Your Name (2016) comes to mind), but this film is a quiet, cute, peaceful starter to the world of Japanese animation and all the wonders that come with it. Watching it makes me feel like it's a warm summer day, and I'm sitting outside in the sunlight with a cool drink in my hand. It's comforting and gentle. It has a story to tell, but it won't be loud about it. It will wait for you.

Okay so now what?


I don't know.

I don't have much in the way of conclusion on this piece. I could have written another two sections at least just about the way lighting is animated, or the way different films have invented new ways of animating snow or water or other parts of nature, but I do have to stop somewhere.

Do you have a favorite animated film? Show? Music video? What is it about the way they're animated that moves you?

And like I said in the title, I'll be waiting in the parking lot. I didn't write 3,500 words for nothing.

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Jul 17, 2021

I have loved being introduced to all the animation you and your sisters enjoy. It has been quite the education! The animation medium is much more multi-faceted than I ever thought it was. I won't be meeting you in the parking lot. ;-)

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