I can’t quite find the right interview at the moment–I’ve been searching YouTube for over ten minutes, sifting through John Lasseter clips–but at one point in time, on camera, John Lasseter said that he thought the difference between hand-drawn and computer-generated animation was as simple as a different kind of camera in live-action. I agree, but in talking to my friend Dave about the differences between K-On! and K-On!!–note the number of exclamation marks–I realized that it is actually a lot more true than even I thought before. The quality of the animation, how it’s done, how it’s made, is no more a difference between two series than the quality of the cinematography is between two movies. (Not that series can’t have unique cinematography, as Firefly showed with its early adoption of lens flares.)
Cinematography sets the tone for a project at the very baseline. The first level of interaction with the audience is something never thought about by the casual audience member: the aspect ratio. An aspect ratio is an expression of the shape of the picture in a ratio. For example, 4:3 is what we all think of today as a “Fullscreen” DVD–rapidly antiquating terminology. The sort-of-not-really square picture seen in movies from the 40s and earlier and television until around 2004. 2.35:1, by contrast, is the cinematic letterbox widescreen of pictures like WALL-E or Kick-Ass. It’s made for conveying a grand sense of scale and spectacle–a movie’s movie. Television has recently shifted from being in 4:3 to being in 16:9, a compromise between the epic scale of movies and the cramped feel of old-TV.
Animation, in the same way, sets the tone for a project. When watching K-On! (season one), the animation felt handmade, rushed and imperfect. This is because it was thought the series was going to go quietly into the night, and was thus animated by trainees. The rough, slapdash and homemade feel complemented the fast, gag-based and sometimes surrealist humour perfectly, but the animation didn’t smooth out when the series got dramatic. Instead, it felt like the knit wool of mittens made by your grandma.
When I put on K-On!! (season two), the animation is suddenly markedly improved: lines are cleaner, faces are seen at more than two angles, the girls have chins and noses on a regular basis. The backgrounds are now drowning in dirt and wood grain. It felt alienating to see my homemade series now clean and detailed. It felt like the difference between gloves knit by Grandma and gloves from Grandma’s Knitting Corp. But this is really just reflecting the difference in tone between the seasons. Whereas season one was a madcap slapstick dash of cuteness and guitars, this season is more melancholy, reflecting on the nature of change and growing up–all of which is reflected by the animation.
You see, it felt weird because at a base level, just looking at the series, I could tell that somewhere between the production of K-On! and K-On!!, the series had grown up. It wasn’t from watching the characters, who still face-fault with the best of them; it wasn’t from the jokes which still come fairly frequently. It was just from looking at it. Cinematography is meant to work with the script, direction and music to communicate the feel and tone of a project. Emotion comes from not just the actors or the script, but from the camera and how it sees things.
This is part of the reason that new cinematography trends like excessive lens flares and the orange-and-tealerizer irk me more than they really have any right to. Movies like The Matrix or Citizen Kane used inventive cinematography to further the story and its ease-of-telling to the audience. Movies like Star Trek are lens-flared beyond all recognition as a film and then orange-and-tealerized in post- to make it look futuristik and hiyo imupakkuto. And yet, the cinematography of these films are compared daily by people who think that an amount of thought and effort put into something are directly related to the amount of quality coming out the other end.
Which relates to another point on the animation front. Whenever Pixar make a theatrical feature, they do several things at once. They use every feature film as an opportunity to advance the art of storytelling and also to advance the technological aspects of computer-generated animation. The technological advances in Toy Story are obvious, it being the first feature-length film to be fully animated with computers. Every film since has advanced some part of computer animation as a whole.
For instance, Monsters, Inc. featured realistic and highly detailed fur animation–a first, if I’m not mistaken. Finding Nemo started with water animation so detailed and realistic that director Andrew Stanton had to ask his team to cartoon it up a bit so that his audience didn’t think they just filmed water. The Incredibles was a massive challenge for all involved, featuring hair, cloth, wet hair, wet cloth, stretching wet cloth–all of which is incredibly difficult to animate, as watching the car chase in Matrix Reloaded will tell you. Cars featured so much work in just making the titular vehicles look realistic that its entire purpose is not to be noticed.
And really, that’s where cinematography and quality-of-animation lie. As the part of a film or series or project least likely to be noticed. It’s all meant to be felt by the audience at a basic level and as long as cinematography or animation pass a base level of quality and inoffensiveness, you should never consciously notice it. Everything after that base level of inoffensiveness and quality counts as style. So, what style is better? Primer and K-On! style homemade charm or the gloss of projects like Moon, K-On!! or the Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy? Is it better to have distinct animation, no matter what reason or to have shots and frames that convey the story first and tone second? In the end, the answer is yes. Yes, both and either are good. If you prefer the ground-breaking polish of Pixar to the sorta-lazily-textured alternatives, that’s your call. But if you like the homemade fluffy feel of K-On! as compared to K-On!!–you go. Ain’t no stoppin’ you either way.
Just don’t tell me Star Trek was beautifully shot.