Someone’s been watching Frank Tashlin: Kill la Kill

Okay, for me Kill la Kill worked at so many levels that it’s hard to name them all. I have a list of topics for this blog, and Kill la Kill is on it three times already, and I’ll probably think of more as I go along.

As a trained animator, though, to me one of the most obvious things about it was the visual and narrative power they gained by using a really dynamic animation style. Kill la Kill hits like a truck in part because the director pushes the pedal to the metal and lets it all hang out (LIAHO). (If you haven’t seen it, it has the same kind of pace as FLCL.)

Okay, here is some basic knowledge: animated films (including animes) are produced from a series of still images that are photographed individually. Because of a cognitive phenomenon called persistence of vision, the viewer’s brain fills in the motion between the still images, giving them the appearance of moving.

In most cases animation production is highly hierarchical. At the top of the pyramid is the director, who gives everyone a general idea of what is happening, how long it takes, and what is what sort of layout s/he wants.

The lead or key animator draws what are called key drawings or key poses, which are define the beginning or end of some kind of dynamic action by the character. In the olden days these were drawn in pencil on paper, and there would be some kind of indication of how far apart (how many frames) they were.

Next on the hierarchy is the in-betweener, who drew the images between the key poses. Software can do this now.

Clean up artists turned the pencil drawings, which were often scribbled, into firmly outlined figures. Then inkers would copy the cleaned up images from paper onto the clear acetate cels, painters would paint them, and then they would be photographed.

Unfortunately for history, many of those cels were subsequently washed clean and reused.

Anyway, it was Warner Brothers animation director Frank Tashlin who figured out that if the brain could fill in the action from frame to frame, it could figure out the action between poses. POOF! No more in-betweens. Here’s where he did it:

Porky’s Romance. Note that Porky really was porky at this time.

There’s the section that starts where Petunia decides that she wants the candy Porky Pig has brought her. She zooms out, grabs the goodies, and zooms back home right around the three minute mark. Who is missing from that sequence? Hint: All the action is Petunia’s…and she appears in none of the frames. Your brain filled it in. This is called pose to pose animation. You can’t do it all the time, but when you need something to feel REALLY active…

That was one of the things I noticed immediately about Kill la Kill: someone had been watching this stuff and said, “Whoa…that’s the way to put action in an anime!”

Ryuko and Aikuro

Aikuro (left) and Ryuko. See those ninja pins in her back? Any second now he’s going to take them out…

Jumping from pose to pose happens all over Kill la Kill, but I noticed it most clearly in episode three, when Aikuro is explaining how the suits work to Ryuko. He caught her bathing so she’s assaulted him while covered with a towel, and he pins her in place because some kind of ninja stuff involving needles. (I don’t understand it, and don’t care, although there are times when pushing the pace so hard distracts from comprehension.) The ninja stuff is also what’s holding the towel up, covering her goodies. At one point, he takes his needles back and her towel falls, exposing her bottom for (I’m guessing) two frames or a twelfth of a second . If you have access, look at it carefully. The towel falls all the way down all at once; Ryuko snatches it back in four frames. No in-betweening at all, but the action reads perfectly (and it’s funny, too).

Nicely done!

This recognition is one of the things that gives Kill la Kill its narrative momentum. It’s fast and silly and fun, and more profound than people like to admit. The profundity is in the writing and conceptualization, but the speed and a good chunk of the fun comes from its dynamic animation, and the guy who invented that, the guy who put the zoom in cartoon, was Frank Tashlin.


Frank Tashlin, second from left (gag photo from Warner Brothers Studios)

Tashlin was an odd duck. Back in the formal days of the thirties and forties when even Chuck Jones had to be called Charles, Tashlin was credited as “Tish Tash.” He also wrote a children’s book called The Bear that Wasn’t about a bear everyone mistook for a person. He left Warner Brothers’ animation division to direct live action films, which is also pretty rare. His live action movies, several of them starring Jerry Lewis, are pretty damned funny, too. Check them out sometime; the best is probably The Geisha Boy. They’re dated but still wacky.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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