Stop Motion Animation: Beastars

I don’t get enough opportunity to put on the animator’s hat.

That’s one of the things I do, you know. I’m a writer and I talk about tips and tricks for writing that I see in anime. That’s easy, in a sense, because every anime is written and so every anime has SOMETHING to say about writing. (Yeah, it’s meta that way.) But not every anime has something interesting to say about writing.

But I’m a trained animator, too, and have a few things to say about animating now and then. When I can think of one.

This should be as easy as talking about writing in anime, since, after all, not only is every anime written, every anime is also animated. But the basic style is often the same: fundamental cel animation, whether actual cel or on the computer.

Some of the works that could use some analysis, like FLCL, are so wild they could take forever. A good animator could write a book about FLCL, and I’m only a half-assed animator.

But every once in while I sit up in my chair and say, “Whoa.”

Beastars, right?

The animation in Beastars is actually really good. Legoshi is a complex character to draw and they do a good job giving him the appearance of life. Haru’s postures and movements are well-conceived. Her body language is very expressive.

But you don’t need me for that. You can see it.

beastars

Legoshi (top) and Haru

I was personally struck by the open, which is something you don’t see often in anime: the opening of Beastars was shot using stop motion, that is, instead of DRAWING pictures of Legoshi and Haru, they made little Legoshi and Haru puppets and MOVED them on an actual 3-D set. Yep, just like Mighty Joe Young.

Stop motion is like the first thing you learn in animation school. It’s the subject of the very first lesson:

Rule One: You can animate anything.

We started out with objects lying around the studio the class met in. My group found a pair of scissors and a roll of crepe paper, and lo, a story was born, of predator and prey. The scissors attacked the paper and savaged it.

I got to animate the scissors. I got to get the thing to “breathe,” opening and closing in rhythm. One of my partners was disinterested in the whole process, so she took over the camera. Being bored, she never gave us enough time to get our hands out of the shot. But there’s a long tradition in stop motion of hands in shot.

Later in the semester I was used as a prop by another group, and was eaten by a briefcase. It was my own briefcase, too. I wonder now if my classmates were trying to tell me something.

The big names in stop motion…well, there are a few. Lotte Reiniger animated shadow puppets, and Revolutionary Girl Utena gave her props for it. Willis O’Brien did Mighty Joe Young. George Pal and his Puppetoons. Norman MacLaren’s Neighbors is available at the National Film Board of Canada’s site. Ray Harryhausen did all sorts of monsters for flicks like Jason and the Argonauts. And Nick Park. Wallace and Grommit, right?

The opening to Beastars is wonderful, just a half notch below brilliant. (It’s shot on twos – two frames per pose – and so the action isn’t as smooth as it could be.)

I mean, look at it!

The heart of Beastars is the tension in the relationship between Haru and Legoshi, that they are simultaneously high school kids falling in love and also in conflict as predator vs. prey. So the open starts out dark, lit by the moon (the lighting, which is something you can do really well in stop motion because you are animating actual objects instead of drawing it and hoping you get it right, really is freaking brilliant). Legoshi chases Haru, and she runs.

There’s something really evocative about Haru’s run, a very subtle thing. As the series makes explicit, she understands it’s her lot in life to be eaten. So she doesn’t run really hard, and you can see her not running really hard.

That’s really tough to do.

She falls. He stalks her, looms over her, drooling some acrylic plastic drool that would have to be painstakingly diddled from exposure to exposure.

Then the sun comes up.

The sun comes up and they actually see each other as people and they are friends, and start to dance. The dance is brilliant, something recognizable from the Swing era. Watch Haru during this, the way she tosses herself around on tiptoe, jumps up to kiss Legoshi’s nose twice.

It’s absolutely wonderful. No one would ever suspect that Haru is being held up by pins stuck through her tiny feet. (OW!) (Yeah, that’s how it’s done.)

Almost no one uses stop motion any more. It’s really expensive and really time consuming, for one thing. It’s not an accident that Aardman and Nick Park have made only a small number of films. If something is wrong, you have to go back and reshoot the whole sequence. That’s just how stop motion works.

It’s also really expensive, which is why you rarely see it in anime.

But when you combine stop motion with good, well thought out lighting, you can create some very powerful moods. They could have done the same introduction, the same open, in cel animation and it would have looked okay, a little flat emotionally as well as visually, but okay.

But the same open in stop motion has emotional depth as well as visual. It’s brilliant, like the series, and I love it.

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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