Effects Animation: Ergo Proxy

Man, it’s been a long since I talked about animation. I mean, by now I probably have to remind everyone that when I look at anime I look at them not just from my perspective as a writer but from my twin perspectives of a writer and a trained animator.

Yes, I am a trained animator. Somewhere around here I even have a plaque I won as a producer-director-writer-animator. In the biz a producer-director-writer-animator is a called a “hyphenate.” Gee, I wonder why.

You know the opening credits of Ergo Proxy are stunning, possibly the best ever made, right? That moment about one minute in where the music climaxes and Vincent rages silently against the storm around him as the camera spins around him … My God, it’s magnificent.

I hope this sticks here, and if not, well, if you haven’t seen it, it’s on YouTube.

Note FOUR layers: Vincent, background, black text, white text.

They did a couple things in there I want to dissect, but before I can do that I got to define a few terms, okay?

Cel: TV and film are shot in a series of still images called frames because they are projected/transmitted one frame at a time, 30 of them a second in TV and 24 in film. Pictures don’t really move; they just change slightly from frame to frame and your brain fills in the action. In animation these are called “cels” because they were painted on clear celluloid sheets.

Full animation is when a character is animated, well, in full, meaning that they are redrawn completely for each cel. This is opposed to limited animation, where only the parts of the character that move, typically the mouth, are redrawn.

Effects animation is the animation of nature and background rather than characters. Have you seen Weathering with You? The rain, right? And raindrops falling into puddles, creating those beautiful overlapping rings? Ocean spray, waterfalls, objects blowing in the wind: effects animation.

Vincent (fully animated) over a computer-generated background effect

To make the OP of Ergo Proxy someone took the time to create four different levels of animation and stick them together in post production to create the emotional depth it creates. And WOW, does it work.

Level one is the simplest, and dumbest of the four: It’s the opening credits. It has to have (text) credits in it. Duh. You wouldn’t even assign an actual animator to that; there are companies that specialize in doing just that.

Two: Each of the main characters appears, although Vincent dominates the action. They are each full animation, and THAT’s something you have a real animator work on.

Three: There are the atmospheric, moving backgrounds. In most anime the backgrounds are stable, unmoving, but Ergo Proxy chose deliberately to be atmospheric in the literal sense, where the background itself would be used to create a mood state. That’s all computer animation; you can buy software and diddle the parameters until it gives you what it wants.

That’s a lot harder than I made it sound, but it doesn’t involve anyone putting a pencil on a piece of paper. And that’s typically effects animation.

Four: Then there are foregrounded images, still and moving. Works of classical art, newspapers, odd words at odd times. Plus there are elements intended to make the material look like old fashioned film, you know, black vertical stripes, jittering frames, that sort of thing. Since it’s NOT old-fashioned film, all that has to be faked, i.e. animated.

The real trick is getting them all timed together. The cool thing about animation, though, is that YOU CAN CONTROL EACH AND EVERY FRAME. If you’re careful, you can time it out to one single frame, 1/24th or 1/30th of a second.

Yeah, close enough for government work.

There are three ways to put them all together to create that layered look.

Nowadays you would just do it all on the computer in the first place, all four sets of images, and then tell the computer to layer them one on another. It’s actually simple in one way: You can pick a color, typically pure white, and tell the computer to treat that color as transparent, so it looks like everything is layered. I don’t think that’s what they did for Ergo Proxy, though, because it’s known that some of the stuff was animated on cels.

In my day, we would have shot all the layers separately and then photographed them together on an optical printer. An optical printer stacks layers of film together so they can be rephotographed all at once.

This, too, would have been a B and a half, because the computer-animated stuff would have needed to be dumped to film (a major waste of time). Then you would have had at least FIVE layers of film to sandwich together in your optical printer, all four of the ones we talked about before PLUS the credits would need a second layer of film with all the text in black. Y’see, in film, “white” means “clear,” so whatever was going on behind the credits would bleed through if it wasn’t blocked from behind by some nice, heavy black.

No, I never did that. I knew more about optical printing than anyone else in my class – man, I loved that old optical printer down in the basement – but I’m not stupid.

What I suspect they did was dump them all to high-def video – Japan was WAY ahead of the world in hi-def video – and mix them together as though they were the feeds of different cameras.

Whatever they did, it was worth it. It’s a mind-blowing piece of work. Enjoy.

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.

2 thoughts on “Effects Animation: Ergo Proxy

  1. It is a brilliant intro and a great anime. Esp episode 16. Samurai Champloo and Black Lagoon both had awesome intros too and it helped sell the quality of the series as you get to use the high quality work every episode through the whole series.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cowboy Bebop, too, of course. But I think the Ergo Proxy open is emotionally satisfying in a way the others aren’t. From that standpoint the Black Lagoon closing is actually closer.


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