Picture Magic That Manipulates Light

By Ryusuke Hikawa

“There is a ‘scent’ to a well-made film.” Mr. Noboru Ishiguro, who served as the director of Space Battleship Yamato, said that while watching Episode 1. What is that “scent”? Does Yamato 2199, the remake being made after nearly 40 years, use any methods to express that “scent”? Anime commentator Ryusuke Hikawa unravels the truth!!

The Feeling of Visiting a Different World

I felt deep emotion while watching Space Battleship Yamato 2199 on the screen. It went beyond the category of simply transplanting the story and design concepts. The “realism” of Episode 1 in particular was faithfully reproduced, which gave me a real thrill deep in my gut. There is the feeling of “visiting a place.” You feel compelled to separate from the “everyday world” of the audience and step into the “other world” on the screen to experience the viewpoints that can only exist there before returning to daily life.

How do you create that sense of reality in film? This is not limited to anime, it is the major goal of every filmmaker. The catharsis that resembles taking a “trip” becomes as important a point as entertainment. The key to that sense of being in a fictional place is commonly referred to, but Noboru Ishiguro called it a production’s “scent.” And since there is no odor in film, “light” becomes a key for how it is conveyed.

In the future, I want to pay attention to the enthusiasm of the 2199 staff in their attempt to reproduce the attitude of the original. This time, I will continue analyzing the production of that “place” in the 1974 version.

One of the secrets I wasn’t able to talk about last time is the effect of “multiple exposure.” It can correctly be called “picture magic.” Before anime magazines and books, fans would photograph the TV screen during a rerun and share the pictures with friends. It may seem ridiculous now that we have home video, but the experience of concentrating on the TV screen, scene by scene, trying so hard to capture the best shot, is very useful to my present work. One of the strange things I noticed, especially in the first episode, was that the “world of Yamato” was expressed in “color,” but was never homogeneous.

Last time I talked about the cold view outside the window of Captain Okita’s bridge while the interior was stained in a red monotone. Although a filter of “red para” (paraffin) was used in the photography, it should also have turned space outside the window red. However, it was separated to look normal. This was the effect of “multiple exposure.” A black “mask” was used to cover the window, and the interior was photographed once with red para over the interior. Then the film was rewound and the bridge cel was covered by a reversed black part so the exterior portion could be shot without red para.

Such compositions are easy to do digitally now, but 2199 invites us to respect the flavor of the era, including the inconveniences of film production and the basic attitude of the old days. For example, a communication screen is monochrome, so by moderating the extension of the digital portion, it conversely reproduces that stoic “Yamato quality” together with its “scent.”

Generally, when we say “remake,” the thought is that the theme is reinterpreted for the present. The basis is the same with 2199, but this stoicism gives this remake the feeling of being the same species as the original. In addition to using the latest kitchen facilities and seasonings, taking careful advantage of tradition is an important ingredient in the recipe as well, with an attitude of refinement. Such a new work resets the standard when it appears, and its acceptance is significant. It further highlights the intention of the 1974 version and throws its original impact into greater relief. It may also increase the value of that echo between old and new, and hopefully have an influence on future remakes.

The first shock brought about by the 1974 version of Space Battleship Yamato was the sense of reality when the Earth fleet was defeated in the Pluto battle. Since the camera doesn’t show anyone on the enemy side, Captain Okita himself takes on the full drama of humiliation. By changing the bridge interior to red emergency lights, the visibility of an emergency is enhanced. In this red light, only the instruments emit additional light, and the spotlight that only illuminates Okita is an excellent touch.

Above left and center: Two Gamilas ships in red and yellow were overlaid and half-exposed to give the atmosphere of optical aiming. Above right: An expression of transmitted light on Okita’s battleship. The top two rows of light change from red to blue when they sync up. The sense of urgency is boosted with the third column takes longer to fill up.

In each case, showing how soldiers perceive light in a warship helps the audience to understand the mechanism and feel a sense of reality.

Even the change of feeling with Okita’s decision to withdraw is depicted with light. At left, he is illuminated by the explosion of an allied ship outside the window. This light is a metaphor for Okita’s feelings. After his decision, the lighting returns to red monochrome.

Drawing and Dividing “Three Worlds”

Let’s get back to the 1974 version. Multiple exposures were difficult in the analog age, but were used abundantly. Their repeated, skillful use created the “unprecedented scent of the special anime image.” I think the goal of building this new category came from Noboru Ishiguro’s “anime special effects” and inclination for “an SF view of the world.”

There was a production period on the first episode in particular that had many multiple exposures. But the technique itself was less important than its appropriate use. “Using it properly” became the “narrative” of the production’s intent. To illustrate the results, I want to pay special attention to the feeling of “place” that clearly stands out in the battle of Pluto.

Putting it another way, that “place” is roughly “three worlds” in the first episode. The first is “outer space,” in which the world’s fleet is in the leading role. This is a “world without people.” The second is “inside the bridge,” which is a “world with people.” The third tends to be overlooked: “inside the monitors.” This is a “world of data for someone to view the situation calmly and objectively,” and has the surprising role of connecting the previously-mentioned worlds.

The first half of Episode 1 serves to show how we advance through the story as these three worlds mix together violently. Shooting each of these three respective worlds with its own photography technique is a point that clearly communicates “another world” to the audience. It’s important for them to know the “Yamato style.” This is because “meeting” this other world creates conflict and produces a greater feeling of tension for the story structure.

The most obvious example is the dramatic action depicted when the crew members are sucked out into the vacuum of space when Okita’s ship is hit. It’s natural to feel fear, since people can’t live in vacuum, and even without scientific knowledge the shock of “being taken into a world without people” is conveyed visually. By the logic behind this dry process, the SF dramatic structure of linking emotions with visuals may be the greatest footprint left by Space Battleship Yamato.

And so the task becomes how to combine those SF expressions with anime techniques in a way that is consistent and emotionally moving. The reality is that you have to keep the SF feel in everything, including your approach to creating the visuals, lest you weaken their impact. The fact that SF has a toolbox of convenient setups for doing so is something I’d like more people to acknowledge.

From Episode 2, the high-speed Gamilas aircraft carrier projected on the large panel of the first bridge. [A] is the original layout by (by Kazuhide Tomonaga) and [B] is a corrected layout (by Takeshi Shirato). There is a note on [A] asking, “Mr. Ishiguro, is it optical?” In fact, optical distortion was achieved by shooting it separately under ripple glass and compositing it.

Above left: In the original Episode 2, Kodai and Shima see the high-speed carrier on the large panel. A mask was used so that the ripple glass effect process only appeared on the panel. Above right: In another scene from Episode 2, photographic processing was not necessary. The fluctuation of the image was expressed by drawing.

Analyzing the Nature of the Technique from the Materials

By the way, when I was a high school student, I was able to obtain Episode 1 storyboards and cels from a production assistant. As a result, I noticed another strange thing about multiple exposure: the shooting materials were very different from the completed screen image. On film, the bridge of Okita’s ship turns to a monotone red to express emergency lighting after a hit. This is actually done on submarines because visibility improves in red light, and has the affect of both conveying urgency to an audience and increasing tension.

When the photographic material is examined, it is not set up in normal colors; it is instead colored in the manner of the black & white era of anime. You can see the state of these materials in the film during the scene when Okita decides to withdraw and the red paraffin is removed. The pale blue monotone gives a cold impression. When the whole system was dyed red, it established a “mood” for the Earth fleet making an expedition into space to fight a decisive battle.

I think there was a technical reason not to apply the red paraffin over normal colors, since it might have created interference with the orange or yellow colors on Okita’s uniform, so the monochromatic color information raised the “sense of realism.” On the other hand, though the space outside is a vacuum, it is depicted as a world of fantasy with a rich saturation of color. This stark contrast with the monotone of the ship becomes a source to stir up romance. That may be the very essence of the worldview created by Space Battleship Yamato.

It is not simply a narrow issue of how to set up a light source and its reflection. Approaching the problem with the attitude of “capturing a fictional world and share it with others” is an intrinsic “world view.” That view is particularly felt in the quality of how monitors are depicted in that third world of the bridge’s electronic components.

In one of the cels I obtained, there was a Gamilas warship completely painted yellow. I cocked my head and wondered, “did they make a painting mistake?” But I was surprised when I saw it in a rerun. It appeared on a monitor in the Yukikaze. When aiming at a Gamilas ship, the projected images at the left and right were painted in completely different colors and photographed by half-exposure. When they slid together, the yellow was replaced by the normal color. At the moment the instruments caught it, it produced a virtual image separated into its spectral components. Because this moment of truth and fiction was shown, it was a device to produce catharsis for the return fire from the missile ship of Mamoru Kodai.

In this way, you can at the very least understand how “light” is used in the first episode to mark a clear separation of the world of outer space, allowing you to grasp the situation along with who and what is moving through it by direct sighting, sensors, and radar. Even down to the details of whether it is a full capture or merely an attempt, it is depicted by exquisite visuals, including color. This catalyst functions as a secret ingredient to increase the realism of the battle. Since you can’t practically treat light and color as homogeneous elements for the separation and integration of the world, it’s all made possible by the production decision that “special effects are necessary.”

[A] In the original Episode 2, Kodai and Shima were trainees experiencing combat for the first time. At the moment tension increases, a gauge locks onto the carrier. This is expressed by the use of ripple glass.

[B] In the original layouts for the scene (by Kazuhide Tomonaga), a question is written to Mr. Ishiguro on the “patch” cel of Kodai’s left eye: “Is special operation of the radar required? I will draw more if necessary.” The question was asked because the elements were not sufficient for the number of seconds given.

[C] This image shows written instructions by Noboru Ishiguro: “In the screen center, take mask (male-female), center Gamilas ship, bring together slightly out of focus. Join them at the right moment in the dialogue. Crosshairs drawn on Susumu Kodai’s cel.” This answers questions about the key cel drawings and gives instructions for photo processing. Also shown is the layout (by Takeshi Shirato) and the background painting based on the layout.

What is someone looking at and how do they see it?

As a result of spending half my life as an IT engineer, I have come to understand these ideas with a deeper empathy. And the reason I was so attracted to anime and tokusatsu [special effects TV shows] became increasingly clear. The realism anime brings to “another world” is the core of the fun. However, when the picture concludes and you return to everyday life, the feeling you had when you were enjoying yourself disappears like a “dream,” and what you remember is the actions and story of the characters. That’s why you have this endless parade of people who talk about anime only in terms of theme, message, and story.

This is unavoidable to some extent, but when trying to reproduce the first impact 38 years later, I have to think, “is that alone enough?” Animation is first and foremost a “work of pictures” since the image itself “communicates.” Therefore, visual expression combined with theme, message, and story rises to become exceptional. The effects of time and space, the results of heat, pressure, and speed give rise to things which can’t be expressed merely through writing and still images. The impression is produced by an immersive experience that overflows with realism. Study and verbalization of these things is overwhelmingly insufficient.

At present, the flow of pictures is becoming 100% digital, so to avoid the condition of having a roof over an empty house with virtual stacked upon virtual, it is increasingly necessary to “take lessons from the past.” It becomes more urgent as we lose people who were involved in the production, one after the other. I’m beginning to think that since my generation may have been the first to watch TV anime at the age of discretion, it may ultimately be my generation’s responsibility.

By the way, the “ripple glass” that I referred to here will come up again next time. After capturing the “light problem” in the production of realism, the next one is a problem of “air.” This is because the true nature of “color” expressed in a picture is “a source of light striking a photographic subject,” and therefore “the reflected light transmitted through the air is recognized by the brain via a camera (eyeball).”

Color is not a “thing” of independent substance. But it becomes complicated in anime because a “cel image” is a substance. The “viewpoint” and “impression of air” is a topic that can be understood from the special shooting technique called “ripple glass.” I’d like to entwine my next talk with “optical” technology.

The End

Special thanks to Neil Nadelman for translation support.

Continue to part 3: The Other World that intersects with compositing and multiple exposure

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