By Ryusuke Hikawa
In the world of animation, which is composed of flat material such as cels and background paintings, “atmosphere” basically doesn’t exist. However, it is a principal factor that greatly influences a sense of realism in the film world. Centering on photographic techniques like “ripple glass,” the wonder of elaborate direction drew in the consciousness of the audience in the original Space Battleship Yamato. Anime commentator Ryusuke Hikawa explains foresights in the rise of the technology that attracts attention to modern animation!
The “Ripple Glass” technique that distorts light and simulates atmosphere
The long-awaited second chapter of Yamato 2199 has been screened. The block in which various battles are fought at the frontier of the heliosphere was popular beyond expectation. As a Yamato fan, I am entirely grateful.
It also felt like the “expression of light” is a characteristic of Chapter 2. Because the story progresses with the visual representation of key visuals such as the warp, Wave-Motion Gun, and satellite reflection gun, the impression is even stronger. The commitment to a “feeling of light” with unique digital production lead to a parade of comfortable images, both original and inherited. This followed the flow of the previous 1974 version, which also showed a “light sensitivity” and I would like to deepen discussion about the nature of this special feature.
Continuing from the technique I mentioned last time, “ripple glass” allows an image to distort and provides “fluctuation.” It is a photographic process that has been used for a long time, and is by no means unique to Yamato. In animation photography, flat materials such as cels and background paintings are drawn in 2D, and in normal photography they are printed to film exactly one-to-one.
In contrast, sandwiching a sheet of glass with a wavy surface distortion between the camera and the cel, then moving it one frame at a time, is a technology that contributes a dynamic, swaying distortion to the image called “ripple glass photography.”
This plays the role of a substitute for “atmosphere.” For example, a “flickering” expression is generated when we aim a super-long lens at the setting sun. Or it gives the feel of liquid flowing underwater. It is used for shots to indicate the presence of something “colorless and transparent.”
Its application in Yamato was a fundamental extension of that. An animation drawing done by freehand in 2D allows the audience to feel the presence of 3-dimensional space by the trajectory of action and its afterimage. However, if you just stack perfectly 2D images atop each other, the audience will perceive the story world as a flat “fake world” and withdraw from the immersion.
Even though anime expression is “watching abstract symbols,” an “abstraction” may be filled with the chaotic information of the natural world. The feeling of presence of “light” and “atmosphere” as well gets abandoned in fully-painted cels. [i.e. cels painted completely from edge to edge.] “Ripple glass photography” is one of the techniques that adds information that was discarded, as well as a filtering process that adds special flavor.
From Episode 1 of the 1974 Yamato. At first Pluto rises into frame as the camera descends, fully revealing the large battlefield in space. The Gamilas fleet appears as a point in the upper left and progresses rapidly into the foreground. Meanwhile, the background is continually receding. This is the power of optical compositing.
Materials for optical compositing are usually photographed against blue backing. However, when we look closely at the cels in this shot, the back is coated with black paint to make them opaque. This was done for a special process called “Skip Compositing.” After the front of the cel is shot, it is lit from behind and photographed in the next frame as a “male” mask. This technique of shooting, rewinding, and shooting again converts the filming materials into a mask.
(Translator’s note: the purpose of this process is to depict foreground and background objects moving independently of each other. The western term for “Skip Compositing” is “Camera Bipac,” but the method is the same; holdout mattes are created on a strip of film to isolate foreground and background from each other. This method is extremely precise; if it goes out of sync by just one frame, the holdout matte won’t align with the objects. In the digital era, it’s much simpler. Foreground and background are shot separately and composited with software.)
The interlocking trinity of drawing, special effects, and photography
Simple examples of “ripple glass” usage in the first Yamato series included “heat waves” and “hot wind.” Looking back on scenes in the first episode, the shot of rocks rising from the surface of the Earth in a planet bomb explosion, originally drawn by Mr. Toyoo Ashida, was an image so symbolic that it appeared in Yamato 2199 as an homage scene by Mr. Takashi Hashimoto.
An unusual special effect was added during the processing, in which some parts of the frame go out of focus if you look closely. The huge mushroom cloud that subsequently forms has a flicker in the art, and the entire picture is distorted to lend an exquisite sense of reality.
Ripple glass is a favorite tool when it comes to creating “atmosphere distortion.” The audience perceives the presence of “heat” from distorted light.
Of course, it also interacts with color. As I mentioned last time, “color” is light emitted from a light source toward a photographic subject, a reflection of which travels through the atmosphere to be recognized by the brain through the eye (camera). There is not an independent “substance” called “color.”
However, it seems that a misunderstanding is easily created by a “colored” object (photographic subject) in anime, which is independent of light and atmosphere. However, an audience grasps an image by accumulation of past experience, so not even anime can escape from the principle. If “light” and “atmosphere” are needed, you must make full use of the necessary techniques to indicate their presence. For an effect such as explosions and ray beams in particular, presence and quality control will determine success or failure.
Okita’s ship approaches Mars to collect Kodai, Shima, and the capsule from Iscandar. The Mars background does a truck-up [gets larger in the frame], but Okita’s ship does a truck-back [gets smaller] to look like it’s closing in. The storyboard (at right) specifies “optical” for the production assistants.
As I explained earlier, Chief Director Noboru Ishiguro was the person in charge of art production, and was also an expert in animation effects. Therefore, he devised experimental techniques for Yamato in the category of fantasy effects expressed purely by drawing. Finishing touches with a brush to add texture, special effects, and photographic effects to process light and atmosphere were combined with artwork at every turn with a keen understanding of “visual expression” as a weapon to represent the characteristics of “light.”
In order to break through the limits of 2D symbolic expression, a “special touch” is needed to effectively unite the interlocking trinity of drawing, special effects, and photography. To produce what is seen and unseen alike, the maximum effect arises through the advantages and disadvantages of a technique.
One result of the spread of digital technology over the past ten years is animators who specialize in the area of effects photography, so there is a trend to create images that emphasize “atmosphere and light.” Thinking about Noboru Ishiguro’s ideas for the flow of effects in Yamato, it could be that he was positioned at the origin of this movement.
Memory of an optical distortion that acts on a person’s consciousness
Because “atmosphere and light” is also a foundation for human life, the distinct perception of its visual transformation strongly affects a person’s consciousness. In fact, during the introduction to the flashback scenes in Episode 1, the ripple glass expression was used to represent the shift of Captain Okita’s consciousness to a time when the Earth was once blue.
Ripple glass is not only used to reproduce physical phenomena; it can be argued that this technique is also used for the purpose of showing how one’s consciousness perceives a photographic subject.
By the way, I notice that ripple glass was widely used for images in video monitors in early episodes of Yamato. As I introduced last time, the flickering enemy atmospherecraft carrier that appears on the large video panel during the interception battle in Episode 2 was done with ripple glass, and the shock cannon focus sight was used in conjunction with the art.
Above: more examples of ripple glass. The surface of the earth is torn up by a planet bomb, and when we look closer the lower half is blurred. As for the mushroom cloud, the overall texture sways in addition to the art. Shooting it through ripple glass gives the expression of a heat wave and a hot wind.
At left: For the scene in Episode 3 in which Yamato advances through a huge explosion after overcoming the giant missile, ripple glass was used for the monitor image watched by members of the EDF headquarters. Because the rest of the picture was super-imposed with multiple exposures, it is not distorted. This also implies atmosphere between the camera and its subject.
Episode 3 contains a scene of Captain Okita staring calmly at the giant missile that comes flying in from Pluto, shimmering on the video panel, and another of an anxious and excited EDF headquarters staff watching Yamato advance through a huge explosion; both were achieved with ripple glass. The image within the monitors was shot by multiple exposure, but the cross-gauges remain as straight lines.
For this, three passes were needed: the people and background in the room were shot normally (1), the monitor image was shot with ripple glass (2) and the cross-gauges were “super” (3). Super is abbreviation of “super-impose”, a technique of multiple exposure for titles, rain, and other material. It is also used for reflected light that strikes a character.
By showing that the gauges and the room are not distorted, it emphasizes that the “picture in picture” on the video panel belongs to another world. The monitor is the boundary (interface) that joins the two worlds together. Though this enhances the function of the attributes, “super” acts as the secret ingredient.
So I wonder what is the meaning of “ripple glass?” In order to depict the battle of a space fleet or a fighter, the depiction of a radar or monitor may be called an “axis.” Because the quality of information is directly connected to the different capability of opposing military forces, especially how much distance you can cover in searching for an enemy, it’s vital that the representational technique and direction be dramatic.
In addition, both the purpose and the principle of radar and a monitor are totally different. Radar is intended to determine the distance of a radio wave when it reflects against an object, and only a blip (spot of light) appears. The three-dimensional radar handled by Yuki Mori corresponds to three-dimensional space in the form of a hemisphere, so its symbolic display is realistic.
On the other hand, an optical device intervenes for a real image to appear on a monitor, so if it is operating in an atmosphere, air exists there. If you catch a view of a long-distance object, then its image should be accompanied by the distortion and fluctuation of the air.
Ripple glass processing is applied to part of the mushroom cloud in this shot from Episode 3. We gradually see something emerge from the break in the clouds, and it turns out to be the bow of Yamato. Showing someone’s viewpoint in a certain order leads to a sense of reality.
Our experience of vision, which includes the presence of atmosphere, is accumulated at the bottom of our memory. “Heat haze” appears in the real world, although we only see it clearly when we gaze down a distant road into intense heat. Even if this weren’t the case, we remember routine fluctuations of the atmosphere in our unconscious. Memory is like the difference in focal length of a lens. An image captured by a telephoto lens, like chasing an animal in a documentary film, often shows heavy fluctuation of the atmosphere, and this visual experience is shared by many audiences.
These experiences are a clue to the time-consuming “ripple glass image,” which draws our consciousness into the world of the film. Mediating the perspective and feelings of the audience for concepts like “an optical device with a lens sighting the enemy,” or “attempting to catch an image of Yamato in the chaos of an explosion” begins with simulating the presence of atmosphere. The feelings that you provoke through the direction in this manner are vital.
By the way, I once heard in an interview that it’s very difficult to reproduce the “ripple glass” technique in digital photography. Because the distortion contains a random element by passing through glass material, even if a temporary change occurs by accident, it reveals the limits of humans to detect artificiality. Although the problem may be solved someday, I’d like you to recognize the abundance of information in analog, which itself uses light and atmosphere, has a “taste” that humans can perceive. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not asking for a return to the analog era.)
Above left: The smoke of the giant missile fills the screen. Yamato, which should be large, initially appears as only a tiny point in this ultra-long shot. The skill behind the effects production to make the most of such a size ratio later became evident in the feature film presentation.
Above right: The closing shot of Episode 3 lasted 22 seconds, which was rare in TV anime. The explosion recedes with ripple glass processing, and Yamato shows great power by coming forward very slowly. The power of skip photography and optical processing are shown to the maximum. In his storyboard, Noboru Ishiguro specified optical instructions for the composition of the camera work.
[Translator’s note: it later came out that the time and expense of this one shot landed Ishiguro in deep trouble with Producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki. Fortunately for him, it became an enduring icon for the entire saga.]
The transition to a monitor screen to bridge different worlds
Regarding “ripple glass,” there is also the problem of labor and masking accuracy, and numerous on-screen mistakes such as fluctuations on a full screen contributes to a sharp decrease in examples. One important example for its use in a monitor is to give the sense of “bridging two worlds.”
In a screenplay I obtained at the time [of series 1 production], there was a strange concern. It began with the instructions to depict an “intense battle” in an interior scene, such as the main bridge, “on a monitor.”
As a high school student who had some degree of knowledge of how to use a montage technique, I remember thinking, “it should be shown directly.” However, later in life I learned that there is a limit to a montage. A montage allows you to take big leaps in time and space, but in the case of a child without much viewing experience, in many cases it may not be recognized as a continuous thing. And the more scenes are broken up, the more the realism is reduced.
It’s certainly true that “one-scene, one-shot” and long-takes are one technique that is tried repeatedly to great effect in directing images, but if you go with doing everything through montage, you turn it into a “giant monster & hero” thing like Godzilla and Ultraman, where the technique of “compositing with real scenery” becomes unnecessary.
The reason “compositing” is required to connect two worlds is “continuity,” the problem in filmmaking of fostering a sense of time and space. Weaving the action in the script into a monitor on the bridge had the purpose of securing continuity.
We’ve taken another close look at the problem of “compositing,” and in this context the next big keyword is “optical.” The first time I remember hearing the term “optical” was in 1966 when Ultra Q introduced me to a compositing apparatus, which enabled the creation of full-scale special effects in TV programs, called the “optical printer manufactured by Oxberry.”
Because “optical” is an overall term for devices including telescopes and glasses, it is a machine that plays in important role in the sense that it can “manipulate light itself.” It is the basic principle of cutting masks in a positive/negative relationship, referred to as male and female, to protect a portion of photosensitive film over several exposures. It is the same as mask composition in still photography, but the big difference is that it can also be synthesized for a subject which moves via complex camera work.
Special “optical” techniques were used in a total of only four places in the 1974 Space Battleship Yamato. Why was it necessary to use such a powerful special effects machine for anime? I’d like to thoroughly examine that next time.
Special thanks to Neil Nadelman for translation support