Manipulating Light with Animation Technology

By Ryusuke Hikawa

In the field of digital video production these days, information processing of pixel units is a matter of course, but why is it that a bright picture in the original Space Battleship Yamato made with analog techniques does not fade? Based on the invaluable testimony of Mr. Noboru Ishiguro and lots of other information, anime critic Ryusuke Hikawa approaches the essence of its appeal!

High-precision compositing machine optical printer

The trailer for Yamato 2199 Chapter 3 was released while I was writing this manuscript. The trailer for Chapter 1 showed the determination to restart, the heat of the Chapter 2 trailer aimed at heights beyond a remake, and when the song The Scarlet Scarf suddenly flowed in this one, it came as a shock as I thought, “So, this is how it comes!”

In addition to military SF, romance is also an important element of Space Battleship Yamato. While holding such deep emotion in my heart, I’ll continue with the topic of the images from the 1974 version that inspired the staff.

These two images are on the monitor of a Gamilas space carrier in Episode 4; missiles have lost their target and their contrails lengthen. This is a technique called “Keshikomi,” in which the scene is shot in reverse order as paint is scraped off the cel one frame at a time.

The main part of Episode 4 was the warp scene. For that moment, Yamato was also photographed with the ripple glass process (left). However, to create a distortion that exceeded the audience’s expectation, Yamato was drawn in a distorted shape.

Last time, I was not able to touch on the matter of “optical.” The word “optics” means “light science,” the keyword of which is “light.” Herein, the abbreviated name of the equipment used for composition is “optical printer.”

When speaking of current digital imaging made with electrical signals and bit units, the information processing of the pixel unit plays a key technical role. However, since the birth of cinema about 100 years ago, “optics” has been at the core of the technology, supported by chemical, mechanical, and electrical systems. Of course, images are the visual expression even now, but because the premise of “optics” is to stimulate the vision of the audience, the most important part is unchanged. However, since light generated with a computer is simulated, does consciousness of “light” become diluted?

In a transitional period such as this, it is important to reconfirm the origin of imaging techniques.

The “optical printer” is a device that has played a particularly active part in the field of special effects, and there are also implications beyond the framework of anime. A 1966 episode concerning the birth of Ultra Q is the most famous. In the early 1960s, director Eiji Tsuburaya, known as “the god of special effects,” placed an order for the 4-head system Oxberry 1200 optical printer for Tsuburaya Productions. At the time, there were only two in the world [the other in the hands of Disney]. In anticipation of changes from the world of film to TV, he tried to create an environment that allowed for a high degree of compositing accuracy. It was a precision instrument that cost 40 million yen at the time.

After placing the order, an incident occurred which left the fate of the device up in the air [the price tag was so high that it put Tsuburaya Productions in jeopardy]. Therefore, his eldest son, Hajime Tsuburaya, who had worked for the TBS television network, had them purchase it instead with the offer of planning a succession of “tokusatsu series” with lots of fantastic special effects in exchange. And so, Ultra Q begat Ultraman. The impression of “tokusatsu,” which the eyes of children clearly understood, was undeniably influenced by the impact of this optical printer.

Above left: In this shot, all of space is distorted in the warp scene, photographed with a rotating anamorphic lens. Originally this lens was used to optically compress a film image for the cinemascope format. Above right: On the bridge during the warp, the entire background shines, and Kodai and Shima are in silhouette. The leakage of light from behind is a true representation of the cel painting era.

Breaking through the limits of camera work

What kind of close relationship exists between “optical” and Space Battleship Yamato? This May [2012], a discussion took place between Yoshikazu Yasuhiko and Yutaka Izubuchi, to be published in a certain magazine [Animage #409, June 2012]. I was the moderator, and the subject of “optical” was the first to come up. The story of the “opticals of Yamato” is famous in the industry. Mr. Yasuhiko was in charge of storyboards for the 1974 TV series, and produced the equivalent of half of the 26 episodes. Before Yamato, he participated in Zero Tester (1973) and it seems he was just getting started in storyboard production. In his initial meeting, he was surprised to see film prior to the broadcast and said the images were full of “opticals.”

Above left: The image of Captain Okita is divided into three separate colors. While it is a simple multiple exposure as seen in Episode 1, it expresses the abnormality of light in warp space. Above right: An image equivalent to a master shot of Yamato pushing through warp space. Since the effect on Yamato and the neighboring stars distorts differently, this is obviously a multiple exposure. Furthermore, since part of the cel image changes to rainbow colors, the back was thickly painted in solid black for even more multiple exposures. A shot like this cannot be done without minute calculations of light.

When directing anime in a film environment, one must be familiar with various technical requirements which mainly originate from the physical limitations of a photography platform. For example, there is a limit to the size and direction of material that can move laterally on the screen, such as a panning cel. Vertical movement requires special attention with a combination of camera work called “truck up” and “truck back.” [Translator’s note: the equivalent terms in American animation are “truck in” and “truck out.” It’s different from a zoom in or zoom out since the entire camera must move; the word “truck” is an artifact of live-action filmmaking in which a camera was mounted on a moving platform that “trucked” in a specified direction.] Because of the structure of the photography stand, it is not possible to simultaneously move in different axial directions, such as pushing in on a cel while pulling out from a background.

But because Yamato used a combination of camera work that was normally prohibited, Mr. Yasuhiko said he was shocked. An image made by using an optical printer to combine camera work with movement on two axes (probably Okita’s ship approaching Mars in the first episode) gave a feeling that went beyond the existing sensibilities. “Light” was involved there as well.

Distorted meters (left) and distorted warp space (right), both shots in which the entire background is a distorted drawing.

With the development of software, compositing has become simple in the digital age. In Photoshop, you can specify a selection to generate an alpha channel (corresponding to a mask) and composite as many layers of material as you like. If you make a mistake, you can redo it. However, once film has been exposed to light, an image is burned into it via a chemical change and it cannot be erased. If it is exposed to light again, the image is sensitive to overdub.

An optical printer is the mechanism that allows multiple images to be composited on a single strip of film by covering an area with a mask to protect it from exposure. Fade ins, fade outs, dissolves (overlap) and scene changes such as wipes are often performed by an optical process as well. But a photography stand for cel animation had an optical compositing function from the beginning, since it photographs combined materials including cel images and painted backgrounds. In fact, its handling of scene conversions is mostly a case of photography rather than post-production processing. At present, since the “photography” department of digital animation production uses a computer application for compositing, it can be easily understood that the essence of anime photography is “composition.”

The warp ends with a “service” shot of Yuki Mori. This became a “fixture” of Yamato, with Yuki being similarly exposed in both Resurrection and 2199. The layout below left includes written instructions by Noboru Ishiguro. “Yuki sits in the chair. 1) Yuki, dressed normally. 2) Underwear and bra. 3) All off~~!” The plan is clear. The detailed indications of “A cup” and to “do scanty research” are also fun. The information was received by animation director Takeshi Shirato, who drew the layout below right.

Heat that breaks through the limits of an image

Because of this principle, cutting masks for cels on a photography stand came from the ingenuity of anime craftsmen. This was directed on the production by Noboru Ishiguro, and was frequently used in the first episode of Space Battleship Yamato, as described earlier. However, the premise for composition by photographic processing is fixed. Since the position of the camera and what’s being shot must be precisely reproduced when the film is rewound one frame to the same position, there’s a high degree of difficulty in the camera work. While it is common practice in TV to refrain from difficult methods of anime image-making for the sake of productivity, Noboru Ishiguro did not do so.

What is the reason? My guess is that the “frontier spirit of breaking through limitations” came out. An important element in the work was “a feeling of scale in space,” but it could be said that it was overcome by “human will.” Therefore, despite the use of 2-dimensional materials, there was something else that was not surrendered. If the camera work had only created images that showed the constraints of “ordinary anime,” its promise would have been frozen in the mind and the element of surprise would have been worn out.

So, depending on the scene, breaking through the limits became necessary. The audience reaction was, “this is something special.” For those who didn’t get that reaction, some people on the creative end would turn that around and make it into a personal challenge, like a writer testing his language by persistently asking, “What was that about?” After all, it is an ironclad rule that “content and expression are inseparable.” The whole Space Battleship Yamato series is filled with a reckless “pioneer spirit” even in the sequels. The use of opticals was set from the beginning by the first series in 1974.

Revisiting last month: on the left is a cel painting of Gamilas ships, but in fact the back side is painted solid black. This is called “backing,” a technique to prevent transparency when light is shone through from behind the camera stand. This creates a male mask, from which a female mask is generated via laboratory processing. Finally, masking material is made for an optical printer.

One example of optical scenes can be found in four shots throughout all 26 episodes. The first is from the beginning of Episode 1, a quiet truck-back from Pluto in which the Gamilas fleet approaches from the distance. Space and Pluto are on separate backgrounds, shot with multiple exposures while moving at different speeds. Unfortunately, the distant stars were exposed over Pluto due to a mistake. The Gamilas fleet cuts through space in a sharp flowing line, completely different from the gradual movement of the background.

When the cels of the destroyers are examined, the reverse side is covered in black paint to provide “backing.” Fortunately, a writer was able get an explanation for it out of Noboru Ishiguro back in the broadcasting days. He collaborated with voice actor Noriko Ohara to publish a book titled TV Anime Frontline, 17 Years in Anime (cover shown at right; Yamato books, 1980). One passage contained the following description:

“During this time, I tried a really elaborate camera setup we called “skip photography.” We were always thinking up new experiments, but this one nearly got me fired by Mr. Nishizaki. There was a lot of pressure on the camera department to keep things moving, and the complaint was that this method took three times longer than usual. ”

The term “skip photography” is eye-catching here. When optical composition is done in live-action film, the moving subject is shot against a “blue screen” background (though “green screen” is mainstream now). This is done in order to extract a mask later using a color filter. However, “blue screen” was not in use at the time of Yamato‘s opticals. This means that the idea of a mask was shared with the subject itself (the cel). Its backing prevented light from penetrating through the painted image when it was lit from behind.

“Skip photography” was performed with every other frame. First, the cel was shot normally by applying light to its surface. In the next frame, a light was shone from behind the material so that a mask image was photographed in the same position. As this was repeated, the material and the male mask alternated, or “skipped” every other frame when the shot was completed. They were isolated by processing in a lab to produce one film of the image and a separate film of the mask. The female mask was generated by reversing the male mask with more lab processing. Since all the material needed to achieve an optical composite could be acquired using this principle, a “blue screen” was unnecessary. The reason it caused such trouble was that a “blue mismatch” (often seen in old special-effects films) had to be avoided.

Episode 3 has many scenes of objects being seen on a panel. Techniques were widely used to distinguish between photographic subjects with ripple glass (above left) and transmitted light (above right). The peak of this was an optical scene (right). Two images shot separately were composited; the ripple glass photographic process was used on the background as Yamato moves forward very slowly. The result was that the will to launch from into the unknown is manifested in Yamato as it flies away from a turbulent atmosphere.

The second example of an optical composite, the scene of Okita’s battleship approaching Mars (with a truck-up on the background and a truck-back on the ship) was covered last issue.

Its third use was the final scene of Episode 3, in which opticals were pushed to the maximum. It had a rare length for TV anime, 22 seconds long. The explosion in the background fluctuates due to ripple-glass processing. Yamato flies toward us at a very slow speed. The difference in speed gives a great feeling of depth. A sense of weight occurs when a large object moves slowly, and we get the feeling that we’re watching a scene from a documentary, shot with an ultra-telephoto lens.

Another photography technique called “gondola” was planned from the beginning. A painted cel was hung in front of the camera in such a manner that it would retreat from the background without changing its relative position. This was used in the scene of dive bombers launching from the second Gamilas carrier in the battle of the Rainbow Star Cluster. This technique certainly makes it seem like what you’re shooting is moving away, but you can’t pin it to the background, so the weight (quality) could not be maintained over 22 seconds of film time.

With opticals, as you get a sense of gentle movement with the background shot separately through ripple glass, it gives the impression of Yamato flying away from a world with an atmosphere into the vacuum of space. When this scene was shown later in a theater, the intention of the director appeared for the first time on the big screen, and it is remembered for its incredible power.

However, because the price of skip photography was calculated by “cost-per-single-frame,” the length suffered at the time. This is the reason why Mr. Ishiguro said he was nearly “fired” in the previous quote.

The heat given off by the 1974 version of Yamato came not just from the story, drama, mecha, or characters, but also from its power to stir up the fans at the time. The visual expression of Noboru Ishiguro and others was hugely significant, and their enormous passion and enthusiasm for making images supported it from the bottom up. We can learn much from re-examining their work.

Because of the prohibitive cost of opticals, the fourth example was a scene of the return to Earth at the very end. Since the secret behind this differed from production requirements described above, I’d like to introduce it at a later opportunity.

The End

Special thanks to August Ragone for input and to Neil Nadelman for translation support

Continue to part 5: Breaking past limits! The sense of wonder of light

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