The Texture of an Explosion Finger-painted by the Director

By Ryusuke Hikawa

Why is it essentially that people end up ascribing real feelings to an animation world that is inherently fake? Many stories are told about the subject and theme of “constructing reality in the film world,” and anime commentator Ryusuke Hikawa discusses this through the key of how the late Noboru Ishiguro, chief director of the original series, depicted explosions!

Producing works that redesign the world

As I write this, the trailer was released on December 15 [2012] for Space Battleship Yamato 2199 Chapter 4, Offense and Defense of the Galactic Frontier. Every time, I look forward to Mr. Atsuki Sato’s unique editing technique of carefully selecting information to evoke surprise. The finished piece greatly exceeded my expectations again this time, and there was a tingling sensation from the overflow. When I think about this block of the story in the 1974 version, the pivotal points are just what I expected: the treatment of Garmillas female soldier Melda Dietz who became a prisoner in the previous chapter, the full-scale startup of General Domel, and a critical incident for Captain Okita.

But the elements woven into it are genuinely shocking. The covert activities of the dimensional-dive warship, the war with the Gatlantis fleet, and the appearance of characters and ships give the feeling of a larger worldview for the entire series. There is also the emotional scene of Domel’s wife from an unused plotline, and enigmatic words inserted early into the shots to produce something dreamlike…

As the number of episodes increases, the scale and vision of director Yutaka Izubuchi and the staff enrich the story in leaps and bounds. The feeling of an expanding field of view is exactly synchronized with the continuing story of Yamato‘s voyage into space. This sense of wonder has a very good feeling.

On the same day, a “mecha designer summit” was held in Inagi City, Tokyo. Three of the people who talked about “the work of a mecha designer” were none other than founder and mecha designer Kunio Okawara (who lives there), Kazutaka Miyatake of Studio Nue, and Yutaka Izubuchi.

Although the details of their interesting discourse are omitted here, there were two things that truly made a deep impression. One was the role of mecha design, the recognition of which was common to all the attendees. That is, instead of design being only independent, the “overall view of the anime world” proceeds from the planning stage and the position is to specifically visualize a design order.

I also felt that it had a lot in common with the posture of the 2199 production. The “new elements” mentioned above are various items that were not seen in the 1974 version, but it is still bamboo from the same tree, consistent with the original. By putting emphasis on the overall worldview and re-interpreting elements that were in the original – “friend and foe are both humanoid,” for example – it captures that world more accurately.

Again, thinking of 2199 as an experiment in redesigning the world of Yamato yielded great results. So, for the present, I’ve come to feel that seeing the minute differences as we move forward and seeing the world of Yamato anew as this voyage proceeds will be even more fun, with grander feelings.

A beam fired by a Gamilas warship makes a direct hit on the Earth side. There is a pause after the light fades, then the ship in view of the camera sparks and swells up, then a big explosion occurs. Since there is a power reactor inside, it takes a little time for the fire to take effect. This representation lets you indirectly feel the structure, an idea that in itself is SF-like.

Beams simultaneously hit and penetrate the power plant of Captain Okita’s outdated battleship. Because the metal is melted, a ring-like effect spreads out from the impact point. Places not directly tied to the explosion are adversely affected by the expansion. Also, a direct hit to the bridge causes a large explosion and the crew is sucked out through a large hole by the vacuum of space.

Now, the other thing that made an impression on me was Mr. Miyatake’s remark that “I’m concerned about the delay when I use a computer to draw a picture.”

Certainly, when entering input into a computer tablet or another kind of electronic device, slight delays may occur no matter how fast the processing speed is. In a pencil drawing, lines are built up as a design proceeds, and form is made with an accumulation of judgments to gradually generate a big world. However, when the feedback in this judgment is delayed even a little by the intervention of computer processing, it’s as if someone else has gotten in the way for some reason, and the feeling is described as being unable to draw the picture by yourself.

This was an interesting topic when considering what was said about “designing a world.” The fundamental question asked by writers and other creators who build the world of anime (designers, directors and animators) is where the essence comes from.

Of course, when paying attention to the individual, it is the input/output device of the hand and the eye, and the feedback system of the brain is the foundation of creativity. There is no doubt that the brain gives rise to images. However, if no information is returned from the touch of drawing an image on paper, there is neither the sense nor the image of a world being built. A writer experiences similar things, and there are many examples of it throughout the world.

The sound uttered by a singer, for example; stories are often told of the exact pitch not reaching the ear because of irregularities in the venue. Since people aren’t machines, images don’t get output in our brains in one way. Supposing that we could manage it, it’d become terribly tiresome and boring. Such a common denominator seems to hide behind the whole of creation, and criticism that reads a work as a story [text] based on a theme is generally unconcerned with this sort of origin.

Capturing the feel of Explosion shots with finger-painting

Again, since the topic of computers not being good because they are machines might become misleading, I don’t want to talk about that. Speaking for myself, it’s quite the opposite; my feeling is that I can finally make a decent living now that I can enjoy the benefits of digitalization. Since I have no confidence in my handwriting, my visual pain was great during the era of handwritten manuscripts.

But I well understand the sense of “creating a world through the feeling of touching paper.” Since this matches the subject matter I just pondered over for this essay, it concerns me very much.

A space ship of Iscandar approaches the surface of Mars. The insulated bow starts to glow red-hot. From the surface, it looks like a meteor. Loss of control can be guessed at from the incandescence of the entire hull. An escape capsule is depicted as a small light, and the emphasis on perspective between large and small produces both a feeling of scale and a sense of reality.

Out of control, the spaceship of Sasha smashes into the Mars surface and is seriously damaged by fire. Within Episode 1’s atmosphere of despair, even the life of the savior is mourned; conversely, the explosion effect is beautifully drawn to enhance the sense of tragedy. It is characteristic of an “Ishiguro explosion” to depict something like a red lump in the center. In an attempt to give a better feel of texture in this shot, it is said that the surface of this cel image was painted with a finger. The feeling of touch is communicated vividly on the screen.

The subject is the origin of effects animation called “the explosion.” Even in Episode 1 of the 1974 version of Yamato, with the largest crashes there, the late Chief Director Noboru Ishiguro was fixated on depicting this and left these words behind:

“(On the drawing of explosions) Because no one else could draw them. You can’t seriously only just draw enormous ‘Ka-boom!’ explosions. They say explosions in space aren’t actually like that. An explosion in ‘zero gravity’ does not seem to be so.”


“There is an explosion scene where I did all of the finished animation. It was painted directly on the cel without tracing a line drawing. I mixed the colors and more. The shot only lasted a second and a half, but I stayed up all night to do it. I can’t do such a thing any more.”

(Source: Illustrated Anime Complete Works, Hara Shobo publication / interview recorded March 28, 1998.)

“Zero gravity” is similar to “weightlessness,” and Ishiguro, a fan of SF, was clearly specific about it in that manuscript. It’s worth noting here that he delved separately into the process of an explosion in weightlessness in order to deal with this shot.

It seems that this story was part of Mr. Ishiguro’s repertory, and many people heard it. I remember hearing it at the production site in 1975, when he said that “Since the feeling of an explosion didn’t really come out, I did it with finger-painting in the end.” It was probably the combination of a calligraphy brush and finger, and it was said to be for the shot of the Iscandar spaceship crashing on the surface of Mars.

Since I heard it in particular at the time of the feature film release [1977], I came to closely and persistently watch how the explosion develops in this shot. Each time the resolution improved from DVD to the HD remaster and finally the Blu-ray, my eyes were drawn to this shot. It is a “shot of interest” to that degree.

From the beginning, the explosions of Yamato were not intended to match their symbolic depiction in the 60s. This is a complex phenomenon with a feeling of instantly developing logic shown by precise effects animation. This shot is certainly special among them, and I came to particularly understand it in the theater in a way that I couldn’t by stepping through the frames.

From the white part near the center of the explosion, the hue uniquely changes to yellow and orange. In the part that spreads out in the rear area, the effect is clearly painted with a finger and calligraphy brush (fortunately, it’s easier to see in black and white).

There are two special points. One is that there is an odd difference in the orange hues, which are otherwise very close, due to how the paint was mixed according to Ishiguro’s comment. There are separate textures in the gloss and matte areas of the color, a synergistic effect that comes from a combination of painting on both sides of the cel. The second point is that since there is no color trace where the boundaries are usually delineated in cel anime, it has the feeling of being scrubbed in.

This exquisite variation of textures and the movement implied through photographic timing has a “multiplying” effect, a transition that organically increases the amount of information. To make an analogy by comparing it to a spring-like sound effect, it brings on the sense of a completely biological atmosphere.

Mamoru Kodai’s missile ship No. 7 Yukikaze catches a Gamilas warship, and the enemy evades three auto-tracking missiles that pursue it. The unusual shifting motion of the ship’s wake lets you feel the presence of a combat mechanism. Sliding the cel of Yukikaze into the frame matches the timing of the hit, then the shot changes to Mamoru Kodai and his troops watching their victory from the bridge. By using the principal axis of the explosion in multiple action shots, “film continuity in time and space” is born.

The “Sizzle Feeling” that brings life and soul to a picture

Originally, those who held the job of “Special Effects Creator” were relied upon for special finishes like this. In this job, different textures were expressed by different tools from airbrush to drybrush to beta coating with a sponge. However, an animation director doing original animation would probably want to finish each image on his own to realize the entire “effect” through quick action. It can surely be said that bringing the feeling of a living thing to an explosion, a simple physical phenomenon of chemistry, is the height of effects animation.

In a broad sense, a “sizzle feeling” dwells in such an image. “Sizzle feeling” is a term from the advertising industry that originally came from the “sizzle” sound effect in English when meat is cooked. The equivalent sound in Japanese would be “juju.” The visual side of it includes not only that, but also “the motion of juices bursting and dripping” and “the luster of melted grease floating on the surface of the meat.” They are fresh factors that generally rouse the “appetite,” and is a “value” in a commercial that connects directly with the appetite of a consumer.

It is not limited to meat, but also applies to bubbles and droplets in water or a glass of beer. This also spreads out from the advertising industry to mean “It’s there,” “it can be touched by the hand,” “the feel of reality,” and “vivid.” The meaning of “sizzle” isn’t just the state of an object, but can also describe the “drool and savor” reaction of an audience.

By the way, drawing along these lines, the low-tech meaning of “finger-painting on a cel” becomes self-evident in light of Kazutaka Miyatake’s remark at the mecha designer summit. I guess you could call it an act of “setting down directly in this world and expressing something by touching it with your hands,” so that even something inorganic like a cel drawing somehow has life to it. No matter how many times I discuss the idea of “presence” in this other world, it always works out the same.

This story may seem a bit far-fetched at first, but it is germane. When I heard Masanori Nishii, the chief mechanical director of Yamato 2199, say that CG animation was being modified by freehand drawing, my heart was warmed by the feeling of a certain kind of inheritance.

This was a private affair, but when I became involved in cel animation for an independent production in 1982, I had the true experience of imitating an Ishiguro explosion entirely on my own. I animated just one Yamato-style explosion with smoke that expanded outward in a large sphere from the center. The repeating middle two layers were cel drawings upon which I’d directly traced the color.

Don’t ask me about the results, but it was strangely enjoyable to express that feeling with direct coating by one’s own hand, and is uplifting even now.

In retrospect, that uplift was surely in some different world, and it probably came from the feeling of directly describing it by hand. For a pioneer like Noboru Ishiguro, getting to know that feeling of uplift must have made it impossible for him to leave anime. The expressive art of animation profoundly connects the soul of a sender to a recipient in this way. It is just something deeply impressive.

The End

Special thanks to Neil Nadelman for translation support.

Continue to part 8: Dynamism of the image centering on explosions

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