Drawing the Line at “Off-Model”

Black Clover episode 63’s exceptional production and divisiveness among fans has been well-documented, thanks to SakugaBlog and the archived exchanges of opinions on websites such as Reddit. Somewhat like the controversial Gurren Lagann #4, the show noticeably departed from its usual visual style, in this case by recruiting an eclectic mix of independent artists, Trigger staffers, foreign animators, and amateur web animators. Naturally, fan reactions were mixed. As one of the more cogent responses put it:

“i absolutely despise this art style and type of animation for black clover. as a fan of the manga i was hoping they would try imitate that art style alot more rather than the web gen stuff. although the animation is great its definitely not what i wanted. i value consistent character design and background art more than animation.”

This person gets right to the heart of the matter: consistency, or being “on-model,” is a big deal for a lot of people, and not just nitpicky anime fans. American cartoon viewers weaned on the Disney animated films would surely be accustomed to a degree of technical accuracy and conformity in drawing style. And any devotee of a particular work of fiction—for instance, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings fans—will tend to prefer seeing the material faithfully adapted in other media.

On the face of it, it isn’t wrong to prefer consistency and faithfulness in the portrayal of animated characters. Solid draftsmanship is rightly considered a key skill in the 2D animation profession. It allows characters to have form and presence, and sustains the illusion that they materially exist in their own worlds. It is also a significant aspect of aesthetic appeal. To see how “off-model” can go wrong, observe this bizarre Tom & Jerry theatrical poster:

I don’t think anyone would argue that it isn’t better for an artist to have the ability to put lines exactly where they want them. Consider, however, that perhaps the artist wants to put lines in places that don’t perfectly align with the established models, even though they are capable of perfect reproductions. This may be for the sake of character expression, conveying a powerful motion, or responding to a stylistic shift in the cartoon. Wouldn’t it be boring if animators merely traced model sheets or manga poses? It certainly wouldn’t allow for such wonderful funny images as this one:

As you can see, animation can purposefully break rules with results just as successful as following them. Some of the tamest sorts of rulebreaking can be found in Disney films. Disney characters squash and stretch pretty much all the time, technically going “off-model” when they do so, but it usually goes unnoticed because it looks “right.” After all, organic forms like a person’s cheek are soft and pliable in real life. It would look “wrong” if an animated human cheek kept its shape as it was being punched, as if it were made of metal.

While Disney animators freely use distortion, they generally do so within strict parameters. They keep the volumes of the squashed and stretched objects the same at all times, in accordance with the law of conservation of mass. In this sense, Disney cartoons follow their own interpretation of “on-model.” That’s not to say they are completely enslaved to reality: although they preserve volume, they do not necessarily observe the real-world elasticity of material. For instance, when Mickey Mouse gets knocked flat on his stomach in “The Little Whirlwind,” his entire head squashes against the ground even though an actual person’s (or mouse’s) skull is a rigid object that couldn’t be so easily compressed. Yet the distortion is barely noticeable, because the exaggerated drawing lasts for all of two frames. You feel the impact even if you don’t see it. In a way, it becomes more real than reality—if the animator didn’t squash his head, the action would look strangely weightless. The key idea here is that getting the correct feeling of animation can be more important than always adhering to the correct model.

Japanese animation typically doesn’t use squash and stretch as much as Disney does. The archetypal modern anime character is designed with more realistic proportions and rigid anatomy. On the other hand, anime characters are more likely to adopt stylized, graphic expressions and exaggerated forms that may totally ignore conservation of volume or even their basic structure. For example, the anime K-on! is very meticulous about depicting its characters with solid forms and realistically grounded motion, but it also permits their eyes to be drawn as simple circles or scribbly lines. Again, feeling supersedes reality—the importance of clearly showing the character’s mental state takes priority over drawing their faces on-model. Anime is more rigid than Disney-style animation in some ways and less so in others. In other words, the exact meaning of “on-model” is, if not arbitrary, highly dependent on context.

Sometimes animators impose their own personal style on an established work. If you find this notion objectionable, perhaps you’d be interested to know that Hayao Miyazaki’s “Castle of Cagliostro” went very much against the grain of original author Monkey Punch’s Lupin the Third manga, both in visual style and tone. This may account for why Cagliostro fared poorly at the Japanese box office compared to the first animated Lupin movie, though ironically it is viewed as the classic baseline of the franchise by most English-speaking anime fans today. Similarly, Mamoru Oshii’s film “Beautiful Dreamer” was such a departure from the normal tone of Urusei Yatsura that some incensed fans mailed razor blades to the director, yet it is also now viewed as an anime classic and is the only part of the Urusei Yatsura series that some fans watch. (Beautiful Dreamer’s case was more about the direction than the animation style, but the same principle still applies.)

So we’ve established that “on-model” animation is a fluid concept and that going off-model for functional, expressive, and personal artistic reasons can be a good thing. But as far as the Black Clover episode is concerned, there remains a legitimate counterargument: even if the animation is great in isolation, how does it serve the needs of the story in this long-running series? Indeed, the examples I’ve cited thus far have been standalone films or parts of series with little or no continuity. It’s good and well to try artistic experiments when it doesn’t affect anything else, but what if inconsistent and off-model animation is counterproductive to the demands of an ongoing plot?

First, just to be clear: animation itself is a form of storytelling. Even with all other elements removed, “sakuga” in isolation can tell a complete story as a silent film. It is easy to imagine an animator drawing a sequence of images straight ahead, without having written a story or even having a particular end in mind (I hear Miyazaki storyboards his films this way).

In theory, it is possible that an inappropriate style of animation could disrupt the flow of a story. Certainly Hiroyuki Imaishi’s “Space Patrol Luluco” animation style would be an poor fit for a film like “Ghost in the Shell” or “Night on the Galactic Railroad.” However, almost every instance of incongruous animation I can think of constitutes welcome improvements, shortcomings of the animator, or broader failures in filmmaking. In my opinion there are very few real-world examples of good animation that is in itself detrimental to the story. Part of this depends on one’s perspective; does Art Babbitt’s overly literal and slow animation in his later Goofy shorts count as “good” animation? In a strictly technical sense perhaps, but even his contemporaries noted the shortcomings of his work on those films—it was too stiff, it didn’t have the energy or acting prowess that his fellow animators and even Babbitt’s own earlier work had. Clips that sakuga fans admire in isolation almost always have animation with lots of vitality and care put into it. “Care” implies, among other things, a mindfulness of the story being told and a sense of purpose in depicting it, because good animators understand that animation is storytelling. Even Imaishi can and has adapted his style according to the needs of the project.

With that criteria in mind, how does the highly varied animation in Black Clover 63 fare? To determine if it is appropriate to the story, we’ll take the specifics into account. The episode opens with the protagonist confronting an inner demon within his own mind. He then wakes up to find himself partially possessed with a demonic energy and inhuman strength, and he engages in a ferocious battle with a magical opponent. It is this fight sequence in particular that has been the cause of controversy: at times the animation is loose, rough, and verges on impressionistic. The stylistic shift may look crude to some, but consider the idea of depicting mental states rather than literal portrayals of reality. A life-or-death conflict is a primal array of feelings that calls for bold, elemental shapes and colors. Less detail and flat colors can have greater power and visual impact, as any modern designer would tell you. The main character’s reality is also distorted and confused by his demon possession, which I think more than justifies a surreal and chaotic treatment. The loose animation style in this segment does exactly what the story calls for.

In the previous Black Clover episode, the characters flash stylized, symbolic expressions that have no relation to real human anatomy. Anime fans are used to this sort of thing because stylized expression has become an entrenched part of Japanese animation vocabulary. To them the justification for the distortion is self-evident, even natural. However, I’ve noticed that viewers unaccustomed to anime tend to be put off by it; classic Disney would never dare to use such extreme graphic devices. How are these “off-model” shifts different from the “off-model” scenes in Black Clover 63? The latter simply isn’t as well established in the anime fan mainstream.

I’ve seen complaints about sakuga fans who drop in on a long-running series only to see the “sakuga” episode and argue with longtime viewers who are not use to the style shift. I don’t necessarily condone the practice of ignoring the story context and only admiring the moving drawings, but I have some sympathy for the sakuga fans here (and it should be noted that despite popular misconceptions, the majority of sakuga enthusiasts do care about plot). Not everyone has time to keep up with a 100+ episode show. More importantly, an ambitious new animated work is a rare bird in the ever-harsh animation industry, and the appearance of one is potentially a boon to the art form as a whole and a cause for celebration for people who care about the medium. And in almost all cases, an influx of animation talent is also beneficial to a series from both a storytelling and visual point of view. In the end taste is always subjective and not everyone will appreciate exotic sakuga barging into their favorite anime, but it is good to have a better foundation for critical assessment instead of just calling a great piece of animation “unfitting” or “lazy.”

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