Animation before the days of modern computer graphics technology may impress today for the very reason that it had no modern computer graphics technology, or CGI, at its disposal. But if we really think about it — and we really watch the animated masterpieces of those days — we’ll realize that much of it should impress us on many more levels than it already does. Take, for instance, Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 cyberpunk vision Akira, one of the most beloved Japanese animated films of all time and the subject of the Nerdwriter video essay above, “How to Animate Light.”
Akira, says Nerdwriter Evan Puschak, “is well known for its painstaking animation. Every frame of the film was composed with the closest attention to detail, and that gives it an unmatched richness and soul.”
But he points up one quality of the production in particular: “I see the film’s many lights, their different qualities and textures, as a powerful motif and symbol, and a vital element of its genius.” But animators, especially animators using traditional hand-painted cels, can’t just tell their directors of photography to set up a scene’s lighting in a certain way; they’ve got to render all the different types of light in the world they create by hand, manually creating its play on every face, every object, every surface.
“The lines between shadow and light are distinct and evocative in the same way that film noir lighting is,” Puschak elaborates, “and like in film noir, light in Akira is intimately connected to the city at night.” In the dystopian “Neo-Tokyo” of 2019, elaborately crafted by Otomo and his collaborators, “authority is as much a blinding spotlight as it is a gun or a badge” and neon “is the bitter but beautiful light that signifies both the colorful radiance and the gaudy consumerism of modernity.” And then we have Tetsuo, “at once the protagonist and the antagonist of the film, a boy who gains extraordinary psychic power” that “so often produces a disruption in the light around him.” When the end comes, it comes in the form of “a giant ball of light, one single uniform white light that erases the countless artificial lights of the city,” and Akira makes us believe in it. Could even the most cutting-edge, spectacularly big-budgeted CGI-age picture do the same?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.