BEASTARS: Traditionally Excellent Modernity

BEASTARS: Traditionally Excellent Modernity

BEASTARS‘ TV anime gives us an opportunity to talk about studio Orange’s work and how their 3DCG productions – with beautiful strokes of older techniques – make for animated storytelling that’s satisfying in surprisingly traditional ways.

Rather than a specific stylistic or thematic trait, the characteristic that has defined studio Orange ever since they started leading projects of their own has been their ambition. On the one hand, there’s the ambition of tackling prestige series that could become the next big hit and critical darling… as easily as they could become a huge disappointment, since they’re not series anyone would deem easy to adapt. In that regard and considering how quick fans are to attribute project selection to anime studios alone, it’s worth noting that Orange are able to handle these risky adaptations in the first place because they’ve earned the trust of a massive corporation like TOHO, who have led the committee for both Land of the Lustrous and BEASTARS.

Those two shows also share a different kind of ambition that I find more interesting than these business happenings, however: Orange’s audacity to work on titles that are, simply put, a pain in the ass to translate into the 3D animation they specialize in. Between Haruko Ichikawa’s sleek but brittle to the touch gem-people and Paru Itagaki’s rough masses of fur and emotion, it feels as if the studio is specifically targeting properties that are unfit for the often inert nature of anime’s CGi. And that only makes it more impressive when they do succeed at offering interesting reinterpretations of the source material – with a strong emphasis on the reinterpretation part; even though they follow the original narrative more or less to a T, the fundamental changes to the delivery and aesthetic give these works such a different texture that they feel like alternative takes on the concept.

The studio’s ability to reinvent unique works like that can’t be narrowed down to one blanket solution, but that isn’t to say that Orange has no animation philosophy of their own. In an interview with CGWORLD after Land of the Lustrous, the company’s representative director (and BEASTARS’ Chief CG Director) Eiji Inomoto explained that Orange is aiming for something in-between Disney’s work and Japan’s traditional animation. He then added that anime has so many stops – pauses for a particular layer or the shot altogether when movement isn’t strictly necessary – that its delivery has become comparable to that of kamishibai and other more static means of storytelling.

Inomoto, who lived through an era where any bit of CGi the audience was able to notice was frowned upon, developed kind of a need to justify his choice to pursue a career in the field of 3D. Rather than surround himself with creators capable of camouflaging their work and sneaking it past the audience used to standard anime with techniques like the holding of frames to mimic limited animation, then, the staff he employs has had a penchant for boldly embracing the possibilities of 3DCGi. Never looking down on traditional craft either, but proud of the unique charm of their specialized field.

And it’s from this broad desire to fully realize the power of 3DCGi that Orange’s more specific policies stem from. One of the more notorious ones is their widespread usage of motion capture as the basis for their animation, which Inomoto sees as a way to address that excessively static, choppily-paced anime delivery that he doesn’t believe fits the medium the best. Back in Land of the Lustrous, they estimated that around 120 cuts per episode – above one third of the shots – were initially motion-captured performances by the staff, which served as guidelines for the animation while also giving a better grasp of acting to the team, who were mostly used to mecha and flashy action sequences.

As said earlier, however, Orange has quite the ability to adapt to the needs of each project, so the weight of that motion capture process varies a lot depending on the style they’re aiming for. Which means that, despite being large in volume, those motion-captured materials in Land of the Lustrous ended up being very loose guidelines for the final product. Instead, and as we talked about in our extensive coverage of the show, the staff used various techniques to aim for an anime-like feeling; while trying not to compromise 3DCGi’s own charm, they used tools like their proprietary software Camera-O-Matic to simulate flat 2D expressions regardless of the angle they were shown from, employed countless hand-drawn corrections, and even tasked traditional ace animators to draw pre-vis footage which was followed rather strictly during various emotional peaks in the show. Rather than a precise formula, you should think of Inomoto’s claim about Orange’s goal lying between Disney and Japan’s traditional animation as more of a spectrum – and for their first TV show, it leaned more towards the anime side of things.

On the other hand, Orange’s next projects have focused more on thorough acting heavily rooted in real movement. This was noticeable in Toshimasa Ishii’s Soba e short film, and even more so in today’s subject matter: Shinichi Matsumi’s BEASTARS TV series. Matsumi, who was also part of Land of the Lustrous’ group of core directors, opted for this strategy since the earliest stages of production. Not only was the dialogue recorded before the animation – a practice known as pre-scoring, as opposed to anime’s standard after-recording – they actually encouraged the cast to act out their scenes to some degree, giving useful references for gestures that truly fit their voices. In that regard, BEASTARS is curiously reminiscent of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the last film by Isao Takahata; somewhat similarly to Matsumi, the late Ghibli legend asked the cast to perform based on the script to inspire him and the rest of the team to build animation based on their body language.

Though of course, that’s only one of the many steps in the making of BEASTARS’ animation. On top of all the standard anime production duties, and more specifically those that are inherent to 3DCGi, the show’s animation can often rely on separate motion capture for body and facial expressions, and even specialized performers in some instances; brief as they are, Juno’s dancing sequences required the motion capture data from a professional dancer so that Orange’s animators could make them look convincing in animation form. As you can see, a whole lot of work is being done to root the movement of these animals in very real human behavior.

Fortunately, none of that effort is being put to waste. For its dazzlingly modern look, these practices have elevated BEASTARS’ animation into excellence in pretty traditional ways. Its character acting is so articulate that, even though reading the expressions of anthropomorphic animals sounds like it should be harder than interpreting human faces, the characters’ feelings and general mental state are conveyed perfectly via their movement and body language. Not that there’s any problem with the expression work in the end either, as that always goes through a careful process of its own too; in this case, character designer Nao Ootsu gave more solidity to Paru Itagaki’s looser forms, and then expression tests conducted with lead modeler Jun Nagakawa’s work to check exactly how well those concepts can be translated into the actual 3D models. As it turns out, quite well.

Another aspect that stands out when you see the characters in motion within the show itself is the uninterrupted acting: exactly what Inomoto highlighted as a high priority in his conception of animation after Land of the Lustrous, showing clear progress in that regard. While subtle compared to other aspect, BEASTARS’ authenticity benefits from the countless scenes where characters keep moving even when they’re no longer in the spotlight, all the secondary animation in the form of crowds that continuously react, and the many face to face confrontations with real flow as opposed to a game of animation tennis. A densely packed show of a kind we don’t see much on Japan’s TV animation – something that could be changing for the better if people learn the right lessons from Orange’s work.

As you might imagine, though, changing mentalities on such a fundamental level is easier said than done. As Inomoto himself admitted, even 3DCGi anime creators often construct scenes with that same kind of choppy animation pacing that prioritizes production economy, be it to feel similar to traditional anime or simply out of habit. This industry has made an actual art out of cutting corners for decades, meaning that directors themselves have to ditch their preconceptions and come up with new – at least for them – ideas when it comes to storyboarding. BEASTARS’ constant PiP paneling isn’t always the most elegant solution for concurrent acting, but if they manage to raise their own directors with a grasp of these ideas, the studio could be expanding commercial anime’s storytelling techniques in interesting directions. So far, they’re already capable of making a whole beastly world come to life very convincingly.

That said, it’s not the effectiveness of this show’s animated storytelling that makes me believe it’s another leap forward for the studio. When you’re at Orange’s level, getting the job done well almost feels like a given, unfair as that might be. I do appreciate that BEASTARS’ meticulous gesture work and continuous acting help it convey its message and emotional load more efficiently than ever, but in the end, the sweetest surprise was something simpler. The reason a lot of us love this medium in the first place: that indescribable inherent charm of animation that CGi anime has majorly lacked for a long time, the je ne sais quoi of watching a dorky teenage wolf gradually realize he got screwed, or a faithful puppy realizing that his silly teasing actually hit bullseye, which goes beyond the technical quality of these scenes. Something that the best 3D animation had admittedly mastered ages ago, but that still feels like a big achievement for a major project in this industry.

We couldn’t end this without a mention to another aspect of the craft that adds to BEASTARS’ charm, and to Orange’s work altogether. The reason this show’s animation is so traditionally satisfying isn’t just the smart application of modern tech to comply with classical animation needs, but also the usage of traditional techniques themselves when needed. Orange reps have said over and over that they don’t consider 3D animation to be inherently superior to 2D but rather complementary, and they genuinely act on those principles; sure, their productions are mostly CGi because that’s what their company specializes in, but every Orange episode has some hand-drawn animation of its own and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

Sometimes, those traditional tidbits respond purely to efficiency. Side characters that we get a clear look at – and thus can’t be rendered as vaguely defined 3D mobs – but don’t make enough appearances to justify modeling them are hand-drawn instead. Very specific props and modifications to the appearance of regular characters are often 2D as well… unless they’re permanent enough to force the modelers to do extra work; for an amusing example, they’ve mentioned many times that a ton of effort went into updating the school uniforms for the summer, which is the kind of detail the audience barely ever gives any thought to.

If the studio keeps on growing, perhaps we’ll see more and more of those scenes handled in 3D as well. What I don’t expect to change, though, are those moments where traditional animation is deliberately chosen because it fits the needs of the scene better, like the sequences where drawings are used to emphasize touch. BEASTARS is a very sexually charged series, and right about every scene where that physical, often forceful intimacy comes into play features 2D animation more suited for contact. The example that dazzled all viewers is of course Haru’s recurring nightmare by Yoko Kuno – a good acquaintance of this team whom we’ve written about before, since she stood out as the most promising young member of Land of the Lustrous’ staff. Haunting, cold beauty, plus her trademark constant morphing animation alluding to how inescapable the situation feels. And of course, the same sensuality that makes them opt for traditional animation in other scenes as well. Orange haven’t only become quite good at 3DCGi production, they also employ people who know how to use 2D art to its fullest – and all sorts of animation for that matter, as seen in the opening sequence whose creators we’ve covered as well.

For all this effusive praise about Orange’s approach to the craft and their latest title in particular, I think it’s important to stress out that their adaptations don’t feel like definitive takes on the material. In the same way that the original 2D teaser for Land of the Lustrous still highlights some sacrifices that were made in exchange for an admittedly excellent TV show, I can’t fault anyone for wishing we got a BEASTARS anime that retained the raw strength of Itagaki’s artwork; since dreaming is free, I’ll say that her drawings bring to mind the likes of Shinji Hashimoto. I find it hard to deny that the studio’s works lose part of the original charm… but again, that only makes their ability to offer equally fascinating alternatives all the more impressive. And with BEASTARS, that means Orange is using state of the art – by anime industry standards at least – 3D tech to hit the same pleasant notes that good traditional animation does. Quite the achievement!

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Alex Chern
Alex Chern
2 years ago

I want to say, what a great writeup, and exactly what I’ve been thinking as I’ve been watching this anime. I really hope this anime series catches on hard in the west once it hits Netflix globally. The best parts of Beastars have yet to come, and seeing those parts interpreted by Orange would be amazing.

2 years ago

Hah you promised a “real” Beastars post and you delivered. Thanks I’ll read it later!

Anime Dropouts
Anime Dropouts
2 years ago

I’m also hoping it does well in 2020 for the US. It’s a wonderful story and Orange going for the really ambitious project makes it feel like an entirely new world when compared to Itagaki’s manga.

Really impressed with the camera movement during the play practice scene and the tense conversations between Louis And Legosi so far.

2 years ago

reading this article was not only fascinating, the discussion of 3d and 2d balance & the 2d one-off mobs reminded me a lot of video games, and deciding whether to develop a property in pixel art (and being able to hand-draw things quickly but also having to hand-draw EVERYTHING needed from environments to character animations) vs 3d (and having complete character models that you could slap new skins on and articulate however you needed, but those character models having a high cost to make). the way orange melds the best of both mediums to get their intended aesthetic reminds me… Read more »