Writing about animation isn’t easy.
In my experience, the two pitfalls you’re bound to run into at some point are evaluation and description. Evaluation means that you have to justify that what you’re writing about is worth writing about: in other words, that it’s good or interesting in some way. But these are of course very vague concepts and just invoking them makes you run into a series of unsolvable problems. You can’t just show an animated sequence and say: “wow, that’s good”, unless you and your interlocutor have already agreed on a series of elements about what is “good”.
To avoid this, there’s the other solution, which is description. Description is objective: you just have to break down the timing, the drawing style and the choreography, and there, you’re done. But first, this doesn’t get you very far, unless you’re an artist trying to see how the animation works to be able to replicate it. Description for its own sake isn’t very interesting. And then, there’s the problem of repetition. You can only recount the timing so many times, and there’s a point when you have to fall back on the vague terms: expressive, fluid, and so on. And those too, you can only repeat so much.
Animation analysis, and really of every form of art, will always have to navigate between these two situations. I don’t think there’s any single good way to go about it, and the talent of every analyst and writer will consist of creating their own way of doing things in such a framework.
As for myself, I don’t have any good way and I’m just groping around like everyone else. At least, I think that being aware of it is a good start: your writing is always going to be limited, and you have to come to terms with it. However, in the course of my meditations on these questions, I’ve come up with two terms that, I hope, should help and clarify the analysis. These are “movement” and “motion”, a very helpful distinction that exists in English and that comes in handy when discussing animation.
What do I mean by these two words? Basically, by “movement”, I mean the simple fact that something moves in the frame – it’s the layout, if you will. Then, by “motion”, I mean the way that this something moves. Let me explain with a simple example: the Tôei entrance exam that Yasuo Otsuka commented on in the documentary The Joy of Motion. The exam is simple: you have to animate a boy hitting something with a mallet, in just a few frames of animation.
In this case, the movement is simply what happens: a boy hits something with a mallet, and it takes x frames. The motion, however, is what makes one instance of that motion different from the other: rather than just using an even spacing, Otsuka would have put as many frames in the anticipation, that is expressing the difficulty the boy has lifting the mallet. And then you use as little frames as possible for the mallet falling down: that’s how you express the weight of the thing, and the feelings of the boy. That’s motion.
In this case, it would be easy to argue that movement and motion aren’t really different, and that I’m just making up pedantic distinctions. That may be the case. But I’m not saying either that movement and motion are essentially distinct or that they are absolute properties of any animated sequence. Rather, they’re just tools to help the analysis be clearer. And I also believe that privileging one over the other will change your analysis.
For instance, in his seminal book The Anime Machine, Thomas Lamarre discusses extensively the notion of compositing. For him, the most important technique in anime is the pull-cell, that is when a single cell is moved laterally over the frame by the photography staff during the compositing process. In my mind, the pull-cell is pure movement: it’s just something going from a point of space to another. This entails that Lamarre almost never discusses motion proper, and that’s why I think his perspective is so limited, even if it’s still very enriching.
With this example, I don’t mean that motion would be more interesting than movement; or that sakuga, for example, is looking at animation while prioritizing motion over movement. In fact, I’m saying the exact opposite: I’ve always thought that the sakuga community had the potential to offer as close to a holistic approach to animation as is possible in the limits of fan analysis and discussion. For that reason, we need to discuss both movement and motion, and give them the same level of importance. And that’s just the formal aspect: if we want to go even further, we have to integrate plot, music, cinematography, etc.
I think it would be possible to develop many other such distinctions and concepts. I hope it is, and that other people will. In the end, it might seem overly rigid, and surely won’t abolish the difficulties inherent to writing about art. But I’d be glad if it could further, even by a little bit, our understanding of the medium we love so much.