Thursday, 18 November 2010

Akira 1988 - Cinematic Design Without Constraint

First three scenes of Katshhiro Otomo's 'Akira' 1988.

James Cameron's 'Avatar' 2009 has been cited as heralding a cinematic revolution, using cutting edge technology to portray an imagined reality in greater detail than previously possible. Over 20 years previously, Katsuhiro Otomo's 'Akira' 1988, showed us an example of world building based upon a cinematic reality which broke free from the physical constraints of live action film making. This was a film made for cinema, created with 16000 with large cels of animation designed for a 35mm print, requiring eight companies to provide the immense budget.
Akira's visual language owes a lot to the study of photographic realism. In the few scenes shown above, we see realistic use of spherical and anamorphic lens flares, interactive lighting, texture, motion blur, camera angles and focal lengths, perspective and parallax as well as incredible fidelity of detail.

Pan and scan over a large forced perspective frame simulates a tilt up with a wide angle lens, the highly detailed city increases the sense of scale of the explosion which follows.

Interactive lighting enhances the verisimilitude of the wall textures.

Realistic depiction of spherical lens flare.

Akira uses the physics of light and the conventions of live action cinematography as inspiration to create a more stylised and exciting visual style. The camera has more physical freedom and there is the ability to ramp time into slow motion for characters while the background hurtles past at 120kmph. Lights leave trails in the convention of long exposure stills photography and there is infinite depth of focus, leaving only the careful composition of the image to direct the viewers eye. When a car explodes, the blast is not blown out to white as with a conventional camera; every frame is rendered in explicit detail while electrical arcing describes the power of Kaneda's motorcycle in an implausible yet extremely satisfying manner. The vast architecture of the metroopolis of NeoTokyo looms at an impossibly epic scale, a constant reminder of the disparity between the rich and corrupt upper classes and the gangs on the streets.

The electrical arcing of Kaneda's motorcycle.

The motorcycle lights leave trails that belong to long exposure photography.

Lack of skyline, mismatched perspective and extreme use of scale give an overwhelming feel to NeoTokyo's oppressive cityscape.

Stylised use of rotating lens flare enhance the perspective lines of this composition and make for a dynamic shot.

A close up of an explosion keeps the whole frame within exposure showing the destruction in explicit detail.

Speed ramping pushes the characters into slow motion while the background hurtles by.

The sound plays another important part in the cinematic experience of Akira, unlike television were all the sound is compressed to a consistent volume, the dynamic range of the sound design sits from the most quiet and subtle to room shaking intensity. The restrained yet epic opening shot is accompanied first by the quietest nuclear wind then as the camera moves to the crater, the source of the blast, single reverberating drum hits to confidently announce the films title.
In the motorcycle gang fight on the streets to the sounds of Tsutomu Ōhashi's frenetic tribal music saturate the soundscape, punctuated by intense sound design cleanly cutting through the music. One such sound is Kaneda's motorcycle, a composite of a Harley-Davidson and a jet engine.

It isn't surprising that Akira stands out from other anime, Otomo had the rare opportunity to marry the budget of a blockbuster with the freedom of cel animation. What is striking today, is that in a market saturated by live action comic book adaptations, so few can compare to the visual detail or the rich texture of world building that Akira achieves. Within the short excerpt that this post studies, the amount of detail that Otomo gives us about his world is astounding especially given that the focus is kept squarely on the action of the bike fight. The differing classes, the corruption of the elite, the sense of political upheaval, of terrorism and revolution, consumerism, all elements of Otomo's world which are suggested early on in the film by allowing the audience to follow the 'Capsules' through this superbly rendered metropolis.