Shot Level

When you can't afford complex character animation, you'll have to rely on simpler animations to convince your audience that they're looking at something more than the video equivalent of a comic strip. 

Camera Moves
It's quicker to animate the camera instead of the character. Most anime will feature at least one shot of the camera moving across, away or towards the cels. It's a subtle element that imparts a sense of movement, enhancing the look of your shots.

Rack Focus
I've seen it used beautifully in anime like Escaflowne and Fatal Fury -- the Motion Picture. It's cinematic, it's storytelling (switching the audiences' point-of-view to whatever element is in focus), and it's dramatic. 

Background Animation
In one of the final shots of Ghost in the Shell, the camera zooms in on an initially indistinct held cel of a little girl in a chair. The only thing moving in the room is the perpetual motion machine sitting on the table next to her. The shot lasts for several seconds, and the highly detailed background and the beautiful cel of the girl make it worth looking at for those seconds, but the cycling animation of the perpetual motion machine (with synched tapping sounds) keeps the shot from looking 100% static. (The initial mystery of "what's in the chair" also helps to keep the shot interesting).

 Non-character animation is quicker than character animation. You'll see cycling examples of it in young Miyu's pinwheel in the Vampire Miyu television series (as Miyu herself stands still), or the sea of windmills in Macross Plus (as Guld and Myung stand still in the foreground). Non-cycling examples include rain, rain splashing into puddles, waves crashing onto a shore, leaves falling in autumn, or snow falling in winter. 

Life Cycles
Relatively simple character animations, combined with strong poses and facial expressions, can spruce up what would otherwise be perceived as a held cel. I've seen the following used in anime: 

  • Hair blowing in the wind (most anime)
  • Clothes blowing in the wind (most anime)
  • A specular highlight flickering in the eye of a character during an intense emotional moment (Mink swooning over Dick Saucer in Dragon Half)
  • An eyebrow clenched so tightly over the eye that it starts shaking (a deeply hurt and offended Dick Saucer does this early on in Part Two of the Dragon Half video)
  • Eyes that occasionally blink (most anime)
  • A tapping foot (Shampoo in the "Red Shoe Sunday" closing animation for the Ranma 1/2 OAV series)
  • Shivering because of the cold or intense emotion (Himemya Anthy clutching at the remains of her dignity and her half-dissolved dress in episode three of Revolutionary Girl Utena)
  • A facial expression shaking because of overly tense muscles due to intense emotion (Birdy's furious face in the middle of Part Four of the second Birdy the Mighty video) 
  • A vibrating stream of tears coursing down a character's cheeks, as opposed to animating several individual teardrops (the overly emotional Soun Tendo in the Ranma 1/2 OAV series)
Light FX
An alarm goes off, and red light starts cycling on and off on everything in the room. Elsewhere, the lights on a police car's roof cast a flickering red and blue on its surroundings. Lightning flashes, illuminating a character standing forlornly at a window. A car's headlights wash over a character sitting on a bench as the car drives by. Light flickers on a character standing by a torch or a campfire. Flashbulbs go off during a press conference.

 Like the camera, it's quicker to animate a light than it is to animate an entire character. Shadows and shading that change under dramatic lighting conditions can (like the moving camera) impart a sense of change and movement to the shot. When it comes to dramatic lighting, an anime that you might want to study is Macross Plus. There you'll find examples ranging from a holographic singer who casts light onto her audience to the flashbulbs of the press. 

Specular Animation 
The glitter of the sea; a wash of specular over inanimate objects; the flash of a character's glasses. Specular highlights can enhance the beauty of a shot (if you get the chance, study the animated gleam of Sharon Apple's earrings after she sings "they look a-like" in the concert during Part 2 of Macross Plus). An animated band of specular can make metal or plastic look showroom-new (the introduction of Damuramu's gleaming cyborg body in Dragon Half comes to mind). They can even convey emotion (such as the harsh, sharp flash of a stern teacher's glasses before she barks at Utena early in the first episode of Revolutionary Girl Utena).

 While glittering objects (such as the sea or tears) might get away with simple random cycling, most anime specular washes I've seen appear to use actual character animation techniques (ease-in at the edge, cover most of the area for a single frame, ease-out at the opposite edge). The best way to duplicate the effect of a specular wash (such as Sharon Apple's earrings or Utena's teacher's glasses) is to study the real thing. Toss your favorite anime into the DVD player or VCR and start studying its specular washes frame-by-frame.

Cutting Animation with Held Cels and Moving Holds
Sometimes, in anime, a character will strike a pose on-camera...and then hold that pose for a long number of seconds, with a minimum amount of animation (if any) before striking another pose. Mai Shiranui's taunts to Hauer before attacking him outside the temple in Fatal Fury -- the Motion Picture come to mind. 

If you conceal a character's mouth, you won't have to animate that character's lip-synch. Done well, it can look dramatic. Conceal the mouth by: 

  • Having the speaker's back face the camera (thus focusing the audience's eyes on the listener. You can animate the listener to react to the speaker's words, but you're still spared the challenge of lip-synch).
  • Having the speaker talk while he or she is off-screen (again, the sole character animation on the screen could be that of the listener reacting to the speaker's words...or it could even be non-character animations/stills of the background).
  • Angling the camera so that whatever the speaker is holding or wearing will conceal his or her mouth (Rei's schedule book in Neon Genesis Evangelion; Mai Shiranui's fan in Fatal Fury -- the Motion Picture; Isamu Dyson's helmet from specific angles in Macross Plus; Wedding Peach's bouquet of roses when she wears her wedding dress in Legendary Love Angel Wedding Peach)
  • Angle the camera so that only the upper half of the character's face is seen (Rosario telling the king his plan in Part One of Dragon Half)
  • Pose the character so that a limb conceals the mouth (Wedding Peach's dramatic opening pose when dressed in her fighter angel outfit in Legendary Love Angel Wedding Peach)
Hide-the-Feet (added 7-18-02)
One of my teachers, Jim Franzen, pointed this one out to me. If the character walks, runs or moves in the shot, but the character's feet are not visible in the shot, the animator will not have to worry about "foot slide." This can save time when animating an action scene for a shot. Examples: showing walking characters only from the waist-up (many anime TV shows); showing a kickboxing match mostly from the ankles up (Fatal Fury -- the Motion Picture). If you have some action shots where the character's feet convincingly interact with the ground or floor, the audience might not question several action shots where the character's feet are not shown.

Held Cels
The bulk of most anime TV shows that I have seen. Anime films and OAV series often rely on them as well. Often used for background characters and even (a case of comics technique?) entire crowds.

 It takes skill to tell a story with a series of still (or mostly still) pictures, which is what makes good storyboards so essential. If the story fails in the storyboard stage, developing it into a finished animation won't make it any better.

 For a better understanding of how to tell a story with sequential images, I suggest reading Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. Though written for a totally different medium, Chapter Two gave me insights into character design, and Chapter Three made me more aware of how much stuff could happen between panels ("between shots"/"off-screen"). Understanding Comics also compares and contrasts the Western approach to art vs. the Eastern approach to art -- useful for understanding a bit more about anime storytelling.