In My View: The false distinction between live-action and animation

Way back when, in the year two-thoooousand (and seven), I watched a little 36 episode series called Honey and Clover.

For those people who don’t know what that is, well, first of all, I’m surprised. What are you doing with your life so important that you can’t watch Honey and Clover? Go. Go watch it.

But really, it’s a show that follows a group of art college students as they struggle with love and life. It’s among the handful of shows that I’ve seen that deal with adults making adult decisions about being adults. Even 14 years later, I still remember scenes and moments from that show.

While Honey and Clover was successful as an anime, I bring it up because it had equal success as a live-action show. Or at least that is what I was told at the time. The original manga was actually adapted into both a Japanese and Taiwanese show.

I bring this up because Honey and Clover, alongside other shoujo and josei dramas like Nodame Cantabile, have long been placed in the camp of shows that are described as “better as live-action than they are as animated” or not using the medium to its fullest extent.

It’s a subject that Jamal of Get in the Mecha Podcast brought up on Twitter. On a side note, if you haven’t followed Jamal, go and follow him. Because once he gets to 1,000 followers, he will watch RahXephon.

A quote of his thread follows: 

The “this anime should’ve been a live-action work,” or “this anime doesn’t really use animation to its advantage,” is something I want to debate in the future because I used to find that argument semi-convincing, but now I really against it and what it implies about animation. 

My biggest problem with the argument is the massive leap in logic that it makes being – animation is obliged to do what live-action can’t when it fact by virtue of being animation it already has its perks even if it subscribes to realism (mostly being the amount of control one has over even the smallest of elements like location, camerawork, etc.) This is another debate for another day, but I just wanted to put that out there as I would like to discuss it in greater depth sometime in a piece of content of some form.

Jamal from Get in the Mecha Podcast

Let me start by saying I’m wholly in support of his conclusion. This idea that animation needs to fill an arbitrary hole left by live-action is not only silly but completely ignores the state of both animation and live-action films.

Even more so, I would argue it’s a bit of a false dichotomy. But I think I need to build up to that argument.

Let’s start with a little bit of table clearing.

The very thin line between animation and live-action

I need to lay out that I’m not an expert. I don’t have the depth of knowledge that someone like Jamal or Matteo Watzky about animation or its trends. I’m just some schmoe that has lurked around the fringes of anime and movie fandom for about 20 years or so.

A lot of what I’m going to say is just stuff that I think and may be completely wrong.

My standard caveat out of the way, let’s get to it.

For many years there has been this idea that animation can turn the unbelievable into the believable. Primarily, this is because film lacked the technical ability to make giant robot fights look like something more than a goof. Even superhero movies needed to sanitize the character designs to make them palatable for a general audience. This is why the X-Men are wearing black leather and not their classic costumes in the early 2000s movies.

While I will admit that at one point, this was true. Live-action films have cleared that hurdle and have been clearing that hurdle ever since the MCU became a thing. We have multiple movies with weight where a man runs around in a Captain America costume — the silliest costume of all time.

Somehow they make it work.

Not only that, but these movies are good. The characters are believable. The situations tense. These aren’t schlocky 70s movies that we can all laugh at.

We’ve also seen credible giant robots smash into each other in Pacific Rim. People may have mixed feelings about the movie, but, to me, it’s the closest we’ve gotten to having giant robots in live-action, and I’m OK with that.

While animation may be less expensive, it now isn’t the only way to tell tales of the fantastical.

Conversely, animation also had its technical limitations. If you watch any amount of Galaxy Express 999, you’ll soon notice that the camera doesn’t move. I think The Overage Otaku spelled out the reasons in a recent post about Way of the Househusband. When you’re looking at a piece of older animation, you see several layers laid over a background.

While you can undoubtedly zoom and pan across, trying to move the background itself is a staggeringly large amount of work and not something you can easily accomplish. This makes tracking shots really hard. You may have something move through the frame or the frame itself move, but you’ll never see the camera move.

At least in my experience. If I’m wrong, please let me know.

Also, when you have transitions in older anime, they are often hard cuts. This is really noticeable in a show like Neon Genesis Evangelion. The camera won’t transition from one angle to another; it will just slam into a spot and stay there.

But technology has essentially caught up, and now there are tracking shots and smooth transitions, mainly with the help of computers.

So I think any discussion about the line between animation and live-action needs to start here. There are no obvious technical limitations that stop live-action from entering the world of traditional animation and vice-versa. So any choice to use animation or live-action is either a budgetary one, a cultural one or an artistic one.

I’m going to stay away from budgetary choices other than to say that in my research, I’ve seen enough proof to say that producing animation is less expensive than live-action. Really you’re likely paying fewer people, less money to get a similar product.

I believe a host of DC animated universe movies backs me up here. I don’t think there would be as many if they were filmed in live-action.

The Cultural Bias

I think it’s helpful to talk about how culturally we see animation, and by we, I mean Americans. I realize that many of the people who read this blog are not from America. Still, for whatever reason, I feel like this discussion, in particular, is driven by American sensibilities.

By this, I mean the foundation of American animation really rests on Looney Tunes and Disney. This has fostered a culture where animation is either a children’s adventure story or a humorous short.

Now I do want to be clear that I don’t know a lot about the animation traditions in other countries, so I’m not sure how much this applies outside of the U.S. I also know there has been animation in the U.S. that has strived to break out of this mold (see: Aeon Flux.)

But it’s pretty clear watching U.S. television that the more adult the themes and subject matter, the more likely it will become humorous. And not just humorous, but the type of broad comedy that you might see in a Looney Tunes short.

On the other hand, when you look at Disney, you see a long line of stories that are either directly aimed at children or, now, are aimed at “families.” I’ve always found “families” to really be code for: “Adults can like this too. It’s not just goofy stuff for your kid.” 

These stories are often broad in a different way. They usually exist in magical worlds where children cross over and go on an adventure and learn a valuable lesson. Even if the main characters are adults, they are still learning some sort of life lesson.

We can see these borrowed by Hanna-Barbara or even in the golden age of Nickelodeon cartoons. They are all variations of this idea that someone goes on an adventure and learns something.

In either case, you aren’t likely to come across a drama about a young worker trying to find their way in the big city on American television. No one is having sex, using drugs, struggling to pay rent or falling in love in any kind of serious way. Small stories are saved for humorous shows.

I’m not saying America-produced cartoons are bad, but I think America is stuck in a narrow mindset regarding animation. And for some reason, I feel like it colors this argument.

When we discuss animation, we tend to think the closer it veers to drama and the more “realistic” it becomes, the better it would be served by live-action film. While I will admit that this is all my own pet theory, I think we need to acknowledge this is part of the equation in this discussion.

While it’s necessary to understand our own inclinations when discussing this, the cultural bias really only impacts how commercially viable a product will be. Just because a particular culture prefers particular subject matter in animation, it doesn’t mean that a story is better told that way.

The Artistic Choice

So I’ve struggled a bit with how to frame my thoughts in this next bit. See, for me, I want to say the distinction between live-action and animation is false. 

But that is not exactly true. Animation is a different medium than film. Just by the fact that it’s another medium means it has different strengths and weaknesses. 

No. The problem is that people often oversimplify the idea about what it means to portray the “real world” in animation and, in particular, in anime. We think that just because it “seems” like it’s the real world, that it’s actually portraying the real world. 

My go-to example of this is Wandering Son. It’s a show that is set in a regular middle school with typical middle school children. They don’t fly around. They don’t have superpowers. They don’t even have massive torrents of blood shoot from their noses. 

It’s just a pleasant, low-key show about two children discovering they are trans and what it means for them and their friends. 

I really want to share a couple shots from it, though.

Now, I’m going to say something pretty obvious. These shots don’t exist in real life. No matter what combination of film, post-production and lighting you use, you aren’t going to recreate the soft pastels, faded backgrounds, or the perfectly round way that the light bounces off the characters’ heads. 

OK. I can imagine a world where that is possible, but it would basically be animation at that point. 

So this invites the question about what this art style accomplishes in the way of the story. When we watched it for #anitwitwatches, K mentioned how everyone was awfully accepting of Nitori and Takatsuki. 

The pastels and soft edges gave me, at least, permission to accept this dream-like world as truthful and honest. It cut through my level of disbelief and took me to a world that was sort of like the real world, just a little better. 

This is what animation can accomplish in a real-world setting. It can bypass the skeptic that exists in all of us and make us say, “Sure. That makes sense.” 

Additionally, it can set an emotional mood that is much harder to do in film. At the beginning of Honey and Clover, there is a scene where the main character is riding his bicycle. It’s meant to depict both a fear of the unknown and a longing to be free of restrictions. 

Here are a few images from the scene. 

The choice of color and style, along with the slow piano that plays in the background, evokes not only nostalgia but longing and maybe a bit of sadness. 

You might be able to replicate the shots themselves on film, and you probably could get the emotion across, but it wouldn’t be the same. Animation can again bypass those internal censors and hit us straight in the feels. 

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that animation has a way easier to cross into the surreal. In fact, even when live-action crosses into the surreal, a lot of the time, it uses animation to do it. I’ve been watching the second season of Monogatari lately, but I think this shot from the beginning of the Nadeko Medusa arc illustrates what I’m talking about. 

Literally, you could not get this shot on film without animation of some sort. Or if you did, it would involve some Prisoner levels of cheesiness to make it work. 

This hits on another strength of animation. It has a much easier time conveying ideas in a visual form. Many marketing materials point this out, but I could name at least a couple anime that use it to great effect — ef: a tale of memories, March Comes in Like a Lion and Serial Experiments Lain jump immediately to mind. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list of animation’s strengths. I’m sure that someone smarter than me could add a few here. But I think it’s important to show that even in the most seemingly mundane shows, animation does things that live-action just isn’t able to do. 

So what’s my point?

I’ve been yammering on for more than 2,000 words about animation vs. live-action. I started this piece by saying that the distinction is a bit of a false dichotomy. 

The problem is that we often phrase the question wrong. The question shouldn’t be, “Should this show be animated or in live-action?” Because, hopefully, I’ve shown that even in the realm of the most “live-action” genres, animation can take a different tack and create something equally beautiful given its tools. 

No, the question should be, “Did this show use the tools available to it to tell a compelling story?” At its heart, this is the question. There are no longer any stories that need to be animated. Just like there are no stories that need to be in live-action. 

There are just stories. And the only question left is, “Are they any good?”

But if you got this far listening to me ramble, then you should share your opinion. Do you think there are genres or shows better served as live-action? 

And, as always, thanks for reading. 

2 thoughts on “In My View: The false distinction between live-action and animation

  1. The first time I thought of one being “better” than the other was when watching Ouran High School Host Club’s live-action. In my opinion, animation did a better job in bringing out its absurd comedy that I enjoyed so much. I didn’t think of it this thoroughly until I’ve read your post, but I guess animation’s biggest strength, and possibly the reason why we love it to this degree, is that as long as the world is consistent within itself, you can bend or break the world to any extent you’d like. Great post!

    1. I mean I agree that animation is really good at creating believable alternate worlds, which can be absurd.

      That was one of the things I struggled with when I was writing this. Because on some level different mediums do have different strengths, and I do think that is one of animation’s strengths.

      It’s something to think about still. THanks for the comment. 🙂

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