Timing Example #1 – Anime

robot One of the sections that did not make it into the “Get Animated!” book was an extensive, exhaustive, examination of animation timing.  After I cut it from the text, I figured it could make its way onto the DVD.  If you’ve seen the DVD, you know there’s a timing section with a little junky robotThe example he gives on the disc is just one of three I intended to make, but after the first one I realized it might be tedious listening to this robot tell you how many frames each cut had.  It’s still a good exercise, though, as examining footage and writing down timing really does help you get a grasp for what works.I was defending anime to a colleague once (who detests Japanese cartoons – probably solely based on their popularity, mind you) and I was telling him that I thought most anime shows were brilliantly timed.  This is, of course, to make up for the fact that they are not fully animated.  If you do not have the time, energy, or budget for full animation – as in the case with all television and most of our personal projects – then this kind of timing would be good to know.

I took as my example a small sequence from “School Rumble,” a 2005 TV series directed Shinji Takamatsu.  In the scene, a martial arts expert, has offered to demonstrate to his female classmate (on whom he has a crush) why she needs to defend herself against perverts and n’er-do-wells.What he does not know, and what we do know, is that she can read his thoughts.

You can watch the full sequence here:

[flashvideo filename=http://www.brightredrocket.com/getanimated/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/yakumo.flv /]

Here is a chart with the timings.  The shots are numbered and timings are given for 24s as well as 30s.  This cartoon was made for NTSC TV, so it was timed on 30s, but you may want to know the equivalents in 24.  I use the standard denotation of “X” for “frames.”  So “24x” means “24 frames.”  It’s old man stuff.  The column marked “On” lets you know how many frames per drawing – shot on 1s, 2s, 3s, or a hold.  And finally, the action column tells you what is going on.  Tiny scribbly thumbnails simplify the frames for reference.

# 24s 30s On Action Picture Reference
1. 21x 26x 3s The expert takes his first martial arts stance. y001
2. 27x 34x 3s The expert slowly moves attacking arm forward to make a grab. y052
2. 39x 49x H The expert pauses, some dialogue. y052
3. 5x 6x 2s She blinks. y150
4. 6x 8x 2s He starts for her right arm. y154
5. 16x 20x 2s/1s BG on 1s, He grabs for her arm and misses. y175
6. 6x 8x 2s His hand grasps the arm where her arm isn’t. y189
6. 8x 10x 1s Zoom out to include all of the girl in the shot. y189
6. 36x 45x 2s Very slow motion of his fist missing her by a fair distance, she watches passively, hair moves in wind. y189
7. 60x 75x 2s/1s BG moves slowly on 1s. He is in amazement he has missed. y242
8. 39x 49x 1s Camera move only, figures are still. They face off, he is at ready position, she is watching. y337
8. 46x 58x 1s No movement, titles, indicating his next move: “Now I will grab her left arm…” She can, of course, read his thoughts. y337
9. 14x 18x 2s He lowers head, ready for his move. y428
10. 32x 40x H Pause for his line. y428
11. 18x 22x 2s He runs across screen, legs only. y498
12. 29x 36x 1s He grabs at her, but she steps neatly out of the way. y529
13. 48x 60x 2s/1s BG on 1s, She is passive, wind blowing hair, as she sidesteps. y547
14. 36x 45x 2s/1s BG on 1s, low angle, he grabs for her leg and misses. y618
15. 48x 60x 2s/1s BG on 1s, She is passive, wind blowing hair, as she sidesteps, different angle. y674
15. 72x 90x 2s He grabs at her nine times and misses each one. y724
16. 108x 135x 2s She, in close up, dodges his moves (6 times). y799
17. 96x 120x 2s/1s BG on 1s, slow zoom in on him for his line. y930
18. 20x 25x 2s Her brows narrow – she’s angry now. y1059
19. 18x 22x 2s She grabs his right arm with her left in close up. y1085
20. 8x 10x 1s Zoom out – She already has him on the ground. y1175
21. 84x 80x H Same shot, the crowd watches his defeat. y1237


This is a television cartoon, so it uses as little art as possible. This is not at the expense of getting the job done, but because the schedules involved in TV production are so dreadful as to require cost cutting measures as often as possible. Different shows have their approaches to the TV budget. This one uses a lot of holds, for example. A “hold” is a period in which the art does not change at all – a still image is used, perhaps with a panning camera movement. Camera movements, accomplished entirely within the software or editing system, are easy to do and cost almost nothing to implement. There are instances where slight camera movement stands in for character movement. In these cases it is even more important to have a developed sense of timing.

The first thing to note in this sequence is that the timer has alternated shots with long holds and shots with very quick movements. This contrast of short, sharp motion and long extended holds gives the cartoon a snappy feel, even as it reduces the artwork necessary. The next is that the timer has a very fluid concept of how long certain actions take, and that these are primarily dictated by the emotions of the characters. The timer elongates passages that would take a fraction of a second in real life to much longer on screen not only to heighten the action, but to provide comic contrast for the latter part of the sequence. It is much funnier for the martial arts expert to be in the state of heightened awareness, conscious of every slow move that does not connect, only to follow that up with incredibly rapid-fire attempts to connect that have the same result.

This epic elongation of time is characteristic of anime more than American or European animation, and seems to have its precedent in manga (Japanese comics), where artists will similarly pace small actions and a few moments over several pages. In turn, manga is probably influenced by Chinese and Japanese film directors, specifically in the martial arts genre. Many anime stories, including ones that take place in high school, have the timing and “feel” of martial arts films.

Note that the humor in this scene comes from the way in which contrasting timings are juxtaposed. The slow, measured, drawn out time is mildly amusing, but doesn’t provoke outward laughter – it’s a setup for the bigger jokes later. These gags get more charge from being more quickly paced and drawn more wildly – it’s a play of stylized time, action and art. Slow is serious and fast is comic. Slow encourages you to experience the situation with the characters, identifying with their lightning-fast thought processes by slowing them down into discrete notions and specific lines of dialogue. The fast sections suggest we are outside the character’s head, and suggest a spectator’s position – watching the exaggerated movements and comic staging. Similarly the slow sections feature characters who are drawn more realistically, whereas the comic sections show simple character expressions.

You can trace through all the action at your leisure, but just consider this set of movements from the sequence. Starting at #11, the build-up for the martial artist’s next attempt to attack the girl is five and a half seconds. He bursts forward, in 18 frames – a little over 2/3 of a second. For almost seven seconds we watch as he misses her. This would be instantaneous if timed as a realistic action, and probably would not even take 24 frames. The timer and director realized they wanted several story points to take precedence over “realistic” timing. In that seven seconds they wanted to show not only the slow motion of the grab missing her leg, but they wanted to linger on her passive expression as she easily steps aside. The next set of blows take 8 frames apiece! He is striking out at her at the rate of 3 hits per second, which is probably impossible for human beings. We get not only the contrast of slow motion and hyper-fast action, but the humor of the movements contrasted and the strange narrative elongation of time to simulate the series of lightning-quick thoughts that go into the mind of someone full of adrenaline, going into their “battle mode.”

It’s not magic.  It’s hard work.  And it’s the experience the director, timers, and animators all have that make this kind of thing work.  Best of all, it’s never been easier to check this kind of work.  No longer do we have to animate it all out to final art before we can see if the timing works.  You can just edit sketches in a video editing program until you get a good feel for it.  Try it!

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