Thursday, January 27, 2005


Japanese animé is not my cup of tea. Despite this fact, earlier this week I found myself compelled to check out Appleseed, Shinji Aramaki’s spectacular adaptation of a manga comic by Ghost in the Shell’s creator Masamune Shirow. I had heard it employed a new animation style that was worth a look. To call this an understatement would be a major, well, understatement.

The story is about a girl named Deunan, a fighter in a post-apocalyptic ruins who discovers a utopian city where replicant-like “bioroids” live among us, and where her longtime fighting companion Briareos, whom she once feared dead, is discovered to have been surgically built into a mechanoid rabbit who…

But who am I kidding? I have no idea what was going on in this film. As is so often the case with animé, exposition is given in rapid-fire bursts of giddy Japanese dubbing of a kind outpaced only by the most limber-lipped Texas auctioneers. When painstakingly re-examined and pieced together, even the best animé plots are usually threadbare and packed with wild, head-scratching non-sequiturs.

This is the reason I usually stay away from the genre, though making such statements is an open invitation to a flamewar by the true believers, who collectively comprise an enormous audience. Animé is big business thanks to the devotion of its adherents. And despite the fact that its stories don’t usually jive for me, another facet of the genre occasionally gets me back into the theater: it is often not only a showcase for the true vanguard of animation technique, but also one of the few proponents of its aesthetically satisfying execution.

Having said that, it is only fair to observe that Appleseed itself employs no new animation methods. Photorealistic 3D rendering, 3D cel shading, and motion capture have all been used and refined elsewhere. But the genius stroke made here by Aramaki is the decision to merge these seemingly discrete techniques together, creating what is to my mind a wholly new style of animation. The effect is immediately breathtaking, but maddeningly difficult to describe.

Photorealistic 3D rendering involves animating three-dimensional wireframe models, over which photorealistic textures are laid (and lit with ray-traced lighting sources), giving the effect that a computer-generated object exists in a real-world, three-dimensional space, and is being photographed naturally. Jurassic Park was the first major example of this style, and it has been formidably refined in the decade that followed.

3D cel shading is a technique in which 3D objects constructed in a computer are filled in as if they were traditional 2D cartoons. Rather than giving them photorealistic 3D textures, portions of them (such as a face) are inked in a single color, giving a final effect that looks, well, like a 2D cartoon moving in three dimensions. The effect is much easier to observe than to describe, and can be seen in a limited way in films such as The Iron Giant and tv shows like Futurama.

Motion capture is exactly what it sounds like: the performance of an actor is recorded using body markers, and used as a guide to move the wireframe models referred to above. Traditionally, motion capture has been used for photorealistic 3D rendering (Final Fantasy is a good example of this), but less so for cel-shading, whose subjects are usually more “cartoony,” and don’t require realistic human motions.

Appleseed features motion-captured performances, which are rendered as 3D cel-shaded characters, which are then incorporated into a photorealistic 3D world. If this combination has been employed before, I am unaware of it, and it has certainly never been executed at the level achieved here by Aramaki. It is a combination that seems unlikely to produce a satisfying effect; shades of Roger Rabbit floated through my brain as I was on my way to the theater. But nothing could have been further from the truth.

A page in, and I am quickly realizing that the pictures this film left behind in my head, while dazzling in every way, simply cannot be described. Regardless of your feelings about Japanese animé, if part of your love for the cinema is an appreciation of its power to produce breathtaking images, Appleseed is well worth your time. But see it before it leaves theatres - even a big screen tv won't do this artwork justice.