OK, apologies in advance, but I got way too invested in trying to put my finger on what’s different about the animation this season, and I am going to spend most of this very long review getting waaaaay into that. Caveat: I know nothing about animation.
As I mentioned last time, I’ve been feeling a bit less engaged with this season, and less able to forget I’m watching a cartoon and accept the characters as real. It’s kind of irritating, actually, because I want to get swept away.
About sweeping people away: In my experience, it doesn't happen because of luck or chance. The general assumption seems to be that creating something is all about inspiration and spontaneity. There's some of that, but in my experience it's more about being a bit of an old-school type-A workaholic. Have you ever listened to a couple of top-of-their-game standups talk about comedy? It’s like listening to chemists discuss organic compounds or something—very dry, very detailed, almost scientific.
Since I make about three quarters of my living in writing and one quarter as a musician (I mean, put “make a living” in quotation marks, but still) I’m over-aware of the covert, invisible-unless-you’re-looking-for-it stuff you can do in both areas to keep people interested. Every creative field has some form of it. The specifics are boring, but TL;DR: Making something really good requires a holistic view of what you’re trying to accomplish and a control-freak attention to details. It’s not romantic stuff: Outlines. Phrasing. Structure. Making sure you know the reason for every note or word.
(Take for example my now-fixed typos in the previous paragraph—that's what happens when you try to rattle something off late at night in time to leave for a camping weekend the next morning. No proofreading = sloppiness. Lack of sloppiness = proofreading, usually.)
Animation seemed like another area with a huge depth of invisible tricks. As an amateur, I guessed I was probably feeling them, but not actually perceiving them. I watched some dialogue scenes from the first season and A:tLA really closely to compare them to this episode, hoping to come back with something besides "I dunno, it just looks kind of different. I can't put my finger on it." It took about ten seconds of close-watching to notice one glaring quantifiable difference:
Nobody blinks anymore.
Background people are, like, constantly blinking in A:tLA and Book 1 of Korra. (I really wish I could embed examples of this better.) Not for cartoon-symbolism reasons, like a triple-blink to communicate confusion or disbelief. For normal, body-function reasons.
Here, check out this scene between Mako and Bolin in “The Spirit of Competition,” starting at about 2:30:
See how many times Mako casually blinks? And at the end of the scene, there’s something really neat — Bolin’s in the foreground, and as the “camera” focuses on Mako in the background, Bolin goes out of focus. Even though blurry Bolin then basically freezes in place while Mako’s talking, he clearly blinks! Then the scene ends with Pabu blinking.
Ditto with the first random dialogue clip I picked from A:tLA, the intermission conversation between Zuko and Toph from “The Ember Island Players,” which starts at 16:22:
Irritatingly enough, I can’t find any non-trailer clips to embed from the second season of Korra so far — Nick must be cracking down on that!
But if you got it from iTunes, rewatch the first scene in this episode, where she talks to Unalaq as her parents are being arrested. Nobody blinks. It's obvious in pretty much any scene in this episode if you're looking for it.
Now, I’m not postulating that “blinking” is what’s missing from this season. But that hard-to-put-a-finger-on thing that does feel missing might be someone with a clear, holistic idea of what the show’s animation style has been — i.e., more Western/Disney (where characters blink for non-symbolic reasons) than anime (where they generally don’t) — and with enough control-freakness to say “OK, in this shot, let’s have Mako blink at 2:38, 2:41, 2:43, 2:48, 2:55, 2:59 and 3:02.”
Let's look at the next mostly dialogue scene with Asami, Bolin and Mako, starting with ever-the-voice-of-reason Asami saying “Don’t let her treat you that way!” and ends with Varrick making the platypus-bear suit poop cash. (Every incidence of Varrick and Zhu Li in the platypus-bear suit was gold, BTW.) Not only does nobody blink casually, nobody moves. Plus, Asami’s eyes are also drawn… kind of weird. Like, Picasso-weird at certain angles. And her mouth is very Annoying Orange at times. It’s more like anime, with the motion of the mouth opening and closing seeming completely disconnected from the rest of the face.
Close-watching that Asami-Bolin-Mako-Varrick scene actually makes it seem not-so-great, though I didn’t notice it at the time. There’s frequently no motion except Varrick’s mouth moving — everyone just stands around frozen, completely unanimated. It reminded me of Brian Michael Bendis, a comics writer whose signature is tons of great dialogue chopped into lots and lots of panels — to allow for his poor artists to do so much and still make their deadlines, I assume, he often seems to ask them to just reuse the exact same art for several consecutive panels, making slight changes to facial expressions or cropping differently to create the feeling of a slow Ken Burns style zoom. (Burns being the director of, among other things, The Civil War for PBS. And we’re full circle!)
(Throwing it out there: I am positive that Bendis actually acknowledged this trick in some postmodern-ass issue of something that involved a comics writer talking about repeating panels as a shortcut that saves money or something, but I cannot for the life of me remember where. Anybody know what I’m talking about? EDIT: It wasn't Bendis, it was Invincible!)
Anyway, the frozen characters in Korra don’t bother me in such a conscious way as all the panel repetition in, say Powers did (and I like Bendis!). But I honestly do think that the reason that I’m less engaged with the characters is that they don’t move their faces like I'm used to.
I don’t generally like to bring in the context of outside production information, but I had heard that the show had shaken up its animation studios between seasons, so I looked it up. Korea’s Studio Mir (the same people who did a lot of the work on the original A:tLA) did the entire first season of Korra, and apparently needed a break afterwards. On the upcoming seasons, they seem to be splitting duties with Japan’s Studio Pierrot. I’m not an anime person and haven’t seen anything that Pierrot’s done, but the less-human, more-stylized animation of faces in particular would track to the influence of a studio that usually does anime — I’d bet a lot of money that Mir cares about blinks and Pierrot does not, and that Pierrot did most of the work on this episode.
Humans communicate an enormous amount of information with our faces, but because we’re so used to it, most of it doesn’t register on a conscious level. If you went to a film set with a blowgun and shot the place up with Botox darts and the movie ended up being made anyway because otherwise the terrorists win, audiences leaving the movie theaters would probably complain that it was just, kind of… you know, off. Can’t put my finger on it. It’s just not quite right.
Maybe that's what I couldn't put my finger on about this season.
- OK, I didn’t really mean that anime is like Botox terrorists. It’s just a style and visual language that Western audiences are less used to, especially when the audience for this show has been working with a different visual language for the past four seasons of the two shows.
- Wait, you want to know what actually happened in this episode? I'm sure the comments will fill you in, but here's the basics: Unalaq is out of the bad-dude closet! He’s a bad dude, and Korra is done being manipulated by him. Korra goes all "ABOVE THE LAW" on a variety of people in a variety of ways that seem very poorly thought out. Korra breaks her dad out of prison, glowy-eyes the Northern Water Tribe fleet out of the way, and is heading to Republic City for reinforcements on Varrick's ex-escaping yacht.
- I was not in love with the “Mars”/FFVII crossbreed scoring underneath the bust-dad-out-of-boat-prison fight, but continue to take a nerdy sort of pleasure in picking out pieces of the Avatar leitmotif every time glowy eyes come out.
- Mako’s powers of observation are unparalleled. “Yeah — he’s a cop!”
- Bolin is terrible at bribery. Also at breaking up with crazy ladies! Who get pretty mad about being jilted, and look fucking terrifying with their eyeliner smeared all over the place.
- I can’t think of many hybrid animals I’d more like to see than a koala-otter. I have heard that koalas are actually dicks, but I assume a koala-otter would have otter personality and koala fuzzy ears.
- It’s cool, that whole time Ikki was just hanging with Blueberry Spice Head, Princess Rainbow, Twinkle Star Child and Juniper Lightning Bug, learnin’ ‘bout family values.
- I know I just spent like a billion words talking about animation I was not fond of, but I died every time one of those baby sky bison tipped over sideways.
- Ikki saying that Bumi’s the funniest person in the world seems like the writers saying, “HEY GUYS GUYS HEY GUYS YOU GUYS we still do have a kid audience, here, we need to occasionally throw ‘em a wacky-uncle-shaped bone!” Oh my god, that came out so accidentally horrifying that I think I have to leave it unedited for posterity.
- However, the line “That platypus-bear is pooping money!” is great for all ages!