Cinematography is perhaps the ultimate challenge for a TV anime to overcome. Inherent of television anime are limited budgets and tight schedules, meaning that the resources and time provided are not enough to allow for the same level of quality that we see in movies or elsewhere. And while quality often refers to detail in the art and animation, such as more complex or frequent sakuga sequences, it also means an improved cinematography where shots have more variation and camera motion is more prominent. Since the production schedule and resources are difficult for a TV anime, they must rely on a number of industry techniques to make a finished produced on time, with perhaps the most recurrent being the use of shooting dialogue scenes using still characters with only their mouths moving. And in terms of cinematography, the shots are often flat and still, making it easier for the animators to anime with a consistent level of acceptable quality. However, this is difficult to do when the anime’s story or purpose resolves around the characters acting or performing or moving in complex ways. This leads us to Ping Pong the Animation, one of the most acclaimed and illustrious anime of the year, and its brilliant and artistic use of cinematography to convey action throughout the series. While the series was overflowing with symbolism, the topic of this post is primarily on its cinematic techniques that were some of the most innovative, resourceful, and memorable in recent memory.
What was truly impressive about the cinematography in Ping Pong was how it framed its shots during the tremendous table tennis matches. Every action shot felt new and original, even from the very beginning when we had dynamic shots that followed the ball’s trajectory between rackets. One of the most prominent cinematic techniques was splitting the screen, with each panel appearing like it would in the original manga. There’d be the swing of a racket, the strike of the ball, the ball bouncing on the table, a shoe slamming against the floor, an eye seizing up the opportunity, and the crowd looking on. There’d also be emphatic shots of the characters utilizing different artistic techniques. I touched on this topic earlier in the year, and how some the visuals of Ping Pong highlighted motion and emotion by altering the colors, oversaturating the shadows or employing ‘pencil lines’ to magnify the significance of a moment.
Beyond the shots were other dynamic cinematic techniques, including imaginative shots that utilized camera motion. When I made the statement that cinematography is the apex of complexities for TV animation, I had in mind scenes with camera motion. For live-action film, moving a camera is as simple as moving the camera with the actors going about their roles. For an anime, however, moving the camera requires redrawing the characters from every changing perspective, which requires a considerable amount of more work for both the key animators and the inbetweeners. Still, Ping Pong utilized a number of shots where the camera moved during the ping pong matches. Some of the most memorable were when the camera trailed the ping pong ball going back and forth across the table. Another famous shot was having the camera spin around a character as they moved into position, readied their swing and struck the ball with force. Ping Pong the Animation also employed a number of simpler cinematic techniques that are still difficult to produce in anime, including zooming in and out while the character is playing in a game. And while many of these great cinematic scenes were limited to sakuga sequences, it’s still worth noting that the anime places a heavy emphasis on moving the camera around for a number of its dynamic shots.
Lastly, there needs to be mention of the symbolism used in Ping Pong since it did impact the cinematography of the series. Although these shots weren’t as visually impressive as the spectacular scenes mentioned above, they carried a different weight in terms of explaining a character, creating an analogy, or conveying an emotion relevant to the story. In terms of cinematography, though, these shots helped diversity the scenes by providing variation in the types of shots, the colors, and the lack of action. They were like breathers between the intense table tennis matches, allowing us to take a break from the action and refocus our attention to what the match is telling us about each character. Remember, Ping Pong the Animation was never an anime about ping pong itself; the anime used ping pong as a medium for which to explore the characters, to define their personas, and to show them growing as human beings. These shots had a specific purpose in the series and were employed wisely to augment the table tennis matches by providing shot diversity and pauses between volleys.
For the vast majority of television anime, cinematography is a prominent obstacle. But instead of side-stepping the issue, like many anime need to do, Ping Pong embraced this challenge. And it succeeded magnificently. The cinematography in Ping Pong felt so rare and unprecedented, that when I was watching this anime, it felt like I was watching more than just a TV anime. Ping Pong utilized an impressive variety of cinematic techniques to give its visuals a refreshing, original, and distinctive appearance. And because of that, the cinematography of Ping Pong deserves praise as one of 12 Days of Anime for 2014.