Bokeh in anime: selective focus, blur, and the anicamera
SeHNNG recently wrote about the anicamera, the imaginary camera that 'films' anime. As it happens I have an interest in this area, so today's topic is the interesting issue of out of focus blur in anime.
(Well, interesting to me, partly because I'm an amateur photographer.)
Most anime scenes have everything in focus (what photographers would call infinite depth of field). This is the natural look of painted and drawn art and what we think of as the conventional way things are, but it's not entirely realistic; real cameras and lenses can at best fake it, and film usually doesn't have everything in focus this way even if we don't consciously notice when we're watching. However, every so often anime likes using selective focus with areas deliberately out of focus, sometimes together with shifting the focus from one person in the scene to another to draw your attention along with it. In this as in much else anime is consciously emulating film cinematography, which uses selective focus and focus changes for very similar reasons.
Back in the days of physical cels, my understanding is that this selective focus was achieved when the cels were filmed. Instead of stacking all of the cel elements that made up a shot right on top of each other, you'd add some sort of spacers to separate some cels from the others and then focus the camera on the particular cel you wanted in focus; the cel to cel distance was enough to throw the others at least somewhat out of focus. In the new modern world of digital animation with no actual camera creating the final shot, selective focus is presumably created by selective deliberate blurring of appropriate digital layers in the image as it's composited together.
This is where we get to talk about photography (and cinematography) with physical lenses. One of the things that (some) photographers care about is bokeh, the characteristics of the out-of-focus blurred area of a picture. Different lenses can give you quite different bokeh; some are considered good and smooth, others bad and harsh. Back in the days of physical cels, the blur you got in a selective focus scene was determined by the lens used in your rostrum camera; you got whatever blur the lens gave you and that was that. But in the new world of digital animation, the blur you get is created by software. And software can do whatever you want.
Which brings us to the interesting bit. Now that the anicamera is fully virtual and all software, someone has to actively decide what the out-of-focus blur will look like. The bokeh of a selective focus anime scene is now entirely up to the people creating or using the software. So I wind up wondering things like whether some directors deliberately try to make the blur look natural (or to emulate a specific camera lens or look), if people painstakingly emulate the specific out of focus look of traditional cel animation rostrum cameras, or if the programmers just do a simple generic image blur and call it a day.
So far I don't think I've seen any anime that's deliberately done a high-bokeh scene, one where almost everything is thrown out of focus (the current common cliche for still portraits and certain sorts of lazy artsy photographs, and sometimes seen in films shot with DSLRs). It may come someday, though, especially if this look enjoys a burst of popularity in film cinematography.
(I suspect but don't know for sure that physical cels couldn't do this sort of drastic out-of-focus areas. Software almost certainly can if someone wants to create it, especially if the scene is being partly created in 3D and then flattened during compositing.)
Written on 10 October 2012.