Myriad Colors Phantom World illustrates bad fight staging for us

January 7, 2016

Let's start with my tweet:

I re-watched the big initial fight in Phantom World and no, KyoAni either (still) doesn't understand fight staging or doesn't care.

I feel sufficiently grump about Kyoto Animation failing once again on fight animation that I'm going to say more about this than fits on Twitter. What I mean by 'fight staging' here is blocking out the fight, ie establishing where all of the characters are in physical space and in relationship to each other, and thus how they move around over the course of the action. Good fight staging means that the fight actually makes physical sense and that you can follow who is where (and often that interesting things are happening).

We're going to look at a specific piece from the initial fight. Start by watching this clip from Phantom World (which was conveniently already on sakugabooru for me). Don't focus on the animation quality, ask yourself how you feel about it as just a piece in a fight (in fact, basically the climactic piece). Does it really work? Does something perhaps feel off? Because for me, even on first watching it felt somehow a little bit wrong or nonsensical.

Well, that would be because it is. Specifically, it has staging that doesn't actually work. Let's break down the flow of action and call out the staging inconsistencies, or at least the obvious ones:

  1. Mai and the monster are fighting on the school sports field.
  2. Mai sprints away from the monster and straight towards a clock tower (at the edge of the sports field) that has students watching from behind it, with the monster following her. How the shot is framed and how the people behind the clock tower immediately scatter implies that the monster is close behind her. We are certainly supposed to feel that, just from how it's presented.

  3. Mai performs a gratuitous jump, dive, and complex pivot to come up standing right in front of the low front wall of the clock tower area. All of the cues in the shot say this, and say that she's stopped here because she can't move any further back (away from the monster).

    We don't see the monster during this bit of the clip, and there is clearly a bunch of empty space in front of Mai (between her and the monster). What happened to it following close behind her in #2?

  4. The monster charges at her. However, the shot suddenly shows a vast distance between her and the monster and it takes the monster a significant time to charge up to her. This is again inconsistent with #2's close-behind monster.

    What's really happened is that the show has teleported the monster backwards so that it can do a big dramatic monster charge and have a 'Mai braces and readies herself' brief cut (and also have #3).

  5. We switch to a view behind Mai. As the monster strikes at her, the camera pulls back. Say what? In #3, right behind Mai was the retaining wall; we have nowhere to pull back to.
  6. Mai jumps up and significantly back to evade the monster's strike; after a flip in midair she lands right in front of our new, pulled back camera position. Say what again?

    Of course, what's really happened is that the show has teleported Mai (and the monster) forward from the clock tower area, because otherwise it would not be able to have the dramatic backwards jump evasion it wants here.

  7. Mai jumps back again from the monster's strike, jumps back a third time from another strike, and finally we pull back through the pillars of the clock tower as the monster charges into it and gets tangled.

There are other staging inconsistencies in shot sequences just before and after this clip. For instance, immediately before the clip begins we had a shot sequence that established that the clock tower was more or less straight to Mai's right, yet in #2 she sprints straight back from the monster rather than having to cut to the side.

The individual actions of this fight are more or less okay and it has a certain amount of dramatic beats. What it does not have is consistent staging. As a result this is not actually a real fight; instead it's a clip show of dramatic moments. The whole fight has not been storyboarded by working out what happened and how it flows; instead the clear priority has been to have a sequence of dramatic shots happen, with some vague attempt to glue them together in a reasonably consistent manner. If two dramatic sequences are inconsistent with each other, either the show doesn't notice or it doesn't care.

In other words, the show prioritizes moment to moment dramatic cuts over a fight that is dramatic when taken as a whole. The result is subtly unsatisfying and weightless, as the inconsistency and the resulting unreality rob the overall scene of some of its impact. You may not consciously think of this as you watch the clip, but it's quite likely that a part of your mind is trying to keep track of stuff like where everyone is and as a result is raising warning flags that something feels off.

(Bad fight staging can happen in live action if you do not plan out your shot to shot continuity, but you at least have a higher chance of noticing it when you have actual people standing in places and moving around. Given how anime seems to be put together, I sometimes marvel that it ever has good fight staging. I assume that there are directors who are amazingly good at keeping track of the overall scene in their heads as they storyboard out each individual angle, sequence, and cut.)

Written on 07 January 2016.
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Last modified: Thu Jan 7 00:15:33 2016
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