I personally struggle to be convinced by the heavy use of CG when animating mecha, as it usually lends an unhelpful weightless or ethereal quality to giant robots. I’m told that this is actually because CGI looks too good, and therefore very out of place.
There are exceptions: Soukou no Strain neatly sidesteps the problem by having giant robots which are meant to flit around looking weightless and ethereal, Yukikaze puts its planes in a very unreal environment and Macross Zero solves it through (I would guess) lots of hard work and GUTS attention to detail. Maybe I should add Vandread to the list: I watched the first four episodes last night unfazed by the mecha because I went in with low, low, low expectations. As a rule, however, I look askance at CG mecha, which makes me even more surprised to find myself liking their use in Pailsen Files.
The bar is set really high for an Armoured Trooper VOTOMS OVA, since the franchise is famously gritty: ‘We could hear the sound of the drums of iron in the distance,’ say the lyrics of the opening song (which is, musically speaking, nothing to write home about), ‘That was our lullaby.’ Ethereal Armoured Troopers are completely unacceptable, so it’s even more remarkable that the animators pulled it off. Even MS IGLOO drops the mecha ball once or twice (the Zudah, for example, did not look at all convincing to me).
[MS IGLOO, which I like to think of as ‘Mobile Suit Peenemünde’, is definitely near VOTOMS at the grittier end of the spectrum. Since absolutely all of it is rendered in 3D CGI you might think the unreal war machines would benefit from an unreal environment, as happened in Yukikaze, but Yukikaze‘s alien planet is intentionally unreal (it’s a plot point) while MS IGLOO‘s is not.]
I have a suspicion that that odd opening sequence helps. The repeated shifts, each occurring within the same shot, from three-dimensional mecha to what are essentially cardboard cut-outs (shifts which, lacking the diction of film studies, I cannot adequately describe) are in one sense a humble admission from the animators: these are only make-believe war machines. I wonder if this is also, however, a priming device. After the opening’s patently unreal (and rather confusing) two-dimensional Armoured Troopers and red time-lapse trails left by the skating Red Shoulders, perhaps the part of one’s brain which interprets images is happy to accept whatever the animators choose to throw at it.
This is only speculation, of course, and speculation from someone who’s ill-equipped to talk on the subject, so take it with a healthy pinch of salt. Other aids to verisimilitude probably include the muted colour scheme of the VOTOMS universe, the small scale of the Armoured Troopers and the frequent presence of more than one Trooper on screen at once. With lots of small dark green mecha rather than one large, brightly coloured object there must be less time for the viewer to start nitpicking.
There’s a limit to what I can say about the show as a whole; it’s already received a succinct review from psgels and a somewhat longer treatment from Crusader, who rightly points out that the VOTOMS universe has superhuman pilots instead of super robots. Pailsen Files is a healthy dose of well-animated, stylised action and a closer look at the military politicking which was present, but not entirely exploited, in the original series. Chirico is definitely rather static, which is unfortunate but also understandable given Pailsen Files‘s limited remit as a prequel OVA. (Mellowlink had more room to flex its muscles, and provided a considerably more satisfying conclusion even though it had a more skeletal plot.)
Ultimately I think Pailsen Files justifies its existence – to me, at least – with the opening minutes of the eleventh episode, a battle scene possessed of a near-cinematic level of spectacle as the Barcoff Squad spearhead a one-hundred-and-twenty-million-man attack on a machine planet. It’s a brilliant application of twenty-first century animation to the grim darkness of Chirico’s universe (in which, lest you forget, ‘there is only war’). Here’s hoping the movie is a good compilation . . .