Shutting the Files: CG Mecha Done Well

Filing just got HARDCORE.

Paperwork just got hardcore.

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.

Delicious mecha anime.

Delicious mecha anime, om nom nom.

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 . . .

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9 responses to “Shutting the Files: CG Mecha Done Well

  1. You know the Tachikomas in Ghost in the Shell: SAC are completely CG, right? THAT is how you do it properly. Non-realistic rendering using cartoon shaders and the like. They blend in absolutely seamlessly with the rest of the animation. There are other animated series which use the same techniques to great effect – another that springs to mind is Futurama.

  2. CG is here to stay and since Last Exile aired I have gotten used to it with Macross Frontier and Pailsen Files. having an animation team for the huge mecha battles of Pailsen Files just would not have been economical. It’s just soemthing we will have to cometerms with, CG is the havok physics engine for mecha its the sort of imperfect middleware that you just can’t do without despite the obvious limitations and flaws. The Monad pay off was great and while it was pretty I was more giddy over the fact that it seemed like something out of Starship Troopers.

    I did not get the sense of grim future where there is only war from Pailsen Files given how they still have health care and the doctors seem to be doing their jobs. Even the bases looked well kept and clean, it was regimented but not that grim. The commanders care about their grunts for the most part and the conclusion of the invasion of Monad did leave an impression.

    At least the juxtaposition of CG with the rest of the animation wasn’t so bad since they fought mostly buttoned up in their Scopedogs along with their Balarant enemies.

  3. Throughout the series, one main thing I cringe at is the Balarant standard uniform. It’s so… cyan.

  4. My comment totally got eaten, damn. Grr.

    I’m just saying that Soukou no Strain had unobtrusive CG and igloo also had these, too.

    Grr.

  5. I’ve never had a problem with CG when used on mecha – I guess computer techniques lend themselves well to rendering the appearance of the surfaces and textures, and controlling the way that mechanical contraptions work on screen. A computer would have a hard time making a human or animal move realistically (hence why Appleseed uses motion capture I guess) but since a robot moves in quite a stilted and methodical way, it looks fine being animated by a computer program. In fact, I think digitally-animated robots actually move in a way I’d expect more than hand-drawn ones do.

    This does apply to ‘super’ robots rather than realistic ones though – Gasaraki would probably have lost some of its realism had the mecha not been drawn with the charmingly flawed conventional means. In that case, CG mecha really would have had a detrimental bearing on the intended effect of making them feel like a part of their environment.

  6. it’s show by show, company by company. Gonzo CG = BAD. Production IG CG = GOOD. Fate/Stay Night CG = EXCELLENT.

  7. @ NegativeZero: I’ve only seen a few episodes of SAC (I know, I know, but it costs real money which I’d rather spend on, um, Strike Witches) and I never really noticed that – which suggests that you’re dead right: the Tachikomas were so well-integrated that they didn’t stand out at all.

    @ Crusader: Now I was definitely unconvinced by Last Exile‘s CG, and I’m not entirely converted to Frontier‘s (I prefer Zero‘s, which might be because of its OVA production). I’m sure you’re right about scale. VOTOMS rather invites Starship Troopers comparisons – didn’t Heinlein describe the Troopers’ suits as something like an armoured gorilla?

    Fair point that the VOTOMS ‘verse isn’t nearly as awful as 40K’s (which is probably the epitome of a sci fi universe you wouldn’t want to visit), though war does seem to be an ever-present reality for Chirico. War-weariness is a running theme in all the parts of the franchise that I’ve seen.

    @ Michael: Sorry about your comment – I’ve had a look in the blog’s spam folder and I couldn’t find anything by you. I think another reason IGLOO‘s CGI stuck out more for me was that the show is well-know for being all-CG, so I was primed to view it critically. Whereas Soukou no Strain is ‘just another anime’ (I think we agree that it’s a good one – I just finished rewatching it today).

    @ concretebadger: Maybe I’ve played too many computer games, but I think I find CGI more alienating – motion-capture notwithstanding, I can’t say I was fond of Appleseed‘s human movement.

    Good point about the different effects of CGI on super and real robots, and I certainly agree with you about the handling of mecha in Gasaraki/. I’m not especially well-versed in super-robot anime, especially not stuff that uses CG mecha. I’d note that the bad CGI in Demonbane definitely makes the show better.

    @ 21stcenturydigitalboy: Maybe CGI is one of those facets of anime where it is useful to look at the studio. Dunno about Gonzo being universally awful, though, bits and pieces of the CGI in Gankutsuou were pretty good.

    Of course, Fate/stay night is in a class of its own. Whoever did that should’ve helped with the dragons in Gonzo’s Dragonaut, too – I’m sure there would’ve been an immeasurable improvement . . .

  8. In my books, pilots beat out machines for ingenuity. Nuff said.

  9. I’m happy with either, really – it’s the execution that matters, I think.

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