It’s more than likely that, in the recent past, you’ve seen a film. It’s equally likely that you’ve watched an episode of anime. It likely wouldn’t surprise you if I were to state that both have much in common. This, we assume, is a given; both are distinctly visual media. After all, in spite of their numerous differences (voice-acting, acting, audience), what strikes us first and foremost is that the objects of fascination in both are images. We don’t read, we don’t listen, and we don’t even partake in; we saw, we’ve seen, we’ll see[1].

When we see, it’s always through some type of lens. Visual media possess a strange quality in that regard: the lens of our eyes process what has gone through a lens previously. This previous lens is the camera. Cinematography and photography, the arts of manipulating what are processed by the camera lens, are central to the creation of any visual work[2]. We cannot have something visual without a lens influencing what is seen.

Immediately, we notice something strange in this claim. Whereas live-action film has a camera, animation does not. That is to say, there is no physical device that corresponds to a camera in animation. Yet, we still talk about a show’s cinematography as though it were viewed through a camera. While this contradiction is seemingly innocuous, the institution of a virtual camera is of extreme consequence not only in the production, but in the perception of a show. We will call this virtual camera, the anicamera.


As we will come to see, the anicamera is fundamentally different from the camera. It holds utmost importance within the creation of the work, for without it, the work cannot exist in any form whatsoever. As an extension of this, it is an indispensable tool in the reception and analysis of any given work, as the invocation of the anicamera and the presence of objects within the frame are undeniably connected on a symbolic level. Cinematography, as a result, is fundamental in our processing and criticism of animation.

Both the anicamera and the camera share the same purpose: they enable an image to be saved and presented. The similarities end there. For the anicamera does not physically exist as does its counterpart. Whereas the real camera is bound by laws of physics and has a physical presence, the anicamera shares no such limitations. In fact, the anicamera is conceptual, created to easily reconcile the immaterial with the material, along with all of the camera’s functions and capabilities. An example of this reconciliation is easily seen in the storyboard notes for Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, where the storyboards explicitly state “PAN DOWN.”

Sayaka fighting Elsa Maria. PAN DOWN is found first cell down from top left.

Sayaka fighting Elsa Maria. PAN DOWN is found first cell down from top left.

As the anicamera bears no physical presence, neither does what it depicts. Unlike the camera’s role in live-action in recording an image, the anicamera is concerned largely with the creation of an image. Whereas it is possible to consider the live-action film without recording it[3], this is not possible for animation. Animation comes into conceptualization as it is framed, and only when it is framed. The virtual presence of the anicamera is therefore taken as a given.

The anicamera can then be said to encompass the entirety of frame in a show: the anicamera’s frame is indistinguishable from the material within it, for the material exists within and because of that frame. Everything in the image, from characters moving to off-model drawings, is given form by its consideration to the anicamera.

Along with this comes the intent of, and possibility to read meaning in, the frame. For example, let us say there is a rabbit inside a hat in a white room. However, the hat is two meters tall and has a cross sectional circumference of one meter. Conjure a mental image of the scenario, and remember it. We will refer to this mental image as a shot. In whatever manner the shot is framed reveals what is thought to be important within the reality. If the shot is framed from the ceiling, what is important is the fact that the rabbit is inside a black circle and that they exist; we’ve no mention of the room. Changing perspective, framing the shot from within the hat looking upwards, while we still don’t know that we’re in a room, we might feel sympathy for the rabbit. Why and where is it stuck? How did it get there?

We’ve fully entered the realm of cinematography. Or more importantly, we’ve established that cinematography is central to a criticism of animation. All references to the anicamera include, by necessity of the word “animation” itself, a reference to the functions of its real-life counterpart, the camera. It is impossible to assess a work of animation without assessing the cinematic qualities inherent within it.


1. [^] As used in colloquial language.

2. [^] One might argue that painting, theatre, and manga are all counter examples. This is not so. Painting always takes on a perspective, and is therefore reliant on a frame and virtual camera of its own. Theatre and manga actually both have analogous functions to cinematic works: the spotlight in theatre is analogous to close-ups in film, the closing of curtains to an abrupt cut in scene; for manga, panels are shots and the white space are transitions. While this is a gross simplification of the analogous functions, I feel it retains the essence of the possible discourse.

3. [^] Consider that the actors that create the scene are all capable of acting without the presence and recording of the camera. This is a contentious point that will warrant further discussion, but the possible dialogues do not invalidate the difference between physical and conceptual presences.

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