The “Anicamera” in Arcane

Arcane immediately had my attention due to the way in which it used its own “camera” to frame its first act, in addition to other visual languages used in tandem with the series’ emotional narratives. In its second act, Arcane completely changes the framework that it set in its first act with poise and purpose.

Years ago in my anime blogging infancy, a friend wrote a blog post titled The Ani(ca)me(ra) and Lensing a Critical Lens. They opened my eyes to a lot of things that I had either taken for granted while watching both anime and live-action films, or internalized without giving much thought. The latter is likely because, at least in the United States, animation is typically reserved for children’s cartoons or specific comedy shows for teens and adults. There are exceptions to this and people have become a bit more open-minded towards animation in recent years, yet societally this is still the general mindset and animation is still frequently othered in a way that pits it against live-action as an inferior medium when it really doesn’t have to be this way.

I’ll summarize their work here, but I highly suggest you also read their post. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re interested in animation generally and it’s a great (and quick) read.

Spoilers for Arcane and League of Legends lore below.

In their post, my friend introduces the idea of the virtual camera, or the anicamera for animated works to concisely make a case for cinematography being as crucial of a critical (figurative) lens for animation.

Animation is not bound by the same logistical challenges that limit live-action cameras and film because there isn’t a physical camera that exists. Similarly, the scenes or things that an actual camera captures exist; however, in animation, those same scenes are drawn. Both a camera and the anicamera have similar aims, but the latter is not a physical camera but a concept. Not only is the anicamera itself conceptual, but the things it is filming don’t exist in the same way that live action people and places do, unbinding both the “lens” and the “subject” from reality if the creator so chooses.

The concept of the anicamera also implies that the anicamera itself is the frame because everything within the scope of the animated shot is conceived inside of it.

(As a related aside, the language we use to talk about animation, even from creators themselves, is almost indistinguishable from the way we talk about live-action cinematography. An example that my friend brought up is that in storyboarding for animation, they use camera terms like pan up, etc.)

The camera as something that could exist as a physical thing is something that Arcane dabbles in during its first episode. Nearly all of the shots are taken from vantage points or in situations where a real-life camera could access. There aren’t a lot of fanciful cuts, just purposeful ones that you would see in any prestige television series that would be used to add to an emotional narrative: like the one pictured above where Viktor is underlining and punctuating Jayce’s existing work. The camera focuses on his hand underlining and drawing firmly across the blackboard. Or Jayce being visually jailed by the geometric, art deco patterns in the council hall (foreshadowing!). The fact that the shades are letting in more light, not less — he’ll eventually be trapped by becoming a councilor — is of particular note.

When Vi, Powder, Mylo, and Claggor have to escape from Piltover after their botched heist, they slide down a large pipe. The camera becomes a physical object in theory, since Arcane decides to have mud spatter the “lens” as it shows close-ups of the kids sliding down. Again, this creates the illusion that there is a physical camera and gives weight to these shots that animation doesn’t always provide. All of Arcane‘s first act generally follows this visual rule of sticking with shots that could be filmed by an actual camera. Visually-important transitions are done by quick cuts that compare and contrast the emotional narratives of various characters in the show and tie them to the central conflict of Piltover and Zaun.

The opening moments of Arcane‘s second act immediately let us know that we are some number of years in the future due to the advancement of hextech technology alongside Jayce and Caitlyn’s appearances.

Then Powder, now Jinx, appears.

Powder’s creations in Act 1 already had a bright, sketchy, graffiti-like quality to them, but in Act 2 her scribbles are superimposed over certain scenes to showcase her fragile mental state. This is the first clue that the visual language of Arcane has changed.

Now for the scene that everyone is talking about: Jayce having sex with Councilor Mel Medarda while Viktor is dying in their laboratory and coughs blood into their hextech core. Arcane could have easily grounded this entire scene in reality with quick cuts between realistic shots of Viktor dying while Jayce is getting some. In fact, it begins this way, with Jayce and Mel kissing each other interspersed with scenes of Viktor, hyper-focused on the core in their laboratory.

Once Viktor collapses, it shifts into something far less grounded in reality, with the two scenes merging together as Jayce and Mel reach their climax and Viktor’s blood is absorbed into the hexcore. It marks their diverging paths, and the end of their partnership. Jayce has, quite literally, bedded Piltover. In that same moment, Viktor’s blood is taken in by and transforms their machinery. The fact that this is specifically done without a grounded camera, and uses the unique advantages that animation specifically gives creators, makes the scene remarkably intimate (and heartbreaking if you know anything about the future Defender of Tomorrow and Machine Herald).

Another scene that uses advantages animation can more easily give over an actual camera is when Jinx calls out for Vi with her blue torch. As the “camera” pans around her in a circle, her dead friends Mylo and Claggor appear at her back and by her side. Powder (as Jinx) feels utterly and profoundly alone, has never come to terms with their deaths or forgiven herself for her (albeit accidental) role in them. It’s another scene that is more intimate, not less, for how it utilizes animation specifically.

2 comments

  1. Really loving Arcane! Been watching it with my brother who knows nothing about League lore, but im not an expert I just know a few of the characters from the game by name. Its interesting to see his reactions to the series up too ep6 so far.

    As for the camera inanimation its cool to see how its used! That Jayce and Mel scene cut with Viktor was interesting, but ill admit i was like damn were really going for this haha still good use of that camera work.

    Marvels What if has a few eps that use animation camera to pull off some cool visuals as well.

  2. The animation in the series is jaw dropping.

    The Viktor/ Mel x Jayce scene reminded me Castlevania when that series’s Viktor becomes enslaved to the redhead vampire while having sex and other scenes are interspersed

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