Visual bookending, mirroring, and storyboarding in Arcane

Am I interrupting?

Spoilers for all of Arcane and some League of Legends game lore/backstory below.

Tw: suicidal ideation

Sometimes, when people speak of anime or animated works (especially the former) they separate the technical quality of animation or storyboarding from the plot or emotional narrative of the series. More specifically, this is typical of long-running shounen series where animators are brought in specifically for certain episodes and more savvy viewers will be able to pick out their cuts on technical prowess alone.

While I see the reasoning behind this, and can appreciate animation in a vacuum, it’s a special series that can combine all three (technical animation quality, plot, and emotional narrative). There is a lot to love visually about Arcane. It also combines all three of these things really well.

One of the techniques Arcane uses well is visual mirroring or bookending where one scene that occurs in an earlier episode returns in a slightly-different but still recognizable manner in a later episode to punctuate or underline an emotional narrative.

I’ll be looking at two scenes that frame Viktor and Jayce’s partnership in all aspects (their roles in the plot of the series and their respective emotional narratives) because it’s the most obvious example of this type of storyboarding, but this isn’t the only time the series uses visual mirroring.

When Jayce Talis returns to his ruined study in Arcane’s second episode, the series starts with an establishing shot of him framed by ruin with the city of Piltover in front of him. Although he’s allowed to stay in the city itself (in the distance) he’s been expelled from the academy and his research halted (the ruined study).

The next sequence makes it abundantly clear that Jayce has come here with at least some intent to kill himself. It establishes the height from which he fell metaphorically and would fall in actuality. This is his lowest point as a character. There’s an important close-up of his personal affects: the Talis hammer logo of his family and the hexcrystal that a mage gave him when he was young. The former is a symbol of who he is in the eyes of a stratified society like Piltover, the latter is where he wants to go. These are two very important items that he wouldn’t leave behind if he wasn’t planning to die. It’s also highly likely that the envelope with his family seal is a suicide note.

I love the first shot above in the next sequence (which actually starts with Jayce clenching his fists and steeling himself for what he’s about to do) because of the way it establishes the boundary between Jayce and the ground (and between life and death.) The next shot shows him taking a deep breath and then Viktor appears behind him with the line, “Am I interrupting?”

Two really interesting things happen visually in Jayce’s response. The first is how Viktor’s cane (an essential part of his body and mobility) and his hand are shown in the foreground as he arrives, stopping Jayce from committing suicide. Then there’s Jayce’s facial reaction, which shows him almost snapping out of a trance and fully realizing what he was about to do.

Viktor leads, and captures Jayce’s attention, with Jayce’s own research. There are a few ways to interpret this but the easiest is that Viktor is an intelligent person who saw Jayce’s trial and realizes that the easiest way to goad Jayce into doing anything is to reference or push him on his work, like Mel did at the trial. This is Jayce’s life’s work on hextech which is the reason behind his recent expulsion (and the reason why Jayce is on this particular ledge). This happens time and again throughout the series, where Viktor is laser (pun intended, I’m so sorry) focused on their research, their “hextech dream” and uses it to try to keep Jayce’s attention.

He tells his own journey — “A poor cripple from the undercity, I was an outsider the moment I stepped foot in Piltover. I didn’t have the benefits of a patron, or a name. I simply believed in myself which is why I’m here.” — so Jayce can compare the two. This is also a major plot point and is visually shown with Viktor standing slightly behind Jayce. Viktor grew up poor in the undercity and is already living the bootstrap story (by working his way up to becoming the Dean’s assistant, never mind what he does with hextech in the future) that Piltover’s elite is about to assign to Jayce once hextech takes off.

Their stances, Jayce stepping in front of Viktor to be the “face” of their operation, speaking for the both of them, becomes a common visual throughout the rest of the series. Viktor consistently at Jayce’s right and slightly behind him literally makes him Jayce’s “right-hand man” and secondary. This only changes at the very end, when Jayce gives him his council seat and the floor to announce his own city’s proposal for independence. 

Interestingly enough, in this particular context, Viktor is standing at a safer distance from the edge, while Jayce being in front of him means that he’s closer to danger or death.

Viktor then effectively cements their partnership by offering Jayce his own hexcrystal which Jayce had left behind.

This entire scene of Viktor stopping Jayce and saving his life is lit very darkly, which I’ll return to later after looking at Viktor’s mirrored scene.

By contrast, Viktor’s suicide attempt starts as a small funeral for Sky, who Viktor unintentionally killed due to his experiments with shimmer and the hexcore. Rather than brandishing a journal, as he did when he was trying to reach out to Jayce, we see Sky’s leftover journal, her ruined glasses, and a canister of her ashes to start. Her personal effects mirror Jayce’s Talis insignia and hexcrystal. But they’re not his, they’re hers. He plans to say goodbye to her. He doesn’t plan his own suicide attempt.

Viktor is framed similarly to how Jayce was in his study. According to Heimerdinger, this is a similar place for Viktor, a place where he goes to think or be alone. There’s another similar shot to Jayce’s attempt with Sky’s scattered ashes mirroring the dust and rubble that fell as Jayce approached his own ledge.

Unlike Jayce, who went to his own study with intent, the thought of suicide occurs to Viktor as almost an afterthought. He turns back towards the ledge after scattering Sky’s ashes and turning around to leave. The shot of his foot inching towards the boundary between the ledge and death is not only another nod to how footing is so important to Viktor (the accident that caused Sky’s death comes after an incredibly emotional scene of Viktor running with help from the hexcore) but is also similar to this shot separating Jayce from his study and death. Rather than Jayce’s deep breath while shutting his eyes determinedly, Viktor’s step forward is a quiet acceptance of what is to come.

And then Jayce interrupts by mirroring Viktor’s line that saved his life years ago, “Am I interrupting?”

There’s a shot mirroring Viktor’s appearance, with Jayce in an unfocused foreground as Viktor looks back at him, guilty and shocked at his arrival. Rather than leading with research or their shared dream, Jayce leads with, well, his face. Or rather, the show deliberately chooses to highlight Jayce’s face in this particular scene where it chose to highlight the journal in Viktor’s hands in the scene that it’s mirroring.

Closing out this scene, Jayce clasps Viktor on the shoulder. We’ve seen him do this many times — he seems like a touchy-feely kind of guy generally — but here it’s mirroring Viktor reaching out with Jayce’s own hexcrystal in Jayce’s near-suicide.

These two scenes are made all the more powerful for the way that they mirror each other. I’d encourage anyone who has watched all of the series to watch them back-to-back and see how much care and attention was placed into storyboarding here.

Lastly, it caught my attention that Viktor’s entire sequence is in the light while Jayce’s is in the dark when their characters occupy the opposite roles in their partnership. Jayce is in the light, the “face,” the person who instinctively stands in front of Viktor while Viktor stays in the shadows behind him.

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