Because we’re geeks, we frequently find it’s easier to understand an artist’s work when comparing them to another artist, finding out the common or antithetical traits that bind them. Hence Dueling Auteurs, a column where we take two auteurs from any medium and compare and contrast them. Liam Conlon is kicking things off with Genndy Tartakovsky, an animator known for the countless hits he has crafted for Cartoon Network, from Dexter’s Laboratory to Samurai Jack and Hideaki Anno, an anime legend most celebrated for his work on the epic series Neon Genesis Evangelion.
There are always techniques you’ll find in a great animator’s work that are impossible to get out of your head. You start seeing them everywhere and they come to define the experience.
They’re an emblem, ineffable.
It makes it that much more satisfying to see two different animators using the same technique in completely different ways. Genndy Tartakovsky and Hideaki Anno are two animators at the top of their craft. I call them animators consciously: despite managing huge projects (Samurai Jack, Clone Wars, and currently the Popeye reboot for Tartakovsky, and Gunbuster, Neon Genesis Evangelion and currently the Rebuild of Evangelion film series for Anno) as directors, they are first and foremost animators.
These two artists have a number of techniques that they regularly draw on in their creations, but the one that they both employ masterfully is that of stillness. Animation is a visual medium that is based around the movement of things inside a frame. What you choose not to animate, then, is paramount. You can subvert the entire subject of a scene, call into question a character’s agency, and much more.
And of course it saves on dat $$$!
Tartakovsky has handled some of Cartoon Network’s biggest hits. His bread and butter is highly-kinetic action. From wild laboratory mishaps of Dexter’s Lab to Samurai Jack’s unrelenting battles and back again to high school robot-hijinks in the Sym-Bionic Titan, Tartakovsky displays a lot of spectacle in his craft. His influence on Cartoon Network is undeniable when looking at shows like Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Adventure Time, or even simply his iconic designs the 2008 3D Star Wars: Clone Wars took from his 2003 miniseries of the same name.
With such a focus on movement and action, his resting objects are so striking.
Tartakovsky uses stillness to create tension. He then shatters it in an instant and juxtaposes it with balls-to-the-wall action. Here, Sergeant Fordo leads his group of ARC Troopers on a special mission to infiltrate the enemy capital of Muunilist while the main army is making a frontal assault.
It’s brutal out there for a samurai. The daily forecast? DEATH.
The entire winter section shows a mountain-dwelling species’ culture and dedication to forge a mystical frozen blade: the toil of pickaxes in the mines… the hauling of raw material into rock crushers… the transfer of the mineral into a bath of magma straight from the earth… the hiss of the liquid substance as it strikes the mold… the ritual of bringing the molten sword deep into the earth to encase it in pure ice… the funneling of sunlight to evenly melt the freeze… the enslaved dragonsbreath to temper the weapon… the seven blacksmiths to hammer the edge… the giant boar treadmill-powered grindstone to sharpen it… and finally the gladiatorial contest held to claim the ice blade after it is plunged into a mountain-altar. The entire montage is dripping with textured movement:
But that ain’t all Tartakovksy does with this technique. During the assault on Muunilist, Obi Wan stabs bounty hunter Mace to conclude a spectacular duel.
While there a lot of good animators who can pull off this technique decently well, Genndy Tartakovksy is more than merely a good animator. As we continue to watch the Obi Wan vs. Mace scene, Tartakovsky turns. it. up.
Meanwhile, Mace Windu is mollywhopping an entire army (just watch the whole minisode, please).
But… something new appears. Tartakovsky showcases tension again with the Seismic Tank. Your mouth slowly becomes agape as it rests above the conflagration.
That’s Tarkovksy’s stillness. It’s the shock of realizing something that’s already happened. It smacks you in the jaw and leaves you reeling. It’s the cord that becomes taught before snapping back on itself.
Anno, on the other hand, isn’t about that action game.
If you’ve watched any kind of “serious” anime in the past 15 years, you’ve no doubt seen Anno’s influence. From his fragmented storytelling to a greater focus on the internal thoughts of his main characters, Anno’s style has touched everything from Xenogears to Attack on Titan. His magnum opus, Neon Genesis Evangelion, endures as a paradox of skewering the artform while nearly creating the worst of otaku subcultures.
If you watched Evangelion just to see Shinji “GET IN THE ROBIT,” you were literally Doing It Wrong.
While a large part of the series is devoted to subverting the robot anime genre, Evangelion’s main theme has always been the distance between human beings. Despite what we thought of as teens, Eva’s strength has nothing to do with the religious-mythology aesthetic. Its depth is surely made of things other than
“dude theyre gonna fight angels”
“wow. make u think”
Stillness is everywhere in Evangelion. Much of the movement in the series is actually governed by the camera. Different shots during a scene can dynamically change its focus or recontextualize something previously shown.
And of course there’s episode 22’s infamous elevator scene. We’re witness to a depressing slice of reality: Rei and Asuka, partners in fighting to save the world from the Angels, literally have nothing to say to each other for almost an entire ride. They’re both more interested in staring at the wall of an elevator than to even glance at each other.
But Anno is able to push even further with the end of the final Angel. Kaworu Nagisa, an Angel inhabiting the form of a human being, willingly tells Shinji to end his life, believing that humankind should continue to live while the Angels perish. Kaworu has made the most tangible connection to the troubled protagonist after only a day, even telling Shinji that he loves him. It doesn’t take us witnessing the end of the episode to know that Shinji loves Kaworu too.
Start at 3:00
If Tartakovsky’s forte is building tension, Anno’s is building dread. Shinji in Eva Unit 01 clutches the tiny Angel, prepared to crush him. Every second that passes forces us to understand that we know exactly what’s going to happen, and that we can’t do anything to stop it.
That’s Anno’s stillness. His characters become monoliths. They turn restlessness inward toward emotion, insecurity and fear as they are acted upon by time and the elements.
Unit 01; a silent, restrained monster.
Once you start to see stillness in Tartakovsky and Anno, you really can’t stop.
Liam Conlon is a Virginian who mostly likes to stand still for long stretches of time, hoping to catch each individual frame of his favorite animations.