Animation is usually appreciated focusing on painted/drawn pictures and images. But animation also incorporates various effects of lenses, such as blurring, wide-angle and fisheye, as expressions. This article will trace the evolution of these effects in Japanese commercial animation by illustrating selected works from its dawn era in the 1930s until the present day.

An example of the wide-angle lens effect, from Kimi no Na wa (your name.)

The late researcher Hannah FRANK (1984–2017) stated that originally, all cel animation is photography (*1). Viewers tend to forget this, but it is true that cel animation is photography obtained by taking photos of paintings/images, that is, superimposing animation cels and backgrounds on an animation stand and taking their photos frame by frame.

The fact, however, is rarely acknowledged. Many people would probably recognize Disney animation’s captured images from the era when animation stands were used as paintings, rather than photos. The fact that they are photos was hidden in a way by capturing images in a strictly regulated setting. Interestingly, in contrast, animation has incorporated in its works expressions as if achieved by the use of virtual lenses. Images are drawn so as to look like photographed through lenses and then processed with filtering. In other words, it was an act of hiding shooting photos of the real world, while making visible virtual shooting to create the world of a work.

This article will focus on such lens expressions (in other words, the virtual lens effects) in Japanese commercial animation (also referred to as “anime”) (Note that the works exemplified here are not necessarily the first works using a particular method or approach being explained).

A variety of lens expressions

One early example of lens expressions in animation is a lensed device, such as a pair of glasses, a telescope, or a camera, depicted in a work, and an image presented in its view. For example, in a pre-World War II work, titled Manga: Oira no Ski (My Ski Trip) (MURATA Yasuji, 1930), a rabbit looking through binoculars is shown, followed by images presented in the binoculars’ view. More particularly, a section of the screen is cut out in the shape of binocular lenses to show the images through it (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 An example of the binocular lenses effect, from Manga: Oira no Ski (My Ski Trip)

In some works, no lens device is explicitly depicted. In these cases, a virtual camera is usually assumed for shooting photos of the world of each work. We can determine that it is a lens expression even though no device is explicitly shown. It is because lens has several visual characteristics, and if these characteristics are seen on the screen, we recognize it as a lens expression. For example, each lens has a range of focus and images outside the range blur. This effect can be seen in Momotaro no Umiwashi (Momotaro’s Sea Eagles) (SEO Mitsuyo, 1943), which was produced during the war. In this work, we can also find an effect of pin feed, where the foreground in an image is in focus first and then the background is in focus (Fig. 2). This was made possible by the use of a multi-plane stand, a special animation stand that allows to make some distance between cels and/or backgrounds.

Fig. 2 An example of the pin feed effect, from Momotaro no Umiwashi (Momotaro’s Sea Eagles)

In addition, the depiction of a lens differs depending on an angle of view. For example, if shooting with a wide-angle lens, the inner periphery of the image appears distorted. Such an expression is seen in Momotaro Umi no Shinpei (Momotaro, Sacred Sailors) (SEO Mitsuyo, 1945). A runway, which is supposed to be straight, is depicted in this work as distorted (Fig. 3). SEO’s use of this production method was also related to the historical background. At the time, the term “manga eiga” (manga film) was commonly used and quickly associated with a stereotypical image of the word “manga.” SEO, who described his Momotaro no Umiwashi (Momotaro’s Sea Eagles) as “not what is usually called ‘manga’” (*2), attempted to break through the stereotype by incorporating elements of bunka films (lit. cultural films, meaning documentary films), such as using news photos and news videos as reference materials (*3). The use of lens expressions is considered as having happened in tandem with that attempt.

Fig. 3 An example of the wide-angle lens effect, from Momotaro Umi no Shinpei (Momotaro’s Sea Eagles)

Fig. 2 shown earlier is also an example of the telephoto lens effect. Another well-known example is the opening of Lupin Sansei: Cagliostro no Shiro (Lupin the 3rd: The Castle of Cagliostro) (MIYAZAKI Hayao, 1979). When taking a photo of a distant object with a telephoto lens, there is no perspective on the screen. This is called the compression effect. MIYAZAKI used this effect by simply moving an image of a light truck downward without changing its size to make it look as coming toward the viewers (Fig. 4). Since the effect was achieved just by pulling a single cel on an animation stand, it was not only effective but also efficient.

Fig. 4 An example of the telephoto lens effect, from Lupin Sansei: Cagliostro no Shiro (Lupin the 3rd: The Castle of Cagliostro)

MIYAZAKI is also known for having demonstrated the effect of layout when engaging in scene setting and screen designing in Alps no Shojo Heidi (Heidi, Girl of the Alps) (TAKAHATA Isao, 1974). Layout is important when considering lens expressions in animation. Layout, which is designing views on the screen, specifies virtual camera work, such as where to place the camera and how to move it. If a layout designer understands the effects of lenses, they can decide at this stage what kind of lens to use for the virtual camera work.

In the 1980s, works produced with a strong awareness of the lens effects appeared, such as AKIRA (OTOMO Katsuhiro, 1988) and Kido Keisatsu Patlabor the Movie (Patlabor: The Movie) (OSHII Mamoru, 1989). In the latter, location scouting was conducted to take concept photos as reference material to incorporate them into the work’s world. The image creation work was also clearly lens-conscious from the layout stage. Among the effects by various virtual lenses, the fisheye lens effect is probably one of the easiest to notice, by extremely distorting an entire view to make it look humorous. A typical example is an image of SHINOHARA Asuma sneaking into a computer room (Fig. 5). OSHII says that his use of the lens effects stems from his idea that the directorial standards of animation are based on memories of live-action images and “live-action images themselves also depend on the physical (optical) properties of lenses, in principle” (*4).

Fig. 5 An example of the fisheye lens effect, from Kido Keisatsu Patlabor the Movie (Patlabor: The Movie)

Since the end of the 20th century, digitalization in animation has been going on in full swing like in many other fields. Today, animation stands are no longer used, and instead, synthesizing each layer on computer has become the mainstream method. In other words, animation is almost no longer photography. In contrast, virtual lens expressions have been more and more incorporated.

Thanks to the widespread use of digital cameras and the advent of camera phones, it is easy for everyone to take a large number of photos. Humans, including animation creators, have become very familiar with photographic images. SHINKAI Makoto, who started making animation as an independent creator, is known for drawing layouts based on photos taken with a digital camera. Although he uses the method only for a section of each work, his creation style has a strong affinity with lens effects. His blockbuster hit Kimi no Na wa (your name.) (2016) uses the macro lens effect. This type of lens is used for close-up photographing. Macro lenses have the property of much blurring the inner periphery of an image because of their small focus range. SHINKAI used this effect in the scene depicting a braided cord, which is a specialty of Itomori Town (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6 An example of the macro lens effect, from Kimi no Na wa (your name.)

Kyoto Animation is a production company using unique lens expressions. Its TV animation Hibike! Euphonium (Sound! Euphonium) (ISHIHARA Tatsuya, 2015) has a scene where the colors on the inner periphery of the view appear blurred (Fig. 7). The phenomenon is called chromatic aberration, which is caused by the difference in refractive indices depending on colors. Today, the phenomenon is corrected by combining lenses with various properties, but it often occurred when shooting images with old lenses not having such a mechanism. In other words, that scene is an old lens expression. YAMADA Naoko, who directed Keion! (K-On!) (2009) and many other Kyoto Animation works, says that the use of virtual lenses can create a feeling of reality, such as making the viewers feel, “Oh, this girl really lives here,” that is, the realistic presence of the character (*5).

Fig. 7 An example of the old lens effect, from Hibike! Euphonium (Sound! Euphonium)

Incident light effect and lens flare effect

The incident light effect, a depiction of multiple linear incident rays of light entering the screen from outside at various angles, is often seen in today’s animation. Such a depiction is generated on computer today, but in the past, it was synthesized by applying actual lights to an exposed film through a double exposure process. Expressions of actual lights entering from outside are already seen in such works in the past as Senya Ichiya Monogatari (A Thousand and One Nights) (YAMAMOTO Eiichi, 1969), but they are slightly different from recent works. TAKAHASHI Hirokata, the director of photography for the TV animation Ie Naki Ko (Remi) (DEZAKI Osamu, 1977–1978), said that the incident light effect that is generally seen today was used in the opening of the animation (Fig. 8) for the first time (*6). DEZAKI Osamu, who directed the animation, says that the lens flares seen in Easy Rider (Dennis HOPPER, 1969) is the origin of the incident light effect (*7). Lens flares are a phenomenon generating a certain noise of light when a lens is directed to a strong light source. It was basically avoided in the days of the classical Hollywood film style (*8). Directors of New Hollywood, such as HOPPER, defied the norm and intentionally directed lenses to the sun. This approach was also associated with the free and rebellious spirit they portrayed in films. The incident light effect, which was originated from the approach, gives a similar feel to many works of DEZAKI.

Fig. 8 Incident lights (in white) and drawn ghosts (in light blue), from Ie Naki Ko (Remi)

Although the incident light effect was created to imitate lens flares, DEZAKI used the effect even when a camera faced in a direction different from a light source. His approach is not a mere imitation of live-action images. DEZAKI states that he uses the shooting techniques with “using filters to add colors to scenes and emphasizing incident lights” as direction effects to make some impact on dramas (*9). In today’s animation production, incident lights are used as a symbol of strong sunlight. Its origin has thus been forgotten and it is now one of the expressions unique to animation.

Another example of lens flare is a phenomenon called ghosting. It occurs as follows: A camera lens is usually constructed as a device with combined multiple lenses. When a camera is directed to a strong light source such as the sun and a certain amount or more of light enters the device, the light reflected by each lens will appear in an image. Each reflection is called a ghost. MIYAZAKI Hayao used this method in his recent work Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises) (2013) (Fig. 9). In the era when animation stands were used, ghosts were often drawn. In the opening of Ie Naki Ko (Remi) described earlier in this article, incident lights that are synthesized actual lights and ghosts that are drawn coexist (Fig. 8).

Fig. 9 An example of the ghosting effect, from Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises)

Since the age of digitization started, the use of the ghosting effect in animation has been on the rise (*10). Digitization has made it possible to add various types of lens flares easily and convincingly. Software commonly used in animation production, such as After Effects, has a function of adding lens flares as standard equipment. There are also dedicated plug-ins.

Nowadays, the anamorphic lens flare effect is also widely used. An anamorphic lens is a special lens used to shoot horizontally-wide pictures. When using an anamorphic lens, lens flares extend horizontally. The effect has been used in live-action films since the 1950s, when the lens was released. In recent years, the lens effect has become more common as film directors such as J.J. ABRAMS like to use it in their films. In animation, the effect has been used in works by, for example, SHINKAI Makoto (Fig. 10). SHINKAI has used various other types of lens flares in his works, which is one of the characteristics of his style. SHINKAI speculates that the use of lens flares and ghosts in NAKAMURA Ryosuke’s Nerawareta Gakuen (Psychic School Wars) (2012) may be to “describe that he felt the world and the feelings of others were dazzling in his adolescence” (*11). SHINKAI seems to have used the same approach in his works.

Fig. 10 An example of the anamorphic lens flare effect, from Kimi no Na wa (your name.)

What are lens expressions?

Lens expressions in animation are intended to distort, blur, or compress images as if they were seen through a lens, and to show that there is a space in an image on the screen that can be changed that way. In addition, since the act of shooting an image always entails an act of cutting out a section of a subject, the use of lens expressions probably causes the viewers to be better aware that the world extends beyond the screen. It also emphasizes that the depicted character exists in the particular space or world. Incident lights and lens flares, which are originally noise, can be used to give a touch of seriousness to images, or to show how a particular scene looks like in a character’s vision.

Lens expressions may also be used to emphasize that the world depicted in the work is a created world by making the viewers aware of a virtual photographer. TOMINO Yoshiyuki, who is known as the creator of the Gundam series, stressed the importance of camera angles, but said: “In the world of fiction that is visually depicted, no camera is to exist, so phenomena proving its existence must not be shown,” making an objection to such expressions as water droplets on the lens (*12).

Of course, the history of animation styles cannot be described in a simple manner. Animation is characteristic in that each work is different in style in the first place, and also different in use of photo-like images. It is said that MIYAZAKI Hayao, who thoroughly understands the lens effects and uses the effects himself, is always telling his staff “not to draw images as just what you see in photos or videos” (*13). This attitude is one of the reasons why his works have so many attractive qualities unique to animation.

It is also important to consider the connection between what is called “realism” and lens expressions. Photo images are characterized in that they provide: 1. a faithful reflection of a subject, in a sense; 2. a detailed depiction; and 3. a lens-like vision (angles of view, lens flares, etc.). All these three elements do not necessarily need to be integrated in animation. Expressions based on angles of view or lens flares can also be seen in a work set in a place that does not actually exist, or in a work with a stylized background. For such a case, the lens expressions are often modified so as to suit the style of the work. This approach is typical in “polygonal flares,” which appear in works directed by OONUMA Shin, such as Watashi ga Motenai no wa do Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui! (No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular!) (2013) (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11 An example of the polygonal flare effect, from Watashi ga Motenai no wa do Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui! (No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular!)

Today, the incident light effect is no longer an imitation of lens flares. It has become one of the expressions unique to animation. Expressions by virtual lenses have also been used for layout since years ago. They are different from those by actual lenses in that they use, for example, the wide-angle lens effect to express the foreground and the telephoto lens effect to express the background in the same scene. The virtual lenses used this way can be regarded as having different properties from actual lenses. They can be dubbed “animation lenses.”

The lens effects are like a treasure lying in the ocean of photographic images. The digitalization in the latter half of the 20th century has made this treasure accessible to animation creators. Each creator needs to decide whether and how to use the treasure.

Hannah FRANK, “Traces of the World: Cel Animation and Photography,” Animation: an interdisciplinary journal, 2016, Vol. 11(1) (SAGE Publications), 23–39.

Dai Nihon Eiga Kyokai Bunka Eiga Kenkyukai, “Manga Saiyuki Gappyo” (Joint review of manga ‘Journey to the West’), Eiga Gijutsu, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Eiga Shuppan, 1942), 65.

OGURA Kentaro, “Manga Eiga no Kakucho: from Momotaro no Umiwashi to Momotaro Umi no Shinpei” (The Expansion of Manga Film: from Momotaro’s Sea Eagles to Momotaro, Sacred Sailors), Eizogaku, Vol. 101 (Japan Society of Image Arts and Sciences, 2019), 5–26.

OSHII Mamoru, “METHODS OSHII Mamoru: Patlabor 2 Enshutsu Note” (Methods from layouts of Patlabor 2 the Movie) (Kadokawa Shoten, 1994), 140.

OGURO Yuichiro and ENDO Kazuki, “Interview with ISHIHARA Tatsuya and YAMADA Naoko,” Animestyle 007 (Style, 2015), 29.

Edited by OYAMA Kumao and HAYASHI Nobuyuki (SLF), Animation Kantoku DEZAKI Osamu no Sekai (The world of animation director DEZAKI Osamu), (Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 2012), 65.

“Hoso Chokuzen Special! ULTRAVIOLET: Code 044” (Special program immediately before broadcast! ULTRAVIOLET: Code 044), BS11, broadcast on July 5, 2008.

Refers to a style that prevailed in Hollywood films mainly from the 1920s to the 1950s. They were produced by major studios and put importance on the clarity of stories and continuity of images.

The same as *6. Animation Kantoku DEZAKI Osamu no Sekai (The world of animation director DEZAKI Osamu), 33.

OGURA Kentaro, “Anime ni okeru hyogen no iji to ekkyo: Nyushako, lens flare no chosa ni motozuite” (The Indigenous Expression and the Introduced Expression in Anime: Based on Research on “Nyuusya-kou” [incident light] and Lens Flare), Seijo Bungei, No.233/234 (Seijo University, Faculty of Arts and Literature, 2015), 96–73.

SHINKAI Makoto Twitter (
/259142290294054912), posted at 1:01 p.m. on October 19, 2012

TOMINO Yoshiyuki, Eizo no gensoku: Revised (Principle of Video: Revised) (Kinema Junpo, 2011), 145.

TATENO Hitomi and HIRABAYASHI Kyoko, Enpitsu Senki: Dare mo shiranakatta Studio Ghibli (Pencil war chronicle: Studio Ghibli nobody knew) (Chuokoron-Shinsha, 2015), 54.

*URL link was confirmed on August 20, 2021.