Akira and the Creation of Light

How the animated classic employs various lighting schemes to help deliver its message.

In live-action feature films, light is controlled, it is harnessed and utilized to the best effect that can be managed, but light, ever so mercurial, is also at the same time beyond control and only lends itself to certain uses at certain times of the day. In animation, naturally, light is controlled much more easily because it isn’t captured, it’s made. In most modern, computer-generated films, light can replicate how it functions in the real world, a true facsimile of light’s natural reflective and refractive properties can be mimicked. But before the CGI era, back in the days when animated films were purely drawn by hand, light had to be created from nothing. Sounds almost Biblical, doesn’t it?

In Katsuhiro Otomo’s groundbreaking animated feature Akira – easily one of the most-discussed films in the genre – particular attention is given to light and how it can lend itself to the themes, motifs, and narrative of a film. Like Film Noir, animation is highly-dependent on its visual aesthetic, different styles connote different emotions, atmospheres and tones, and in Akira a multitude of lighting techniques have been drawn into the story to drive home different facets of the film at different moments.

In the latest video from The Nerdwriter, essayist Evan Puschak explores just what these techniques are and how Otomo employed them. He starts by taking us through the process of cell animation, pit-stops by Film Noir, then segues into Akira specifically, where he unfurls his typically-erudite brand of analysis. There are, as Puschak himself notes, a lot of essays and other conversations about Akira that exist in the world of film criticism, but this one is particularly important not just for what it reveals about Otomo’s film, but also about the relation between all animated films and the intentionality of light.