The Art of the Still Frame

The Art of the Still Frame

Introduction

Before we begin in earnest, let’s take a quick look at the definition of animation: “the technique of photographing successive drawings or positions of puppets or models to create an illusion of movement when the movie is shown as a sequence.”

The reason for including the definition of animation is to illustrate that what we’re talking about today is not animation (although I’ve tagged it as such for simplicity’s sake). To be clear, moving across or zooming in or out from a still image does not count as animation.

That said, there are various reasons why an animation studio might choose to use a still frame for an extended period of time. It can save both time and money because it means less frames have to be drawn, but it can also be used as a storytelling device.

When Used Well

One of my favorite scenes from Neon Genesis Evangelion (and possibly one of my favorite scenes overall), the elevator scene with Asuka and Rei, is almost exclusively a single frame and the scene lasts for almost a full minute. In the original airing of the episode, it was a still frame the whole time, but this was changed for later releases.

Still frames were used in other parts of the series with mixed results, but for now we’re just taking a look at this one scene. In the case of NGE, time was a major constraint for the end of the series which is most likely a reason for this still frame scene being in episode 22.

However, even though this use of a still frame was most likely due to time constraints, it was used in a way that actually enhanced the series due to all of the emotion this single frame was able to convey to the viewer. I’ve already talked about this scene in my review of NGE, so I’ll only briefly discuss it here.

By this point in the series, we understand the three Eva pilots inside and out. Because of this, a simple still frame is all we need to understand what the characters are thinking and feeling. Further, the still frame adds the stillness of tension to the scene which the viewer already expects simply due to the characters pictured.

The Elevator scene from episode 22 of the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime featuring Rei and Asuka
The Elevator Scene (Neon Genesis Evangelion)

While the elevator scene uses a still image static, Attack on Titan occasionally uses still frames in motion to tell a story. By this, I mean that there’s a large still frame which is slowly panned over by the camera (not animated, just moving across a still image to “fake” motion).

One such scene that comes to mind is from episode 8 when the cadets are going down the stairs into the basement of a resupply facility to eliminate the titans lurking within. This scene pans over a couple still frames of the group walking down the stairs with dialogue put over it as if the scene was fully animated.

There’s also a slight change in art style for these frames with an emphasis on dark lines over the characters. This change makes the use of still frames feel more like a specific artistic choice rather than the result of saving time, money, or both (I don’t know the true reason for using still frames here).

Regardless of why still frames were chosen for this scene, the result is still the same: it worked. Even though the scene still would have taken up the same amount of time within the episode, the use of multiple still frames somehow made it feel as though we got a shortened version of this between-action scene without getting any less information.

When Used Poorly

While NGE and AoT have examples of still frames being used effectively, One Piece is on the other end of the spectrum. I’ve stated previously that I like One Piece, but the animation is sub-par and its use of still frames is a major part of this.

I could talk a lot about how this series frequently uses animation that’s little more than a still frame, but we’re here to discuss completely still frames today so I’ll leave it at that for now. The major flaw with the use of still frames in this series is that they’re clearly being used to save time and money.

As I mentioned before, saving time and money is a great reason to use still frames, however, you need to at least hide this fact behind something else. NGE hid it behind a the elevator scene which was full of tension and emotion (and failed to hide it in other scenes as I briefly alluded to).

One Piece, however, uses still frames as filler instead of to help tell the story. Since each episode covers roughly one chapter of the manga, there’s not actually enough content for a full-length anime episode. This has been roughly patched by extending still frames to take up more run time.

What this leaves us with is an obvious sign that the anime is stalling for time, and not giving the viewer any meaningful content. While NGE would use one still frame for a prolonged time for effect, One Piece uses many still frames just long enough to feel out of place.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, I can no longer watch an anime without constantly noticing every time a still frame is used whether it be a good or bad use. Hopefully that doesn’t happen to you as well unless you want to constantly be analyzing the effectiveness of still frames.

But what do you think about the use of still frames in anime? Do you think they’re ever acceptable? Do you not mind when they’re used constantly in an anime like One Piece? Leave a comment below to let me know.

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