Character growth, story development, pacing, music, lighting - all these things, and more, serve to invoke some sort of emotional response. Movies, shows, and games, have given us huge smiles or lumps in our throats as early as we can remember - be it from laughter, sadness, or joy.
I’ll admit that when something made me swell up when I was younger, I felt embarrassed - boys aren’t meant to cry and all that - but now I actually try to seek out shows where such a response may occur. After all, if something is so well produced that it can make bring a tear to your eye, it must be something special.
But what is it that makes your hair stand on end, your cheeks rise as you laugh, your eyes start to water, or your throat begin to tighten? Well, let’s explore...
Camera work and Lighting
Lighting is often bundled in with camera work, and so is often missed on its own merits, but the two go hand-in-hand, so it’s best to discuss them at the same time.
The job of the camera is to direct your focus and influence your sense of place. Imagine a scene in which one male high school student is talking to two female students. You see everyone in the shot equally, so you are just an observer to the scene - you’re just taking in what’s being said. Now imagine the same scene, but instead of seeing everyone equally, the camera is close-up on one of the female students. Your focus is being directed towards their response to what is being said. Now, whether her reaction is good or bad, it’s right in front of you - and being human, we tend to empathize with something that’s right in front of us. So if she smiles, we are likely to smile. This is just one way in which the camera can help us to relate to a character.
On the role of lighting, Art Director Kazuki Higashiji (Ghost in the Shell: SAC, NagiAsu, Angel Beats) says;
“It’s not just a matter of art; it’s also a matter of having the right feel. The basic concept is that everything is composed of light and shadow. You can’t convey light without shadow, and you can’t convey shadow without light. A person who looks at a blank white screen wouldn’t think of the light as bright. But a single point of light in the middle of a pitch-black space would appear dazzling.”. (Source: Crunchyroll)
Light is used to represent hope and possibility, and the freedom of the outside. Shadows represent our isolation and our fears, through not being able to see what is up ahead.
For an excellent use of lighting
in an actual anime, I can suggest Your lie in April; the use of lighting whenever Kōsei looks at Kaori just enhances how he feels about her, or how the light shines from her when she’s around other people, and the shadows that surround her in later episodes when she’s alone.
Character Development and Plot
You could have the best art director in the world working on your show, but if you have unendearing characters and a dull plot, it’s unlikely to hold your interest. The plot is the story of the show, and the events that happen to our characters drive that story. Character development can be getting to know more about the character; through inner monologues, flashbacks, conversations etc, or it can be growth; they overcome an obstacle, achieve something, or learn something. It’s finding out why they do what they do, and why they are who they are.
The story moves along as we get to know our characters, and as the story ebbs and flows we may get several key moments; the reluctant hero finally stepping up, a sad child letting go of a lost parent, or a crush becoming realized. The plot drives us toward those moments slowly, so we get invested in these characters, and the world in which they live. We become part of their world and when those key moments occur, we feel for them, because they are like friends. A great example I can give you of this is Toradora!
Music plays a huge part in working our feelings. Fast rock music helps move along an action scene, while a softer piano piece can show the gentleness of affection. Music is not just a background element, it resonates with us, literally. Take your classical sections; like percussion, french horns, and cellos - these are your bass instruments, which you feel in your gut, then you have your violins, clarinets, and harps, mid-range instruments which hit your torso, and then the treble instruments, flutes, clarinets, and oboes, the ones that get right up in your ears.
The rhythm and tempo of a musical piece can make you feel like dancing, like a waltz, feel lonely or self-reflective, like a sonata, or tense up like you’re preparing for battle, like a choral symphony. A well written piece of music can sit in the background and change a scene without us even noticing, or even stand on its own outside of a scene in playing with your emotions. An example off the top of my head would be Somnus from the FFXV universe.
If we dissect this, the piano gives us a sense of loss, but also hope. The violin comes in and pulls at your chest, and the cellos expand the music, giving it a sense of depth. As the piece moves on, it swells and unfolds into a catalyst for a wondrous adventure. Its at the part where the music swells where it hits us the hardest, since in this case we’ve been taken on a musical journey - and this whole methodology is applied to key scenes in anime to play with our emotions. We seldom realize we’re being taken on this musical journey because its background to the visuals - and a well written score should enhance the scene, not stand out (but could still work on its own - you know what I mean).
Combining these Factors
We watch these shows for their interesting premises, and characters. The ones that give us characters we can relate to, and stories we can immerse ourselves in are the most powerful ones. Since we all have different tastes, what excites with one person, won’t necessarily be all that great to the next person, but that’s ok, because there are enough shows out there for everyone. When you find yours, it’s something special. What happens to those characters as the story develops holds our interest, while the camera tells us where to focus our attentions on events affecting them. The lighting enhances the environment, making it seem more realistic, or enhancing the nature of a character’s aura; light, making them feel more ethereal, or shadows, intensifying their pain and sorrow. The music resonates through us, pulling at our emotions, holding our hands through each scene.
When the characters reach those key moments of growth, the real magic happens behind the scenes; the camera closes in, the lighting intensifies, and the music swells - and because of our investment in the characters, we can’t help but shed a tear, or smile from ear to ear. Its those scenes we remember, the ones that made us feel vulnerable. They broke down our barriers and forced us to admit that we’re just human.
I love shows that give me that experience. A moment I can’t help but laugh out loud at, or revelation that puts a lump in your throat. What are the moments that left a lasting effect on you?