effects: a naruto case study

I’ve always had a rocky, inconsistent relationship with the idea of effects in AMVs. When I look at the kinds of videos I tend to prefer nowadays, they are almost always of the simpler, more straightforward variety, however it wasn’t always this way. When I first started viewing and making AMVs in 2006, I was, like I think most newcomers to the scene tend to be, enamored with videos that made use of excessive effects, to the point where I believed that making “those types” of videos was the goal towards which all new editors strove by default. It didn’t help that at the time, when the .org was really active and still represented the centralized heart of the AMV community, really “effectsy” videos were constantly being released and garnering a lot of attention. Stuff like Skittles, Magic Pad, Spoil, and Bleach Technique Beat were dominating the con circuits. Akross was (arguably) at its height, with videos like the groundbreaking Reflections striking a chord with U.S. audiences. Similarly, surreal and abstract works like Silencio and Vertigo were generating massive discussion, putting effects work straight into the spotlight. It was an endlessly interesting time in the history of the hobby, at least when it came to the technical prowess that was being put on display, and the ripples that flowed out from this time period eventually became waves that are still being felt in the trends of today.

From a personal standpoint, these discussions and videos impelled my personal style in a way that, looking back, probably stunted my growth for longer than it should have. Making a good FX-based video was what I strove for, for a while. My early attempts were disastrous, and probably peaked in the video that for a long time I was best known for, Hold On. It was a video that was created basically entirely in After Effects, which at the time was something of a badge of honor to have done, although nowadays that seems to be the norm. I watch this video today and I can barely stand to sit through it, but it was a technical achievement that I was quite proud of at the time. It was also the video that, in the long run, proved to me that being a technically savvy editor was not a route that appealed to my editing senses. The last video I did that had an enormous amount of effects work in it, Overmind, cemented my absolute despite of the tedious masking and frame-by-frame tweaking required to make FX work look good. I haven’t looked back.

Since then, and maybe even before, I’ve had a contentious, confusing, and probably contradictory attitude towards videos that use a lot of effects. While I try to take it on a case-by-case basis, I fear that I have unfairly made blanket statements about super technical videos that can hardly apply in all instances, and have similarly written certain types of videos off as the visual equivalent of ego-stroking without actually identifying why I feel this way beyond making vague, generalized statements in my defense. This isn’t fair, nor is it right, and in the interest of maybe setting the record straight, or at least straighter than it is now, I’ve decided to make a post basically deconstructing a few key videos that will hopefully make my feelings on the subject of effects work in AMVs clear to all, not least of all myself.

The three videos I’ve chosen have been chosen for some very specific reasons. It’s actually oddly serendipitous that I’m able to make a post like this using these particular videos, because I feel that between the three of them, they cover pretty much all the ground it’s possible to cover in the “types” of FX-oriented videos out there. Although the methods and specific styles have changed over the years, these videos still embody distinctly different schools of thought when it comes to how effects can be utilized in AMVs, and I feel like any FX-heavy videos made, even today, can ultimately be divided into one of the schools that I’m about to discuss below.

More than that though, it’s especially interesting because the following three videos were all released within about five months of one another, they all use the same anime (Naruto), and all are listed in the Top 10 (not Top 10%, the Top Actual 10) videos as rated on the .org for all years. For this reason I feel that it’s even more appropriate to set them against one another and use them as a basis for talking about this particular topic, especially considering that as the years went on, at least for a little while, they remained in the community’s consciousness as highly technical videos — the kinds of videos that we peons could only ever dream of being able to make.

Note, please, that this particular way of dividing videos that I am about to do is entirely of my own construction. I don’t claim to represent anyone else’s viewpoints here, nor do I claim to have the final word. This all comes from years of observation and thought on this subject, so you can feel free to decide just how much authority that carries, if any. With that, let’s get started.

[Quick follow-up note and apology in advance: there are a lot of links in the following paragraphs. Don’t feel obligated to watch all or even any of the videos I link below — although it should help your understanding of what I’m trying to say throughout the post. If nothing else, it’s a resource for a ton of different types of videos to come back to at a later time!]

Sierra Lorna – Phenomenon (Open Your Soul)
Released 4/5/2005

The Utilitarian Approach
Sierra Lorna’s legacy in AMVdom is sealed forever, even if she herself is all but forgotten these days. The simple fact of the matter is that her videos, regardless of how you feel about them, inspired an entire generation of sentimental editors that went on to influence even more editors down the line. Popular editors over the years like aerialesque, Chiikaboom, and Bakadeshi have cited her as an influence in their own work, and from there it’s impossible to calculate who all has been touched, in one way or another, by her work. By far her best-known video, Phenomenon is also possibly her most technically accomplished work. Keeping in mind that this was released in 2005, it’s fairly simple by today’s standards, but back then this kind of effects work was as simultaneously trendy and groundbreaking as almost anything you could ask for at the time, and it resonated with the AMV community as a synthesis of things everyone loved — fairly generic hard rock, Naruto, and eye-catching, era-defining effects work.

I’m not going to be overly critical of the video as a whole because that’s not the purpose of this post, but I think I should point out that I don’t care much for it, and never really have, although I watched it a lot when I first got into AMVs. The simple fact of the matter is that it hasn’t aged well, though, and these types of videos rarely do. It is entirely a product of its time. Besides the obvious choice of source material, the effects place it squarely in the mid-2000s; on that basis alone it would have a hard time finding an audience today that’s receptive to it on anything besides an enjoyment of its audio or visual sources.

This is a prime example of the kind of video that falls into what I’m calling the “Utilitarian” approach to effects use. The effects in this video are mostly without context, serving only as sync devices for the song’s main beats and “big” moments. For a song like this, that means that the effects are nearly constant, so if you’re removed from the era in which it was originally released, you may find yourself lost and put off by what is, let’s face it, a pretty tacky technical display.

The problem with videos like these is that they are ridiculously shortsighted. In a more cynical mood I might suggest that this video, and those like it, are created with the sole intent of capitalizing on what’s popular at the time to gain a following — “opportunistic”, in other words. In my heart of hearts I don’t know that I really believe that about Sierra Lorna’s work, even though it would be ridiculously easy to make that accusation based on the types of videos she released when she was active, because her work seemed to have genuine heart behind it even if the execution was pretty much never to my tastes. But I think those types of editors do exist, and effects like these — not necessarily the particular effects used in this video, but the type that ultimately add nothing to the video itself besides eye-catching sync moments — tend to be the hallmark of such an approach. These videos are shallow but technically savvy, made in the moment and disposable in the worst way. They are useful to us armchair AMV historians as examples of past trends, but rarely are they actually enjoyable in themselves, unless nostalgia happens to hold any sway in the viewer.

To Sierra Lorna’s credit, and really anyone who genuinely makes these kinds of videos out of sincerity or ignorance and not to cash in on current trends, it can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to determine where the currents will carry certain types of effects and what will and won’t look good in the coming years. And, in the case of Phenomenon, it was one of the earliest videos, and probably the most popular of its time or any created before it, to use masked transitions successfully. Whether or not it was the source of this particular trend is probably impossible to say for certain, but it was only a couple years later that this particular effect started showing up in a lot of trendy videos, and it’s a technique that has survived to this day. In that sense, Sierra Lorna hit on something lasting, even if it was only utilized a couple times in this particular video.

The rest of the effects in here, though — the masked overlays with Shounen Bushidou-style lip sync, the boxed cutouts, the linear blurs, the colored-overlay-with-b&w-background used as a sync device starting around 2:03 — they all just scream “outdated” and exemplify videos that are entirely encapsulated within a specific time period, and which hardly ever — if ever — transcend their time and place to become timeless.

Phenomenon may be an exception, though, if the 2M+ views on its YouTube page are any indication. I have a hard time thinking of another such video that has stood the test of time, however, and whether or not Phenomenon was intentionally opportunistic, it’s hard to deny that its lasting appeal probably has way more to do with the anime/song combo than the particular editing style Sierra Lorna chose to use. Still, it’s Utilitarian to the core, and it represents a style in FX AMVs that, for me, is really off-putting and tends to be very forgettable. Phenomenon is etched into my memory in a good way because of the nostalgia that accompanies it (and all the top comments on the YouTube page seem to agree); in another way, I remember it as an ugly, showy video that happened to use some of the era’s most cringey effects in the shallowest way possible, and as an editor that tends to be what sticks out.

There are some exceptions, though, and good ones at that. UnluckyArtist’s Blithe and Bonny would find itself under this label, and it was one of my favorite videos from 2016. I also enjoy x-peppermint’s Creative and Koopiskeva’s Damaged Rei-Mix, among several others. This type of video can absolutely be done well, but those videos I mentioned tend to have other elements that I like as well, up to and including things as subjective as the song choice, or the conceptual backing. On the basis of effects alone, none of these videos (no matter how much I might like each one) would have stuck on my hard drive.

Decoy – Naruto’s Technique Beat
Released 5/26/2005

The Over-The-Top Approach
Back when things moved slower in the AMV world, and videos stuck in the collective consciousness for longer, Naruto’s Technique Beat (henceforth “NTB”) was one of those videos that was met with nearly universal viewership; it was basically required viewing for any aspiring AMV editor, and its existence was the source of many a good-natured joke about “Decoygons” (not unlike Euphoria and “Kooptangles”). In fact, Decoy had pretty much edited himself into a kind of corner with this video, and the hype surrounding his “sequel” (and ultimately final) video, Bleach Technique Beat, is difficult to describe to someone who wasn’t around to experience it.

These days I have a hard time thinking of a single comparable video in terms of something so ubiquitous in AMV culture; indeed, it’s probably more likely that such a time is past and will never return. With a fractured AMV community and the sheer volume of AMVs being released and lost among the dregs of YouTube, there are practically no videos that every AMV fan or editor would know of today. It’s a different world, not least of all because the approach that NTB defines — the “Over-The-Top” approach — has ultimately cheapened effects use in a way that makes these videos highly un-memorable, even when they’re striving to be the opposite.

These are the videos that go completely balls-to-the-wall with their effects use. These editors hold nothing back, pouring all their energy into making something that looks cool, and is eye-catching in a way that the more Utilitarian videos aren’t; where those videos are focused more on beat sync and comparably simple effects used to emphasize rhythm, Over-The-Top videos leave no frame untouched, playing with color, custom effects, overlays, masking, ad nauseam to give their video a wholly tailor-made look to separate it from the crowd. When people talk about “effectsy” videos, these are usually the videos that they’re referring to — the focus of these videos is the effects work, not the story or scene arrangement or anything else.

It would be easy for someone like me to write these videos off based on that description alone, but it’s important to realize that these videos are not, by necessity, completely disposable (although they tend to be shallow), and even if they were there’s something to be said for videos that are visually dazzling. Taking NTB as an example, it has a simple concept — the premise of showing the different characters in Naruto and their battle moves/techniques, as captured by a “drone” is a pretty thin disguise for allowing Decoy to go absolutely nuts with After Effects and the popular Trapcode plugins of the time, and make an FX-saturated masterpiece of color and era-specific geometry and HUD wankery. It’s a truly brilliant video, and I love it — no matter how I spin it I can’t escape the fact that it’s stupidly fun and perfectly utilizes the popular FX motifs of the time — maybe even perfects them.

That’s what makes these videos so great, when done correctly — they not only can help define certain eras of AMVs, they can set trends for the next one. Other popular videos like Into The Labyrinth or Magic Pad or PencilHead fit into this category — videos with admittedly superficial concepts that go above and beyond their peers from a technical standpoint. The number of videos mimicking Into The Labyrinth is probably higher than I care to count, and their quality is certainly questionable, but it doesn’t change the fact that I love Into The Labyrinth as much as I did the first time I watched it. To me it still feels fresh and unique, because everything that copied it didn’t perfect the craft the way lolligerjoj did.

That said, unlike in the days of NTB, now everyone has easy access to the programs that simplify the creation of this type of video. And more farsighted editors than those that stick to the Utilitarian approach have begun plastering their videos with meaningless effects to a degree that the line between these videos and those has become thin indeed. Stuff like this or this would ultimately, I believe, fall into this camp, but has a much more throwaway feel than those videos made by the masters of the craft.

If you’re going to pursue an FX-based editing style, this approach is probably the least risky of the three — it takes less creativity than the kind I will describe below, and it also has the potential to stay in the public consciousness for longer than those described above. But, it requires potentially more work and technical skill for a questionable return on investment, and it necessitates that you have your finger on the pulse of current AMV trends — an increasingly difficult feat in a hobby that is entirely decentralized. These can be great videos — the kind of videos that influence thousands of AMV editors in a certain direction. I would even posit that a not-insignificant number of the AMVs which, in the history of the hobby, could be considered to be “landmark” releases were of this type, made by editors who wanted to show off their technical skill by making something neat, and in the process pushing the boundaries of editing tricks and effects into new areas, coaxing others to follow them. But these days it’s a steep road, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked, and YouTube is full of editors taking this approach and failing miserably.

It’s also worth mentioning, though, that these videos are also the ones with the highest potential to age poorly. Because of the nature of the approach — showcasing effects rather than a meaningful concept — as effects go in and out of style, often these videos will too. My enjoyment of NTB is perhaps somewhat based on nostalgic factors, but I also believe that the best Over-The-Top videos are able to maximize those effects which are more “timeless” and minimize those that aren’t, and I think that NTB was able to walk that line very well. Time has not been so kind to other videos that take this approach, however. Videos like Extraordinary World, Ephemeral Reality, DANSU, and Empty Motion all look horribly dated today (even if I like several of those). It can be almost impossible to identify what will work in the long run and what won’t, which is perhaps why so many of these videos, which were huge in their day, have been completely forgotten now.

ScorpionsUltd – Whisper of the Beast
Released 12/1/2004

The Cohesive Approach
ScorpionsUltd is one of the AMV world’s perennially mysterious figures; a collaboration account between two Russian editors, they released Whisper of the Beast in December 2004 and were instantly drafted into AMV fame forever. They promptly disappeared from the scene for seven years only to come back out of literally nowhere with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, an unexpected but worthy sequel and loving homage to the then 10-year-old, legendary Tainted Donuts. Since then we’ve once again been thrust into radio silence, and it’s likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

What makes Whisper of the Beast such a fascinating video, though, isn’t so much the mystery surrounding the duo who created it, much as it can be fun to speculate on who they are and what drives (drove?) them to edit. Nor is it the video’s lasting fame, to the point where the main song in the video has been mistitled on lyrics sites as the title of the AMV itself. No, for me Whisper of the Beast’s legacy is found in its flawless use of effects — possibly some of the absolute best, most well-integrated effects use in all of AMVs, and one of the most representative of what I’m calling the “Cohesive” approach.

These videos utilize effects which have a purpose that supports and expands upon the editor’s concept, to the point where the video essentially relies on the effects to work in any sense of the word. The editors of these types of videos tend to be obsessively detail-oriented, often going to great lengths to hide the blatant effects work and make them look like a part of the anime itself (see: Eidolon). In other cases where it would be impossible to “hide” the effects work, they try to make it look so professional that the viewer doesn’t feel removed from the world the effects create. (For a modern and easily recognizable example of this, look no further than Anime’s Got Talent.) In either case, the FX work is not the purpose of the video, as in Over-The-Top videos, nor is it used simply as a way to sync to the audio, as in Utilitarian ones — it is a necessary component, and often a major one, in establishing the overarching concept of the AMV. Another way to look at it is that in Utilitarian videos, effects exist for the sync, in Over-The-Top videos the video exists for the effects, and in Cohesive videos the effects exist for the concept.

Whisper of the Beast is a quintessentially “Cohesive” video — the effects in the video all create an atmosphere that underpins the video’s story of loss and regret. There’s a lot of compositing and color manipulation — ScorpionsUltd were six years ahead of the curve in terms of these techniques, all of which are turned up to 11 in more modern Umika-style crossover videos (for example). But it all serves a narrative purpose, and it’s all integrated so well that for a long time I didn’t even realize that that eye thing on Naruto’s headband wasn’t actually in the anime. Chalk that up to my own naivete (I was very new to the AMV/anime scene when I first watched this video), but even today I still feel like the world and settings shown in this video feel more natural than in most modern AMVs that do the same kind of thing. And it’s a perfect example of the kind of endurance these videos can tap into when done this well — not only does Whisper of the Beast communicate everything it was made to communicate in a professional and effective way, it feels like it could have been made yesterday.

Of all the approaches, this is the one that can most easily do just that — transcend its time period and feel era-less, something that looks fresh no matter how many years down the road you first experience it. This is because, in most cases, the effects in these videos are secondary to the concept, and are generally not pushed beyond the boundaries set by what that concept requires. That’s not to say all of these kinds of videos don’t age; something like Arima Shinjikun, for example, definitely falls under this umbrella and has extremely campy effects, no matter how well they may serve the video’s concept, but I think that videos like those tend to be the exception. When I think of this school of effects use, my mind moves towards videos like VicBond007’s manga/anime mashup Accidentally In Love, or Nightowl’s Firewall. Even though I don’t particularly like it, Gorz’s Fracture is a good modern example of this approach — as shallow as I think the video is, the effects work certainly doesn’t feel dated 4 years on, and it’s done really well towards its conceptual end.

All that said, Cohesive-type videos are probably the most challenging to pull off, because not only do these videos require a wide-angle view of your concept from the beginning, they necessitate a very solid technical skillset that takes a long time (and/or a whole lot of work) to develop. This type of video also requires more thought and creativity than the others, because making an FX-heavy video driven by a concept rather than effects for their own sake means exhibiting a certain amount of restraint, and knowing when enough is enough. This is a skill that, upon cursory review, many modern editors seem not to have, and a lack of it is what pushes videos from this category into poorly-done Over-The-Top videos. This is why we have so many homogeneous crossover videos these days — the editors didn’t know when to stop with the color saturation, the DOF blurs, the meaningless compositing, resulting in stuff like this that immediately prompts in me a heavy, prolonged eye roll.

The masters of this style, on the other hand, understand the art of subtlety and the craft of hiding their work in the background. The best of these videos don’t let the effects do the talking — they let every other aspect speak for itself while the effects do the legwork. These videos certainly wouldn’t be what they are without the technical framework, but rarely does a viewer walk away from this video with the technical side being the thing that stands out most to them. Whisper of the Beast has always been an amazing video from a technical standpoint — one need look no further than the making of (the first of its kind, and also amusingly ranked among the Top 10% of videos on the .org) to see this — but I’ve always appreciated the video much more for its storytelling and emotive aspects, all of which, ironically and fittingly, would have been completely compromised by anything less than the technical skill of its Russian creators.

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Before wrapping this post up, there are a few things I feel I need to clarify: First, the above delineations are only strictly applicable to those videos in which effects work dominates the video in one way or another — these descriptions aren’t meant to be applied to simpler videos which may utilize various techniques outlined in the approaches above. Effects work has its place in all sorts of circumstances and all sorts of videos — this post is meant to focus in on those AMVs which utilize effects to a degree not seen in your typical video.

Second, there can be cross-pollination between these various approaches, although some much more than others — Utilitarian/OTT videos often find common ground, as do OTT/Cohesive ones…rarely, though, will Utilitarian videos ever intersect style-wise with Cohesive types. I think this is largely because these approaches are fundamentally at odds based on my definitions — Utilitarian videos tend to use effects only for the purpose of eye-catching sync, whereas the effects in Cohesive videos tend to be very purposeful conceptually. In most cases, these things are mutually exclusive.

And third, there are always exceptions — although I think I could probably divide the vast majority of really effects-y videos into one of the three camps above, I’m sure there are plenty out there that would make such clear distinction difficult, if not impossible. Subjective response always plays a part, so where others might think a video falls under one approach, I may see it completely differently. Still, I think the above definitions are helpful for discussion, and (more immediately) helpful for my own purposes of evaluation.

It shouldn’t be too hard to tell, by my language and tone throughout this post, what types of videos I tend to prefer, and which I tend to write off. I’m not a fan of Utilitarian-style videos in most cases, and I think I usually assert the mindset that, if you’re going to make effects a large part of your video, they should be contributing to an overarching idea in some way beyond simply “SYNC ALL THE THINGS”, even if it’s vague or shallow. OTT videos can be really cool, and there’s something to be said in a medium that’s as visually focused as AMVs are for those videos that don’t want to do anything more than create something pretty and visually striking.

That said, things can get sticky if that’s your only impetus, especially if “Why use anime at all over some other type of source?” begins to become a legitimate question that can be asked of your work. After all, an AMV is an Anime Music Video, and I think that the “A” in the acronym is important not just in defining a completed work, but in suggesting something about one’s motivation to make it in the first place. We create and watch AMVs because we love anime; to that end I tend to feel that effects work should reflect this in a real way — which is why Cohesive video types are my favorite when it comes to FX-heavy videos. Effects should complement the source in a way that they wouldn’t if any other source material were used instead — in other words, the specific effects used in Whisper of the Beast wouldn’t have worked on anything other than anime, and arguably anything other than Naruto. This can’t always be said of OTT videos (although certainly it can be sometimes), and can almost never be said of Utilitarian ones. I think this is an important distinction because it helps establish the AMV in question as a uniform whole, not simply a collection of discrete elements — the song, the source, the effects, the cuts, etc.

Ultimately this comes down to personal taste and what one expects out of the medium as a whole — and a much broader discussion can ensue. I’m not going to go down that path, at least not in this post, but suffice it to say that I believe effects use can say a lot about an editor and what drives them to create what they do. In light of that, some of my more vehement responses to certain videos, or certain types of videos, should hopefully be made a little clearer.

I want to clarify one final thing, as well — despite any appearance to the contrary, this post wasn’t meant to turn you, the reader, on to one style of editing and off of another. Obviously, my opinions seep through my writing like a sieve, and that was on purpose — as this post was as much a self-justification of certain opinions I hold as well as a general exploration into a much talked-about, but rarely deeply analyzed, facet of AMV culture. Primarily, though, this post was meant to get you thinking about effects in a new way, and maybe to help you put into words what it is you actively look for in viewing these types of videos; and, if you’re a newer or even a seasoned editor looking to become more technically-minded, to help give you some focus in regards to how you want to approach your next big video.

Depending on the circle of editor friends you run in, “effects” can be a dirty word, or it can be the only word that matters. Neither extreme is strictly correct without context. Effects are often the element of this hobby which pushes AMVs in to new and sometimes exciting, sometimes grating new territories. It’s all about how they’re used and there are a million different factors that can make FX-heavy videos succeed wildly or crash and burn. Identify your approach and use it as the framework for your video; I can’t guarantee you’ll always succeed but for these kinds of videos, I believe it’s the best place to start.

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About crakthesky

Early 30s and vocal about my subculture.
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