How Arcane Delivered One of 2021’s Coolest Animated Sequences

Photo: Netflix

If there was any doubt that the video-game adaptation curse is starting to crack, Arcane, Netflix’s new animated version of the Über-popular League of Legends, settles the matter. The series’s expansive, lived-in world boasts some of the most impressive animation of the year, culminating in a visual marvel of a fight sequence in episode seven, “The Boy Savior”: Employing innovative lighting, depth of field, and live-action camera techniques, the sequence’s combination of 2-D and 3-D gives it a familiar yet fantastical look that feels like a video game brought to life. It’s TV animation’s answer to the sense of groundbreaking wonder that accompanied Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Arcane tells a sprawling story of a brewing conflict in the city of Piltover, which is split in two: The rich enjoy a city of progress on the surface, and everyone else lives in slums full of toxic vapors in the Undercity. Trapped in the middle of it all are two sisters, popular game characters Vi and Powder (later known as Jinx), whom we see slowly fall apart in the course of the first three episodes. Separated for years on opposite ends of the Piltover conflict, Jinx feels abandoned and drawn to the one person seemingly there for her — Silco, a major player of the criminal underworld. Meanwhile, Vi spent years in prison, and when she gets out she teams up a Piltover enforcer to stop Silco and get her sister back. When the sisters meet again, it’s a violent, ugly reunion, with Jinx facing not only Vi but their former childhood friend Ekko in a fight to the death on the bridge that separates Piltover from the Undercity. It’s an emotional climax for Jinx’s descent into madness and embracing of her violent tendencies, while simultaneously a coming-of-age moment for Ekko, who stands up to his former friends as the leader of a rebel group.

“We always try to find a theme for every fight so that it’s not just drawn out for the sake of having a long fight,” Arnaud Delord, co-director of Arcane and co-founder of studio Fortiche, says. “That’s why the bridge is such an important piece of symbolism, this place that connects the two cities and also the two characters who are now very far apart and on opposite ends. We used the topography of the bridge in order to set up the fight, as we placed spotlights across the bridge earlier in the episode for the enforcers to use, in order to have that as a light source for the scene, and we focused on making the choreography and the movements very realistic to bring forth the emotions of the scene, mixing that with the smoke from explosions and the street lights to transform the scenery into a concert hall.”

From the get-go, Arcane grabs your attention with a unique blend of 2-D and 3-D — the directors refer to it as “two-and-a-half-D” animation — that’s realistic when it needs to be and cartoonish when it wants to, with characters that look straight out of a comic book and 2-D water, fire, and smoke effects giving it a Surrealist feel.

“They look more interesting visually than most movies,” Delord says, explaining that the studio did not look at the medium of animation for inspiration, but rather at comics. “We have tried to stand out from other studios, which tend to skew more to realistic art styles. But as the technology improves, realistic animation gets old and boring, because the more realistic it gets, doing it in animation stops being necessary, since you can just do it with real people. So we wanted to do something more comics-based that allowed us to transmit emotions in ways live-action can’t.”

The use of 2-D effects came from Fortiche’s first collaboration with Riot Games, the “Get Jinxed” music video. According to Pascal Charrue, the other half of the directing duo and co-founder of Fortiche, there was a delay in the 2-D animation done for the video, and they decided to adopt that and have the 2-D animation be slightly slower than the 3-D characters, which gives it a cartoonish contrast and helps make the show feel as fantastical as the magic-filled world it is portraying. “It was a way to come closer to the 2-D style in a world of 3-D animation,” Charrue explains.

Likewise, for Arcane, the team at Fortiche wanted a blend between fantasy and realism, taking inspiration from the real world to create the city of Piltover. “We were inspired by Art Deco and Art Nouveau and wanted a more Parisian look for the city as a sort of beacon for progress in this universe,” Delord adds.

The show is constantly walking this line between the fantastical and the realistic, with the animation employing live-action techniques to make it grounded, while still feeling like something that can only be done in animation. “We were always interested in seeing Fortiche and their 2.5-D look go bigger,” explains co-showrunner Christian Linke. “Their animation feels like it was shot by a person holding an actual camera. It feels real.”

For the fight between Ekko and Jinx, Linke and co-showrunner Alex Yee let the animation team take the reins, rather than write a lot of visual directions into the script. For Linke, what was important to convey in that scene was an early hint of Ekko’s power. League of Legends features over a hundred characters with special powers, but the show takes place before the creation of the technology that allows for many of those powers, so instead of featuring the version of the characters gamers know, they are slowly building up to it by showing hints of their powers.

For Ekko, whose power involves manipulating time and using the past to aid him in the present, it meant getting creative in showing his abilities. “It’s kind of the scene in Sherlock Holmes where he analyzes the fight before it happens,” Linke adds. “Ekko analyzes his childhood memories and his relationship with Powder to anticipate the fight.” So instead of actual time powers, the fight suddenly changes art styles as we see the fight between Ekko and Jinx play out as a past memory of Ekko and Powder playing as kids, with a brushed, illustrated aesthetic that contrasts with the present.

“We thought a lot about whether to stay with a more realistic style for that moment, because the spotlights were functioning really well for the visuals of the fight,” Delord says. “But even though that was a complete change in artistic direction, it paid off, because what works well is the total contrast between the more playful and illustrative flashback to what is basically a game between kids, and the gritty, realistic, and very violent fight in the present between Ekko and Jinx.”

One of the big differences between Arcane and most video-game adaptations is that it was done with direct input from the creators of the game at Riot, with Linke and Yee being part of the original team that created Jinx and her sister Vi for League of Legends over a decade ago. Despite a lack of experience working on TV, Yee says their familiarity and experience with the game helped the show capture the essence of it. “We initially thought about hiring someone from Hollywood to handle it, but we’ve seen it done before and how often that hasn’t worked out,” Yee explains. “I think we just understood that we needed to be very self-aware and humble about us not having any idea how to do this, but also understand that we need to find our own answer and way forward.”

This applied even to the length of the episodes, which, at around 40 minutes each, is a rarity for animation (with a few exceptions, like the recent Invincible). “There was a lot of resistance to that,” Linke says. “People were hesitant because you can’t stray away from the formula. Almost as if viewers were kind of conditioned to it, otherwise their brains explode. But as we started writing, we understood we needed more time to tell the story.” Charrue agrees and adds, “It creates a hybrid between the longer, prestige dramas like Game of Thrones and animation. It was difficult and ambitious, but it is the future of animated narrative.”

Arcane Delivered One of 2021’s Coolest Animated Sequences