Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of Why It Works. In between paeans to the madness of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, I’ve spent a fair amount of time here talking about the magic of Flip Flappers – its character writing, its style of storytelling, and how it uses visual framing to facilitate both of those things. But one thing that’s always stuck out to me about the show has gone somewhat unacknowledged so far: its beautiful backgrounds.
It’s hard enough for writers and directors to get recognition, so it makes sense that few people would recognize any background designers offhand. We generally think of backgrounds as no more than scenery, something to ornament the actually meaningful elements of a production. Even some actual anime creators adopt something like this perspective; given the minimalist backgrounds that often characterize Studio SHAFT’s productions, it’s no surprise that studio head Akiyuki Shinbo has mentioned how he doesn’t care about having backgrounds at all if they’re not directly relevant to a show’s goals.
But backgrounds are far more than just scenery, particularly in a medium like anime. In animation, every single element you see on the screen is specifically designed and chosen to exist there. Nothing exists without purpose, and simply relegating backgrounds to “the place where the action happens” denies a great deal of the medium’s storytelling power. Backgrounds are critical to anime’s mise-en-scene, the visual context that provides meaning to everything that happens. They can set moods, create the sense of a lived place, draw the viewer further into a show’s world, or even offer their own secrets or questions. A great deal of any show’s “worldbuilding” comes down to the literal, visual world it creates, and Flip Flappers is a show that’s deeply invested in creating new worlds. Fortunately, Flip Flappers is blessed with one of the best background-designing studios in the business: Studio Pablo.
Studio Pablo aren’t really known outside of specialist fandom circles, because they’re not actually responsible for any productions themselves. Instead, they specialize in bringing gorgeous invented worlds to other productions, elevating shows through their softly painted pictures. Their backgrounds are noteworthy for their subtle color palettes, richness of detail, and naturalism of linework. Somewhere between evocative draft sketches and oil paintings, their backgrounds enliven all the works they support.
It’s likely you’ve seen the work of Studio Pablo, even if you didn’t recognize it at the time. It was their hand that offered such evocative settings to Seraph of the End, for example. Their detailed necropolis was one of the most arresting characters in that show’s first episode, and their later work lent a kind of beautiful dignity to the show’s decaying cities. In a show like that, backgrounds can ground the high theatrics of the plot in something stable and specific, offering a strange kind of solemnity to magical vampire battles.
In other shows, Studio Pablo’s backgrounds facilitate the core themes of the work itself. Their contributions to The Flowers of Evil exemplify this quality, bringing protagonist Kasuga’s decaying suburbs to life. This show demonstrates some of the most arresting qualities of Pablo’s work: simultaneously photorealistic in outline and humanized in coloring, Kasuga’s town feels like a wounded but still breathing creature, a place where nothing grows straight and no light falls. In a show so consumed by adolescent malaise and disgust, Studio Pablo’s work helps the audience see the world in exactly the way Kasuga does. Of course, Studio Pablo aren’t only renowned for creating broken worlds: in fact, they were also tapped for background work on Studio Trigger’s Little Witch Academia, demonstrating equal confidence in constructing worlds filled with beauty and wonder. And you can see the merits of their personality-filled tapestries in shows like Mawaru Penguindrum, where their work was instrumental in creating some of that show’s most memorable settings.
It can be difficult to acknowledge at a glance just how much Studio Pablo’s backgrounds add to a production, but fortunately, we have a clear before-and-after example to demonstrate. Studio Pablo were heavily involved in the first season of the WIXOSS franchise, and their reliable background work ended up being one of the highlights of that series. Unfortunately, the studio wasn’t tapped for work on this season’s sequel, and the results are wincingly clear. Look at how much personality and pure life is embedded in shots like these, details and color palettes that go beyond “conveying information” to imply a dark and foreboding world lying just beyond the horizon. In comparison to the newer series’ purely functional, visually flat backgrounds, it’s clear how much careful background design can offer.
And of course, for all its dramatic purpose, it’s ultimately also rewarding just to appreciate the fundamental beauty of the worlds these works create. While Studio Pablo were a wonderful choice to convey the fading splendor of Seraph or the squalor of The Flowers of Evil, Flip Flappers allows them to stretch their visions even further, offering vivid glimpses of countless evocative worlds. So let’s end today’s article by sitting back for a moment, and simply appreciating some of the wonderful worlds they’ve brought to life.
Until next time!
Nick Creamer has been writing about cartoons for too many years now, and is always ready to cry about Madoka. You can find more of his work at his blog Wrong Every Time, or follow him on Twitter.