Learning from Miyazaki: Pacing

Minor Spoilers for Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle

Miyazaki is often praised for the spell-binding nature of his films. Here goes John Lasseter in the introduction to Starting Point.

His movies have balance–both fast and slow moments. You can even go back to Castle of Cagliostro and see it. That car chase up on the hill is still one of my favorite scenes. Just before the chase, Lupin’s car gets a flat tire and swerves to the side of the road. He climbs up on the roof and just sits there looking up at the sky. The clouds are going by, the wind is blowing, we’re shown a field of grass… and then you hear this GHEEEEEE sound. Miyazaki-san allows Lupin to react with a “What was that?” look before a car roars past him. It sets up the chase so beautifully because of the quiet moment before. That’s pacing.

A big part of pacing is contrast. I’ve chosen two examples from Castle in the Sky where we have a seemingly unnecessary slow-down before a moment of “action.”

First, we see Pazu need help fastening the amulet before jumping off the roof. Sheeta helps, and he gives her a smile. Then, boom.

Later in the film, Pazu fires a cannon to burst open a wall. On his first attempt, the gun jams. This brings us up short for a moment, so our attention can catch up and anticipate the blast.

Pacing isn’t just for action. It’s also for characterization–of the characters and the setting. Lasseter speaks of needing a slow moment after Jesse’s story in Toy Story 2 to let the impact of her story sink in. Miyazaki does moments like these after major revelations as well, but what stands out to me more is the minor actions he has us watch early on.

These things take time and effort to animate, but Miyazaki thinks its worth it so that we can see how these characters move. In this example, Sophie brushing her apron shows that she’s tidy. 

It should be noted that part of why these moments don’t lose our attention is because Miyazaki keeps a string of danger and mystery pulling us along. Both before and after we see Sophie in the hat shop, we also see the wizard’s castle and strange flying warships.

Of course, all the magic of pacing can’t be summed up in “fast” and “slow”. It would take several more posts to discuss all the possible beats that Miyazaki uses.

Here are two more kinds of beats Miyazaki uses well…

1) In The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki, I came across the term “white moments”, coined by Daniel Neyer, to describe moments “when the heart warms and expands”. This is given as a unique feature of Kiki’s Delivery Service, with the example of her father asking when she got so big, but I think white moments exist in all Miyazaki’s films. (More here.)

2) In Starting Point, Miyazaki gives special weight to scenes where a character is running, striving for something. He says this is difficult in animation because of the number of frames, and how you often lose the height of the step. I could give screencaps from Miyazaki’s films, but I think the best example of a “running” beat I’ve seen comes from Mamoru Hosada’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

There are several kinds of beats available to writers. The key is how you put them together, how they contrast and compliment. Today we’ve mostly focused on fast, slow, and push.

Next post, we’ll look at emotion: the kind of push/pull that has made young-adult novels so hot.