2017’s fall season has been filled to the brim with idol anime, presenting performances basically every week in one show or another. But even with such an abundance, I’m sure few would argue over which series has the best performances. The second season of LOVE LIVE! SUNSHINE!! has stolen the spotlight with its stunning visuals and experienced editing. Characters and voice actresses aside, the series’ passionate direction is a huge part of what makes LOVE LIVE the hit it is today.

However, things weren’t always so good for this franchise and its small-town idols. In fact, seven years ago, its cinematography wouldn’t have even held a candle to its work today. Part of that is thanks to smaller budget and the limited technology of the time. Another part of that is a general unwillingness or means to experiment with more creative composition and techniques.

Fortunately for us, LOVE LIVE’s animated discography slowly but steadily began to grow from these things throughout the years. Let’s take a walk through history to observe that very evolution and understand how a humble magazine project could someday turn into an internationally-famous phenomenon.

But First, Some background

LOVE LIVE is the overarching brand name for a multimedia idol project. It began in 2010 as an announcement in Dengeki G’s Magazine. The publication featured the nine characters that made up a school idol group. They were, basically, high-schoolers who doubled as idols representing their school. Through reader interaction and votes, this group came to be named μ’s (pronounced Muse).

An early magazine scan of μ | Image: Love Live Wikia

From 2010 to 2012, μ’s released singles featuring animated songs/music videos. Then, in 2013, the group got its own anime, LOVE LIVE! SCHOOL IDOL PROJECT. The anime became so popular that it got a second season a year later, and from there the franchise rocketed to fame.

A theater-released movie followed soon after, and then the announcement for the second generation of school idols. This second group, through similar magazine-reader interactions, was named Aqours (pronounced Aqua). They released their own music videos before starring in an anime series in 2016, titled LOVE LIVE! SUNSHINE!!. As previously mentioned, its second season is airing right now.

love live sunshine cast
An early promotional image of Aqours | Image: Love Live Wikia

The past seven years have been quite the journey for a project that started as little more than a magazine publication. One, perhaps, rivaled only by the advancement of its artistic direction. As time progressed, so too did the animated songs of both μ’s and Aqours. Let’s finally get into this progression.

BANG DREAM: Poppin’ Party’s Rise to Stardom

Early Singles (2010-2012)

The first few singles of μ’s mark the beginning of an era, setting the tone for the series’ future performances. With cheery songs and charming drama tracks, the audio portion proves memorable and entertaining. On the other hand, its visuals left a little to be desired.

Flat colors, uninspired camerawork, and, above all else, extremely conspicuous 3D models characterized these early videos. The 2D portions also suffered from frequent off-model shots, especially in their first single, though this admittedly regresses with each new album.

love live first single
Early μ was… a time | Image: Reddit

As time went on, a few more of these problems got better. Their fourth single “Mogyutto ‘love’ de Sekkin Chuu!” experiments with more interesting framing and aerial shots. However, as an overall visual experience throughout the two years, all these creative attempts remained timid or, at worst, generic.

Standard cuts, repetitive camera movement, the same medium frontal shots across the board — frankly, there just wasn’t all that much about these videos that stood out. I hesitate to call them bad because there truly is a certain kind of charm to them as a whole. But in comparison to other idol anime performances, and especially to the current production quality of this series, it falls short. Ultimately, excellent music saved LOVE LIVE’s early days, when its blander music videos might have otherwise left the franchise overlooked.

LOVE LIVE! SCHOOL IDOL PROJECT (2013-2014)

Luckily, LOVE LIVE’s first anime season brought in vastly improved art and vision. From more streamlined CGI to brighter color work, everything, in general, was much easier on the eyes. Dance sequences involved significantly more character movement and even began dabbling in more ambitious lighting effects. Clean actions and consistent motion between shots gave a smoother watch compared to the past standalone music video days. However, there was still noticeable restraint in its creative liberty — something quickly remedied in the show’s second season.

Season two’s opening alone shows the series learning how to better utilize its sense of space with its 3D elements. Furthermore, its camerawork and editing were considerably more active, making excellent use of flying camera techniques, sweeping angles, and snappy cuts. The videography began to test its own boundaries here, and we can see the framework for the LOVE LIVE we know and love today.

This art improvement was, without a doubt, a giant leap forward for the franchise. Yet, even as the series gained more and more positive attention, its CGI did it few favors. As much as the 3D animation had advanced, it was admittedly still clunky and awkward to look at. It felt out of place, especially while comparing it to a certain other all-girl idol anime that came before it. THE iDOLM@STER remains famous to this day for its outstanding, entirely hand-drawn concert scenes and expressive character animation.

Fans poked fun at comparing the two series, often at LOVE LIVE’s expense. This Tumblr post nicely sums up how things were back in the day. There was rarely outright hostility, but the clumsy school idol anime was definitely the underdog between the two. What many may not have expected was just how much CGI would come to be the franchise’s strength.

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LOVE LIVE! THE SCHOOL IDOL MOVIE (2015)

Things truly started to change around the time of the theatrical release of LOVE LIVE’s original movie. At that point, thanks to the series’ rapid improvement in visuals and the popularity of its characters in general, the franchise had garnered worldwide attention. More attention meant more sponsors and consequently more opportunity for a grand-looking spectacle. True to form, the movie was perhaps the best the series had looked yet.

It’s worth noting that by that time, for better or for worse, CGI was just a natural part of LOVE LIVE. In other words, many believed that it just wouldn’t be a LOVE LIVE performance without garish 3D models. But that’s the thing — the 3D models weren’t all that garish anymore. They were still obviously CG for sure, but they’d lost much of the sterility and inflexibility of earlier versions. Now, they could blend in fairly well with 2D intercuts. Although far from perfect, it was yet another step forward in LOVE LIVE’s artistic journey. And as a result, “SUNNY DAY SONG,” the second ever performance with a fully animated dance sequence, ended up a remarkably cohesive experience.

Aside from better-looking CGI, “SUNNY DAY SONG” boasts new confidence and techniques throughout its duration. As though breaking free of all its past chains, the camera comes alive. Sharp pans, off-kilter shots, and diversity in composition combine to create a real visual treat. There are some mild attempts at photography effects as well, but those don’t truly take the spotlight until the franchise’s second generation.

LOVE LIVE! SUNSHINE!! (2015-Present)

SUNSHINE’s visuals blow everything else out of the water, no question about it. Its first music video “Kimi no Kokoro wa Kagayaiteru kai?” was already roughly on par with the movie’s performances. Its second, “Koi ni Naritai Aquarium” further impressed viewers with its magnificent colors and camera choreography. And things have only gotten better from there.

The first season takes cues from the inventive techniques of the movie and enhances them tenfold. At this point, rhythmic cuts, active camerawork, and composition diversity are a given. Symbolic imagery and an abundance of lighting and photography effects have become the new trends that characterize Aqours’ performances. The second season takes all that and dials it up to the max.

love live lens flare
Soft lens flares blur the line between realism and anime | Image: Crunchyroll

The opening presents an ingenious use of split-screen, and more recent performances have begun employing completely new methods and styles. Racking effects, semi-transparent layering, inventive transitions… SUNSHINE really pulled out all the stops this year, and we still have half a season to go!

Plus, the 3D models, which had always been the weak point of the series, now finally look like they belong. More than that, they actually enhance the performances now. At last, LOVE LIVE can take full advantage of its three-dimensional spaces to create high-energy camera movement that properly suits its upbeat song tempos and dynamic angles. SUNSHINE’s second season manages to finish what its predecessors began.

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A Shining Future

I never had a bad time watching LOVE LIVE’s animated songs. But SUNSHINE’s second season and its incredible work in recent episodes made me realize just how much fun it’s become, especially since the early days of μ’s. Advancements in tech and digital effects over the past seven years have helped, but that’s not all there is to it. Most importantly, the artistic direction holds real passion and ambition now.

love live dia
SUNSHINE S2 uses gorgeous color work and lighting unseen in past performances | Image: Crunchyroll

The camera is not just a means for viewers to see a performance. It’s part of the performance itself. As time went on, it seems the directors finally realized that. And now we get the pleasure of witnessing genuinely entertaining songs, bursting with creativity and fun.

SUNSHINE’s second season is halfway over, but LOVE LIVE itself shows no signs of slowing down. It’s likely that Aqours will eventually star in a movie of their own. Plus, the franchise has already revealed a third generation of school idols who will probably get their own anime, too. The sky’s the limit, and I have no doubt that we can expect even more breathtaking performances to come. The only question now is how can they possibly outdo themselves after this season?

Featured image screenshotted from Crunchyroll.

2 Comments

  1. allyson

    November 26, 2017 at 8:33 pm

    Very nice to hear the same opinions I hold about Sunshine’s current cinematography written out like this. My Mai Tonight especially flaunted the progress that the franchise has made !! Good article.

    Reply

  2. georgeoswalddannyson

    November 26, 2017 at 12:10 am

    Great write up. Though putting a clip of Sunny Day Song like that, with barely any warning, is unfair. Its like you want me to cry.

    Reply

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