Netflix’s Arcane LoL: Sheer Animated Style
Hosting well over 100 million active users per month, League of Legends is one of the most well-loved MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arena games) in the industry. Considering its phenomenal success, it was only a matter of time that the game’s intricate universe was expanded upon as well. Much to the delight of League veterans and animation enthusiasts, Riot Games teamed up with Netflix for Arcane—an enlightening prequel that expands the lore of the video game.
The series follows the origins of sisters Vi and Jinx. In League, Vi and Jinx were just one of the many formidable champions, characterised by their alternative, femme fatale traits. Arcane, however, channels a heartbreaking level of depth into these characters. The Vi and Jinx in the show are beautifully complex; we witness a raw vulnerability hidden beneath their stoic warrior facades, and the pathos of a troubled reunion strangled by years of being apart. Arcane’s dark world is equally torn and fractured: amidst warring ideologies and the mounting threat of political uprising, the sisters stand on the opposite sides of a war waged between the prosperous city of Piltover and its seedy underbelly, Zaun.
On top of the gripping backstory, heartbreaking plotline and sensational battles, what makes Arcane so memorable is its top tier animation by Paris-based Fortiche Production. Housing the talents behind notable works such as Riot Games’ Warriors, K/DA’s POP/STARS and Marvel’s Rocket & Groot, the French animation studio’s unique, streetwise style paints the universe of Arcane into existence.
Set in a world embroiled in violence and conflict, Arcane’s plotline is action-packed with explosive confrontations and stylish weapons, though it makes quiet spaces for subtle actions like leg bounces, side glances, and remarkably evocative eye movements. Naturally, this meant that a lot of focus and planning was put into the creation of movement. Semi-realistic characters needed to remain true to their proportions, reacting to and accounting for the varying weight or mechanics placed upon them at any particular moment.
Keyframing was used in place of the increasingly popular mocap (motion capture) technique, thus handing full control of the (performance) reins to the animators. Mocap records the actions of a live actor and inserts it into the 3D character asset, whereas keyframe animation creates motion by first marking the start and end point of a particular action, and only then allowing the software to fill in the movement in between. With keyframe animation, achieving a perfect recreation of human behaviour is not the goal. Rather, it is to create raw performances that complement the oxymoronic surreal-realness of Arcane’s universe. The human detail in the animations portray a real depth of internal, emotional conflict in the characters that we reach out to and resonate with, despite being far removed from the fantastic world they reside in.
2D & 3D animation
At first glance, many would draw parallels of Arcane’s animation with that of the cel-shading in Marvel’s What If…? and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Such 2D comic book-esque styles are seeing a spike in popularity due to the sense of nostalgia it evokes. But just labelling it cel-shading really doesn’t do it justice; Arcane’s style is so much more complex. We might never be able to accurately pinpoint the range of technology, techniques and softwares used by Fortiche, and understandably so, since every video production house has its own proprietary blend of magic (check out an animation studio in Singapore with its own unique spin on design). Still, there are pretty distinct animation types that shine in the blended style that makes the incredibly nuanced character expressions and steampunk/utopian settings of Arcane possible.
Perhaps best described as a crossover between anime and Disney animated shows, the world of Arcane is brought to life via a 2D-meets-3D medium—one that is the heart and soul of every Fortiche production. In purely 3D creations, all elements in a frame including subject matter and setting are modelled based on highly digitised software, whereas exclusively 2D projects are traditionally hand-drawn. We get the best of both worlds in Arcane. While characters in the story navigate the opposing worlds of utopia and destruction, the show’s art likewise toes the line between the contrasting styles of realism and stylism.
Staying true to the fantastical lore of League of Legends, Arcane aimed to put larger-than-life (yet relatable) personalities on a never-before-seen fictional stage. Backgrounds including Piltover’s breathtaking skyline and Zaun’s sinister shadow world were painstakingly painted by hand using digital tools, and VFX such as explosions and smoke were drawn in 2D to complete the illustrative look. With the use of hand-painted 2D assets, you would think the resulting mix would be flat and/or jarring with the 3D assets, but that’s far from the truth. These 2D assets are manipulated to fit the graphical styles of the overall production, blending in seamlessly with the 3D characters. The textured illustrations also lend a sense of tactility to the whole production. The devil’s in the details: look closely at the elaborate costumes and characters’ skins, or even at the shadows cast on concrete! In Arcane, imperfection gives rise to authenticity. Rough edges and brusque brush strokes can be found in the contours of characters’ faces in close-up shots, revealing a tantalising something of the art that lies beneath.
Another thing you’ll definitely notice during your binge-fest of the series is the constant appearance of trippy scribblings across the scene, almost as if an entity entirely separated from the show was writing on the screen itself. The jarring contrast between these distorted, shocking neon sketches and the regular core animation is intentional, not to mention a beautiful storytelling technique. Often seen in scenes where Jinx experiences overwhelming emotions, these harsh markings seem to be Jinx’s own cathartic edits as she revisits the events of her life, revealing to us her instability and fury.
Elements like these are what place Arcane in a whole other league (pun intended) of its own. Fans of League and newcomers alike watch closely as a beloved video game world is reborn—a skillful, artful masterpiece of distinctive storytelling that cements Arcane’s place as an iconic production for many years to come. And with the power of Netflix, we’ll certainly be replaying this one.