The beauty of Arcane

Netflix: S1 Ep7 (Delord & Charrue, 2021)

Spoiler warning: This article contains spoilers of the serie Arcane

When I tell people that I don’t watch films or series for their plot, they look at me weirdly. For a lot of my friends, the plot is the most important aspect of a story: it’s the unexpected plot twists and cliffhangers that gets them excited. Don’t get me wrong though; I can enjoy a good plot twist as much as anyone. However, the plot is not why I start to watch a movie or series, nor is it what keeps me hooked. What I find the most important is the cinematography. When there is a good soundtrack, when the CGI (digitally created images) is well done or when the lighting and framework work in harmony, that’s when I will adore a show. This is why I still adore cartoons and animations. I personally don’t mind if it has a plot twist or not. I care about the soundtrack, the animation style, the way it is drawn and the themes it discusses. I like diving deeper into a show to try to figure out its metaphors and references, and exactly how it was made and why. 

With all this in mind, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that I adore the new TV series Arcane. This series from Riot Games was put on Netflix in 2021 and has been a massive hit since. Even though Arcane is based on a game called League of Legends, I can safely say you don’t need to know anything about the game to understand the series, as I have never played it myself. Before Arcane was made, Delord and Charrue, the directors of the series, decided to use animation instead of actors, which would result in a life-action series. In an interview at Cartoon Next, Delord said the following:

“Video Game adaptations to live-action formats have always been challenging, [as] they are somehow ‘cursed’, and it took a long time for the team to think through the story and the visuals, and find something new to tell.”

This was in my opinion the best and most obvious choice. Cartoons and animation are usually prejudiced on for being too childish, and even though some cartoons do have a specific younger audience in mind, like Dora and PAW Patrol, it is not to be taken away from the quality of the shows. Arcane is neither a form of cartoon or anime, but something completely unique, which piqued my interest immediately when I saw the thumbnail on Netflix. 

It should be said that there are some pros and cons to drawing a series as opposed to using actors (not just voice actors). Working with actors offers less freedom, considering the limitations of the actors and materials. Most directors will use CGI and other techniques to utilise in their movies or series to make up for the limitations, but it is still a complex art and frequently looks out of place against the real life set with the actors. Deciding to opt for an all-drawn series allows for substantially more freedom, as there are no limitations when it comes to actors, set or materials. As long as the animator can draw and animate it, the directors and producers have the freedom to broaden their fantasy and take their story to places and extremes that would otherwise not have been possible. Charrue mentioned this as well in the same interview: 

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is an old movie, but visually, it’s still beautiful, and all Disney pieces are still works of art. Part of our style is based on allowing each frame to look like a painting”. 

Throughout Arcane it can be clearly seen how they played with the benefits of animation. Look at this scene for example:

Netflix: S1 Ep6 (Delord & Charrue, 2021)

Here you can see the range of opportunities the animators had to their advantage. In this scene the camera turns around Powder/Jinx (left) while she lights a torch, but while doing so ghosts of her past (right) return as well and we get to see their agonised faces. This is such a beautifully animated scene, from the blue sparks of the torch to the highlights of the light on their faces, to the greying of the ghost showing they are just figments of imagination. The way their shoulders lock together perfectly, like two puzzle pieces fitting together. This picture is one of those examples that Charrue mentions, where – if you pause the scene – it looks like a painting. The same concept could of course have been represented in a life-action movie, but it would have been difficult and even when done right, they would run the risk of something looking off. Therefore, the decision to forego those complications and to give in to the animation aspect, is a wiser choice. Allowing the opportunities for the series to roam, lets the animators give in to their fantasy, which can be clearly seen throughout the series as they used animation techniques and framework completely unique from other movies or series.

So, before I ramble on about all the cool things this series did, a short plot description is necessary. Arcane is centred around two sisters called Vi and Powder, who is later – because she descends into madness – called Jinx. They live in a dystopian world as the poor, while the rich live in a utopia with a lot of advancing technology. The series consists of nine episodes which are divided into three acts. Each act represents an era in the story, with the first being the background information and separation of the sisters, the second dealing with the fall-out and the sisters trying to find each other again and the last act is about the resolution and how they try to mend old wounds. Even though the main story focuses on the two sisters, there are a great deal of side characters with their own arcs that sometimes matched up. This occurred quite often and when it did, it added to the momentous emotions the audience feels, which this series is a genius in. The writers really are a mastermind in playing with the audience’s emotions and creating scenes that carry a lot of emotional weight. 

Like I previously mentioned, I don’t choose a movie or series based on its plot, but it is always welcome nonetheless. Arcane’s storyline feels very well balanced between fight scenes, informative scenes and serene scenes, due to it being split into three eras. The main story is about the younger sister diving into madness, which is wonderfully skillful and delicately displayed. Usually, when madness is depicted in shows, it could be hard for the audience to sympathise with the character. This is because of the division between mental illness or distress and madness, which Schnee explained in a video (2022a). Almost anybody can sympathise with mental illness or distress, because we have dealt with it ourselves presumably. However, madness differs from this ground rule and takes things to a level we can’t relate to. It is usually portrayed in movies as a monstrous thing which isn’t of itself a disaster, but makes the audience feel detached from the characters. In spite of that, Arcane managed to deliver and wrote the mad descend of Powder into Jinx in a very humane way, so much so that even through the madness, Jinx is able to convey innocence and makes us sympathise with her. Not only does Arcane make us feel sorry for the mad character, but it conveys the madness in a clear way, the process shown both beautiful and grotesque. Why the audience can sympathise with Jinx is due to the clear showing of the effect on Jinx along with how the madness happens and progresses along the story. Throughout the series we see scratches and glitches in the screen when Jinx is shown. A stuffed bunny that she loved gets a demonic face in her mind and random gadgets and objects get the faces of the ghosts of her past. This is all a visualisation technique that helps us understand a process that is otherwise hard to explain. Look at one of my favourite scenes from the series for example:

Netflix: S1 Ep9 (Delord & Charrue, 2021)

This is another way in which the director used the animation to his advantage, as this would be very hard to achieve naturally in a live-action movie. As you watch this scene you know the monsters are never really there, but it demonstrates the magnitude of her psychosis. All the scratched monsters surrounding Jinx would terrify me as well and leave me trembling. It resembles the overflow of what is going on inside her head that manifests and takes the form of monsters. It communicates clearly what Jinx is going through even though we will never truly know. It is an amazing feat, when a writer is able to accomplish that. 

Another example can be seen in the following sentence: 

“Nothing dead ever stays dead.”

Netflix: S1 Ep9 (Delord & Charrue, 2021)

This is a beautiful way to say a lot without saying a lot. It gives us a peephole into her head in order to see what she is experiencing. For Jinx the ‘ghosts’ never died because she has always heard them, illustrating that besides the communicative animations the script is also wonderfully skilled, clearly communicating a complex phenomenon with a couple of words. 

Another key point in making a series successful are the characters, because without any likeable characters I often find it difficult to remain watching. In Arcane however, the characters are well-written and all of them have an amazing character arch. There are no typical bad guys nor good guys; everyone is humanised, making the audience feel sympathy for every character, which in turn makes it that much more painful when things go wrong. Movies and series can choose to make a scene more hurtful and sad in various ways and one of my favourite is through concretisation. Schnee (2022b) explained this as a huge change or disaster happening due to a small action. Powder turning into Jinx resulting in the entire plot of the series, I argue, only happened because Vi was taken away just before she could help. It is this small thing, non-consequential when you think about it, but it impacts the entire story and causes a lot of hurt and chaos. This is why concretisation is so gut-wrenching; because we know if one little thing had been different, the entire plot would be as well. 

Additionally, this is why it is impossible to ‘hate’ certain characters, as no one is necessarily evil opposed to the other. All of them have their own development and are trying their hardest to survive in the dystopian world, to the extent where I started to question whether my actions would differ if I was in the ‘villain’s’ shoes. Even the rich guys aren’t just some selfish empty snobs, but have complex characteristics, which is a really refreshing break from most series. You feel like there is no clear way to go forward, because you understand the reasoning behind their actions and I think that is what makes Arcane transcend: you’ll cry for the villain and fear the hero. 

Netflix: S1 Ep9 (Delord & Charrue, 2021)

I truly believe that Arcane is the best series to come out in recent years. It differs from other series in its complexity and style. The story is intricate, but not in a hard-to-understand-way but an everything-fits-together-perfectly way, not just due to the way they pushed the animation, but also in regard to the music, colours, framework on top of a beautifully complex storyline. It is one of those series you’ll finish in a day, but think about for the next year. It offers a truly refreshing look on the good old hero versus villain trope and does not take the usual route in regards to romance. The animators, writers, directors and everyone else who worked on this piece of art, really did a fantastic job with it. In my opinion, Charrue achieved his goal, because Arcane is a true masterpiece.

Written by Anouk Roest

Sources

  • Abbatescianni, D. (2022, April 22). At Cartoon Next, Pascal Charrue, Arnaud Delord and Hervé Dupont talk about the making of Arcane. Cineuropa – the Best of European Cinema. https://www.cineuropa.org/en/newsdetail/424453/
  • Images: Delord, A., Charrue, P. (Directors), & Linke, C., Yee, A. (Writers). (2021). Arcane [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.netflix.com 
  • schnee. (2022a, August 7). How (NOT) To Write Madness | Arcane vs Game Of Thrones [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pymojkDct2A
  • schnee. (2022b, May 8). Analyzing Arcane’s BEST Scene [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rJF8YxhKg4

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