Some seemingly normal video game animations contain a single still image of body horror. They are called smear frames. There was a time when smears were vital in games, but they don’t happen much anymore, and there’s a very good reason why they disappeared.
The smears date back to the early days of modern animation, when artists studied live-action film to get a better idea of how to realistically depict action. They found that when someone is moving fast, the film does not capture sharp images. Instead, the movement results in color blurs. The animators experimented with this imagery and invented smears to mimic this optical illusion. This is especially noticeable in highly stylistic cartoons like Looney Tunes.
This stylistic approach to speed can be seen in modern games that draw on this retro animation aesthetic, like Cuphead and Skullgirls. But it’s also visible in franchises that you don’t expect. In particular, the Capcom fighting games of the 90s and 2000s, particularly Street Fighter, relied heavily on smears to sell fast and lively action. While we don’t see Sonic the Hedgehog as an homage to old Warner Bros. cartoons, the franchise uses smears to achieve the same kind of fast, satisfying movement.
It is much more difficult to smear in 3D animation than in hand drawn animation. Games like Crash Bandicoot and Overwatch do the extra work, but using skeletons and meshes means a lot more refinement is needed to get a smear to look and feel great.
Watch the video above to see some amazing smear images, and to learn how they work and why they are so hard to do in 3D animation.