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Arcane: the art of nailing fundamentals

my personal notes on arcane

Over the last few months of 2021 the Netflix original League of Legends: Arcane took the world by storm. After its release on Netflix in November, everyone was singing its praises. The series was Netflix’s most-watched show in November, as well as being the highest-rated Netflix original ever with a perfect rotten tomatoes score of 100%. Across November and December, my social feeds were inundated with people telling me that Arcane was perfect. It wasn’t until the Christmas break that I decided to see what everyone was talking about.

It took me 3 days to watch Arcane for the first time and to begin with, I didn’t understand its popularity. Sure, the animation is uniquely beautiful, and the story is definitely good, but I didn’t quite get why it was a perfect 10. After rewatching the show many times, it finally clicked. I feel confident in the assessment that league of Legends: Arcane is the greatest show ever committed to screen. The show is doing something that screenwriters have forgotten to do. It’s sticking to the fundamentals of storytelling, the lessons we all learned in high school about showing as opposed to telling, pace, and character creation. 

Every frame a painting

The first thing you’ll notice about Arcane is the art style. Every single frame in Arcane is beautifully composed. The art team has managed to create a consistent colour palette for all of the locations the story takes you to. Piltover is constantly bright and vibrant, reminding the audience that it is a place of happiness and prosperity. This stands in stark contrast to the dank and dark tones of Zuan.

There is never a moment in Arcane where any of the leads sit and explain their backstory. Arcane never tells you anything, you are always shown. For example, when we are introduced to Powder and Vi in the opening scene of the show, we are shown Vi trying to hide her little sister from the world. Vander discards his weapons so he can care for these children.

You’ve got a good heart. Don’t ever lose it. No matter how the world tries to break you. Protect the family.”

Vander, Arcane Episode 2: Some Mysteries Are Better Left Unsolved

It does all this while still being stunning to look at as well. There are so many glory shots. Moments where the camera just holds a frame to show off. Normally this irritates me but the art style is so unique that it manages to elevate the mundane into something that I would happily stare at all day. There is a shot in episode 4 that is a fairly simple single of one of the secondary characters as they look over the grave of one of their mentors. The art style is compelling and the shot lingers for just long enough that we feel his regret before switching to his daughter so we remember why he made the choices he did. It goes towards the Hitchcock-ian idea of using dialogue as little as possible. Arcane very rarely uses dialogue, it relies on stunning shot composition and performances to show rather than tell. 

There is just so much happening in every single shot and scene in Arcane. That’s part of the brilliance of Arcane.

Everything All at Once.

The first thing that clued me into Arcane’s brilliance was the sheer amount of stuff that happens. If you were to just write down all the major plot beats you’d have an insanely long list. A list that most shows would struggle to get through in many many seasons, Arcane manages it in 9 episodes. But what’s more impressive is that I never felt lost or like I didn’t know what was happening. All of that comes down to pace. 

For example, take the scenes where we meet Councilor Medarda. The scene opens with her stewing over her various business while analysing some puzzle box devices. Medarda’s secretary reminds us that she’s the richest person in piltover yet the poorest of the Medarda’s whilst discussing the fate of another character. At the end of the scene, she picks out a puzzle and the merchant selling them tells her that it’s a child’s toy. Then in the next scene, she gives the puzzle box to another council member telling him “it was built only for the sharpest minds”.

“I recognize that any worthwhile venture involves risk.”

Councilor Medarda, Arcane Episode 3: The Base Violence Necessary for Change.

Over a space of about one minute of screen time, we know everything we need to about this character. She’s powerful, ambitious, cunning, and has an interest in Jayce Talis. What’s even more impressive is we know this without ever really doing any expositing. Sure there are some things that come close to being exposition, but for the most part there is never a point where Arcane grinds to a halt and just explains something to the audience. It gives you what you need to stay engaged and keep the story going, and then keeps moving.

This is something that screenwriters don’t seem to have enough faith in their audience to do anymore. I can’t think of any media in the last 10 years that has the same willingness to just go, and expect the audience to keep up. However, if I think of something like the original Star Wars. There is never a moment where Obi-wan Kenobi explains the long history of the Jedi, the clone wars, and the republic. You’re given enough detail to get a general idea, Arcane is the same except with a lot more characters with a lot more depth. 

Now in stunning 3D

Arcane isn’t a very clever show. What I mean is that it doesn’t rely on a clever allegory, nuanced takes on the human condition, or a third act twist. Arcane keeps compelling three-dimensional characters at its core and never strays from them. 

In more recent years the landscape has been flooded with media trying very hard to be very clever. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, some of my favorite pieces of media to come out in the last few years have been The Boys and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The Boys has a very clever allegory at it’s centre, as does The Last Jedi. But they both forgo three-dimensional, compelling characters for the sake of being very clever. Sure it’s compelling to watch the core cast of The Boys engage in hijinks but they are just one gimmick taken to the extreme. Arcane on the other hand is very low on hijinks. Yet every core character is a compelling real-world three-dimensional person who you can empathise with.  

“I’d like to let you in on a very important secret I learned when I was about your age, boy. You see, power, real power doesn’t come to those who were born strongest or fastest or smartest. No. It comes to those who will do anything to achieve it.”

Silco, Arcane Episode 2: Some Mysteries Are Better Left Unsolved

Take the series antagonist, Silco. The moment we are introduced to him he’s effectively torturing children, and not to spoil anything but things don’t get any more sympathetic from there. However, over the show’s run, we begin to understand his hatred towards the heroes of the story and that his ultimate goal isn’t immoral. Even the means he is using can be characterized as a man with nothing doing what he can to make a better world. Through Silco’s relationship with Jinx, we see him learn the lessons about family that everyone else already had. These lessons result in him making a choice in the final episode that the audience understands and can empathise with. I’m being intentionally vague here as I don’t want to spoil anything, but just trust me when I say every character in Arcane goes through a similar journey, all of the good guys make selfish, short-sighted, immoral, decisions but they are decisions that you can understand. 

It’s Arcane’s depth of character that is most impressive. Many shows have only 3 well-fleshed out characters, maybe less.  There isn’t a single character in Arcane that is not three-dimensional, some of their journeys are off-screen, but the audience is clued into it enough to get the idea. 

The Score to Beat

There is not a single concept Arcane sets out to do that it doesn’t do better than anything else in the business. This has just been a brief outline of some of the lessons about storytelling that Arcane is sticking to, in order to make the greatest show ever committed to screen. Ultimately my hope is that everyone working in the film and television scene is watching Arcane and taking notes. This is the score to beat. If your show isn’t at least trying to be this good, I don’t know that I’ll be willing to take the time to watch it. 

For all things video games, follow the author on Twitter: @DirkisSam