When anime get Digital?
Today, anime is a digital medium. Every year we have projects that push the boundaries of computer animation. But it wasn’t always computerized and the adoption of digital animation hasn’t been a smooth one. Because of the colossal increase in the quantity of anime after the introduction of digital animation, we have a skewed perspective on how recent its implementation was. Chances are, your favorite anime shows were created in the digital era, but it’s introduction and normalization isn’t as far in the past as you might think, and there’s a lot of misconceptions.
Relative to the lifespan medium, digital animation is still a new and unexplored technology.There are a number of events that trigger the digitalization of the medium, and some of my favorite works coincide with these periods. In this video, I’m going to explore when anime turned digital and how it has shaped the medium today. The benefits and the damages.
Now you might date the start of digital animation in anime to the early 2000s where most studios first implemented computer suits, or you might even date it back to the 90s were a number of movies used pioneering digital techniques.
But digital animation actually has its roots in the early 80s, 1983 to be exact. This is a special year for two milestones. Firstly, Kojika Monogatari or The Yearling, a world masterpiece theater series composited a whole episode inside a computer and added various digital effects like beams of light from the sun. Although it maintained a predominantly traditional aesthetic, without any prior knowledge, you could watch the series and not even notice any digital input. The second and far more obvious milestone was in Osamu Dezaki’sGolgo 13 films.
He used digital animation to create the film’s opening sequence and helped with shots of a helicopter in an action scene towards the end. Looking back this looks pretty bad, it hasn’t well at all. But at the time, this was revolutionary. 3D animation like this had barely been used at all, never mind in an anime film. And btw, don’t let this scene put you off watching the movie, it’s also a fantastic action flick. These projects were done at the Japan Computer Graphics Lab. And we actually have a demo reel from the lab that exists on YouTube.There’s a bunch of logos and basic 3D animations.
This was from 1984, you can see they were already testing what a computer could do with animation. With these projects came the birth of digital animation in anime. Daicon IV is important to note from this period too. It was an opening sequence for a sci-fi convention by studio Gainax and it’s become a sort of legend.
A lot of people bookmark Daicon IV as the turning point of anime turning into its own medium, the start of the fandom. It used a very short digital sequence but its importance comes not from that but from who was involved in it. Gainax became one of the most important anime studios after this and a lot of the audience at the sci-fi convention were industry workers.
These early years were a goldmine of experimentation. Not everything came out the other end intact, most of it looks extremely dated now. Regardless it’s such an interesting period to look at and incredibly important to the medium. Although, digital animation wasn’t all blocky 3d scenes. In fact, this becomes one of the big misconceptions about the topic. In 1988 the groundbreaking film Akira showcased a computer system called the Quick Action Recorder in its Making of documentary.
This was a computer system that allowed animators to put together a drawn version of a scene while working to see how scenes would flow, the concept is more well known over here as an animatic. Despite Akira claiming it to be a new technology, the system had been in use in Japan for most of the 80s. And some people actually consider it the first instance of digital animation in anime.
This, I imagine, was invaluable to production, saving so much time and resources. The one problem with digital animation in the 80s and the reason it took a whole decade to really kick-off was the price of hardware.Most studios just didn’t have the funding to throw massive amounts of money at the technology they didn’t quite understand. That all changed in the 90s were hardware costs plummeted and suddenly, studios could afford to try out digital animation.
We can look at all smaller examples that dipped their toes into the water, but it was in 1995 that Mamoru Oshii threw himself into the deep end with his film Ghost in the Shell. Quite rightly noted as a pioneering work for digital animation in Japan. Fascinated by the new technology, Oshii and his team composited the whole movie with computers. Using what’s referred to as a nonlinear editing suit.
Before, anime would be made on film, which becomes a very destructive process. A nonlinear system doesn’t work frame by frame, instead, it connects elements like 3d scenes, layers, and effects together. This was revolutionary in how anime could be developed. Hours and hours of precious time could be saved with absolutely no quality loss.
Specifically, digital effects like computer systems or dynamic text could now be created in seconds. The iconic opening sequence for example would’ve taken months to animate by hand, but with the digital process, it could be completed in a fraction of the time. Allowing them to do cool things like making those numbers the binary code for each staff member’s name.
Lens effects like the distortion on the edge of the frame here could be easily made without having to animate each frame, this allowed them to replicate real cameras with ease. You can see how sequences like these could only be possible with the help of computer animation. This made Ghost in the Shell one of the most intricate and progressive films in the medium. It was using techniques that nobody had seen before in almost every scene.
This revolutionary jump actually became the main influence on the thematic content of the film too. Oshii was always interested in how technology and computers will enhance our lives, and he was at the heart of one of those revolutions with digital animation. He used his experiences with the new technology to guide the film’s story. Ghost in the Shell grows a meta-narrative in this sense. Although Ghost in the Shell had become a successful digital anime, it still wasn’t an industry standard.
Prices would have to drop considerably before most studios could invest in the technology. And a lot of studios weren’t all convinced about the movement to digital. Anime at this point was a very traditional medium and the people who controlled it were happy with it staying that way. So the rest of the 90s becomes a testing ground for various studios trying out computer animation.
A few years later, the TV production Yuusha-OuGaoGaiGar used various digital elements throughout its episodes. The team would create CG elements for the show and would add them to the series throughout each episode. Allowing them to have complex animation throughout the series with little effort.
This idea of sprinkling digital effects into traditional animation became the standard, with bigger projects like Escaflowne compositing digital artifacts into a very traditional aesthetic. But some studios were taking extra steps to digitize their projects. Alice was released at the very end of the decade and became the very first fully CG anime film. And it’s a real artifact of 90s computer cel animation.
Very few studios had the courage to produce full projects like this because of the judgemental anime audience and looking at Alice, I’m not surprised. Obviously, there was a whole new level of freedom in how they could frame shots. Moving a digital camera around a 3Denvironment was easy, and action scenes could pull of complex choreography, but elements like textures and VFX were years from what they needed to be.
Characters didn’t blend with the backgrounds and facial expressions seemed robotic. This project as a standalone piece of anime wasn’t great, but it was an example of the possibilities computer animation could unlock. One of the compromises of this period was called Cel animation. This used computers to take advantage of all the time-saving benefits but imitated traditional cel animation.
A lot of the time you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. One of the early examples of this idea was at Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki has always been a fan of the traditional animation process, but even he couldn’t resist the benefits of computers. After experiments in Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away in 2001 became their first film to be composited fully on a computer. This increased studio productivity immensely, having the film completed in just 18 months.
But Miyazaki took extra care to almost trick the audience into thinking otherwise. He even added in artificial movement into static objects to replicate traditional cel animation. This says a lot about how the industry was looking at the new technology like cel animation. They were eager to embrace the new era of computer animation, but unlike Disney or Dreamworks they were reluctant to let go of the old aesthetic.
Katsuhiro Otomo was one of the early innovators in this field with his film Steamboy in 2004, using a handful of digital techniques to enhance his production. Although, Otomo has voiced his concerns about the new technology. He discusses in a 1998 interview in Animage that the explosive amount of new options animators get can distract them from the basics.
Despite his concerns, Otomo embraces digital animation for Steamboy and created some of the most intricate animations I’ve ever seen. It not only excelled in creating amazingly complex scenes with 2D animation, but it also utilised3D animation in a way that had never been done before. The production team would storyboard traditionally, then create a basic 3D version of the scene, then animate over that to produce the final concept. Much like how Akira used the Quick Action Recorder to create an animatic.
This allowed them to produce camera movements that 2D animation would never be able to without sacrificing detail. Although, this obviously wasn’t a realistic standard as only a handful of projects since have been able to use these techniques successfully. Outside of using computers to recreate a traditional look, some studios were dipping their toes back into the idea of rotoscoping. This has been used throughout the years.
Even going as far back to 1958’s Hakujaden that filmed live-action sequences for referencing in cel animation. With the help of computers, studios could use motion capture to enhance movement. In traditional pieces, this ended up looking out of place. Falling into the uncanny valley. But became an opportunity for CG movies. In 2001 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was released, the film lost millions due to its poor box office performance but visually, it was one of the most advanced pieces of CG cel animation in the industry. And to be honest, it still holds up today.
Character models were extremely realistic and everything blended together quite nicely. It’s certainly not perfect, but CGI was viable for creating a good movie if in the right hands. A huge improvement on Alice. Unfortunately, the massive amount of money Spirits Within took to make meant CGI movies wouldn’t be making regular appearances.
A few years later, in 2004, Appleseed was released. This improved visually again, with some of my favorite CG action scenes. The world was presented seamlessly with fantastic detail. But the bottom line was these movies were never going to make money. They took far too much capital to produce and the market just wasn’t accepting them. Unlike Disney and Dreamworks who were making CG movies some of the most successful box office releases ever. If two already established franchises, Final Fantasy and Appleseed couldn’t make it work, then nobody could. But something far more important was happening.
In the year 2000, a young Mokoto Shinkai, having just left the video game industry was working on a solo project. He took on the task of writing, directing, and producing his very own short film. Voices of a distant star. Shinkai created it all on his own computer using software like Photoshop and After Effects. He didn’t have a production team or studio, in fact, he didn’t even have voice-overs. He and his wife initially played the two characters. It took 7 months to create and became the catalyst to a new way of thinking in the industry.
By this time, every studio had a computer suit. And as Shinkai proved in 2001, the animation was now limitless. Anyone with talent and dedication could now produce high-quality Cel animation. This led to what we’re currently in, the digital era. The amount of anime being produced every year skyrocketed, and niche projects that previously wouldn’t have found funding now have audiences in the 1000s that could fund multiple seasons.
Studios like Science Saru were being founded with small teams using accessible software to make complex works of Cel animation. We’re living in a really interesting age and it’s only just starting. With organizations like Netflix now funding full series, there seem to be no limits to what might come next. And it’s all thanks to the pioneering work of the individuals involved in anime cel animation. Reluctant to let go of the anime aesthetic, the industry has used digital animation to keep anime well anime. And I think that’s one of the main reasons we love the medium.