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Today, anime is a digital medium. Every year we have projects that push the boundaries
of computer animation. But it wasn't always computerised 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 favourite anime shows were created in the
digital era, but it's introduction and normalisation 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 favourite 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 studio
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's Golgo 13 film. 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 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 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. Infact, 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 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 a 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-Ou GaoGaiGar used various digital elements throughout
its episodes. The team would create CG elements for the show and would add them into 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 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 3D environment 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-shading. 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 in
a computer. This increased the studio's 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.
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 animation i've ever seen. It not only excelled in creating amazingly
complex scenes with 2D animation, it utilised 3D 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 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 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 Cg 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
Cg movies wouldn't be making regular appearances.
A few years later, in 2004, Appleseed was released. This improved visually again, with
some of my favourite 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.
Him 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, animation
was now limitless. Anyone with the talent and dedication could now produce high quality
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. We're living in a really interesting age and it's only just starting. With organisations
like Netflix now funding full series, there seems to be no limits to what might come next.
And it's all thanks to the pioneering work of the individuals involved in anime. 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.
I'm going to make another video soon exploring the new landscape of digital animation, but
for now, i hope this video has been a helpful overview of when anime went digital. So thank
you, all my subscribers for watching this video, and for the continued support on all
my projects lately. I've really been putting the hours and and i'm making some of my
all time favourite videos. And that's not stopping anytime soon, so thanks for watching.
Be sure to share the video around if you can and make sure you're subscribed. I'm also
on social media if you want more regular update. But for now, thanks for watching.
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When Anime Went Digital

83 Folder Collection
二百五 published on September 11, 2019
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