The Impacts of Computers on Anime

By J. Thompson, 1999

Oh yes, it's catalog time again. This time I'm going to keep this introduction very narrowly focused on The Big News of the year, so as to keep this from wandering all over the place. I'll probably do something a bit more expansive next time around ... but you can always go back into the archives to see something more like the history of Japanese Animation if you're so inclined. ŒNuff said.

This year is one of profound change in Japan, the likes of which haven't been seen since 1980. Like almost twenty years ago, the full impact of the shift won't be fully realized (or even really appreciated) for some years yet. Last time, it was the shift away from strong keyframes toward weaker drawings (but a lot more of them so that the animation looked smoother). What's so different this time, you may ask? One word: computers.

Now, I'm not saying that computers haven't already been involved in Japanese Animation. I'm not even going to say that they haven't been used to great effect before. I am saying, however, that the entire industry (particularly on the weekly TV front) is undergoing a sweeping change that will likely mean the demise of traditional cel-based animation. The more traditional work may and probably will continue (in movies) for some time yet, but those pretty cel paintings will become an ever more scarce commodity.

I can hear you all now: "But it won't be the same!!"

Know something? You're right. But if you've seen any of the newer shows now running in Japan, you already know that most of the space exterior shots are being done on computers. A lot of special effects are now done on computers. More subtly, many shows are now colored on computers. And, as time goes on, there will be more of all this. The very fabric of television animation is rapidly changing, and before this is all done, the closest thing to a cel will be a pencil sketch that is scanned into the computer for coloring. There are a lot of advantages to doing things this way: hand-painting cels (always a difficult and fairly expensive process) can be eliminated in favor of flood-filling scanned artwork. Since a lot of the "personality" of the drawing is done at the pencil stage, and it is this very pencil drawing which is scanned into the computer, the link to what you know will not be impacted as much as many of you think ... it's merely the production process which is changed and streamlined. No longer will small armies of people be needed to create those cels. There won't be the (otherwise very real) danger that cels will be shot in the wrong order, or damaged before they can be recorded on film. This all means that lead times can be shortened and budgets reduced. Theoretically, there will be more room for experimentation. Things will be possible under the time constraints of a weekly show that were never possible before. It might even mean that some of the more talented people coming up in the ranks will be given a shot at the big time sooner and thus usher in the next boom. Like everything, though, there is a downside ... to accomplish this transition, the very look of animation will change. Some of it will be difficult to notice. Some of it will be very positive. Some of it will also be negative.

There are many reasons why this shift occurred ... there's the continuing problem with the poor performance of the Japanese economy and devaluation of the currency on the world market. Not to put too fine a point on this, when there's no spare money around, there's no money to invest in a new animated property. Last year, you were looking at 97¥ =$1. As of today, it costs about 148¥ to buy that same dollar. There's a problem with the acetate used by the Japanese industry ... it's not easily available due to a production shortage (and yes, it's just different enough from the substrate the rest of the world uses) and the story goes that it's now being sourced outside of Japan. There's even a rumor that the cel paint itself may become difficult to obtain, due to the imminent retirement of a very senior chemist. Finally, a particularly powerful piece of computer software, previously only available on high powered uber-workstations, is coming to an Intel processor near you. All of these things lead to a basic change in the industry which is very difficult to argue with.

But it looks different.

It isn't just television work that's changing, either. If you look at Hayao Miyazaki's new Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke), you'll see a lot of computer graphics and computer aided work. Even when they're not totally generated inside the computer, many times the artwork itself is manipulated by computer. If Miyazaki's doing it in his films, it's a very safe bet that the rest of the industry will eventually follow. Already, many OVA releases are peppered with computer graphics and more follow every day. As this happens, more people will be prompted to experiment with this new technique, and like all new toys there will be some slightly odd work until everyone gets the hang of it. At that point, there will be a massive improvement across the board and the industry will settle down and wait until the next big change happens. It'll probably come sooner than later, though. In the meantime, sit back and you'll be able to say that you were there when everything changed ... that you remember what it used to be like and what you thought when the medium reinvented itself. The important thing here is to appreciate the massive change and realize that this isn't the first time that something like this has happened ... it happened when all those giant robot tagteam specials in the 1970's stopped. It happened again when Japan went to that smooth animation in the early 1980's ... and it happened yet again when those big budgeted, heavily promoted theatrical films started going away. You can say the same when OVA's made their massive push and then faded way back, or even when the first computer graphics popped up in films like Golgo 13, Romanesque Samy (Missing 99) and the Lensman movie. But look at the bright side here: for the first time real animation is going to be brought to the level that a reasonable sized animation fanclub can acquire all the parts to make their own sophisticated animated project, instead of only the most well organized and best funded. It's entirely possible that this could mean a real revolution when all these people's work is seen by the world. We can hope, anyway.

Maybe this time when we ask HAL to open the Pod Bay Doors, he just might.