Anime is, by definition, a visual medium. "Anime style" is recognized around the world for its distinctive aesthetic, big eyes, and flashy fights. Though trends in anime come and go, sometimes it feels like anime itself has been the same forever, or at least since the '80s, right? You'd be wrong and you'd be right. Even as the entire industry revolutionized its way of creating stories, most fans didn't even notice as show after show switched from hand-painted cels to digital. It's okay if you didn't catch on - the animators didn't want you to notice, after all.
For nearly a century, the dominant way to create anime (or any kind of animation) was drawing on sheets of clear plastic called cels (short for celluloid, but most often its less-flammable cousin cellulose acetate). After each cel was drawn and painted, they were filmed one at a time with a special camera. In 2013, however, the last anime still drawn on cels, Sazae-san, finally made the switch the digital. How did anime change over the years to take advantage of new technology and how did it stay the same?
How anime is made: the short version
If we're going to talk about how making anime has changed, it helps if you know how anime is made in the first place. This is a very basic outline of the main steps involved.
- The script is written, possibly by adapting a story from a manga or novel.
- Storyboards are drawn to break down each individual scene into its story beats. This can be done at the same time as the script or even in lieu of it depending on the director's process.
- Key frames are drawn based on the storyboards. A key frame shows the key point of a character's motions. For example, when animating a character waving you would probably create two key frames, one of the character's hand all the way to the right and one all the way to the left.
- In-between frames are drawn connecting the action in the key frames. Most anime studios outsource in-betweens to cheap(er) animation studios in countries like Korea. (Key frames are also frequently outsourced, with the Korean studio handling all animation from the storyboards.) How many in-betweens are needed usually depends on how big the budget is.
- The in-betweens are transferred onto cels (old school) or scanned into a computer (new school). Transferring onto cels used to mean tracing the drawing onto the cel with ink, but in the '60s photocopying became common as it saved a step.
- Color is added to each cel with either paint or digital paint.
- Voices, music, and sound effects are recorded. Japanese voice actors usually watch the animation while recording their lines. This is different from most American animation, in which voices are recorded first and the animation is made to match the dialog. Some big-budget anime (particularly movies) do record voices first, but most weekly shows favor the cheaper practice.
- The animation and sound are combined. This used to be done with film reels, scissors, and tape, but has been done on computers since as soon as the practice became feasible (the '80s or '90s, depending on your studio's budget for experimental systems).
- The anime is sent to broadcasters, theaters, and/or straight to disc for fans to enjoy.
Depending on the title, there might be many more steps, including visual development, post-production effects, and even creating new methods of animation to achieve a desired effect. Some steps can also be skipped. For instance, a computer-generated anime using Flash or an all CGI-scene can generate in-between frames via computer algorithm instead of drawing them by hand, but animators still need to create the key frames individually to achieve the right look.
Technology has affected animation in almost every area, but here are a few key ones that have had the most noticeable effects. You'll note these are all new ways of using computers to do things that used to be done by hand, but that's because so much innovation in the animation space we think of as standard today was already invented in the '50s. Osamu Tezuka's limited animation, for example, really pushed the boundaries of how to create a scene with as few frames as possible. Disney switching to photocopies for cels instead of hand-inking ushered in a new house style for the studio in the '60s. Even combining animation with live action has been done since very nearly the beginning of the medium. Animation has, simply put, always been about innovation.
Digital editing (formally "non-linear editing") was embraced wholeheartedly by not just animators but the film community as a whole as soon as it became available. Instead of going through physical copies of film and making very careful cuts to put a movie together, editors could easily move sections of film around and play with different compositions. Compare writing a novel with a typewriter instead of a computer and its convenient undo, copy, and paste buttons. There's only one noticeable downside compared to editing by hand, and that's the possibility of image or sound compression - easily avoided by using massive file sizes for lossless video and sound.
Digital coloring wasn't embraced quite as quickly as editing was. Traditionally, anime was hand painted with an animator specifying the colors for each cel like a coloring book with numbers. Digital coloring, on the other hand, uses a computer to fill in each section. Not only do you not need to worry about brush strokes showing, but digital coloring allows for perfect color control and you'll never run out of paint. (Fun fact: Batman: the Animated Series uses the Tiny Toons color palette because the studio had a lot of leftover paint to use up.)
The first animation to use CGI to any significant effect was Golgo 13 in 1983. The first all-CGI anime was A.LI.CE. in 1999. Most anime nowadays use CGI in at least some capacity. Some things are just easier to build a model of once than to animate by hand, like fancy cars or a detailed building. Another common use of CGI is weather effects, like snow falling, rippling water, or clouds, where a computer can generate semi-random patterns with ease.
Compositing, or combining two or more images into one, existed long before computer animation (think Mary Poppins and Pete's Dragon), but like editing, computers made compositing a whole lot easier. Usually you think of compositing as putting a CGI element, like a robot, over a hand-drawn background interacting with hand-drawn characters, but it can mean combining any number of things. The ability to move the elements around on the computer means that they can be animated separately, without needing to be too precise about how the final composition will look in advance.
Animation Beyond the Norm
Tired of dime-a-dozen shows with designs that seem to blend into each other? Looking for an anime that pushes the animation envelope? Try one of the following, or even all five.
Gankutsuou (Gonzo) - When you mention anime with a cool style that truly takes advantage of the digital age, Gankutsuou tops every list. Instead of solid colors, Gankutsuou fills its world with patterns and textures you simply couldn't animate by hand without spending millions per episode. The patterns are layered like carefully constructed collages. Individual frames are beautiful, but what's truly striking is seeing those patterns move with the characters.
Bakemonogatari (Shaft) – The Monogatari series takes advantage of the fact that it's digital animation and goes to town with colors and backgrounds. A fight scene might send dozens of desks flying in the air, and live-action footage is occasionally interspersed with the regular animation. Rather than hiding the use of CGI, the Monogatari series revels in it as another visual effect to convey other-worldiness.
Mononoke (Toei) – If you're familiar with Japanese art history (and who isn't?), the first thing you'll notice about Mononoke is that it looks like an ukiyo-e print come to life. That's fitting, because Mononoke takes place in the Edo period (1603-1868), the same time Japanese woodblock prints called Ukiyo-e flourished. It's a riot of color and the historical designs enhance the creepy effect of the ghost stories told.
Redline (Madhouse) – One of the first and most popular uses for CGI in anime was robots, cars, and other blocky vehicles. The CGI allowed for detailed models but animation that often felt either too stilted or too smooth. Redline throws that out the window for the most fluidly animated, high-octane race on another planet you've ever seen. And while it uses CGI vehicles to dramatic effect, there's hundreds of thousands of hand-drawn frames in the movie too, for one of the most ambitious combinations of the mediums since Disney's Treasure Planet.
Howl's Moving Castle (Ghibli) – Hayao Miyazaki famously wanted nothing to do with computers – until his staff convinced him with a demo and he wholeheartedly embraced the new tool. Howl's Moving Castle uses CGI to stunning effect in multiple places, but the showpiece is the moving castle, which was made of over 80 digital pieces that could be rearranged depending on the scene as the castle runs through the countryside.
What's still the same?
Animators are always innovating, but some things still remain the same and most likely always will. Someone still has to draw what happens on the screen (or pose and move the computer models). Someone still has to come up with a story and write a script. Limited animation techniques, like only animating the mouth when a character talks, will continue to keep budgets low and schedules on time. But most importantly, anime will still feature exciting stories with great characters and eye-popping visuals. I can't wait to (literally) see what they come up with next.
-Lisa Marie Cooper
Long-time Right Stuf fans may recognize Lisa as Marie from the Anime Today podcast or as the OG RightStufSpecialsMinion on the Anime News Network and Fandom Post forums. Her non-anime articles can be found at PositivelyEditorial.com, where she offers tips and insights into how to write.