After nearly half a century of growth, anime has secured recognition as a medium and art form distinct from all others. However, Japanese animation is not necessarily dependent on a single process, and is still evolving today with new techniques. As studios get more comfortable with allowing new creative input in their works, we anime fans have a lot to look forward to.
Today, Honey’s Anime presents to you a short reader starting with some general knowledge of how Japanese animation works, and then moves on to introducing a few of the newer techniques utilised in anime production.
Basic Know-Hows of Japanese Animation
What you see as movement in anime (and cartoons!) are really a series of pictures that are displayed and swapped in a really rapid pace. The interchanging frames of a character’s movement or the shifting state of a background creates the illusion of movement, meaning that countless numbers of these pictures are needed for motion in anime to be convincing.
The anime industry makes distinct two main categories for this process: key animation, that contain the essentials of an object or person’s motion, and in-between animation that connect two key frames so that the motion flows properly. It is not uncommon for the pictures (or key frames and in-between frames, to be technical) to be worked on by different groups or people entirely, rather than for everything to be burdened by one single company.
Traditionally, these frames are drawn on cels, which are plastic sheets that the needed images are etched and painted on before they are all arranged inside a machine that moves them really quickly in front of a transparent screen. A camera records the final process and creates the first copy of the anime. Cels have since been entirely replaced by paper drawings now that digital recording and editing have become commonplace, with animation becoming a more flexible process as more advanced techniques come into play.
Anime in the Digital Age
Colour coordination and editing has become essential components of what makes it to the final cut of an anime episode. It is important to note that even though TV anime series are progressively looking better each year, the budget they receive and not necessarily increasing proportionally to support the heightening quality. Thus, production studios have through the times felt compelled to pursue avenues that are less expensive than having animators draw everything. Thankfully, most studios have nailed down by now the appropriate compromises to make in order to still turn out decent looking anime.
Take the opening of this season’s Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo. While more attention is generally put into the quality of the opening of a TV anime on average than the rest of the show, Konosuba’s opening does a good job of exhibiting all the common elements used to add onto the engagement of hand drawn frames in today’s anime. None of the cuts particularly stand out from the visible amount of effort put into the drawings, there is enough movement in its duration that it does not feel boring to watch. Static frames are made more engaging through lighting effects and manipulation of shadows. The direction of each segment (and the transitions between them) takes careful account the effect the background music has. Perhaps most importantly, moments of character movement are carefully manufactured to express their personality traits and other hooks are snuck in to capture the audience’s interest.
Projects done by top studios or outsourced to experienced staff members can still look extremely well-put together, albeit almost never to the quality of a theatrical release. Studio ufotable and Kyoto Animation are known to set the standard for how TV anime is supposed to look when everything mentioned above is done as close to perfection as can be reasonably expected, and does so while consistently employing animators top level animators. No one can expect most studios today to reach the quality of Hyouka or any of the Fate franchise anime adaptations simply because of how far ahead of their time they were. Instead, studios likes PA Works and J.C. Staff figured out their capabilities and developed their own styles based on the type of series they animate, whether it is the extraordinary attention they put on lighting effects and art direction or to tastefully bring popular Light Novel characters through endearing (and calculated) cuts of animation.
Computer-Generated imagery (CGi)
Having explained how hand-drawn animation works and how it remains central in anime production today, hopefully you will find the newer techniques to be all the more interesting. Among the prominent secondary forms of animation is definitely the uses of CGi, of which it is useful to discuss by splitting them into two different mindsets.
Most uses of CGi is to either concurrently augment scenes of hand-drawn animation or to animate a relatively short cut in between two other cuts that are hand-animated. In both cases, the viewer is not supposed to recognise the CGi as a distinct element from the usual look of the show. The CGi serves as a shortcut method to create motions or objects that are too difficult to draw in a short time frame. In other words, CGi is often a less costly way to accomplish what hand-drawn animators can also do. Examples of this would be this season’s Ao no Kanata no Four Rhythm, in which some cuts during matches of the fictional Flying Circus sport is done through CGi, and not particularly carefully either as they tend to stick out rather ungracefully.
Higher budget productions like Sunrise’s Gundam Unicorn OVA series use CGi in their transformation and fight scenes, but to a comparatively greater degree of competence.
The makers of the criminally underrated Girls und Panzer proves to be especially proficient at using CGi through creative directing decisions and immaculate attention to details when integrating a 3D tank model into a plane of 2D hand-drawn background and characters. A basic comparison between a sports match scene of Girls und Panzer and Aokana shows how a clearly thought out use of CGi looks much less jarring than a more hastily put-together affair. Even if it is ultimately a resource management maneuver for most companies to use CGi this way, the 2010s have shown that it can look very good and will probably continue to look better in the coming future.
The other mindset is to treat CGi as an outlet for creative ideas just like hand-drawn animation, and to make it central to an entire anime project. As many American cartoon film productions have already fully embraced CGi as the next step in animated films, Japan has certainly been unable to ignore the potential that is there. However, in reality this is rarely the case, as can be seen by Rakuen Tsuihou: Expelled from Paradise being the latest project that does so and is not particularly flattering in terms of showing the strengths of CGi-based anime products. However, as the anime industry continues to evolve and adapt, it is likely that more talented CGi-reliant directors will finally have their turn in paving their own breakthrough.
The Ghibli Way
Studio Ghibli, more specifically its iconic director Hayao Miyazaki, is known for being a proponent for Japanese animation films that are entirely made through the painstaking drawings of its in-house animators with Miyazaki himself personally checking every single frame. Although this ensures the quality for each individual frame, the sheer manpower and time required makes this one of the most expensive ways to create anime.
While Miyazaki has occasionally made compromises since the making of ‘Princess Mononoke’, in which CGi was implemented to enhance certain scenes, his style is still clearly defined in most of his older films and also in the more recent ‘Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea’. He himself is somewhat of an icon for animators, representing the old guards for the purists who value hand-drawn animation above all else.
However, do not be fooled; Miyazaki’s consistency and lack of variance in terms of how he approaches the animation process is a strength that lets him focus on the substance of his films. There is a definite sense of improvement as he adapts to newer theatrical formats and make use of the greater creative freedom and budgets he is allocated, but there is no fundamental change from the philosophy of doing as much as possible with hand-drawn animation. Studio Ghibli under the lead of Miyazaki will probably be remembered for the long coming years as a creative unit that aspired and realised their imaginations regardless of all obstacles.
Remember Aku no Hana from 2013?
Devastated fans of the manga certainly did, when the characters in the anime was revealed to look absolutely nothing like their manga counterparts. This was mainly due to the rotoscoping techniques employed to formulate their dimensions and motions, of which departs heavily from the romanticised norms of hand-drawn animation.
Rotoscoping can be summarised as thus: the animator records footage of live-action motion and then traces over it to create the frames used for the final products. Essentially, it is a way to create a frame of reference for motion in anime that is supposed to reflect what real-life looks life. However, there is a world of difference between how different anime executes the use of rotoscoping.
For instance, the aforementioned Aku no Hana was infamous for making all of its characters look unappealing (or even hideous to less tolerant viewers) in comparison to the original character designs. The decision to do so adds a sense of realism to the storytelling, making it seem as though the characters’ experiences and thoughts are something that even real-life rural-based Japanese students may go through. This comes at the heavy cost of alienating fans who expect the character designs and artistic direction of the TV series to follow the established norms in other anime adaptations of popular manga series.
On the other hand, we have shows like Sakamichi no Apollon who makes use of rotoscoping to create engaging portrayals of Jazz performances. The intention for the technique to increase the realism of the experience is still here, but definitely not at the cost of pushing away unfamiliar viewers. This approach is similar to the low-key use of CGi, but is notably different in that rotoscoping can be fully compatible with the look of traditional animation without provoking viewers to make any distinctions between the two techniques; in fact, this scenario can also be seen as rotoscoping taking hand-drawn animation a step further by implementing the use of digital technology as part of the process.
And thus covers the surface of the basic techniques and some of the most interesting animation techniques used in anime today. If one is to look deeper into the technical side of things, there is a treasure trove of interesting tidbits that makes you appreciate the animators’ efforts all the more.
Did this article help you learn something new about animation? Has one of the examples made you want to check out that anime? Let us know in the comment section below.