“Convenient” technology advancements (whether good or bad in and of themselves) have exacerbated the loss of technique, fundamentals, and knowledge among the workforce as the anime business fails to adequately teach new generations of producers. This is how both newbies and veterans deal with a catastrophe that is only going to grow worse.
Veteran director Tatsuya Ishihara paused to consider the current furor surrounding—and the potential role of AI in animation—when questioned about the future of the anime business in an interview for Kyoto College. Cynical studio figureheads have been far more open to its adoption while many (but not all) artists have voiced their concerns and resisted elements like the exploitation of people’s work without authorization.
George Wada, the CEO of Production IG and Studio WIT, is infamous for taking a strong production approach and making overwork something of a joke. Ironically, he is quick to allude to unfavorable working conditions to support his judgments or simply lies to uninformed audiences to get their sympathy. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that he is one to embrace AI as a necessary force for good, fighting against harsh timetables imposed by an unidentified other. Not only that, but he has already collaborated with Netflix to have Studio WIT produce a short film, part of which featured backgrounds created using artificial intelligence (AI). Judging from the outcomes, this was an attempt to create something that is equally repulsive on a moral and aesthetic level. Similar-minded studio presidents like Manabu Otsuka of MAPPA have frequently indicated that they believe AI is worthwhile to pursue when it can be applied to anime. In his eyes, this will be a method to produce anime with fewer teams—something that, despite all evidence to the contrary, you can’t do with healthier schedules and better overall control over the breadth of your company.
Ishihara, who may not be as high up the corporate ladder but is nonetheless KyoAni’s current veteran leader and a member of the company’s board of directors, was concerned about the negative effects of this kind of tech adoption. He began by citing the studio’s ongoing mentoring of emerging talent and the practice of handing down skills from one generation to the next as the primary drivers of its continuously high-caliber output. Technology disruptions can enable us to avoid problems that once required the use of such well cultivated approaches, but in his experience, that has its drawbacks as well. He used the example of train animation, one of his interests, to illustrate the point. They used to be entirely drawn conventionally, but as CGi was introduced, people adopted that less time-consuming choice… until almost nobody could draw them by hand anymore. Ishihara is afraid of living in a society where fewer things can be expressed—not just by hand, but in a broader sense as well, as the material you use to create your art affects the emotions it arouses.
Ishihara, who has created an art form out of the simulation of real photography lenses in digital animation, is not a Luddite, it should be noted. He is, however, voicing concern for the risky confluence of practical technology advancements—whether those are inherently beneficial or not—and the failure to continue transmitting the collected wisdom and conventional methods of animation. The mechanical canaries in the robot mines have long since died, and he is making these remarks at a time when the sector’s training systems have entirely crumbled, and many other people of the industry have already voiced their complaints about having to deal with the effects of that loss of institutional knowledge.
As we’ve repeated on this blog for years, you’re probably already aware that the collapse of anime mentorship has been a topic of frequent discussion within the industry. It has endured long enough to change from a hypothetical future worry to a catastrophe with real effects right now, and the future outlook only seems grimmer. We’ve already discussed how the topic relates to the fragmentation of the production process, the impact it has already had on the animation layouts and, in turn, the immersive qualities of anime, according to veteran members of the industry, as well as the problems with programs that attempted to address these systemic issues, which are evident even in uniquely brilliant works.
It’s always crucial to bear in mind that working in anime doesn’t just test a person’s technical skill or even their artistic talent in a vacuum when discussing the skill set required in the business. Understanding the peculiarities of the sector, however paradoxical they may seem, and being able to work around them without causing too much friction are essential skills for the position. You will be extremely limited in what you can accomplish in the commercial arena if you are a fantastic artist who is unaware of the production process as a whole. In this case, you would probably do better in a tiny independent framework. Even if their final product is excellent, those who lack the speed to keep up with production pace, a factor in even more organized projects, will struggle. Having the speed but lacking the mindset to somewhat consistently face the desk is another problem that great veteran mentors point out as a common pitfall. Even if you tick all the boxes, working harder and spending more money if you don’t know how to do the tricks that make anime so successful, such as how to shorten walk cycles and create pleasant flutter/nabiki. Those who, on the other hand, devote too much time to the monotony of those mechanical quick cuts at the expense of creativity run the risk of becoming burnt out.
This means that even in the past, when it was normal to enter the anime industry after completing some kind of conventional training, it was still believed that newcomers lacked the necessary skills. To help some individuals catch up, this resulted in the development of anime-specific courses, albeit even those don’t entirely convey the true nuances of the work. The industry is instead based on on-the-job training, with procedures that require beginners to trace over the lines of more seasoned artists, get their direct criticism, and utilize other methods to learn the kind of institutional knowledge that formerly collected at studios. Once again, thanks to Ryoji Masuyama for that clear graphic and for all of his work to address such problems. Key elements that were naturally passed down in a cycle of knowledge that the industry has now broken include artistic fundamentals, practical techniques, and the very attitude to minimize the mental and physical toll of the job.
The industry has undergone a number of changes to compensate for the steady loss of the expertise necessary to keep anime alive in place of that crumbling mentorship system. Individual efforts like Masuyama’s, broader initiatives like the Young Animators Training Course that we previously covered, and, more broadly, the adoption of significant technology advancements have all been made to make the job easier. Sure, those won’t revive the dwindling old fundamentals, but they might enable us to get around obstacles and perhaps open up new avenues for expression.
It is undeniable that the longer answer has accomplished those things even though it is significantly more difficult. In theory, the gradual digitalization of the animation process has improved many aspects of daily life, from the ability to quickly preview how your animation will look to the simplicity of undoing one particular action across the entire process. The usefulness of digital tools is evident. However, when placing such technological advancements in the context of the real-world effects of the paradigm shift they contribute to, things inevitably become more complicated. Looking back at the early days of digital anime, when virtually all animation was still produced on paper and only digitally colored and processed, we can see that the output of the sector was already booming along with that first taste of handy technology. Even while it is often advantageous to be free from the constraints imposed by physical materials, the removal of the cel process’s bottlenecks resulted in a significant increase in workload for everyone. When evaluating developments in the industry, you must take a wider perspective into account.
The webgen revolution, which occurred at a more recent stage of the industry and where there isn’t a direct causal link between the tech itself and the deterioration of those conditions, is the change that most effectively exemplifies this risky relationship between tech advancements and the labor situation in anime. Webgen animation is frequently discussed in terms of an artistic trend with distinctive digital stylizations; nevertheless, the phrase itself refers to artists who are discovered online rather than those who are typically hired and educated.
Visionaries like the late Osamu Kobayashi began the process by carefully selecting young talent from many scenes and, more significantly, making sure that they were later led by good veterans with strong fundamentals. That process has become so bad after numerous webgen waves driven by individuals who are now considered industry titans in their own right that you can no longer classify it as a distinct trend. Skipping all the foundational stages to become a key animator or layout artist is no more an exception overseen by seasoned professionals who will provide suitable instruction, but rather an incredibly typical event abruptly prompted by company urgency. And for every instance where everything goes smoothly, there are many more that result in issues for all parties.
Due to a lack of time, willingness, and simple respect for those supposedly lower-ranking jobs, even artists joining studios through traditional paths cannot be guaranteed meaningful training in this environment. As a result, newcomers who are scouted online must either figure out nearly everything on their own, rely on small online communities with people who have gone through the same paths, or fail. If that idea wasn’t overwhelming enough on its own, you may also consider the reality that many of the affected parties are also extremely young foreign artists who must contend with both physical distance and linguistic problems. And to make matters worse, those issues have an impact on seasoned enshutsu and animation directors who are already overworked and the primary reason seasonal anime barely gets to screen week to week. I don’t think it’s especially fair to place the responsibility on young people who were hired for a job no one ever trained them for, despite the fact that their venomous, personal attacks are continuously spread as a result.
Once more, anime operates contrary to accepted principles of animation and instead follows unorthodox conventions that have not been successfully transmitted. How are these people meant to be aware of the placement of in-betweens—a job they never did—in a connected society where every child with a tablet may be scouted for anime but that doesn’t assure they undergo any apprenticeship? Given that this confluence of overproduction and practical technology fosters practices like copypasting the lines drawn by a more experienced artist rather than deliberate, instructional tracing, can you be certain the process—even if they were lucky enough to go through it—was instructive? Given how much work is done remotely and detachably, with adjustments often not reaching the same person, can you even assume that they’ll finally understand all these quirks? That is the present labor paradigm in anime, and no practical innovation will be able to address any of these problems without a fundamental shift in the model. In fact, as we can see, practical innovations just serve to tighten the noose even further.
Going over more particular examples will help you grasp the gravity of the problem as well as how pervasive the effects of this negative synergy are. Ishihara lamented the demise of hand-drawn trains at the beginning of the article, but when it comes to how technology is destroying anime’s conventional expression, that has more to do with a contentious historical shift: the progressive abolition of mechanical 2D animation. Since specialized animation is by definition more likely to disappear from the body of common knowledge, this case stands out among others due to its dramatic fall. Although there are undoubtedly other reasons at play, such as the decline in popularity of mecha anime, it is once again the combination of an easy substitute and a lack of mentorship that has resulted in the loss of conventional technique.
The difficulty in producing more conventional robot projects is a lack of trained in-betweeners, as Gundam’s series producer Naohiro Ogata has repeatedly highlighted, particularly when he must defend his studio’s choice of 3D mechs. Despite the fact that enough specialist veterans have remained and are qualified for major parts, over the years choosing the less time-consuming—which doesn’t always imply less expensive, simple, or even bad—CG option has made it nearly impossible to assemble a full team to support such a production. Few in-betweeners are knowledgeable with the nuances of 2D mecha animation, which frequently requires juggling perfect volumetry and organic movement. As a result, you either compromise on quality or choose a 3D option, something that even extremely high-profile Sunrise movies now occasionally do. The end product may, at its finest, provide a benefit specific to the craft, but its expression is by definition varied. And you lose that flavor forever if it occurs throughout an entire industry.
While this is the most obvious instance, there are other forms of specialized animation that are actually being lost in favor of a more manageable substitute; one that again evokes different emotions and isn’t particularly good to begin with considering the shoddy nature of the ordinary 3D cut in anime. You might remember that an arc in the anime-themed hit Shirobako centred around the need to find an excellent senior animator to hand-draw horses. Shirobako came out nearly ten years ago. That battle hinted at the growing impossibility to traditionally animate animals and other species, for very similar reasons as the whole mecha saga. Veterans like Ishihara are concerned that we are already losing ways of expressing ourselves by not passing down these special skills to the next generation.
However, focusing exclusively on the issue from the perspective of specialist animation would ignore the more fundamental loss of skill sets throughout the sector. There are many more to highlight than the ones we’ve already mentioned in this article, but they all stem from a mix of inadequate training and excessive reliance on convenient technology. You can look at Mitsuo Iso’s tirade against the now-common preemptive exploitation of keyframes for an illustration provided by a very famous person. It’s natural for untrained children to lean in that direction without being taught the fundamentals of timing, animation economy, and the awareness that someone else will have to clean up that mess. Iso acknowledges this, but strongly cautions against it if you don’t have a firm grasp on the fundamentals. That warning holds a lot of weight coming from a living legend who precisely invented his full-limited technique that emphasizes the significance of keyframes to the hilt.
Despite his bluntness at times, Iso is not the only veteran to blame problems like that. He is also not the toughest. If you follow people in the profession on social media, you’ll know that it’s a harsh climate with less-than-pleasant complaints about rookie mistakes becoming more frequent by the day. I’d like not to focus too much on the criticism, even when some of that annoyance is well-deserved. On the other hand, some of the most frank criticisms provide the most insight into these problems. Mizue Ogawa, a super veteran from an animator family, made one of the most notable recent rants on that topic when she jokingly declared that it had finally happened and that animators are no longer a group of people who can draw after someone had told her directly that they couldn’t draw a layout because they hadn’t received 3D guidelines.
Despite the industry’s increasing reliance on 3D layouts as the foundation, we stated in our previous article about the erosion of anime’s layouts and immersive quality that this was happening. However, many veterans contend in her responses that this is largely taking place because to that reliance rather than in spite of it; the inference being that it’s not the beneficial tool on its own, but rather the abuse in a setting where the fundamentals aren’t being drilled into newbies.
These specific problems have also been often brought up by Kyouko Kotani, a seasoned animator who is outspoken about her grievances. She has noted that in addition to the loss of traditional 2D basics, she frequently encounters useless 3D plans, describing their shortcomings in interpretation and expression. The simple assetization of backdrop art components will frequently ruin the intended perspective and feel of shots, even when those had been meticulously put out in their drafts, as another outspoken voice of anguish in the industry has remarked. Ultimately, regardless of how much your toolbox attempts to make the job simpler, you still need to have a solid sense of perspective and visual composition to assess whether the cut is up to standard whether you’re the episode director reviewing it or working as an animator. And that’s the kind of knowledge that anime falls short in fostering.
There are countless legitimate techniques to animation that are not followed by the conventions of the commercial anime business, proving that art need not adhere to realistic perspective in order to be captivating. However, when working within these restrictions, a necessary common language is being lost one word at a time. You must also comprehend the fundamental laws even if your artistic goal is to purposefully breach them. There is a lot of new talent coming from around the world into anime right now, but if their energy is not properly channeled through strict mentoring, even this wonderful trend could have disastrous results. It’s no secret that audiences prefer artists with distinctive styles, but at the moment it’s a group of less well-known veteran directors and supervisors who, despite working excessive hours, manage to reverse this trend and put together content that can be broadcast every week—or, as of late, most weeks until an indefinite delay.
The fact that the atmosphere right now doesn’t encourage the rise of additional figures like that is possibly the scariest aspect. There are examples of younger creators who almost instinctively understand the fundamentals and tricks required to keep the anime machine running, but due to the often counterintuitive nature of knowledge and this negative feedback loop between inadequate training and excessive reliance on tech crutches, anime is not rapidly replacing its capable leaders. That is concerning now, but it’s even more so in the long run when concepts like automating the in-betweening process continue to gain traction.
In a future where the industry completely abandoned manual in-betweening in favor of interpolation and other mechanisms to generate them through software, some of them already partially in place at various studios, many of the arguments we’ve presented today as already absorbed realities already used to be invoked as potential what-ifs. It makes sense that people would want to investigate these possibilities because in-betweening has long been an untenable profession, which is why so much of it is performed cheaply elsewhere. So why not eliminate the position as it currently exists? As alluring as that may seem, if you give it too much thought, the problems we’ve been discussing would only get worse. Since we’ve already established that training is irrelevant after you reach the critical animation stage, all children would need to learn completely all essentials on their own. You’d also need a consistent influx of seasoned checkers—for a job that wouldn’t organically produce them since it wouldn’t actually exist—given that these interpolation algorithms still require human supervision to achieve a usable outcome.
Without an industry-wide modification to the production paradigm, it is ultimately difficult to see a path out of this. Since the environment is so toxic, even seemingly beneficial changes might have negative side effects. Furthermore, because the issue is so intricate, your interpretation of the current state of affairs will rely on how you feel about each of the various factors. Although I personally do not regard the technical advancements that have been made thus far as fundamentally bad, it is important to note that some extremely well-known individuals are leaning more toward a harsher conclusion. The stuff of legends Masao Maruyama recently argued against using advanced technology as the end-all and be-all of animation, even going so far as to claim that it has already collapsed. In Maruyama’s opinion, Japanese animation lost its distinctive charm during the shift to digital media and was never able to explore new alternatives because studios no longer adequately train creators in all these topics we’ve discussed.
I still have the naive belief that anime could be rebuilt around the useful digital technologies of the present if the employment, training, and production sectors underwent significant transformation. I’ve grown acutely aware of the harm that even a tool that initially seems to be helpful can unintentionally cause over time, though, after hearing about all the first-person accounts of people lost in the maze that anime has created for beginners and reading about so many bitter veteran complaints. It’s simple to buy into the concepts of efficiency and convenience, but when you consider the results, you have to ask yourself: Who has all of this convenience been for? The paradigm must shift from there.