3 months ago I started writing a blog entry on one of my favourite ‘under-appreciated’ anime from the last few years, Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta (NOT to be confused with the mind-numbingly dreadful original Yozakura Quartet TV anime adaptation!). Other than singing its praises, I wanted to hit home the fact that the series was a giant step forward for a fascinating new generation of animators and a landmark series in the use of digital animation in commercial anime production.
But, as I was putting it together, it quickly became apparent that this little aside was becoming not as little as I thought, and that it had actually become a post unto itself! So now, after my research into the topic uncovered an interesting story to be told, I present to you a dive into web-generation animators, their use of digital animation and how one especially famous animator, Ryo-chimo, has paved the way for them to take the anime world by storm in recent years!
Before we delve any further, I need to get two terms that are often batted about in the Japanese animation fandom straight with you:
The ‘web-generation’ (web-gen) rabble are termed so because they are a pioneering generation who grew up with the advent of the internet and the rapid improvement of tools and software for digital drawing. This put them in a position where they could easily hone their skills as a hobby using Flash and drawing tablets, creating gif animation and putting their talent on display on websites and blogs for the world (and future employers looking to scout them) to see. ‘Gif-animators’ more specifically refers to those who created and shared digital gifs as the means of learning animation. These web-gen guys would often get scouted and pulled onto mainstream animation projects by some of the more avant-garde directors looking for new talent to spice up their projects with some fresh faces. This self-made kind of career is in stark contrast to the traditional avenues for entering the Japanese anime industry.
The fact that they didn’t originate from an animation school or through the rigorous training of a particular studio but learnt themselves and got where they were by showing off their individual talents makes these guys an interesting presence in the industry. Without learning animation through guided training or experience as a key-animator they rapidly develop their own styles from scratch or by adopting and playing with the styles of other animators they follow ( something which has been made far easier for them to consume by the flood of animators now running blogs and using twitter). The result is often that they revel in a flashy, idiosyncratic style yet are not as proficient in the fundamentals of animation – being able to draw convincing movement of their subjects in line with the models/designs of the production.
The latter is a common concern among many industry veterans, but the former is a boon to anime as these guys are often called in for certain scenes or episodes to make them crazy and stand-out-ish. When these webgen staff are herded together on the right project with the right oversight they are a force to be reckoned with, and that’s exactly what happened on Yozakura Quartet, the series that really made me notice the potential of these new faces. We’ll look at a few such anime throughout this post.
There are a few cliques of these guys active these days, like those revolving around producer Shouta Umehara at Dougakobo who worked on Yuruyuri, Love Lab and the Mikakunin PV, or the associates of Tatsuya Yoshihara, responsible for some of the more interesting animation from Muromi-san, Barakamon and, most recently, Yoru no Yatterman.
But the group of people I want to hone in on with this post is the old-guard, the forerunners who heralded the dawn of the web-generation. Kenichi Kutsuna, Ryo-chimo and Shingo Yamashita were the first wave to go pro from their hobby animations and gifs, scouted by animators such as Satoru Utsunomiya or directors like Osamu Kobayashi. These guys have really pursued and pushed the cause of harnessing digital animation technique in their creations. They have set the ball rolling by pioneering the use of digital animation work in TV anime such as Birdy the Mighty Decode and Yozakura Quartet Hana no Uta.
I’ve mentioned digital animation a few times so far, and it’s because drawing digitally is inexorably linked to the new kind of movement and visual style that these web-gen guys are bringing into play across the industry.
Put simply, digital animation is animation created from a series of digital drawings drawn on a tablet in a computer software environment, usually Flash. The important thing to stress is that the role of Flash here is simply to replace pencil and paper as the tool to draw the frames that will ultimately be composed into the final animation product – it’s used as a drawing tool NOT an animation tool. There is no automatic in-betweening, it’s not used to colour the frames and it’s not used to actually render the finished animation; the digital animation is a series of discrete drawings. When people talk about flash animation in the west they think of auto in-betweened stuff used in children’s cartoons, which have an awkwardly smooth and dull kind of motion, but in Japan the animator still creates the movement totally by hand with drawings, and thank god for that!
Examples of digital drawings by Shingo Yamashita:
In fact, very often the digital drawings are treated the same as regular key drawings (called ‘genga’) – they are printed and scanned to be coloured and finally composited into the end product in a software package called RETAS. In-betweening and animation direction can work as normal, with the printed key-frames being sent to the other parties to work on, or the flash file being shared with them if they too are working digitally.
The only time I’ve heard of flash being used to render the animation right through was in the recent series Ping Pong, in which Masaaki Yuasa’s Science Saru production team seem to have developed a technique to use Flash’s auto-in-between tools to produce certain movements that don’t look totally vapid (but they’re certainly a little unusual):
Perks of Digital Animation
With all that said, there definitely are differences between analog and digital animation, mainly stemming from the fact that in flash you can very efficiently plan out, modify and test the timing of your animation cuts, because the timeline is shown right on the screen. This makes it much easier to plan out the sequence and play with the timing, replaying the animation back instantly to test how it’s looking. This easy playback also enables the animator to experiment more with a sense of dynamic ‘camerawork’ on their cuts. This is why many gif-animators have a highly-evolved grasp on how to create animation that feels like it’s totally free in a 3D space, with spinning cameras and lots of background animation.
Drawing within flash also allows much more efficient management of layers to animation, granting the ability to toggle on and off any number of layers on the screen at the click of a button rather than trying to coordinate sets of drawings. I don’t think this has really started to be taken full advantage of yet but certainly it enabled BahiJD to play around with scenes packed with many layers of Space Dandy to an exciting effect.
Another interesting stylistic thing you notice with a lot of digitally-animated sequences from gif-animators is that they’ll use forms of colour with minimal linework or even NO linework. This is especially true of their effects animation, which often portrays magic, flame, laser beams, etc. as borderless streams or shapes of colour. The simple reason for this is that in drawing digitally you can very easily use the solid paint tool to draw. These digital genga from Birdy illustrate the use of this tool:
This sort of globular, borderless colour is a distinctly new style that these guys are bringing to anime and allows for some effects to be created much quicker than having to draw the extent of the shapes with linework or paint. As it’s quicker to create, effect animation of this variety can often be made extremely fluid and fast.
Perhaps the most evolved example of this style comes from Shin Sekai Yori, by its number one user, Shingo Yamashita. This is the ED from that show, which he animated. It’s striking and unique because of the way it feels painted rather than drawn, and that comes from this approach.
Limitations of Digital Animation
That said, it also serves to highlight the downside to digital animation – the ability to be expressive in animation through changing-up the linework, like making it rough or gritty to add raw intensity to a cut. I can’t imagine things like Yoshimichi Kameda’s sumi-e brush style animation being possible on a tablet.
Kameda and others using rough and experimental shading and linework on paper create some truly powerful moments of animation and drawings that digital animation would really struggle to replicate.
A certain amount of finesse and subtlety is also lost when drawing with a tablet. Although they are improving every year, the precision of digital drawing may never match the absolute control an artist has with pencil or paint on paper.
For some of these animators, particularly those in the ameteur stage of their career, there may actually be a risk that these ease of modifying the drawings across their timeline reinforces some bad habits. It allows for gif animators’ tendency to make characters move extravagantly and wildly for movement’s sake. There may well be less value placed on getting each key-frame right, and therefore the animation is less through-conceived and more created on the fly, the final product being more dynamic but with less gravity and impact.
Ryo-chimo & The Evolution of Digital Animation
Although many of these web-animators have had experience creating animation with flash for their own hobby gifs and side-projects, many are faced with entering an industry that remains largely powered by pencil-and-paper drawings. That said, it has come a long way in the last few years towards facilitating the use of digital animation in normal commercial productions. This change hasn’t happened on its own, animators have had to push for it, and no one has pushed harder or further than a man named Ryo-chimo.
Ryo-chimo (real name: Ryousuke Sawa), is pretty recognisable as the vanguard of the web generation of animators, being one of the first to turn professional after being scouted for his gifs (Kenichi Kutsuna is generally considered to be the first). From there, he very quickly rose to prominence as a central figure in the ongoing movement towards digital animation. He’s also one of the best examples of a preternaturally talented animator whose lack of a formal animation training background does not seem to have in any way impeded his ability to tackle any kind of animation.
In his youth he was an avid anime fan and otaku and this led him into illustration and animation as a hobby. After briefly working at a game company, he got his foot in the industry’s door back in 2004 when he was scouted by the illustrious Osamu Kobayashi for his new anime, BECK. Kobayashi saw the gifs Ryo-chimo had put together on his website and, being Osamu Kobayashi, thought it worth giving him an opportunity to see what he could do. In an almost unprecedented move, without spending any time at all doing in-between work, Ryo-chimo leapt straight into doing key animation in the first episode and became a mainstay animator of the series.
Soon after, he was invited to work on Sousei no Aquarion where he first worked with an animator he considers to be a god, Satoru Utsunomiya, who was largely in charge of episode 19. Satoru Utsunomiya deserves a lot of credit for scouting and providing opportunity to several important digital animators at this time, such as Kenichi Kutsuna, and being a proponent of the use of digital tools. During Sousei Aquarion he pushed the use of digital, 3D layouts (animation drafts), which are now commonplace in anime production. Thanks to Utsunomiya, Ryo-chimo’s work here on episode 19 is actually the first time he was able to draw digitally in his professional anime career (which you can see his raw key frames for here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U08rIirZrTo ).
Ryo-chimo’s next big gig, also with Utsunomiya, was just around the corner: the awesome and experimental anime called Noein. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend checking it out. Not only does it have a very unique and fascinating sci-fi story, it’s also unusual in terms of its production, opting not to to have a series animation director; each episode’s animation director’s own style crept through with their uncorrected take on the character designs. On this series he was a regular animator and essentially studied under Utsunomiya and the illustrious Norio Matsumoto. When given the chance to key animate a climactic battle scene in episode 12, he produced a sequence that really put him in the spotlight as a young star animator.
The smooth yet intense animation had a thrilling gravitas to it that made it one of the most memorable parts of the whole show. I remember sitting up and being totally struck by the power of the animation in this scene, and that was back before I was interested in animation specifically. Norio Matsumoto was the animation director on that episode and gave Ryo-chimo that part to work on. Apparently it was Norio Matsumoto’s idea to use the rough line-work in the scene that gave it that visceral edge. This explains why, on the surface, it’s not quite Ryo-chimo’s usual style, which favours minimalistic, very clean and nuanced linework.
The next indicator of Ryo-chimo’s greatness was probably his scene from Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo, which is his own, personal favourite bit of work to date. He animated the scene of Makoto running down the street followed by the camera. In an interesting twist on the sequence, she starts to falter from exhaustion and is overtaken by the camera, only to regain her strength off-screen and push herself back into the frame. It’s fun ideas like these that can really make animation interesting! The sequence showed that Ryo-chimo was able to draw convincing character movement to a high degree of realism.
Apparently he got the idea for the strong portrayal of her exhaustion using reference footage of him actually running down the street as fast as he could, with other film crew driving alongside him to film it. The cut was extended out to a much longer sequence that originally intended following his work.
From there, after a couple of years worth of more compelling animation, including a scene from Mitsuo Iso’s enigmatic TV anime Denno Coil, Ryo-chimo moved up a level to the position of character designer/chief animation director of Birdy the Mighty Decode. Ryo-chimo was well established as a popular illustrator and he created some unapologetically attractive and charismatic character designs for Birdy Decode. Belying his origins as an otaku, his predilection for drawing lascivious and moe characters was on full display, but he also showed his ability to create characters with an indescribable vivid depth and personality . Very much in the web-generation philosophy he designs characters which favour simple linework and bold colours over the luscious detail and highlights associated with the previous era of anime.
His characters come to life with vibrant colours and striking expressions. This web-generation style is quickly rising to prominence as a dominant new, modern look for anime, with many other series like Rolling Girls, Yoru no Yatterman, etc, that have these younger people involved leaning towards it. But Ryo-chimo really paved the way with Birdy.
But he did more than just succeed as a character designer for that series, he also seized the opportunity to introduce the use of digital animation. To overcome a general sense of resistance from many at the studio (A-1 Pictures), Ryo-chimo went about assembling a team of people who were on-board with implementing the use of digital tools. With the backing he needed, he managed the first implementation and support of digital animation on such a scale, with whole swaths of the series being drawn in Flash. This really fully came about in season 2 and gave a number of these web-gen animators the chance to better show off what they could do with their native platform. The result was sequences like this:
Birdy also allowed for several other animators to be introduced to the use of flash and digital animation, perhaps most notably Tomoyuki Niho, who is now well-known as a web-generation animator (incidentally, Niho’s professional debut was on Noein). The series courted some degree of controversy in season 2 when the Ryo-chimo and the director decided that they would let the animators draw fully in their own style without supervision in episode 7 (and 12). The result was an action-heavy episode that presented radically different animation styles between shots, many of them looking totally unlike the usual presentation of the show. This segment was from Tomoyuki Niho:
The borderline abstract, angular geometrical forms are actually in his style, not the result of the show ‘running out of money’ or being grossly ‘behind schedule’ as was commonly asserted (I suspect there was some time pressure, if only due to the absence of the correcting power of a supervising animator). Whatever the case, the experiment was not well-received by the fan-base and the episodes were heavily corrected for the DVD release (here’s Tomoyuki Niho’s bit corrected).
Birdy’s experimentation may have been hit and miss, but when it hit it delivered punchy and jaw-dropping action sequences with a kind of speed and ferociousness I hadn’t ever seen before.
The next step in his career came with the chance to direct the 3-episode OVA reboot of Yozakura Quartet (Yozakura Quartet: Hoshi no Umi). For this, he got together many of his associates for a web-gen animator laden explosion of stunning animation and sleek, modern production work.
Following that success, a series was announced. Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta was brought to TV with Ryo-chimo as director, character designer and chief animation director (for all but one episode). Being a chief animation director (CAD) on an anime TV series is a phenomenal effort, but being the director AND CAD is just astronomical, and really quite a rare thing. Ryo-chimo must have not slept for months! No wonder he says his career focus is on short anime works now (as sad as that is to hear). Needless to say, he didn’t get to do any key animation on this series.
But with the level of ownership he had of this series, he was able to assemble a team of digital animators to further what he started with Birdy. For the very first episode he achieved the goal of creating an episode entirely with digital key-animation, something that hadn’t yet been done, to my knowledge. Unlike the rougher experiments on Birdy, this episode turned out to be a remarkably polished and charming gem, and webgen-styled through and through. Detailed design and art-focus was traded in for playful movement and liveliness, but it was more carefully crafted and tempered than web-animators had been known for. Here, Ryo-chimo proved the viability of the digital animation production process for commercial TV anime.
To make this happen, Ryo-chimo leant heavily on frequent collaborator and Flash-animator extraordinaire, Shingo Yamashita. Often called ‘yama’ for short, Shingo Yamashita is easily the best animator out there who uses flash for his work. He created my personal favourite bit of animation in Hoshi no Umi OVA, which is another one of those special bits of animation that awoke me to how awesome animation itself can be.
To this day it remains one of my favourite segments of animation for its wild, kinetic energy. Ryo-chimo bought him on board for Yozakura Quartet knowing full well that, to make it work, he would need someone with vast digital experience and talent to guide and supervise the relatively young digital animator team he had assembled. Shingo Yamashita bought his own colleagues on board for the project as well, forming a trio with Sakazume Takahito and Enokido Shun throughout the series.
The team he led, who also came back for episode 6 and other parts of the series, included the following names:
- 関弘光 (Hiromitsu Seki)
- 小笠原真 (Shin Ogawara)
- 亀澤蘭 (Norifumi Kugai)
- 黒岩志摩 (Shima Kuroiawa)
- 藤澤研一 (Kenichi Fujiwara)
- 伊勢鷹人 (Ise Takahito)
- 川野達朗 (Kawano Tatsurou, the digital animation director for the episode)
Many of these guys are now established digital animator names in the industry, appearing on web-gen friendly series like Love Lab, Space Dandy (episode 13 in particular), Yama no Susume season episode 13, Ping Pong, Naruto and Yoru no Yatterman. At one point or another almost all notable web-gen animators were involved in the creation of Hana no Uta.
But he did more than just reel in the right animators for the work, he implemented a digital production process at studio Tatsunoko which remains alive and well today. Much like what web-gen animators did for studio Dougakobo after Yuruyuri, his work with Tatsunoko on Yozakura Quartet brought about a revitalisation to the studio, whose works since have become known for their fun, energetic animation and visual cool-factor. A legacy of Ryo-chimo’s efforts, Tatsunoko Productions is one of the biggest users of digital animation and now provides their animators with tablets if it is their tool of choice (whereas you’d normally have to pay for your own).
You can see that Tatsunoko is fostering quite a bit of web-gen talent through their series since, such as Yoru no Yatterman, which features a large array of these guys, led by Tatsuya Yoshihara, creating pretty much all of its stand-out moments of animation.
Ryo-chimo himself, meanwhile has created his own company, Time Note Animation, where he lists himself as an animator and illustrator. He seems to have parted ways with Tatsunoko somewhat and is now looking more at the animated short production space rather than commercial TV works. The most recent example of this was ME! ME! ME!, the short created for Hideaki Anno’s Animator Expo initiative, for which Ryo-chimo was listed as a planning advisor. He also appears to be a vocal proponent and teacher of digital animation, often giving lectures at animation schools on the topic or participating in industry events.
Nowadays a lot of the most arresting and exciting animated scenes in TV anime are being brought to you by the new web generation and, thanks largely to the efforts of people like Ryo-chimo and Shingo Yamashita, they are increasingly able to create using their weapon of choice: digital animation. This is rapidly changing the face of anime as we know it, ushering in a new flavour of modernism which endows their work flashy, hyperactive animation and simple yet elegant character designs with vivid, iridescent colour schemes. The hangover of the detail and realism oriented 90s is being superseded by this bold new look and it’s breathing a fresh life into the medium, exemplified by series like Kyousogiga, Yozakura Quartet and P.A Works’ Uchoten Kazoku.
Digital animation has already introduced some new techniques that have added to the repertoire of animation, but at the same time, others out there like Yoshimichi Kameda are highlighting that there’s just some things pencil and paper will always offer over digital drawing. Right now the industry is benefiting from both sides of the story – digital animation styles are being experimented with right alongside analog animation and the new web-generation are showing their own brand of charismatic animation in the same series as some of the highly-trained veterans are producing astounding sequences with the utmost technical prowess.
So we’re experiencing the best of both worlds. But if the institutional training style of the traditional industry subsides to the tide of brash, self-made gif animators jumping into the fray, there’s a real risk that we’ll eventually lose animators of a certain calibre: those with the meticulous draftsmanship, unwavering professionalism and a studious attention to the art of movement that gave us films like Ghost in the Shell, Jin-Roh and Akira. Fortunately, studios like Ghibli, Kyoto Animation and Production I.G continue to carefully nurture and train their own animators in the more conventional way (and it really shows in their works too).