Why 3DCG Cannot be Allowed to Replace 2D Animation!

In the late 90s, after Gegege no Kitarou 4 went digicel after the 64th episode, the Japanese animation industry quickly transitioned from being filmed with a camera to being scanned and composited in computer software. Over the last decade, there has now been some further evolution with stylus and tablet often replacing pencil and paper to with the new generation of animators. Although we have lost some finishing touches along this technological journey (and gained some!), the fundamental principal has never changed: piecing together a moving image from layers of hand-drawn frames. That’s the underlying tenet behind the anime we all grew up with.

Some people make a mistake here and see 3DCG animation as the next logical step on the horizon, a kind of inevitable technological break-through for animation. Perhaps this is a western perspective that is in tune with the movements of our own industry, which has always been quick to jump on new innovations, first using Flash automation to eliminate the need for inbetween frames, then pushing forth into fully computer generated animation. Over the last few years, more and more Japanese directors are embracing this and creating wholly/largely 3DCG animation such as Arpeggio of Blue Steel, Knights of Sidonia and Houseki no Kuni.

It’s a trend I have been diligently ignoring for the last couple of years in the hope that it would just somehow go away. Recently though, I had the misfortune to sit down and watch an entire episode of such a creation: the first episode of High Score Girl. It was a grim reminder if how not into the whole thing I am.

But that’s just my opinion – plenty of people out there are singing to the tune of 3DCG (Houseki no Kuni in particular got a lot of praise), and I’m not here to tell them they’re wrong. But I do want to make one thing crystal clear:

This kind of animation and traditional 2D animation are not the same thing.

I mean, sure, they’re both just making something move. But that’s like saying photography and painting are the same thing because they both produce a picture. They’re both animation, strictly speaking, but I argue that they’re wholly different art-forms.

As a sakuga fan, I’ve talked often and deeply about the power of animation. But more, specifically, sakuga is the power of traditional 2D animation. I’d argue that true sakuga in 3DCG anime is virtually impossible. You can have as much technological innovation and creative ideas as you like, but at the end of the day it can only strive to emulate the brand of charisma that 2D animation can evoke. You see, in traditional animation, every frame can be a world of its own, with limitless potential to create its own space and illustrative beauty.

In 2D animation there’s theoretically no need to stick to the model – in fact, even if you wanted to you, it’s practically impossible. Each frame can and will have a life of its own, a cat could become a plane from one instant to the next, or one if its whiskers could could bend with an almost imperceptible tweak. The point is that there’s no limit – each moment is a canvas of infinite potential which can tell any kind of story about what came before and what is to come.

This potential is used especially well by the Japanese industry where animators have long been given the freedom to experiment with it in commercial productions and not have their personal styles over-corrected into dull uniformity. This road, paved with the deeds and misdeeds of many a pioneering animator, has lead to an environment where animators are truly creating every frame and not just replicating a drawing in a set pose.

From the rawness and boldness etched with every tiny line, the surreal warping of proportions, perspective that defies any real logic, or even just the finer details of intricate beauty that they might pour into a money-shot, the hands of animators can do anything. The most charismatic animators know this well and can tell a breathtaking visual story as they fly from one frame to another, each one introducing new ideas and unexpected twists.

The boundless potential of 2D animation, where each frame is an art piece in a journey of motion – here, the dramatic posing of Reigen and the mind-warping power of Mob merge together
2D animation can pour amazing detail and refinement into a drawing at any moment – Studio WIT’s makeup animation case in point

Even when they’re imitating life, most of the best realistic animators use this freedom of the frame and the space between frames. They understand that animation doesn’t have to look precisely real, to feel genuinely believable. They might exaggerate small, subtle movements that our minds pick up on as realistic, or hone in on the most powerful expressive movements that our hearts can relate to – the stifling of tears, the heavy breathing, or the spring in our step when we feel elated. In the same way that a simple drawing can inspire great beauty, animation can concentrate and make abstract these innate gestures, amplifying them into powerful emotion.

Only masters with control over each key drawing, and every precise detail can tell such a story with mere motion.

Shinya Ohira uses a surreal kind of realism – it doesn’t look REALISTIC but the desperation and confusion is palpable
Mitsuo Iso hones in on nuanced movements that create powerful emotion from subtle gestures. The finite expression of a model can never achieve this.

3DCG can’t really do any of this, at least, not in the same way.

You see, with 3DCG you create a model and then you move it for each frame you want. Sure, you can pose it however you like, and you can add some funky touches to spruce up different frames if you want, but at the end of the day that’s why you’re using 3D -so that you don’t need to recreate each moment from scratch. It’s more akin to a puppet show than it is to 2D animation. Some companies are getting better at fooling us with dynamic timing, and effects to mask the fact that they’re just posing a virtual dummy, but it doesn’t matter how good they get – they will never be able to create the same kind of sequences that 2D can.

When you’re posing a model, it doesn’t matter what you do, you lose the ability to instill that visceral feeling of a hand crafted moving image with all its natural flaws and human touches. Our minds and the natural world are complex beyond imagination and explanation, and the pencil/stylus in an animator’s hand is a raw conduit to that.

Then there’s compositing. In traditional ‘cel’ animation you’re dealing with creating a sense of depth through discrete, flat layers. It’s a challenge and an art in and of itself that I discuss at length in this blog post. With artful use of compositing, you can create wholly different visual experiences with the same layers and the same anime can flirt with different approaches between cuts. The rich colourscapes crafted by ‘superflat’ styles, or the cinematic depth created with simple lighting and shading, the space between layers is another great playgound of potential.



In 3DCG, you can happily zoom in, out and spin around your model with ease – it’s not a layer, it’s an object in virtual space. As you might expect, this makes tricky, dynamic camera work and even lighting effects a lot easier. Directors might feel like they have more freedom, but in truth they’re missing out on the potential that 2D anime photography can offer in terms of interweaving characters and backgrounds into a singular artistic vision. This is because you’re filming a real (albeit virtual) object in a defined space, instead of crafting the space yourself with every shot.

2D animation may be more logistically challenging and technically constrained, but its artistic potential is virtually limitless within these bounds, and when it does hit a high note it’s something truly magnificent.

I’m not here trying to say that 3DCG anime shouldn’t exist, or that people are wrong for liking it. And there’s certainly a lot of talent that goes into creating these works. I just want us all to understand that they are not one in the same. 2D animation isn’t an old way of doing things, it’s a wholly different artform, and one that I and many others love dearly. If we allow 3DCG to be the future and not just an alternative, anime will lose something forever.

What I would like to see, is the two approaches continue to evolve side-by-side and overlap in interesting ways.

9 thoughts on “Why 3DCG Cannot be Allowed to Replace 2D Animation!

  1. Excellent post! Very well articulated points that I full heartily agree with. GC animation is more like filming real life, and in that regard loses touch with the fundamental tenets of animation. The fact that GC has to imitate 2D animation kinda proves this in my mind. Why would it have to initiate if it’s so similar? And the answer, as you pointed out, is that it’s not. I dont even feel it’s about a purity of the craft, because CG animation can still evoke emotion and realism without being realistic. But at the end if the day, it’s more about the tool. The tool defines the art with CG, and that is it’s most damning feature in my opinion.

    This is why I dont consider CG productions anime in the truest sense. Just the concept of camera movement, and depicting depth proves this – each camera movement in anime (digicel or not) has to be created by the artist, whereas the computerized method relies so much on formulas and plotted vertices on a 3D map, and thus becomes more directorial and less animation in spirit.

    1. Thanks, you also put into words a concept that I struggled to work into the post. With its calculations and programming there’s a more scientific component to 3DCG which is perhaps, on some level, disconnected from intrinsic creative impulses of the artist.

      Kind of like how sometimes the rough sketches of artists carry more soul than cleaned and retraced products.

  2. I think that it is fine to some 3DCG anime to exist as well as to use some modern techniques like some CG for very low importance in between or post processing as it helps give more time to creators for make other traditional, more important frames look cooler and make 2D animation looks prettier as well.

    I suffered trough things like Love live first season and Gonzo early century CG models but I have also seen the great work on the newest Fate movie. So I would say that CG can be a good alternative for some cases and a good tool in others if they’re willing to put some decent money on it to make it blend well in the final product (instead of a cheap alternative)

    Lovely post. Keep on working.

  3. I agree with the broad point; that the per-frame or per-cut idiosyncrasy/expressionism that we call “sakuga” is practically impossible with contemporary 3D animation tools, though I wonder if this will gradually change as the tools become more sophisticated (motion-tracked VR wands?) than selecting and dragging control points around with a desktop mouse & keyboard. But I digress… Computer animation can produce good results, especially when complemented with good design, storyboarding and character animation (Houseki no Kuni), but it never manages to hide what it is due to that telltale lack of per-drawing expressionism.

    But for CG replacing traditional, that’s largely not up to us, because I suspect that’s a result of the labor pool available in a talent-crunched industry. If you’re an anime producer cooking up a project like High Score Girl, maybe the only reasonable subcontractor available in your desired timeframe happens to be a 3D animation studio. This is speculation on my part as I’m just a fan, but I think this was touched on a little in Shirobako; that CG is seen as the newer, cooler field for people entering the industry. Meanwhile, traditional has always had its issues with training/pay/burnout/turnover; I wonder if working at Orange or Sanzigen etc. is different.

    On the compositing point, one could easily achieve that variety of imagery, but there hasn’t yet been a visionary CG anime that attempts that. I think the initiative has to come from the art design. You only have to look at the myriad aesthetics of indie/mid-budget video games to get a taste of what’s possible in the realm of “non-photorealistic rendering”.

  4. 3DCG has been done well enough at this point that I can appreciate it as its own artform, and I don’t have the same dread whenever a new 3D anime is announced, but I agree with you on the core of this post entirely. 3DCG is NOT the evolution of 2D Hand Drawn Animation. They should always coexist as wholly different artforms, with different strengths and weaknesses, and different appeals. In some cases combining the both of them in a single project can be a fantastic tool as well, but having 3D take over everything is not something I look forward to happening, and I don’t think many artists/animators do either.

  5. I know almost nothing about cinematography, but I think I can agree with you on this article. Between hand-drawn and 3DCG animation, the former really has more characteristics to it, and there is no way the later could be its replacement.

    And yet, what you said above is in term of “potential”. I have this nagging feeling that the number of animators who could make the best use of the potential of hand-drawn animation is limited, while the rest of the animators are average and more likely to conform to a standard set by the shows/directors/studios. In that case, wouldn’t 3DCG be a good thing to reinforce and streamlined that existing conformity? Sure, you may not have great-looking shows, but at least the quality would not fluctuate so much between shows.

    1. Interesting point – but I do think some of the most astounding 2D animation sequences have come from industrious animators with careful planning and oversight rather than exceptional talent. Take many of Ghibli’s films for instance. With the industry behind them, it’s not just a handful of star animators who can realise this potential.

      Of course you’re right that if you’re doing the kind of project that doesn’t need to capitalise on the unique benefits of 2D, 3DCG will probably ultimately be a more efficient way of achieving that.

      Unfortunately, if the industry goes down that path it won’t have the critical mass needed to support and grow 2D animators to reach potential as they do now.

  6. Although you don’t directly state it, I feel like there’s a running insinuation throughout this article that 3DCG is a lesser art form than 2D animation, and the comparisons are a bit reductionist. Just because something is frequently used poorly in a certain context does not mean it isn’t used excellently in other contexts, or that it can never be used excellently. The West has been using 3DCG effectively and expressively for a long, long time now. The issue is that using 3DCG in a cost-cutting manner is a lot more visually apparent than it is with 2D animation.

    Still, I would hold that it can be used effectively in anime and that it actually has been, although it’s rare. One of the main examples coming to my mind is the Illusionary World from Clannad. It blended 3D models in with 2D animation. The result accentuated and improved the otherworldly atmosphere of the Illusionary World in a way that using 2D animation alone would not have been able to.

    Of course, I wouldn’t want 3DCG to outright replace 2D animation in anime, but I don’t get the sense that the trend is that extreme.

  7. Magnificent entry! I have never read such a felt and well argued defense of the 2D animation and it`s artistic and creative touches. Maybe, the hoped future when 2D and CGI animation join is coming by the hand of Hiroyuki Imaishi, so he shown us with his film Promare. I think this work is a great example of a well advantaged use of the two techniques.
    Thank you for this fantastic contribution!

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