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.
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.
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.