Answerman
Why Did Some 90s Anime Mix Digital Shots With Cel Animation?

by Justin Sevakis,

Laurence asks:

Watching some of the classics of late 90s anime (eg. Cowboy Bebop, Great Teacher Onizuka etc.) I've always wondered why - despite the vast bulk of the show being comprised of traditional cell-painted animation, there are a handful of cuts that are very obviously done in digi-paint. With recent Blu-Ray remasters, these cuts stand out even more, the colours often shockingly different from the 'real' painted versions - this creates a very jarring effect, especially when sometimes the scene cuts back and forth between both versions a number of times. Why were these cuts done in this way?

Cel animation is/was a wonderful thing, and had a unique hand-crafted feel that digital 2D animation (what we call "digipaint") is still trying to emulate. That said, it was also very limited in what could be done. Certain effects that we take for granted today -- being able to move backgrounds in multiple dimensions, for example -- were simply impossible or nearly impossible to pull off the old fashioned way. Animators were constantly struggling against these limitations. Often times, certain cuts would have to be photographed in layers, and then optically matted into each other in the film lab, a time-consuming and expensive process that were usually only possible with movie budgets. Some effects weren't possible at all.

By the 1990s, computer graphics had advanced to the point where the look of cel animation could be replicated on a computer, more or less. Having those layers of artwork as digital assets meant that they could be layered in new ways. Backgrounds could move in 3 dimensions. Things could glow, ripple, and sparkle in a more realistic way than could ever be depicted with cel paint. And compared to optical effects, computers were both cheaper and offered the animators much finer control over the final product.

But the technology wasn't really there yet. Animating in high definition was still way more difficult than PCs of the era could handle. The colorists that work in anime hadn't yet figured out how to flatten out a color palate, so everything looked a little garish. Also, as most anime was being edited on film, the final shot had to be "printed" onto film stock with an optical printer, a device that basically exposed the film to a really tiny CRT display. Some of those early optical printers really muddied up the image.

Since anime nearly always was seen on home video, nobody really noticed this much at the time. Even theatrical features were usually seen in tiny art house auditoriums by only a few thousand people before going on to live most of their useful lives as home video product. VHS and even Laserdisc were both blurry enough that none of this mattered. And indeed, the creators of these shows anticipated the final product being seen in this way, so it wasn't a huge issue.

Now that everything's being re-mastered in HD and reissued on Blu-ray, some of these scenes stick out like a sore thumb. The false, glowing supernatural Mima shots from Perfect Blue. The glitching and distorting countryside atmosphere from the Magnetic Rose segment of Memories. Trans-dimensional tearing from Vision of Escaflowne. The outer space shots of Cowboy Bebop and Millennium Actress. Certain elements of Sharon Apple's concert in Macross Plus. Obviously some of these look better than others, depending on what production methods were used at the time. But none of them look great.

We are actually seeing this animation in far better quality than was ever imagined possible when these films were made, and so it's only now that we're really noticing these gaps in quality between different cuts. These trade-offs in quality were made decades ago now, so it's not like anyone can do anything about them. We just have to try our best to ignore the shots that now look a little rough.

As an aside, that earlier matte cutting effect that was done as an optical lab process is now very easy to spot in HD as well. Just look for a thin, wiggling black halo around an object, like in the long elevator shot early in Patlabor 2: The Movie. That was from each frame having to be manually cut out before being photographed on top of another frame. That matte cut look has also really aged a huge number of special effects shots from Hollywood films of the 70s, 80s and 90s (although Los Angeles-based labs were generally a little better at it than Japan was).


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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.


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