3DCG in Anime: An Introduction

by Kevin Cirugeda,

The prevalence of social media has had a big effect on media criticism, whether it is well-intentioned, innocuous fun or genuinely toxic attacks. A title as popular as Berserk getting a new and by all means subpar adaptation obviously got a fair share of both ends; I can't condemn enough the alarmingly high number of comments asking for the death of the staff and studios involved, but I see no harm when it comes to viral gifs showcasing the poor craft of the series. There's no such thing as objectively funny, but this might be as close as it gets. There's a special kind of wonkiness born from abysmal 3D draftsmanship by artists who nonetheless tried their best which I always find charming. If you're a fan of Berserk and wanted a spectacular animated take on the series though, it's easy to see how upsetting this project could be. Lashing out at the obvious enemy – they dared to turn Berserk into a CG production! – is also an understandable reaction, but this kind of attitude often leads to viewers tilting at computer generated windmills.

Here is the thing: fans have more certainty that anime's 3DCG is bad than understanding of what anime's 3DCG entails. This doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong about their complaints, but there are many misunderstandings and vague half-truths flying about. Although this can be attributed to general lack of knowledge about foreign animation production intensified by the language barrier, don't assume that Japanese fans are much more clued in. CG director and composite artist Norihiro Tomiita recently commented that while people tend to crudely sum up all their efforts as 3D work, the truth is that their job involves a variety of techniques and aspects that go beyond what fans usually perceive – including production crutches you could never notice, as they're not actually part of the finished product. Even if you're allergic to the very idea of computer generated animation, a quick look at how it works should help you out. Know your enemy and all that.



Rather than start by examining the way 3DCG is crafted though, let's look at the reasons that push creators in that direction; as important as the how is, I feel like the most fundamental misunderstandings are related to the why. Let's also disregard the perfectly valid desire of some artists to take the 3D route and treat it like an anomaly within anime's natural 2D state, since that's how the vocal detractors feel. As the discourse is still entrenched in the belief that there's a strict, invariable link between how much money was spent on a TV show and how nice it looks, the answer most people have settled with is simple: 3DCG looks worse, so the reason why anime uses it must be that it's cheaper than 2D animation. But as much as anime loves to be as cheap as (in)humanely possible, that's not the case here. As many industry members like Toei's Takuya Minezawa have commented, there's no correlation between 3DCG usage and cutting down costs, and if anything it's the opposite. This should be easy to understand when you consider that while 2D animators are almost entirely confined to anime's abysmal wages, 3D artists can offer their skills to more relatively healthier outlets. The work they do in this industry still tends to be on the lower side of their possibilities, but it's more valued than 2D art for sure. To give you a general idea, according to JANiCA's data the average 3DCG creator earned around 3 times more than an inbetweener and 30% over key animators (on a level around standard episode directors), all while carrying out less obscene amounts of work.

So, why then? It's really important to understand that the first keyword here is feasibility. Anything can be drawn given enough time and resources. Within a limited space like TV anime though, many things simply aren't doable if you intend to maintain a certain level of quality. As schedules get worse and the talent pool keeps getting depleted, creators are often essentially faced with the choice between limiting their ideas via static execution and sticking to their ambition by relying on tools many viewers feel aversion towards. Once you get to that point, there's no ideal answer. But those who choose the latter, whether it is because they feel it'll ultimately lead to more effective scenes or just out of creative curiosity, get to benefit from traits inherent to CGi. I've talked at length about the effect that well executed 3D backgrounds have on action material, enabling ambitious setpieces without having to worry about the immensely daunting task of correcting ever-changing perspectives. It's not just high-octane material that directly benefits from digital advances though, it can be something as mundane as trying to populate a school. If your overall aesthetic can't get away with hyperstylized cutouts as passersby, you either fill up your world with still drawings or exploit CG's easy mass-production to create moving crowds. That can make your setting more organic…or immensely backfire in an attempt to create immersion, as people currently watching Tsuki ga Kirei can attest. Either way, that brings up the other main point, specificity. There are tasks better suited to CGi craft, especially those that relate to its inherent ability to maintain its form even while in motion; moving surroundings, constant motion routines like dancing, big structures and creatures with solid appearances… As much as it pains me to say this as a mecha fan, even robots are by nature a very fitting choice. Whether the results are satisfying or not – often they aren't – that's hard to deny.

And this goes both ways, of course. There are aspects where a hand drawn approach is, at least at the moment, intrinsically superior. The inert 3D models still lag behind Japan's mature (albeit limited, particularly on TV) approach to 2D character expression, which means that we still get very clunky acting on the few projects that render people in 3D all the time. Years of expertise and a robust proprietary software allow Polygon Pictures to render worlds bathed in detailed lighting that puts to shame right about any anime, but they still struggle to mimic basic anime-style character acting. And as much as CGi is painted as a more efficient toolset, that's not always true. Have you been wondering why Toei's supposedly full 3DCG series KADO - The Right Answer still has some hand drawn background characters? The truth is that we're still at the stage where drawing some quick mobs is easier than modeling someone who won't reappear in the show, so even a project like this can choose to save resources in this particular instance where 2D is cost-efficient. Each tool has its own use!



I've been mentioning common usages of 3DCG in anime, but those are just the explicit cases. Much of anime's 3D work is a supporting tool, particularly in the early stages. Storyboarders come up with each shot in anime, but it's the animator in charge of the cut who has to expand those concepts into a fully functional layout. Constructing the scenes requires an immense amount of positional awareness and understanding of perspective, so it's a great help for them to have 3D models of the surroundings. New Game! was a series almost entirely set within a game developing studio, which placed quite the focus on the workplace itself. To give it the best treatment possible, many 3D layouts were made to aid the 2D animators. And it doesn't end there, as this kind of support tasks keep on evolving. The historical hit movie your name. took the idea of 3D layouts a step further and ran a 3D simulation based off the video storyboards to get a general feel of each scene before the actual animation process. As a fan of hand drawn animation you might be clamoring for the demise of CG departments, but the 2D artists you love would be quite troubled by that.

But who works in those CG departments anyway? You can broadly classify the people handling 3D duties in anime in three groups. A handful of major studios not tied to this industry, often dealing with international work across different media, are the ones that tend to output the technically strongest material. The likes of Polygon Pictures stand out in this category, which features companies that can easily produce fully 3D projects. That is a feat also doable for the bigger anime-centric CGi studios; if you pay attention to industry news a bit, names like Sanzigen and Orange might be familiar as recurring animation (co)producers. Most of their peers aren't quite as big though, and if you follow down that road you eventually reach the final group: 3D departments within 2D studios. Unlike the first two groups, these focus almost entirely on minor elements within traditionally crafted shows. Most anime studios don't even employ such staff to begin with. Even a massive entity like Toei Animation has a relatively minor – yet very skilled – CG department, which is why their big 3D projects tend to rely on other companies for manpower like Graphinica (Expelled from Paradise) and Marza Animation Planet (Harlock: Space Pirate). All these surrounding circumstances have a big effect on the proficiency and artistic vision of the 3D creators, which is why it's always wise to inform yourself about who is in charge of the CGi in a project. If you simply assume it's the anime studio credited for the show, you'll be wrong more often than not.



At this point you should have a basic grasp of anime's 3D work, and that might even soften your reservations towards its usage. Many people aren't fundamentally opposed to CG after all, they only complain because it's bad rather than due to its mere existence. Which is fair, but eventually you reach the point where you have to question what good anime 3DCG even is – and that's something not even the artists themselves agree about. Past a certain threshold of technical competence it's all about the vision of the creators, which might change from project to project to boot. The aforementioned Norihiro Tomiita claimed that his goal as a 3D director is to mask the fact that the CG elements even exist, and that he considers it a victory when a fan expresses surprise that he worked on a certain scene. His entire career has been attached to a 2D animation powerhouse like Kyoto Animation, hence why despite being a CG artist himself, he evolved into a creator whose goal is to support traditional animators. You can find similar attitudes even in studios entirely dedicated to 3D craft though, as weird as that might sound. These creators aren't blissfully unaware of the general feelings of anime fans towards its CGi, so there's a deeply ingrained sense of shame in the industry. Their desire to look like regular anime no matter what sometimes does them no favors too, since it's at the root of very polarizing techniques like limited CG animation: the idea of dropping frames to mimic the timing of traditional 2D anime…which only tends to make 3D character motion more awkward, unless directly supervised by experienced traditional animators.

On the opposite end you find studios like GOONEYS, whose textured and full work in Show By Rock heavily contrasted with the standard stylized aesthetic of the rest of the series. They didn't have to worry about cohesion as their segments depicted a different world, and their technical excellence is a good argument against the idea that 3DCG is at its best when invisible. Others opt for some middle ground, like the mechanical experts at studio Orange; unashamedly volumetric when it comes to the robots they excel at, always exploiting the dynamic camerawork enabled by the 3D backgrounds, and yet willing to leave the flat effects they struggle with to the 2D animators. All these different crews have clearly defined personalities, but they're not restricted by them. They all might change their ways if it's deemed to fit the vision of a new title. In the end, there are as many approaches as there are anime projects.

Neither fans nor the creators themselves are going to agree about what the right methodology is. I personally don't think there's an ideal approach to 3D-in-2D integration that works for any title, or even a preferred fully 3D aesthetic that all such anime should adhere to. But if fans start paying attention to the manufacturing process and the creator's motivations, then we might at least have some interesting arguments about this. That sounds more appealing than cursing Shin Itagaki's entire family because the Berserk series he's in charge of happens to look very silly.

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