How Is Anime Changing Visually These Days?
by Justin Sevakis,
The one thing I find really interesting about watching anime from many different decades is seeing the evolution and overall visual improvement anime has gone though. In general I have an eye for telling at least roughly when a series was released based on the animation style and techniques. I used to be able to tell a major difference between something that came out five years ago compared to now, but not as much anymore. In past articles its been made clear that the move to 4K is going to be a slow and arduous even for non animated TV and movies. Has anime essentially hit a visual glass ceiling at 1080p since there doesn't seem to be any financial or physical pressures to change? Or are changes still happening but there are a lot less obvious than they used to be?
As I've written before, it's pretty unlikely any anime will be made in 4K in the foreseeable future. Most anime isn't composited -- compositing being the step where all of the individual art elements are combined, moved against each other, and have visual effects added -- in full 1080p. Nearly all of it is produced in some lower resolution (often 720p or somewhere in between 720 and 1080), and then scaled to a standard resolution at editing. Very, very few people seem to be able to tell the difference when this happens, and even the video quality-obsessed geeks that frequent anime Blu-ray forums don't really complain about this.
So, if nobody even seems to notice when animators amp up the resolution to full 1080p, why would anime creators spend the time and money to make something in 4K? After all, anime is mostly line art, which modern hardware can scale up just fine. There's no real additional detail to be added at such a high resolution. You're not going to get anything more at a higher resolution -- there's simply nothing more to see.
But that's fine. While the art form isn't getting higher resolution, there are plenty of other ways for it to evolve. The biggest and most obvious one is the introduction of 3D CG techniques. These have changed the look of anime in the last few years, but in a subtle way: they're slowly raising the bar on the sorts of visual fireworks that can be achieved in the time-crunched schedule of TV animation production.
Japan is getting far better at 3D CG techniques. While throughout the 2000s such work was relegated to moving backgrounds, mecha and things like planes and cars, these days whole characters are created in 3D and then a "cel shading" filter is applied to make them look hand-drawn. Many fans can easily spot the shows that use this as an aesthetic and use it throughout the production (BBK/BRNK, Expelled from Paradise, Arpeggio of Blue Steel, etc.) but it's getting harder to detect as techniques improve. But many anime quietly only use this technique for a few technically challenging shots here and there, and few people seem to notice.
What's also improving fast are compositing techniques. Most anime has its transparent virtual "cels" layered on top of backgrounds in software like Adobe After Effects, but new plug-ins and faster rendering is allowing more interesting techniques to be applied at this stage in the process. New lighting effects, the ability to treat 2D artwork as if it were a 3D object, light it in 3 dimensions, apply textures, and new ways of warping and distortion and other special effects are vastly broadening the palate of animators. So while a quiet domestic scene might look roughly the same in anime today as it did ten years ago, a fantasy-drenched sci-fi battle sequence probably looks orders of magnitude better today.
Finally, increasing broadband speeds and better software and network workflows have allowed anime production to travel across borders at lightning speed, in ways never before imagined. Now animation units in Seoul or Bangkok can work and be supervised by Japanese creative staff in real-time, corrections can be made digitally as soon as they're done, and tweaks and direction can be given immediately. Many, many days were wasted in years past, waiting for finished artwork to be packaged up, shipped, received and inventoried. If some overseas staff were doing something wrong, days or even weeks would be wasted by the time the mistake was caught.
This has resulted in a huge productivity boost that has allowed for better overall animation. There's no specific change to the actual technique, but faster workflows mean a lot less wasted effort, and a lot more time to keep characters on model, smooth out motion, and correct embarrassing mistakes.Occasionally really crappy looking shows still see broadcast, but on the whole, it happens a lot less these days. And comparing the overall drawing quality of an average TV series from 2016 usually shows a dramatic improvement over what was possible on a TV budget and schedule in decades past.
Anime quality is definitely getting better, even at the insane pace at which it's made these days. But these days the changes are subtle and harder to immediately detect.
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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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