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What Is "Digipaint"?

by Justin Sevakis,

George asked:

What exactly is digipaint? Why was it so prevalent in anime production during the 00s, and why does it make anime made with it so hard to remaster into HD? Has this product essentially made a part of anime's existence, the 00s, relegated to DVD, never to see on Blu-Ray?

"Digipaint" is a shortened way of saying "digital ink and paint," which is how virtually all anime made after 2000 or so has been made. Rather than the old fashioned way of drawing animation on paper, tracing it onto acetate cels, painting them, layering them on top of painted backgrounds, and photographing them on film, this modern method simply involves scanning line art (or drawing it on a computer in the first place), digitally paint-bucketing in all of the colors, and layering everything together in compositing software to create a digitally rendered output of each individual frame of animation.

You hear people muttering about the early digipaint shows because the transition from analog to digital was a pretty bumpy one. It took a few years for animators to figure out how to color things digitally without everything looking ridiculously bright and garish. It also took a lot of trial and error before settling on current software methods for layering and moving all of the layers over each other, and some of those early experiments look pretty terrible today.

A bigger problem is that when you output digital animation, the finished product is generated at a set resolution. There are a specific number of pixels in that final image, and there is no more detail to be gotten out of it, no matter what effects you throw on top of it later. This is a huge problem with shows that were created before everything switched to HD. Most shows were only rendered at 720x480 pixels, which is very low by today's standards. (If it was rendered in 4x3 letterboxed format, it's even less -- 720x360!) This makes remastering early digipaint shows very difficult. Old shows that were shot on film can be re-scanned from the film elements (if they can be found), and a the image quality will be hugely improved: a digital scan in HD can bring out a lot of previously-invisible detail. But digital shows can't really be improved much beyond the quality of their master tapes.

Depending on how that animation was composited, it might be possible to upscale that image to HD (which is 1920x 1080), using software to smooth out the jaggies that normally happen when you try to do that. But some early shows use a bunch of now-outdated techniques that make upscaling impossible to do well.

Now that virtually all anime is made in HD, this isn't such a concern. 1080p is high enough resolution that we're unlikely to need better quality in animation for the foreseeable future (4K video is a nice luxury, but isn't noticeable in most viewing scenarios). But we are left with about a 7-10 year gap wherein a bunch of anime was created with video quality that isn't really very good by today's standards, and there's not a whole lot we can really do about it.

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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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