Where Have All The Mechanical Designers Gone?

by Justin Sevakis,

Cameron asked:

I've been watching older anime recently, and what stands out to me is the inspired and, frankly, super cool mechanical designs! I'm acutely aware that production of “mecha anime” has waned over the past couple of decades. Even anime that deliberately feature vehicles, like Akira's motorcycles or Golden Boy's bicycle, seem to have largely fallen out of favor. That got me wondering about the fate of those talented mechanical designers of the 20th century? Are they still working in anime? Are they able to make a living when projects that feature their métier are so few and far between?

There are still mechanical designers, though their work is quite a bit different these days. Far from the hand-drawn days of the past, nearly all (not all, but nearly all) mechanical animation these days is done with 3DCG work. The modeling can be far more detailed and intricate, and artists can cross over between anime, video game and live action movie work, like well-known mecha designer Makoto Kobayashi has done.

While most of us love the warm look of hand-drawn animation, it's really best at depicting expressive, soft things: humans, animals and food. It also excels in natural environments and places rich with natural textures. Cold, mechanical things don't change shape as they move, so most traditional rules of animation don't work well with them. When they move on screen, our perspective changes, but the object itself doesn't.

Hand-drawing mechanical objects has always been one of the biggest pain points for animators. Masao Maruyama, formerly of Madhouse, MAPPA, and now of Studio M2, has repeatedly called out bicycle wheels as being particularly hard to animate -- giving his staff headaches in movies like Nasu: Summer in Andalusia and Millennium Actress.

That's just bicycle wheels. Can you imagine all the detail on a motorcycle, or a realistic jet engine? Being able to faithfully capture mechanical movement has always been something that drove animation directors crazy behind the scenes, so when anime went digital, it was one of the first things to switch to a 3D modeled process. While at first, the 3D work really stood out like a sore thumb (Blue Submarine No. 6, anyone?), eventually animators got better and better at compositing the two, and by the mid-2000s, 2D line art and 3D models started blending together pretty well in some productions. These days it still very much varies by production, and you definitely still see some awkward and unpolished 3D cars and vehicles in a variety of TV anime, but for the most part they're functioning as the totally-fine solution to an expensive and time-consuming problem.

There are still hand-drawn mechanical scenes that take my breath away, such as the opening Labor Test scene in Patlabor 2: The Movie, or the motorcycle shots in Bobby's In Deep. While some of the animators behind those shots are still working, others have retired or passed on. In the behind-the-scenes materials for his 2008 feature The Sky Crawlers, Mamoru Oshii noted that all of the planes in the film were 3D models, and lamented that it would probably be impossible these days to find enough animators that would be able to pull off animating them by hand. It still occasionally happens, though - Redline famously animated a tremendous amount of mechanical action by hand, and the latest Lupin III series premiere has a bunch of hand-drawn car action in it, so we still get a nice little taste of the old days every now and then.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original 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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