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Why Does Pokemon Look So Different Now?

by Callum May,

The anime industry is constantly changing. In the past 20 years, we've seen new studios rise and old guards fall, we've lost extraordinary veteran talents and welcomed new hopeful faces, we've seen entirely new ways of producing anime replace the old, but throughout this recent era of anime history, there has been one consistent factor.

Pokémon is still on TV.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Pokémon anime, it's fascinating to explore how the series has changed, especially in regards to the large jump visually between Pokémon XYZ and Pokémon Sun and Moon. This is a situation that has very few parallels. Even in regards to shows like One Piece and its 17 year run, significant changes to character designs and animation have been more difficult to pinpoint.

However, Pokémon has always been a different case entirely. While the series is split into seasons, its producers have always been more concerned with the gaps between each generation. These moments, much like the games each is based on, represent a progression in technology and ideas that can develop into a new product each time. Although Ash is a continuous character, each generation represents a soft-reboot that allows viewers to dive in on the first episode without the need for 20 years of context.

Every one of these moments within the last 20 years have brought up new problems. The staff of Pokémon are entirely aware of how audiences will react to any dramatic visual change. It always made sense to replace Ash's companions or introduce new overarching narratives, since it suits the series' ideal of being a vast adventure with new places to explore and people to meet. However, applying this same philosophy to the technical side of production could create a potential glitch in the Matrix for invested audiences.

One such example came up in 2002, as the staff attempted to move from painting on cels to digital color. This change in the production assembly line would increase productivity and streamline the creation of episodes, giving the staff more time to work on the important parts. However, they noted that audiences didn't react well to the new style, believing that physical painted cels felt more “warm”.

So progressive animation production can be a constant conflict. How do you dull the audience's instantaneous reaction to change? Pokémon's Animation Producer, Hiroyuki Kato, explains:

“They added a filter onto the final image to create visual noise, which we called “adding gauze on purpose”, which evoked the impression of a cel-like image rather than a digitally coloured image. The filter effect was subtle, and we reduced the amount of noise gradually, at a pace that our viewers could get used to the change without noticing the difference between a cel colouring and a digital colouring. Now, we do not use this kind of filter at all.”

Instead of refusing to change or jumping ahead wildly, OLM TEAM OTA intentionally damaged their video footage so that it would remain consistent with audience expectations, then steadily alleviated it to the point where they had the product they wanted in the first place. Compromise is an important factor when balancing expectations, but finding a solution that respects a trust in your own product is just as important.

This was an early solution to one problem of modernization, but it certainly wasn't the last. Skipping ahead to 2010, the Pokémon series was handed over to Team Kato, led by the aforementioned Hiroyuki Kato. He was passionate about creating a better product than what had come before. With various creative properties under their belt, global renown, and an impeccable internal structure, Oriental Light and Magic (OLM) was the perfect playground for progressive producers like Kato.

Entering Pokémon: Black and White, one of the most evident alterations was the gradual change in Ash's character design. Thinner and softer line work along with wide brown eyes replaced the classic design that many older fans had grown up with. This sparked a trend of indignation over changes to Ash's design among Japanese and English-speaking fans alike, and frustration over these changes between generation gaps has been a constant over the years, even when they benefit production.

It's important to remember that character designers are always animators too, and in most cases, they're also given the position of Chief Animation Director. Character changes are always made for a reason and it's usually a question of “Is this convenient to animate?” Staff, technology, and design philosophies are always changing, and no one wants a long-running show to get left behind aesthetically.

This sort of thinking brought on the most significant evolution within Pokémon XY: 3D environments. OLM is a larger studio than you might think, capable of producing many facets of anime in-house. It has become increasingly common for 3D and 2D animation to exist together, but most series will contract their 3D work out to a different studio with a CG department or a studio that exclusively creates 3D animation. Thankfully, OLM has OLM Digital, which not only produces 3D animation, but also has a research and development team to aid in its application.

Pokémon's long-standing problem at the time was that most fight scenes took place in front of speedlines and effect panels. The ideal solution was to create a situation where no matter where the Pokémon are battling or where the camera is pointing, the battleground would still be in the frame. Most commonly used in gyms, the creation of 3D backgrounds meant that animators could focus on the battles taking place in the foreground without having to worry about what was happening behind the action. Not only was this change great for action sequences, but it also proved that a rotating 3D camera could support spectacular 2D animation in a new exciting way, as seen in the dancing animation below by Shingo Fujii.

But like all solutions within the past 20 years of Pokémon, this wasn't a sudden decision made on a whim. This change in Pokémon XY was made possible by steady progress throughout Pokémon: Black and White, applying 3D animation in different places to see where its greatest benefits would lie. The most noticeable example of this was in 2012, where OLM TEAM KATO was brought on to create an animated trailer for the upcoming Pokémon: Black and White 2 games. While the use of 3D backgrounds wasn't as prominent as it would be in Pokémon XY, there are noticeable attempts at experimenting with different ideas, including a creatively prominent point-of-view shot near the start.

So even before the radical shift brought on by Sun and Moon, the last 20 years of Pokémon has been filled with technical and artistic solutions to changes within animation production. The show has been around every corner of OLM in some form, passed through the hands of four series directors (one of whom was only 28 when he started), and has consistently rated highly on TV Tokyo. But last year, Hiroyuki Kato was put on the spot once again when approaching the next generation for the show.

Pokémon Sun and Moon for the Nintendo 3DS is a different direction entirely for the franchise, and it wouldn't be too far-fetched to suggest that this change in direction within the games may have inspired an equally major change within the anime. Previously, Pokémon's character animation had been very static, with most movement existing within the battles themselves. The production team's solution for XY was making sure that Pokémon battled and used moves in interesting ways, but Sun and Moon brought with it a different story and a different solution.

I mentioned the importance of character designs for animation earlier, and that redesigns are always done with animators' intentions in mind. Softer linework, a rounder face, and a fun bank of expressions were essential in creating Pokémon's new look, not only giving characters the ability to perform more actions, but also broader comedic expressions, a core part of the new series. This has allowed for a higher level of animation consistency in general, drawing in some new talents from the very start. To get an experienced animator on board, you've got to give them something to be excited about. Given more flexible designs to work with, acclaimed animator Yoshimichi Kameda ended up doing his first work on Pokémon with an exciting shot of Pikachu battling various foes across barren plains in the series opening.

This wasn't the only solution either! Animator-friendly character designs are important for developing a broader range of visual expression, but streamlining production is paramount for a quality final product. The most common reason for lackluster animation in a weekly series is time restraints and the increasingly bad scheduling that's making anime more and more difficult to produce. So Pokémon Sun and Moon's second solution involved teaming up with a leader in animation software, Toon Boom Animation. Much like the changes to digital coloring in 2002, Hiroyuki Kato found that the staff could increase productivity while streamlining various processes with further forays into digital animation.

Traditionally, most animators still use paper to draw frames of animation, and that's still currently the case with Pokémon Sun and Moon. But as with every change before it, this must be done gradually, and Hiroyuki Kato is passionate about increasing the amount of digital animation in the series. He even worked with OLM's Research and Development team to rewrite the Toon Boom Harmony manual so that it would make more sense to his staff.

For Pokémon Sun and Moon, it's not just about creating one solution to a problem within animation production, it's about constantly addressing what changes will result in a more animated product without having to rush more to get each episode released on time. New animation staff, new technologies, and new design philosophies may initially be seen as a challenge, but by finding creative and efficient solutions, Pokémon Sun and Moon has been brought to a new level of presentation.

So what do you think of Pokémon's new look? Share your take with us in the forums! If you want to see more examples of how Pokémon has evolved visually in recent seasons, check out Callum's video essays on the animation of Pokemon XY and Pokemon Sun and Moon here!

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