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How Online Animators are Revolutionizing Anime

by Callum May,

Go to animation school. Draw in-between frames for 3 years. Become a key animator. Earn a “living”.

This is the generic pathway for someone hoping to make it big within the anime industry. It's an approach that's seemed reliable for the past few decades, as animators climb up the ranks, hoping to become recognized for their individual talents. In an industry built on personal relationships, animators are on a constant quest to get more opportunities and prove themselves to directors and producers that may be able to offer them a shot. It's an efficient and streamlined method for success to some extent, but it also can end in people like Redline director Takeshi Koike spending ten years drawing in-between frames before he was given the opportunity to shine on his own.

But we're now in the trendy year of 2017, where the internet has transformed unconventional approaches into reasonable strategies for breaking into the industry, causing the pathway to change into something more like this:

Learn animation. Post your work online. Take feedback. Improve. Be recruited onto a high profile project as a key animator.

Animated by Rapparu

This is what many refer to as the “Web Generation”, groups of young animators who learned animation digitally and developed their skills by receiving feedback online and eventually getting scouted by anime directors in the search for new forms of talent. Nowadays, groups have formed that move together from project to project, like Mob Psycho 100, Flip Flappers, and Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale. Inspired by some of the anime industry's greatest talents, it was the web generation's ability to impress those online that eventually brought them face-to-face with their heroes, getting the opportunity to work alongside and learn from them.

It's perhaps important to note that this remarkable phenomenon isn't Japanese-only. The web generation exists outside of Japan, so I spoke to seven different English-speaking animators whose animation I'm impressed by to learn more: three animators from the United States, three animators from different parts of Europe, and one animator from my home country of Australia. Contacting them all over Twitter, I asked them questions about their inspirations, their animation, and their perspectives on the advantages of posting animation online.

From Pokémon Generations, animated by Bahi JD

Starting Out

Everyone starts somewhere different. Whether it's drawing in a flipbook like Bahi JD or strapping fifty rockets to a motorbike like Ichiro Itano, the inspiration to animate can come from many places.

“I first started practicing 2D animation about 6 or 7 years ago, beginning with the Nintendo DS software Flipnote Studio.” - Christian (Texas, USA)

“I started off by looking at and editing sprites from old GameBoy Advance games and that taught me a lot about how sprites move from frame to frame, which was the basis of how I learned to animate in general.” - Kay (Massachusetts, USA)

“I've been doing animation seriously for three and a half years now, but I spent some years in middle school messing around in Pivot stick-figure animation software.” - Håvard (Norway)

Much like how the Raspberry Pi is used to help make learning computer programming more accessible, there have been various tools made available to allow anyone the opportunity to get started with animation. Christian in particular started out on Flipnote Studio, a downloadable application that promises that you can “become a master animator on the go, right from your Nintendo DSi™ system! No matter what your artistic experience...”

Similarly, Håvard started out with Pivot, a part of the stick figure animation craze that dominated the mid-2000s. Whilst many drew the characters in programs such as Adobe Flash (Now Adobe Animate), Pivot's popularity came from the focus on positioning that allowed animators to learn the basics of character movement before they moved onto more complex shapes and principles of animation.

Animated by Christian (Cookiefication)

Finding Inspiration

When we talk to artists, one of the core questions that gets brought up is “What are your inspirations?” It's a simple question, but the answers can help us draw out a network of ideas, concepts, and styles between creators across time. Inspirational people drive stylistic developments for even years after their own retirement, as younger talents take up the mantle to showcase their own interpretation of classic animation techniques. Even if many great animators were Japanese, inspiration is a global currency.

“While I like most types of animation, the ones that are the most appealing and inspiring to me, are animators who keep a sense of realism in their movement, like Hiroyuki Okiura, along with animators who use clever timing and exaggerated movements to put emphasis on the action, dialogue, etc. I value good movement and appealing shapes over "staying on model".” - Håvard (Norway)

“My biggest inspirations include bombastic and crazy anime such as FLCL, Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill, Panty & Stocking and Little Witch Academia. My favourite animator would probably go to Yoh Yoshinari with Hiroyuki Imaishi close behind.” - Isaac (Australia)

There's a lot of love for the former Gainax figures across the globe, and many of the younger talents who have joined their new studio were inspired to animate by their works in the past. In that respect, Studio Trigger has become a magnificent clash of the new and the old, animators who shaped Gainax's identity and the people who were inspired by them. Whilst on opposite sides of the globe, both João and Isaac found inspiration from this body of work.

Animated by João do Lago

“If I have to chose a favourite animator, it would be Hiroyuki Imaishi When I look at his cuts it always feels like he had way too much fun working on them. I sometimes like to go on Sakugabooru and watch some cuts I like frame-by-frame, to study them, and Imaishi's frames always amaze me. They sometimes seem sort of random or out of order, but then you play it and it looks so good. I have no idea how he does it.” - João (Portugal)

“As I became more aware of the quality of animation in anime's I watched at the time, I came across the concept of “sakuga”, and that was when I started to study animation more deeply. I began looking up all sorts of samples of “sakuga” and found sakugabooru, a website with a plethora of videos that showcase “sakuga” work in anime from all sorts of japanese animators. To this day, I use a lot of references from sakugabooru to help me develop my own animation skills.” - Kay (Massachusetts, USA)

To state the obvious, animators are also fans of animation and sites like Sakugabooru chronicle an animator's work, allowing users to view all of their confirmed work. This also applies to those looking for technical inspiration, searching for the mechanics behind why a particular cut of animation works so well. Even animators who have already made it into the industry have been known to explore the database, searching for techniques that inspire them.

Animated by Isaac (blu_shade)

Creating Digital Animation

The increasing acceptance toward the web generation has led to a new push to increase the availability of digital tools within anime studios and the increase in digital animation as a whole within anime. Most recently, Pokémon Sun and Moon has taken steps to facilitate an increase in digital animation, teaming up with the software ToonBoom Animation to collaborate on a slow transition from traditional animation to a digital workflow. And they're certainly not the only ones.

“The biggest inspiration for me is probably Masaaki Yuasa's work, especially Mind Game, Cat Soup and Kemonozume. Yozakura Quartet was also probably the first show I liked purely for it's animation.” - tlcarus (UK)

Many figures have embraced digital animators, but Masaaki Yuasa specifically seeks them out. Flash animation is a huge part of Science SARU's visual personality, and Yuasa seems to have found that his "wobbly and smooth" personal style is executed best digitally. Last year, the studio put out a call for Flash animators to join Yuasa on his brand new feature film.

Tlcarus also referred to Yozakura Quartet ~Hana no Uta~, a series of shows directed by one of the leading figures within the web generation movement, Ryousuke Sawa (or Ryo-chimo). Being brought onto Osamu Kobayashi's Beck as a key animator without any in-between work was an unprecedented move that eventually led to him being given the opportunity to direct years later. As someone whose roots began on the internet, he staffed much of the series with other web generation talents, creating a unique visual style defined by a fresh digital approach.

Animated by Håvard Dale

“As a digital animator myself, I do look up to other animators who use this medium too, but it is also important to look at the traditional (and older) animators, as I feel like the "web-gen" animators at times lose a bit of their grip on the "12 Principles" and instead only goes for flashy imagery instead of solid animation.” - Håvard (Norway)

As easy as it is to romanticize the idea of making fantastic work online, leading to a job on a high profile show, the basics are still an essential stepping stone. The 12 Principles of Animation refer to the widely recognized ideas set about by Disney animators, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, introducing the mechanics of interesting action. By taking into account these principles and the way in which veteran animators have interpreted them in the past, we will be able to see more balanced methods from upcoming talents.

Animated by Jake Ganz from OK K.O.!

Working Online

“Compared to the classic Western method of going to art school, building a portfolio, moving to LA, and working your way up from there, yes, I'd argue that there are definitely new ways to get into animation these days online. ” - Jake Ganz (Massachusetts, USA)

Jake Ganz is the founder of Studio Yotta, an animation studio of passionate animators working mostly within the online space on both YouTube animation projects and Cartoon Network web series like O.K K.O.! (Which has been recently confirmed for a TV series). Releasing their work online (both in-progress and the final product) has allowed the team to build a public following, allowing those interested not only to follow the studio, but also follow the individual animators that create their favorite actions and scenes within a series or video.

When it comes to the web, Jake hopes that it can offer a bridge into the field of animation, allowing for more community interaction, education, and job opportunities. And it's Studio Yotta's goal to push these factors and use these connections to push and inspire the next generation of 2D animators.

Animated by tlcarus

“Honestly I was about to give up drawing before I started posting my animations to twitter, but the response I got and people I met through it motivated me to continue, so yeah, beneficial, streams help too, harder to get distracted.” - tlcarus (UK)

“When I post gifs or videos on Twitter, I enjoy getting the immediate feedback on them, whether they be simple likes or criticisms. It lets me know, at least in the short term, if what I'm doing is on the right track or not. Creating a long form series independently is a scary (and almost impossible) task, but it helps a lot when I can see that there are people already interested in my work.” - Kay (Massachusetts, USA)

There's a future in 2D animation outside of Japan, and animators like these are going to be develop it and reshape the industry. Much like the web generation in Japan, the constant feedback and the internet culture of creation has helped these animators improve and impress. As Jake had hoped, Christian noted that posting his animation work on Tumblr and Twitter provided him with opportunities to work as a freelance animator for different studios on major projects.

And even on a personal scale, as tlcarus mentioned, getting involved in an online community of animators is a motivation all its own. Both Isaac and Håvard mentioned that it was difficult to find peers who studied and appreciated animation in the same way that they did. There's no barriers on Twitter, and Håvard stated that “Even though we are on different skill levels, people will be supportive of you.” Being able to build that confidence is a hard task for those approaching the online space, but those who persevere have a community of likeminded people waiting for them.

Animated by KayAnimations from the upcoming Black Crystal

Online animators are key to the future of animation not only in Japan, but worldwide. As Japanese studios start to recruit more animators from outside the country, the next step may be to start contacting animators like these featured here, who have been inspired by Japan's greatest veteran artists to build and develop online profiles. This was already the case with Bahi JD, who went from posting his animation to an online forum, to working on the game Skull Girls, and then to producing key animation for Shinichiro Watanabe's Kids on the Slope.

With Kay working on his own original animated series, Black Crystal, and both Studio Yotta and Christian working on the upcoming game, Indivisible, the online space has already initiated many career opportunities. Watching the paths of these rising stars outside of Japan can not only give us an idea of the future of global 2D animation, but also how anime as a medium can inspire artistic developments far outside of its borders.

Special thanks to the animators who participated in this article: Christian Maize (Cookiefication), João do Lago, Isaac (blu_shade), Håvard Dale tlcarus, Jake Ganz (Studio Yotta), and KayAnimations

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