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What the Heck Happened to Berserk?

by Callum May,

“I want to see what will happen if we make a Berserk TV anime mainly with 3DCG animation.” - Tetsuro Satomi (LIDEN FILMS)

To call Berserk's new adaptation “divisive” would be an understatement. Fan reactions to the show's CG visuals have been overwhelmingly negative, ranging from incredulity to hatred. Although the show retains a dedicated audience thanks to the popularity of its source material, it's hard to ignore the clear disappointment that dominates forum discussions and social media. No matter where you go, the same question is always asked:

“What the Heck Happened to Berserk?”

From arguments to delays to outsourcing, this is the story of the team of 3D artists and animators who were tasked with adapting the Berserk manga without the tools, experience, or planning they needed to succeed.

An Unrealistic Proposal

When Tetsuro Satomi stated that he wanted to produce a Berserk show with 3DCG animation, it's likely that he didn't understand how difficult the project would really be. GEMBA president Hideki Kuraku agreed with Satomi's sentiment, but he also thought that it would prove to be a great challenge for their studio.

With the advantage of hindsight, it's clear that this challenge was far too great, but even at the time, the proposal was considered wildly ambitious. GEMBA was set up in 2006 as a subsidiary of Digital Frontier (the CG studio behind GANTZ: O) and their mission statement is to be a “cutting edge” force in their industry.

Unfortunately for them, however, GEMBA had never been in charge of a full-length animation production before.

Anime is produced through the efforts of many hands, and although some studios can create the animation for an entire series or film in-house, that process ends up taking far too long in most cases. Thankfully, most animation studios in Japan don't create their work alone. GEMBA has contributed to various anime through “CG Production Assistance”, “CG Background Creation” and “VFX Production”, but they'd never held the crown of “Main Animation Production Studio” before Berserk. Beyond the daunting weight of principal animation production, this also left GEMBA with the responsibility of planning and coordinating the whole project. Even with the assistance of LIDEN FILMS, the studio was on their own in solving problems when things didn't turn out how they wanted for their first series project.

But to say the staff lacked foresight would be unfair. Many voices within GEMBA spoke out as the project was being greenlit, skeptical about their ability to produce such taxing work. The arguments eventually subsided and the whole staff followed LIDEN FILMS into battle unanimously.

So along with the backing of LIDEN FILMS' parent company, Ultra Super Pictures and NBCUniversal, GEMBA put on a brave face and strolled into the darkness—only to encounter a new obstacle.

Director Shin Itagaki

Some anime staff have referred to the dynamic between the producer and the director as a 50/50 relationship. The director is responsible for making creative decisions, and the producer makes sure everything ends up working out according to schedule. When both respect the limitations of the other, a project can run smoothly.

Berserk started production in the spring of 2015, but it took them until December just to decide how the series should look.

It's a mystery why Shin Itagaki was on this Berserk project to begin with. It's possible that someone at Ultra Super Pictures recommended him, because they own Studio Trigger, which is the current home of many of Itagaki's former co-workers. It's been argued that Itagaki's history with brightly-colored comedy and silly action series would clash with the dark and gritty world of Berserk, but the real cause of the conflict turned out to be Itagaki's insistence upon a very particular aesthetic that proved too difficult to achieve.

3D animation is the only practical way to adapt Berserk to a television series in today's anime production environment. With the huge amount of detail present in Kentarō Miura's original artwork, finding a team that could consistently animate such complexity would be extremely difficult. This is likely why other 3D adaptations of Berserk had been greenlit before GEMBA's attempt. Creating Berserk as a 3D/2D hybrid would be the only way to accurately retain what makes Berserk great visually with the resources available to these studios.

This hybridization was the goal Shin Itagaki strove for. He set out to replicate Miura's art with highly detailed models and backgrounds, but these demands caused a conflict at GEMBA. 3D animation production entails a long stretch of unique difficulties, and creating animation that replicates the look of 2D isn't so easy either. Nonetheless, Itagaki pursued his vision despite opposition from staff members concerned about his style's technical feasibility.

The result was a lot of wasted time. The premiere date of July 1st 2016 was bearing down on them, but due to so much indecision during the planning stage, they lost over half a year of production lead time. Even when NBCUniversal required a trailer be produced, they hadn't yet decided how the actual show was going to look.

The first teaser trailer for the Berserk anime was completed in August of 2015 and released four months later in December, coinciding with the announcement of the project. But behind the scenes, the staff was finally reaching a compromise with Itagaki on how the show would actually look. The first step was to scrap all the assets they'd made for the teaser trailer and start creating 150 new character models (including battle damage models) from scratch.

The End Result

At best, we can hope that someone on the team felt vindicated by getting to say "I told you so", but the production issues that followed hurt everyone. In addition to all that wasted time arguing, Itagaki's ideas as director caused the most delays, meaning that they had less time to work on the show as the deadline rapidly approached. The new models went into production in January, and the studio finally started animating them in March of 2016, just four months before the series was meant to air.

Then a series of predictable issues followed. Not only were the highly detailed character models too much strain on the viewport in their 3DSMax software, the staff had difficulties getting these models to render at all. Without the time to find a new solution, the staff were forced to simplify these models that were originally meant to replicate as much detail from the manga as possible. The removal of lines and edges meant that their designs could now be practically animated with the hardware at GEMBA, but they also deviated greatly from their original plans for the look of the show.

The staff had hoped to render out the 3D backgrounds with Global Illumination, a system that calculates the reflection of light to create suitably atmospheric environments. But as the schedule became tighter, they needed to render out each of these backgrounds in less than 10 minutes, which was not nearly enough time for that utility. The exclusion of Global Illumination meant that Berserk's backgrounds never stood out in the way they could have.

Shin Itagaki wanted to implement what the staff at GEMBA referred to as “touch-up lines”, the unique style of hatch-mark shading that can be seen in the final product. This effect, along with the show's 2D animation, was created at Berserk's second studio, Millepensee. The lines were to be automatically tracked onto the models in Adobe After Effects, but it was not always a successful process. For swords, armor, and other detailed metallic objects, the staff had to spend time manually applying the unique texture.

Berserk had a large staff, but with so many of them working from outside the studio, they needed to develop custom tools that would allow unity between the different rigging software used inside and outside GEMBA. This task mainly fell to the show's overworked technical director, Keita Mizuhashi. The staff joked that it was his job to handle the “demonic parts” of the production, which meant developing new custom tools, creating assets, and even managing the compositing process.

In the end, due to wasted time and an overly ambitious brief, the final product just didn't end up like the staff originally wanted. Not only had they been forced to compromise due to technical problems, but they didn't even have time to try out new software that might have improved the quality.

Everyone on staff did what they could to create a great Berserk anime adaptation, and while it's easy to assign blame at various stages of production, the final product was an attempted labor of love, a clash between passion project and reality. Between a producer eager to see a new sequel, a director who wouldn't back down from his desire to recreate the original manga's look, and a staff who struggled to make these demands possible under impossible time constraints, the ideal version of this Berserk anime just wasn't meant to be. In the January 2017 issue of CGWorld, a GEMBA producer said that he hoped this situation would improve for the second season. Sadly, recent episodes would suggest that not many of the staff's issues have been resolved.

Special thanks to Kim Morrissy for translation and research assistance.

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