Why Anime Fans Hate the Growing Use of C.G.I.

Why Anime Fans Hate the Growing Use of C.G.I.

The filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, a founder of the animation house Studio Ghibli, is one of the last practitioners of hand-drawn animation. His new coming-of-age fantasy, “The Boy and the Heron,” has been praised for a style that seems like a relic from the past. The IndieWire critic David Ehrlich called it “among the most beautiful movies ever drawn,” a much-needed salve “after a decade of ‘Minions’”; it’s also a likely Oscar contender.

But while much of “The Boy and the Heron” was illustrated with pencil and paint on paper, the movie — like virtually every modern anime film — makes extensive use of computer animation, including digital compositing and visual effects. The classical, naturalistic style of the film does not call attention to such techniques, though they were a fundamental part of its design and production. They’re most evident in small flourishes: the vibrant flicker of a flame, the swirling flight of an arrow.

Atsushi Okui, director of animation photography on “The Boy and the Heron” and a longtime Studio Ghibli cinematographer, said in an interview that the studio regards C.G.I. as “a complementary tool in graphic production that puts hand-drawn 2-D animation as its principal axis.”

Many recent high-profile anime movies have embraced computer-generated work more blatantly, in some cases forgoing the 2-D style entirely. “The First Slam Dunk,” released in the United States in July, and “Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero” (2022) were animated in a style known as 3DCG anime, which combines the hard outlines and flat planes of traditional 2-D animation with 3-D models and movement. The result looks a bit like a video game. These are extreme cases of a shift that’s been occurring industrywide. In different ways and to varying degrees, all anime has been going digital.

The transition has been a box office success: “The First Slam Dunk” ($152 million and counting) and “Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero” ($86 million) have been incredibly lucrative for Toei Animation, and both are among the highest-grossing anime titles of all time.

But hard-core fans — a fickle bunch — have not been as easy to please. To them, the rise of digital stirs passionate debate. Message boards are rife with complaints about the look of computer-generated animation and 3DCG in particular; on YouTube, videos highlighting especially flagrant instances of bad visuals rack up millions of views. The writer Callum May addressed the topic in an article for the Anime News Network, with the headline “Why Do We Hate 3DCG Anime?

“Fans often balk at any announcement that a show will be produced in 3-D, especially when it’s from an established franchise,” May said in an interview. “The gap between good and bad C.G. anime is wide, and fans can spot mediocre 3-D animation easily thanks to having seen decades of top-range American 3-D films.”

Some 3-D anime has fared better with fans. The series “Beastars” and “Land of the Lustrous,” from the studio Orange, have won acclaim for their innovative style and visual effects, and tend to be admired even by skeptics.

But these are exceptions. Rayna Denison, a film professor at the University of Bristol in Britain and the author of the book “Anime: A Critical Introduction,” said that the aversion may have to do with the art form’s roots. “A lot of anime is based on manga, which is a 2-D medium,” she said. “Anime takes these flat images and allows them to move. That’s very different than presenting a 3-D model of a character that you know as 2-D.”

Perhaps, she continued, it may just be a case of resistance to the new. Anime fans have for decades been “very familiar with anime aesthetically and stylistically, and when you change that it becomes quite jarring.”

Of course, the use of computers in the production of anime isn’t a new phenomenon: Animators have been integrating their hand-drawn visuals with digital effects since the early 1980s, when rudimentary C.G.I. was used to help bring to life models that would have been too complex to illustrate by pen and paper. In “Golgo 13: The Professional” (1983), computer-generated helicopters fly through a 3-D cityscape in a lengthy action sequence. Though the blocky, awkward-looking choppers are extremely dated by today’s standards, they added a flourish of spectacle that simply would not have been feasible by traditional means.

“The style has evolved a lot, but in some ways ‘Golgo 13’ had it right,” May said. “C.G. is still most commonly used when the creators want to feature a mechanical vehicle, which is something most 2-D animators don’t have the training to do, or when they want the camera to fly through an environment, because 2-D-animated backgrounds are very labor intensive.”

In other words, the limitations of hand-drawn animation are much the same as in 1983 but the technology is far more advanced. The 3DCG approach is ideal for stories that feature complex machinery or adventures across sweeping landscapes. It’s also well suited to the explosive kung fu battles of “Dragon Ball Super” and the propulsive basketball action of “Slam Dunk.”

“Once you have C.G.I. you get much more dynamic camera movements,” Denison said. “It’s created a much more exciting action landscape for anime.”

In this way, C.G.I. is basically another element in an animator’s tool kit, a way to expand what’s possible onscreen. More practically, it also cuts costs. Creating visuals on a computer is usually much faster and cheaper than creating one painstaking frame at a time by hand.

“I feel like the large insurgence of 3-D anime comes from the dream of an easier production,” said Austin Hardwicke, a 3-D animator who specializes in anime that is heavy on digital effects. In part, that’s because it’s easier to maintain consistent quality. “Thanks to the enormous video game industry, there are hands available across the globe, making it easy to scale a team up or down at will. And it’s famously difficult for veteran 2-D animators to teach junior animators up to their level, but 3-D animation is infinitely easier to teach.”

Hardwicke, who has worked on the 3DCG series “Trigun: Stampede” and “Godzilla: Singular Point,” said that those and other reasons can make switching to digital so enticing that studios often overlook problems. While there is nothing inherently wrong with digital effects, they “can look out of place, ugly or like a cost-cutting measure,” he added. In short, when anime fans see C.G., many are inevitably skeptical because the poor precedents seem to thwart the hope that it might be good: “Visible C.G. in anime can be seen as a bellwether that the show will be bad in general.”

Okui, the cinematographer, said that Studio Ghibli regards it as “unavoidable that the tools are shifting from paper and pencil and paint to digital tools” in modern anime. But, he added, “I would hope that in Japan the shift will not occur so completely.” As the masters of the classical style like Miyazaki age out — he is 82 — it’s up to a new generation of animators to carry the mantle. “We can’t continue this way unless we have capable animators,” Okui said, “for which training people is the key.”

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