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2D Animation in the Digital Era: Interview with Japanese Director Makoto Shinkai

By Wesley Fenlon

One of the anime's emerging stars leads a generation of artists using Wacoms and Photoshop, rather than traditional cels, to create animation.

In May 2001, a young Japanese graphic designer named Makoto Shinkai left his job at a video game company to create a short animated film called Voices of a Distant Star. Despite having almost no experience combining narrative and animation, Shinkai told a uniquely poignant story, blending science fiction with the drama and angst of adolescence. More importantly, the short film looked incredibly good for a one-man project. Voices was a breakout success for an amateur animator, and Shinkai has created three more films in the past decade, establishing himself as one of the anime industry's preeminent creators.

Shinkai belongs to a new generation of animators who have never worked in the traditional pen-and-paper format, and Voices of a Distant Star is a testament to how dramatically computers have changed the animation industry in the past decade. He created the 25 minute short in seven months, using only a Power Mac G4 at a time when PowerPC processors were still reaching for the 1GHz barrier.

"If I had been born 10 years earlier, I don’t think I would be an animator," wrote Makoto Shinkai in an email interview about the evolving landscape of 2D and 3D animation. "Oh, I might have drawn some things, but I doubt I would have been able to do it for a living. When I became obsessed, in my twenties, with the need to express myself, it was just at the point when computers and digital tools had matured enough to make that possible."

Shinkai created his first animated short in 2001 using a Mac and drawing tablet. His later films still follow the same visual style.

Aspiring animators can now create their passion projects with technology that's cheaper and more approachable than it's ever been, and Shinkai's follow-ups to Voices of a Distant Star have embraced that technology to create some of the industry's most beautiful imagery. All of his art has a distinct visual feel thanks to a combination of warm lighting and detailed vistas.

But Shinkai proposes an important distinction between the technology and style of digital animation: Though the process is brand new, the technique is still rooted in the cel tradition. And tradition is slow to change.

A Brief History of 2D Animation

In 2009, Disney's The Princess and the Frog heralded Walt Disney Pictures' grand return to "traditional" animation, a process they abandoned after the release of Home on the Range in 2004. Traditional is a funny term in the world of animation: It's often used to distinguish 2D animation from the 3D computer-generated imagery of a Pixar film like Toy Story, but tradition is about more than 2D or 3D. It's about technique. Since the 1910s, animated characters have been drawn and colored on transparent pieces of celluloid (later cellulose acetate) called cels.

Cels were a huge breakthrough; without them, animating one part of a frame required redrawing the entire image. With layers of cels, static objects could be drawn once and reused, while characters could be drawn again and again to create movement at 24 frames per second.

Disney hasn't used cels for more than 20 years. The Little Mermaid, released in 1989, was the final Disney film to be animated with painstakingly hand-painted cels. Beginning with The Rescuers Down Under in 1990, Disney moved to a new system called CAPS. They still drew each frame of animation by hand, but the line art were scanned and digitally colored on computers. Cels were obsolete. In that sense, The Little Mermaid was Disney's final work of "traditional" animation.

After decades of sluggish technological change, the last 20 years of computer development have affected the animation process tremendously. Animations can be drawn and colored digitally, but even today some productions like The Simpsons are drawn on paper and scanned for digital inking and painting. We're living in an age of digital animation, even if some creators are slow to adapt.

But what does that entail, exactly?

The New Generation of Digital

"Digital animation, at least in the case of the Japanese animation industry (my films included), is a direct successor of hand-drawn animation," Shinkai wrote. That doesn't just mean animation houses like Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli are transitioning to computers after decades of hand-drawn animation--it means they're still lingering, at least mentally, in the cel era.

Princess Mononoke was the last Ghibli film to be traditionally painted (and the first to use digital paint and CGI for some scenes).

"I would go so far as to say that it’s being held back by an emphasis on recreating the techniques of hand-drawn animation," he continued. "That’s one reason why, even though we’re in the digital age, new ways of representing things have a hard time getting a foothold. I think there are places outside of the realm of Japanese commercial animation where you can find digital animation used as a purely new technique. I think those creating amateur 3DCG and flash animations are able to freely master digital animation to a much greater degree than those in the industry."

After creating Voices of a Distant Star entirely on his own (and recording an early audio track of the story's two protagonists with his fiancee), Shinkai quickly became a part of the Japanese industry. He wrote and directed a 90-minute film titled The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) with a staff of more than 30 artists and animators. His next project, the hour-long 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007), employed a similarly sized staff.

The flatly drawn characters in The Place Promised in Our Early Days stand out against their surroundings. Shinkai's characters have slowly become more detailed.

All three stories share similar themes; they're set against science fiction backdrops but focus more on relationships between characters struggling to connect with one another. That struggle comes across in the character designs--the film's young protagonists often have minimal facial features that reflect their stunted self-expression. The pairing of lovelorn teenagers and science fiction is also deliberate.

"I think that science fiction can, by creating extreme situations and settings, draw out the essence of human relationships," Shinkai wrote. "The ability of science fiction to create thought experiments...is one of the things I like about it."

Clouds and dramatic lighting combine a classical visual style with digital technology.

All three animations feature watercolor clouds, vividly colored skies and dramatic lighting. The latter is a digital giveaway: Shinkai uses lens flares like a slightly more reserved J.J. Abrams.

"In the analog age...the cel and the background...were physically separate and there were inescapable restrictions on lighting caused by this," he wrote. "Now that everything’s digital, we can be much more sophisticated with lighting and color schemes. For example, I think about how environmental and reflected light will apply to a character, how to match that light to the color of the background, and then create the image as a whole. If a character is in a green forest below a blue sky, I’ll adjust the color of the character’s shadow to be green or blue. Lens flares are the same. Rather than just placing a flare in a cool way above the picture, I keep in mind what kind of flare would be created and how as I draw."

Even though some animators are struggling to switch to digital technology, Shinkai doesn't think it's evolving fast enough. He's essentially been using the same tools--Adobe Photoshop and After Effects with a Wacom tablet--since Voices of a Distant Star in 2001.

"RGB 24-bit color depth (16 million colors), anti-aliasing, layers, undo, and pressure sensors on tablets were the essential elements behind the impact digital tools had 10 years ago," he wrote. "But even though ten years have passed, that hasn’t really changed. CPUs are a lot faster, resolutions, RAM, and storage space have gotten a lot bigger, but the core experience of drawing digital art hasn’t changed in ten years. For this reason, I feel that digital art creation is in a bit of a rut. I’m hoping that innovations will come to the graphics tools world in the future, such as happened with multi-touch on smart phones."

Getting Away with CGI in the Digital Age

As anime moved towards digital inking and painting in the late 90s and early 2000s, studios turned to another digital technology to help cut production costs: 3D. Cowboy Bebop, released in 1997, used 3D models in place of hand-drawn images for rotating space stations. In 2002, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex used 3D renders for robots and cars. Disney was using 3D in its films as far back as The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective in the mid-1980s.

Computer generated imagery is cheaper, but it stuck out like a sore thumb in early 2D/3D hybrids and still lacks the detail of the 2D art surrounding it. The 2004 CG anime film Appleseed used cel shading to make its 3D character models look traditionally animated. If there's anything that will make you appreciate 2D animation, it's Appleseed's attempt at mimicry--animation's own uncanny valley of sorts.

Shinkai uses CGI, too, but you might never notice it.

"Animation is created from two elements, the characters and the background," he begins. "Since the intrinsic feel of 3DCG is different from either of those elements, if it’s just used as-is it introduces an unwanted third element to the animation. In other words, it prevents the animation from feeling like a unified whole. To prevent this, when using 3DCG, I try as much as possible to make it look like either part of the cel or the background.

Cel shading camouflages CGI in Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below.

"I’m not really drawn to 3DCG as an individual....But the down side to hand-drawn animation is the cost. Because of budget and scheduling issues, there’s going to continue to be a need to substitute in 3DCG. And as long as that’s the case, there’s a need for the technology to continue to advance in its ability to represent things."

Careful use of CGI can blend almost seamlessly into a 2D world, but there's still something a bit off about it. It's the movement that gives it away, an unnatural, too-perfect smoothness missing from the animation around it.

Shinkai writes: "When using CG models for a flock of swallows, I use cel shading to make it look like the models are part of the cel (by giving them a black outline and flat color). For a turning windmill, I use texture mapping with background art to make the 3D object appear more like the background."

CGI is inevitable in modern 2D animation--the animation industry has to keep costs down, and no one can afford to dedicate 30 years to insanely detailed faux-3D hand-drawn animation. Thankfully, it's come a long, long way since The Rescuers Down Under, as Shinkai's latest film proves.

The Lingering Influence of Analog

Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below, released in 2011, departs from Makoto Shinkai's previous work, trading sci-fi and Tokyo's urban jungle for the verdant countryside and imaginative fantasy world of a Studio Ghibli film. It's his longest, most detailed film, but Miyazaki's influence reaffirms that even the newest digital art has ties to the hand-drawn tradition.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below's protagonist Asuna has the bubbly courage of a Ghibli heroine.

"As an amateur I might have been part of the vanguard of the digital animation generation, but in terms of aesthetics I probably belong to the generation of analog age animation directors," wrote Shinkai. "I say this because the commercial Japanese animated films of the 80s and 90s are still what come to mind when I think of what the ideal for visuals is."

Visually and thematically, Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below follows in Miyazaki's footsteps, but Shinkia's art style is still instantly recognizable.

Another leap forward in digital tools--or a breakthrough hit from a young animator who, like Shinkai, never learned the craft of cel animation--could be key to 2D animation's longevity and innovation. Young animators getting their starts today are even further removed from the techniques that codified the visual style of 2D animation in the 20th century.

At 39, Shinkai still has a long career ahead of him. Though Children looks back at the cel animation of Studio Ghibli films like Castle in the Sky, it also demonstrates an evolving art style and technical sophistication. When the next digital leap Shinkai hopes for arrives, he may be one of the first to break new ground. In light of 2011's devastating quake, his next project is a short film meant to capture Tokyo as it stands today.

For now, animators in the United States are struggling to sell 2D to audiences enamored with Pixar and Dreamworks 3D, while the bulk of the Japanese industry is slowly catching up to modern technology. And despite the fact that digital opens up editing and lighting options that didn't exist with cels, Shinkai points out that technology has its own drawbacks:

"I feel that the footing of Japanese animation production has become more and more precarious since the shift to digital. The basic production tools we use are primarily foreign-made commercial software (Adobe After Effects, etc.). Speaking in the extreme, areas of Japanese animation technology are controlled by what Adobe decides to include in each new version of their software. Current computers can’t properly open After Effect files from 10 years ago. A SCSI drive from 10 years ago can’t be connected to modern computers and a CD-R burned 10 years ago is already reaching the end of its life expectancy.

What we, as filmmakers, need to emphasize are the things that we do actually have control over; that is, the story, the original art, the artistic concepts. Those are things for which, ultimately, no easy distinction between analog and digital exists."

Special thanks to Graham Leonard for translating and CoMix Wave Films for arranging an interview.