Just like any other art form, the passage of years have dictated a gradual evolution in the way anime looks and is made. Two distinct aesthetics, one of the 20th century and one of the 21st, have emerged as a result of time and technology. Being an anime fan in the digital age means having access to either era, and as a result, opinions on the so-called “superior” aesthetic run rampant.
Understanding why the two eras are so different, why some fans are so strictly drawn to one or the other, and ultimately knowing whether one or the other can be considered “better” requires a basic understanding of animation terms and methods. Before we compare the two eras, let’s lay some groundwork.
Various animators collaborate under the supervision of an animation director to draw animation frame by frame. Out of those frames, there are a few really important ones, the “backbone” of the movement on screen. These are known as key frames. A single animator is often in charge of the key frames for a cut or series of cuts, meaning that that his/her art style is most prevalent in the final cut. In-between frames are then inserted to make the movement on screen more fluid.
Since many animators work on each individual anime, there is a wide array of artistry on display in even a single episode. The individual animator’s sense of motion, style, and more all get translated to the final product. Anime has been historically hand-drawn, meaning computer rigs and software traditionally influence it less than in Western animation.
So, if the core of anime’s animation is based on individuality and expression, exploring how the various individual parts of anime are created and assembled is the key to understanding the differing aesthetics of eras of animation.
The defining factor that makes older anime appear how it appears is the presence of cels. Cels were thin plastic sheets that all individual frames were drawn on. This meant that every part of the animation, from the initial lineart to the coloring, was done by hand on weighty tablets.
Once a large amount of cels were assembled, they were individually photographed frame by frame to create a moving image. The average anime runs at 24 frames-per-second. That’s a lot of cels and photos for an episode with a 24-minute run time. Also, during cel photographing, various effects could be applied by changing the lighting of the room or area around the cel. The limits of pencils, pens, markers, and brushes were overcome by manipulating the conditions in which photographs of frames were taken.
All of this time-intensive manual work leads older anime to have a very distinctive appearance from modern anime, but why? Because, in modern anime, hand-work is being done less and less.
The computer fundamentally changed the way anime is produced. Starting in the late 1990s, studios began integrating computer software to render background art (previously done by hand) or add post-animation effects and mastering.
Also, a lot of the coloring in modern anime is done digitally, leading to a look best described as “glossy.”
As time went on, the reach of computer graphics (cg) expanded. Lighting effects and other touch-ups were done by digital software, and frames done on paper were scanned into computers where they were edited and assembled.
Cg rigs and models came to affect animation, too. As Japanese animators became more adept at utilizing cg, not only backgrounds, but certain objects (such as car tires and flames) were experimented with. Some modern anime productions are rendered entirely in CG, like a sort of low-budget Pixar. The creeping influence of the digital age leaves its mark more and more on anime production each year.
In Part 2, I’ll break down how different animation methods lead to differing appearances in pre- versus post-2000 anime, the pros and cons of using CG over hand drawings, and, of course, attempt to explore that nasty little thing called preference.
Storyteller, student, and in the eyes of my cat, a legend, I’ve wondered through many an exotic land and treaded countless unbeaten paths to find myself in a swivel chair at my keyboard, spinning my own tales or engaging with and responding to anime and manga with my own words and thoughts. Someday, I hope to turn my love of writing into my profession. You can visit Riley’s blog here.
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