Is Anime Still Hand-Drawn?

If you’ve watched anime through the years, you may have observed that the style and quality have changed significantly in the past years. Because everything animated in the West is now created using computer-generated imagery, you would have just presumed that anime began to do the same.

Anime is now a mix of hand-drawing and CGI. Characters, items in the foreground, and in-between scenes are usually hand-drawn, while cars, crowds, backgrounds, and dramatic elements are created using CGI.

Now, you may wonder why this is so, given that going fully digital would be more efficient. In this article, we will look at anime’s animation process and consider if retaining this style would be sustainable in the midst of technological advancements.

Why is anime still hand-drawn?

Anime is considered a part of Japan’s cultural heritage, and Japan is known to treasure and preserve its traditions. Hand-drawn anime includes a process that has been handed down for decades, and it is with this process that anime grew to be loved around the world.

Did you know that sixty percent of all animated shows in the world come from Japan?

Anime is Japan’s third-biggest industry. This means that it is a major source of employment for local artists and that thousands of people rely on it for their livelihood. Suddenly changing the creative process would mean a lot of time and energy spent on re-orienting these existing artists.

It is also important to note that when anime is hand-drawn, it is mostly done with traditional pencil and paper (we show you what paper and more details here). Hence, shifting to digital animation would also require quite an investment in new equipment.

While large animation studios could afford this, independent ones cannot. This would imply that if the anime industry chooses to shift gears and focus on digital animation, small animation studios will not stand a chance at survival.

What is the animation process?

So that we can clearly see which part of anime is still hand-drawn and which part involves digital animation, let us break down the animation process.

Storyboard and layout: First, the director creates a storyboard to show the animators what he wants to see on screen. He does this by drawing rough sketches that detail an entire episode. He then passes this on to the layout director, who fills in the details and adds the backgrounds to frame each scene.

Key frames: Once layouts are done, they are sent to the animators who will draw the key frames. Key animators are the ones who decide how movements are expressed on the screen, and key frames serve as the structure for the production.

Generally, animes require an average of 12 frames per second.

If we also consider static cels and scenes that don’t require much movement, we can estimate that one episode would equate to around 10,000 drawings. That’s a lot! We explain more about how anime is made frame by frame here!

is anime still drawn on paper
Cat’s Eye – Episode 1, Season 1

As such, around 20 key animators usually work together on a single episode.

Each is in charge of different cuts, and once they are all done, the episode’s animation director will double-check for quality and consistency. If a scene is not up to par, it is sent back for revisions. (Learn how much that costs here!)

At times, an animator would simply have to erase certain lines and edit according to the models. But there are also times when he has to scrap his previous work and redraw entire frames completely. This is how particular they are concerning details.

In-between animation: When all key scenes have gained the approval of the animation director, they are forwarded to in-between animators. In-between animators are the ones who draw the scenes in-between one frame and the next, to make sure that the movements and transitions are fluid and seamless.

By putting together the key frames and the in-between frames, we now have the backbone of the entire animation.

Fun fact: Some key animators choose to do the in-between frames for important scenes. This is because they want to ensure that the quality of work remains consistent throughout.

Everything would have been hand-drawn using pencil and paper up to this point in the animation process. Starting with coloring, all the next steps involve digital animation.

Coloring: Once all the frames have been drawn and checked, they are digitally scanned using a 2D animation software suite that can trace the drawings and separate each frame into its individual lines.

Using digital animation, the coloring team will then paint the frames and apply shading. CG elements like cars and backgrounds are also added at this stage.

After these basic elements are finalized, the colored cuts are saved and sent to the special effects artist. If you want to learn more about the parts of anime that are made digitally, read our article here!

Effects: Flares, shadows, smoke, sparkles, explosions, and other effects are drawn by hand using a stylus and a tablet. Afterwards, they are rendered with CG to attain the realism, glow, and movement required for special effects. If you notice the gleaning of swords during fights, that’s the work of special effects too.

Compositing: With all drawn details in their place, all completed cuts are arranged for compositing. The software used in this part of the process allows for the panning of background art, and this is where the camera perspective of a scene is edited with varying accelerations and motions.

After compositing, the completed animation is rendered then exported to different video formats, depending on the intended purpose. Finally, these files are forwarded to the post-production team for dubbing, sound-mixing, and final editing.

Watch this video to see what composited hand-drawn frames look like. At the bottom left corner, you can see its fully animated equivalent.

Will anime go fully digital?

Some viewers think that the next logical step for anime is to go fully digital. After all, this is being done nearly everywhere else in the field of animation. Some anime studios have even tried their hand at going fully digital.

However, although some CGI anime like Land of the Lustrous and Arpeggio of the Blue Steel have been praised, most have been panned by critics and fans alike. Loyal viewers have even dropped the reboot of Berserk because they thought the CGI used was less than palatable.

Consider the comments in this Blade Runner trailer video. It is an anime created using full CGI, and fans hated it before it even dropped, with some clearly stating that the production company should have stuck with traditional 2D animation.

It becomes apparent that CGI anime leaves a lot to be desired, especially compared to traditional anime. Even if the production companies can afford the equipment and get their staff trained, if the market absolutely abhors the idea, then there might be no audience left for anime if they take that route.

Beyond the storylines and language, we must remember that what truly sets anime apart from other animations is its style. The animators are able to pour amazing detail, refinement, and emotion into a single frame, which translates to the viewers.

Anime viewers have even created a fan club of sorts dedicated to acknowledging traditionally animated scenes of distinct quality. They refer to such scenes as “sakuga.” It is the Japanese word for animation in general, but it has otherwise been hijacked to refer to particularly high-quality animation.

do animators still draw every frame
Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress – Episode 1

Therefore, it is unlikely that anime will go fully digital anytime soon. Perhaps many years off into the future, when digital animation is more polished and able to replicate elements of traditional anime, this could be considered.

But until then, anime will continue to reflect the current state of its host country: the perfect mix of traditional and digital, retaining valued processes passed down through generations while remaining open towards what the future will bring.

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