Indie Production Menthods 2003 Editorial
An indie anime production techniques overview, 2003.
This is an overview of the various production techniques used by individuals or groups with no funding or studio affiliation to churn out anime as of the beginning of 2003.
The lack of budgets of any significance at this point have resulted in a number of creative methods of producing anime. These can be boiled down into four categories, with one or two studios conveniently fitting into each.
The first method is traditional cel animation with a lot of hard work. This method, specifically, involves drawing each frame on a piece of paper, transferring the lines of that drawing to a clear piece of plastic (the cel), and then adding color by painting on one side with thick, opaque paint specially designed for animation. Although a few shorts for cons were produced using this method during the '90s, the difficulty and expense of cel animation has limited the finished indie productions using this method to one: No Enemy But Time, animated by RIAP. The introduction of computers into the animation process has changed the way animation is done, even in Japan, so it is unlikely that many (if any) future productions will use traditional cel animation.
The second method is the closest to traditional animation in both look and production method: Digital cels. Not coincidentally, this is where professional animation has turned. This method involves hand drawing a cel (either on paper or with a drawing tablet), but coloring it on a computer, and using a computer to put individual cels together into a movie. Although labor-intensive, it is far cheaper and easier to work this way than with acetate and inks, so it's possible for even a single animator to produce a finished short. White Radish Productions has done just that, several times.
Although it produces a slightly different look, 3D computer modeling is likely to be the most popular medium among indie studios, since even a single animator can create complex scenes with a high framerate in a relatively short period of time. Thanks to the processing power of modern computers and relatively inexpensive 3D modeling software, this technique is becoming more and more accessible and affordable. One method is to use 3d models styled after anime characters, while another is to use a renderer that mimics the look of a hand-painted cel for a flatter but more traditional-looking finished product. The latter of the two is now quite common in big-budget animation projects in Japan, particularly for the animation of machinery. Psudomé studios used the former technique for II, and Studio ArtFX uses the latter in their works (with impressive results).
Lastly, there is a hybrid of the previous two, Flash animation (after Macromedia's Flash animation format, if you live under a rock and are unfamiliar with the term). This is by far the most popular medium, due to the fact that the cost of entry is very low, the software is relatively easy to use, and finished products are very easy to distribute--file sizes are small and there are dozens of online galleries with the express purpose of showcasing Flash animations.
At this point, there are a couple of issues with Flash animation, however. Though motion (pans and zooms) is easy and usually used effectively, there's usually a compromise: Either there is very little actual animation, or the animation is very recognizable as the product of Macromedia's software. The result can still be a quality production, but few productions manage to escape the somewhat stylized look of computer-assisted animation (though it can be done--one example would be White Radish's Cutethulu).
The biggest potential issue (for the viewer), though, is the glut of material, most of it of very poor quality or the opening minutes of an epic that was never continued. Of course, most of it is also free, so anybody with the time to spare and a reasonably fast Internet connection can hunt for the gems themselves. Current "classics" of the medium include action shorts such as Genryu's Blade.
Dementia7 Studios also used Flash as the main tool to produce their current video product, and were relatively successful at having it not look like "web animation."
It will be interesting to see whether Flash or 3D modeling turns into the preferred format of independent productions, or if they'll both continue to be used in different sort of products, which seems more likely.