Indie Overview 2003 Editorial
What the indie anime scene looked like in 2003.
This is an attempt at a general survey of US-based indie studios as of the middle of 2003 based on the productions I've been able to find, and probably doesn't include everything that's available.
As of this writing, the independent anime "industry" is just getting off its feet. The '90s only gave birth to a couple of finished productions, but the last few years have seen a notable increase in activity, mainly thanks to the availability of powerful computers and the Internet.
The earliest indie anime productions were animated using traditional cel methods, but since those are expensive and anime didn't enjoy much popularity till the late '90s, productions were limited to a few shorts produced for conventions and one finished OAV (part of a never-completed series), No Enemy But Time.
Fortunately, computers (coupled with ever-increasing popularity of anime in general) have drastically changed the landscape. The most obvious change is the proliferation of Flash animation--cheap to produce, easy to distribute, and usually free to watch for anybody with an Internet connection and some time to spare. However, although it's been around for several years, Flash animation is only now starting to come into its own--until recently even the best Flash anime was mainly limited to short action pieces or introductions to epics that were never continued.
Perhaps more notable, however, is the recent increase in commercial products. Let's face it--getting a video polished to the point that you can put it in a nice box and put a price tag on it is not something that most people have the follow-through to manage, and until recently it was basically something that hadn't been done with non-professional anime.
But again, thanks in part to the availability of desktop video publishing, and probably more so the Internet's power as a marketing and distribution tool, several independent studios have done just that. These finished products (and by product, I mean something that you can buy like any other anime video) are the focus of the reviews here.
There are about a half dozen videos currently available; a couple on VHS, although all of the recently finished indie productions are available on DVD (and in all but one case, are DVD only). Even in the shoestring-budget world of indie anime it looks like DVD is the only way to fly at this point.
Of the current crop of videos, all are computer assisted in one way or another; about half (II: Prologue from Pseudome Studios and Studio ArtFX's two DVDs) are 3D, while White Radish uses computer-aided cel animation, and Dementia7 Studios' are somewhere in between with hand-drawn stillframes polished and composited on a computer and combined with 3D backgrounds.
The one odd man out in this line-up is Voices of a Distant Star; as close to the one big hit of the indie anime scene as there is at this point, it is the product of one man, Makoto Shinkai. The only Japanese indie product to find its way to the US, and the only indie to benefit from established distribution channels, it is being sold by AD Vision as a standard part of their lineup.
So far, none of the available videos have managed to get past being either the first episode of a series or a self-contained short, but that may change soon. Dementia7 Studios is already well into more projects centered on the same characters (as well as a theatrical project scheduled to come to fruition in a couple of years), White Radish seems to be hard at work on their planned OAV series, and Studio ArtFX appears to be cooking up continuations to their projects as well.
As of this writing, indie anime has yet to see its first large-scale hit (though in terms of critical acclaim and distribution, Voices can be considered a watershed), but the various artists involved are definitely showing that there's potential out there. More excitingly, we seem to be just crossing the threshold of the critical turning point where projects go past the experimental/introductory stages and move into real storytelling.