President Obama thanks Japan for all the cool things which it has brought to America, including karate, karaoke, manga, anime and even emoji. This is interesting when you consider the level to which foreign words like manga and anime have infiltrated modern culture. You can say these words and people will actually know what you are talking about. It wasn’t always like this.
When I first got into anime and manga, nobody knew what it was. In fact, back then, the word Japanimation was still in use. We don’t here that much today. Manga was even less well known, since, at that time, there may have been a fw anime shows on US TV, but publishers hadn’t started bringing the printed works over. Things exploded in the late 90’s and the early 2000’s were probably the peak. In those days, anime and manga were taking over mainstream bookstore and video store shelves. Things, of course, crashed big time after that.
Japan is doing something Hollywood has alway sheen known for They are exporting culture. They have people the world over mixing Japanese terms in their speech, regardless of what language they use. Kids want to be samurai and ninja, no matter their own heritage may have to offer. They are making their ideas into our ideas. This is the power of media. This is the power that artists and creators have. Those of us who desire to create should be thankful to those that paved the way.
Anyone who has any level of interest in anime will, by now, know about Mamoru Hosoda. I first learned of his work when I came across The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. I immediately noticed the similarities between his work, and that of Studio Ghibli. His work features very simplistic character designs composed with amazing detailed and beautiful backgrounds. His work also features very simple, family oriented stories, not just for a family audience, but often centered on family. I was surprised, however, to learn that there is more to these similarities than one might think.
Many have said that Hosoda may be the next Miyazaki, but what I did not know was that he actually worked at Studio Ghibli in the past. In fact, he was set to direct Howl’s Moving Castle. The film, of course, went on to be completed without him.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t get along with the staff on an artistic and logistic level, but still, I’ve learnt many things during my short time there…I thought to deliver a message I had to make tortured works. But in fact, while working on Howl’s, [I] realized being simple and clear was more satisfying to deliver the message. Even if it looks better, complicated things can’t reach the audience as well as simple ones…The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars are the results of this observation.”
Hosoda now has his own successful studio from which he directed and released Wolf Children. If you have seen this film, you know that it epitomizes that stated quoted by him above. He also went on to receive some very impressive awards. He is now preparing for the release of his next feature, Bakemono no Ko, or The Boy and the Beast. The film looks to continue along the lines he started with his previous efforts with very relationship driven stories and simple, beautiful artwork.
I wonder if his statement above has any bearing on why many of the anime properties I like, shows like Jin Roh and Real Drive, do not find a great level of success. They are anything but simple and clear after all. I watched Jin Roh many times before I could really understand it, and this is not just because of the language barrier. It is a complicated world and story. I happen to like that, though. That is what I want to see more of. It is also what I want to make. Does this mean I am hurting my own chances of reaching the kind of audience I want?
WHat does it really cost to make a good animated film these days? Light Chaser Animation in Beijing, China is answering that question with their upcoming CGI animated feature Door Guardians. While in the past, it could be said that Chinese animation, though very cheap to produce, was lagging far behind western standards of visual quality, Light Chaser Animation is seeking to change all of that. In the trailer for their new project, we see cloth simulation, realistic water effects, skin shaders and other technological advancements we would expect from high quality western CGI. The gap has closed.
I have been living in China for five years now. One of the reasons I was first invited here is because of my western animation experience, which was valuable to both schools and studios playing their part in improving the domestic animation scene. The government, at the time, was putting a lot of money into creating an animation industry that would rival the world’s best. Over the years I witnessed the slow growth of an industry as studios acquired new technologies and skills. It seemed, for a while, that it might be ages of playing catch up.
This raises some serous questions. In an age where Dreamwork’s Jeffrey Katzenberg had his salary cut by more than half, and the studio laid off 500 employees, studios in China are aggressively hiring, even foreign talent. Chinese studios have been pumping out hours of animation content for a fraction of what it costs to create in the west, or even other Asian markets. The only saving grace of the west was that the quality of Chinese animation work was not up to par. Now that seems to be changing, but the price isn’t. What is their left to justify the cost of these $100 million animated films?
This raises another scary issue for those who work in the industry. If the same quality can be produced in China at nearly 10% of the price, won’t all the work go there? Regardless of what artists think, there are still bean counters sitting atop the Hollywood heap who are only going to look at the numbers. If those numbers say they can get the same quality that equals the box office returns they are used to, while producing in China on a micro-budget, the writing is already on the wall.
Bill Plympton, the king of independent animation, is returning to Kickstarter for his next feature film project called Revengeance. After his success with his 7th animation feature film, Cheatin’, which raised over $100,000 on the popular crowd funding service, Plympton seems sold on crowd funding as a means to get indie projects off the ground. For his 8th animated feature project, Plympton is, for the first time, collaborating with animation artist. In this case, independent animator and cartoonist Jim Lujan.
“REVENGEANCE tells the story of a low-rent bounty hunter (named Rod Rosse, The One Man Posse) who gets entangled in a web of seedy danger when he takes on a job from an ex-biker/ex-wrestler turned U.S. senator named "Deathface." Rod has to find what was stolen from the senator and find the girl who stole it. Soon, Rosse finds there’s more than meets the eye to this dirty job. Between the ruthless biker gangs, the blood thirsty cults, and the crooked cops - Rod Rosse is a marked man. If the bullets don’t kill him - the California sun just might!”
Those of you with experience handling your own crowd funding campaign can easily see the value in this. Connection with the project, and a real connection with the artists who create it, is the big difference between indies and the big studios. Users want to be a part of something they love and enjoy. They want to contribute in as many ways as possible, and they want to connect. These new methods of getting your project out there, whether we are talking about Kickstarter, Indie Gogo or Patreon, all mean the indie artist can directly connect with their fans. The fans can not just feel like, but really be a part of something.
If you as an indie creator aren’t taking advantage of all the ways available to directly connect and interact with the people who love and, hopefully, support your work, you are missing a huge part of path to indie animation success.
About 12 years ago, MODO was developed by a small independent company called Luxology. This group was composed of former developers from Newtek, their Lightwave Team, when they split over creative differences. For nearly ten years, this group toiled away building up MODO, which began as a simple but extremely powerful modeler, into a full fledged 3D package. This caught the interest of people like John Knoll and ILM. As a result, about two years ago, with a push fro the professional VFX community, Luxology was acquired by The Foundry, a large VFX software developer known for tools like Nuke, Katana and Mari.
The Foundry is a UK based company known for making very high end visual FX tools used in the biggest of Hollywood pictures. They are owned by a private equity firm known as The Carlyle Group. Late last year, this private equity firm announced that they were putting the company up for sale. Word has it that they purchased the company for about £75 million, some years ago, and it is now valued at around £200 million, earning £10 million in revenue per year. Clearly it was a worthwhile investment.
Adobe apparently sees an opportunity to apply The Foundry’s tools to a wider business community. This is where things could get interesting, because the price range of The Foundry’s tools is in an entirely different league than any Adobe offerings. The Foundry targets the largest VFX studios, and their prices reflect that. Adobe targets a wider user base with much cheaper products.
It should be noted that should such a purchase take place, Adobe, having never been involved in 3D before, may have no interest whatsoever in MODO. The Foundry’s Nuke has taken over the professional compositing and post production market, leaving tools like After FX in the minor leagues. Other tools in their lineup, like Colorway and Katana might also be great additions to the Adobe production suites. A full 3D package like MODO could very well get left out in the cold in such a deal.
When I got older, I eventually went on to study mechanical engineering in university, still holding on to this idea that I would create amazing robot technology. At this time, however, I had also already been introduced to CGI and was slowly developing techniques that would allow a single artist to make their own anime. It soon dawned on me that what I really wanted to do was learn how to draw anime about cool robots rather than make them for real. After all, the technology just wasn’t there. The cool stuff I envisioned was never going to happen in my lifetime, right?
Fast forward a number of years and I eat crow. Of course, the exoskeleton above, from the Japanese startup company Skeletonics, is far from the amazing robots of anime, but I think that is an important point. This product is being created solely for entertainment purposes. It is a toy, for people who probably had visions, like me and my friends did when we were kids, except now they can get in a cool suit and really play those visions out. Their plan is to sell these suits to vendors, rather than individual users, and those vendors could rent them out to people, for an hour or two, to play with. This is by no means, however, meant to imply that the real stuff isn’t happening.
As I mentioned in Anigen II, companies like Boston Dynamics, in the USA, and Perceptual Robotics Laboratory in Italy, whose video you see above, are making it happen for real! The robot exoskeleton pictured in the video above is truly a mechanical wonder, giving the user super human strength. IT would, for example, allow the user to life extremely heavy items and control them with accuracy if the user were, for example, working on an aircraft. It has been claimed that companies in this field are experimenting with directly controlling the technology from the user’s brain.
In Japan, there is another robot creator who makes no secret of his sci-fi influences. He called his lab CyberDyne and was inspired as child by novels such as I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov and the anime TV series Cyborg 009. This creator is Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai of Tsukuba University. His robot suit, unabashedly called HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) , is the epitome of bringing anime and sci-fi into the real world. Built on the idea that the brain sends tiny electrical signals to the muscles of the body, his suit can analyze these signals and perform its tasks. It also greatly increases the wearers strength.
Professor Sankai’s robot suit also contains complex programming related to A.I. which works in conjunction with the analysis of signals from the brain. This means that if the user, for example, had lost the use of their legs, the suit would be able to compensate for that and being able to perform the tasks given the legs via electrical impulses received from the user. That is a huge difference in comparison to other such robot suits currently in development. In fact, that sounds a lot more like something out of an anime such as Ghost in the Shell.
While Professor Sankai can’t name names, he has been contacted by certain militaries who would desire to gain his technology for use in future weapons. The idea would be to use his HAL suit to create what is essentially a super soldier. If that isn’t an anime story waiting to happen, I don’t know what is. Luckily, the Professor believes that robot technology should be used to help people, allow the elderly to work, or the disabled to walk and function. He does not believe it should be used to hurt or kill people. For this reason, he has refused such offers.
Even though I personally chose to learn how to draw anime about the technology of the future, rather than pursue a career trying to build it for real, it is happening. Stories right out of science films are playing out right here in the real world today. While I don’t see myself attempting to return to that field in any real sense. I would definitely like to further explore these concepts through my own art.
As an independent creator, you need to get your head squarely and completely out of those clouds. We are not a part of that game. Trying to get into or become a part of that game is nearly an exercise in futility. You need to create your own game.
A perfect example of this is the indie creator Signe Baumane and her recent micro-budget feature film Rocks in my Pockets. This film was apparently on the short list for the Oscars, but was not nominated in the end. Being a realistic tale about depression and suicide, based on true events, maybe it was too indie for them. While many Hollywood animated features are little different than live action blockbusters, she travels the paths that only animation can travel. She spoke about this not long ago in an interview with Vice.
“Telling that amount of history in a live action film is nearly impossible. Showing how a person feels from inside, how depression works from inside, is also nearly impossible in live action.
Do you remember that film A Beautiful Mind about the mathematician who went crazy? To depict his state of mind, they used blurry spinning images. This is all the language you have in live action. In animation it's different; you can just walk into a person's mind and you can show everything going on in there. In animation you're free to do anything you want.”
Is this really true? Of course we know it is, but you might not think so looking at the big films in the industry. They are just as formulaic and, in some ways, lacking in artistry as any Hollywood Blockbuster. For the indie, any attempt to mimic that would be a recipe for disaster. This is a notion of which I am often reminded by independent animation veteran Paul Fierlinger, who has long been advising me to put more realism and more of myself into my work. He is adamant that the indie trying to directly compete with Hollywood, or anime, or anything else mainstream will find themselves without an audience. Signe Baumane certainly has her style and definitely speaks from her heart in her films. This makes them decidedly different than the mainstream.
“...what really bums me out is that animation is misunderstood as a medium for children; this makes me really upset. Animation has been around for ages, it was the first moving images. Then sometime around the 1920s, it was hijacked by children.”