The end of animation

Annimation cover

A bridge between cultures about to collapse?

By Adam Tatelman, Staff Writer

Throughout modern history, many important skills have become so-called “lost arts” because nobody practices them anymore. Consider blacksmithing. Today, nobody bashes red-hot metal against an anvil to create simple shapes, instead, any metal we need can be forged on an assembly line by specialized machinery. It’s faster, cheaper, and requires less human input to accomplish. Such is the way of industrial progress. Most craftsman jobs are no longer practiced today, except by those who do so for recreation.

Modern methods may be more efficient, but they come at the expense of traditions that carry much history within them. Likewise, the world of animation is currently seeing a similar evolution. More and more frequently, major animation studios are turning to the convenience and comparative ease provided by 3-D computer animation because they can no longer afford to pay for the large teams traditional pen-and-paper animation requires. There is, quite simply, no money in it anymore—and because of that, the world could lose an artistic tradition that has connected cultures for generations.

Like many children of the ’90s, some of my earliest memories are of Walt Disney’s animated films. I vividly remember watching with glee as Timon and Pumbaa sang “Hakuna Matata,” and cheering for Peter Pan as he dueled with Captain Hook. What my four-year-old brain could never imagine was that there were children just like me around the world who felt the same way about the same films. The only difference between us is that some of those other children decided to make new movies when they grew up.

And that’s how it started. It’s no secret that Disney’s The Lion King was partially inspired by Osamu Tezuka’s 1965 anime series Kimba the White Lion. Now, we can debate forever about what is or isn’t a rip-off—you only need to change one letter in Kimba’s name to get “Simba”—but the fact remains that animation has no borders. Like all artists, animators get inspiration from works that came before. Homage becomes a tradition that transcends cultures, simply through a shared love for storytelling through pictures.

Many of the earliest anime took their inspiration from the original Walt Disney cartoons like Steamboat Willie, hence their typical use of large, expressive eyes. In the ’90s, Cowboy Bebop gained notoriety in North America for its pastiche style, adopting audio and visual elements from jazz, blues, film noir, sci-fi, western, and so on. This is not to say that anime should Americanize itself to appeal to a Western audience, but rather that a show like Bebop could only exist following a long-term artistic dialogue between Japanese and American artists. Each new generation of artists is like the next strut on a bridge that spans nations.

All this has contributed to the emergence of animation as a medium apart from all others, complete with its own creative benefits. On the practical side, it’s easier to animate something than film live action because it is cheaper to produce and not limited by filmmaking necessities like set building, location shooting, special effects, and so on. On the philosophical side, animation has created unique tropes and storytelling devices that can only exist within it, particularly the expression of a character through design. In many cases, these designs become widely adopted, then subject to parody and subversion. It’s amazing when any medium evolves to the point where it parodies itself.

All of this is evidence of animation’s validity as a form of artistic expression, in spite of detractors who may claim that animation is only for children. There are countless reasons to preserve the method alongside the ever-more-successful 3-D computer animation. However, a number of factors are emerging that severely limit the profitability of traditional animation.

The most prominent harbinger of the tombstone on the horizon is, as mentioned, 3-D computer animation. Back in 2013, Walt Disney Corporation slashed its entire team of hand animators for this exact reason. I object to the idea that 3-D animation is somehow inherently superior just because it is more technologically sophisticated. The two mediums share similar advantages, but despite the obvious differences in tech and cash, the products they create are entirely different and aimed at different audiences—and the product is the most important issue at hand.

The next proverbial mark of Cain is the rise of streaming media. Netflix charges $8 a month for subscriptions, and has over 60 million subscribers. That’s almost half a billion dollars every month. Netflix’s most expensive properties are the originals, such as House of Cards, Daredevil, Orange is the New Black, which were all produced for around $100 million each. Compared to that, the cost of hosting content is entirely negligible. Netflix only has to pay for a show once, and no matter how many people watch it, the studio that created it won’t see any more of that subscription cash.

Even worse, the Internet has bred torrenting. No one needs to be told why it’s unethical to consume unpaid-for content, yet millions of people feel entitled to watch what they want for free. Anime faces the similar case of fan dubbing. It’s expensive to make good dubs, because translators must be hired in addition to voice actors, and the latter can’t be poached from Disney’s talent pool. So, western fans have taken it upon themselves to write English subtitles for the anime, and distribute the translated versions without paying licensing fees to the studios.

Combine all of this with the smaller number of buyers on the market due to recession in both North America and Japan, and you’ve got a perfect storm. Disney knew this, and cut costs accordingly. Hand animators worldwide now face an extremely competitive environment that offers a tiny fraction of the positions that were available even a decade ago. Those who succeed, end up in teams of 30 or less doing work that usually requires over 100 animators, all while their superiors hold them to impossible production schedules and standards of quality. Popular cartoons like Family Guy and American Dad only survive because their simplistic animation style is super-cheap to produce.

Hayao Miyazaki, renowned Studio Ghibli animator, retired in 2014, shortly after appearing in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a documentary about the studio’s history. In the film, he was quoted as saying: “The future is clear. It’s going to fall apart. I can feel it.” Since Studio Ghibli routinely rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars with films like Ponyo and Spirited Away, the fact that the general managers are looking into “housecleaning” speaks to the costs of production. Under such constraints, it’s no wonder that Manglobe, the high-profile anime studio that created Gangsta and Samurai Champloo, went bankrupt this year.

Clearly, the captains of the industry feel that the writing is on the wall. Japanese television moguls agree; the former primetime television slot for anime has now been reserved for reality TV programs. It’s not much different in the West either. Funimation, an American anime licensing company, has been particularly aggressive in its anti-piracy policy. Since 2005, they have been serving cease and desist letters to numerous websites that offered fan subs of their licensed content. In 2011, Funimation filed a lawsuit against 1,337 individuals for allegedly downloading an episode of popular anime series One Piece using the torrent program BitTorrent. The judge ruled that the defendants were not “acting in concert,” and so the case was dismissed.

Many were quick to claim that Funimation hates anime fans, and that they only care about the money. However, Funimation did not sue for money; their objective was to have the illegal copies of their content destroyed. Obviously it is in Funimation’s interest to protect their Japanese shareholders as well as their own licences, but that is a matter of necessity, not greed. If fewer people torrented content in the first place, then such search-and-destroy policies would be unnecessary.

We’re all students with very little disposable income, but if you like animation, try to share the wealth. Buy DVDs to support your favorite studios. If you’re into anime but prefer streaming, there are new services like Crunchyroll offering anime content for monthly subscriptions of $6.95. If you feel tempted to torrent a show, just remember that it is the dogged animators who suffer most when the studio collapses—the very people who created, frame by frame, the very content you’re watching for free.

It’s a grim state of affairs, but it doesn’t have to be the end of days. If everybody does their part, we won’t have to watch while hand animation go the way of the blacksmith.