The History of 2D digital animation and some fundamental characteristics



This term, union of the words web and generation, is maybe too generic and to give a definition that stands above all of the others is probably more damaging than useful.

Who is part of this group of animators? Those who started to develop their ideas on how they should have been animated through online doodles, just like Kou Yoshinari did? Those who are remembered for animations made with programs like Adobe Flash (the current Animate) or Shockwave Flash, like Shingo Fuji? Those animators who can afford to send their work to the animation studio for which they are working for through the Internet, since they work with digital instruments instead of pen and paper? These are all definitions widely used by fans and should all be taken into account. But all the previously mentioned definitions don’t focus on what, in my opinion, is the most important aspect: we should consider web-gen animators those who belong to a generation of animators born from the 80s onwards that have some familiarity in the use of computers that provides them indispensable support in realizing their animations and with internet access to help their stylistic growth.

There are some who even designed less complicated explanations than mine. For Kraker from Sakugablog, the definition of web-gen is the following:

“webgen’ is a shortening for ‘Web Generation’ and is used for animators that began exposing themselves online before moving on to commercial work.”

washiblog‘s writer Washi also agrees with this definition, specifying that their animations must be completely digital and that these works can be divided into two distinct categories: animations made as technical training, to be criticized by online communities, and those who tell a story, just to entertain the online audience.

This is an example of the first type, while this is one of the second type. While in the first animation the focus is on making the most suitable timing and realism for the movements of the girl in a exemplified reality, in the second one Bahi JD wants to make us have fun with a genuine clash, without any worry to make technically correct animations:It’s important that viewers understand what is happening and find it fun and enjoyable. Let’s enter now in the main topic by telling the story of 2D digital animation in Japan and its fundamental features.sayaTrain

Although in 1997 Studio Ghibli had begun using the italian software Toonz to fix keyframes at the coloring phase, 2000 is the first key date for the development of digital animation in  Japan: Mitsuo Iso, the ingenious animator, creator of the so-called “Full limited animation” tries to make animation go a further step forward by drawing the cuts assigned to him for the movie “Blood: The Last Vampire” fully digitally using Adobe Flash 3. This allowed him to save time in creating the simplest frames by taking small corrections on pre-existing frames and, most importantly, making flames and other effects much more realistic than those drawn on paper by using a technique called digital painting. This technique, rather than using a line art and subsequently color with filling tools as usual, consists in drawing directly using a color base that will then be deepened by brush strokes of different shades. He then makes the color-filling himself or he even goes as far as to paint every single frame with the computer, ensuring a greater control of scene photography by the figure of the animator. Amazed by Iso’s revolutionary animation, both anime magazines’ and internet websites’ reporters started to discuss about the contribution this technique could give to the making of anime and about the software park available at that time.. He continued to use this technique in Cowboy Bebop’s movie in 2001 and in Rahxephon in 2002. In 2003, Kou Yoshinari borrowed this technique in the fourth opening of Fullmetal Alchemist in order to provide greater realism to water animation, thanks to shapes molded through the use of color, but also to increase to an unprecedented level the amount of details of the character animation even for elements so far away from the camera. In the following years, Mitsuo Iso quit using digital painting in his cut, and this technique became, on the opposite, one of Kou Yoshinari’s typical tricks, which he will massively use in all his successive works. It’s important to say, however, that even though almost all of his animations are digitally drawn, they are all scenes delivered only after completion to the animation studio, in some cases even with the addition of photography effects. His clients, therefore, were not in the condition of adapting to his style; He had to adapt to the lack of dialogue with the companies of that period by learning all the techniques needed to make almost complete cut ready to air all alone.


Despite the high quality of its results, it remains a rather complicated procedure that requires long production times and will never be used by young animators who, by contrary, have been attracted more by the possibility of quick fixes and the certainty of seeing their finished animations before the long editing process. One of these people is Ryo-chimo (り ょ ー ち も) whose real name is Ryousuke Sawa (澤 良 輔). Born in 1979, he does not dedicate himself professionally to animation until Osamu Kobayashi, director of Beck (2004), notices the gifs he publishes online and decides to take him as a key animator for 6 episodes! This is the first time ever, after the workforce shortages of the ’60s, that an animator jumps the stage dedicated to the in-between animation as there are work in his portfolio to demonstrate his skill. Those famous animations that changed the life of the young Sawa today are no longer easily available in their original state, but one of its first animated shorts was uploaded to Youtube. However, Beck’s episodes are still made on paper since the first landing of the digital animation of this new generation of animators in the anime TV series will be the next year with episode 19 of Sousei no Aquarion, directed by the genius Satoru Utsunomiya (う つ の み や さ と る).  He was already a remarkable animator at the time and his character design style was appreciated by personalities like Mamoru Oshii but this time he really wanted to accomplish something never seen before: drawing completely different designs from the original for that particular episode, getting the best animators available at the moment and include digitally animated scenes from Ryo-chimo and Kenichi Kutsuna (沓 名 健 一), who worked as a key animator since one year before Sawa’s debut and performed small digital work in leisure time but had never had a way to be recognized as a digital animator before that moment. The episode was particularly appreciated by critics, but at that time it was widely criticized by fans of the series and viewers similarly to Episode 4 of Gurren Lagann, directed by Osamu Kobayashi, who is, among other things, a great friend of Utsunomiya. This certainly did not benefit the reputation of the still unknown digital animation that the subsequent year would find space only in two cuts also made by Ryo-timo on Noein, as the outline of a much wider scene made on paper. (The scene I’m referring to is this and the first cut begins at 2.19) The choice of this hybrid animation is attributable to the animation director of that episode, Norio Matsumoto, who would start using digital animation himself in 2016 In Mob Psycho 100.


From now on, Sawa’s life will match for a long time the very existence of digital animation in Japan. In fact, he corrects through Flash a really fundamental cut made for Mamoru Hosoda’s movie Toki Kakeru Shojo and this time even production assistants realize that digital animation can save desperate situations. It is no longer a matter of simple experimentation but of an investment that is worth dealing with in the name of a long-term profit. In 2007 thanks to the innovative direction of Iso in Dennou Coil, new digital cuts are realized by the director himself and Ryo-chimo.birdyspot02

In 2008 we enter in a new phase thanks to the production of Birdy the Mighty Decode, by the same director of Noein, Kazuki Akane, this production also includes personalities such as Shinichiro Watanabe, Umanosuke Iida, Yutaka Izubuchi, just to name a few. In these two series Sawa will have the task of performing the character designs, supervising the animations of each episode and directing those of Opening, of the Ending, the first and last episode of the first series and those of the episodes 7 and 12 of the second. The number of animators who works completely in digital goes from 2 of the previous productions to 6, including Shingo Yamashita and Tomoyuki Niho, whom would generate a lot of controversy in the audience due to animations like this one, which will be later corrected in DVDs due to the audience’s’ complaints. Such animations are the result of the total creative freedom Sawa had provided to his animators, leaving them without any particular indication. In spite of the poor financial success, Birdy is univocally recognized as the first anime where web-gen animation was a key component of the finished product: without the scenes created by this group of animators, it would not even make sense to watch or talk about this series after almost 10 years after its first airing time.

Yozakura Quartet’s character make a lot of such expressions. The fun is guaranteed

Two years later, Yozakura Quartet: Hoshi no Umi is produced, an OAV series, and Ryo-chimo is chosen as director, animation director and character designer. There is the possibility to expand the number of digital animators making them even the majority of the staff of the animation department but the director prefers to entrust many important cuts to animators who still prefer to use paper and pencil; the total number of “web-gen animators” remains roughly the same as in Bridy. Things will change radically in 2013 with the creation of a television series that sequel the OAVs: Yozakura Quartet Hana no Uta. In this television production he has the opportunity to call all the animators who, without counting the two “big exceptions”, Iso and Yoshinari, were able to juggle with the graphic tablet: Shingo Fuji, Shingo Yamashita, Shingo Natsume (three animators from the same name and the most talented of the group), Ryu Nakayama, Kenichi Fujisawa, Shun Enokido, Tatsuya Yoshihara, Kenichi Kutsuna, Hokuto Sakiyama, Tomoyuki Niho, Hiromitsu Seki, Shin Ogawara, Norifumi Kugai, Fumi Kato, Shima Kuroiawa, Kenichi Fujiwara, Takahito Ise, Tatsuro Kawano and Takahito Sakazume for a total of 19 key animators. Although this was a further step forward, the way to accomplishing anime series in digital is still very, very winding and long. In the specific case of Yozakura, about 20% of the animations were digitally made, and about 90% of the “climax” scenes were made by one of these animators. At this point, studio Tatsunoko has the capability to made digital animation without schedule problems, and even the rivals Bones, Production IG, Doga Kobo, Pierrot, Madhouse, Science Saru, Colorido, and 8bit  decide to put some efforts in creating “Digital-friendly” work environments. From 2013 onwards, many series are realized where “web-gen animators” are valued in cut designed to be made directly in digital; These include Love Lab, Space Dandy, Yama no Susume, Ping Pong, Naruto and Yoru no Yatterman. The previous year, Shingo Yamashita also made the ending of Shinsekai Yori completely in digital, alone, joining the flat style that characterizes him with animations made with the technique of digital painting, also dealing with photography and editing his work, partially imitating Kou Yoshinari’s modus operandi.

Frame from the ending of Shinsekai Yori

But where are we today? In fact, we are not so much better off than in 2013 but there are a couple of studios that have realized the dream of creating a totally digital anime in Japan. Among these we have OLM with Pokemon Sun and Moon. After about two years of preparation and a gradual transition through specials and movies where animators have been able to experience the potential of the “Toon Boom Harmony” software, today it is possible to create a long-running series virtually composed only of digital animation. This is mainly because OLM works primarily with their employees and the few freelancers called to deal with their particular scenes are mostly web-gen animators such as Shingo Fuji, although there is also the presence of some “guest stars” such as Yoshimichi Kameda, who made in analog some cuts in the opening credits.

Pokemon Sun and Moon

This year Tatsunoko manages to produce his first short series entirely in digital, Makeruna! Aku no Gundan directed by Takahiko Kyogoku. The series presents itself as a rather experimental production, where the same key animators themselves also realize all the in-between animation and the colors of their characters.

Makeuna!! Aku no Gundan

Also interesting is the process that Masaaki Yuasa is using for his new movie Yoake Tsugeru Lu no Uta , where Shinya Ohira’s first key animation is covered by a finishing touch (second key) made by another key-animator completely in digital. It can surely thumb the nose to the fans of total creative freedom and the independence of great animators, but it is certainly a technique capable of serving to the younger generation the ability and experience of mature animators who can’t adapt to new technologies. Always talking about Yuasa, Devilman: crybaby will probably be a series focused on the use of digital animation. Will Science Saru be the first animation studio to completely abandon the traditional 2D animation? It must be said that this is a goal that has long been publicly declared by studio Colorido.

Precisely what differentiates digital animation from the traditional one?

The first and most important difference is that, very straightforwardly, it saves a lot of time in the tracking, that is, the copying of the precedent frame before applying the modification that will simulate the movement in the next one. One of the most important abilities for an inbetweener is exactly the one of being capable of tracking to the best the keyframes, without giving a glimpse of the graphic differences between the two drawings; you can well understand why in Aku no Gundam was so simple removing completely all the inbetweeners since that the inbetween frames of the series are just a little bit more than the simple tracking of the keyframes.

Also, through an animation software is possible to plan, edit and test in a very efficient way the timing of one’s own cut. In this way is possible to have an idea of how the finished animation will be even before drawing the inbetween frames, and, in case of errors, is possible to roll back quickly.


Ever since the early flash edition, there are instruments that ease the position of objects in perspective, widely facilitating the creation of tridimensional spaces; Bahi JD and Shingo Yamashita’s animations are a great example of the use of this type of supports.

Another very interesting characteristic is that of being able of realizing a single animation on different layers; in this way is possible to simplify the work by realizing first the animation of the character and then the one of the debris, the smoke, and other similar effects. actually, this was a technique already present in the early 2000s, used mostly for the creation of basic photographic effects: the animation used to be made on two different groups of sheets, one realized by the animation in question and one by the photographers, subsequently merged into one image by using the computer. However, it is now far more simple to realize it without risks, digitally.

frame from the first episode of Space Dandy realized by Bahi can well notice how characters, effects and debris are realized on three different layers

These are all great benefits obtainable from a digital animation software but the more spectacular technique eased by the use of the software is surely the digital painting. Even in this case is about a rather old technique not very different from the one used in the Mob Psyco 100’s ending: they painted directly on a rather thick paper sheet without the aid of the bright table. Today instead is considerably easier to use this technique being able to use endlessly the same color tonality and a “virtual bright table” in order to keep a continuity in the drawings. Even if not very used this technique is anticipated to be one of the 2D animation’s protagonists of the next decade.

Cut from White Album, realized by Kou Yoshinari

But if the digital animation is able to save a lot of time to the animators and allows to realize scenes unthinkable on the paper, why after more than 10 years from the first experiments in Japan very few animation studios are moving in that direction? the reasons are multiple but rather simple luckily:

  • The lack of time to train the animators Very often the animators stop working only late in the night and they find themselves to have very few monthly days off that they use, how it is right to be, resting. Finding time to train the animators, paying them of course, is almost impossible unless we are not talking about big companies or studios that realized a commercial success after another.


  • The cost The majority of the studios struggles to even stand and even buying 1000 decent graphic tables may be a not indifferent expense.


  • The CG Today a lot of animation studios prefer to invest on 3DCG rather than on new techniques that are about 2D animation. This because is considered less expensive and allows to bear tighter schedule. One of this is Toei, who rather than developing a 2D digital department worthy of this name is investing massively on 3DCG, as proved by the production of Seikai Suru Kado.


  • There are no reference models for the digital animation A lot of studios with a discrete number of departments base their decisions in the animation department even on the stylistic choices of the most important animators in the studio because the more a key animator is good and more there is the need of a good inbetweener to help him. If no animator that works with the studio realizes digitals animation no one will work to make the studio digital-friendly. Or maybe is happening like with P.A. Works, that hardly cooperate with web-gen animators anyway, they took models like Toshiyuki Inoue that don’t work in digital and they never expressed themselves in favor in the matter under the suggestion of personality like the top director Masayuki Yoshihara and Producer Kenji Horikawa, which can hardly be contested.


  • There is no real interest by some studios in changing, on the contrary, paper and pencil are part of their policy For example, Kyoto Animation does not feel the need of passing to digital so fast. In the end, they have all the time to correct their animation on paper thanks to better schedule than the concurrents and the use of traditional instruments gives to the company a more warming and spontaneous image.


No one can deny the OBJECTIVE beauty of the keyframes

As you may well understand, many studios have some pretty good reasons that can hardly be tackled effectively and that will surely embody theirs future, while other obstacles will probably be overcome in the near future. It will surely be very interesting to see how the animation studios that will born in the nexts years will approach this technique. Will digital software save 2D animation from the complete extinction?


Special thanks to Lord Blacker, L’Angolo di Giaggiu and Giorgio Sanna for helping me with the translation.


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