Japan's multibillion dollar anime industry used to be dominated by a handful of major production companies. For decades, the rapid display of hand-drawn or computer-generated images superimposed on celluloid to create the illusion of animated motion was an intricate and expensive process. If you were an independent animator, you had to have a trust fund or major production company backing, or the odds of breaking in were against you.
Yet today Japan is a country of armchair animators who are shaking up the whole anime studio system. An aspiring animator with a desktop PC, some server capacity, and good working knowledge of multimedia programs such as Adobe Flash (or the Macromedia Flash and Shockwave Player programs) can generate professional animation that instantaneously can reach a global audience.
In Japan, several of these so-called low-budget "flash animators" have landed TV and DVD deals in the last five years or so, as familiarity with these Flash Web programs has improved, and affordable, high-speed broadband has become commonplace.
Not Difficult to Master
"Individual creators had few ways of getting their work seen by ordinary people, but with Flash and a broadband connection, they could put their animation out on the market in an unconventional way," says Makoto Sayama, an anime creator who organized the Japan Web Anime Convention (JAWACON) in Osaka in 2005 to provide business opportunities for independent creators.
Most of these Flash programs that arrived in the mid-1990s were initially designed to jazz up Web pages with animation and interactive graphics. Flash software programs by Adobe (ADBE) (which finalized a merger with Macromedia late last year), is a common application in most Web browsers and can be used to integrate video into Web pages, among other things. There are also Flash programs available for mobile phones and other digital devices.
With Flash, animators can create images, adjust them, and create animated motion quickly and cheaply. The software itself isn't all that hard to master, either. The arrival of this software technology and broadband has been a huge boon to Japanese Flash animators such as Ryo Ono.
Working for Peanuts
Ono, 35, spent more than a decade working in TV drama and film production in Tokyo, and became frustrated with the paltry pay animators receive in an industry dominated by TV stations, major production companies, and major film distributors. Animators can earn as little as $856 a month at most production studios, he said.
"Creators and directors have little reward," says Ono, "they provide the ideas and know-how but don't get a copyright for their work."
Ono thought his dreams of becoming a animation film director were a long shot, so he moved out of Tokyo to Shimane Prefecture, where living expenses were lower, and after a couple of years was producing animation on his personal computer with a Flash program. He also wrote the scripts and did the voice-over work.
He published his first animation, Sugai-kun and Kazoku-ishi, on his own Web page in 2004. The title is a pun on the name of the U.S. funk-rock band Sly and The Family Stone. The story is about a black family living in Shimane. Within a couple of months, the site became explosively popular, pulling some 50,000 page views a day. His self-produced DVD sold 5,600 copies, which brought him $96,000 (11,200,000 yen). "I finally got an income," recalls Ono. He has had many business offers to make corporate advertisements using his anime characters by blue-chip companies such as Toshiba (TOSBF), EMI and Recruit.
A visual contents production company, DLE, decided to produce Ono's second major animation work called Eagle Talon. Japanese broadcaster TV Asahi ran the work for three months. Another animation series called Coffy the Cemetery Girl, a story about a high school girl whose body resembles the shape of an ancient burial mound or kofun, is now showing at two theaters in Tokyo and is sold on DVD.
Ono concedes that, graphically, the quality of his Flash-generated animation isn't as good as animators who have been at it for two decades, but he can turn things around quickly. "My sales point is a speedy production," he says. A 30-minute-long animation that used to take several weeks to produce can be finished in a matter of days. It's far cheaper, too. He produces an animation short called The Frogman Show that is aired on a late-night program for Japanese broadcaster TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System), and that costs only 10% to 20% of what traditionally produced animation costs to make—and he gets to retain the copyright.
Also gone is the need for the kind of incessant networking with established companies if you're hoping for a career break. With the Net, an anime artist can showcase his work as soon as it's ready, and e-mail a URL to programming producers and distributors—and also to all manner of companies and event organizers interested in using animation to sell products or draw attention to a meeting or announcement on the Web. "There is an increasing demand for Web animation in such fields," says Makoto Sayama, an anime creator who organized the JAWACOM industry event in Japan.
"Flash animation is the future shape of Japanese cartoons and animation," figures Kentaro Takemura, a critic who teaches the history of manga and anime at Tama Art University. "One individual can do everything on a low budget." And that is good news for independent animators in Japan and elsewhere who have had little control over their work.