There was a revolution in the 1980s. It started in the military and the space industry, but it didn't use rockets or weapons. Instead, it used computers and floppy disks. The revolution was the proliferation of computer graphics, and it soon spread to entertainment.
"Japanese institutions were just as avid as its American and European
counterparts to follow the trend," Shuzo Shiota recently told Kotaku. Shiota should know; he's the president of Polygon Pictures, Japan's biggest and oldest 3D computer graphics studio. Polygon has done CG work for acclaimed anime like Innocence and The Sky Crawlers as well as high profile games like Onimusha 2 and Metroid: Other M, among many more projects.
Just as the potential of 3D computer graphics were being realized, Japan left the fray and focused on two-dimensional rendering. Its Western rivals pushed onward. Something must have happened. Turns out, something did.
The 1980s were a golden age for Japan. The economy's sky-high ascent continued, and the world was its for the taking. It wasn't only business that was booming, but anime, too. According to Shiota, hits like Starblazers and Mobile Suit Gundam welcomed "newer" and "cooler" forms of expression that painted with big brushes on large canvases. This was the future. It was finally here.
It was during this era that CG rendering was starting to come into its own, with the Japan Computer Graphics Laboratory, among others, rivaling the CG work of their American colleagues. It was also during this time—1983—that Polygon Pictures was founded.
"The euphoria didn't last much beyond the decade as CGI was very much more expensive than its 2D counterpart, and unlike the US, Japan didn't have a robust enough film industry to support its growth as an expression," explained Shiota. "Animation in most cases was shown on TV which didn't provide enough money to render in CGI."
The 1990s was also the decade that Japan's miracle economy collapsed, and the country was thrown into a funk—a funk that some would argue it still hasn't emerged. Yet, before the country threw in the towel, there were few more big budget attempts at 3D computer graphics. The most well-known of all was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
Hiroyuki Seshita, now at Polygon, was at Square Enix during the 1990s. Just as video game consoles with 3D CG engines began hitting store shelves, Square Enix, then just "Square", started hiring loads of 3D CG designers and using its beautiful 3D visuals as selling points.
"With the titles that followed, the synergy of rich 3D CG animation plus great stories and settings resulted in a major hit," Seshita told Kotaku. "I think it was experiencing that success that really solidified the idea that strengthening 3D CG equals stronger brand differentiation and added value."
However, it also felt like a bubble, because, as Seshita explained, enormous amounts of money were being spent to create these epic games. In this atmosphere, Square Enix decided it wanted to expand to feature films with a Final Fantasy motion picture. The rest was a disaster that resulted in Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi leaving Square Enix.
During the movie's initial stages of production, Seshita recalled everyone "absolutely" believed the movie was going to be a success. But by the time Seshita left Square, doubt was beginning to set in. "Too much emphasis had been placed on the technical side and creating photo-real CG animation," said Seshita, "and I felt the basic appeal of it as a movie was lacking." In twenty-twenty hindsight, Seshita explained that it would have been better to approach CG feature film making like Pixar: start with a series of shorts and hone the studio's technique, style, and craft, while working towards a feature film.
"As for Hironobu Sakaguchi, he was talented, compelling and ambitious—a
truly charismatic man. The kind of person who can realize a project like that is very rare in conservative Japanese society," said Seshita. "Even now, he's a person of great respect to me. I'm not sure whether the failure of that movie is what caused Sakaguchi to leave the studio though, as I left quite a while before he did."
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within opened in summer 2001 to mixed reviews. Some critics, like Roger Ebert, loved the film; others wrote it off as a cold technical exercise. The flick bombed, and Square lost its shirt on the movie, resulting in the quick demise of its newly minted movie production arm. Sakaguchi ultimately left Square and set up his own game studio, Mistwalker.
The Japanese game industry and anime industry recoiled. 3D CG animation was too expensive, too risky. Polygon Pictures, however, continued its steady output of quality 3D CG, but the studio was a rarity—and one of the few that has survived CG animation's turbulent ride in Japan.
"These failures encouraged Japanese producers resort to more economic and less risky forms of expression, which was 2D animation," said Shiota. "As the production system for 2D animation is so well established and more artistically sound, the market complied as well." Japan has a long, rich history of 2D animation, and the country fell back into default mode—something that became readily apparent in many Japanese video games, too. While some Japanese studios kept pace with Western game advances over the last decade, others felt more comfortable using low-cost 2D style graphics.
In anime, some movies, especially the films of Hayao Miyazaki, were promoted by the fact that little or no CGI was used in them. These old fashioned techniques became selling points. "It's similar to the idea that a mechanical wristwatch handmade by a craftsman is more valuable than an electronic watch," explained Seshita. "In the Japanese live-action film and animation industries, there is a deeply rooted sense of respect for craftsmen and their individual skills."
The respect for the craft remains. Yet, the reality of our digital world is setting in. Within the last few years, the younger generation of Japanese creators is more comfortable with CGI. The way we interact with it is increasingly digital, so it's only natural that younger Japanese creators feel as adverse to 3D CG as previous generations might have. What's more, CG animation has also become cheaper, making it far more pervasive.
The hollowing out of the Japanese animation industry could be a reason for the revival of 3D. "The 2D animation industry has failed to cultivate younger animators," said Shiota, "while its veterans are no longer able to create as voraciously as they used to." Much of Japan's animation has been shipped outside of the country—such as to China—where animators are paid less. Wages at traditional Japanese anime studios are notoriously low—peanuts. On the contrary, Polygon Pictures does 70 percent of its CG work in-house in Japan, paying its 350 employees respectable working wages that allows them to raise families and afford houses.
The CG revolution is over. It's now the norm. So much has happened since Polygon's 1983 in the world of computer animation. So much has changed. Japan once rivaled the US in CG work, but then fell off the map. Polygon Pictures has been there the entire time, through the ups in the downs, witnessing Japan's early successes and its epic failures. Yet, Polygon, like 3D, is still here. And both are likely to be for many more years to come.