I've always associated animated sequences that depend on computers with low budget filler, and thus never had a high opinion of it. In 2001 I read a headline I thought would be a turning point for the industry: "No more cells will be made in Japan". If you don't know; a cell is the original art frame animation is drawn on. Showing these in succession is what we see as animation. That's how it used to be anyway. Fuji, the last company still making animation cells in Japan; decided to stop producing them - citing that the high quality paper pulp required to make them was extremely expensive. To me this seemed like a tragedy, but for a lot of reasons. I knew that from this point forward that all anime titles would be done on computers, the kind of stuff I had always associated with a cost cutting measure.
What does this mean for anime? That's hard to understand unless you have a context of what anime was before it involved computers. In the 60's and 70's it's hard to describe the differences in anime, but there were certainly some issues like lack of fluid movement. Anime of that era tended to move awkwardly in some places. It wasn't necessarily jerky motion, but more of a problem with how people see movement, and how to approximate that in animation. Especially when it comes to depth perception while moving. As an animated object moves father away or draws closer, there is a natural way things decrease or increase in relative size. In painstakingly drawing each frame by hand, it can be very hard to get the relative perspective right in approximation of distance. Over time anime got better at this, but it was still a common problem well into the 80s.
During the 80's is when anime really started to come into it's own, and became genre itself. Keep in mind that the Japanese economy was booming during this period, and the budgets spent on entertainment films were often quite large. Although computer usage in anime was virtually nil, it was probably more effective to use people for animation in terms of cost and artistic merit. While anime was often just drawn pictures that moved, at times it also pushed movement and artistry in ways that regular film couldn't. Some titles (such as Akira) have yet to see their match, and perhaps never will.
Images from Golgo 13: The Professional. Released in 1983, this cutting edge film was the first anime to feature a (short) sequence completely done by computers. Obviously it pales in comparison to hand artwork of Japanese animators of the day but was done more for the novelty factor.
The 90's seemed like it would be just an extension of the 80's, that is; until the computer started to come into play. Animation by this point had a long tradition of methods and processes that were well known, and use of computers was a bit of a black art many were unsure how to utilize. The first inroad for computers came in integration with traditional animation, by enhancing traditional techniques. Post processing of regular animation could offer cost effective touch-ups such as color enhancement, and computer assisted effects. In the 90's anime enjoyed the best of both worlds. The lessons of the 80's paved the way for good artwork in the 90's, but the additional help by computers assisted in creating dazzling special effects. The 90's also had a dark side in that the Japanese economy had overheated, and would cause problems for many years to come. While high budget anime had survived into this decade, the next one wouldn't have the resources to throw endless manpower at a title to get superb results.
Images from Initial D: First Stage. (1998) This was close to the last gasp of hand drawn anime. This series in particular became well known for 3D CGI rendering of cars and racing scenes that were an extreme contrast to the animation style. This wasn't only done for budgetary concerns, but also because it's easier to model the physics of racing. To this day many anime titles still have this clashing problem integrating 3D models.
Multiple factors had come together in a storm that spelled hard times for anime. Economically, Japan was in trouble and budgets were cut everywhere. Traditional cell animation had been moving towards becoming cost prohibitive for some time. Once the last cell manufacturer gave up making them, the industry was forced to move to computer based animation, even though it wasn't something that had been mastered to the point where it was up to par with traditional animation. As a result anime suffered in quality. Titles became very simplistic in design. Even low budget anime in the 90s had more detail than many early CG anime titles. While computers may excel at creating brilliant colors, early CG anime had very muted and drab colors that were shaded simply by blends.
When I first wrote this article, this is the point I left off with anime. I had this foreboding feeling that anime was doomed to become something I didn't enjoy watching. The industry wasn't done yet though. Within a few years it had adapted itself to computers quite well, and rebounded in ways I wouldn't have expected.
What we've gained:
The obvious point is that we've gained a lot of "effects" in anime. Especially with bright lighting and glare: something traditional anime did poorly. (Consider how you draw "white light".) Computers can enhance other aspects as well, such as blurring sequences between near and far objects. While titles in the early 2000's struggled with leveraging the power of computer effects, by the end of the decade many of them had comfortably found their place in many titles. Clarity became much improved, and colors have become far more vibrant. In traditional animation, a cell has to be scanned (or photographed in really old school methods) before effects can be applied, but computers can cut out the middle man. With digital ink technology, animators can now draw an equivalent cell with no problems in sampling and can get colors exactly as they had intended.
Kaname from Full Metal Panic (2003). Nothing special about this picture aside from showing your typical anime character. Other than lighting, coloring and being in a more modern style, this isn't that different in design from anime characters drawn 20 years before. Note how the leaf blurring gives added depth.
One of the more impressive feats in modern anime is in the ability to render beautiful backgrounds. A bit hard to see here other than the vivid colors, this scene from Clannad (2007) utilizes multiple layers of softening edges, reflective surfaces, and sparkling effects - all things computers do well.
What we've lost:
Most people tend to overlook what anime doesn't have anymore. While the changes are in often subtle, to many such as myself they are sorely missed. Loss of abstract creativity is one issue. This isn't totally a fault of the computer, but more a problem with how a person is limited in their mind by the tools they use. As the saying goes: when all you have is hammer, everything looks like a nail. For instance shadowing and reflectivity are things easily rendered on a computer, but in previous decades animators gave shadows and reflections a life of their own in a way that probably wasn't the most realistic but much more artistic and creative.
Computer generated anime also means that there will be no more cells. By the time you read this, the culture around anime cell collecting may only be a vague memory to only the older anime fans. For the longest time, hard core anime fans sought animation cells from their favorite series. This let them own a literal piece of an anime title. To see anime fans denied this part of their culture, was a major shift. Also, animators could no longer sell these cells themselves. At one time this was considered a gray area in the industry. Animators would draw up cells, and after their production use... often just took some of them home. Companies recognized this being against copyrights they held, but ignored this for the benefit of their animators who could make additional money selling them. It was perhaps even an incentive to work harder. The more popular a series became, and the better the artwork for a cell was, the more it was worth. With computers there are no cells, and this part of anime culture was lost. From an environmental perspective, this is perhaps for the best as it's hard to justify mowing down forests just to create anime.
The as of later 00's, anime is better adapting to computer uses. Instead of forging into new areas of realism and experimentation, anime is purposely trying to look more like anime (of the past). If anime will ever evolve into something else remains to be seen. Animators such as Squaresoft are making headway with realism in CG movie production. Although the characters don't look good enough to pass as "life like", they are getting close. When that point comes, and it becomes commercially viable it may give birth to a new type of animation but it seems doubtful that it anime will morph into it. Today anime has carved a niche for itself and seems to be sticking to the tradition of looking like anime instead of evolving.
So where is CG anime headed? It looks like it's going to come full circle, and in the future anime may look a lot more like anime of the past.