I have been following the recent mini-controversy around AI art and I’m getting a little anxious about what this could mean for the anime industry.
For those of you that haven’t gotten around to this particular piece of news, let me try to give you some context. First I think it’s important to separate AI art (art generated through artificial intelligence) from CG art. All AI art is CG but not all CG qualifies as AI. At least not to me. In order to understand my thoughts in this post, the distinction is important.
Unlike a lot of my contemporaries, I am not someone who dislikes CG in anime. I do not always enjoy the effect and I do think bad CG can really be annoying, but I also think bad art can be annoying. The CG in itself is not the issue. Personally, I just see it as yet another tool for artists to use. Maybe one that hasn’t yet been perfected but certainly one that offers a lot of potential and utility. Ultimately I cannot blame an artist who chooses to use it.
On the other hand, the way I define AI art in my head is when the computer replaces the artist instead of the tools the artist uses. That is the essence of the debate around AI art at the moment. If you can just feed a vague description into a computer and get a piece of “art” instantly or for free or almost free, why would you need an artist? And indeed, it seems as if artists are already losing jobs to AI-generated art. The question is not entirely black and white. I can easily see a world where AI and artists work together for instance. That’s certainly something that’s been beneficial in other fields. However, the idea is that a machine cannot (for now and arguably ever) replace the sensibilities, vision, and instinct of an artist. That all AI-generated art can only be variations and combinations of existing art. (Yes we can argue that all art is that, to begin with. We just won’t argue it here because I don’t have the space). And if we start replacing most artists with AI for convenience’s sake, we will end up losing something very important in the process. Some people call it the death of art itself or creativity.
Others feel that art is about the observer and not the artist. That if you get as much joy out of an AI creation as you do out of a human-created one, then there is no difference. Commercial art has been created by humans for decades if not centuries. It is deeply naïve to believe that every artist pours their soul into each commission and imbues every work with meaning. Others still could argue that under capitalism art is at least on some level motivated, or incentivized, by profit, making the creative aspect secondary at best.
And this is where I bow out. The conversation is truly fascinating in my opinion and says a lot about us and what we value as societies. I have a lot of thoughts myself and occasionally they are contradictory. After all, I have a Picrew avatar on this blog. I enjoy 8-bit art. However, I do agree that supporting artists and just encouraging humans to create art, in general, is important.
But I don’t have the knowledge or proper vocabulary to really go in-depth on this question. I also didn’t think this is why you guys come here, to this blog. We’re supposed to talk about anime! And so we will.
To me, anime is art. You can see when a show was crafted with love and enthusiasm. The industry is notorious for its poor working conditions and so anyone that sticks with it for a long time must, on some level, love what they do.
BUT, the industry is also famous for trying to cut costs, often at the expense of the artists that create both manga and anime. If AI art became sophisticated enough that you could simply upload a digital volume of the manga and it would pit out a fully coloured and animated version of it, I’m absolutely sure studios would jump on it. And that would be disastrous. Wouldn’t it? Would it? Here’s the BIG problem, I can imagine a universe where it would work.
I don’t think the idea of feeding an AI with source material and getting at least a first draft of an episode out is far-fetched. Think the technology is probably already available and will likely be perfected and made more competitive in the coming years if there’s enough of a market for it. It’s not crazy Sci Fi, we’re all in a simulation sort of talk. There are practical implications here.
And I can see how this could be incredibly beneficial. We know artists in anime work under completely unreasonable conditions so offloading a part of their work to machines could make those conditions a bit more bearable. The art would be based on what’s already in the manga as would the story, as such a lot of the creative elements are already in the source material.
If you still have a character designer that translates the important characters from manga to anime and you still have artists to create key visuals and go through the drafts to correct elements and add flair, you would retain some of the artistic sensibility of the visuals. Moreover, editors and directors would still be there to create storyboards and smooth out the final product. Basically doing the hard work of the adaptation. You could use the AI to do the procedural task of converting the story from a manga medium to an anime medium and start out with a much better base, thereby cutting the workload without sacrificing too much on the final product. It’s a win-win.
This could also allow studios to put out a lot more anime so it’s a win for us viewers. Not for me. My particular brand of special would make it so that I would want to watch everything and get completely overwhelmed. But reasonable folks would have more options and less-known manga would get a chance at adaptation. YAY!
Heck, in a few more years we might even see the advent of fan adaptations. Loyal readers of the manga with a little bit of technical savvy get together to create unofficial anime. What a brave new world that will be! I can smell the infringement suits from here.
But that’s a very optimistic view of the potential of AI art and AI animation. Expect studios will happily start cutting jobs they can automate even if the end product suffers for it. And I should say, there are some deep systematic problems in the industry that puts a huge amount of pressure on anime to be produced quickly and cheaply. It’s difficult to entirely blame any particular studio when they are doing what they can to simply stay in business.
I think that key animators and character designers will probably be the first to go. Studios will still need animators but I figure they will have general roles and intervene when the AI simply couldn’t create anything viable. They will probably also be assigned to multiple projects at once giving them little time to pour over specific series. So any visual flare not already present in the source will be lost.
For instance, in the fourth season of Haikyuu, there was an art change that many fans did not like (I did but that’s irrelevant). This art change was also accompanied by a bit of animation eccentricity. In certain action scenes, the characters started being animated with completely exaggerated rubber physics. It looked amazing. It wasn’t in the manga though so a procedurally generated adaptation would not have included this unless someone went in to manually add it. That’s not necessarily the artist though. It was probably a director that chose to do that and then a team of animators and editors that brought t to life. I’m just saying that an AI wouldn’t have.
I also think that storyboards will quickly become at least partly AI-generated. That’s going to have a huge impact on the adaptation itself. Adapting manga to anime is a lot more difficult than it may seem and simply going for the most faithful adaptation isn’t always the best idea. Just because the same things happen in the same order doesn’t mean it’s going to feel the same. I doubt a series director will ever be completely replaceable for that reason However the more control is taken away, the less a director is going to be able to do.
And the most insidious part is that in my opinion, if a larger part of creating anime is automated, then people working in the industry will simply be asked to work on more projects with tighter deadlines instead of using that extra time to make each anime better than it would have been otherwise.
The fact is, although anime is a very commercial product, it’s also an art. In fact, it’s an amalgamation of a ton of different arts. We are getting to the point where we can have machines simulate all those arts but ultimately, it’s still just reproduction.
I have favourite studios, favourite directors, and artists and writers. I even have some favourite composers and voice actors. (I haven’t mentioned it but I bet voice acting is also something that can be synthesized.) The fact that I have favourites is proof that individuals bring something to the work they produce. There are anime that I really love but that weren’t made by my favourites. There are times when artists I really like missed the mark for me. And this sort of adaptability and variability is really important to making good art, in my opinion.
That’s why this rapid development of Ai art scares me a little. There’s not much can do about it though. But for now, I’m going to keep supporting artists in every way that I can.