Brief History of Fan Animation
Ever since I first started talking about anime on panels at conventions (or just telling people about it in academia), I’ve always shown the famous Gainax productions, Daicon III and Daicon IV. These short animated works were exhibited at the annual Japanese Science Fiction Convention in 1981 and 1983, respectively.
Daicon III, 1981
Daicon IV, 1983
Each video was drawn by hand by a group of friends that would later form the animation studio, Gainax. In other words, real production studios did not produce the shorts, but fans of anime who took their creative capacity to a new level. Not only did these fans produce an entirely novel creation, but they pulled from popular interests of the fandom (the fandom at that time centered in global [and highly American] science fiction and Japanese animation) and created homages in celebration of the medium (a good example for American fans is the reference to Star Wars, which is evident in Darth Vader’s appearance in Daicon IV).
Eventually the Daicon animations influenced fans on such a global scale that this genre of “opening animation” spread to American conventions. In 1992, at Anime Expo in California (one of the earliest occurrences, though of course not the first, of anime conventions in the United States), a few fans at Running Ink Animation Productions produced the fifteen-minute Bayscape 2042.
At Anime Expo 1993, the same fans exhibited another hand-drawn, cel-to-film, short animation called Conscience.
Conscience begins with an artistic tip-of-the-hat to the entire history of space-based mecha series, with a scan of space debris followed by distant explosions and a parade of originally-designed fighter ships. The story progresses to a narrative following a young woman on the surface of a planet and her discovery of a princely man and her own fighter pilot, with which she joins the war in the sky above. Like the Daicon series, Conscience pays homage to a American history of fan interest in Japanese animation. For instance, although a bit feeble, the artists attempt an quick imitation of the classic Itano Circus about halfway through the short.
YouTube currently hosts a few other fan-created opening animations, such as that of AmeCon 2007, which was a digital production by Hel & Scott of the Makenai Team.
In contrast to the previously-mentioned shorts, the AmeCon opening animation follows the form of an anime episode, rather than adhering to what appears to be a trend of Anime Music Video-styled animations. An apparent reason might be that the video, exhibited in 2007, reflects the influences of a generation of fans immersed in a completely different fan culture: one generally removed from science fiction and the quest to obtain any importations of anime from Japan, and one now steeped in a viewership familiar with anime usually broadcast on television and conventions as a common phenomenon across the nation.
The Meta-Nature of Otakon
Last summer in 2008, I was lucky enough to attend the fifteenth anniversary of Otakon, the largest Japanese animation convention on the East Coast. The cool thing about Otakon is its meta-nature, which I illustrate by recalling its motto, “The Convention of Otaku Generation,” which evokes a parodic reference to Gainax’s 1991 film Otaku no Video, which possesses the subtitle “Graffiti of Otaku Generation.”
In the early part of the year, Otakorp released one of the major announcements leading up to Otakon 2008: Studio Madhouse would film and produce an opening animation to celebrate the conventions’ fifteenth anniversary.
The first Otakon opening animation occurred in 2001, when a staffer produced a 3-D video about the two Otakon mascots running away from killer robots (viewable here, but scroll down to the last video entitled “Otakon 2001″). The video makes reference to Otakon and the fandom through sailor suits, samurai katana, Japanese-language marquees, and a too-good Gundam cosplayer.
The opening animation for Otakon 2008 premiered at the opening ceremonies on Friday. Anime Almanac provides a quick, succinct description of the content: The Madhouse animation for Otakon followed this theme by having the con’s red-headed mascots race towards the Baltimore Convention Center. Along the way, they encounter various “obstacles” in the form of pop cultures figures that are easily recognizable to American otaku. This included various Pokemon, Gundums [sic], Nintendo characters, and other anime-related figures. The male character, Hiroshi, transforms into Rurouni Kenshin to battle these foes, and the female, Hiroko, transforms into Sailor Moon in typical magical girl style. This all leads up to the short’s climax, where Evangelion’s Eva Unit 01 emerges from the convention center to do the final battle with our heroes. At closing ceremonies, the animation was once again shown, but the staff panelists asserted that the short would not be available online due to copyright/contract matters (no specific details were given, except that it could only be shown once per day). Extra points have to be given to Madhouse for adding in subtle references to Otakon culture and history, such as when in 2001 gases in the sewer system made the city’s manhole covers rocket up off of the street.
Otakon’s opening animation specifically made homage of the history of convention shorts (especially Otakon 2001′s original), but the animation was produced not by fans, but an actual Japanese animation studio. Two values are at stake here and I do not want to esteem one over the other. But another fan animation premiered at Otakon was overlooked by the fan media. That, of course, is the opening video for the Otakon AMV contest.
After watching the Daicon IV video linked above, you probably will see the multiple references made in the AMV contest intro animation. Since it’s an AMV, not much of the animation is drawn by the author of the video, but the transformative nature of the piece, I believe, puts it into the same category of fan-produced animation. But obviously, the author, gambitt, used the same music (Twilight, by the Electric Light Orchestra) and even made reference to the flying swords of Diacon IV, instead depicting flying Final Cut Pro icons with which many AMV animators are familiar. Gambitt describes his fanboyish dream of creating a Daicon IV look-a-like, writing, “I had been looking for the perfect opportunity to re-do or parody Daicon IV for YEARS and had actually attempted a version of this video for AWA 10. The idea wasn’t there and the technology wasn’t either for such an ambitious project, so I had to leave it alone. By the time Vic asked me to do the project I was more on the way out of doing AMVs entirely but took this project on because I knew if I could flesh out my idea more it would be the project of a lifetime. I had to use the original song, Electric Light Orchestra’s “Twilight” because of a lot of reasons. For one, the lyrics were perfect for what I wanted to show. Not using it wouldn’t have made it a great parody. Lastly, Daicon IV is made by a bunch of fans who wanted to make something amazing for their convention. I didn’t see how my scenario was any different.”
Contemporary Shape of Fan Animation
Anime fandom, especially in America, hasn’t been around for very long. When trying to historicize the medium and its following, we can generalize specific trends or generations or movements, but the fandom has only been around for about half a century, and been identified by the mass media for a little less than thirty years. To speak of “contemporary,” then, may do some area or time period injustice; however, I will do my best.
It seems to be the case that, in terms of specifically animated (as opposed to printed, such as manga and doujinshi) works, American fan production is much lower compared to Japanese fan production. I will immediately contradict this statement, though, by stating that, in Japan, the animated fan works have become major productions in the fandom, compared to the American equivalent which are multitudinous though not of as high quality.
The history of animation pre-Internet required highly specialized knowledge and skills pertaining to a professional realm of animation and its related tools. For example, before digital technologies made animation a much simpler process, Japanese anime was produced via the cel-to-film process, in which cels were drawn and painted, then photographed onto the film medium. The wonderful thing about the Internet that I love to repeat is Internet technologies have simplified processes and eliminated barriers to access those new, simple technologies. In the United States and Japan, the popularity of the Caramelldansen videos evidences this power of the Internet to simplify and distribute power.
The nature of the video is straightforward and plain. The frames are easily visible and imitable, meaning that they are easy to copy by any fan with a (free) illustration program. Once the frames are drawn and the animation pieced together, a (free) video program will sync the music and animation. (Free) file space on sites like YouTube (America) or Nico Nico Douga (Japan) will host the video, while also spreading the possibility of fan replication as the fad makes its way around the Web. Basically, the Internet and free/easy-to-use software allow for a heightened creation and distribution by fans (and of course most likely for fans, to repeat the process).
A similar trend has influenced America’s anime music video animators. Anyone with free video editing software and access to RAW video, be it via American DVD releases or Japanese recordings distributed through BitTorrent (as the appearance of subtitles in a video are regarded as sloppy craftsmanship), can create an AMV. Essentially, this raises the status of AMVs in America to that of doujinshi in Japan: both are mass produced cultural products by fans, transforming the original content.
In America, though, not many animated fan works reach a high level of distribution. Contrarily, in Japan, a number of fan works have become production of mass distribution or mass consumption. The most evident example would be Makoto Shinkai, who created his first production, 星の声 (Voices of a Distant Star), on his personal Macintosh computer, with voice acting provided by his intimate acquaintances. Shinkai may be a specialized case, though, because his work was picked up by a production studio, which propelled him into the animation industry, helping him to produce his next two works, 雲のむこう、約束の場所 (The Place Promised in Our Early Days) and 秒速５センチメートル (Five Centimeters Per Second). All three of these were recently released on Crunchyroll for a free viewing period of twenty-four hours, pushing Shinkai into the mainstream, post-broadcast era.
Another example of fan produced works reaching popularity is the Touhou Project‘s 夢想夏郷 (Summertime Countryside Dream).
(More videos available at Sankaku Complex)
The Touhou fandom originally spawned from the popularity of a game creator named ZUN’s video games. These games feature characters who have limited dialogue throughout the series, but fans appropriated the characters into doujinshi, which feature primarily at Comiket and other Touhou-specific events around Japan. In 2008, the fandom even took over Tokyo Big Site, the largest convention center in Tokyo and host to other major events like Tokyo Game Show and Tokyo International Anime Fair, with over one thousand doujinshi circles participating.
At Comiket 75, the doujin circle Maikaze distributed its own fan-created animation (previewed above). The animation was drawn, animated, and produced entirely by the fans in the circle. The interesting thing to note about the Touhou fandom is that the games’ creator, ZUN, has emphasized his distaste for distribution to the general populace, instead desiring the faithful community to remain a separate entity. He seems to even express a distaste for the potential of the anime to move beyond the Touhou fandom, detailed (and translated here).
Perhaps ZUN’s intentions might be regarded as focused on maintaining a market around his video games to prevent fans latching solely onto the fan works, but his remarks also highlight an inherent element of general animated fan production: it is made by fans, but also for fans. The production is targeted toward a specific audience, with no recognition of outside viewers. Such specificity allows vague references to make an impact and lend more success to the final product (ie., how Daicon IV works as a cultural product). Identification of the intended target audience, though, also lends a details to predict the potential for fan-produced animation in America. Essentially, it seems impossible for an OAV market (original animation video, also known today as direct-to-DVD productions) to appear in the United States, or possibly anywhere else in the world. Animation, basically, does not have the target audience that it does in Japan, who grew up immersed in an animation culture.
However, non-Japanese markets have pioneers. One, whom I’ve discussed before, is named Paul “Otaking” Johnson, an Englishman who created eruptions all over the Internet-centered anime fandom with his five-part, YouTube-based Fansub Documentary.
Paul recently released a preview of his anime rendition of the Dr. Who series, in which he heavily relies on old designs for character designs and coloring schemes. He animated and (I believe) voiced the series himself.
Although Paul’s target audience should be fans of the Dr. Who series, he also bridges celebration of his work into the anime fandom. Of course, his production probably will not reach viewers beyond those two groups (unless they make a random hit on his YouTube page).
Still, I’m glad to see that non-Japanese fan production, especially high quality and detailed works, are still in the making.