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Translator Paul “Otaking” Johnson, probably most famous on the internet for his criticism of fansubbers (not the illegal part but that they draw too much attention to themselves) and his particular views on how anime should look (five-tone shading), recently released a finished preview of his Doctor Who anime treatment. Taking the iconic British science fiction hero and putting him in Japan, the whole thing lasts 12 minutes. While Johnson has since taken the Doctor Who video down, I still want to give my impression of it, and you can still find previous versions around.

I’ve been critical of Johnson in the past over his adherence to “five-tone shading.”  There was never anything inherently wrong with the concept of “five-tone shading,” and my criticisms were primarily that there are a variety of ways for anime to look good, that budget inevitably plays a factor, and that if you disregard all shows that don’t use that shading style, you look down on not just current anime but also anime from before the 1980s. But it being a few years and all, I had to wonder what he’d learned since then.

Now I am not a fan of Doctor Who as much as I have never actually watched it, so I cannot judge this preview animation based on how well it captures the Doctor Who spirit. Anything I know about it is from reading the internet. I also understand that it’s more a proof of concept, not a trailer or anything that requires a storyline, so I won’t say anything about plot coherency. Having done a bit of animation in the past myself, I can tell that Johnson has talent and put a lot of work into this project.

But it still doesn’t look good, and while that doesn’t preclude an animation project from being all right overall, it is a problem for Johnson who prides himself on understanding what makes anime look good, especially because the preview is meant to be a visual showcase.

There are certainly elements of it which look impressive, bits and pieces that stand out and grab your attention, but taken as a whole, it is less than the sum of its parts. I do not mean that the characters sometimes look off or that the animation goes sour at times, because that sort of thing happens. The real issue stems not from a lack of technical skill or any minor flubs, but from an inherent flaw in Johnson’s aesthetic philosophy.

Five-tone shading is not the entirety of the problematic philosophy, but its effects are very clear in the work itself and so a good place to start. Again, there is nothing wrong with thinking five-tone animation looks better, but just about very single character and object in the animation has this in spades, to the point that it becomes overwhelming. Everything is so specifically made to have that elaborate shading scheme that it is difficult to look at. Characters are frequently as prominent as their surroundings, the foreground is often times difficult to differentiate from the background, and it just ends up as a garish mess. It’s just too much. There are plenty of anime out there which use that shading method, but they don’t overwork it into every single thing all the time to the degree that everyone and everything fights for your attention.

Another problem is that when you’re animating with five-tone shading constantly, it becomes difficult to maintain the shadows while in motion. One need only look at the original, pre-release animation from Super Street Fighter II Turbo: HD Remix to see this problem. They originally went for a similar shading style there, but it causes shadows to be inconsistent and to “pop” unnaturally unless a lot of care is taken. There are limitations to five-tone shading, among then simply time and manpower. When five-tone shading is used as an absolute rule, those limitations become even more apparent.

It’s not just shading which can create this problem, but also character design, which is why a show like Turn A Gundam has relatively simplistic ones. This is also another area where the Doctor Who anime preview runs into problems, because much like with the shading, the character designs have too many aesthetic bells and whistles as the result of a particular desire for 80s anime-level “intensity.” All of the characters look dated as a result.

I can potentially see why someone would think that I’m criticizing 80s/90s character designs as a whole for not being “new” enough, I should clarify my point. Everyone, with possibly the exception of the Doctor himself, looks like they were inspired by a 1980s version of a “How to Draw Anime” book in the sense that the characters all look like they were made with the idea that this is how anime characters are supposed to look, down to the hairstyles and the little details. This is most prominent with the character of “The Master,” whose eyes make him look like a 17 year old wearing a fake beard. Certainly there are actual anime out there which are also guilty of this, but it’s still something to be aware of.

I could touch on more aspects, but I’m not trying to nitpick little flaws as much as I’m using them as examples of how the basic approach to this project has problems. Again, the whole project is impressively made, but the overall flaw with Johnson’s animation style is that he sticks too closely to his beliefs about how anime “should” look. Because the aesthetic philosophy upon which that’s founded is underdeveloped and incomplete, it results in a work where certain elements, such as shading detail and particular character traits, have been rendered extensively but at the expense of fundamental aspects like visual clarity and not forcing characters into overt visual tropes just because that’s how things were done. There is nothing inherently wrong with the desire for elaborate visuals in everything, but it alone cannot act as a visual foundation.

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There are countless sources of design inspiration to be found everywhere. Even for ones directly unrelated to visual and web design. Music, films, video games, architecture. Well, one more item you can add to that list is watching anime – Japanese animation. In fact, there are 8 ways watching anime can improve your designs.

anime kyouran kazoku nikki punch copy Watching Anime Can Improve Your Designs

For those unfamiliar with or who have unfavorable first impressions of anime, it’s more than robots, school girls, and tentacles – although it’s that too (just how “guns, cash, hoes” is a part of hip-hop). From psychologically-probing action titles like Neon Genesis Evangelion, to sci-fi western noir like Cowboy Bebop, to fantastic magical adventure like Fullmetal Alchemist, to breathtaking film masterpieces like Spirited Away, anime is Japan’s preferred format for imaginative storytelling.

See how watching anime can improve your designs here.

 Watching Anime Can Improve Your Designs
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