On April 2nd, 2020, Netflix is set to release its first 4K HDR original anime title, Sol Levante. Billed as the world’s first 4K hand-drawn anime production, Sol Levante began as a collaboration between Netflix & Production I.G Their aim is to explore new avenues in creation by taking advantage of the latest technologies.
The project was a massive undertaking and not without its challenges. The team has found some difficulties, such as constraints in the current anime production workflow, limited access to technology, limited manpower, and other unforeseen circumstances. Yet, the process was as much of a learning process as it is difficult.
The team states that the lessons learned could open up invaluable new opportunities for future content creation. As part of that effort, Sol Levante will also be an open-source project. Anyone who is interested in this project could access some assets such as the original sequential files used in the production. By doing that, they hope that it will inspire others to try as well. The open-source files will become available via Netflix’s tech blog, which details their production process.
KAORI Nusantara along with other media had the opportunity to join the interview session with the two production staffs of Sol Levante. They are the director Akira Saitoh (Production I.G) and Netflix APAC Creative Technologies Engineer, Haruka Miyagawa. The interview was attended and moderated by representatives of Netflix.
How did the idea of Sol Levante and 4K HDR anime creation come to fruition ?
Haruka Miyagawa: Most of our shows were already produced in 4K HDR, and our service streams the format. But anime has been one of the few genres where we haven’t really been able to achieve that, due to there being of lots of challenges from the production side. We wanted to see if we could do a 4K HDR Japanese anime production.
We had to find partners who were willing to create their contents in 4K & HDR, so I began approaching several anime studios. Their initial response was along the lines of, “If we wanted to do 4K, we need bigger paper to draw on. And if the paper is big we can’t flip them for the animation, so we can’t use it.” That was really the general reaction from a majority of the anime studios.
Luckily, we found a very small team with Saitoh-san from Production I.G who had already been testing 4K & HDR by themselves. It was a perfect match for us to work together to finish this project.
Akira Saitoh: For us, it has always been our wish to see how far we can go with the skills that we’ve earned throughout our careers. With the advance of technology, we wanted to know where we could go in terms of artistic expression by taking full advantage of our skills and the technology available to us. We were able to meet with Miyagawa-san, and that’s how this project began.
Why is Netflix investing in 4K HDR, and not in other technologies such as 3D?
Haruka: Because it’s widely available right now. Maybe you’ve never heard of it specifically, but if you have the latest iPhone, then that supports HDR. Or if you go to an electronics shop to buy a brand-new TV, then that’s usually 4K. That’s true for Japan, but whenever I travel and got to the electronic shops, I also find that all of the TVs there are already using 4K & HDR.
Even without being aware of these new technologies, consumers are actually getting those devices at home and are using them to access the content. So that leads us to think that having anime titles with this format would appeal to a lot of users, and also offer them a great experience.
Why did you choose to produce Sol Levante using hand-drawn animation rather than using 3DCG? What are the things that are possible in hand-drawn that are not possible in 3DCG?
Akira: One of the biggest challenges that a lot of the animators face in the 3D creative environment is in bringing out the liveliness and personalities of the characters. When you do a close-up of the face, bringing out all the nuances using 3D animation is still a big challenge.
But a very skilled animator could do just that using pencils, which in our case we used an Apple pencil. Being able to bring enchanting characters to life is still a big advantage of hand-drawn animation over 3D, so this was one of the biggest reasons we wanted to stick with hand-drawn this time.
What was the experience like partnering with the creative technologies team at Netflix? Were there any differences between a production like this and producing anime for TV or films?
Akira: I’ve been working in the animation business here in Japan for a long time. I also have been researching a lot of the 4K HDR technology before this project. It’s very hard for animators to create ambitious and high-quality works through conventional channels in Japan, even with the help of broadcasting companies or studios. Meeting Miyagawa-san and working with Netflix took away all the obstacles and restrictions. We were able to incorporate all new technology and create high-quality content. It was that big of a game-changer for us, so we are very thankful for this opportunity.
How do you see the technologies used and skills learned being applied to other productions that you may be working on?
Before, there were certain colours or hues that we needed to give up on using because we weren’t able to render them on screen using conventional technologies. I think a lot of animation creators in Japan are so used to creating within a very restrictive environment using these conventional formats.
With 4K HDR technology, there’s no need to make these compromises. It enables you to render your artistic vision as you’ve imagined in your mind onto the screen. So I believe that there are no creators out there who would say no to this if they are given this opportunity.
What kind of hardware had to be implemented into the production space? Were there any unexpected problems you encountered during the production?
Haruka: Since the team had adapted to digital drawing, we didn’t run into any problems. But if we need to work with others who are still drawing on paper, they need to be transformed from paper to digital. Because 4K requires a larger digital canvas, we definitely would need more horsepower for the workstation they’re using. I see more challenges to using 4K as you have to overhaul the whole working environment.
On the other hand, HDR is independent of resolution. So it can be in HD resolution & HDR, or 4K resolution & HDR. The biggest challenge right now is monitors. Currently, professional-use HD monitors are still quite expensive. But year by year I see more monitors on the market at a reasonable price. If the price goes down enough for animation studios to introduce them as their main monitor, it will soon happen that anime studios start creating content in HDR.
What were some of the changes that you wish you could have made, now that you have finished the production?
Akira: *laughs* I feel that we’ve done all that we could within the working environment, but it was very time-consuming work considering what we had to do. There were things that we had to give up on and be okay with what we had. There were some choices that had to be made during the process, as we’re constantly lacking in equipment and manpower. That led us to make choices where, in an ideal world, we would have chosen differently.
Haruka: *laughs* Well, having more human resources was something that we could have improved on if I ever have the chance to do a similar project. If we could have assigned more artists at the very beginning of the project, we could have done the project in a much shorter period of time.
Out of the six people involved, the core staff was comprised of only three people. So Saitoh-san was not only direct but also created the backgrounds and VFX work. The key animator, Ezura-san, did key animation, in-between animation, cut-out animation, character design, and everything related to drawing. Tanaka-san who is the colour designer designed all the colours as well as painting the colours for each frame.
So what kind of viewing hardware is required or recommended to get the full viewing experience?
Haruka: You need a device that supports 4K & HDR. In order to fully enjoy this immersive content, I would suggest an OLED TV in 4K HDR and a Dolby Atmos soundbar. You would also need an internet speed of a minimum of 25Mbps.
How do you believe people are going to react to the work?
Akira: Everyone has their own preferences, so some might see this story as not being for them. However, I believe that whoever watching this would really feel the excitement of using 4K HDR and how immersive it is. I think a lot of people would feel like that after watching.
How difficult would it be to produce a full-length feature in the same vein?
Akira: *laughs* If we’re able to solve the lack of human resources that we mentioned earlier on, I think that we would be able to come up with something in a shorter time frame. It is my wish to team up and collaborate not only with animators here in Japan but with creators from all around the world who are willing to involve themselves with this new technology.
What sort of adjustments to the drawing process did you have to make in this project, compared to regular productions?
Akira: In Japan, there’s a process where they rub out the original lines made by the animator to display the colours more clearly. That sort of process takes away a lot of the nuances of the original drawing made by the original animators. But in our case, we were actually able to keep the original lines drawn by the animators as it is. So we were able to leave in those detailed nuances in the finished product. So while the process itself wasn’t very different, there were some positive takeaways that came out of the process this time.
Do you think that this project will start a new wave of Japanese productions in the 4K HDR format?
Akira: I’m not so sure about that. Overseas animation studios might be quicker in adopting these new technologies. There seems to be a lot of hesitation with Japanese animation studios in incorporating new technologies. Perhaps somewhere that’s not Japan would be quicker to adopt these technologies.
Does Netflix intend to make 4K HDR the standard for future Netflix Original anime releases?
Haruka: Since 2017, Netflix has invested heavily in Japanese anime. We’re passionate about the genre now more than ever. We believe technology enhances great storytelling, but we also would give each creator the creative freedom to tell their stories in the format they see fit.
Finally, why did you choose the title Sol Levante?
Akira: Sol Levante means “sunrise” in Italian, so it’s symbolic of the sun. And in ancient Egypt, when the sun sets in the west, it dies. But when it comes up the next morning in the east, then it was a symbol of resurrection, or “being reborn”. So “being reborn” was a major theme for this project. No matter how times may change or how new tools may come out, we feel that it’s always a new opportunity for creators to “be reborn” and to continue to come up with creative, inspiring content.
The Indonesian Anime Times | Interview and text by Caesar E.S. | This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity