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Urvan Urvan

Toei Animation, one of Japan’s oldest animation studios, is embracing some of the industry’s newest technology.

The company is increasingly turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to speed up animation production and cope with labor shortages. It has recently used AI software to generate animation backgrounds, and is employing a separate tool to accelerate the coloring of characters’ clothes.

In Urvan, an experimental short released in February, Toei’s in-house research team used Scenify to convert photos of Japan’s Sasebo city into images with a basic anime-like rendering (see image above). The pink-hued, cyberpunk-like backgrounds in the film were then retouched by artists. According to Scenify’s developers Preferred Networks, Scenify’s use of AI-based image processing and segmentation technologies cuts the pre-processing time to one-sixth of what it would otherwise take.

Watch “Urvan” below:

As per a report in Variety, labor shortages are a reason for this turn to AI. Toei president Katsuhiro Takagi also stresses the high costs of animation production: “I feel that the number of hits is small compared to the number of works that are out in the world. How do you now make a profit from animation works that are expensive to produce?”

Founded in 1948 and acquired by film major Toei in 1956, Toei Animation has produced high-profile films and series across more than half a century. It has long had the largest workforce of any animation studio in Japan. Its hit series include Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, Digimon, and One Piece.

The anime industry is growing to record size, fueled in large part by investment from overseas streaming companies. Yet endemic labor problems persist, with artists receiving very low wages and facing long hours. The industry’s shortage of talent must be understood in this context.