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Netflix Japan found itself in hot water on social media platforms this week after proudly announcing that artificial intelligence (AI) software was used to produce background art for a new animated short.

What happened: Netflix Japan put out a tweet claiming that due to a labor shortage facing Japan’s anime industry, the company used AI software to generate background images for the short film Dog and Boy.

The three-and-a-half minute short is linked in the tweet, including a credits reel that shows a series of in-progress background images from the same scene, labeling them as “Layout (Hand-drawn),” “Step 2 (AI Generation),” “Step 3 (AI Generation),” and “Final BG (Revised by Hand).”

Netflix AI

Whose hand revised the images is a mystery. Where a human background designer would normally be listed the credit simply reads “AI (+Human).” On a later screen, numerous individuals are credited as AI Development and AI Development Support. Presumably, one or several of those people did the final touch-ups.

Backlash: Immediately after it was posted, the tweet drew wide criticism from artists whose complaints were two-fold.

  • Argument one: Commenters were quick to argue that there is no real labor shortage and that the company was simply using manufactured scarcity as an excuse not to pay human artists properly. The treatment of animation workers in Japan has been a hot-button issue for some time now. In 2021, The New York Times published a report that indicated some animation workers in Japan were making as little as USD$200 a month, driving many out of the industry. Later that year, Netflix and Mappa were called out by a storyboard artist who claimed that workers were paid as little as 3,800 yen (USD$34) per cut by the companies. In 2022, the Japanese government became involved, but issues regarding the treatment of anime workers are still a long way from being resolved.
  • Argument two: The second argument levied against Netflix’s use of AI is that the practice is unethical, as the databases used by most AI image-generating programs are created by scraping the internet for human-made work without ever crediting the original artists or seeking their permission. This argument has been made against numerous image-generating AI companies, and just last month a group of artists filed a lawsuit against two of the biggest players, Stability AI and Midjourney.

Who made Dog and Boy? The short was directed by Ryotaro Makihara and produced by Taiki Sakurai through Netflix’s Anime Creators Base — a Tokyo-based initiative the streamer launched in September of 2021 to find and develop animation talent in the region while training artists on new techniques and tools. Dog and Boy was produced with support from Japanese animation giants Production I.G (Ghost in the Shell) and WIT Studio (Attack on Titan, Moonrise). AI software company Rinna Inc. is listed as the film’s AI development company.

Did Netflix have anything else to say about using AI? Not specifically. In a release accompanying the trailer, several quotes from individuals involved with the production of Dog & Boy allude to strategies for providing tools and resources to artists that will allow them more freedom, although AI is not mentioned specifically. Netflix anime chief producer Daiki Sakurai is also quoted, but only offered a vague statement about the evolution of animation production:

If creators can choose a production method suitable for their work without being bound by a fixed production method, they will have a wider range of expression. By providing creators with a variety of choices, I would like to contribute to the evolution of the animation industry into a freer and stronger one.

Pictured at top: Dog and Boy