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Apr 16, 2020

Bringing 4K and HDR to Anime with Sol Levante

Some might dismiss them as simple cartoons, but anime’s diverse and fantastical stories, vibrant style, and delicate lines are an artform that has evolved and grown in popularity, variety and sophistication over the last fifty years. From its likely roots in colorful painted lanterns in the early 20th century, to gaining mainstream status in Japan in the 1970s, viewers now have hundreds of anime series and films to choose from all over the world.

Our Creative Technologies team wanted to elevate the technical quality of anime’s visuals, discover what new creative opportunities that would introduce, and learn what it would take to increase anime’s resolution from HD to 4K and introduce the wider color palette of high dynamic range (HDR) to artists’ toolsets. When 4K entered the conversation, most animators in Japan asked for one thing: a bigger piece of paper! But the artists at Japanese animation studio Production I.G. saw the future in digital. A bigger, more colorful collaboration was born – and the resulting short, Sol Levante, is now available for streaming on Netflix in 4K Dolby Vision and Atmos!

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The Creative Technologies team at Netflix focuses on how we can improve our content creation practices for the long term, and works with various partners on research and development to bring these improvements to real world workflows. Combining high quality and longevity with an authentic experience is a part of our team’s core mission, as is opening up new creative opportunities. Given the rapid adoption of consumer 4K HDR capable devices, it’s easy to imagine that it will be the primary viewing experience in five years.

Leading the charge is Creative Technology Engineer Haruka Miyagawa, who has worked at Netflix for over four years in our Tokyo office. Haruka was a workflow consultant for many years and joined Netflix from Rhode and Schwarz, an international electronics group whose products are used in numerous anime studios. She originally started at Netflix as a MEP Engineer to support licensed content delivery and then transitioned to Creative Technology as an Imaging Engineer to support Netflix’s original productions. A big focus of Haruka’s work was/is how to bring a better quality picture to Netflix’s users with a more efficient workflow.

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Akira Saitoh (left) and Haruka Miyagawa (right) working on the 4k project.

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Supporting Haruka’s project is Kylee Peña, who has been at Netflix for over two years in our Los Angeles office, working as a Program Manager in Creative Technologies. She started in the entertainment industry as an offline editor in unscripted and reality series and then shifted into workflow because she was interested in lots of different content and the associated innovations that could be made for them. Within the Creative Technologies team, she helps facilitate project management and related strategy that intersects all of CTI’s (Creative Technologies and Infrastructure) disciplines.

As Kylee said in her own words, “Sol Levante kicked off roughly the same time I joined Netflix two years ago, and it's been amazing to learn about the history and challenges of hand drawn anime through Haruka’s incredible expertise and her engagement with the local production community. Until this project, nearly all of my workflow experience has been in live action. Meeting the director of Sol Levante, Akira-san, and seeing all the steps to get from ideas to an inspirational story gave me a deep appreciation for the art. I love that our globally minded team can enable all kinds of artists to do their very best work by removing technical barriers and making it easier to try new things.”

The Future of Anime Production: What’s Next?

The gorgeous world of Sol Levante was a culmination of art, technology, and curiosity. Given all that we’ve learned in this two-year collaboration with Production I.G., we want to start a conversation with animators and creatives about evolving technologies, partner with manufacturers to better support the anime industry, and work with anime studios to apply our findings to their productions. In order to help the industry better understand 4K, HDR and immersive audio in anime, we’ve released raw materials used in Sol Levante for download and experimentation. Premium subscribers can also watch Sol Levante on Netflix with any HDR configured device.

As director Akira Saitoh told us, “4K and HDR is like getting wings and an engine to see a new horizon where a new era is rising. We keep challenging ourselves and being innovative for the future.” There have been many challenges for this project, but Akira believes 4K and HDR is the only way for content creators to continue being a top runner of content creation.

We encourage creatives to push the boundaries of resolution to serve their story. We want to create content in the format that viewers will be consuming it, and we want that content to look great for as long as possible. But we can’t ignore the fact that for anime, the tools and equipment are still not prepared for a 4K workflow without a major overhaul.

For HDR, the adjustment is much easier because the challenges are simpler to solve. The biggest hurdle that remains across the industry is the lack of affordable HDR monitors. Once they become more plentiful, it’s only a matter of time before HDR is common in anime.

“At the end, who doesn’t want a bigger house?”

This is what animator Hisashi Ezura told us about working in HDR.The analogy made Haruka laugh because the Japanese are well known for living in small apartments and always wanting to have a big house – but it’s a dream. For him, this dream came true for his work. And now that he can achieve things he never thought possible by using HDR, he’ll never go back!

There is more to do and learn, and the Creative Technologies team at Netflix is engaging with software and hardware manufacturers to share these learnings and support the accelerated innovation in the creative ecosystem.

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