30 Years of Celsys

This year sees the thirtieth anniversary of one of the most influential companies in the history of Japanese animation. Despite being a fundamental part of modern Japanese media, the name Celsys is largely unspoken among anime fans, unless those anime fans happen to be historians or professional animators.

Celsys was founded in May 1991 to make the digital animation software package that would come to be known as RETAS Pro. Within a year, timid animators working on a Fist of the North Star game at Toei would try out this “Revolutionary Engineering Total Animation System,” a basket of programs including Stylos, for creating digital “pencil” images, Traceman for in-betweening, Paintman for colouring and Core RETAS for integrating all the other elements. The Windows version also added Movie Edit Pro, which allowed for the addition of limited special effects.

RETAS was released at a watershed moment in the history of computing, as the falling costs of hardware made mass adoption of software a possibility. By 1997, Toei had begun phasing out its analogue animation units – Dr Slump and Spooky Kitaro, despite continuing to look like analogue animation, were soon created solely inside computers. As the Pokémon boom led to a surge in animation contracts, overseas studios were increasingly able to integrate their work down a phoneline, and multimedia operations were thrilled at the chance to have all their assets digitised from the outset.

Celsys’ own publicity has boasted that up to 90% of all modern anime “use RETAS Pro” in their production, although I suspect what that means is that they use RETAS Pro in part of their production. Some companies may work solely in RETAS, but others still just use it for Paintman these days. Regardless, the Celsys name is something you will find associated with vast numbers of modern anime, and as the price of the software dropped during the noughties from £4,000 to £240, suddenly the world was full of have-a-go-heroes like Makoto Shinkai, who’d worked out that you didn’t need a studio of 200 people anymore, you just needed a big desktop machine and lots of time. In 2013, even Sazae-san, the last anime to be made in the old-fashioned way, gave up and became an all-digital operation.

Celsys went on to be similarly ubiquitous in the worlds of e-book readers (CLIP STUDIO READER) and digital manga production (Manga Studio). In other words, their engine is chugging away behind almost all the electronic, streaming or downloadable light novels, cartoons and comics consumed in modern Japan. Happy birthday to them.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #209, 2021.

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