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How AI Became a New Animation Battlefield: 'I Can't Wait for Them to Get Sued'

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This feature is part of AI Week. For more stories, including how AI can improve accessibility in gaming and comments from experts like Tim Sweeney, check out our hub.

On Feb. 26, Corridor Crew – a production studio with more than 6 million subscribers on YouTube – posted a video called Did We Just Change Animation Forever? In it, they detailed the process they went through to create what they called Anime Rock, Paper, Scissors, an animated short made with the assistance of Stable Diffusion, a machine-learning text-to-image model, combined with footage filmed in front of a green-screen.

“I think we came up with a new way to animate,” Niko Pueringer, who wrote and directed the AI-assisted short, said in the video. “A way to turn reality into a cartoon and it’s one more step toward true creative freedom where we can easily create anything we want.”

The backlash from the animation industry, however, was swift and harsh, to say the least.

“Ya’ll didn’t ‘democratize’ shit,” Castlevania director Samuel Deats tweeted in response to the video. “Y'all are just lazy thieves spitting on an entire art form, fuck you.”

Corridor (which declined an interview for this story) responded to the controversy with a long post on its subreddit saying, in part, “This isn't a replacement for someone that knows how to animate, nor someone who can draw. Tools constantly evolve, but making something visually captivating always requires those same core skills. It still takes an artist to make art. That hasn't changed.”

The issue is, Corridor Crew isn’t the only one using AI to assist in generating animation. Their video came just a few weeks after Netflix Japan garnered controversy for anime short Dog & The Boy, which “used image generation technology for the background images of all three-minute video cuts,” per their announcement. The streaming platform called it “an experimental effort to help the animation industry, due to a labor shortage,” but many in the industry weren’t buying it.

“The truth is that in Japan, there's a labor shortage and it is really related to labor because they don't pay their animators enough to make a living wage,” Jeanette Moreno King, president of The Animation Guild and supervising director on FXX’s Little Demon, tells IGN. “That was something that [the industry] created themselves. And if there's a labor shortage, it's their own fault.”

Donald Glover, meanwhile, courted backlash for a job listing at his creative studio Gilga, which is looking for an AI Prompt Animator – aka, "someone active in the AI animation space" – as well as an AI Prompt Engineer + Librarian. Elsewhere, illustrators in the video game industry have already begun to report losing jobs to AI.

And for many animators in Hollywood, the idea that studios could start using artificial intelligence platforms to do the work typically handled by human artists is a very real anxiety. As animation faces other struggles, including a lack of pay equity with live-action writers and increased cuts as companies like Netflix and Warner Bros. try to to save costs, “AI is just one more thing that’s adding to the anxiety,” says King.

“Animation in general is undervalued,” she goes on. “And if you look at the budgets of a lot of live-action shows, it's incredible how much money they spend on those shows. And animation is just treated as a really cheap content filler that gives them a lot of money. It's low cost and they get a lot back for it. And so it irritates me that they want to make it even cheaper.”

"It really feels like these tools are a way to remove what little leverage we feel like we have.


“There is not enough job stability in the creative industry anyway,” Jason DeMarco, co-creator of Cartoon Network’s Toonami animation block and current senior vice president of action and anime at Warner Bros. Discovery, adds. “Now it's going to be even harder, because to the degree you can make any money off of art, you'll be challenged by machines that are copying what you do.”

DeMarco was one of many to push back against Corridor’s Rock, Paper, Scissors video, and points out that while he found it “ugly and off-putting, other people didn’t.” “It didn't look like a big threat, but at the same time, it represented a first step.”

And several animators are worried studios will start to take notice of what that first step represents, given how many of them feel undervalued to begin with. Frank Gibson, an animation writer whose credits include Bee & Puppycat, Dreamworks’ The Mighty Ones, and LEGO Ninjago Legacy: Gold Rush, calls it “really insulting, because animation's already contracted so much,” and cites a “true resentfulness towards creative people” in the industry.

“It's such a bummer to see people trying to find new ways to push people out of animation jobs,” Gibson says of AI. “It's a very, very bad time for them to be doing this. And it really feels like these tools are a way to remove what little leverage we feel like we have.”

IGN talked to several animators for this story, who shared fears of losing work to the technology, their legal and ethical concerns about their work being stolen by AI software, and what it could all mean for the industry at large.

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‘This Is Not Good for the Worker’

That industry, obviously, wouldn’t exist without its workers, many of whom are concerned about how this technology could shut out or diminish their labor. Becky Dreistadt, who’s currently lead character designer on Disney’s Big City Greens Movie and whose previous credits include Adventure Time: Distant Lands, The Steven Universe Movie, and Steven Universe Future and is partners with Gibson, sums it up simply:

“I sadly wouldn't put it past companies to choose to not pay artists if they have the option,” she says.

Basically, if the studios can find ways to go around paying artists, many fear that they will.

DeMarco agrees, saying that his first thought when he saw AI test animations floating around was, “this is not good for the worker.”

“What makes animation unique is literally everything you see on the screen is made by human hands in some way, shape or form,” he says. “They may use tools, like computers, but there's a human directing all of it. And when you remove the human, beyond the ethical questions about what art means if you take humanity out of it, you then are leaving those people out of work.”

“So I think that's the biggest danger, is some business guy somewhere putting down his cigar and his Wall Street Journal, and phoning somebody and saying, ‘Fire all our animators and just buy one of those damn programs,’ and then you have a bunch of people out of work,” he goes on. “And eventually, that becomes an epidemic, because business people do like to do what other business people do.”

And Gibson notes that he might not be himself or Dreistadt, who each have years of experience and credits to the names, who lose their jobs to studios outsourcing AI. Instead, it may be those who are trying to break into animation, as the kind of work studios might start handing to AI could be the sort that entry-level writers and animators do.

“If there's no way to get in anymore then creative jobs are going to become even more of a playground for people of privilege,” he says.

And it’s valuable for young artists, King says, to go through all the early steps of production in the learning process – steps that might go to AI.

It’s worth noting, however, that not everyone is so worried that AI will be taking their jobs. In fact, Dan Root, a freelance 2D animator and lecturer in the U.K., thinks there might be ways to use AI to “enhance” the animation process.

He uses the example of Joel Haver, an animator on YouTuber who’s been posting for years about training an AI algorithm using simple things like MS Paint illustrations and putting them over his own video footage.

Ultimately, he points to a metaphor: people still paint, even though photography exists.

“I don't think there's anything to worry about, personally,” he says. “Because I think there's still an element of control that you're missing when it comes to AI, because it can only be retroactive and it can't, at least not yet, it can't create anything new. Ghosts in the machine could change that in the future, who knows? But I think people will always want to animate, and they'll always be people who aren't going to be bothered about a one-click cartoon sort of thing.”

"I sadly wouldn't put it past companies to choose to not pay artists if they have the option.


King, too, says she’s “curious to see how we can fold it into our workflows and pipelines,” although she notes that she certainly doesn’t want anyone to be replaced. But, she adds, if there are ways to use the technology to make their jobs easier, “that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

She cites shows and movies like Game of Thrones and even the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which used AI-assisted technology in their battle scenes so an animator didn’t have to spend time on each individual.

Still, for many, the potential benefits don't outweigh what could be lost.

“I do think there will be applications that are useful for artists,” DeMarco says. “But I just don't think if you weigh that against the cost of what it's going to do to prevent people from being able to work, that it's going to be worth it.”

‘I Have Not Given Permission for My Art to Be Used’

Labor is far from the only concern. Because the software is pulling from established work, many artists are worried about theirs being stolen. In the case of the Corridor Crew’s video, for example, even though they were using a text-to-image platform, the model was trained using 2000 dark fantasy anime film Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

King points out that it may be at least one area where the workers and studios align on the issue: neither of those groups want their work taken illegally.

“I don't think that the people who are releasing these chatbots and these art Stable Diffusion-type things are thinking about any of that,” DeMarco says of the plagiarism concerns. “They're just going, ‘Well, we're just exploring. We're just seeing, we're training models to try to see what we can make happen,’ which I understand too, but we do not have enough controls in place as a society or an industry to have that stuff safely developed.”

Dreistadt doesn’t mince words when asked if she’s worried about her work being stolen by AI: “Yes! It has been!”

“I have not given permission for my art to be used, so it's really upsetting,” she says. “No one should have the right to sell AI images of my art. It's actually illegal. I have spent decades crafting my skill and developing my style. It's extremely messed up that someone could use that without putting in any effort or thought.”

Jake Grove, an attorney with law firm Howard & Howard who specializes in intellectual property litigation, agrees with Dreistadt. Absent a court ruling to the contrary, which he doesn’t anticipate happening, he sees it as straightforward theft.

“I think that the law is robust enough to accommodate these particular technological advances,” he says. “If people are stealing other people's copyrighted works in the context of artificial intelligence, using artificial intelligence to create their own stuff, that's still going to be likely a copyright infringement.”

To put it more simply, in Dreistadt’s words, “I can’t wait for these AI companies to get sued for stealing already.”

"When you see people training AIs on people's art without their permission, everybody needs to make such noise that they stop doing that.


Elsewhere, the U.S. Copyright Office stated in a recent ruling that AI-generated images are not protected under the current copyright law, as they “are not the product of human authorship.” In short, the law sides with the humans on this one.

As for ways that artists can protect their work from being stolen – or, at least, make it easier to sue if their work is stolen – Grove imagines they could embed watermarks or “Easter eggs” in the source code.

“It's maybe almost like an invisible digital marker that they could point to if it ended up in an accused infringing work,” he says. “They could say, ‘Aha. See, this wasn't accidental. This wasn't somebody else's stuff. This was my stuff.’ “

From his perspective, DeMarco says “collective action is always key.”

“I think when you see people training AIs on people's art without their permission, everybody needs to make such noise that they stop doing that,” he says. “And you're going to find that there's plenty of artists who don't care, who are like, ‘Yeah, sure, train on my art if you give me 15 bucks, whatever.’ So let those people be a part of it, but if you want to protect your art from that happening, you have to really understand what the use of these tools are, how they're used, who uses them, and you have to be involved enough to know what you don't want to be a part of.”

Are there ways a studio could possibly use AI ethically and legally, though? Maybe. Root proposes the scenario of a studio training their AI model on their own artwork – say, for example, Studio Ghibli, which has a wealth of its own painterly backgrounds it could use, training its model on works it already owns.

But even then, he says, the work would be derivative, and “if you want to explore something new, the manual work still has to be done.”

And for a lot of animators, that’s the kicker. “AI can’t make anything new,” says Dreistadt. “It’s smashing together things that already exist.”

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‘If They’re Trying to Make Art, Why Use That?’

It’s true that AI isn’t making anything new – and, according to many, anything beautiful. Recently, as the debate around AI has continued to ramp up, a fitting clip from a 2016 documentary featuring legendary animation director Hayao Miyazaki has resurfaced. In it, he’s shown an animated video made by AI, and he bluntly denounces it.

“I am utterly disgusted,” he says in the clip. “If you really want to make creepy stuff, you can go ahead and do it. I would never wish to incorporate this technology into my work at all. I strongly feel that this is an insult to life itself.”

“I feel like we are nearing the end of times," he continues. "We humans are losing faith in ourselves.”

miyazaki of studio ghibli, upon seeing an artificial intelligence presentation- "i strongly feel that this is an insult to life itself". pic.twitter.com/UmOOWvsfjV

— Tofu (@TofuPixel) December 12, 2022

But it’s that very oddness that creeps into AI animation, however, that gives some industry workers hope.

“I don't think AI can currently make anything beautiful, or charming,” Dreistadt says. “Charming is something that can not be taught or replicated. There is no soul in AI art. It looks like smeary, nasty crap.”

“There's no one that watches Dragon Ball who looks at Anime Rock, Paper, Scissors and they would be like, ‘I'll choose that over this,’ “ Gibson adds. “I think that is what will stop people who actually enjoy anime from getting into stuff like this. Because it doesn't respect the artistry of the medium at all, or the genres, or even the things they're referencing.”

King, who notes that The Animation Guild hasn’t put out an official statement yet as it continues to learn more, goes back to Netflix’s Dog & The Boy.

“You could tell that it looked hackneyed,” she says. “It didn't look original and it didn't look like it was breaking any kind of new ground. And I don't really see the value in that. I mean, obviously the reason they were doing it was to test out the technology, but if they're really trying to make art, why use that?”

And on a more practical level, there are just some jobs King can’t imagine AI doing. For example, she cites the work of handling revisions on a TV show, as they’re stylistic subtleties and changes that come from the director and showrunner. Basically, AI could do the pre-production work, but it would take humans to come in and finish the job – although, she notes again, that’s valuable experience that young artists would lose out on.

She says she’s not exactly worried about herself, but she’s keeping a level head as they navigate how AI will affect the industry, as “it's not going to go away. It's here to stay.” And for many, that’s the fear.

"There is no soul in AI art. It looks like smeary, nasty crap.


“Maybe it's a novelty,” Gibson says. “Maybe it's something that will burn out like NFTs or whatever. And I hope it does. But I do worry.”

DeMarco has a similar sentiment, noting that while it’s still too early to tell how the technology will affect the industry and the art, “there’s very good reason to be concerned at this stage.”

And even Root, who didn’t voice too much anxiety over the issue, admits that technology advances quickly, and perhaps shouldn’t be underestimated.

“I'm worried that I'm going to miss this phase where we made fun of AI because it couldn't get things right,” he says. “If it learns how to do hands – eventually, it's going to be able to do hands and eyes – and then suddenly we won't really be laughing at it anymore.”

Still, for all the anxiety that’s running through the industry, Gibson ends on a hopeful note.

“Kids, they see through all of this stuff,” he says. “There's a reason why kids choose Bluey, because it's beautiful and it's thoughtful. They're not going to choose the AI version of Bluey, because it would be a nightmare.”

“That's the thing in animation that makes me feel very, very safe,” he concludes. “Because kids are really smart. And they see all of it.”


Alex Stedman is a Senior News Editor with IGN, overseeing entertainment reporting. When she's not writing or editing, you can find her reading fantasy novels or playing Dungeons & Dragons.

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