On January 31, Netflix turned heads with the release of a new anime short film. Posted to Netflix Japan’s official YouTube account, The Dog and the Boy follows a robotic dog and his human companion, who are separated by war and then reunited in old age. All background art for the three-minute video was created using an AI image generator, similar to tools like Stable Diffusion and Midjourney.

A tweet from the official Netflix Japan account describes the novel technique as “an experimental effort to help the anime industry, which has a labor shortage.”

Backlash from anime fans and illustrator communities has been swift, reflecting real fears about being automated out of a job. “A lot of [anime] artists are scared, and rightly so, Zakuga Mignon, an illustrator who asked to use their professional name due to ongoing threats. Mignon founded the hashtag #SupportHumanArtists, which first took off in December but has become prominent in the backlash against Netflix’s film.

But The Dog and the Boy wasn’t just a threat to artists generally. It targeted background artists specifically: a class of animation workers that is particularly vulnerable to automation and downsizing. For those fighting to elevate background artists’ work, it’s an alarming trend — and a troubling reminder of how automated tools can play on divisions within a profession.

So far, Netflix has not publicly acknowledged the controversy. “We are proud to be part of such an exciting project that hopefully contributes to elevating, improving, and bringing in more flexibility to creative workflow for anime in the future,” said Taiki Sakurai, Netflix’s chief producer of anime, in a statement to Rest of World. but declined to answer specific questions about the film.

But industry experts worry that this new flexibility will mean shifting attention and resources away from backgrounds, and potentially changing the final product for the worse.

“Background artists are one very important part of the production process, one very skilled step of production,” Elena Altheman, a member of Concordia University’s The Platform Lab research group, and a PhD candidate studying the history of labor in the animation industry, told Rest of World. “Settings are often as important as characters, setting the tone for the work and sometimes even compensating in detail and complexity for ‘limited animation’ [a cost-cutting measure that uses fewer frames to animate characters].”

In the animation industry, background artists are often treated as “below-the-line” or non-creative workers, even as they make pivotal contributions to the look and feel of a production. Typically, background illustrators will develop location designs, illustrate establishing shots, and create key backdrops for character scenes.

“I realized that I could focus on what only humans can do.”

Notably, Netflix’s automated background system wasn’t starting from scratch, and it’s unclear how much human input was involved in the final product. Initial background layouts were hand-drawn by human illustrators, according to Netflix’s own behind-the-scenes materials. Those layouts were then fed into assistive AI tools to render images, which were revised and polished again by humans. Most scenes are of sweeping vistas in the Japanese countryside, captured through changing seasons.

Even before this controversy, Netflix’s disregard of industry norms had raised eyebrows in the anime world. Still, the company’s deep pockets and growing investments in the industry suggest the test has the potential to spark changes in how its animated films are made. The film is a project of its Anime Creators’ Base, a Tokyo studio and innovation arm funded by the company’s ballooning original anime production budget. Wit Studio, the well-established Japanese production house known for its marquee anime series like Attack on Titan, was also involved in the short.

For the test, both Netflix and Wit partnered with the Japanese AI startup Rinna to provide the image-generating tools. Last fall, the small startup released “Japanese Stable Diffusion,” its own image generator customized to accept Japanese-language text prompts, trained using over 100 million images with Japanese captions to capture cultural references and nuances. (Rinna declined to answer questions for this piece.)

Netflix Studios

According to Ryotaro Makihara, director of The Dog and the Boy, much of the benefit of Rinna’s AI system was allowing animators to focus on more sophisticated parts of the production process.

“By combining tools and hand-drawn techniques, I realized that I could focus on what only humans can do and, as a result, expand my range of expression,” said Makihara, in a blog posted by Netflix Japan announcing the film’s release. In practice, that meant automating the background and saving human animators for the foreground.

But what Rinna framed as a labor-saving system, others see as a way to further marginalize working background artists. “There’s absolutely no shortage of labor in animation … What we can observe in the cultural industries, however, is the ongoing precarization of work,” said Altheman, noting that lower wages, longer work hours, less work stability, and physical and mental health issues are taking their toll on animation workplaces.

Japanese anime studios, in particular, are notorious for their taxing work culture. Animators are pushed to churn out content in extremely high volumes, with some reportedly earning just $200 per month. Whether AI will release some of this stress on production or cause more job precarity has yet to be seen.

Rest of World had previously reported on the simmering anxieties among anime and manga illustrators about AI-fueled automation displacing workers in these already competitive industries, as tools like Stable Diffusion and DALL-E continue to encroach.

This most recent incident has reignited those debates and mobilized vocal critics, such as Mignon, who describe generative AI’s advancements as an ethical crisis in the industry.

“If [animators] are already capping out with their mental and [physical] health, trying to keep up with the demands of making [anime], then there’s no possible way any human could compete against something that can generate 600 drawings in one day,” Mignon said.

Print and comic book illustrators have joined the conversation as well, some questioning whether generative AI is simply another cost-cutting tool for the streaming giant.

“Let’s be honest, Netflix. There’s artists all over the world looking for work,” wrote Marvel comic book artist Pete Woods in one popular tweet. “There’s no labor shortage. There’s a corporate greed surplus.”