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The History of CELSYS is the Advancement of Drawing Software Itself: The Story of CLIP STUDIO PAINT

The History of CELSYS is the Advancement of Drawing Software Itself: The Story of CLIP STUDIO PAINT CLIP STUDIO PAINT is a well-trusted program for drawing pictures such as comics and illustrations. We were curious to know the story behind this program, so we visited CELSYS, the developers of CLIP STUDIO PAINT. The history behind CELSYS is the history of drawing software itself, including the birth of predecessors such as ComicStudio.

-The little-known story of the advancement of drawing software

Many people are interested in comics, illustrations and animation, but most people only see the finished product. Do you know what kinds of tools are used to make them? More than a few people probably think that making works like this requires specialist knowledge and software that the average person would not know how to use. I was one of them. I learned differently when I had the opportunity to visit CELSYS, a long-term developer of digital production software for works such as animation and comics. Find out about the history of the products CELSYS has developed and learn about the great features of CLIP STUDIO PAINT, the latest illustration and comic software.

Kei Narushima, Executive Director of Sales(right),Tomoaki Yokotsuka,  Director of Development(center) and Tatsuo Sasaki, Executive Director of Development (left), the CELSYS representatives who kindly allowed me to interview them for this article.

-CELSYS began with RETAS, a program that was used by many animation companies.

CELSYS was established in 1991. It is named after founder Yosuke Kawakami's aim to take cel animation and systematize it.  

1991 was the dawn of digital graphics. What we now know as computer graphics, functions allowing people to draw using their computer, were gradually becoming a standard feature on computers. At that time, the US and Canada were the leaders in computer graphics technology. Mr. Kawakami was interested in computer graphics and wondered whether Japan would have a market for digital graphics tools like computer graphics. He decided to try replacing the analog processes of cel animation with computer-based operations and CELSYS was born. 

Creation of digital tools for this process began in 1991. The first to be completed was RETAS(the precursor to the current RETAS STUDIO)), a program digitalizing the cel coloring process. Major animation studio Toei Doga(now Toei Animation) began using RETAS in 1993, and it spread to other studios after they noticed that Toei had been the first to digitalize their animation processes. By around the beginning of the 2000s, it was commonplace in animation studios. 

RETAS comprised three basic types of software: a program for scanning moving images, a program for coloring them and a program for finishing the colored cels so that they were ready for filming. The explosive rise of RETAS took place because the software followed the same animation production process as before - cel creation, finishing and filming. This meant that animators who had previously used analog processes could apply their skills in much the same way as before, only more efficiently. All they had to do was switch equipment. 

Next, CELSYS worked on digitalizing the entire process, so that instead of scanning hand-drawn images, animators could draw directly on a digital device.  They developed PencilMan in a collaboration with Toei, but this software was not particularly popular. This was partly because the artists who drew the pictures were resistant to drawing on a tablet at the time, and partly because hardly any animation studios could afford to buy a large number of LCD tablets. Incidentally, PencilMan became Stylos, which is now part of RETAS STUDIO.


-From Animation to Comic

While digitalization of the drawing process had not caught on, CELSYS had developed a range technology in the process. CELSYS thought about what to do next with this technology and decided to develop software for comics, where many animations originate from.

The result was ComicStudio, a highly renowned program completed in August 2001. The software is still available today,(​*1)on its fourth version. This software followed the same principle as RETAS and replaced basic analog processes - in this case drafts, inking, white correction, toning and rough positioning of balloons in place of typesetting - with digital ones. It also contained new techniques unique to digital production.

Version 1 of ComicStudio, the beginning of a long-running series. At that time, CELSYS designed its packaging based on a manga magazine.

But there was a problem. In order to recreate tones and draw lines cleanly in comics, a resolution of at least 600dpi is required, so this was the intended resolution when the software was developed. But this was 2001, when the Pentium 3 was the computer of the day. Computers in those days did not have the specs to support the software, and one single page layout was large enough to cause a bottleneck in the computer's operations. Version 1 attempted to solve this issue by changing the workflow so that users worked on one frame at a time, but this made the software unpopular. CELSYS resolved this issue and released Version 2 in 2003. 

CELSYS formed a technical collaboration with Wacom, the largest manufacturer of pen tablets, to ensure good quality pen drawing in ComicStudio. The result was technology that displayed smoothly rounded lines when users drew curved lines. This technology is now patented. This is the biggest difference between ComicStudio and other graphics software such as Photoshop, and there are many specialist features to help artists with drawing and ensure good drawing quality.

This technology is also included in CLIP STUDIO PAINT (the photo shows CLIP STUDIO PAINT.) I asked them to show me how it works and was amazed by the way misdrawn lines caused by a wrong movement of the hand are immediately rounded out. The width of the rounded out part can also be adjusted. Of course, you can also turn this function off and display lines the way they are drawn.

Initially, ComicStudio was only released for Windows, but professional artists expressed a strong desire for a Mac version. "Monkey Punch [a famous Japanese manga artist] came to the launch of Version 1. He said it was good software, and then said that he was looking forward to a Mac version", explains Akira Narushima, Executive Director of Sales. "That last part stuck with me.(laughs)" This led to the development of ComicStudio Aqua, a version for Mac.

ComicStudio Aqua, the Mac version of ComicStudio created by popular request.

In 2006, the software was released in overseas regions such as Europe and North America under the name MANGA STUDIO. This is the opposite naming from what one would expect. When I asked Mr. Narushima why CELSYS used the English word for their Japanese version and the Japanese word for their overseas version, he explained that "'Manga' sounds cooler to people overseas. Comics are also widely considered to be a medium for children, whereas manga can be for adults too." MANGA STUDIO has apparently sold more copies in total than ComicStudio.(​*2)

Looking at CELSYS's work so far, it is clear that each of their products is developed with a focus on promoting the popularization of digital drawing rather than from a business perspective. When a product perfectly meets the artists' needs it sells like hot cakes, and if it doesn't, CELSYS chalks it up to experience and tries again.


-Ebook solutions that provide artists with more places to show their work

In the early 2000s, digital drawing of comics was still difficult and largely unaccepted. Various comic awards did not accept digital submissions and it was often only possible to deliver manuscripts to editorial departments in paper form. 2003 was a time of transition, and CELSYS helped to usher in that change by developing a viewer for digital comics. CELSYS felt that the digital comic medium had potential for more output methods than just analog printing, and developed their viewer as a way to view digital comics on various digital devices. Once again CELSYS got in before the rest of the market by thinking about the popularization of digital comics first and foremost.

At that time, KDDI was about to launch a communication service with a packet data cap on its 3G mobile phone with a QVGA (320×240) LCD screen (CDMA 1X WIN), and comics were one of the features they had their eye on. An agreement was formed between CELSYS and KDDI, and CELSYS's ComicSurfing viewer was included on the phone when KDDI launched its new service. It was the beginning of what we now know as ebooks, but CELSYS provides ebook solutions for providers rather than launching its own services. "It wasn't about going into ebooks so much as giving artists more places to show their work", explains Mr. Narushima. "It was an extension of the support we provide for artists."

Mr. Narushima is very modest about CELSYS's focus on developing products from artists' perspective rather than a business perspective. "We're just not very good at business", he laughs.

This goes back to CELSYS's basic principle, where their first priority is to create places for artists to work rather than to do business with the content itself. This is apparently why over half of CELSYS's employees are tool developers. 

At the time CELSYS launched its comic viewer, few manga artists were "native" digital artists, and no content was being released as digital data. To provide comics in data form, content providers needed to scan comic books and perform retouching such as fixing the lines to remove issues such as jags and retyping or replacing the text to suit the new resolution. This process was aided by RETAS' function for removing dust specks from scanned data and BS BookStudio, an integrated production tool that uses ComicStudio's manga production technology to create content for digital distribution. It was an amalgamation of CELSYS's existing technology. This marked the start of CELSYS's expansion from tools for creating content to tools for viewing it.

-The birth of IllustStudio, a specialist tool for single illustrations

In 2009, CELSYS released IllustStudio. The biggest difference between this software and ComicStudio, CELSYS's main drawing software up to that point, was that IllustStudio(*1) allowed artists to draw single-page full-color illustrations. Starting a comic is a daunting task - you need to have a story and characters, and you need to create structural features such as frames. So CELSYS turned its attention to potential users who simply liked to draw. They decided to lower the high bar that comics present and release inexpensive software that a wider range of people would use. Of course, they kept the same drawing quality and basic drawing technology as ComicStudio, and simply added new technology.


-Bringing all of this technology together in CLIP STUDIO PAINT

CLIP STUDIO PAINT was released in 2012. CLIP STUDIO PAINT is an all-purpose drawing tool where users can draw both comics and illustrations. I asked Tatsuo Sasaki, Executive Director of Development, why CELSYS decided to release a product like that when Version 4 of ComicStudio had been released and they were also selling IllustStudio. "Both ComicStudio and IllustStudio were limited by old architecture and it had become difficult to grow the current versions further", he explains. "So we reached a point where we decided to create a new generation of graphics tools that were different from those two products." Being constrained by old architecture is a common problem, but it's quite difficult to scrap a strong seller like ComicStudio and start over from scratch. 

At the time of CLIP STUDIO PAINT's release, the social game boom had hit its stride. There was also a demand for illustrations for purposes such as cards, resulting in an upswing in the scene for drawing illustrations and other pictures.

CLIP STUDIO PAINT is part of a series of programs called CLIP STUDIO. In addition to PAINT, where users can draw 2D illustrations, the series includes ACTION, a motion picture program and MODELER, a 3D modeling program. Users can combine these programs to pose 3D models and use them as a base for comics and illustrations. CELSYS has now taken this a step further, announcing recently that CLIP STUDIO PAINT will include animation features in the near future. (*3)"We started with animation, then simplified to comics and then illustrations", says Mr. Sasaki. "With CLIP STUDIO PAINT, we've gone the other way. We've come full circle", he laughs.

Mr. Sasaki oversees the development of all of CELSYS's tools.

-The features of CLIP STUDIO PAINT: Everything an artist could need!

After learning about CLIP STUDIO PAINT's history, I asked about its features. This will be old hat to those who are already using the software, but as someone who is still new to it, I was constantly amazed by how advanced drawing software has become. When I explain that I have often wished I could draw, Mr. Narushima replies "We have 3D model software for users like you, as well as a program where you can make them move. We are also working on a site where artists can receive support from the art community." Between creating software-based tools, providing a viewer and running a community website, CELSYS's range of projects sounds almost impossible, but even outsiders like me can understand it when we remember that it all came about as a result of CELSYS's desire to be a company that gives artists what they need. That's the kind of company that CELSYS is. 

And now for the moment that newcomers have been waiting for. It's time to talk about the features of CLIP STUDIO PAINT, where users can make illustrations, comics and even animation. One thing that sets CLIP STUDIO PAINT apart from other software is the way you can do everything from casual scribbling to artistic works, all with the same interface. Here's a video to give you an introduction to CLIP STUDIO PAINT's features.

Even more impressive than the program's performance is its extensive range of features, which are the result of CELSYS's years of working on technology of this kind. Some of the technology has been part of CELSYS's repertoire since RETAS, such as the feature for filling areas with broken lines without going outside the lines. 

The software is packed with everything an artist could needed, from 3D drawing models to perspective rulers for easy two-point perspective drawing. It even supports coloring for CMYK printing at a low price - if you can name something that artists need, CLIP STUDIO PAINT covers it. This program is ideal for everyone from people who draw on a daily basis to those who are thinking about giving it a go. The same is true of CLIP, CELSYS's site that supports artists in their creative work. The site provides a wide range of materials allowing artists to experience the joy of drawing with less hassle. 

Have trouble drawing flowers? There's a flower brush for you to use. Have trouble drawing backgrounds? There are materials for you to refer to when you draw. Those who are new to drawing are sure to improve with materials like these. 

CELSYS has also branched into hardware! If you're drawing on a tablet and are struggling to operate the program the way you need to, you can use the Tab-Mate Controller, a separately sold device designed and made by CELSYS.  You can see that using the two together makes the process even smoother. The video below shows how to use it.

CLIP STUDIO PAINT is fully supported by tablet computers. You can draw on an LCD screen just like on paper, using a tablet pen or your finger.

-Future developments for CLIP STUDIO PAINT

I asked CELSYS for details about the new animation features that will be included in CLIP STUDIO PAINT. They will be added to CLIP STUDIO PAINT by the end of this year [2015] and include digitalization of the key frame and inbetweening process,a feature that CELSYS wanted to achieve with RETAS but were not able to, where digital drawing takes the place of a pencil and paper.

CELSYS gave me a demo of the animation features they are creating. "You can make your own animation simply by drawing multiple cels with the pictures to be displayed and then setting the timing at which the display switches to each cel", explains Mr. Yokozuka. "For example, in this case, you have cels A, B and C, which are displayed at a specific timing." CLIP STUDIO PAINT allows you to create all kinds of animation from simple flipbook style animation to the kind you see on TV.

In future versions, CELSYS aims to make it possible to do both drawing and coloring of animation cels. The animation features shown in the photos here will be beta tested this year by allowing professional studios to test a pre-release version of the software and gradually improving the program according to the studios' feedback. 

CLIP STUDIO PAINT will also be pre-installed on some computers such as the VAIO. I also got to see some interesting results from a survey about drawing.

A smartphone-based survey with randomly selected participants. When asked "Do you usually draw?", 35% of all participants replied that they draw at least occasionally.

The results show that many people have at least a slight interest in drawing. "A surprising number of people would potentially like to draw", says Mr. Narushima. "We want to make CLIP STUDIO PAINT better known among those people, so we're pre-installing it on some computers to give them more opportunities to try our tools." 

CELSYS also plans to market CLIP STUDIO PAINT to people overseas who are interested in Japanese animation and comics. They began a major overseas expansion last year [2014], in which they promoted CELSYS's services to people in Europe and North America, as well as other Asian countries such as Taiwan. 

Mr. Narushima's last word on this subject is something that he is passionate about. "We want to grow this program to include uniquely digital content in addition to comics and illustrations", he says. "Comics with frames came about due to the nature of paper and animation came about due to the nature of film, so we want to provide tools that will allow new types of content to come about due to the nature of digital media. I think that these new, previously unheard-of types of content will come not from us but from the artists themselves, so I want to develop the CLIP STUDIO series in a way that will make that possible." 

This is one more example of how CELSYS thinks about the artists and creates tools that provides them with opportunities and places to make art. I for one will be keeping an eye on the CLIP STUDIO series and anything else CELSYS does in future.

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*This interview was published on Famitu.com in April 2015.
*RETAS STUDIO, CLIP STUDIO ACTION,CLIP STUDIO MODELER, CLIP and Tab-Mate Controller are only availablein Japanese.

*1 Discontinued in June 2015
*2 Consolidated brand into CLIP STUDIO PAINT
*3 Released in October 2015