Netflix used AI-generated images in anime short. Artists are not having it.

The company claims AI could help with anime's supposed labor shortage, and animators are furious.
Screenshot from Netflix anime 'Dog and Boy'
AI was used to help generate the backgrounds for Netflix's 'Dog and Boy.' Netflix

Contrary to what Netflix may say, there isn’t a massive labor shortage. Instead, low pay and often strenuous working conditions may be pushing away artists from the work while the genre ascends to new heights of popularity.  But the supposed lack of available talent is what led to Dog and Boy, Netflix’s recent “experimental effort to help the anime industry” that appears to have backfired rather spectacularly since its debut on Tuesday.

[Related: A guide to the internet’s favorite generative AIs.]

Dog and Boy is a three-minute animated short courtesy of Tokyo’s Netflix Anime Creators Base boasting AI-generated landscape backdrops from Rinna Inc., an AI artwork company. Produced by WIT Studio (the company also responsible for the first three seasons of the hit anime, Attack on Titan), the clip elicited almost immediate ire from the online animation community for what many see as a blatant sidestepping of fair wages in favor of cheaper, soulless alternatives.

“Not something to be proud of babes [sic],” tweeted Hamish Steele, the Eisner Award-winning creator of Netflix’s DEAD END: Paranormal Park animated series.

As Engadget also notes, the generative AI art stunt technically still required unknown amounts of human labor. “AI (+Human)” is listed in the role of “Background Editor” during Dog and Boy’s end credits, and behind-the-scenes photos supplied by Netflix even showcase someone touching up the AI software’s images. There’s no immediate word on how much this person was  compensated for this work.

Apart from the artwork itself, AI programs are generating their fair share of controversies as they continue dominating headlines and ethical discussions. Many artists are fighting back against their own work being utilized in AI training datasets without fair compensation, while other industries also attempt to cash in on the technology.

[Related: The DOJ is investigating an AI tool that could be hurting families in Pennsylvania.]

“In a general sense, the creators of AI image generator platforms still need to answer about the copyright issues, since these technologies work by scraping the internet for bits and pieces of all sorts of images,” explains Sebastián Bisbal, an award-winning filmmaker, animator and visual artist from Rancagua, Chile, via email. “In this short, specifically, it is very easy to make the assumption that someone typed ‘[Studio] Ghibli styled landscape’ and the system delivered this. This raises all sorts of ethical and legal questions.”

“That’s so grim,” adds comic illustrator, artist, and writer, Michael Kupperman. “Our world economy has created a reality where they need art, but can’t pay artists enough, ever, so this nightmare is the logical answer.”

From a technical standpoint, Bisbal also points to Dog and Boy‘s inconsistencies in brushwork and background style, rendering the overall short’s quality “quite poor,” in his opinion. He believes that utilizing generative AI programs for personal experimentation, reference, and practice is fine, but that the problems arise when it is used as a monetizable shortcut. “I think this responds to a major contemporary issue, that we all want everything instantaneously, effortlessly, and with the lowest cost as possible,” he writes. “Animation in its core is quite the opposite: it’s the art of patience.”