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Freeware has animators dancing to the Hatsune Miku beat

by Akky Akimoto

If you search for the acronym MMD on Niconico or YouTube — the two most popular video-sharing sites in Japan — the resulting list will have over 100,000 anime videos, most of which have 3-D anime-style girl characters singing and dancing to electronic J-pop music. What’s surprising is that these (usually short) videos are not created by professional anime studios; they are mostly made by amateurs.

MMD stands for MikuMikuDance, a freeware animation software that has taken the Web by storm. The tool was originally released online in February 2008, with a very limited set of features that enabled users to animate a 3-D model of Hatsune Miku — the mascot character for the artificial singing software Vocaloid, which was released six months earlier in August 2007 and generated a boom in indie idol-music compositions on Niconico.

Using MMD, PC users can easily program how a 3-D model moves its hands, arms, legs, lips, and so on. To make a music video, users simply add a song and sync the model’s movements to the beat and lyrics. Although MMD lacks versatility compared to expensive commercial tools, it has the essential advantage that the 3-D model immediately moves according to whatever movements you specify, making it very easy to use.

MMD has ridden the waves of two emerging trends — online video-sharing and advancements in human-like singing synthesizers. The result is that a massive number of 3-D anime dance-music videos have been published online, and the term MMD has now become a category in its own right for this type of video.

The tool also accommodates models and objects that are not related to Vocaloid, so some users have, of course, made other type of videos. It is even possible to choreograph a 3-D model using the motion-capture capabilities of the Microsoft XBox 360 Kinnect console. The number of free authoring tools that can be used in conjunction with MMD is also rapidly increasing, making it easier for amateurs to make more professional-looking videos.

Starting with Vocaloid characters as a base, people can make 3-D models from their own original characters, as well as other Web-based characters and (often unauthorized) commercial characters. Many authors make their data available for free online, making it possible to share such elements as choreography, lip-syncing, stage designs, lighting effects and even 3-D data for thousands of people in an audience. Even beginners can make music videos simply by mixing such data.

The most popular music used, of course, are songs featuring the voices of Hatsune Miku and other Vocaloids, which tend to be outside traditional rights management organizations. But there are also many other videos using regular pop music — both Japanese and foreign. And the software has also been used beyond the scope of the music-video, for example to make short animations.

The 10th MMD Cup — a fan-run online contest of MMD videos — is now in its final voting stage. The contest was started by hobbyist 3-D animators on Niconico and receives over 500 indie videos per event. The top videos are widely watched, even among those without prior knowledge of MMD.

The MMD Cup creates excitement around new authors called “wannabees,” with some data being made available for reuse by all contestants — a good cycle that ensures that the skill level among users will continue to rise.

Among the 100,000-odd MMD videos online there is a lot of pro-level 3-D modeling talent. In the same way that some amateur composers, who got their start with Vocaloid software, have turned pro, the work of popular MMD artists is now showing up in the commercial arena. For example there are original-story anime being made, similar to those aired on TV. There are also some commercial animators who have admitted using MMD in some part. And fully MMD-made commercial anime are now airing on some minor TV networks such as Tokyo MX TV and a few independent channels. Some of the anime titles that use MMD during production include “gdgd fairy” and “Straight Title Robot Anime.”

The advertising industry is also taking note, with the Lawson convenience-store chain creating its own original Vocaloid character to promote its oden (a kind of winter hotpot). Of course, she wears a Lawson shop-clerk uniform and the company has distributed her MMD model and song online to encourage people to make and upload her music videos.

Microsoft Japan, too, made its Windows 7 mascot character’s MMD data available as a prize during a Kinnect campaign.

What is particularly interesting about MMD, is that the software supports both English and Japanese — something that is very rare for Japanese freeware. Because of this there are MMD videos being made overseas, and one fan even uses the software to create Hatsune Miku “concerts,” similar to the official live shows given by the CG character in Japan, the United States, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. As everything related to Hatsune Miku and the other Vocaloids is digital, those concerts can happen anywhere around the world.

The global success of MMD represents a glimmer of hope for Japan’s struggling animation industry. Studios here have traditionally been unable to compete with major 3-D film studios such as Disney-Pixar, but as MMD-user skills continue to rise the gap in the market may just be filled by 3-D anime hobbyists.

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English/Spanish blog on Japanese web scene. You can follow him@akky on Twitter.

  • http://akemi-mokoto.me/ Akemi Mokoto

    I’d absolutely love to see Miku preform at the Super Bowl halftime show. Or better yet, at the next Japanese Grand Prix!