Have you ever wondered how anime is made? For most of us, anime production is all smoke and mirrors. The distance between the concept art and the finished masterpiece is the length of a typical 12-week season. Truth be told, unless you’re fluent in Japanese, the production process governing Japanese animation is shrouded in mystery. Trying to learn more will lead you down a rabbit hole of terms like key animator, in-between animator, animation director, episode director, art director, and character designer. How anime is made in Japan is very different from how you would think; often times, it is much more of a fluid (read: chaotic) process than you would expect.
The Art of Animation
Animation production is a messy, messy affair. Chaotic scheduling, crunched timelines, missed deadlines, and rampant incompetence are all occupational hazards anyone working in a small, start-up environment is well-acquainted with.
Anime is also a labor of love and one that requires the talents of many people, as well as the patience of a select few. After all, it is one that requires many, many steps. The success of even one episode is no small feat, and one misstep can have dire consequences for the entire production. Dig deeper and you’ll find production schedules and color-coded checklists that are the stuff of nightmares. So many spreadsheets, so many signatures.
I’ll do my best to give a comprehensive overview of the process, outlining the major steps and the major players. In doing so, I hope to show how hard it is to make a decent anime, let alone a great one, while reigniting your love for the medium. Above all, apologies in advance for any errors or inaccuracies; I am, by no means, an expert on anime production.
The Production Process (i.e. Production Pitfalls)
This is the planning and financing stage. The anime production company (e.g. Aniplex, Bandai Visual, Kadokawa Shoten, Pony Canyon, Sony, Toho, Viz Media) is in charge of fronting costs for staffing, broadcasting, and distribution. In essence, they pay studios to make it, television stations to air it, and the licensor to distribute it domestically and internationally. Most of all, they collect the profits from the sales. Sometimes, multiple production companies are involved in a single anime. Studios (e.g. A-1 Pictures, Bones, J.C. Staff, Kyoto Animation, Madhouse, Production I.G, Studio Ghibli, Trigger) are the ones who staff, pay, and create the actual anime. If the anime is an original idea, the studio will sometimes help front the costs.
Assembling the Team
The director is the creative head honcho and is, typically, the one who staffs the show. When it comes to staffing, each studio works differently. Some have full-time in-house animators, colorists, editors, and production desks, while others will have a full-time team of core people from each department and a large network of freelancers. Then there are the studios that outsource the work entirely to freelancers.
The director is usually responsible for the storyboards, as well. In long-running TV-anime, as opposed to seasonal anime, storyboards usually fall to different storyboarders. In an ideal world, the storyboards would be entirely finished before an episode goes into production. This would give the rest of the staff the chance to flesh out a cohesive, fully realized story; however, that rarely ever happens, and often episodes are in-production as the storyboards are still being worked out. It’s a nightmare, really.
Next up is layouts. Under the supervision of the director, episode director, and sometimes producer, the layout director will fill in the details for cuts (scenes, usually determined by the use of a single background). This involves arranging the main animated image or “cels” (shown in warm colors) against the backgrounds (shown in cool colors) with descriptions of how the camera should move. In other words, the layout director is framing each cut and looking at overall composition.
Once layouts are done, the production assistant gives them to the key animators. They’re the ones who bring the images to life. The completed cuts then go to the episode’s animation director, who checks for consistency and quality. If the cuts get the stamp of approval, they go to the in-between animator. This work is typically outsourced to less experienced animators with cheaper prices. The in-between frames are sent to the in-between supervisor to make sure they are consistent with the quality and frames of the key animation. If a cut is rejected at any stage, it is sent back for revisions.
Finally, once the animation is done, the coloring team, supervised by the color designer, digitizes, cleans, and colors the cuts. At this point, the cuts are referred to as cels (or digicels). The colorist places the colored cels against the background art (as specified in the layouts) and adds in any 3DCGs under the supervision of the 3DCG supervisor. The final stage of in-production is filming, in which composition, special effects, and editing are finalized.
With the end in sight, the production assistant sends the final cels to the recording director for post-production. The recording director oversees the “dubbing” process in which the post-production teams add in the voice acting, sound effects, and music. That concludes the life cycle of one cut in anime production. Finally, at the end, the editor splices, combines, edits, and then develops all the completed cuts. Meanwhile, the director and episode director are checking in at each stage to make sure the finished product lives up to their vision. The core directing team then reviews the completed episode and gives feedback or their final approval.
Major Players (i.e. The Dream Team)
Producers typically work for the anime production company. They’re the people in charge of spotting stories with potential—whether it be an original idea from the mind of a creative or an adaptation of an existing work (like a manga or light novel). They find and solicit projects for the company. Producers have a lot of weight in the production process, and therefore typically must approve all major decisions.
The production desk is the command center of the studio and is composed of a production manager (PM) and several production assistants (PAs). The PM is responsible for handling the scheduling, logistics, and financing/budget of the series. Their goal is to deliver final cuts on time and under budget. PAs work under the PM and are usually responsible for one or two episodes. Basically, the production desk gets the job done.
The creative head honcho, the mastermind, the judge, jury, and executioner. Basically, the director is the ringleader of the entire project and oversees the final stages of each step in the anime production process. The director also has final say in all creative decisions. They’re directly responsible for the storyboards and the final approval of each episode.
The Episode Director
This one is pretty self-explanatory. In essence, they’re the director for a specific episode. The episode director works closely with the director on all creative and logistical decisions for their assigned episode.
The Script Supervisor
The actual writer (say whaaat?). Their job is to, of course, make the characters talk. The director may lay out the storyboards, but it’s up to the script supervisor to write out the actual dialogue and narration that guides the episode. Basically, the script supervisor makes the characters, setting, and plot come to life.
Think of it like this: The director is the man who gets their byline on a book and the script supervisor is the woman who ghostwrote the entire thing (whoops, let’s reel in the political commentary here). The script supervisor may also have a team of writers working with them to flesh out the script, and, in that case, acts more like an editor.
The Art Director
The artist responsible for designing the look and feel of the setting and illustrating the art boards. They are responsible for every single background in the show. In other words, the art director is the architect of the anime’s universe. They create blueprints for the backgrounds, constructing a world infused with dreams and doubts. Their art boards are templates for lighting, coloring, and shading. Furthermore, the art director typically works with background artists and is often part of the final approval and decision-making process.
Like key animators, superstar art directors are highly coveted and have their own signature style or recognizable trademark. As a result, many have a cult following, as well.
The Animation Director
A senior animator who is responsible for checking the key animation for their assigned cuts. They check for quality, consistency, and send anything that needs fixing back for revisions. A single episode may have many animation directors, and an animation director may have assistant animation directors or animation supervisors working with them.
The Chief Animation Director
Sometimes the director will appoint a senior animator to oversee the animation for an entire episode, or for the entire series. Like the animation director, the chief animation director is responsible for the quality and consistency of the animation. Often times, the director will assign the character designer to this role.
The Character Designer
The animator responsible for the designs of each character. The character designer either refines an existing character to be suitable for animation or must envision a character from scratch. They create the look and feel of a character, and make sure the characters look at home or at odds, depending on the goal, in their environment. Character designers are so important that they often double as the chief animation director for the series.
The Layout Director
The layout director is the cinematographer of the anime world. They’re responsible for positioning the cels (final animated images) against the background. In essence, they’re in charge of the composition of each cut. The layout director may also make notes on camera movement and position for filming.
The Key Animator
A key animator is responsible for drawing the essential frames, important movements or facial expressions, within their assigned cut. What qualifies as an essential frame can depend on the directors, the animators, and the length/importance of the cut. The key animator will also sometimes make notes for the in-between animators and the colorists.
In essence, key animators are the artists who make the magic of animation happen. And, an exceptionally talented key animator can really steal the show, imbuing a cut with their own artistic flair and vision.
We Interrupt this Program with a Brief Note on Sakuga
What is Sakuga? Technically speaking, it’s the Japanese word for animation; however, enthusiasts have hijacked the phrase to mean animated scenes of noticeable and distinct quality. In layman’s term, high-quality animation (or, as I like to call it, HQ AF animation). For example, think of the match between Todoroki and Midoriya in the second season of MY HERO ACADEMIA. Yeah, you know which one I’m talking about.
This scene blew my mind the first time I saw it, and I wasn’t alone. As soon as it aired, it made news not only within the Sakuga community but the anime community at large. Animators and fans alike took to social media to sing its praises and applaud key animator Yutaka Nakamura, superstar battle animator. His signature style even has its own affectionate nickname, Yutapon Cubes. While animators like Nakamura are magical creatures, they’re not exactly rare. There are dozens of extremely talented animators out there who deserve just as much love; so many senpais deserving of your notice. If the topic of Sakuga interests you at all, I suggest you start by watching this awesome video by RCAnime and reading some classic literature by Kevin Cirugeda.
Now Back to Your Regularly Scheduled Programming
The In-Between Animator
The animator responsible for animating the movements between the cuts, making the overall animation look smoother and more fluid. Due to high production costs, Japanese anime studios usually outsource this position to animators in Korea or China.
The In-Between Supervisor
Similarly to an Animation Director, the in-between supervisor makes sure that all the in-between frames are of consistent quality and match with the key animation.
The Color Designer
The color designer is responsible for supervising the cleaning, digitizing, and coloring of the cuts. For that reason, they usually work with the art director to make sure the look of the cut is just right.
The Recording Director
The recording director oversees the voice acting, sound effects, and editing collectively referred to as “dubbing”.
And that’s it! At least for this overview. There are dozens of steps and dozens of cast members in anime production that I’ve failed to mention. Doing so would really push my word count and the limits of my editor.
Showing Love for a Painful Process
That’s anime production in a nutshell! I hope by now I’ve convinced you that it really does take a village.
Behind every big shot like Miyazaki, Shinkai, and Kon is a team of hardworking artists and staff pouring their overworked, underpaid souls into a project. The anime industry is full of childish dreamers and naïve idealists, so I encourage everyone to give the lesser known creators a chance.
A Public Service Announcement
Of course, I’d be remiss
if I didn’t do the usual PSA that I’m sure you have heard before. You wouldn’t be reading this obscenely long and boring article if you weren’t a weeb already. Hey, no shame! Me too. So, if you really enjoy or appreciate anime, please consider supporting the industry with your hard-earned dollars. For example, you can subscribe to (or watch your anime on) legitimate streaming services. You can also purchase your anime instead of torrent-ing it. Or, at least buy 1,000 EROMANGA SENSEI Sagiri body pillows if none of these options are appealing to you.
Another way to show your love is by supporting industry efforts for higher wages, and better working and living conditions. Really, they’re pretty darn depressing.
Furthermore, if the wacky world of anime production interests you, give SHIROBAKO a try. It’s literally an anime about making anime. SHIROBAKO follows five friends as they pursue their collective dream of working on an anime together. The 24-episode show chronicles the perilous production of two major Musashino Animation shows. SHIROBAKO treats viewers to the full picture of how an anime is made.
Finally, I’d like to end this article with a list of recommended reading for those interested in furthering their understanding of Japanese animation and anime production.
Anime Production Resources & References
- Production Guide: The Animation Process – Kanzenshuu
- The Anime Economy – Anime News Network
- Anime Production – Detailed Guide to How Anime is Made and the Talent Behind it! – Washi Blog
- The Joy of Sakuga – Kevin Cirugeda
- Sakuga Blog — Sakugabooru
- The Art of Animators (Sakuga) – RCAnime
- The Faces of Anime – Sakuga Video
- A Beginner’s Guide to Making Anime (NSFW) – Gigguk
Featured image via RocketNews24.