Anime Production – Detailed Guide to How Anime is Made and the Talent Behind it!
I think it’s both important and fascinating to learn about the fundamentals of the medium we all love, and one of the most critical questions is: how is anime made? For me, especially recently, that’s been a burning question that I ended up researching in detail. For the sake of other anime fans with the same question, I thought I’d share my findings. So, if you want ammunition to return fire the next time you find yourself caught in an argument about the merits of anime, or want a fresh way to look at anime, I hope this article will be useful. Over the last year or so, my increasing interest in this side of things has really opened my eyes to the talent, artistry, passion and beauty that can be found in Japanese animation. The article will focus on TV-anime production, but the same general process applies to movies and OVAs as well. That said, there can be a lot of variation between studios and individual productions.
The process of making an anime is a complex one, with many steps and stages. This chart from AIC’s English website is a good visual overview for what I’ll be discussing:
This process depends on who’s pushing for an idea and who is backing it up, it can be animation studios themselves along with sponsors, but many anime are adaptations of manga or light novels, in which case, publishers front costs (including the costs of having it shown on TV stations). The production company (e.g Aniplex) gathers staff, sponsors, and looks at advertisement and merchandise. While many people describe studios as being cheap, only around half the budget is often given to the anime studio, with the rest going to broadcasters and other contributing companies. The broadcast costs are surprisingly high – according to blogger, ghostlightning – at about 50 million yen for a late-night timeslot across 5-7 stations for a 52 episode series. You can see why anime can be an expensive business. For example, Full Metal Alchemist, which had a 6pm Saturday slot had a total budget of 500 million yen (before additional costs).
When the core staff is arranged, they meet and plan out the anime, work on series composition (how the anime will play out across each episode/over the course of the series), and select further staff such as character or mecha designers. One of the most crucial core staff is the director. To understand the role of directors, you could think of them like directors of a movie, but instead of dealing with actors, they deal with the animators who make the characters movie. Their involvement is generally to attend meetings and make decisions in order to manage the schedule, budget and quality of an anime.
Following the early panning sessions, designs (character, mecha, costume, etc) are then created. Designs are obviously an important factor in creating a good anime. Character designers either have the task of simplifying manga/illustration designs so that they are suitable for animation, or, in the case of an original anime, coming up with a new set of characters based on descriptions from the director/producers. Character designers often continue to advise animation directors on corrections to animation that should be made to stay close to their character models (in which case they are generally credited as Chief Animation Director for the series).
Once the story and designs are mapped out, the first episode is tackled.
The first step is to write the episode scripts. Following the episodes synopsis/plans, the full scripts are written, by either one person for the whole series or by several different writers based on the outlines from the overall script supervisor (staff credit: series composition). The scripts are reviewed by the director, producers, and potentially the author of the original work before being finalised (after 3 or 4 drafts, often). The episode director, supervised by the overall director then takes this backbone of the episode and must plan out how it will actually look on screen. While the director has the final say and is involved at production meetings, the episode director has the most hands-on involvement in developing the episode. This stage is expressed as a storyboard (a visual script), and the storyboard marks the beginning of actual animation production.
Often the storyboard is created by the director, this means an episode is truly the vision of that director. But usually, mainly in TV-anime, separate storyboarders are used to actually draw them. This is because storyboards usually take around 3 weeks to do for a normal length TV-anime episode. Art meetings and production meetings are held with the episode director, series director and other staff about the episode should look. Storyboards are drawn on A-4 paper (generally) and contain most of the vital building blocks of an anime – the cut numbers, actor movements, camera movements such as zooming or panning, the dialogue (taken from the screenplay) and the length of each shot (or cut) in terms of seconds and frames (which we’ll explain later). Because the number of drawings available for an episode is often fixed for the sake of budget management, the number of frames is also carefully considered in the storyboards. The storyboards are roughly-drawn and are really the core stage of deciding how an anime will play out. Cuts refer to a single shot of the camera and an average TV-anime episode will usually contain around 300 cuts. More cuts don’t necessarily imply a better quality episode, but it will generally mean more work for the director/storyboarder.
Example storyboards from To Aru Kagaku no Railgun. Anime storyboards have 5 columns. From left to right: the cut number, the layout, the action, the dialogue, and finally, the running time (in time and frames). The layouts are only drawn roughly, because they are handled by other artists in the next step of production.
Less well known is the layout process, which marks the beginning of art production. In simple terms, developing a layout is about positioning the cels that will be used in the cut and the background art that will be needed, giving the definitive blueprint for how the final shot will look. The cuts are drawn up to the same size as the animation paper and the details of cel placement, precise descriptions of camera movement, and other decisions are included. In collaboration with the director, and possibly producers, the senior animators draw the layouts (or sometimes staff are specifically credited with layout drawings) and the shots are called about where the cels/characters are going to be situated and the way a cut is going to be framed. The basic structure of the background art is drawn in (ie. a tree here, a mountain there), and elements of the storyboard are expressed on the layout to help describe the cut. Sometimes multiple stages of the storyboard can be expressed on a single layout drawing as long as it isn’t too confusing. Cels are shaded in warm colours, backgrounds are shaded in cool colours.
After being approved by the director, these layouts are then duplicated and given to the background department (who get the originals), and the key animators. The art director and assistants work on painting the background artwork based on the rough drawings of the layouts while the rest of the production process continues concurrently.
Now the form of each cut has been decided – the positions of characters, the setting, what they’re going to do, and how the shot is going to be captured (camera angle, zooming and panning). But one of the most expressive and vital parts of production remains: the animation!
To its credit, anime is one of the few places left that you can still find ‘traditional animation’! I think there has been some confusion among many anime fans about just how digital anime production is, so I’d better make it clear: commercial, mainstream anime is still fundamentally hand-drawn, and that’s why it remains such a great artistic medium! Traditional animation allows for more individuality to be expressed. Sure, computers do come into it in a large way (and I’ll explain that a bit later), but the crucial thing is that the frames are still initially drawn by hand, and no in-between animation is simulated by a computer. There are some animators who draw 2D animation directly onto computer, but in anime this is largely restricted to in solo animation productions rather than commercial anime. The industry prefers this because the animators are generally more comfortable and able with this method, and it allows easier checking and correction of frames under sometimes tight schedules. Here’s how the animation is done:
Based on the storyboard, the key animators start work, creating the animation drawings. They are assigned a certain number of different cuts by the person in charge of key animation. Key animators draw the essential frames that mark a distinct position or expression of a cel/character. For example, a character starting to kick someone as one key frame, and then the kick landing as the second key frame (if it’s a fast kick!). In other words, they draw the structure of the animation. The number of frames that a key animator draws for a movement will depend upon the intentions of the key animator and the nature of the cut, with time, and budget constraints considered. These drawings also include lines which direct where shading will occur. Around 20 key animators can be working on a single episode of anime, each in charge of a separate part (sometimes several cuts). Although it’s already decided what a movement will be, it is up to the key animator to express that as animation. That is why a talented and hard-working key animator can really steal the show, going well beyond the requirements of the storyboard and imbuing a scene with their own style. Some animators get the opportunity to deviate from storyboards as well (which the likes of Yoshinori Kanada was known to do, to great effect).
There is a subset of the anime fandom who are enthralled by great animation works and animators, ‘sakuga’ fans. Sakuga technically refers to the drawings in an anime, but is extended to describe the animation as a whole. People follow their favourite animators, and keep track of the cuts they do, also compiling them into anime or animator-specific music videos. The core of the sakuga online fandom is the ‘sakuga wiki’ (in Japanese), and a huge array of ‘sakuga AMVs’ can be found on youtube. Even a brief look over these videos inspired me with a real appreciation of the character and presence that individual animators can impart. I think this culture of appreciatimh outstanding key animation is one of the most fascinating arenas of the anime domain.
2nd Key Animation is also emerging lately, but I’m not too clear on what this means (if anyone can explain, please do!)
But what about consistency? While emphasis on this varies from production to production, in general it is a good idea to make sure your characters look the same from one key animator’s portion to the next. This is handled by an animation director.
This is one staff role that I suspect many anime fans haven’t learned about, because it’s not very self-explanatory. The animation director’s key role isn’t to ‘direct the animation’ per se (although they have varying levels of input depending on the person, studio and schedule). Their position is basically about consistency. They check all the key frames being created for an episode and make corrections where necessary so that the drawings are as close to the models for the series as possible. In some cases, they may have to redraw entire frames, or make adjustments to timing and movement (mostly, this happens for OVAs and movies). They are one of the four core staff positions for an episode (screenplay, episode director, storyboard, animation director). Key frames may also be checked by the episode director.
Animation directors tend to be more experienced animators and are paid more for the role. However, it is their responsibility if things go wrong with the animation, making it a potentially very stressful job, especially under time pressure. Often, an episode of anime will have more the one animation director, and this can be a sign of scheduling problems, with more people needed to complete the episode satisfactorily and on time, or even a sign of many poor drawings needing correction. It can also be because animation directors are being used to their specialties (ie. an animation director brought on to handle a mecha sequence, or to handle drawings of animals), or an indication that it was a difficult and demanding episode with a lot of drawings.
Other than the episode animation director, anime nowadays have an overall animation director (generally also the character designer), who often works alongside episode animation directors to keep the character models consistent throughout the entire show. They generally focus on the faces of characters. Some series place less importance on this, or, as was the case with Noein, didn’t use a series animation director at all!
We have our approved key-frames for a piece of animation, but now to complete the animation, so that it moves fluidly, more drawings have to be completed to go between the key frames. This is called in-between animation. In-between animation is handled by less experienced animators, and is very often outsourced (largely to Korea). In-between animation is paid more poorly than key animation, and is usually only a temporary position in an animator’s career. You could describe this as grunt work, because in-between animators don’t have a chance to imbue their work with individuality. They receive (particularly when it’s oursourced), clear instructions from the key animator about what the in-between animation should do, and simply fill in the gaps with drawings. They also have the task of neatly tracing the key frames.
Often key animators, particularly famous ones, or for important sequences, will do many of the drawings themselves, to minimise the number of potentially inferior in-between frames. There are many examples of this, but one of my favourites is Yoshimichi Kameda’s sequence from FMA:Brotherhood in which Mustang is burning Lust, for which he did all the in-between frames himself. I doubt frames drawn by other people could have matches his impressive drawings for that scene!
The in-between frames are also checked/corrected if need be. With the drawings from the key animators and in-betweeners combined, you have the ‘animation’ that goes into an anime!
Generally, especially for TV, anime will be animated at 2:s, which means 1 drawing lasts for two frames (equating to 12 drawings per second), but sometimes animation is done at 1:s (24 frames every second) or 3:s. If every second of an anime was animated at even 2:s that would involve using around 15000 drawings for an episode! In reality, because many shots have cels as static, or because many scenes don’t necessarily require fluid movement, the average anime will have around 3000 frames/drawings. That’s still a lot of drawings! Often (especially lately), directors or producers will boast that their anime has “10,000 drawings for an episode!” or something to that effect, which is fairly impressive but doesn’t necessarily mean the episode is better. For example, apparently the first episode of Evangelion used only 700 animation frames, while Angel Beats used around 11,000 in episode one! A good director can work wonders with fewer frames using interesting scene compositions and shortcuts. Often, directors or studios will manage their budget by putting a limit on the number of drawings that can go into a single episode.
Another core factor is the trade-off between detailed, consistent designs and more fluid animation. You can see how faster animation drastically increases the number of drawings required, and sticking to detailed character models can be expensive and time-consuming. Fluid animation is easier to do with simpler designs OR if the requirements for consistency are less strict. With fairly tight budgets, the anime medium has long been a struggle to balance these issues with shortcuts and compromises. This truth is the basis for a lot of attack on anime from Western animation fans, but the fact is, with skilled enough animators and the right project you can have your cake and eat it too! Anime has certainly produced some of the most detailed AND fluid animation sequences you’ll be able to find!
Compositing / “filming”:
It is commonplace for the frames to be completed on a computer. After they are drawn and checked, they are digitized. Once they are on the computer, they are painted with a specified color palette by painting staff (generally a low paid job). They use the shading lines drawn by the key animators to do the shading colours. This digital equivalent of the ‘ink & paint’ stage of production, which used to be done by hand, has allowed some more interesting visual styles to come through in the colouring, such as the use of gradient shading or even textures. These would have been too difficult to do back in the day. It has also saved considerable time and money in the process. These become the final “cels” that go into the animation.
Once all the frames are coloured and finished, they can be processed as animation using a specialized software package. “RETAS! PRO” is used for approximately 90% of anime currently aired in Japan (for drawing sometimes too)! Before the use of digital ‘cels’ (digicels), drawings (printed onto cels) were actually filmed over backgrounds. Now, cuts are completed digitally, and the background art can be added on the computer. Initially, when digicel was first being picked up by studios (around about 2000), it had real problems matching the fineness of detail in hand-drawn and painted cels. But nowadays, anime studios have really perfected the digital cel, giving us anime with just as much detail and more vibrant colouring. The digicel age has now streamlined the production process such that repeated cels and clip/recap episodes are basically a thing of the past. Some still prefer the rougher look of pre-2000, but I’ve certainly moved on.
While it doesn’t use actual film, the compositing process of adding background art and capturing the animation digitally is still referred to as “filming”. The CG characters and machines are also generally added to the composition during the filming stage. The use of 3DCG is also now common-place in anime now for mechanical things, like mecha, cars, or even background characters. Its role is expanding and becoming less and less intrusive. During compositing, the effects are also applied to the cuts.
Effects! This might sound like a trivial thing when you’re talking about anime, but it can be a vital component of the visual style of a series because it incorporates basic things like ambient lighting, flare, backlight, the glint on a sword, blur, and many other things integral to giving depth and atmosphere to 2D drawings. Then there’s all the flashy things you’d usually think of when someone mentions special FX – magical attacks, explosions and the like. These are typically hand-drawn but then rendered with effect CG for their glow/shine. These effects can be simply added to the compositions using digital masking. The ease of this step now has resulted in one of the biggest distinctions between anime a decade ago and the anime of today.
In short, the digital age of anime (in most cases) has meant several things: physically filming cels is replaced by computer-based composition of the hand-drawn frames/art, painting no longer has to be done by hand, and the more effective integration of CG and digital effects. All of these things have saved time and money, so that TV-anime now use many more drawings and don’t need to recycle cels or have clip/flashback episodes.
After compositing is completed for all the cuts, they have to be to the timing required for broadcast, so that the episode doesn’t lag overtime. With the completion of the editing step, the episode moves out of production and into post-production. I won’t go into much detail on this, but it essentially encompasses adding sound (dubbing), both the music and the voice recordings, and final editing (cutting the episode with space for advertisements). Visual effects may also be added at this late stage too.
Animation Director: Sakkan (Sakuga Kantoku) [作画監督]
Drawings of anime: Sakuga (作画)
Key Animation: Genga (原画)
In-between Animation: Douga 動画
Overall Animation Director: Sou-Sakuga kantoku (総作画監督)
Sources for this post:
PRODUCTION I.G – Tokyo, Anime production process – feature film link
Steps in Anime Production link
Wao’s highly informative posts on anime staff on Animesuki! link
AIC – :: Introduction of anime production :: link
Sunrise – The Making of Animation: link
Other, forgotten sources.
Sakuga Wiki (Japanese)
ワゴンの神様 blog (Japanese)
Follow my blog, or just the sakuga tag!
Hopefully this post provided a detailed overview of the animation production process that goes into anime, along with a general description of pre and post production! It’s important to remember that this is a description of your average anime. The truth is, approaches vary significantly between studios, production companies and directors. But I hope this gives a solid idea of some of the staff and production processes that are used. If you notice any errors in the post, can contribute any more detail on anything, or have any questions, please comment! In any case, I’d like to hear people’s thoughts and experiences on the topic.