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In October 2016 anime production season, we had lots of questions about anime broadcasting and production that we were unable to get to. This time, we have a person who has worked on many titles as a production assistant and is actively working under a production director, so we can ask them of why it seems Japanese animation – which had been a pride of Japan – has seemingly fallen in quality.
Why a Broadcast Might Be Disappointing
The production director of titles like Prince of Tennis and Blood+, and with over 30 years in the animation industry, Akiharu Ishii has kindly accepted talking with us. Also, this time, to get another opinion, we have a production assistant with over 10 years in the industry. This assistant wished to remain anonymous.
– Let’s jump right into it: why might animation be seeming to go downhill?
Ishii: This is my own (bitter) opinion, but the animation production process is the source of great amounts of work and stress, I think. When I started working in it, it was simpler.
Assistant: Sounds right.
Ishii: Nowadays, there are many ‘check’ points that need approval from someone, so there are many points where production can be delayed. And then because of even small delays adding up… it contributes to the quality of the work decreasing overall, I think.
– Do you think the work (of animation) has increased, and why?
Ishii: There are a lot of hurdles for a work to be good quality (which means more work). Anime isn’t just one thing; you’re constructing the illusion of a world. The visuals, the drama, the movement – the mechanics, the effects, background, scenery, color density, after effects – all these things contribute to it all and so the work multiplies. And because of that, there’s more fragmentation / division of work, sadly.
Assistant: Sounds right.
Ishii: Nowadays, there’s also the voice actors to work around due to post-recording processes too, and then making sure the sound sounds right for broadcast. To get all this done on time, we have to okay a lot of rough cuts sometimes – we can’t always go back and fix things, because we have to have a finished product.
Assistant: In other words, we take 2 shots and that might be it.
Ishii: Exactly. And each time you have to redo anything, the cost goes up. And we operate on a very strict budget, so that’s the one thing affecting the rest of production, I think.
– Can you be more specific about the animation process?
Assistant: Back in the day, while we had a production schedule, for every image we had finished there were 2 roughs – and the work hours flowed more naturally. But each episode also had a budget of 500,000 yen that could be increased if necessary. As an aside, from 2005 – 2010, the period I’m talking about, the studios would say unit costs were high but good value due to superior product. Now studios have self-imposed limits and budgets, and what they can afford to spend has fallen too.
Ishii: There are many useless factors in animation. These useless factors.. especially things like if the photography processes are decreased… are keeping animators from getting paid more, I think.
– When people say animation broadcasts have fallen in quality, where do you think this is coming from?
Ishii: A few cases come to mind. First of all, there’s the issue of the production scheduling. If delays get introduced, then scenarios and continuity get affected, and so on.
Assistant: In that situation, there’s less and less time to precisely draw an image (which affects things down the line).
Ishii: Basically, animation and production always have multiple things going on simultaneously; because of this you have to constantly be aware of what’s going on around you. So if anything changes, it can become drastic, and keeps quality from being good.
Assistant: Lately, there’s also been the use of subcontractor companies that tasks get passed onto; but these companies have sharp differences in quality.
Ishii: Nowadays the main practice is for a season (cour) to be 13 episodes long. A large company will accept the work, but generally request subcontractor companies to work on it. Of course, most of the time there’s no problems, and the subcontractor enjoys a lot of connection and prestige. But sometimes you’ll be in a situation where there’s no people of talent, and so there’s a lot more questions, a lot more problems. Then you’re placed in a situation where the client (the larger company) has to refuse the work, that it’s not up to spec.
Assistant: There can be a lot of differences between the primary company and the subcontracting companies in terms of quality. There’s an issue of trust that needs to be there for things to be better, but there’s really no time to develop that trust.
Ishii: Of course client relationships need to be healed and there’s really no time for that, but also the schedule and budget.. these things need to be human-minded, so we can eat and live.
– I see. You say animation production is falling, but who’s responsible for those decisions?
Assistant: From the directors to the producers, there’s this thought of “If the quality isn’t good, we won’t release it,” but nobody among them wants to be the first one to say “Okay, let’s just fail.” No one wants to be that voice.
Ishii: That’s right.
Assistant: Before, if the production head said something, the decision was handed down. But now, there’s so many voices – there’s the production committee, the supervisors, directors, channels, and so on, all together, and there’s no one entity responsible – this way the risks and rewards are shared, is the thought, and there’s all this consultation and everything with the studio. But this means more talks and consultation, and we might need to really re-think this process.
– On the subject of failing, what about this idea of penalties – are animation studios collecting data on which main studios have gone under and declared bankruptcy, on who has breached contract, things like that?
Assistant: Put simply, that’s… the shape of it. I would like to know I’m working with responsible staff.
Ishii: However, if that’s all that happens… if a program fails, is it right to have really strict penalties? We should think about this as well.
Assistant: If there are penalties like that, they should after all go to the production committees which are responsible for the delivery of the product. If they share risk and benefit, then the risk of penalty needs to be applied equally to them too. The production committee system means that no one company bears the blame.
-Should we not investigate the animators (to see if they are responsible)?
Ishii: Animators are creators, so they fuss over their work wanting it to be the best it can be, and give it their all. It’s because of the scheduling that they can’t. To the extent that there are any problems there… I think that such an investigation shouldn’t happen.
Assistant: Fundamentally, investigating animators would just make things worse. It’s a thankless job (laugh) But because there’s so much to do, we all get entangled in verbal promises and offers and help out each other, and have these relationships with everyone else… so a system of mutual trust really needs to be in place.
– What can you say about animators?
Ishii: Enthusiasm in the job, being diligent… I see this often among animators. They’re even a bit obsessive and might see things that aren’t problems, and be biased. And while this can be a strength, it can really affect motivation.
Assistant: My impression is that they’re so sincere. They really want to be loyal.
Ishii: You have to be really happy drawing and drawing and drawing all the time. Everyone thinks that money is a factor but it really isn’t… I see many animators that can’t think about money.
– All this talk about scheduling – could you give concrete examples of when a wrench was thrown into the works?
Ishii: When broadcasting switched over to digital broadcasting, that really did it, I think.
Assistant: Because of the digital changeover, much of our work was suddenly not good enough, so we had to scramble.
– When do you think staff realized when something’s going to fail?
Assistant: When we have a work and suddenly don’t have enough content (to fill the cour), pushing everything back so a late-night broadcast might get pushed until the next week… I’d say about there.
Animators get treated badly, is that true?
– There’s been some noise about how animators get treated on the net. Have you yourself experienced any of this, Ishii-san?
Ishii: Particularly in the case of people new to the industry… yes. When you compare the animation industry to even a company part-time employee, there are major differences. For example, for one hour of work at a convenience store, a part-time employee would expect to receive around 1000 yen; but the unit cost of an inbetweener works out to about 200 – 250 yen… and for one day, for 10 drawings, that’s about 2,000 yen total. For original works, it can be 1, 2, even 3 days. For manga creators and musicians, if they don’t draw, they can’t live… it’s the same with animators too, we’re creators. But comparing creators to your typical employee, yes, there’s a lot of differences there. So yes, I’ve been treated this way.
– On the subject of what animators earn in a year, there are movements to make some of this public, so data can be collected on companies that would be good to work for what are your impressions of this? (TN) The issue with money and animators: on one hand, there’s a lot of issues with animators not getting paid well, but the tension here is, that “not caring about money” isn’t an excuse for animators to not be regarded well, either.
Ishii: My impressions are… Well, related to this is how there’s an effort for assistance monies, companies building dormitories, and of course I want these efforts to succeed. But as a private person, I’m thinking these efforts only make the company president and management look really good…
Assistant: That’s my opinion too.
Ishii: These companies aren’t understood very well, but neither is the work that goes into animation, either, and so there’s huge differences there. So on the topic of renumeration, there’s this thinking that “Well, that’s how it is…” Of course, if we had a fixed salary, and were secure in being able to survive, we’d put in even more quality and effort getting things right. But this is business, so that’s seen as bad.
– So the next topic – say we have an inbetweener who has worked for about 3 years. What if they don’t move up from that? What are your thoughts about that system?
Ishii: About the in-betweener section of animation… that is a section of animation that is frozen. What I mean is, more people come in as inbetweeners and more people should advance, but there’s not always positions for them to fill, so many people are stuck in that section.
Assistant: To advance into douga a person has to be experienced in drawing originals, so because of this, sometimes we have people who go back to in-betweening.
Ishii: You have to exhibit a lot of persistence and aptitude for douga. But it’s hard to say whether someone of talent really gets chosen to advance.
Translator Note: Jan Scott-Frazier’s article on the various positions writing the anime industry was a huge help in sorting out the different hierarchy of job titles in animation production, so credit where credit is due!