Violet Evergarden is a strong candidate to becoming one of the most impressive TV anime productions of all time, so of course we’ll be covering the show in its entirety. The first episode already showcased many aspects that make it a very special production, so let’s waste no time and dig into the secrets of this project!
Storyboard (絵コンテ, ekonte): The blueprints of animation. A series of usually simple drawings serving as anime's visual script, drawn on special sheets with fields for the animation cut number, notes for the staff and the matching lines of dialogue. More: Taichi Ishidate
Episode Direction (演出, enshutsu): A creative but also coordinative task, as it entails supervising the many departments and artists involved in the production of an episode – approving animation layouts alongside the Animation Director, overseeing the work of the photography team, the art department, CG staff... The role also exists in movies, refering to the individuals similarly in charge of segments of the film.: Taichi Ishidate, Haruka Fujita, Shinpei Sawa
Animation Direction (作画監督, sakuga kantoku): The artists supervising the quality and consistency of the animation itself. They might correct cuts that deviate from the designs too much if they see it fit, but their job is mostly to ensure the motion is up to par while not looking too rough. Plenty of specialized Animation Direction roles exist – mecha, effects, creatures, all focused in one particular recurring element.: Akiko Takase, Nobuaki Maruki, Yuko Myouken, Tatsunari Maruko
Key Animation (原画, genga): These artists draw the pivotal moments within the animation, basically defining the motion without actually completing the cut. The anime industry is known for allowing these individual artists lots of room to express their own style.: Seiichi Akitake, Kunihiro Hane, Shinpei Sawa, Nami Iwasaki, Taira Yamaguchi, Kohei Okamura, Sana Suzuki, Chiharu Kuroda, Kyohei Ando
─ The first episode of Violet Evergarden is an elegant introduction to the main premise. Don’t get me wrong – it doesn’t hide how unashamedly corny the whole affair is, but it’s graced with the kind of nonchalant grandeur to pull it off. Its spirit feels just as theatrical as the production values, most obviously in aspects like the sound direction; the musicality of scenes like Violet’s first day at work remind me of great moments in the recent Land of the Lustrous, which is always a good thing to be compared to. This ultimately comes down to Series Director: (監督, kantoku): The person in charge of the entire production, both as a creative decision-maker and final supervisor. They outrank the rest of the staff and ultimately have the last word. Series with different levels of directors do exist however – Chief Director, Assistant Director, Series Episode Director, all sorts of non-standard roles. The hierarchy in those instances is a case by case scenario. Taichi Ishidate, who gives it that extra oomph you wouldn’t expect from TV anime. Even when his storyboards flesh out the soul of characters, they do it in grand fashion: Violet’s stopped time moving again, the doll stained with blood that represented her, and the burning metaphor all make for striking sequences that there’s no way of missing. There are still subtler details, like Violet struggling to hold back the military salute and Hodgins’ slightly bloodshot eyes to indicate some desperation, but for the most part the episode sticks to that majestic tone. I believe the upcoming second episode does a better job at humanizing the cast after this introduction, but there’s no denying the sheer impact of the first one.
─ One thing that becomes obvious just by looking at the show is that jeez, that is a lot of lines. Forget feasible, the linecount is greater than it should be possible for a TV series, and one that moves freely to boot. Among the most interesting comments regarding this by industry peeps I noticed the concept of information density. Akiko Takase’s incredibly detailed designs don’t just fit the Victorian opulence of the setting, they’re also a fundamental part of the rich animation that tells us a lot about this world; seemingly inconsequential cuts are very articulate and leave just as strong of an impression, which sort of forces the viewer to absorb information they would usually glaze over. Ishidate has talked about their intention to keep her glamorous original designs fairly unaltered, but it’s mind boggling that a newcomer like Takase is pulling it off while personally supervising the show as Chief Animation Director (総作画監督, Sou Sakuga Kantoku): Often an overall credit that tends to be in the hands of the character designer, though as of late messy projects with multiple Chief ADs have increased in number; moreso than the regular animation directors, their job is to ensure the characters look like they're supposed to. Consistency is their goal, which they will enforce as much as they want (and can).. The studio must be proud of her work, since they’re already sharing clips of her working process – and yes, that’s how much she corrected.
— 「ヴァイオレット・エヴァーガーデン」公式 (@Violet_Letter) January 11, 2018
─ There is one scene in the first episode that did have to be considerably nerfed when compared to the production of the series’ commercials though, and it relates to an amusing anecdote. The typewriter shot in Violet Evergarden’s first CM took a whole month to key animate, fully realizing a shot that required a layout that was 1.75m tall and 1.36m wide. Ishidate explained that the staff had learned their lesson, and so the keys of the typewriter will be a 3D model in the TV series instead.
─ While the ridiculous work by the animation crew is the point that stands out the most, it’s not the production detail that truly surprised me. That honor goes to the painting staff, who have truly raised their game for this project. As you might have noticed, virtually every scene is granted an extra tone, not through anime’s classic multitoned shading but by the means of the coloring; certain shadows have yellow to brown hues depending on the strength of the light and whether it’s an interior or exterior shot, while both forests and sea get to dye characters with a bit of their own color. This is not achieved via postprocessing, instead making it a core element of the show’s craft. The staff at the studio have given a spin to environmental lighting before, most notably with the instrument reflections introduced after the first season of Euphonium. This time around however it’s a much more ambitious effort, because of how widespread it is and due to its earlier implementation, as it already happens during the painting process rather than having to wait until the composite crew arrives – a different approach than studio WIT’s make-up animation tricks, but similar in their goal. In the end it achieves richer and more cohesive shots, at the obvious cost of every single scene requiring even more time to be put into them.
─ Another point I’m looking forward to covering is the background art. Over the last year I’ve become quite the fan of up-and-coming Art Director (美術監督, bijutsu kantoku): The person in charge of the background art for the series. They draw many artboards that once approved by the series director serve as reference for the backgrounds throughout the series. Coordination within the art department is a must – setting and color designers must work together to craft a coherent world. Mikiko Watanabe, who found her voice in Maidragon and has kept on improving. Violet Evergarden’s often sumptuous setting is more detailed than her previous work, but it retains the feeling of a handcrafted painting better than the recent KyoAni titles that aim at more photorealistic environments. Colorful, oozing with atmosphere, and perfectly in-line with the artistic sensibilities shown in other departments. Investing strongly in their own art crew was one of the smarter moves by the studio over the last decade.
─ But it’s another aspect of the studio’s brand that has become a point of contention. Kohei Funamoto is debuting as director of Photography (撮影, Satsuei): The marriage of elements produced by different departments into a finished picture, involving filtering to make it more harmonious. A name inherited from the past, when cameras were actually used during this process. after acting as assistant on Tamako and Amagi, and he’s doing it in such a bold way that he already has a bunch of fans and very passionate detractors. I think there are multiple scenes where the filters go overboard, and the white tint definitely works much better under daylight than in night scenes, but overall it’s a very impressive effort that is getting trashtalked in a way that feels quite familiar. For many years, fans mocked studio SHAFT’s supposedly nonsensical lighting and background changes for the DVD/Blu-ray releases… without realizing that they weren’t retakes per se, but rather the finished version of the composite as it was always intended, which simply hadn’t been finished in time for the TV broadcast. It’s obvious that artistic intent doesn’t excuse everything, but anime fans tend to fetishize visible detail as the be-all end-all when it comes to quality in a frankly ridiculous way, while claiming to protect the sanctity of pieces of art that weren’t meant to be under the spotlight to begin with. Funnily enough, this only becomes a major issue when fans are allowed to see work in progress pieces – be it production materials like this or placeholders on SHAFT TV broadcasts – which confirms that most don’t even notice this apparently serious issue without a frame of reference.
─ KyoAni’s Key Animation (原画, genga): These artists draw the pivotal moments within the animation, basically defining the motion without actually completing the cut. The anime industry is known for allowing these individual artists lots of room to express their own style. credits are ordered according to seniority as usual – as opposed to the usual cut order, amount of contribution, or simply alphabetical sorting – so there aren’t many clues to be deciphered from the list, besides the fact that Kyohei Ando was in charge of clean-up and polish and thus got credited last. If I had to hazard some authorship guesses, I’d say Seiichi Akitake handled the chunk where Benedict shows Violet the ropes. The obscenely intricate clothing folds are very much up his alley, as is this kind of wild limb movement. Kunihiro Hane likely animated the introduction to Violet’s war memories, since these smears feel very familiar, perhaps followed up by action expert Shinpei Sawa. That said, Ishidate’s storyboards detailed the movement to such a degree that you still feel his presence the most. I get Nami Iwasaki vibes from the touching end to the flashback, and it wouldn’t be the first time Ishidate and Takase entrusted her with the trickiest cuts, but I’m not as confident about that part.
─ As far as general credits go, it’s worth noting that they’re messier than usual because of the ridiculous deadline they set for themselves; three episode directors and four animation supervisors is unheard of for a first episode in a KyoAni series, but that’s what having to finish an episode over 6 months before its broadcast does to you, even with an ample schedule otherwise. The number of animators is otherwise still very low, although people who attended the prescreenings in western countries might have noticed that they’ve changed. The studio went through the effort of fully translating the staff roll for those, but someone appeared to screw up so there were a bunch of inconsistencies – the most notorious one being that they credited about twice the key animators and in-betweeners, since as far as I can tell they listed everyone who had contributed to the series up to that point rather than episode #1 alone. Not that it makes much of a difference, but it’s a curious mistake.
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