Today we’re here to talk about a phenomenon that’s gradually been eroding anime’s very identity, while at the same time souring the experience for its animation: the extreme fragmentation of the anime production process. Let’s see what the model that reinforced anime’s visual cohesion was all about, how these changes were introduced and later corrupted, and what to the animators who suffer the issues the most think about it.
Soon after the broadcast of Symphogear XV #08, an acquaintance with plenty understanding of the inner workings of anime threw a question my way: exactly what did sakuga star Takahito Sakazume, confusingly credited under the role of key animation supervision assistance (原画監修協力), contribute to the episode?
Sakazume and the rest of the staff immediately provided an answer on social media, essentially acknowledging that the credits were undecipherable otherwise. As it turns out, young artist Shouya Sakaguchi had fulfilled his Symphogear dream and made his first appearance in the industry by drawing some layouts and key animation for this episode. Since he wasn’t used to the professional pipeline quite yet, he received help by people like episode director Hiroki Hirano and supervisor Tokiemon Futsuzawa. And, besides that kind of standard assistance, he was directly supported by an ace animator like Sakazume, who provided guidance with the work and delivery process after those steps, making sure nothing was off in Sakaguchi’s grand debut.
The truth is that this season of Symphogear is no stranger to non-standard, sometimes deliberately amusing production credits. Just three weeks prior to that, the series had introduced the concept of 0th key animation to the world — a term that confused and unsettled fans, studio representatives, and industry legends all the same; incidentally, while the team didn’t provide an official explanation that time around, I’d wager on that referring to very rough drafts by key staff members before the animation process started in full.
Don’t take this the wrong way: this piece isn’t meant to criticize Symphogear XV’s production process. If anything, the extra time it’s been granted and these initiatives to reinforce animation positions appear to have raised its standards higher than ever when it comes to consistency and polish. However, while this might be as benign of an example as it comes, the addition of all these extra specific animation roles still highlights a very important trend. One that, while not intrinsically negative, has synergized with chronic issues in the industry, and is now threatening to change its essence… if it hasn’t done so already.
If you’re browsing a site by the name of Sakuga Blog, chances are that you’ve heard about the individuality of key animators being one of the defining elements of Japanese animation — at least in the commercial field that people tend to refer to when they talk about anime. While that doesn’t mean key animators are free to rampage as they please, most sequences used to revolve around them to a large degree; for the longest time, you were entrusting a single person to interpret everything in the director’s storyboard for the corresponding shot into its layout, then draw the pivotal points of the sequence in the key animation phase, leave notes on how it should be composited, and even polish it during the clean-up phase. And that meant a supposedly low-ranking artist was key — duh — to the production process.
Of course, plenty of other creators have always come into play when making anime. The production process is inescapably a choral yet also hierarchical endeavor. The role of animation director has existed since The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon in 1963, the layout system was instaurated in 1974 for Heidi and has remained ever since, and of course there’s no animation to be had without in-betweening, backgrounds, compositing, and so on. Key animators were always directly outranked by other creators and surrounded by people whose work they needed, so even though selective memory by veterans sometimes could lead you to think otherwise, there was never really a time where they were the undisputed kings of the anime jungle.
And yet, over the course of many decades and despite many exceptions one could find, something remained consistently true: the individuality of anime’s key animators tended not to be removed — if anything, it was protected. Not just for artistic reasons, but for more pragmatic ones that we’ll talk about soon.
Even the animation supervision process, which theoretically stands as the biggest roadblock for idiosyncratic key animators, was often lenient when it comes to personal expression. Animation directors were there to ensure quality rather than to silence other artists’ voices, so personal quirks more often than not remained, unless they went actively against the identity of the work or were deemed technically subpar. And even when a supervisor did redraw the hell out of a key animator’s work, it was more likely to be interpreted as a worthwhile learning experience than a personal affront. Believe me when I say grudges over this have been held for a long time, but they used to be the exceptions that confirmed the rule. Nowadays, I’m not convinced that’s the case anymore.
Before we talk about what’s changed, though, it’s important to establish how things used to be. When an idea as basic as “individual key animators construct essentially the whole skeleton one sequence at a time” remains consistent for such a long time, it’s bound to shape the output of the entire industry. And that it did. In the same way that the constraints forced anime creators to innovate with limited animation techniques, the decision to give a lot of leeway to individual key animators fueled anime’s visual cohesion.
While anime could rarely ever boast of ostentatiously fluid animation, even the most modest of projects have often had striking shots where everything seemed to fit perfectly together. Though every sequence was made up of the work of multiple departments that followed the director’s vision in the first place, having the key animators set the foundations for everything in the actual shot tended to give it harmony — or very calculated discord — in a way you wouldn’t get otherwise. There’s no single correct way to make art, but anime found its own answer. And considering how many people love anime’s looks, feeling, and texture regardless of limitations and aesthetic trends changing with time, it’s fair to say that it worked.
As a side note, this consistent production philosophy affected not just anime itself, but also the culture that surrounds it. The reason why sakuga fandom is a fairly widespread phenomenon is simply that anime indirectly encourages that. To notice individual animators whose works keep resonating with you, you don’t need an artistic background nor loads of encyclopedic knowledge, but rather the simple interest to start identifying pretty obvious — especially if we’re talking about action and effects animation — patterns in their drawings that anime lets these artists get away with. So in a way, the existence of our site sort of proves this is indeed anime’s nature.
It’s not just fans that are pretty content with anime’s way of doing things, though, so were key animators themselves. While it never truly made up for the hellish problems of having a 2D animation career in Japan — something that is not new despite the situation having gotten worse — the idea that they’d play such a pivotal role at least motivated them; you can call it a genuine source of fulfillment or a carrot to dangle in front of their noses, depending on your degree of cynicism.
Now that obviously didn’t apply to in-betweeners to begin with, seeing how it’s a job essentially bereft of personal expression… but one of the most insidious problems in this industry is having devalued that role to the point where in-betweeners are merely treated as key animators in the making, a temporary state that “real animators” are meant to abandon as soon as they’re ready. And so, for the longest time we had consistent practices that defined anime’s identity, while at the same time they were used as one of the many emotionally exploitative tools to keep animators chained to their job.
When did things start changing, then? That’s a hard one to answer. Even now that evidence about anime’s changing nature has piled up for years, you can’t really pinpoint one single event. What’s easy to do, however, is point at the overall tendency that the sum of those events has caused. And that’s the atomization of Japan’s animation process. Or, to put it in simpler terms, the idea that the process has been separated into the smallest bits possible, so every shot now goes through many more hands than it did before, often sacrificing that harmony anime used to have in favor of barely making it to the next deadline.
The clearest example of this is the proliferation of an astonishing number of roles on the levels immediately above and below key animators: all sorts of animation directors, as well as 2nd key animators. The change in the former has received the most attention, as it’s impossible to miss that long gone are the days where episodes would have a single animation director, with perhaps a specialized mecha, action, or effects supervisor by their side. Nowadays, a series that keeps that averages less than a handful of them per episode already feels like a particularly orderly project.
If you feel like numbers aren’t everything and there’s no exact anime-making recipe for everyone, then I would say you’re in the right. In fact, the idea of very specialized animation supervision roles — even the outright ridiculous ones — still has merit to it… except that’s not the reasoning behind this outrageous escalation at large, of course. As schedules fall apart, more and more animation directors pile up in a desperate attempt to maintain a decent level of polish. Even the chief animation director role, which gained relevance precisely to keep the art consistent despite the increasing number of supervisors, has lost its essence now that we often see multiple chiefs per episode.
That gives you a good hint as to why anime might be losing that source of harmony it once took pride in, but the truly illustrative example as far as I’m concerned is the 2nd key animation boom; its growth from a situational mechanism to an inescapable reality, without any of the arguably deliberate reasoning behind the increase in animation directors, but simply a corruption of the original intent caused by this industry’s chronic issues.
As hard as it might be to believe if you’ve gotten into production matters in recent years, 2nd key animation is a relatively recent practice. Though the idea wasn’t in and of itself revolutionary, it wasn’t formally introduced to anime until 2002’s RahXephon. Its team knew of a certain ace by the name of Yutaka Nakamura, who wasn’t the single most influential action animator worldwide like he is now, but already proved to be an exceptional talent. In their desire to have as much as Nakamura work as possible and seeing how cloning people isn’t feasible, they divided animation tasks that already existed into fully separate roles; “1st key animators” (which included not just Nakamura but other individuals with eye-catching approaches to movement) would draw the rough animation, while “2nd key animators” would do the clean-up work, saving time for the former group.
And as you might have noticed, saving time is something anime is always up for; understandably so, to be fair, considering how most TV projects are asphyxiated by their tight production schedules. Inertia drives so many processes in this industry that it takes ages for change to happen, yet slowly but surely it became a common practice. As the 10s hit, less than a decade after this method was first experimented with in RahXephon, 2nd key animation had spread enough that it began appearing in anime production guides — though it was a new enough phenomenon that people still wondered what it entailed.
Now flash forward to the current season: all 35 new TV series from the summer 2019 season, including the shorter length ones, feature a separate 2nd key animation role essentially every single episode, intro, and outro. More often than not, there are actually more people entrusted with that work than 1st key animators. Quite the change, especially if you factor in how much the nature of the job itself has changed; rather than polishing up animation, 2nd key animation can often mean entirely fleshing out very rough layouts, not because the level of skill of key animators has mysteriously plummeted over the years, but because they’re simply not given enough time to turn in satisfactory work.
This process doesn’t just erode that inherent harmony in anime’s visuals that we’ve been talking about, it also makes for a tremendously unsatisfactory job for everyone involved. The person who turned in the rough animation has no idea what their work will look like once it hits TV screens, which often ends up with the bits they were proudest of fading away. Meanwhile, the 2nd key animator has an inherently harder time taking pride in the work at all, since they’re doing kind of an invisible job — and one that pays quite poorly at that. The remuneration for both of them will be even lower than it’d if they drew a full sequence… and the studio can’t even take solace in having saved some money, since adding up those two pathetic sums will still cost more than paying a single animator to handle the same cuts; as proof that studios themselves are aware that this system hurts even them, keep in mind we’ve heard from animators about how often they’ll get requested to do the clean-up work themselves if it’s a all possible, even offering to extend a deadlines a bit… but still not enough to make it work out in most cases, as seen by the resulting credits. It’s a depressing game where everyone loses.
At this point, you likely understand that we’re not talking about a superficial change like the messier production process making it harder to guess the work of individual animators — a fun pastime that’s survived the changing landscapes pretty well, all things considered. The real issues we’re dealing with here is an increasingly more burdensome, less satisfying job for the animators, and an often inexplicable feeling that something looks off for the audience due to the effects this has on everyone’s output; the theory of anime production hasn’t changed despite the wild evolution of the process in practice, meaning that anime’s been slowly losing the inherent visual coherence that made even the cheaper projects have its moments of brilliance, without being able to find enough new qualities to make up for that. We’d be lying if we claimed no one tried to step up to the plate, though.
That’s where the next catch is, however: even undeniably positive advances have fueled the process as a side effect. Regardless of aesthetic preferences, the evolution of compositing has opened up new doors for anime, especially in recent years as post-processing efforts have grown in ambition. Quite often, the feel of a scene is no longer determined by the choices of the key animator, but rather by those in the photography department, whom no longer just follow simple instructions by the animators. At its best, this can enable aesthetics that could have never been born from traditional toolsets, or even fabricate the feeling of harmony that’s no longer inherent to the fractured animation process.
But at its least fortunate, which is often the case in TV anime, that creates another big rift in the production process; the risk of things not being executed as envisioned grows exponentially higher with each degree of separation, so turning the animation process into a needlessly layered process out of desperation, and then handing the result to an external department — often in a different company altogether — for them to do substantial work is simply asking for something to go wrong. And of course, that’s what ends up happening. Animators lamenting that their work ended up looking nothing like it was supposed to have become a depressingly common sight. Even though the job of the compositing team is just as valid as theirs, it’s hard to argue that things are working as intended when a relationship that should be synergistic turns out to be another source of disunion.
Most animators, particularly those in the freelance field, have been inconvenienced by these changing tides to some degree. But as it tends to happen, it’s the most vulnerable groups who have received the brunt of the damage. Young animators in precarious positions get saddled with those cheap and unfulfilling requests for rough layouts and 2nd key animation. And, as much as the true globalization of anime production has increased its possibilities tenfold, it’s precisely those newcomers flowing in from all over the world that get the worst treatment when it comes to this… and other matters like getting paid in a reasonable timeframe, but let’s leave that shaming for a dedicated piece.
As we just mentioned, distance tends to make everything messier. And if Japanese animators have issues getting their fellow countrymen one train station over to treat their job as intended, or at least an approximation to their vision that sits well with the other creators involved, imagine what a nightmare this can be for a youngster who lives in the other side of the world. Foreign veterans in the anime industry used to repeat the mantra that knowledge of Japanese is the number one skill that newcomers from overseas should try to master, even above the actual animation techniques. But nowadays, the ease of digital animation and sheer desperation of the industry, have made it so that people with no understanding whatsoever of the language whatsoever can fulfill their dream of working in anime. Something that sounds good on paper, until you hear that there are no new systems in place to accommodate for their needs, so all these newcomers end up confused and sometimes outright taken advantage of.
Communication is the key to creating something as a group. It’s not a coincidence that it’s also a highly valued skill when it comes to the directors overseeing entire projects. And that’s why it’s frankly nonsense to have an industry that actively pursues up-and-coming artists overseas but then can’t be bothered to follow up with proper mentorship, which leaves them exposed to mistakes and wastes of time for simple reasons such as instructions on the storyboard being misunderstood due to the language. Even among those with a solid grasp of Japanese, the lacking means of communication, lack of trust in “outsiders ” — why seek them out then? — and the sad reality that some people in the industry simply don’t feel a thing when disregarding these artists they’re so physically and emotionally distanced from, make for a very bitter cocktail. Those are the feelings we’ve heard of first-hand and wanted to make sure were echoed.
Is there a solution to all this, then? Before you get depressed, let me say that there is… sort of. The real problems stem from the same chronic deficiencies at the root of everything; all of anime’s riches mysteriously never trickle down to the people actually making it, most projects are rushed out the door with little conviction, and that’s caused theoretically valid choices like freelancing or the specialization of the animation process to morph into grotesque, harmful forms of themselves. Thinking that can be fixed requires more hope than I can afford, so I believe anime will remain in this chimeric state, where every shot is the product of way too many artists who have too much yet too little say over it.
That said, some teams at the forefront of the industry are working towards patchwork that’s meant to alleviate the effects of this trend, rather than addressing the causes — not ideal, but by all means preferable to watching anime’s identity and the little joy animators had vanish into nothingness. What does that exactly entail, though? For the most part, it’s changing the pipeline itself, finally updating anime’s archaic management practices.
Software toolsets like Shotgun aim to revolutionize the hands-off pipelines that are so at odds with the industry’s state; in a world where the risk of seeing your animation turn into something that doesn’t fit your vision nor the director’s goal is very real, a system where you turn in your cuts and no longer know what’s going on until the episode appears on TV simply makes no sense. Turning anime production into a more interconnected process, where the different actors have it easier to communicate with each other and keep an eye on every step if desired can go a long way to make the fragmentation of the work more palatable. Tech alone won’t fix the problems, but an embarrassing amount of dissonance in this whole ordeal comes from the fact that most freelance artists (which again is most of them) don’t know what’s actually going on with the work of their peers. And when so many people are required to make anime nowadays, that’s a lot of confused creators.
To see substantial advances in this regard, we might have to wait as much as it took for this curious negative phenomenon to become widespread. It’s hard to make predictions over such long spans of time, but I believe that the two goals we set for this piece have been fulfilled. For one, it was illustrating anime’s changing landscape, and perhaps put the vague dissatisfaction that the atomization of anime production has had on viewers into words that make sense. And just as importantly, this was our attempt to elaborate on the discontent this has caused to animators themselves, whom we’ve talked about these topics on repeated occasions. If nothing else, consider this piece your indirect venting mechanism!