Today we’ll cover another indispensable part of KyoAni: their energetic Osaka branch Animation Do, as seen through the eyes of their two series directors at the moment. Enjoy this sincere dialogue about directorial worries, studio dynamics, and how much they screwed up as newbies!
- Eisaku Kawanami (All recent entries in the Free! franchise, such as Dive to the Future and Take Your Marks)
- Takuya Yamamura (Directorial debut on Tsurune)
Interview originally published within KyoAni’s 2019 Watashitachi wa, Ima!! books, now restocked and available for purchase here. Translated by megax.
The two directors at Animation Do
— Can you tell us about how you came to work at Animation Do?
Kawanami: I remember joining Animation Do right when Kyoto Animation began producing titles of their own. Even though there weren’t anywhere as many staff members as there are nowadays, there was still the perception that Kyoto Animation was a top anime studio. Around the time, though, they said they wanted to begin gathering members to create original works. I can’t quite recall all the details…
Yamamura: I can relate to that, remembering something that happened over a decade ago is tough (laughs). I joined the studio when they were working on Lucky Star. One distinct memory I’ve got is the fact that Animation Do was split onto two floors at the time—it was a pain to go up and down those stairs to go back and forth.
Kawanami: I do remember the time when you joined us, it was quite a busy period.
Yamamura: Not knowing that, I remember getting impatient after completing the training assignment I had to do before joining the animation staff and getting no response for a while.
Kawanami: That’s when we received a pushy follow-up from you, asking if we’d received the training assignment you’d sent.
Yamamura: I was so anxious I had to do something about it! (laughs) The truth is that I hadn’t grasped what in-betweening was like at the time, so my shoddy drawings came back with a message explaining that such flimsy lines wouldn’t be picked up by the scanner. I went through serious training from that point on. When I joined the studio, all my seniors were kind and it immediately felt like a cozy workplace; at the same time, though, I realized how demanding of a job it was and pondered to myself about the troublesome path I’d chosen.
— What prompted you to join the studio?
Yamamura: I felt like I wasn’t going to fit in in Tokyo, so I looked for animation studios in the Kansai region and found Animation Do. It was after getting accepted that I began realizing I’d joined an outrageous company. At the time my knowledge about anime production matters was very limited, to the point that I asked what a layout was during my examination. To this day, I’m still amazed they hired me.
Kawanami: As for me, I found out about Kyoto Animation’s Pro Training Course online and enrolled there. I hadn’t actually considered joining the studio at the time, though. It was after submitting my graduation project that I was told they’d be alright with me joining the studio. I hesitated at first.
Yamamura: Is that so?
Kawanami: I simply lacked that kind of confidence in myself. But that’s when they offered an opportunity to take a look at the studio, and that experience feeling the real work environment gave me the resolve I needed to give it a spin. Nothing to lose, I told myself! (laughs).
Yamamura: How come you joined the professional animator training course?
Kawanami: The depiction of movement fascinated me. In the back of my head I may have already been wondering if I could become an animator or not.
Yamamura: That’s so like you. Personally, it was listening to the audio commentary for an anime I liked that made me think that creative process sounded like a lot of fun—that was when I decided to become an animator, with the goal to direct my own works. Hence why I boldly proclaimed “I’m going to become a director!” when I joined the company.
— Do you have any missteps you can share from the time right after joining Animation Do?
Yamamura: I’ve got this one anecdote from my time as a key animator. When you receive corrections from the chief animation director, you’re supposed to place them under an animation sheet and carefully trace over that section. Since I was a novice, though, I didn’t know that and got it in my head that I should use the corrections underneath as a reference but avoid copying the chief animation director’s drawing. And that’s when they called me.
Kawanami: To praise you?
Yamamura: The opposite (laughs). I got scolded! After listening to their explanation, it clicked for me why the other key animators were so fast at their job. In addition to that, there were also times where I’d screw up the process where you’re supposed to split sections of your layouts using warm and cold colors, but I’d do things like fully coloring the skin rather than using the respective tone. I screwed up so much.
Kawanami: As an in-betweener, one time I got entrusted with a very peculiar running shot. The key animation was so unique that I gave it my all filling in the gaps of the movement, but then the in-between checker scolded me saying those were no longer in-betweens—it was as if I’d added my own key animation. Holding back can be hard.
Yamamura: When did you become a key animator?
Kawanami: Around half a year after joining the company.
Yamamura: That’s amazing. I failed my key animation test around half a year after joining, and it wasn’t until a full year had passed that I made it through. Key animation and in-betweens are completely different positions, so I had to shoulder both the excitement of being able to define my own movement but also the trickiness of doing so. Every day was kind of a struggle at that point.
Kawanami: You were also down after you failed your test to become a director.
Yamamura: That’s right. Honestly, failing it got me a bit introspective. So when the next test was around the corner and you asked me what I was going to do, I couldn’t immediately say I would make it. In the end, it was thanks to you pushing me forward that I passed the test (laughs).
Kawanami: That did happen. A senior staff member came and told me “Since Yamamura is working on improving his key animation technique, wouldn’t it be alright for him to stay in that position for a bit longer?” to which I replied “Nope! He’ll do just fine as a director!“
Yamamura: What’s with that response? (laughs) But it’s thanks to you that I stand where I do now. I’m deeply thankful.
Details about other directors that pique your interest
— Ever since you became a director, have you grown curious about certain things people in that same position do?
Yamamura: I’m curious about how other directors act during the script meetings; how do they convey their vision as a director, but also how do they maneuver when they reach a disagreement.
Kawanami: If both sides don’t properly convey what their goal is, at some point you might end up with something entirely different than intended. Some directors are flexible enough to pivot from the scripts they receive, while others basically dictate what’s going into the script. In the latter cases, proper communication with your scriptwriters is key.
Yamamura: Tsurune was the first time I participated in script meetings. I’d ask something along the lines of “Would this situation work for this particular character?” and they’d tell me that it wouldn’t quite work because of their personality. Then we’d discuss the direction we should take the character, rebuilding the entire work in the process until we reached an agreement about how to move forward. After all, you’re not creating something alone as a director: you can’t proceed unless you reach an understanding.
Kawanami: Since you’re so curious, why not come spectate other people’s script meetings?
Yamamura: I’d like to, but surely that’d bother you? I feel like I’d be a bother and make it harder to speak your mind.
Kawanami: Rather, it’s more like Free! is such an eccentric production I’m not sure it would provide helpful guidance. Sometimes we descend into madness as if it were a surreal gag manga (laughs).
Yamamura: (laughs). Part of it may be that you joined the project halfway through, which raises the bar some more.
Kawanami: That’s not quite the case. The truth is that I’ve been involved with Free! since the planning stages of what was then the Swimming Commercial, so I actually feel more comfortable with it than with other titles.
Yamamura: Does something regarding other directors pique your interest?
Kawanami: I’m curious about how many retakes other directors ask for. Every director is different, and in the case of someone like me who’s prone to worrying, I have to firmly establish the course of action beforehand. I’ll give thorough explanations to the surrounding staff to reduce the points of ambiguity as much as possible, because I really want to keep the retakes to a minimum.
Yamamura: During Tsurune I also tried to hold back on the retakes, focusing mostly on correcting facial expressions. I’ve seen how the staff that surrounds us works first hand, I know I can trust them all, hence why I’ll only ask for a retake when something truly bothers me.
Kawanami: I want to refrain from asking for retakes as much as possible. I’m a firm believer in the correlation between the quality of animation and the time you can spend on it—so by minimizing the time spent doing retakes and having staff correct animation, you can better allocate those resources for other tasks. With that in mind, I’ll give precise instructions beforehand, and when I get the finished work, I’ll try to be flexible too.
Yamamura: If a cut that feels truly off comes my way I’ll say so, but generally speaking I’m also in the camp that wants to keep retakes to a minimum. It’s not a common occurrence, but when you get in a situation where issuing a correction would lead to major reworks, it does make you wonder if that retake is really worth it. You have to make the call knowing there’s a risk to that retake.
Kawanami: You’re always looking for a way to enrich your delivery with the limited time at your disposal.
Yamamura: The details you focus on change once you become a director too, don’t they?
Kawanami: Absolutely. When checking, I feel like I’ve become fussier than ever about the layouts.
— Conversely, what are some points that do make you ask for retakes?
Yamamura: I’m picky about the characters’ expressions, especially their eyes. Based on their pupil positions, I can tell where they’re looking, but there have been times where it doesn’t match who they’re talking to. Those types of situations always ask for a retake.
Kawanami: Since Tsurune‘s linework has a delicate nuance to it, it’s tricky to express the pupils with a small number of lines. Depending on how one line looks, the gaze and expression can change completely. Personally, though, what I obsess over is movement; I wonder if that’s me still seeing things from an animator’s point of view. Viewers might not watch a scene over and over, but if there’s something that could feel off the first time through, that needs a retake. As for the layouts, I’ll make sure the perspective and such is all correct during animation checks, but will rarely ever issue retakes when it has reached the compositing stage.
Yamamura: When I’m checking cuts, I’m focused on one cut at a time, so there’s been a lot of times where I don’t notice something until I see the cuts it connects with. Because of that, I need to imagine how the final visuals will look to check over it and make my decision.
Everyone comes together to create this work
— Do you incorporate your hobbies and experiences into your work as a director?
Kawanami: You’ve done that plenty, haven’t you?
Yamamura: That’s true. For example, there’s this one idol group I like, so I’ll incorporate their cute mannerisms into my repertoire. Thanks to that, my ability to depict cute gestures has improved, by rooting it to this concrete aspect of my hobby I can reflect on; after all, you naturally put a lot of effort into drawing something you like. Sometimes you struggle to depict the mannerisms of people unlike you. Kyoto Animation’s titles have a lot of female characters for one, so I’ll have to ponder about the gesture of laying down your skirt when sitting on a chair. Or, if we’re dealing with a more masculine woman, exactly much should I stress that out? Mannerisms are a tricky beast. In the case of Free!, the animation staff had similar worries, although with men in that case.
Kawanami: That was particularly true at the start of the series. For example, the way they’d tightly hold objects underneath their arms. When we first started production on Free!, we had done a lot of titles focused on female characters. Regardless of their gender, the staff could draw feminine gestures to perfection. So while it didn’t restrict us, during the early stages of Free! there definitely were old habits to iron out.
Yamamura: Is there anything from your private life that you draw from when directing, then?
Kawanami: This isn’t limited to me, but animation staff who have some experience with music have a rhythm to them when it comes to timesheets. Even if it’s just a character blinking, you can tell the difference in timing when you see it between those with musical inclinations and those without based on how that cut feels. I enjoy linking cuts and editing work, so that sense of rhythm is important in any type of work for me, not just with key animation.
— Has anything changed in the way you work since you became a director?
Yamamura: I guess it’s having to look at the whole picture. It’s different than managing the schedule as an episode director; once you become a series director, you have to set a schedule that keeps considers it all or else you can’t start working. That’s why it’s so tough. It was the part that made me feel most amazed at how well other directors do it.
Kawanami: I don’t think they’re all that different in that regard. It’s not as if we were ever isolated anime makers—there’s always a production team, regardless of which section you’re in, and that goes for the director as well. You gotta play out your role for the greater good. The production process isn’t something an individual can see to completion, and I don’t think my value and what’s needed of me as a creator has actually changed. That said, when leading a project you do have the final say when it comes to everything and everyone, so I can feel the immense weight of that responsibility. It’s not as if you have infinite time to come to a conclusion, so you need to be able to do it at a reasonable pace, without rushing either.
Yamamura: That feeling of heartache when someone approaches you and asks what they should do is intense. I was puzzled at first when I got questions like that, but I decided I was better off trusting my instincts than getting lost in such thoughts. Being a director doesn’t mean you have to be an eminence.
Kawanami: That’s right. Of course, there are directors that have a strong personality that pulls people with them, but since Kyoto Animation and Animation Do create titles together as one team, I would rather foster and treasure the feeling of the studio over the individual.
— Thank you very much for your time today.