Commanding KyoAni’s Animation: Character Designers & Chief Supervisors Roundtable

Commanding KyoAni’s Animation: Character Designers & Chief Supervisors Roundtable

KyoAni’s renowned quality is built upon a special culture and many years of cultivating talent in different creative departments. Today we’ll focus precisely on their animation, with a lengthy roundtable featuring their active character design and chief supervision crew up till the arson. Shouko and Kazumi Ikeda, Futoshi Nishiya, Miku Kadowaki, and Akiko Takase had an in-depth conversation about their experiences at the studio, the differences between the role of a chief animation director & a regular supervisor, their mentality as designers, and so much more.


Participants:

  • Kazumi Ikeda (Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions series, Phantom World, KEY titles such as Clannad, and so on)
  • Shouko Ikeda (Euphonium series, Haruhi series, and so on)
  • Futoshi Nishiya (Liz and the Blue Bird, A Silent Voice, Free! series, Nichijou, and so on)
  • Miku Kadowaki (Tsurune, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, Beyond the Boundary, and so on)
  • Akiko Takase (Violet Evergarden)

Interview originally published within KyoAni’s 2019 Watashitachi wa, Ima!! books, now restocked and available for purchase here. Translated by bitmap.


Chief supervision vs regular animation direction

To start off, please let us know why you chose to work at Kyoto Animation and Animation Do.

S. Ikeda: I attended an information session on campus, and it left a positive impression on me. I think the deciding factor was the fact that it was an animation studio in the Kansai region that had several departments.

Kadowaki: It was the same for me; the fact that the company encompassed a number of departments was very important. I toured on campus with many different animation studios, and I felt the difference in the breadth of work that could get done here, compared to other studios that just handle the animation stage. I could tell that the employees hold a sense of responsibility for the work they produce.

K. Ikeda: When I was searching for employment, the job listing happened to catch my eye, and the name stuck in my mind. After that, I went to a bunch of info sessions and toured their offices, but none could match the peace of mind I felt when hearing about this company. I felt that I could do my best while working here.

Takase: I vaguely knew I wanted to get a job that involved drawing, but I didn’t know exactly what I should do. My younger brother liked Kyoto Animation anime and suggested I go work over there, so I decided to apply on a whim (laughs). But as I watched their work, I was drawn in by the art, and realized I genuinely wanted to join the studio that made such incredible animation. I never would have imagined I’d actually end up joining the company.

Nishiya: For me it was the very simple reason that I really liked the anime series KyoAni worked on at the time. I’d rather not remember what I was like when I first joined the studio…

S. Ikeda: When I think about what my art portfolio looked like when I first joined, I get very mixed feelings (laughs). Nowadays I often get the chance to look at portfolios of budding animators, and everyone’s talent is stunning.

— You’re often part of the main staff as chief animation director or character designer, but there are also times where you’re just one of the members of the animation direction rotation. What differences do you see between those two types of positions?

Nishiya: When you take on different positions, there’s a natural tendency to shift the way you work and even how you feel about it.

S. Ikeda: A chief animation director deals with different types of drawings than a regular animation director, so what’s expected out of each role is different as a result. The chief animation director looks over the work as a whole and looks over all of the focal points, but I feel like the animation director has a demanding job because they have to check all of the key animation.

Kadowaki: When I act as the animation director, I try to approach my work like a stage director for theater, as if I’m telling the characters, “You need to cry more in this scene!” or “Show some more emotional restraint here!” When I act as chief animation director, though, I focus less on the acting and more on how to finalize the drawings to look their best.

K. Ikeda: As chief animation director, you’re sporadically checking cuts for all sorts of scenes, so you rarely get a chance to look at everything in sequential order. On the other hand, you get the chance to see cuts from animation directors that make you go, “Huh, I’d never think to interpret this cut like that!” Seeing those unexpected takes on cuts broadens your horizons.

Kadowaki: Those are the kinds of cuts I want to deliver to the chief animation director. I think that’s what makes it worth being an animation director.

K. Ikeda: It’s a game of trying to see how much you can convince the chief animation director (laughs).

Kadowaki: That’s right! That’s what makes it fun!

S. Ikeda: It’s like you’re throwing down a challenge.

Takase: Like Kadowaki, I try to challenge myself to draw the way I want as an animation director. When I’m chief animation director, I feel immense pressure as the one ultimately responsible for all the animation.

Nishiya: The amount of pressure for an animation director is definitely different compared that of the chief animation director. Over the past several years, I’ve mostly served as chief supervisor. So when I had the chance to be a regular animation director on an episode for the first time in a while on Tsurune, and I couldn’t help wonder what (Nobuaki) Maruki, the chief animation director, thought of my work. As I worked, I spent the whole time questioning whether my drawings were the right answer to what he was looking for.

S. Ikeda: You do end up worrying about what Nishiya’s talking about, how the chief animation director will react to the answer you give. It’s become the dominant trend to have the chief animation director make sure the art style is consistent for the entire span of the series, and individual episodes standing out is more a thing of the past. Back in Kyoto Animation’s subcontracting days, each episode showed off the animation director’s idiosyncrasies, which had its merits. Sometimes I think that sort of individuality on display isn’t so bad, especially since I feel like animation directors who can take on all sorts of challenges are the ones who will put in an honest effort.

K. Ikeda: I think there aren’t too many people like Kadowaki who think about ways to try and challenge the chief animation director.

Kadowaki: At first, I used to worry as well about what the chief animation director would think, but I eventually got sick of it (laughs). Ever since, my spirits and my efficiency both went up, and work became a lot more fun!

S. Ikeda: It’d be nice if that were the case for everyone, but there are definitely those who get discouraged when their drawings are corrected.

K. Ikeda: But when I make extensive corrections, it’s more often the case that I was making slight adjustments that got out of hand, as opposed to the original drawing being unacceptable. It becomes hard on my end to gauge the feel of a drawing as a whole with just partial corrections, so I’m forced to touch everything up to an extent.

Nishiya: I do get the impression that there end up being a lot of fully redrawn corrections whenever you’re the one in the chief supervisor position.

K. Ikeda: I usually make corrections to the outlines and the eyes, but once you go that far, you might as well correct the nose as well… And that process of tinkering is what ends up leading to corrections spreading to the entire drawing.

Takase: There are definitely cuts where you can’t tell the exact spots that need corrections from a glance, and you end up adjusting too much as a result. And it’s always when you’re working against the clock…

S. Ikeda: It’s a race against time. Before I begin my work, I divide everything into cuts I can correct quickly, and cuts that it would be best to spend some time correcting.

Kadowaki: And then there are times where you’ve sorted everything and given yourself time to go back, and then you take a look again only to go, “Huh? This looks fine as it is” (laughs)

S. Ikeda: I know what you mean (laughs).

Nishiya: Also, when you get to learn the habits of the animators you correct, it gets easier because you know what specific parts of a person’s work you should look over. What does everyone do about rough drawings when you make corrections?

Kadowaki: For layout checks, I draw roughs on the back of the paper.

S. Ikeda: I do roughs first as well. Usually, there’s not a lot of times I can draw it in one go.

Nishiya: I see you all do rough drawings. Until now, I tried to do my corrections from roughs to the final version on a single sheet. However, lately I’ve noticed that the process goes more smoothly when I draw the rough correction on a separate sheet of paper, so I’ve changed how I do things.

S. Ikeda: So that means that your desk must be piled with rough drawings of past corrections!

Nishiya: Well, sometimes I use the backs of the correction sheets too.

Takase: I draw rough versions for everything, even when I make corrections as chief animation director. Sometimes I can get away with omitting the rough if I’m just correcting facial expressions, but when I want to fix the poses or I’m not sure what needs correcting, I draw a rough of the whole thing on a separate piece of paper.

K. Ikeda: I’m like Takase in that I skip the rough step when doing it in one go seems feasible. But for the ones that I think will give me trouble I draw a rough on the back, and I use a separate sheet of paper for the ones where I want to make dramatic corrections. I end up readjusting the corrections themselves too, so when I use the back of the sheet, the other side can end up becoming a mess… But I try my best to avoid major corrections. The more I keep redrawing something, the more I begin to lose sight, so I furiously draw everything while it’s fresh in my head.

— How many cuts would you say you check in a single day?

Kadowaki: I bet a certain Shoko Ikeda is really fast! I’d like to know your all-time record, actually.

S. Ikeda: Let me think… 20 years ago, when I worked on shows subcontracted to Kyoto Animation, I’d say I never went below 30 cuts a day for both layout checks and key animation checks. There were episodes when I didn’t leave a single line uncorrected in the key animation.

K. Ikeda: An episode of TV anime had about 3000 drawings back then, so you could be animation director as well as draw key animation and help out with in-betweens at the same time.

S. Ikeda: That’s right. The scale of work being done was simply different compared to the titles Kyoto Animation produces now. Back then, there was a lot less linework involved as well. Our modern titles have so much more detail in the drawings…

Kadowaki: Just looking at the linework in Sound! Euphonium and Violet Evergarden is enough to make you cry (laughs). For Violet Evergarden, I could get about 10 cuts done on a good day…

Takase: The cuts that Kadowaki does the layout checks for are the ones I can quickly pass on to the next person, which I’m very grateful for!

Kadowaki: And then those cuts come back to me after key animation is complete and I’m left at a total loss (laughs). The cuts that the chief animation director hasn’t added any corrections to seem to give me the most trouble when it comes to checking the key animation.

S. Ikeda: I would agree. The chief animation director’s corrections can be taken as the definitive answer, so there’s no reason for any doubt in their case.

Kadowaki: That’s right. You can be sure that the cuts with corrections from the chief animation director follow the standards, but it’s hard to be sure if it’s all right when it comes to your own drawings, so you’re tempted to make adjustments.

Nishiya: You know you can have faith in the chief animation director’s corrections when you draw. I want to aim for 20 cuts a day as an animation director, but it’s difficult… When I’m the chief animation director, even if I give it my undivided attention, I think I end up at about 50 to 60 cuts a day. What about you, Takase?

Takase: I tend to work slowly…

Nishiya: But you’re fast when you’re working as an animation director.

Takase: Is that so? Oh, I can bring up the number if there are cuts with only backgrounds! (laughs) As an animation director, I think the best I’ve done is about 25 cuts. My average is 15 or so. And it’s about 30 cuts on average when I’m acting as the chief animation director.

K. Ikeda: For just layout checks, it’s about 15 cuts a day for me, give or take. When I feel like it’s been an unproductive day, I frantically search for cuts with only backgrounds to add to the mix (laughs).

All: (laugh)

K. Ikeda: I feel like I’ve gotten slower lately… So I look at how many cuts the other animation directors hand in every day to motivate myself.


The struggles of designing characters!

This question is about your work as a character designer. How do you decide whether to use colored outlines for a character or not?

S. Ikeda: I generally check with the series director to see if they would prefer solid lines or colored outlines.

Nishiya: I don’t really consult the director.

Kadowaki: Me neither.

Takase: My only experience is with Violet Evergarden, but I didn’t really ask the director about that.

K. Ikeda: Yeah, I don’t really ask to see if I should use colors or not.

S. Ikeda: Wait, am I the only one? How did you decide on Mirai’s hair for Beyond the Boundary? Was it Kadowaki that suggested that?

Kadowaki: Let me try and remember how that conversation went… I think it was by (Taichi) Ishidate’s request. However, as it would heavily affect the work that the in-betweeners would have to do, we ended up talking with the in-between checkers before the designs were finalized. I remember that it wasn’t my proposal.

Nishiya: The main characters’ hair is extremely important, after all. I do discuss that with the director, since it’s not the kind of decision you can make alone. For Free! Dive to the Future, I wanted to use colored outlines for Albert’s hair, so I talked it over with (Eisaku) Kawanami.

S. Ikeda: It’s tempting to go for colored outlines for characters with a light hair color.

K. Ikeda: I don’t think I’ve really used color traces often. If the situation calls for it, I might use it a bit for clothes or handling the inside of the eye. I want to make it so people don’t make mistakes during the actual animation process, so I try to avoid elements in character sheets that invite such errors as much as I can. Of course, there are times where the director asks you to use color traces for certain parts.

S. Ikeda: (Tatsuya) Ishihara in particular is a big fan of using colored outlines. I’ll often hear him say it would be nice to use them for things like the patterns for school uniforms.

Nishiya: We used them to separate the colors on the tracksuits for the Free! series. We often end up using color lines for places where we need that kind of separation.

Takase: When I was thinking up the character sheets for Violet, I chose where to use colored outlines, using them for patterns on her clothes while keeping solid lines for parts where we wanted to add more depth. For Violet Evergarden as a whole, I had already chosen the colors when I drew the illustrations for the original novels, so there were places where I used those as the starting point.

Kadowaki: Since it’s related to colors, there are times when we make decisions with the input of the coloring staff as well. When I’m in the process of creating the color reference sheets for a character, they’ll give me advice like, “It might be better if you used colored outlines here.

K. Ikeda: There are times when the finished design ends up a lighted tone than you’d expected as you were applying the colors, so using colored outlines ends up working out better than keeping solid ones.

— From the perspective of a character designer, is there anything you try to keep in mind on a regular basis?

Nishiya: When the time comes around for new anime series to begin airing, I make sure to check to see what kind of character designs they have.

K. Ikeda: Characters nowadays have very elaborate processing for the eyes. There are a lot of times when you can’t tell at a glance how much of it is the original drawing and how much of it is done in the compositing phase. My designs have very simple eyes, so I’m curious as to what kind of designs are the latest trend.

Kadowaki: Outside of anime, mobile app games are popular lately, so I look into them by playing them myself. My line of work being what it is, I try to stay informed on which character designs are all the rage.

Nishiya: What’s the popular trend right now?

Kadowaki: People rave about all sorts of different styles, so I don’t think there’s one thing I can point to as being the ironclad favorite.

K. Ikeda: There are a lot of folks on staff who play these games.

Takase: I regularly enjoy mobile games, and what happens is I end up playing way too much because I want to see the exclusive art in the game. In my case, the art itself is what interests me.

K. Ikeda: I don’t usually play these kinds of things, but every once in a while, there are games that are referenced in the title we’re working on, so I try them out to learn what I need to be able to draw them.

Nishiya: Ever since working on the Free! series, it’s become a habit to look up illustrations and photos of all sorts of things using an app that allows me to search for images. Doing so gives me ideas to use as a base for things like thinking up different outfits for characters.

S. Ikeda: I see, so that’s how you’re always adding to your repertoire! So the rumors were true about how dedicated you are to your research for designing characters.

Nishiya: I had no idea a rumor like that’s been spreading…

K. Ikeda: I’ve heard a lot about how you gather all sorts of reference materials.

Nishiya: That’s true. I’m the type who likes to have some kind of research to back me up, or you could say a foothold on which to stand.

S. Ikeda: There are times when designing characters where the director comes to you with references and tells you, “I want something like this!“. And then you end up grasping at straws trying to figure out what they’re really looking for. Of course, sometimes you end up going with something different.

Kadowaki: Designing characters always starts by hearing out the director, and figuring out things like what tone they’re going for.

K. Ikeda: In my case, there are many cases where I’m basing the characters on existing illustrations, so I often have to think about how to translate those designs for an anime. Of course, I can’t create model sheets for characters I haven’t fully grasped myself, so the process of designing them first entails figuring out how to draw them perfectly myself.

Takase: I drew the original illustrations for the Violet Evergarden novels, but Ishidate told me, “Forget about those for now and try drawing some designs,” and those sketches became the starting concept that I iterated off of. For characters original to the anime, I learned about their personality from Ishidate, and he let me know what real-life actors he envisioned them as, which I used as inspiration when drawing.

— Is there anything you’re curious about in terms of each other’s work?

Nishiya: I’ve always wondered, but how does everyone decide what angles to use for character expression sheets?

S. Ikeda: I wanted to know that as well! How do you all go about it?

Nishiya: I always tend to fall into the same patterns. If I draw faces in profile, then I end up worrying about how there aren’t any profile shots facing the other way. I feel like Kadowaki has a lot of variation there. How do you come up with those angles?

Kadowaki: I go wherever my pencil takes me… I start with all of the angles I want to draw, add on angles I’m missing after that, and adjust the balance between what I want to draw and what’s needed for production purposes. I feel like you drew quite a lot of character expression sheets for Free!

Nishiya: To be more precise, it wasn’t for Free!, but rather for High Speed. I remember trying my best to draw their heads turning around a full 360°. Thinking back on it, I sure did spend a lot of effort doing that.

S. Ikeda: When I see a lot of angles drawn out, I appreciate the thoughtfulness.

Nishiya: I try my best to include the angles that I myself find useful for reference when drawing.

K. Ikeda: For starters, I try to make it clear what the character looks like from above, below, left, and right, but as production continues, I find myself wishing I had drawn out more angles.

Takase: This was my first time handling character designs, so I used all of the expression sheets you all drew for past titles as reference. There are also times where an expression you sketched out with little thought ends up being surprisingly well-drawn. I ended up gathering up sketches as if I were creating a collage, and using that as the base drawing to cleanly trace over.

S. Ikeda: Aside from angles, do you ever get asked by the director to add in certain facial expressions?

Nishiya: I do get requests to add expressions.

Kadowaki: I tend to worry about whether I’ve included enough angles or not when I do character design, but the director is less concerned with the angles of their head and more with capturing their personality, and will say things like, “This character would never make that expression.” That big gap in priorities left an impression on me. When I’m working as an animation director, I also end up wanting as many angles as possible on the expression sheet.

K. Ikeda: What do you do when you’re creating design sheets and want to make partial corrections? Do you redraw everything from scratch, or just erase and fix what’s needed?

S. Ikeda: I make a copy of the original version, and then erase and redraw over what I had. Without the copy, there’s no way to go back.

K. Ikeda: That’s true. I end up losing sight of the big picture as I keep making corrections, so I erase the original and directly fix it. But this method leaves no paper trail, so I’m curious as to how everyone else does it.

Takase: I place a new sheet of paper on top, and redraw the whole thing from scratch. When I was working on Violet Evergarden, I ended up having to start over countless times with retakes for certain characters.

S. Ikeda: There are times I get back comments from the director asking to fix a certain part of a design, but I can tell that the criticism isn’t meant to apply just to that piece. When that happens, I take the initiative to redraw everything from the ground up.

Kadowaki: I also often end up realizing that it’d be best to fix everything as a whole and starting over from scratch during the process of repeatedly making minor adjustments.

Nishiya: I heard there were quite a number of setbacks for Tsurune

Kadowaki: There were. I had a hard time getting the director’s approval for the five main characters. I was left at my wits’ end as I showed new iterations to (Takuya) Yamamura, only to be told that something still felt off. I had been referencing the rough character concepts that Yamamura had drawn, until he suddenly told me to forget about the characters he drew. I couldn’t help but think, “You think I can erase my memories so easily?!” (laughs) Yamamura’s desk was close to mine, so I kept showing him the beginnings of rough sketches and asking him if I was heading in the right direction, and slowly made progress.

Nishiya: We had a lot of trouble coming to a consensus when I was working on the designs for Liz and the Blue Bird as well. I went to (Naoko) Yamada three or four times with new proposals that I myself found iffy, and sure enough, they ended up falling short of the mark. It wasn’t until I drew something I was personally satisfied with that I managed to get her approval. As a character designer, I realized the importance of sticking to an idea you feel confident about.


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Avery

These interviews have been lovely to read, thank you so much for posting them

Matheus Gadotti
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Matheus Gadotti

Oh man, I can’t read this, so many dead people ;-;