Rebuilding Kyoto Animation’s Unique Production Pipeline: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid S Production Notes 03-12

Rebuilding Kyoto Animation’s Unique Production Pipeline: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid S Production Notes 03-12

Let’s dedicate a final look at Maidragon‘s second season and its role in KyoAni’s gradual rebuild—the why and how they made a beautiful show with a smaller team than it takes to animate an average episode of anime nowadays.

Yes, I know, we owed one last look at Maidragon S after its broadcast ended last month. After the introductory episodes we already covered, most of this second season was dedicated to the shifting character dynamics. The changes in the family with the explosive arrival of Ilulu obviously come to mind, but there’s also the surprising emotional core of this show: Tohru and Elma’s relationship, finally explored in full over the course of the season. Even characters who hadn’t been active agents like Kanna got a bit of an opportunity to expand their relationships in episodes like the fan-favorite Maidragon S #10.

Having this iterative theme to give the entire series cohesion under the idea of “What if these characters continued to exist in this world, meeting new people and learning new things” was quite helpful, as Maidragon S is a bit too fragmented otherwise. This is understandable giving how the title was hit with the tragic loss of multiple main staffers at different points in its creation, but I believe the material they were given this time wasn’t smooth sailings either; perhaps with higher highs, but not as consistently pleasant as the first season’s cozy ride.

That is of course inseparable from the execution, which is an aspect where I can hardly fault the studio’s members. In a way, it’s not a big surprise that the animation was arguably even better; it’s a bit of a KyoAni tradition for sequels to have more poignant animation than their predecessors, they have the exact same team growing more familiar with the characters whose souls they have to animate. In the months leading to the broadcast, staff members also wrote on the studio’s blog about their ideas to make the animation inherently enjoyable to look at, which definitely paid off in the end.

Direction-wise, I believe that the people who had to step up to the plate did so with confidence, despite knowing that Yasuhiro Takemoto‘s shoes are impossible to fill. The aforementioned Kanna-centric episode #10, the warmest in content and delivery, was storyboarded and directed by Taichi Ogawa—someone called to start captaining projects now that the studio is in need of new creative leaders. It’s also encouraging that no one seemed to even notice that the equally beloved episode #09, with the show’s greatest high in the resolution to Tohru and Elma’s arc, was the very first one that Osaka native Minoru Ota directed and boarded on his own. With so much loss, every successful promotion at the studio feels like a great accomplishment.

And that takes us to the final point I wanted to make regarding this series. As deeply charming that I found Maidragon S to be, I believe that the show’s legacy will be in the necessary role it played in beginning the reconstruction of KyoAni’s one-of-a-kind pipeline. And to do that, first I have to explain one simple thing: how does KyoAni make anime?

If you’re thinking that they do it just like everyone else, you wouldn’t be wrong: none of their tech nor roles are fundamentally different after all. And yet, not only is it common to see industry folks mention that they’d also love to create anime in reduced groups like KyoAni’s, but also wondering out loud how the hell they manage to do that. Mind you, we’re talking about people who are already aware of the biggest strength of the studio, the one they themselves always allude to in documentaries and interviews: in-house teamwork. As also seen on the likes of ufotable, the efficiency and synergy you have in a team where everyone is at hands’ reach is simply incomparable to the nightmare of layered outsourcing that anime has become.

That’s the not-so-secret on a conceptual level, but again, what intrigues animators in particular is how they manage to organize their workload in such small groups without sacrificing any bit of quality. Their system built on animation units is something that we’ve been alluding to on this site for years, and that has also been brought up by those who’ve worked there. In short, the studio creates small groups—just a bit over a handful of members—that tend to stick together across multiple productions, until there’s enough of a break in their calendar that they have the time to reorganize according to the upcoming projects’ needs. Those units contain a director, an animation supervisor or two, just a few animators who are often on the younger side, and then one leader. That last figure is a veteran member who will keep track of the other animator’s work, assist them as much as possible, and call other unit leaders in case they feel like the schedule will catch up to them otherwise.

This system has worked like clockwork for many years, and is one of the big reasons why KyoAni productions have been so consistent in averaging only 6~8 key animators per episode; that corresponds to one of those units a week, and then a bit more as there are those occasions where other units tag in to help. Their consistency is such that you can guess the exact credits of an episode weeks in advance once you’ve noticed the patterns, with the caveat that individuals are sometimes shuffled around due to their specific skillset, which is essentially public knowledge when your team is this consistent.

At first glance, Maidragon S appears to follow that same pattern. It took under 7 key animators per episode—including 2nd KA as they don’t credit it separately—and a single animation director on top of the chief supervision to produce the most consistently excellent show of its season. How does that compare to its peers, then? Halfway through the Summer season, we tracked the data of all new shows at the time to find out about how many people it takes to animate your average episode of anime nowadays.

The results were horrifying, even more so knowing that they were a pointlessly conservative estimate. While the numbers indicated that it took around 9 animation directors and 33 key animators (including 2nd KA), way too many people nowadays are either forgotten or just lumped under a studio name. Incidentally, that’s the reason why didn’t even try to track in-betweeners, as they never get credited on a consistent basis. If you account for the ballooning numbers at the end of a season and the many names that get omitted, we’re looking at easily 40~50 animators a week just to get the keys finished; and productions are structured as pyramids, so you can guess what that means for the in-betweeners. Not only are those averages nearly an order of magnitude off from KyoAni’s data, they even dwarf their totals: between key animation and supervision, only 35 different animators participated in the entirety of Maidragon.

All perfect then, right? By this point, you should know not to trust numbers. It goes without saying that KyoAni’s system works like wonders under regular circumstances, but no such thing has existed in recent years, especially for them. While the numbers remained low, Maidragon S didn’t actually have the smooth staff rotation that characterizes the studio, for the simple reason that the studio was by no means fully operative, or even on the same page in their struggles. Personal circumstances regarding the tragedy, the uneven effects it had on Kyoto versus Osaka staff, and so on led to a more chaotic—by their standards anyway—staff rotation, where some busy people made more appearances than they would have normally done just to cover for their peers, whereas others could barely contribute to it.

In the end, the result was as good as ever, but it’s important to remember that this project was quietly delayed for nearly a year. Had they been incapable of negotiating for a delay—hey, turns out that studios leading the committees is helpful!—even their excellent system might have crashed during the last stages of the production. In retrospect, it’s easy to look back on it and say that they overdid it, as the show was finished months before the broadcast in the end; it sounds crazy that ex-KyoAni members wrapped up their duties before leaving to start work that was broadcast 6 months prior, for what it says about both the schedules at play, but it’s much better to err on the side of caution when you’re in such a delicate position. Maidragon S was a fun series, but having managed this dangerous situation properly might be its greatest legacy in the long run.

Episode 03

Storyboard: Noriyuki Kitanohara, Takuya Yamamura, Haruka Fujita
Episode Direction: Noriyuki Kitanohara
Chief Animation Director: Nobuaki Maruki
Animation Direction: Kazumi Ikeda

key animation: Hiroshi Karata, Rie Sezaki, Kayo Hikiyama, Seiya Kumano, Saeko Fujita, Yuki Yokoyama, Momoka Yoshizaki

Episode 04

Storyboard: Tatsuya Ishihara
Episode Direction: Shinpei Sawa
Chief Animation Director, Animation Direction: Nobuaki Maruki
Animation Direction: Miku Kadowaki

key animation: Chiharu Kuroda, Saeko Fujita, Aoi Matsumoto, Yuki Yokoyama, Yusuke Miyahara, Mariko Takahashi

Episode 05

Storyboard, Episode Direction: Noriyuki Kitanohara
Chief Animation Director: Nobuaki Maruki
Animation Direction: Yuki Tsunoda

key animation: Rie Sezaki, Sae Sawada, Tomomi Sato, Chika Kamo, Mei Isai, Kengo Narimatsu

Episode 06

Storyboard: Tatsuya Ishihara
Episode Direction: Takuya Yamamura
Chief Animation Director: Nobuaki Maruki
Animation Direction: Kazumi Ikeda

key animation: Yurika Ono, Momoka Yoshizaki, Tamami Tokuyama, Kakeru Isokawa, Aya Hikita, Ryouhei Muta, Maiko Hado

Episode 07

Storyboard: Takuya Yamamura, Noriyuki Kitanohara
Episode Direction: Minoru Ota
Chief Animation Director: Nobuaki Maruki
Animation Direction: Yuki Tsunoda

key animation: Kunihiro Hane, Maiko Hado, Mei Isai, Kakeru Isokawa, Yoshinori Urata, Kyohei Ando, Chika Kamo

Episode 08

Storyboard, Episode Direction: Shinpei Sawa
Chief Animation Director: Nobuaki Maruki
Animation Direction: Mariko Takahashi, Miku Kadowaki

key animation: Ryouhei Muta, Sae Sawada, Tomomi Sato, Yusuke Miyahara, Taira Yamaguchi, Chiharu Kuroda, Aoi Matsumoto, Mariko Takahashi

Episode 09

Storyboard, Episode Direction: Minoru Ota
Chief Animation Director: Nobuaki Maruki
Animation Direction: Kohei Okamura

key animation: Tatsuya Sato, Ryo Miyagi, Yurika Ono, Tamami Tokuyama, Aya Hikita

Episode 10

Storyboard, Episode Direction: Taichi Ogawa
Chief Animation Director: Nobuaki Maruki
Animation Direction: Kayo Hikiyama, Seiya Kumano

key animation: Yoshinori Urata, Taira Yamaguchi, Aoi Matsumoto, Chika Kamo, Kengo Narimatsu, Tatsuya Sato, Kohei Okamura, Kayo Hikiyama, Seiya Kumano

Episode 11

Storyboard, Episode Direction: Noriyuki Kitanohara
Chief Animation Director: Nobuaki Maruki
Animation Direction: Kazumi Ikeda

key animation: Hiroshi Karata, Rie Sezaki, Yuki Yokoyama, Momoka Yoshizaki, Ryo Miyagi, Nami Kumasaki

Episode 12

Storyboard: Takuya Yamamura, Tatsuya Ishihara
Episode Direction: Tatsuya Ishihara
Chief Animation Director: Nobuaki Maruki
Animation Direction: Yuki Tsunoda

key animation: Taichi Ishidate, Maiko Hado, Kyohei Ando, Mei Isai, Kakeru Isokawa, Kunihiro Hane, Minoru Ota, Yurika Ono

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worrying trajectory
worrying trajectory
28 days ago

Thank you for talking about KyoAni’s animation units. I’d never heard of them before, and it’s a fascinating system that really encapsulates everything great about KyoAni. Pretty cool they’ve made it work for movies, too (I assume this is how they did Koe no Katachi in 6 months). But 9 ADs on average for one episode!? That’s genuinely terrifying. I’m suprised the industry hasn’t completely collapsed under this mess. I genuinely feel studios need to, at the risk of shutting down, bet everything on reforming their productions. Anime is hemmoraging and abusing talent at the cost of the medium’s future,… Read more »

Chad O'Dell
Chad O'Dell
7 days ago
Reply to  kViN

The industry needs more studios like KyoAni who treat their animators like actual human beings.

8 days ago

I always wondered something: Why are animation credits the way they are? Like why aren’t 2nd Key and In-Between animators credited more and there simply being only studios listed most of the time? Is it due to credit space? Is it industry politics? Do the studios who work on those titles leave those staff members out by their on deaccession? Is it just lack of reference at play? Questions like this always makes me wonder just how screwed up the industry is, not just in regards to anime either. More often than not western cartoons pull this stunt too. I’ve… Read more »