Anime’s production schedules, the wellbeing of its creators, and the quality of their work are deeply interconnected. It’s a complex balance fraught with misunderstandings, and even lies by exploitative companies protecting the marketability of their products.
There has been an uptick in interest in anime’s production circumstances, enabled by information about these matters being more readily available than ever to non-Japanese speakers in the first place. After many years of attributing the wild ups and downs of anime quality—even within singular projects—to fluctuating budgets alone, the discourse has gradually shifted towards the importance of scheduling. At points, this change has felt like a bit of an overcorrection: while there are more important elements to the equation that determines the quality you see on screen, there’s no denying that all commercial projects have their scope determined by the production budget. Anime viewers generally have a bit more of an accurate understanding of the industry now, but not necessarily a clearer one; in short, we’ve started to focus on the right things, but with such intensity that people often miss very important nuances. And, in an industry where many complicated issues intersect and outright bad actors are happy to exploit misunderstandings, that can be dangerous.
Applying that much-needed nuance would tell you that, while a comfortable schedule is as conducive to polished work as rushed ones are to disasters, that’s hardly all there is to the story; even having something that deserves to be called favorable planning takes more than the sheer allocation of time. With talent being currently spread so thin, the ability to gather the right team is more precious than ever, and so is the timing of the project in relation to others.
The anime industry is so interconnected that no project really exists on its own. Studios are separate entities, and large enough companies with a modicum of management skills will have independent production lines to allow more sensible concurrent projects, but that only goes so far in an industry where the vast majority of directors and animators—the finite, most important resources—are freelancers. If you’ve ever encountered inexplicable dips in quality between different iterations of the same core team’s work, or even within the same series, it’s likely because of overlaps that aren’t apparent to most viewers. Smart management within studios themselves so that they don’t essentially self-sabotage—no one’s going to hurt Cloverworks and MAPPA more than themselves—and committees being more flexible about release windows can be a whole lot more meaningful than the exact timespan of a production.
And what is that timespan anyway? By making all this information more accessible, many fans are now aware that it takes around two to three months to produce your typical episode of anime… but again, the nuance to that statement is mostly lost, so they tend to miss important points like average meaning kind of bad, or the fact that real-world scenarios are hardly consistent. If you’ve ever looked at a sample anime schedule spanning from the beginning of the layout process to the final product, you’ll have noticed that it’s built around that 3 months cycle; and if you’ve talked at length with industry folks, you’ll also know that this is rarely the case. Be it early episodes that are given extra care to the point of things getting out of hand, or later ones that are rushed much faster out of pure necessity, the situation is rarely stable at that theoretical standard.
The secret as to how the industry can pack a TV anime production process within a year while taking multiple months per episode is no secret at all: the TV production process is multithreaded, often chronological but with multiple teams that form a rotation progressing concurrently at different stages. It’s a process subjected to prioritization, something that is most notable on long-running series that can have a massive gap between the resources and time allocated to episodes deemed lesser and those seen as climactic. And, while I just mentioned that it’s often chronological, that is not always the case. On this site, we’ve covered some successful titles that twisted that model in their favor, proving once again that smart management is more important than numbers alone. Be it Kaguya-sama allowing an entire skit’s production to sag so that it could be solo animated by the fantastic artist who has always carried Fujiwara’s parenting adventures, or Mob Psycho smartly scheduling the production of its greatest episode before the preceding ones so that the director they cherrypicked could handle it before leaving for the military service, flexibility in management is a deeply underappreciated—and unfortunately rare—skill.
It’s due to that wide variety of factors and the upsides to management open-mindedness that I hesitate to give an exact number about what constitutes a good schedule; it’s easy to point at all the troubled titles that pack the animation process well within a year and say their schedule was poor, but defining a specific blanket solution is trickier. What’s clear, however, is that both audiences and production committees greatly underestimate the importance of pre-production. Although it’s even harder to quantify than the length of the active production stages—the line where the process begins is much blurrier than a tangible event like the start of the animation—it’s a proven fact that titles with insufficient pre-production struggle to have a distinct, memorable identity of their own.
Thoughtful Series Composition (シリーズ構成, Series Kousei): A key role given to the main writer of the series. They meet with the director (who technically still outranks them) and sometimes producers during preproduction to draft the concept of the series, come up with major events and decide to how pace it all. Not to be confused with individual scriptwriters (脚本, Kyakuhon) who generally have very little room for expression and only develop existing drafts – though of course, series composers do write scripts themselves., cohesive design work across multiple departments, and of course pointed storyboarding are off the table without a sufficiently lengthy pre-production process; that is, unless you resort to inhumane solutions like having Masaaki Yuasa forego sleep as he storyboarded the entirety of Ping Pong at the rate of one episode a week. While sequels can get away with breezing through this process, you should generally be skeptical of titles that take well under 2 years from their earliest conceptual stages until the end of their production process, because chances are that they cut meaningful corners.
Another important bit of nuance comes in the quantification of that length. Given anime’s tendency to rush productions right before their release, be it their TV broadcast or more recently with theatrical releases as well, it’s understandable that there’s a tendency from the outside to assume that any project that began way ahead of time had a good schedule, even if they also wrapped it up earlier. To a point, there has always been truth to that: on a purely psychological level, 10 months with a buffer of half a year afterward in case things go wrong feel better than the same 10 months where the last 3 are the duration of that title’s broadcast. The former will always be preferable.
Unfortunately, preferable doesn’t mean good. As we’ve been mentioning for a while and has been reported by public industry figures, the anime industry is becoming increasingly more polarized. The combined effects of postponements due to the pandemic, dubbing and approval requirements for important streaming platforms, as well as the sheer overproduction have caused a bunch of projects to be more last-minute than ever, but also to schedule many productions way ahead of the title’s eventual release. And, very much in anime industry fashion, even the part that should have been unquestionably positive has led to all sorts of new issues.
More often than not, these early productions don’t adjust their deadlines at all, meaning that they’re still brutal despite having no immediate need to. Why do that? Again, because no project exists on its own. We have a clear example this season in My Senpai is Annoying: its production started and finished ages ago, but much of its team still had to turn in their work unreasonably fast, because that same team is already making Shikimori’s Not Just a Cutie. Dogakobo is an undoubtedly capable studio, but their inability to negotiate for good contracts has them picking up way more projects than is reasonable, keeping multiple teams in this constant state of crunch. And, even in cases where one of their individual titles lucks into a comfortable schedule, the lack of pivoting room for the studio as a whole essentially dooms that team’s following project; such was the case for Sing Yesterday for Me and Ikebukuro West Gate Park just last year, where the former’s comfortable production was a contributing factor to the latter’s downfall.
Unfortunate domino effects like that are all over the industry, especially in the current scenario of widespread delays—which have been happening a lot more often than is publicly announced, but we’ll get to that later. Anime studios often work with different partners, which leads to situations where one committee’s proposed delay clashes with another’s intended plans, and the latter refuses to budge because production committees aren’t invested in either the quality of the product beyond its marketability nor the wellbeing of the staff. To put this into more precise terms, just look at BONES Studio A’s output throughout 2021. Their first title was Godzilla S.P, which had been in preparation for quite a while but ultimately needed to have its schedule extended, as most studios’ efficiency plummeted during the peak of the pandemic. Unfortunately, the substudio was due to work on Vanitas right afterward, and its own committee clearly didn’t like the idea of delaying the project due to other companies’ whims. Thanks to BONES’ animation muscle, the situation could be addressed with a lot of capable animation directors, but it serves to say that this is not ideal.
Even if you disregard the effects on the quality of their work for a moment, the industry has managed to sour the supposed improvements in the working conditions for creators with ampler schedules; namely, they’ve found ways to scam them out of more money. Due to the fact that most artists are paid exclusively according to how much work they can turn in, often at very poor rates at that, the industry has found patchwork in binding and semi-binding fees. These are sums of money paid to artists to justify long-term commitments to a project, either exclusively or with a great deal of focus. While they’re obviously not a solution for everyone, as you’ll never be offered this money unless you’re considered a key element in the production, they’re by all means better than nothing.
But what happens to projects that have their schedule extended and nothing else is adjusted? I’m sure you can guess it: staff on titles granted ampler schedules are now working for longer periods of time for the same fees as before, with sums corresponding to three months now magically becoming 11 months’ worth of dedication. This has been denounced by directors, painters, and of course animators, showing that it has quickly become a widespread issue. Even the storyboarding process is an accidental victim to this: since it’s considered part of pre-production, studios don’t allocate binding budgets to it, which becomes slightly more annoying if the process takes a longer time; sure, it becomes a less stressful job by itself, but that matters little if this whole situation puts you in a position where you have to juggle more concurrent gigs to keep yourself fed. Anime payments and fees are so legally flakey that studios get away with outright scamming workers, and in this situation, they’ve found new excuses to cheap out.
By this point it should be clear that you can’t simply assume a project had favorable working conditions even if you happen to hear that it was in production for a long time before its release; while that does address one of the biggest issues in this industry, extending time alone can range from a worthless move to a somewhat damaging one. If there’s one big lesson to take away from 2021, though, it’s not to make the reverse inference: never assume that a work had a favorable schedule just because you felt like the result was of high quality, and especially do not assume that the staff was treated with respect just because they managed to create something impressive.
Anime has a long history of punching up, essentially bruteforcing quality that doesn’t correspond to the time and resources that the staff had. People will often point to Hayao Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro as an example of that, as its entire production cycle including the conceptual stages lasted less than 7 months. As iconic of an achievement—for the good and for the bad—as that was, its tremendously efficient visuals make it somewhat more reasonable than many rushed productions nowadays, which pack obscenely intricate artstyles into productions as rushed as that.
The clearest example of this, one that I hope will at least have a legacy as an eye-opener for anime fans, is Wonder Egg Priority; a production disaster we’ve already covered at length, if you’re curious about the specifics. Its animation was dazzling, spectacular during its action and nuanced in its acting—and at its peak, also nuanced during its action and spectacular in its acting. And yet, it’s a very well-known fact that its production was an unprecedented mess that sent people to the hospital multiple times, as they regularly finished its episodes mere hours before their broadcast. While to expert eyes there were cracks to the egg since relatively early stages, most viewers can’t be expected to notice those, as to their eyes that was one of the most impressive TV anime productions in recent times.
If that was all, though, this would simply be an unfortunate accident. But since this is the anime industry we’re talking about , there are outright villains, and no one has embodied that better than Aniplex. To put it simply, companies will shamelessly lie to you about the state of their productions. Now, it’s not as if they think that there’s a massive market in animation geeks and viewers concerned about the wellbeing of the workers, but rather that they don’t want their titles to be tainted by a poor reputation of messy behind the scenes situations. And so, rather than making sure that such things don’t happen, they will simply hide those problems behind a curtain of PR lies.
In WEP’s case, the holes on those curtains were so big that right about anyone paying attention could notice what they were trying to hide. Voice acting agencies accidentally tweeting out summaries of upcoming episodes as the unplanned recap episode threw them off, and even the official account momentarily posting a physical script with the wrong episode number—again, revealing that the recap they officially treated as planned was an emergency move. By the end of the TV broadcast, Aniplex was daring enough to pretend that its actual finale was an extra special episode they’d greenlit, rather than what was intended to be the last episode of a standard 1 cours anime; incidentally, that finale wasn’t even fully storyboarded by the time where it should have aired, meaning that the production was effectively 3+ months behind.
As you can imagine, that was no isolated incident. Aniplex have done this in the past, and are continuing to pull similar tricks on current titles like Magia Record. The production is in such disarray that the series has had over 5 delays at this point, all of which have been either partially or completely swept under the rug. Its sequel was in such a deep mess that they split it into a short second season and an even shorter final season, that just so casually added up to a standard single cours; almost like that was the original plan! After another emergency recap that they didn’t properly announce ahead of time even though it had been decided a month prior as the team at studio SHAFT was falling apart, all that awaited was those final episodes “by the end of 2021.” What they’re not telling you, of course, is that it has already missed its internal deadlines for early December, so it’s already cleared for another delay as the staff desperately cries for help.
The companies responsible for situations like this refuse to own up to their mistakes, to the point of denying they happened in the first place. As viewers, it’s important to keep ourselves properly informed, listening to different people across the industry to get a more accurate read on the situation. After all, if your perception didn’t matter, do you really think corporations would go out of their way to blatantly lie about the state of their affairs? While this is just an introduction to a complex topic, I hope it can help people get a better grasp on anime’s production schedules and their complicated relationship with the quality of the works and the wellbeing of the staff.
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