Justin Leach left the U.S. to experience animation production in Japan first hand. Taking a position at one of Japan's hottest studios he compares and contrasts two similar but very different worlds.
About a year ago, I was very fortunate to receive the opportunity to work at Production I.G., the studio most known for creating the animation for Ghost in the Shell. Incidentally, Production I.G. had never hired a full-time foreigner at the company before so I don't think either of us knew what to expect. Japanese animation had always intrigued and inspired me and I wanted to understand the process first hand by moving to Japan. The purpose of this article is to give those interested in Japanese animation a glimpse of what it is like to work at one of the more prominent Japanese animation studios. While the two worlds possess some similarities, generally the two couldn't be more different. The studio environment, typical work day and economics of animation in Japan are just some of the key differences that stand out when compared to Western animation production.
The Work Environment
When I tell my friends that I get to rub elbows with famous Japanese directors like Mamoru Oshii, I am actually not joking. Due to lack of space, most of the employees have to fit in the best they can. Production I.G. is divided up into 4 separate studio spaces scattered throughout town with about 200 people employed all together. The ING Studio (where I work) does the bulk of the animation work for current television, video games, direct-to-video and feature film projects. The ING Studio building has 4 floors, each with 2 small rooms. I have a very small desk space (not really any cubicles here, just desks divided by shelves) and sometimes if I push my chair out too far, I'll bump into the guy working behind me. I guess the words that come to mind when working here are "garage spirit." Network cables all over the floor, florescent white lights buzzing, employees smoking at the office, and everything shoved into every possible nook and cranny. Sometimes when I am talking on the phone, the employee sitting behind me has to crawl under the telephone cord to leave the room. This is a stark contrast from the big feature film studios in America. From time to time, I dream of my old window cubicle in America overlooking the Manhattan skyline and sigh, "Ah, that was nice."
During the day, work in the studio is generally very quiet and usually only the humming of the computer fans can is heard. The quietness at the studio often makes me feel like I have to whisper when having a conversation on the phone. At lunchtime, many employees pull out their bento lunch boxes and quietly eat lunch at their desks.
One similarity does stand out however: the animator's desks. Rows of toys in unopened boxes, Star Wars memorabilia, movie posters, stacks of DVDs and twelfth generation photocopies of "Timing for Animation" can be seen. I once even saw a photocopy of some notes created by animation master Hayao Miyazaki on how to animate. As a matter of fact, I think Japan is somewhat of an animator's paradise. Japan is one of the few places I know where it is completely acceptable by society to play with toys and read comics your entire life.
A Typical Work Day
Every morning at about 10:00 a.m., I ride my bike (about ten minutes) from my mini-sized apartment to my mini-sized studio. Although the typical workday at the studio officially begins at 10:30 a.m., most of the senior level creators roll in between 1 to 4 p.m. and work late into the early morning. There is sort of this easy going spirit here at the studio as the work always seems to fall magically into place. The work week is from Monday to Friday and every other Saturday is a required work day. As in the United States, many of the employees here are extremely dedicated to their jobs and often people will work 12-14 hour days and occasionally even sleep at their desks.
The Animation Production Process
As in the West, once a concept has been established, a great deal of research is done. At this time, the director and his key creative staff work together to decide the look and style for the film. After the influences have been identified, the director's staff travels around the world gathering photo reference and information related to the story. After returning from the research trip, the director will finalize the script and create the storyboards (called "ekonte" in Japanese) for the entire film (usually in about a month's time). After the storyboards are finished, the director will add notes, and estimate number of frames per shot. From this point, the director may decide to make an animatic but is not really considered necessary for production. During this time the character designer, mechanical designer, weapons designer and layout designers begin to create work based on the research and director's input. Next, the final approved designs are handed to the 3D and 2D animation staff and the production begins. Once the animation for the shot is approved, it then goes to digital ink and paint. Once the colors have been added, the shots will continue to undergo various tweaks and fixes. After the final animation has been approved, it goes into post-production where the music, sound fx and voice recordings are added to the film. In Japan a great deal of respect is given to the film's director who has a major influence on all of the final creative decisions.
CG Production in Japan
In Japan, computer animation production is usually made by a team of "CG creators" who are generalists responsible for handling all aspects of a shot from beginning to end. In addition, off-the-shelf software is usually used, with the software packages of choice being Lightwave and 3D Studio Max. While most major animation studios in the West typically divide the tasks among a team of specialists in an assembly line fashion, Japan usually has many people assigned to many different types of jobs. For example, although I originally came to Production I.G. as a technical animator, I have done many different types of jobs such as editing animatics, designing Web pages, assisting in international business and documenting production. I think the reason for this generalization by employees is mainly a result of having to work within very restricted budgets.
The Economics of Japanese Animation
Probably one of the greatest differences I have noticed between Japan and America is that the Japanese feature animation industry is very poor money poor that is. Budgets for feature films can be anywhere from as low as US$1 million to $15 million at the very highest. This pales in comparison to the United States which typically invests 10 to 20 times more per film. This lower budget also reflects employee salaries. Typically animators in Japan earn the equivalent of $15,000 to $20,000 a year.
The experience of living in Japan and working at Production I.G. has been one of the most fascinating adventures of my life. I am greatly inspired by the spirit and passion of the creators at Production I.G. and admire their courage and tenacity for taking creative risks and daring to change our perceptions of animation. The Japanese culture has made a very important observation: Animation isn't only for kids. Whether 2D, 3D or stop-motion, animation is just another story telling medium capable of moving the hearts and minds of the audiences that watch them.
Justin Leachs earliest professional credit was as a video game design consultant in 1992. Since then he has worked on commercials, music videos and theatrical features; notably for Blue Sky Studios from May 1997 through March 2001 where he was on the teams for Bunny and Ice Age, among other projects. Since April 2001 he has been an employee of Production I.G. in Tokyo, where he is currently working on Mamoru Oshii's next feature animated film.