I spend most of my time at Madhouse studio in Tokyo, working on various projects from both Japan and the U.S. All the rumors you’ve probably heard about animators in Japan working long hours are true. My typical “workday” is anywhere from 10 to 36 hours, depending on the deadlines I'm facing at the moment. Like most animators working in the anime industry, I’m a freelancer, and that means that what I earn is based on the quantity and/or quality of the work produced. Some days are good, and some are bad...really bad. I imagine those kinds of working conditions would be a nightmare for most people.
So, why do I do it? Hey, it's fun. How many people can say that about their jobs? I choose to put in the long workdays because I know the extra hours I spend on the artwork will make the show look better. As my skills improved, I eventually escaped from the rut of earning my living on a piecework basis, enabling me to concentrate more on quality, not quantity. Even in cases where quality control becomes almost impossible, it’s still exhilarating to put up a good fight till the end. I suppose we're all brain-chemical junkies in some way.
My role varies depending on the needs of the project and my interest level in the subject matter. Sometimes I work as an animation director (sakuga kantoku, or sak-kan for short), other times as a character designer (kyarakuta dezain), and still others as a key animator (genga or gengaman), which I’ll talk about first.
When starting on a new show as a key animator, things usually begin with meeting either the producer or the coordinator in charge of the project. They check my availability and ask if I'd be willing to work on the show. Next, a coordinator will come by with a stack of material like model sheets, storyboards and so on. Most animators decide whether or not to get involved based on the team, the character designs, how interesting the show is, and most importantly, the schedule. In many cases, the pay rates don’t play a big role in the decision process, since the per-shot (shots or cuts are called katto) rate for key animation doesn't vary all that much on television shows, and higher rates--such as those paid doing feature films--usual means doing more detailed work, and not everyone wants to get involved in that, since the extra money may not make up for the extra time involved. I get paid either a fixed monthly rate for the duration of the production, or on a shot-by-shot basis if I’m not as heavily involved. Once everyone is happy with the arrangement, the work gets underway.
The next step is an animation meeting (called a saku-uchi, short for sakuga uchiawase) between the key animator (in this case, me) and the episode director (enshutsu). We go over the storyboards for the assigned shots, filling in any details that weren’t fleshed out when the boards were finalized. After the meeting, I get started on the animation work, which includes the background layouts, rough animation, and the exposure sheets, including all of the timing and camerawork for each shot. These materials are submitted to the episode director and animation director for review and corrections. Once the shots are returned to me, I proceed with cleaning up the drawings and tightening up the rough animation. When time is short, I usually don't place overdue emphasis on staying perfectly on-model, so the animation director may come back with some cosmetic fixes. Once the finalized shots are submitted, it’s very rare for them to come back again for additional corrections.
Because the deadlines on any given show are extremely tight, only about ten to twenty shots are assigned per key animator. Of course, no one can make a living off such a small workload, so it's considered normal and perfectly acceptable for most animators to take on multiple shows in rotation to insure a steady flow of income. This kind of arrangement gives me a total control of my own hours and workload, just as long as I'm responsible and get my work turned in.
That about does it for the key animator role. Next time, we can talk about being an animation director.