Image Source: 東宝MOVIEチャンネル on YouTube
As part of the series of seminar sessions revealing the creative side of the anime industry, AnimeJapan 2017 held several lectures by industry professionals—like Psycho Pass 2’s producer and the new Godzilla anime’s director. Moreover, a number of workshops were hands-on practical lessons in various fields, giving us a taste of a typical professional experience in an animation production studio.
The particular simulation in this case was the experience of being an “in-betweener” animator, usually an entry-position for somebody starting off in the industry as an animator of hand-drawn sequences.
It is probably worth reiterating that, while computer graphics are certainly increasingly employed, the Japanese animation industry remains centered on 2D hand-drawn animation, the production method of which has not changed substantially in the 54 years since Tetsuwan Atom (even more if you want to include Toei’s theatrical features). In short, the drawings today are still, for the most part, being done on paper with a pencil, the same as they always have. The subsequent processes such as the scanning into a PC, digitization, coloring, compositing, etc., all are regularly updated as new technology allows for greater efficiency. Yet the task of putting those drawings down remains the most basic (not to be confused with “easy”) of tasks and is perhaps the greatest, most fertile ground on which to train young animators on how to make 2D images move.
In basic 2D animation, any movement will involve a combination of “keyframes” (原画 genga) and “in-between” frames (動画 douga). “In-betweening,” then, specifically, is the “filling-in” of frames in the interval between the keyframes. In Japan, this is generally done by hand, as mentioned above. Thus, this job is extremely labor-intensive and sometimes acts as a test for whether you can survive in the industry. Even if you draw well, it does not mean you can animate well. And even if you animate well, you still need the requisite endurance skills and nerves of steel to cope with the sheer workload under strict deadlines and not-quite-stellar pay.
To give us a taste of this simple-yet-tough task, veteran animator Hitomi Tateno gave a seminar entitled, “Let’s Experience ‘In-Between,'” where the members of the audience (having applied in advance) had the opportunity to try their hand at drawing a few in-between frames for a couple of pre-prepared keyframes and complete a basic animation sequence.
Hitomi Tateno was an animator for Studio Ghibli for 27 years, and has worked on major anime productions with the staff even before the studio was officially founded. She started work at Telecom Animation back in 1983, where Hayao Miyazaki was based at the time, working under Miyazaki’s direction on Sherlock Hound, and many others. She eventually joined Ghibli, staying with them until 2014’s When Marnie was There, after which the company very publicly disbanded their animation production division. Faced with a choice of transferring to another division, or leaving the company, she chose the latter and now runs a café in Tokyo and concentrates on teaching animation at various places such as in this seminar.
The workshop was made up of 24 participants, each with a set of pencils, erasers, clips, lightboxes (which were used to trace frames), and of course, sheets of paper, two of which had the prepared keyframes copied onto them. At the back of the room, more people formed a standing audience that observed the procedures. There were even a couple of non-Japanese among the participants, too.
The session itself was structured rather loosely, with Tateno giving a brief outline of how to fill in the two keyframes using three in-between frames, instructing them on the order, the timing of the transition, and giving tips on keeping proportions and distances of certain parts of the drawings.
The sequence was a very basic close-up shot of a young boy at a 3/4 angle, turning around to look behind him. The keyframes were drawn by Minoru Ohashi (another animator and long-time collaborator of Tateno’s, who also illustrated the cover of her book), making the character appear cute, but rather challenging to mimic.
Tateno’s gentle words of encouragement echoed around the room and gave a very positive vibe. She kept reminding them to have fun, that they have a lot of time, and so it is a rather different experience than working under pressure in a studio. Many of the participants were industry would-be hopefuls, and so to them, Tateno had some words of advice.
If you want to do it for fun, it’s fine. She emphasizes that it’s a wonderful feeling to see your drawings move, that’s the great thing about animation. If you want to be a professional, however, the standards are high and things have to be more specific, you need to train and study figure drawing and such.
“It is a very tough job—You have to be strong mentally, and resilient physically,” she warned. “You may enter thinking you are good, but in the real industry, nobody is going to praise your drawing skills. You need to consider whether you are tough enough to get through that if you want to do this professionally. If not, you can animate for your own enjoyment, and that’s OK, too.” She summarizes that, essentially, “Being an animator is a constant battle against yourself.”
As she flipped through each the participants’ finished work, she lightly critiqued each one, in some cases saying that an individual’s style was seeping through and that is good if one is doing animation as a hobby, but that uniformity is important in the professional world. Another comment was that sometimes irregularities appeared in the in-betweens, such as noses getting smaller, chins getting pointier, etc. To this point, she emphasized that, while this would constitute a “retake” professionally, the important thing here is that you have fun, and this kind of deformation is actually a good, accidental discovery that makes hand-drawn animation unique.
Tateno’s positivity, even when talking about the tough situations of the real industry, was uplifting and seemed to encourage a lot of the attendants to further develop their potential skills, and motivate them mentally, too.
To be included in this seminar, you had to do a bit of work before you were even allowed to register. The regulations read:
“Submit a hand-drawn illustration matching a “Background” with a “Situation.” How you mix them is up to you. This is not to judge how good you are at drawing. Please draw freely.
1) The sea, 2) A residential area, 3) Indoors.
1) A child about to go shopping, 2) A girl taking a detour on her way home from school, 3) A man waiting for somebody.”
At the end of the seminar, Tateno gave everyone a hand-written note about their submissions. In it, she described the purpose of the exercise, and how it can help to motivate and further develop their approach to animation. “I know an illustration with a background is a difficult task to set, but I expect many of you want to work as animators in the anime industry, and so I wanted you to spread ‘the wings of your mind,'” the note reads. “When you do become animators, you will eventually want to draw keyframes. For that, animators create ‘layouts,’ which are guide drawings of the backgrounds [showing the relative positions of things onscreen]. Those who aren’t satisfied just animating will want to be directors, but in those cases, too, you will need to transmit the world you drew inside your mind to the staff. And you do that best not with words, but with pictures.”
In the notes, she urges everyone to cultivate their imaginations, to come up with more and bigger ideas, and not just worry about the technical improvements in terms of drawing skills—which can be gained by practice, study and training. She asks them to imagine an entire narrative unfurling from each of the single images they have drawn. If they can do that, then perhaps they will become great creators one day.
For more information on Hitomi Tateno, you can read about her decades of experiences in the industry in her book, Enpitsu-senki: Daremo shiranakatta Sutajio Jiburi (Pencil Chronicle – The Studio Ghibli That No One Knew), a collection of memoirs from her time as an animator, and animation checker, at Studio Ghibli.
As mentioned above, she also runs a café called “Sasayuri Café” in Tokyo, which also serves as a small gallery regularly holding exhibitions. Until very recently it was host to an exhibition of Moyoco Anno’s (creator of Hatarakiman and Sakuran, among many more) art for Ochibisan.