Have you ever wondered exactly what all goes into making an episode of anime? Or even just one or two seconds of your favorite show? And just how accurate is Shirobako anyhow? Well, now is your chance to find out!
Welcome back to Part II of our interview with Atelier Gokujou, an American anime artist with Tokyo-based Pine Jam studio. Today we’re going to be talking about the specifics of anime production and the artistic process for developing Layouts and Key Animation on the fabulous Kageki Shojo!!
Q: By way of introduction, could you tell us how you came up with your name? It is so well-crafted, bringing together the Western tradition of the artist’s workshop or atelier, and the Japanese quest for excellence (gokujou meaning high rank, the best, etc.).
The Atelier part comes from two things. I’m a big fan of the Atelier game series by GUST! I always end up having music from the games on in the background. The light-hearted, wholesome, fantasy vibes are something I have a deep affinity for. Not only that, but some of my favorite artists have worked on cultivating a really fantastic aesthetic for those games. I also have to shout out Kamome Shirahama’s Witch Hat Atelier! That manga is in my top three dream projects to work on an animated version for. That world, and the art behind it is really on a different level, informed by decades of comic and manga history.
The Gokujou part, funnily enough, comes from an old arcade game, Gokujou Parodious! I’m a big fan of STG arcade games, and at the time, I really enjoyed playing retro Sega Saturn games. If you dig deep, one of my first animations is a fan animation of Gokujou Parodius. The game itself is a parody of lots of tropes in the classic shooting game genre.
Q: In your recent YouTube video showcasing all the work you did on Kageki Shojo, you mention that these 10 minutes of animation represent 8 months of work. (!!) How did that timeline play out?
Due to the cyclical nature of anime, once production begins, everyone hits the ground running.
To walk you through the process, we sit down with the director and go over the storyboard directions, cut by cut, to discuss each aspect of the animation, from what emotion someone’s movements should convey, to the cut of the hem of someone’s pants!
This is being run through the translator, between myself and Pine Jam’s animation directors. It is because of this that I find it important to do all I can to continue to show my support to my Production Assistant Cyou (@christophermyna), as well as to the studio, for sticking with me and making these types of opportunities possible.
From there, the Layout (LO) stage begins, where it is normal to try to get through at least one cut per day. Think about layouts as your rough drawings, the underdrawing, the fundamental planning for the scene: the figures’ movements, the timing of everything—all this is created in the LO phase.
So we are talking about a month’s worth of work for 30 cuts in one episode of animation. Each animation episode has about 400 cuts in it, so you can begin to imagine the number of people and amount of time involved in producing just the Layouts for a single episode of animation.
Q: That’s mind-boggling! About how long is a cut or do they vary wildly? Perhaps you measure them in terms of how many Key Animation frames are needed?
A cut usually averages around two to five seconds. Though you can certainly run up into the eight to fifteen second range. Planning is key here.
As for the Key Animation, this is a difficult one, and I find myself discussing this with animators often. The real question is the complexity of the shot.
Imagine, in one hand we have a very action heavy cut that is two seconds long, and from frame to frame, characters are fighting and posing in all sorts of manners; we have particle effects, as smoke and fire are exploding and things are going wild. In the other hand, we have a two-second clip with a close up of a face speaking, and moving very little. In the books, both cuts are worth the same amount of money if we are paying by the second. In the first example though, the sequence would require a lot of key frames, as well as a great deal of planning.
Q: Making anime is very much a collaborative process, isn’t it? Can you give us a snapshot of some of the co-ordination that goes into producing an episode?
Animation is done in batches, so different groups of people are working simultaneously on episodes 1, 2 and 3. I was working on episode 3, while a different group of people were working on 1 or 2.
After Layout, the drawings are passed to the animation director, then the key animators, who make revisions to the drawings and timings of the shot. It is difficult to imagine, but each cut of an animation, each drawing, is passed over by at least three or four people just in the drawing development phase of animation.
Those revisions are then passed back to me, at which point I begin developing the final line-work for the key animation. This is a really important and oftentimes humbling phase of animation. You see the skill and level of draftsmanship of the other artists in animation. They are sitting down and correcting your drawings and making the necessary improvements to really bring the drawings to life.
As an artist, I found this a great point to learn and pay attention to. It is in this phase that the importance of the Japanese system of hierarchy in business really clicked in my mind. This process of training, studying and learning under someone else’s guidance is a really important thing for the growth of any artist on any level. It then leads to the gradual climbing of the ladder, improving and taking on more responsibilities, as well as growing in skill and artistic sensitivity.
Q: So interesting! Would you say then that Shirobako is pretty accurate in how it depicts anime production? (Only maybe things rely a bit more heavily on digital delivery than Miyamori racing around in her company car perfecting her drifting skills…)
I think certainly in Japan you are still doing a lot of leg work! As an example, I do my work digitally and send it to my PA. From there, he needs to take my digital files and print them off, then get those physical papers to the animation director, who then makes corrections, and adds more papers into the mix. From there, the PA takes those back and scans all those materials back in to send to me!
Now imagine you introduce the pandemic, and everyone is working from home! It can be a mess… And you can see quickly that a PA and the network they form and hold together is, quite frankly, rather astonishing! I could not do it!
Q: How much of your time to you devote to research and finding references?
In episode 3 particularly, I recall spending a bit of time researching the basics of tap dancing! My YouTube still recommends tap-dancing tutorial videos from time to time. Those reference materials went into informing how I should show the girls learning how to tap dance.
We also have a group of staff members that are tasked with photographing and shooting reference material video. As an example, for episode 8, they sent a group out to shoot photographs of the beach and bus stop that Hoshino spends her summer vacation at! So there was plenty of reference material for me to create the backgrounds of those animation scenes.
Q: You did the key animation for one of my favorite moments in Kageki Shojo!! – when Kaoru Hoshino takes off her gloves at the bus shelter. It is such a cinematic moment! So fluid. And it foreshadows how significant hand and arm gestures become later in the series as the girls begin to act. What was your process for developing that sequence?
Ah yes, episode 8 Cut 149. I remember it well…
Interestingly enough, this is a cut that I essentially took control of. I did the layouts, got approval on the drawings and timings, and at the time I remember thinking to myself, “ah the poor person who is gonna have to in-between this animation, they are gonna hate me for the detail I put into the motion.” Only to get back the key animations with the note asking me to do all the in-betweens as well!
So I got to animate the entirety of this cut, and I’m happy with how it turned out!
As an animator I find myself fascinated by drawing actions we may consider mundane. This is a personal theory, but I believe that in the depiction of the everyday motions of a character, we find their relatability, thus building empathy and bonding with a character. Not only that, but how a character does a mundane action can tell us so much about a character!
The old saying about the Disney animators was that they were all actors: in the same way an actor embodies a role, an animator is acting and puppeteering their character through their drawings. Understanding who these characters are and conveying to the audience that information through their actions—now that is a difficult and very special thing in animation.
You bring up a good point regarding the significance behind the action! It is a delicate thing: we are discussing how to make a simple action or gesture feel significant, and how we can communicate that to an audience. That takes a good script, a good director, as well as an animator to pull the visuals together. That is an aspect of storytelling in anime that I have always been fond of—the crafting of a show that has density, subtlety, and intricacy.
Q: Kageki Shojo has such a rich cast of characters, each one gaining the spotlight at some point in true ensemble style. Do you have a favorite, either as a character or to animate?
I spent the most time with Sarasa, Yamada, and Hoshino. I will say Sarasa was the easiest to animate! It is not difficult to understand how she feels, and where she stands in a scene. It is in her nature to wear her emotions on her sleeve, which makes conveying her emotions a simple matter of understanding her feelings scene to scene.
Hoshino was probably the most difficult character to work with. Her face and her expressions carry a bit more subtlety, and they can be complex. She is the kind of character whose emotions could be read differently, simply by the angle of her eye brows or how much her eyes are squinting! Working with her meant working with an aspect of her character, and I can’t say that I truly understood her whole character at the time.
When I was working on episode 8, for instance, I didn’t know her full story—we don’t get all the storyboards at once! So as we are working on episodes we are also uncovering more about the characters.
I think Yamada as a character was a personal favorite. She is surrounded by all these very large, overbearing, even clashing personalities, and she just wants people to get along! I always find that kind of character very endearing, and they often get cast to the side and overlooked in the broader narrative of the stories. Which is why I was so happy when we got to focus on her character-specific story!
This is something I really liked about Kageki Shojo—thinking about the structure of the narrative. It’s this lovingly interwoven piece, where we have the main weave binding the characters together, but then we have these threads for each character, expanding outwards. Then when we come back to the main narrative, we know each character that much better, and it enriches the experience in this really lovely way. I often joke about how in X or Y manga I always wish a certain side character got their own side story, but they did it with Yamada!
Q: Obviously you spent a great deal of time working with these characters, getting to know them, unpacking their personalities. Did the voice acting match with your sense of the characters as you were bringing them to life visually?
So there were two very big surprises for me with the voice actors and oddly enough both relate to the fighting game Guilty Gear! First off, we have Norio Wakamoto who plays Captain Anai of the JSDF. Norio is a legend in animation voice acting. But I know him most as Johnny from Guilty Gear as well as M. Bison in Street Fighter. I have heard him voice for years of my life just getting destroyed by Johnny players in Rev 2! It is such a distinct and fantastic voice, so when I got to work on a scene he voice acted in, it was a very surreal moment.
Similarly, Akiya Shirakawa is voiced by Takehito Koyasu who voices Zato-1 in Guilty Gear. When I heard that voice watching the anime, a piece snapped into place and again, it was very surreal!
I think the voice actors did a fantastic job, I really do. It is odd too, because I really didn’t know what to expect. When I was animating, I suppose there was a tone to the voice in my mind, but I really couldn’t put a finger on what I thought it would sound like. But once I heard Sarasa and when I heard Ai, it all fit into place perfectly.
Q: Just taking a step back now, and reflecting on the artistic process as a whole, I wonder if you have any nuggets of wisdom to share that you have gained from your experience as an artist?
I could wax poetic about the significance of art and the humanities for years and still have more to say. When it comes down to it, art is a form of expression and communication. It is something that exists beyond language. It can embody and communicate both the intimate and personal, as well as the universally relevant.
I wanted to work in the arts because I believe in the importance and the value of art and culture. That drive comes from recognizing how important the arts were to my development as an individual. There is a life-long journey of self-growth in any form of art, and I think that act of self-expression is vital not only to understand one’s self, but to recognize your relationship to others and to communicate.
We have the ability to manifest our thoughts and ideas, and make them a reality. That is a beautiful thing. I want people to be able to take part in the act of creating something, whatever that may be! The sky’s the limit.
Q: How does being an anime artist affect you as a viewer of anime, or does it?
You would never want to watch anime with me! I will sit there, rewind a scene, play it back, slow it down, and look at each drawing. I still find myself rewatching old things, and will spend time breaking it down, and by the end of one episode I’m exhausted! I’m not saying people should have that kind of relationship with animation by any means, but personally, as someone who studies and advocates the art form, I can’t help but be fascinated by it!
When I talk about my work, I try to convey that enthusiasm and peel back the layers through critical thinking when breaking down a scene. There is a person behind every drawing, and it is easy to forget that. But that is part of consumer culture, no matter what we are talking about.
I hope that through talking about my work, people can take an interest in the people that are behind the animation they watch. When you can recognize that there are passionate human beings behind every aspect of life, not just animation, I think you can learn to develop respect and a sense of humility for the time and effort people put into providing something for you.
Q: Any favorites?
The first things that come to mind are CLAMP works! They have really done it all, and done it with style. The X movie as well as the broader Tokyo Babylon universe is such a fun, moody atmosphere, evocative of the time in which it was made. Then on the other end of the spectrum you have Cardcaptor Sakura and Magic Knight Rayearth that are each just such unique and gigantic IPs.
Lately I have had Slayers and Record of Lodoss War on the mind! That figure style and aesthetic is something I would love to see come back into animation.
I am cursed to always be playing catch up with anime. On the list right now is Maison Ikkoku, Kimagure Orange Road, a rewatch of the old Sailor Moon dub, Tenchi Muyo, Stardust Memory, Legend of Galactic Heroes, Turn-A-Gundam, Zaregoto, Pretty Boy Detective Club…It’s a mess! I’ll never catch up!
Q: Can you give us any hints about where to expect to see your work next?
Right now, Pine Jam is assisting other animation studios. So we will be working on a few different titles, while we let some things bake in the oven. Please look forward to what we have in the works for the future.
A huge thank you to Atelier Gokujou for giving us a peek behind the curtain that separates us as viewers of anime from all the magic and hard work that goes on behind the scenes in creating these masterpieces we so enjoy!
Kageki Shojo!! can be streamed on Funimation.