What’s it like to work as an animator in Japan?

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At Japanese animation companies, you’ll find many animators hard at work at their separate work stations, working on their own designated areas of work.

So what do these different animator jobs involve exactly? Let’s go through some of the things you might be expected to do as a professional animator in Japan!


What is an Animator?

There are many stages in the animation process, but animators are the ones who handle the “drawing” aspect of anime creation. They’ll take the story and directions, and based on those, they’ll draw. 
There are two main categories of animator –  known in Japanese as “Video Men” (inbetweeners) and the “Frame Men” (key animators/lead animators). 

Let’s take a look at what each of those jobs entail!


“Video Man”

A Video Man is an animator who’s assigned to work on turning key frames into moving videos. As the English job title “inbetweener”, might suggest, they are tasked with filling in all the frames between two images, to make the two stills flow together seamlessly, and make the scene “move”.

This is a very monotonous and taxing job – drawing the same scene or character with tiny adjustments, over and over again. But it is of course a vital part of the process, so these animators are really the unsung heroes of anime creation!

Video Men are  required to have good composition skills, and above all, they need to know how the body moves, so that they can make the character movement look natural.

“Frame Man”

A Frame Man is the position a Video Man will be promoted to if they work hard enough, and show enough promise. These key animators are the ones who create the original stills that the Video Men are tasked with connecting together.

Since these animators have to draw scenes from scratch, and are tasked with drawing the key scenes in the anime, this job is a huge responsibility.

They need excellent artistic ability – in particular, their composition and sketching ability needs to be on point. It’s up to the Frame Men to almost direct the scene – they can decide not only the costume and expressions, they also decide on the position of the “camera”. They will decide how close up we get to a character, and from what angle we view the scene.

An example of annotations drawn by a “frame man” to show the “video man” how he wants the scene to be animated

The Workflow of Anime Production

The anime production process starts off with a script created by the scriptwriter. From that script, the producer/director will draw a storyboard for the key animators to work with. The key animators then think about how the characters’ movement, and draw up key frames to pass on to the animation team.

The key animators will think about the space in-between each of the frames they have drawn, and decide how many extra frames they will need to make a smooth transition between the two.

From there, the inbetweeners will start drawing in the extra frames to connect the ones they’ve been given by the key animators.

If we just connected together the key animator’s frames, without the transition frames, the scene would look jumpy, like stop-motion. So whilst the key animator’s job does allow for the most creative freedom, the work of the inbetweeners is just as important!

Once an animator has worked hard as an inbetweener, and polished their skills drawing lots of transitionary frames, they will start to be entrusted with key animation work.

The amount of time it takes for a Video Man to be promoted to a Frame Man differs from person to person, but it will usually take a least 2 years of work at the company to be considered for this promotion.  


What Abilities are Required of an Animator?

Artistic Ability and Intuition

This might go without saying, but to become an animator, you need exceptional artistic ability and intuition.

Animators will deal with countless different objects, people, and effects when working, and they need to know how the appearance of those things change and react when put in movement.

So this means animators need excellent observational skills to help them to get a “sense” for how humans and objects behave and interact. 

When just illustrating one piece of work, or a page of manga, we can choose angles that we feel comfortable with drawing, but for animators, that isn’t an option. They’ll be faced with characters and objects in motion, so they need to fully understand how three dimensional objects look from all different angles, so that they can reproduce this effectively in their work.

Artists hoping to become animators should keep honing their observational abilities, and perhaps carry round a sketchbook to keep practicing on the go. It’s not a skill you can gain overnight, but with plenty of regular practice,  it should only take 6 months or so to see a marked improvement.

Observational sketches don’t even have to be in anime style. All different drawing styles will help you with your artistic skills and observational expertise. 

Speed

This is a big one! 

Because the anime industry is so huge in Japan, there is always work to be done, and speed is of the essence. For inbetweeners in particular, the amount of work expected of them can be intense. Many frames need to be created, both skilfully and accurately, but also quickly!

Of course skill and experience will really help with this speed – having a great artistic range, and a good understanding of how things fit together and move, will really help with their pace.

Being able to keep a mental stock of things you’ve seen in your daily life, and quickly pull those out to use in your work is also a great skill to have. All of this cuts down on thinking time and research time, and allows animators to make optimal use of their time.


It can be difficult to get reliable information on the anime industry, particularly from aboard, so I hope this article based on our first-hand experience in the industry has helped all of you aspiring animators!

The future of the anime industry is resting on the shoulders of the young creators of today, so we wish you the best of luck on your journey!

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