How It’s Done: Shirobako

I promised to take a perspective on anime and manga that would go beyond just the “I like it/I don’t like it” axis, and that my perspective was based on two things: my background as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, and my background as a trained animator.

One of those two has been getting a lot of the play here. When I talk about plot or character, that’s the writer in me talking.

The animator, he’s not been heard from a lot. But it was because I’m interested in animation that I watched Shirobako. If you’re interested in what makes them pretty pictures move, you should watch it, too.

Before I get into it, I‘m going to tell you that this is going to go on for a while, far enough that I think this is going to be a two-parter. I hope that’s a good thing. If not, oh well: my blog, my rules.

Shirobako is the story of five girls who are interested in getting into the anime business. At the start of the show they are in high school, making a short called The Seven Lucky Battle Gods or something like that; after that opening vignette we pick them up down the road, out in the working world. The main character, Aoi, is (conveniently enough) working as a line producer at an anime production company, Musashino Animation. Her high school buddies are Ema, Shizuka, Misa, and Midori, who want to be a key animator, voice actor, 3-D animator, and writer, respectively.

The show tracks the production of two series at Musashino Animation, Exodus!, and a hot property called The Third Girls Aerial Squad (any resemblance to Girls und Panzer strictly accidental). During Exodus! Aoi is a Production Assistant; For Third Girls she’s promoted to Line Producer, and the other girls get sucked into the production, Ema and Misa doing their animation things, Midori as a researcher and writing assistant. Poor Shizuka tries out for a voice role and doesn’t get one, but when emergency rewrites create a new character, BAM! The gang’s all here.

Shirobako Aoi

Our hero: Aoi

Around them is a swirl of characters that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of, and while the writer in me is sometimes bugged…I mean, when you have to put the characters’ names and titles on the screen for the audience to keep track of them, you’re not exactly telling the story organically…but which the animator in me appreciates. It takes a lot of people to make commercial animation, and this show does a really good job of pointing out all the things that go on.

The production of Exodus! focuses more on the nitty-gritty of making an anime (or any animated show), and one of the things it does really well is show how all there are all sorts of processes that have to go on simultaneously if you’re going to knock out a thirteen-episode series and get the episodes on the air weekly.

When I was studying animation we typically worked on our own films, and pitched in with other peoples’ when they needed a hand. But let’s pretend we were making one standard cel-animated show using industry standard techniques. In those days we would have gone through the following steps:

Writing the script
Drawing the storyboards
Recording the dialog
Reading the sound track (so mouth movements can be synched to sound)
Background painting
Key animation, where experienced animators make “key” frames that define the characters’ movements. For instance, if the character was throwing a ball, the key animator would draw one frame with the arm fully cocked, one perhaps overhead, and one fully followed through.
In-betweening, where a less experienced animator fills in the movements between the key frames
Cleanup: Animators draw sloppily (because they draw a lot), so the clean up person makes their lines full and solid
Checking: Someone goes through all the cels to be sure the movements is clean, the character consistent, the action matches the script, and so on
Inking: Someone copies the pencil drawings onto clear acetate cells in ink
Coloring: Someone paints the cels.
Photography and editing
Post-dubbing: Music and sound effects are added to the sound mix
Cel washing. Once the cels were shot, they were washed to be reused. Chuck Jones got his start in the business as a cel washer.

I have the sense that I’m forgetting a couple steps. It’s been a while, okay?

For the most part we did all of these things ourselves in animation school. For instance, to check my work I used to shoot it onto cheap black and white film I could process in the dark room and then watch it projected. In one of my films I noticed that my character was developing “droopy drawers;” each time I drew him the crotch of his pants drifted a tad bit lower. Return to step 6.

Shirobako was shot in 2015 and by then the process had changed some. Rather than inking the cels would be digitized so they could be manipulated as computer images. Coloring was handled on the computer, too, and there are several shots of them “painting” the cels digitally. Once it’s digitized, there’s no need for the photography stage. And you don’t need to wash the cels when you can just hit “Delete.”

I noticed, and I’m not sure it’s meaningful, that instead of recording the voices and reading the track, they recorded the voices later, after the animation. What that meant was that the animators had to make the mouths work first and the actors had to match the lip movements. That strikes me as being a really cheap way to do it, but also that lip flap (as it’s called) isn’t necessarily all that hard. From an animation stand point you need different mouth movements for the vowels…look at yourself in a mirror and say “ah” “oo” and “eh” to see what I mean…but there are whole classes of consonants that look pretty much the same from the outside: same mirror and say, “jay” and “kay.” Same dropping jaw, right? So that bugged me since it wasn’t what I’d been taught, but I can see how it can work.

When you’re making a series all these things overlap because there’s not enough time otherwise. There would be teams of key animators and in-betweeners working under an episode director to get their own episode done; you can see this in the old Warner Brothers Looney Tunes, who churned out one seven-minute cartoon a week between roughly 1930 to 1960 or so. You had teams led by directors Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Friz Freling, Frank Tashlin, Bob McKimson, Art Davis, Bob Clampett, Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising…I may be forgetting one or two. Typically four of these guys were directing at the same time. For instance, Bob M. got promoted when (I think) Tex moved over to Universal. But if you look at the credits, each director worked with the same one or two writers (Chuck Jones with Tedd Pierce and Mike Maltese, for instance) and the same three or four key animators.

Each team, though, would be working with the same voice actors (Mel Blanc, June Foray, Bea Benederet, Stan Freberg), the same cameraman (Smokey), the same composer (Carl Stallings), and so forth. That meant everything had to be ready on time, since those guys couldn’t work on two episodes at once.

So in Shirobako, as a production assistant for Musashino, our gal Aoi is made responsible for the overall production on several of the thirteen episodes of Exodus!, including the critical thirteenth, and she’s responsible for making sure that all those things happen and happen correctly for her episodes. There is much panicking and even a little drag racing because everything has to stay on schedule (and because the director, Seiichi, is a procrastinating jackass).

Yes, she succeeds.

The second series, The Third Girls Aerial Squad, has Aoi in a position higher up the food chain, and so she’s further from the daily details of animating and more at the production level, so even though they’re doing the same thing and we’re still seeing it from Aoi’s perspective, we see different things even though they’re doing the same things. Let’s save that for next week.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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