Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Friday, August 1, 2008

12:31:53 am , 695 words, 2280 views     Categories: Animation

The solo

I've long been fascinated by a phenomenon that seems to be unique to Japanese animation - the solo animator episode, where a single person draws all of the key animation for an entire TV episode. There have been many over the decades, and it's rather common in the simply designed situation comedy style shows produced by A Pro/Shin-Ei (you can still see good solo work done on Shin-chan, for one), but it's rarer in typical productions these days. I've pointed out a number over the last few years, the latest being Michio Mihara's episode of Kaiba.

A new one has turned up in the series World Destruction. Kensuke Ishikawa drew all of the key animation for episode 3, although there were lots of seconds. (meaning he drew rough keys that people cleaned up) So it isn't quite a solo of the purity of, say, Mihara's episode of Kaiba, where he not only didn't have seconds, he even drew most of the inbetweens himself. I'm not too impressed with the work, but it's always an interesting thing to see, which is why I mention it here. Solo episodes are nice because they offer the rare chance to get a sense of what it is that defines animator style, in the broad sense. They also, of course, offer an intimate and extended look at a particular animator's style and skills, which is great if it's a great animator, but even if it's not, they help give a sense of what it is that sets animators apart from one another in general terms, i.e. how to go about identifying the different traits that distinguish animators from one another; what each animator brings to the table through his or her unique talent. That can be hard to do without prior knowledge of an animator's style in most episodes, which typically feature a dozen or more animators with different styles, not to mention varying degrees of correction by the animation director. Kensuke Ishikawa also storyboarded and processed the episode, so you can clearly see a distinct personality at work in terms of not just the animation but also the staging and so on.

Not all solo episodes are necessarily showcases for an animator, but rather merely the result of scheduling expediency. Veteran Toei animator Nobuyoshi Sasakado has the distinction of being probably the single most prolific creator of solo animator episodes, the quality of which are however consequently consistently nominal, at best, at least from the few episodes I've sampled. He obviously has speed on his side, which I gather must be an asset in TV production in Japan. His approach represents the diametric opposite of the approach of a Michio Mihara. It's about quantity over quality, a pragmatic way of helping speed along production for the company, whereas in the case of Mihara if anything even longer was spent producing the episode in order to achieve better quality that met the animator's standards. Another animator named Yoshitaka Yajima apparently did a lot of solo flying throughout the various Digimon series as part of the in-house rotation team, probably falling into the expediency category.

Here's a list of some good solo episodes from past and present.

Goku's Big Adventure #12 & #21 (1967) by Sadao Tsukioka
New Lupin III #14 (1977) by Kazuhide Tomonaga
Gold Lightan #41 (1981) by Takashi Nakamura
Hanaichi Monme OVA #2 (1989) by Hideki Hamasu
Hanaichi Monme OVA #5 (1989) by Koichi Arai
Eat Man #7 (1997) by Norio Matsumoto
Legend of the White Whale #21 (1997) by Hirotoshi Takaya
Dokkoida #5 (2003) by Futoshi Higashide
Samurai Seven #7 (2004) by Hisashi Mori (only part A)
Gankutsuoh #9 (2004) by Yasuhiro Seo
Honey & Clover #7 (2005) by Tetsuya Takeuchi
Tweeny Witches OVA #4 (2005) by Shogo Furuya
Aria the Natural #2 (2006) by Takaaki Wada
Kemonozume #12 (2006) by Michio Mihara
Kaiba #4 (2008) by Michio Mihara

The opening featured some nice work, as did the first episode, in which Yasunori Miyazawa did a very distinctive section. I also liked the fighting after Miyazawa's section, and wonder if it might not be the work of Shuichi Kaneko. The only shot in the op I was able to identify was that of the unmistakable Nobutoshi Ogura, near the end, but I surmise that Hideki Takahashi or Kyoji Asano probably did some of the other good bits.



manuloz [Visitor]  

You might also add episode 6 from School Days handled by Hiroki Tanaka (the One Piece movie 9 fight), he also storyboarded the episode.

08/01/08 @ 10:45
h_park [Member]

You know… idea of one-man animator doing whole episode is fascinating, but it worries me as well. One man episode is something most animators can’t pull off every time. Demand for better animation is rising, however not enough experienced animators to handle it. I hope something should be done to make animation industry attractive to new talents without losing them to other industry.

08/03/08 @ 22:18
Leedar [Visitor]  

How often are these ’solo genga’ episodes also written and/or directed by the same person?

And do they have the same production schedule usually? (1 or 2 months?)

08/04/08 @ 05:17
Ben [Member]  

It’s rarer to see solo episodes written by the animator than it is to see solo episodes storyboarded/processed by the animator. Both are recent exceptions to the norm as far as I can tell (overlooking early work by Sadao Tsukioka on Wolf Boy Ken, for example), as for the most part in the past a solo animator would just do the animation. Only in cases where a special production style is adopted, as in the case of Kaiba, is someone given such free reign as to also write or direct his own episode. Maybe because digital production methods have broken down barriers and certain animators want to challenge themselves, these days it seems to be more common to see solo animators also handle the other tasks, Mihara’s episode being just an extreme example. (Ko Yoshinari’s unique work is also somewhat related to this, I think)

I don’t know for sure about the production schedule, but I recall hearing that Nobuyoshi Sasakado took about a month to do an episode on his own, so I think 1-2 months is probably about right for the typical production schedule for an episode, at least in the past. Perhaps it’s changed now, and it probably varies from studio to studio. I’m sure a series like Kaiba has a unique production schedule specifically adapted to that show, with the director making special arrangements to allow someone like Mihara to spend 9 months doing an episode on his own, for example. I think I can see why Yuasa would be grateful to Mihara for doing this - he takes the burden off the main team who have to produce 13 episodes within a deadline, allowing them to focus on the other episodes, but still turns in great quality.

In any case, it’s obvious enough that if you only spend 1 month animating an entire episode the quality isn’t going to be great, so it’s hard to blame Sasakado for not turning in good quality - if anything, it’s incredible that he can do that on a regular basis. The company must love him. But this is obviously not a style that anyone who cares about the animation would adopt. It’s just about the bottom line. Mihara’s episode of Kaiba was interesting because it was such a different approach, with the way they made these special arrangements to allow him enough time to turn in something of great quality. I don’t know how long they had for the whole production of Kaiba, but I thought it was an efficient approach that I’d like to see more of in the industry - you have X amount of time to produce the whole series, so you assign an entire episode to one person so that, effectively, the entire X amount of time is spent producing a single episode, rather than spreading the same crew thin over the breadth of the whole series. It would be nice to see more studios adapt this (admittedly more complicated) approach to improve quality.

08/04/08 @ 14:05
Leedar [Visitor]  

Thanks for the info.

I too was wondering about how in absolute terms it takes a year or more to produce one season of animation, so theoretically shows could be produced in parallel instead of series.

However, I imagine almost all shows are required to start screening part way through series production for a number of reasons. Mostly financial safety (shows can be cancelled mid-production if they fail horribly) and general antsy-ness (get your idea to market before someone else does).

08/04/08 @ 21:53
pete [Member]

When you mention “a single animator” and “animation", do you mean just character animation?

Or is the animator involved also in other processes (eg some of the background design, colouring, movement of objects, fx etc)

Because these require also a considerable amount of time.

Since you mention also the series “Aria the Natural", that show has practically no animation. It looks like a slide show with many still frames. So when it comes just to character animation, it is feasible in a schedule of 1 month.There are series like this were usually the backgrounds and the music are the main focus rather than the character animation.

Basically it comes down to focusing on specific scenes, while animating the rest is more ergonomic. During those scenes it is usually where the animator’s personal style comes to the foreground. I mean you can use repeated scenes or options to gain time (eg flashbacks) etc.

08/05/08 @ 09:55
Leedar [Visitor]  

It would be all the layout and all the pencil key animation (character, mechanical, effects, etc.).

Storyboards, inbetweens, colouring, CG, etc. are handled by other people as per usual. Although, as noted, some people may take charge of storyboards (as episode director) or even inbetweens and CG effects.

08/05/08 @ 22:00
pete [Member]

I am beginning to have a clue. Though if the animator for any reasons abandons an episode, this would cause problems of continuity. Who would cover up for him/her then?


08/06/08 @ 06:38
Leedar [Visitor]  

The animation director (sakuga kantoku) would be responsible to get it finished (AFAIK).

08/06/08 @ 22:19
Ben [Member]  

Often in solo episodes the solo animator IS the animation director, so I can see a catch-22 scenario there. I suppose the main staff animators would be brought on to complete the episode if a solo animator conked out for whatever reason. I remember that Norio Matsumoto tried to do a solo episode of You’re Under Arrest but couldn’t finish it, so a bunch of other people were brought on, and he isn’t even listed in the credits even though he animated a large portion of the episode. Another example would be Paranoia Agent episode 3, where the whole episode was done by Michio Mihara, except for one small bit that he didn’t have time to get around to, which was done by Yasunori Miyazawa. So there are also a number of ‘almost’ solo episodes.

Another anecdote related to this is how Kenichi Yoshida got into a motorcycle accident and was therefore unable to finish the section of animation he’d been assigned on Mononoke Hime, so animation director Yoshifumi Kondo, who was in frail health, had to do it for him. Kondo died soon afterwards, and it would seem that people believed it had to do with him working too hard on Mononoke Hime, so there was resentment of Yoshida for that at Ghibli, justified or not. So there are cases where the animation director of the episode (or film) does it, and cases where other animators are called in to do it.

It actually happens fairly often that animators can’t finish their assigned parts, and someone else has to take care of the missing shots, because things can get pretty hectic in TV (or other) anime production with a tight deadline. Either the animation director or another animator on the team finishes their remaining shots. If you look at the section in the market animated by Shinji Hashimoto in Spriggan, for example, you’ll notice a big chunk not animated by him smack in the middle of his section, which I assume to be because he didn’t have time to get around to it. He says that’s something that happens fairly often with his work. He also mentions that at some point he was doing like one shot a month (which makes sense if you look at the density of what he’s doing), so it’s actually understandable that he would run out of time at that pace.

I actually haven’t seen that episode of Aria done by Wada, or any for that matter, so I can’t comment on whether you’re right or not. If I included it here, it’s because Wada is a good animator and the episode is of interest merely for being a solo by him, regardless of the amount of animation it might or might not contain. I certainly doubt it’s an episode packed to the brim with movement like Mihara’s stuff, but it’s still interesting to note. I have to wonder what compelled Wada to do that solo.

I just remembered that Sadao Tsukioka did this one solo episode of Goku that is a great place to get to know his style, so I added that to the list. There are a bunch of other ‘almost’ solo episodes that I was tempted to include, like the Toshiyasu Okada episode of Jacky the Bearcub, but I decided to keep things simple and go with only ‘pure’ solo episodes. Although now that I think about it, it would be just as interesting to look at a list of episodes where people tried but failed to complete their solo episodes. I’ve mentioned a number in here, but I’m sure there are others. They serve to show just how challenging a task it must be. But certainly the situation will vary greatly depending on how much demand is placed on the animator in terms of movement in the episode, how much schedule there is, the personality/speed of the animator, etc.

It’s actually quite common in anime, at least in the past, to see episodes animated by very small teams of between 2 and 4 people. In the New Lupin III series, for example, there are quit a few solo episodes, and many others animated by two or three people. Same goes for many other shows in the 70s. What sets this list apart is that the episodes are animated a good animator that serve as a platform for him to show off his skills, rather than solos for the sake of meeting a schedule.

08/07/08 @ 11:18
Ben [Member]  

I discovered that the awesome Shogo Furuya did a solo in the Tweeny Witches OVA series, so I added that.

08/13/08 @ 16:25