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Can Webcomic Artists Get Anime Made?

by Justin Sevakis,

I've decided I'm bad at these introduction thingies. Most of what I'm really doing is working, most of what I'm working on I can't talk about, and most of my private life is either not interesting or is, ahem, private.

I guess I could talk about Mad Max again. Great movie, am I right?

Jose asks:

We know the pressure to get into a top school (and get a top job) is a recurrent theme in anime and in Japanese culture in general. But I was wondering: what happens to the Japanese people that *don't* make the top cut? I would think that the top cut people are a minority (maybe I'm wrong), yet in discussions about Japanese culture, we only hear about the typical life of top-cut salarymen or office ladies. What happens to the rest of Japan? Are those the people that go on to work on anime? What about the life outside business? Do Japanese scholars and people working in academia suffer the same infamous amount of stress as salarymen? Is there an industry in Japan that isn't so stress-filled?

Japanese people that don't make the top schools and get into the top jobs are lined up in front of a firing squad and executed at age 23.

Obviously I'm kidding. Those schools and jobs are the "top" schools and jobs because there aren't that many of them, and so getting into those slots is very competitive. And just like the American Ivy League colleges and top private high schools, the vast, vast majority of people not only won't get in, but simply won't be in a place where it's even worth applying to them. The extreme societal pressure to aim for those places is borne partly out of the hierarchical nature of Asian society in general (see also: Tiger moms, Asian American graduation rates, etc.) but is also a relic of the 1980s Japanese bubble economy, where getting into a good company would guarantee you employment for life.

Those days are long over. But in the absence of a sure thing, some people have taken that as a cue to become even more obsessively competitive in their academic and career pursuits. Others have lost hope that there is a place for them, and have become drop-outs like NEETs and hikikomori. But the truth is, most people simply do something other than work at the top company until they retire/die. Some work retail. Others work in anime. Or at a bank. Or in government. Or become manga artists. Japan, like every other society out there, is a vast economy of people, nearly all of them located somewhere in the middle. And frankly, it's those middle slots that are where most of the action is. I don't know about you, but watching movies and TV shows about the 1% sounds pretty dull to me. But then again, look at the top reality TV shows...

The "top," however fallacious the idea may be, is still something that many -- even most -- people aspire towards. The very fact that the vast majority of people will never get there (and those that have might not even realize that they are, in fact, on top of some likely-meaningless ranking system), means that a fictionalized "top school in Japan" basically represents a cultural Valhalla. A writer or manga artist would have entirely free reign to create anything out of such a place -- from something depressingly mundane, to something crazy and surreal. And often, they do.

But plenty of anime and manga and light novels take place "in the middle." Easily half, if I were to take a shot in the dark. Most romantic anime -- shoujo and shonen -- take place in a "normal" school, and it's never implied that the students are all that special in any way. Plenty of anime take place at the bottom of society's scrap heap, be it in high school (like in GTO or Gokusen) or in the working world (Patlabor or Planetes, off the top of my head). Even perennial favorites like Cowboy Bebop and Evangelion and even Naruto could be said to be about basically normal or borderline-failing people in society, at or at least those that start out that way.

PAL asks:

I know several web comic artists who have popular strips and are always asked by their fans “Any chance of an animated series?” To which they reply “No. Never. It's impossible. Can't be done.” Then the fans point out how animation has gotten cheaper, there's more small animation studios now than ever before, anime studios regularly take manga (even if it's just four-panel gags) and make great series out of them, and so on. I also pointed out that Kickstarter and indie-go-go can crowdsource an initial episode or two-to-four episode story arc, then if popular Patreon could keep the series going on a per-episode basis. Now some of them are seriously considering the possibilities and have asked me to do research. First person I thought to ask for information and advice was you. Do you think any anime studios might be interested in turning an American web comic into an anime series? If so, how would a web comic creator contact them? Who would they talk to? How much (rough estimate) do you think it would cost for one or two half-hour episodes as proof of concept or a fundraiser?

This is one of those times where I don't really want to tell you that you're wrong to give these webcomic artists hope, but the odds of what you're describing working out in any way are so ridiculously low that it's hard for me, as an entertainment industry professional, to take the idea seriously. What you're describing has never happened at a grassroots level, and not for the reasons you might think. It's entirely possible for a Kickstarter attached to a very popular webcomic to taken in enough money to make a pilot animation (and it would have to be well north of the US$250,000 range to cover both initial designs as well as a short pilot). The problems really start immediately after that.

To produce an animated project of any kind, you need a producer. An actual producer, on the Western side of things, with real experience in the animation business. There aren't many of those. This producer would be in charge of finding an actual screenwriter to write a coherent screenplay, actual designers to come up with animator-friendly guidelines that can actually be used as such (sorry, most artists can't just come up with those -- it's a very specific discipline), and hire and supervise an animation studio that will actually give you animation that doesn't look like an intern did it with their left hand and a broken mouse in Windows Paint. Without one of these highly sought-after people on your team, you're sunk. Most animation studios won't work without one, because dealing with a rank amateur on the insanely complex minutiae of making an animation would be so frustrating it would not be worth their time. There are so many moving parts to making a decent piece of animation, you simply need someone with all the connections. Every step that's done by dedicated amateurs is something that can go very wrong, and it only takes one or two of those before a project goes careening out of control.

There aren't many of these animation producers, and even fewer who are used to dealing with Japanese studios. What's more, there is very little incentive for a person like that to work on a pilot film for a webcomic. Their job is a tough one, and in order for them to make money, they need to be able to put together things that TV networks will pick up, will get sold overseas, and make money from multiple different sources. The ONLY way a producer like this would pick up a project like that would be if they were big fans, and thought they could make it into a sellable project of some kind. And at that point, you are no longer making a little Kickstarter project that you have creative control over, you're handing the keys over to someone else. If you're going that route, it'd be far easier to just try and get a literary agent to sell the rights so that someone else can produce it. At least that way you won't spend a crazy amount of time fulfilling Kickstarter obligations.

See what I mean? It's not impossible, but getting something like that made requires a ridiculous amount of business savvy that most webcomic artists are unlikely to possess or have time for. Unless that artist already knows animation producers, I don't think the idea is one worth considering.

Andrew asks:

Hi! So I was wondering about the process behind Japanese companies licensing songs to be used in anime (openings, endings, insert songs). It seems like a simpler process when the producer of a band is also doing the score, as is the case with Madoka Magica and its composer, Yuki Kajiura. But what about the rest of the time? Do they pick from a list of songs and request the rights, or is there some other process?

I've answered a question similar to this some time ago, but I still get this one fairly often, so it might be a good time to revisit it.

The business of anime vocal tracks is nearly always facilitated by the main production company or another business on the production committee. Many major anime producers also have affiliated record labels -- for example, Bandai Visual owns the record label Lantis, while Aniplex itself is a division of Sony Music Japan. At an early stage, the production committee has a meeting with the director of the anime, and presents him with a pile of pop songs that are in production. These songs are at "demo" stage -- meaning, they're not done, and usually have a temporary vocal track. The director usually just picks a song from that pile and uses it. They might tweak the lyrics a little bit to fit the show better. The record label will then go back and finish the song with the artist of their choosing, who may or may not be a voice actor featured in the show. If a famous (expensive) composer is doing the music for the show, they will often be asked to contribute the theme songs, as they're likely to be hits no matter who sings them.

In some cases, the director will go into the project already wanting a certain existing song, or a certain artist that's not on the production committee's roster to perform it. This is often considered a lost opportunity for both marketing and revenue, but sometimes the director will get his way. That's how we very occasionally get English artists doing opening or closing themes. Other times, the production committee will insist on using the songs to push a specific artist, and the director just has to deal.

The business of anime songs is a huge one, and operates as a market separate from the rest of the Japanese music scene. The selection of song and artist is therefore almost always a business decision.

And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on real, strange stories from the anime business, Tales of the Industry.

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