Why Isn't American Animation Outsourced To Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Abe asks:

Why are so many American animated shows sent to Korea for main production and not Japan? The Japanese animation industry seems to be a more logical choice considering how much animation is produced there compared to the amount of Korean original content. Is the cost that much of a difference?

For most of the 80s and into the 90s, Western animation production WAS outsourced to Japan. Shows from Transformers to Tiny Toon Adventures, and movies like The Last Unicorn all had significant amounts of animation work done in Japan, by studios like TopCraft (which later respawned as Studio Ghibli), TMS Entertainment (then called Tokyo Movie Shinsha) and Toei Animation.

American studios weren't just outsourcing to Japan because they liked the style of animation done over there. They were doing it because it was cheaper -- largely because of the exchange rate, which, in 1990 was as high as 159 yen to a US dollar. A large part of what was fueling Japan's booming bubble economy was, in fact, this huge disparity of exchange rates. However, by the mid 90s, Japan's economy was starting to cool, and those rates started coming down closer to what we know today.

This meant that outsourcing animation to Japan was no longer such a great bargain. Korea, however, was still quite a bit cheaper. While the country didn't initially have much of a developed animation production industry, several key people, including legendary animator Nelson Shin (who had a hand in everything from the Star Wars light saber animation to actually directing Transformers: The Movie), were slowly building up Korean studios. DR Movie, Akom Production, Rough Draft Korea and Seoul Movie are just some of the studios that popped up during this time.

Japan also wasn't trying so hard to land American production contracts. There was more and more home-grown anime to work on, which was taking up more of the animation studios' time. Japanese studios were also taking advantage of cheap Korean labor, and many made major investments in Korean studios. Soon, Korea became the go-to place for animation companies around the world to outsource lower-level production duties (such as in-between animation and ink and paint).

Korean-produced animation has had a few bright spots over the years, but their self-produced animation business never really took off. Korean animation fans tend to ignore it, and very little of it has found a significant audience overseas. But when it comes to doing work for producers in other countries, South Korea has become the leaders.

These days, China is also growing their animation industry, as is Thailand, The Philippines, Vietnam and several other emerging economies in Asia. If you pay close attention to anime credits, you'll see names representing those countries doing odd jobs in anime from time to time. Japanese studios, facing their perpetual lack of fresh talent (due to the low pay, among other reasons), are investing heavily in those countries. With Korea becoming more and more of a major economic power, that country isn't as much of a bargain these days, either.

In recent years, a few American producers specifically decided to outsource their work to Japan, specifically because of the unique "anime" qualities in their work. Some projects have worked out great, but sometimes producers have been underwhelmed with the results, suggesting that the animators weren't so into work that wasn't being pushed by an enthusiastic director under their own roof. The price difference is high enough that most American animation producers will just go straight to Korea rather than take a risk.

Nowadays the US is producing a lot of 3D CG animation work, and while Korea is getting its share of that, much of it these days is going to Canada, India and China. When there's still 2D animation to be outsourced (predominantly for television), it's still usually sent to Korea. But American TV production credits seldom break out all of the names of subcontracting animation studios, so it's hard to tell where the work ended up going, in the end.

When I last visited Toei Animation several years ago, they had already established a studio in the Philippines, and had servers in both countries sharing work between the studios. They were far from the only ones, and nowadays many anime studios are working in concert with colleagues all across Asia. Since animation is now mostly digital, there are really few barriers in how closely animators in different countries can work together.

Animation production, whether originating with Japanese or American creative, is really a global endeavor these days.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

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.

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