What Is "Key Art" And Why Is It Important?

by Justin Sevakis,

Mason asks:

Oftentimes, in the weeks or months leading up to a new anime premiere, there will be a promotional video as well as what's referred to as a 'key visual' released. While a promo video seems to make sense, what's the point of a key visual? Why are they made, and do they really matter?

"Key Visuals" -- which are usually referred to as "key art" in the US, are high-resolution promotional "poster images" that are used to market the show. Key art is very high quality, as it's intended to be printed on anything from DVD boxes to posters. When it comes to anime, it's usually delivered as a massive, massive Photoshop file, complete with a background, and often, every character on a separate layer so that they can be rearranged depending on what the art is being used for.

Key art is made for nearly every movie and TV show, and is a standard part of the package of materials that any producer is supposed to deliver to a distributor whenever a deal is made. It's expensive and time-consuming to put together: live action projects require a photoshoot (complete with costumes, hair and makeup), art direction, studio rental, time with overbooked stars, and all of that. With anime, it requires the assigning of one or several of the main artists on the show, careful planning and sketching, input from the director and producer(s), and the approval of the production committee.

The key art is the show's best foot forward: an early sign to fans what to expect. The characters have to look EXACTLY on-model, if not a little more detailed than the model sheets. The poses have to suggest the tone of the show. The mood has to reflect the mood of the show. This key art will be used online, as well as on pretty much every piece of pre-release promotion. In Japan, that can mean outdoor signs and train station ads, billboards in Akihabara and other "otaku" areas, and big standees at shows like Anime Japan.

For the 80% of anime series that never really rises above a middling audience and a couple of thousand discs sold, that single piece of key art will be the only piece of high quality art that will ever be produced for the show. That and some screenshots will be the only artwork made available to overseas publishers.

For shows that are a bigger deal, or for movies or any other project that gets more of a marketing push, there are usually a handful of additional pieces of high resolution artwork made -- most of them intended for DVD/BD release covers. But it's not until a show is a bonafide hit that the producers commission a bunch of really great, high-quality poster images. Even when that happens, the original key art is often still used prominently. In some cases, depending on who owns the subsequent images, that original key art may STILL be the only thing provided to overseas publishers.

So key art is actually a much bigger deal than many fans realize. It's the image that will be attached to the show forever, and in many cases, will be the only official "poster" for the show ever made. Every once in a blue moon, there is an anime made that doesn't have any key art at all. I don't have any explanation for why that happens, but when it does, anyone who touches the show will have to figure out SOME way to promote the show without it. And... good luck with that.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's 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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