Why Is Anime Dialogue Recorded After Animation Is Done?

by Justin Sevakis,

James asks:

Some time ago, you stated that one of the major differences between western animation and Japanese animation is that, in western animation, all dialogue is recorded first, and then the animation is done to match the dialogue, while, in Japanese animation, the animation is done first, and the the dialogue is recorded to match the animation. However, it seems to me that the western method would allow for much greater freedom and versatility in the recording process (such as improvisation or a greater freedom to express emotions), so why does Japan not use that model of production?

Simple: it's cheaper and faster. Doing "pre-lay" recording for Western animation adds a lot of lead time to the process. First the scripts have to be finalized, then the audio recorded, then edited. Then an animation supervisor has to go through the recording and map out which frames get which mouth sound -- a tedious process at best. Only then, after all that is done, can the actual work of animation begin. If production starts slipping behind schedule, there's not a whole lot that can be done to shore things up, because the voice actors recorded all of those voices months ago, and any significant changes made to the show would involve tons of work having to be redone.

Anime workflows, which were basically codifed back in the 1960s by Osamu Tezuka, are meant for a TV schedule. Since the actual animation process takes the longest, it gets started first. The scripts are fairly fluid throughout this process, and if things are starting to sink further and further behind, banked shots of re-used animation, flashbacks, slow pans, and other time-saving stopgaps are added into the script. It's only once the show is looking more or less finalized (albeit still at pencil test stage) do the actors come in and read their lines.

I'll never understand just how the Japanese voice process can so accurately match good performances with already-done animation, but they've been doing it for decades, and they've gotten really really good at it. Matching the timing of each line reading with animation was always sort of a rough science -- often things didn't match well at all, but fans didn't really seem to mind. (American dubs always tried much harder at this.) Nowadays modern digital animation means that animators can go back and tweak little things that don't quite match up, so it's pretty rare for new shows to have dialogue that's out of sync with lip flap.

So that's why. It's cheap and flexible, and in the world of low budgets and last-minute deadlines that is anime production, that makes all the difference.

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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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