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How Long Does An Anime Episode Take To Make?

by Justin Sevakis,

Mark asked:

I have a pretty simple question. About how long prior to a show airing does animation production start? So not pre-production meetings or voice acting or anything like that, but the artists sitting down and drawing the whole dang thing. How much of a lead time do these artists need to be able to produce a 12 episode anime? Is 24 episodes just twice as much time? I realize each anime will be different, but a rough estimate would be interesting to know.

Unfortunately this is one of those questions where the reader is hoping for some definitive, hard and fast rule, and there basically isn't one. Anime production schedules are highly elastic, based on both the budget and the level of ambition of the production -- as well as, frankly, how organized and/or sane the people producing it are. Ideally, planning and pre-production (things like writing, storyboarding, finding talent to be on staff for the project, design work, etc.) starts a year or more before the first episode is scheduled to air. The first bit of animation is a little hard to pin down, since some test animation is often done early on by the core team of animators, both for promotion and to attract investment in the project. Some of this animation usually finds its way into the final product.

In most cases, there are several teams of animators that each take on one episode at a time, and rotate between them as their schedules allow. (Shirobako has a great depiction of this.) As one episode is finished, the team moves onto the next episode in their pile. Unfortunately that means that if they're running late on one episode, the next one gets a later start, and so scheduling issues tend to cascade, resulting in production running notoriously behind schedule towards the end of a run. Occasionally a special team will be brought in to do a single episode, either as a pinch-hitter, or as a special event.

Sometimes, a really ambitious show will allot 3 months or more of production to each episode, but that's not the norm for most anime. For an average TV series (though again this is by no means definitive) each team will start with two months or more to complete each episode, but after a few episodes schedule creep sets in, and start date will slip later and later. Some episodes will get seven weeks. Then six. There are times when whole episodes are produced in as little as four or five weeks. With digital animation, it's getting easier to cover up quick-and-shoddy animation with effects like lighting, mist, different coloring, and impressive-looking CG layers that are cleverly re-positioned and re-rendered from earlier episodes.

Yet another reminder that this business often flies by the seat of its pants.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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