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How An Animator From Massachusetts Worked On Sword Art Online

by Callum May,

While there have been foreign creators working in the anime industry in the past, the 2010s represented an unprecedented global expansion. It used to be common for young artists to attend panels at anime conventions, and ask, “How can I work in the anime industry?” and the common response to this involved learning the language, moving overseas and living on nothing. But after anime production staff started to realise the potential in contacting Japanese animators to submit cuts of digital animation online, we started to see them reach out overseas as well. One of the most prominent early examples was Austrian animator Bahi JD who first worked on the 2012 series Kids on the Slope remotely, after contacting animation director Cindy Yamauchi.

Today, this process has expanded, allowing animators from across the entire world to participate in anime production. To get a better picture of what it's like to work on an anime project remotely, I spoke to Kay Yu, an animator from Massachusetts in the United States about his work on Sword Art Online: Alicization - War of Underworld.

I last interviewed Kay in 2017 regarding his anime inspirations and work on his Black Crystal project as part of a feature on how online animators were shaping the future of global animation. In the time since that article was published, several of the interviewees have been offered professional animation work, especially from Japan.

For Kay, this wasn't always the goal. He started out in animation as a means to get into games development, testing out his skills in engines like M.U.G.E.N and Game Maker. While creating sprite characters, he gained experience in animation fundamentals through pixel animation. At the time, he'd always aspired to work in games as a designer or programmer and opted to go to university to study computer science and game design for this reason.

Kay had first created the above character Kuro in 2007, but he made a return in his personal Black Crystal prologue project, released in 2018. A couple of years earlier, Kay had gotten interested in the kind of 2D animation you'd find in anime, not just as a fan, but as an animator as well. To test out these skills, the Black Crystal prologue exists as a combination of sprite animation and anime sensibilities, bringing Kay's passions together.

As a self-learner, the response to his work on Black Crystal was one of the first key moments of encouragement he received for his animation work. On Twitter alone, Kay received over 10,000 new followers during both the leadup and release to the prologue episode, and has received many more since. This Twitter presence ended up being valuable, because after posting a clip of pixel animation, Kay was contacted by WayForward director Adam Tierney and was asked to join the games company as an animator.

Before this, Kay had only considered animation as a side project, rather than a career, but his skills were catching up to him. While initially contacted to work as an animator on WayForward's next game, the then unannounced River City Girls, Kay was asked to serve as lead animator on the game after excelling at the company's animation test.

Like Kay, the team at WayForward was heavily inspired by anime visuals and the process seemed to fit his independent work ethic. However, while he'd thought it impossible anyways, he initially believed that taking the job at WayForward would mean that there would no longer be any possibility of him working on an anime. Until out of nowhere, he received an email.

In September 2019, Kay received an email from a member of the production team at A-1 Pictures. At first, he wasn't even sure if it was legitimate or not, since it seemed too good to be true. The email was asking if Kay would be willing to do layout work for the studio's newest project, Sword Art Online: Alicization - War of Underworld. While shows like Black Clover and Boruto had become known for inviting foreign animators to work on select episodes, this wasn't the case for Sword Art Online.

One of the cuts Kay was assigned in Episode 11 of the new season had Lisbeth attempting to get help from Alfheim Online players. The cut itself was a dialogue scene, which traditionally wouldn't feature much animation. At the same time, Kay was asked to do layouts, which usually are a rough idea of the key animation. But as any follower of his knows, when it comes to animation, Kay is an overachiever and wanted to make this scene particularly special.

While the internet works as a great way to bring people from other sides of the world together, there still remains the issue of language barriers. Google Translate can give you a general impression of what's being said, but Japanese <-> English machine translation is notoriously unreliable. Thankfully the storyboard was translated, but they weren't always perfect, and communication was difficult, especially without a full understanding of the technical side of production, like timesheets and annotations. Thanks to a lot of research, and the help of fellow animator Franziska van Wulfen, Kay was able to deliver his first anime layout.

In an interview with The Indonesian Anime Times, animator Ida Badus Yoga (aka guzzu) spoke about how he's trying to move away from anime projects due to their unsustainability. guzzu has worked on Boruto, To Be Heroine and Castlevania, and states that the overwork, not having time to sleep, and the small salary prompted his decision to stop contributing to Japanese anime, instead deciding to work on Western projects.

Kay agrees that working in Japanese anime isn't sustainable, and mentioned that it was the experience of working on Sword Art Online that was the motivation for taking the job, rather than the pay. Because he works a full-time job at WayForward, he struggled to find the time to work on the show, leading to a work-life balance that he says is unhealthy. Kay has also recently been approached with more anime offers, to which he admits will end up cutting further into his sleep.

In discussions of anime budgeting, it's often surprising to learn that the quality of the animation rarely has anything to do with how much animators are being paid. In truth, there really are few incentives to bother to create great work in anime. But Kay was very clear that, despite the low pay, his goal is to continue to grow as an animator. He pushes into his sleep schedule and intentionally overperforms to stretch his limits. He compares himself to Goku from Dragon Ball Z and his never-ending quest to find out how much stronger he can possibly get, and judging from Kay's growth as an animator in just the last few years, it feels like an accurate description.

While Kay's passion is inspiring, it's hard to shake off the bitter notes in this success story. Stories of losing sleep and being underpaid are incredibly common among both foreign and local animators working in the Japanese industry. Anime companies are happy to exploit this passion and excitement while giving very little back. Even though Kay is excited to work on new anime projects, he is realistic in saying that it isn't something he can keep doing. Hero, an animator who worked on Blackfox, Dororo, and Boruto, mentioned on Twitter that he believes that for most new animators, the effort and low pay eventually outweigh the pure excitement that comes with working in Japanese animation, and that they'll end up quitting after a year in the industry.

There's no clear path forward to fixing these issues, but it's worth listening to Kay and other animators when they say that it's not worth sacrificing your health and livelihood. Many readers may have clicked on this article as a form of advice to getting in the industry, but beyond anything else, Kay made it clear that a lifestyle that always prioritises work over hanging out with friends or even sleeping, is unhealthy. “Please do not be like me,” he urges.

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