What Can We Expect From the Staff Changeover for Attack on Titan The Final Season?

by Kim Morrissy,

Attack on Titan The Final Season is coming out next month, and it's getting an extreme makeover. Instead of being produced at Wit Studio, which has so far done all of the previous seasons of Attack on Titan, the lead studio has switched to MAPPA. Although the series composition writer is a veteran screenwriter from previous seasons, and Hiroyuki Sawano is still credited as one of the composers, the core staff has changed completely, including the director, character designer, and almost everyone else in charge of the visual look of the show.

So how does this affect what we should expect from the final season?

First, let's take a closer look at the promotional video, which first came out in May:

There are a few things that will stand out about this PV to long-time Attack on Titan fans. The distinctive thick outlines around the character art – an emblem of Kyoji Asano's designs – are absent here. There's a timeskip between the final season and where the story previously left off, meaning that the characters look way different in the manga at this point as well, so the new character design philosophy may not stick out that much for a manga reader, but it's still the most noticeable change.

What also stands out is the lack of extended 3D maneuvering scenes. These were always the money shots of the Attack on Titan anime, and even the PV for the very first season featured them prominently. It's come to the point where those scenes represent, in a nutshell, the action of Attack on Titan for a lot of fans, so their absence sticks out in the final season PV. The action still looks really cool, but not cool in the same way.

Something to note is that the PV is not a true indication of the final look or quality of the show. Still, it's a fair bet to say that the final season will have very different aesthetic sensibilities from what Attack on Titan has been thus far. The character designs probably won't change from the PV, for one thing. Also, I would personally describe pre-animated PVs like this as "proof of concept" videos: they encapsulate the ideals of the production staff, assuming they had the time and resources to fully capture their vision. There's a strong possibility that shots from the PV will be repurposed in the series, since it's uncommon for anime PVs to "waste" footage, but the actual show probably won't have this level of fluid animation throughout. (It's a bit much to expect from any TV anime, really.) Still, it's something that the staff can point to and say, "This is the kind of look we're going for."

Wit Studio vs MAPPA

The PV was directed by Shūhei Yabuta, who had been the 3DCG director for the first three seasons of Attack on Titan. He has said that he will be on the CG team for the Final Season, but notably he says that he is the only graphics team staff to return. Let's think about what those staff changes might mean.

I can fully understand fans feeling nervous about Attack on Titan leaving Wit Studio's hands because the show's identity thus far has been defined by Wit. In fact, the studio was first established in 2012 during the production of Attack on Titan, so you could truthfully say that Attack on Titan shaped Wit Studio as much as Wit Studio shaped it.

As the seasons of the anime progressed, the team evolved along with it. Director Tetsuro Araki was always the core of the anime; his penchant for bombastic action is reflected directly in his storyboards, which the animators have said that they diligently follow. Even as he stepped into the overseer role of chief director from season 2 onward, leaving the more hands-on aspects of directing to Masashi Koizuka, the storyboards continued to channel Araki's energy, so for most fans, the show never missed a beat.

The action animators also brought a lot of their own personality to the show. The standout name in this department is undoubtedly Arifumi Imai, who has been an action animation director since season 1. Those awesome action scenes you remember from the series? Most of them can be attributed directly to him, since he drew the key frames. Another influential name is Takuma Ebisu, who also drew his fair share of mind-blowing shots. Over time, the series built up an entire team of action animation directors, all of whom were intent on maintaining that consistency in the action animation.

The final notable thing I want to mention about Wit Studio is that their team developed a system of taking key shots and applying digital effects to the in-between animation frames instead of after the animation has been digitized and colored, which is what is normally done in the anime industry. This technique was called "makeup animation" when Wit first debuted it for Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress in 2016. It was initially applied to closeups of the human characters, accentuating the sharpness and textures of their features. In Attack on Titan, the Titans received a lot of this treatment, and it's why they appear so uniquely uncanny.

These are big shoes to fill, and even the producers have said that most of the studios they asked to handle The Final Season turned down the offer. Only MAPPA said it was willing to take up the mantle, but even so, it would be ludicrous to expect them to waltz in and replicate the techniques that the Wit Studio team spent years developing and refining.

But Attack on Titan is about more than just its action or even its Titans. Its tone has been evolving as the story progressed, with season 3 ending on a striking note of melancholy. Even if MAPPA's team were to fail at capturing the frenetic energy of the action scenes done by Wit, Attack on Titan is still a grandiose human drama at the end of the day. There's a lot of wiggle room for the new team to create something that's different from the previous anime while still nailing the appeal of Hajime Isayama's manga.

So how does their track record look? The director Yuichiro Hayashi directed the very stylish Kakegurui anime adaptation, as well as Garo the Animation. More recently, he worked on Dorohedoro, which I wasn't necessarily a fan of, but that's more because I thought it under-utilized its 3D tools. As a 2D anime director, I think Hayashi is pretty solid. It's hard to pin down his quirks the same way you can for Tetsuro Araki, but that also means that he's good at adapting to the style of material he's working with. I'm a particular fan of Kakegurui; it's proof that Hayashi can make anime with strong tension and theatrical energy, which is just the kind of intensity that Attack on Titan needs.

The other staff members who have been announced so far aren't as big name as Hayashi, but they can be relied upon to maintain whatever vision he has for the series. Character designer Tomohiro Kishi and chief animation director Daisuke Niinuma both worked with Hayashi on other MAPPA projects. The new CG director Takahiro Uezono also worked on the CG of Yuri!!! on Ice's figure skating parts and did a good job making those parts fit in with all the 2D animation. However, it remains to be seen whether the Titans will be animated in 2D or 3D in the show proper (they're 2D in the PV, for what it's worth).

Although I can't see into the future and definitively answer the question of how the upcoming season will look, I will end this speculation piece by noting that Wit Studio's work on this series has not been completely without its faults. I think that there were times, especially in the earlier parts of the anime, where the over-the-top direction trod on and stifled the emotional nuances of the characters. It also became exhausting to watch that bombastic style applied to narrative arcs that dragged on for way too long. Sometimes, it felt like the anime only had one gear, and it couldn't properly adjust to give certain events the narrative weight they deserve. While I do feel that the direction ended up improving overall, especially as Isayama's own storytelling improved, I don't think that Wit Studio's team was necessarily the best that Attack on Titan could have gotten in a hypothetical world.

That's why, personally, I'm open to the changes, albeit with some major reservations. Even if there were hiccups along the way, Wit's team grew into something that completely suited Attack on Titan, and no matter how good the replacement is, I'm sure that there will be people who will miss the old look, myself included. The fact that this switch is happening so late only exacerbates that particular issue. Also, the action was a big part of why I liked the series, and it's hard to see that aspect being outdone.

Nevertheless, if we were going to have a complete overhaul in the visual department, this part of the story feels like the best time to make that change happen without compromising the narrative. As long as the story still holds up, I think that Attack on Titan The Final Season has the potential to be a fantastic anime. It's worth noting that Isayama trusts the new series composition writer Hiroshi Seko a lot; he personally credits Seko for rearranging the material in season 3 to improve the narrative's pacing. Story-wise, you can be assured that the anime is in the best hands it can be in.

Just look at Eren's character development!

At this point, I'll leave the question to the readers: What are you hoping for or expecting from Attack on Titan The Final Season?

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