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'I Have Some Horror Stories': Animator Talks Industry's Problems, Hopes for the Future

by Kim Morrissy,

Overwork and overproduction – these are some of the main problems currently facing the anime industry. Animator wages remain low even as the demand for anime climbs and mega corporations become steadily more involved on the financing side. Under these circumstances, even studios that make an effort to create a positive work environment take on more work than they can chew simply to remain afloat.

Formerly an animator at Titmouse Vancouver, Joan Chung worked at Science SARU from December 2019 to June 2021. She has credits for Japan Sinks and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, although much of her work is on Star Wars: Visions and yet-to-be-announced projects. After parting ways amicably with the studio, she spoke to ANN over email about the long-term problems of the anime industry and how that affected her experiences at Science SARU.

“Prior to COVID, the studio culture was vibrant and communicative,” she said. “Though I couldn't speak Japanese, I felt immediately welcomed into the company.”

Science SARU is particularly notable for its international staff, many of whom originate from Europe and North America. The current CEO, Eunyoung Choi, provided weekly Japanese tutoring for her international employees. She also later hired an English-Japanese translator who provided live translations during meetings.

Chung's colleagues were similarly supportive and friendly. “One of my supervisors taught me how to skateboard during lunch time,” she recalled. “I was continuously impressed by my coworkers' ability to play while keeping their head up under a breakneck schedule. I've never experienced this kind of ethic in a western studio.”

Unfortunately, Science SARU was not immune to crunch culture. Chung was initially taken under the wing of a trilingual Korean animator, who later left the company due to burnout and considerations for his family. Chung herself decided to leave at around the same time as a production manager did after the two realized that the pressure, hours, and pay they had to sacrifice were not sustainable for their futures.

“I have some horror stories from this studio, which are thankfully fewer than some of SARU's competitors. But – and this is a big one for me – a studio should not have its twenty-something girls crying in the bathroom, doing all-nighters. Neither should it have a production schedule that is so tight that it is unable to accommodate the mental health of the aforementioned production manager. I had to speak on her behalf to her supervisor and the CEO – and though they responded compassionately, practically there could not be much change. A culture with this much production pressure necessitated the long hours.”

The problem, as Chung sees it, is not in the studio's workflow; she described Abel Góngora, the studio's animation lead, as a skilled animator and adept teacher. Rather, the studio has spread itself thin working on too many productions.

“This year, Science SARU took on INU-OH (a feature), two single-season productions, as well as Star Wars: Visions – I do not believe this was a manageable number of productions. Its core employees range 40-50 in number, and though they liaise with many freelancers, the burden on the core team was heavier than it should have been.”

Image by "INU-OH" Film Partners

The issue is rooted in Japanese work culture and the history of cost-cutting measures in the animation industry. On the production of TV anime classics like Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Production set a system in the 1960s which continues to this day: paying for animation per frame or cut. This might have worked out at a time when the designs were more simplistic and directors were actively minimizing the amount of movement on screen (a style known as “limited animation”), but the rates have since climbed at a snail's pace, and the work has only become more complex.

Chung puts the matter in perspective compared to the western industry, which saw a series of union strikes following the Great Depression, most prominently at Disney in 1941. “Currently, American animators' entry salary ranges around $50,000 with the average being $68,661 (Glassdoor). The rates in Canada are comparable, though the higher brackets – particularly in storyboarding or development – spike higher in the States. The American national average for a storyboard artist is $97,073. In comparison, entry salaries for Japanese animators is around $20,000 or lower, depending on whether they are salaried (the aforementioned amount) or are paid per cut.”

Compared to those miserable standards, Science SARU isn't so bad. The studio's founders Masaaki Yuasa and Eunyoung Choi both aspired to create better working conditions for their animators. “Science SARU works long hours, so we can learn from animators overseas how to work shorter,” Yuasa once said. In an industry where many animators are freelancers living with their parents to cover the bills, Science SARU provides a stable salary for its employees.

“That being said, it is 2021,” Chung said. “These are conditions that should have been covered in the 1950s.”

The Way Forward: Negotiating with Investors for Higher Rates

Although Chung does not believe that Japanese workers are in a position to organize and maintain unions, she firmly thinks that studios need to take responsibility by negotiating for higher rates with their business partners. With these higher rates, she wishes for the leaders to circulate more of the cash flow to their employees. This is particularly true when working with high-profile companies; Science SARU's impressive talent can be better leveraged with higher rates and schedules that do not burden its employees with overtime.

One of the companies that Chung highlighted is Netflix. Earlier in July, animator Ippei Ichii claimed that animation studio MAPPA was offering severely low rates for animators working on a Netflix anime, with a MAPPA producer supposedly offering 3,800 yen (US$34) per cut. Ichii laid the blame on Netflix for such low rates, saying that "For all the exorbitant amount of capital [of Netflix], it's a problem that they've started to place orders with such low rates. There is a possibility that the prices are even lower than a TV series."

In a statement, MAPPA clarified that the project was offered to a “major platform” after the sale price and budget were finalized, rather than it being ordered by the platform. Nevertheless, Chung is among many who think that the “major platform” in question could have contributed more. Although she noted that she can only ponder the situation as an outsider due to rates being determined confidentially, she highlighted Netflix's extraordinary growth as a company and its large investments into original programming. “With Netflix's growth being 546% over 5 years, I believe that it is well within reason for anime studios to begin strategic negotiations to increase their production budgets.”

“That being said, I do foresee a hurdle,” she went on. “If negotiations between Netflix and its partnered Japanese studios occur through Netflix Japan, this branch will already be familiar with ongoing rates. Therefore, they may be resistant to negotiations. The principle of the market is that where scarcity is low, so is cost. The reverse is true (say, the North American housing market – demand is high, costs rise exponentially). There are still many animators who are used to working for their gutted rates.”

In her personal experience as an animator, even asking for three times the amount of the standard rate for a freelancer is too little compared to a salaried entry rate at a Canadian studio. It's also not helpful to accept a blanket rate when animation cuts can vary wildly in terms of detail and complexity. She believes that each scene should be priced according to the number of days required to draw it, with 7,500 yen for an “easy” cut, 15,000 yen for a “medium” cut, and 30-45,000 yen (or more) for “difficult” cuts.

But there's only so much that individual animators can negotiate for. As more money flows into the anime industry by the year, Chung advocates for anime studios to communicate with each other and collectively determine their worth for investors. Instead of competing in a race to the bottom, studios can band together and pressure financiers to provide for reasonable schedules with equitable pay.

Image by Sumito ŌwaraShogakukanEizouken Production Committee

“Last year, Science SARU's Eizouken was named one of 2020's best shows by The New York Times. This is a clear demonstration of their competence and they have my vote of confidence.”

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