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Foreign Animators in Japan Weigh in on Industry Conditions Part 1: Cedric Herole

posted on by Lynzee Loveridge
Animator Cedric Herole, background artist Scott MacDonald, & art designer Yann Le Gall discuss experiences

In the last few months, discussion has turned to working conditions in Japan's animation industry. Veteran animator Sachiko Kamimura commented that animators sometimes earn as little as 120 yen an hour. An American animator working in Japan shared his own experiences, calling the conditions an ‘illegally harsh’ industry.

The Japanese government's Agency for Cultural Affairs, along with the Japan Animation Creators Association (JAniCA), conducted a new study of the working conditions, average income, and working hours of new animators in the Japanese animation industry. The study found that young animators work an average of 11 hours every day, and in-between (dōga) animators — many of whom are in their 20s — earn a yearly income of around 1.1 million yen (around US$9,200).

Others have stated that these experiences are anecdotal, and that the instability and wages do improve with time. In the mean time, a program to provide housing for low-income animators is attempting to ease some of the difficulties.

Anime News Network reached out to other foreign animators living in Japan to discuss their experiences, wages, and how they made ends meet while living separate from their families and possibly speaking little to no Japanese. We spoke with French animator Cédric Hérole, background artist Scott MacDonald, and art designer Yann Le Gall for a series of three interviews.

Cédric Hérole

Q: When did you first start working in the anime industry in Japan?
Herole: My really first experience was in the 3D area. It was in the year 2000-2001. I did a work placement in pH studio, in Tokyo, for three months. I was 20. The project I worked on was for an attraction park's safety information video. It was also my first work experience ever, I'd never worked in France before. The video was made in 3D, I worked using Lightwave. I did some simple modeling but my main job was animation. I went back to France for my first job as a 3D animator after this, worked about two years, went to a 2D animation school, and then went back to Japan to work at pH Studio in 2005.

Q: What was your first animation project?
Herole: I have two "first experiences in 2D,” the first one was at pH Studio for a musical video for NHK, titled "Minna no uta, Baby Rock.” I did the storyboard, background design, animation and compositing. I was almost alone on it. The second experience was when I started working for Ankama Japan in 2010 as a traditional key animator, or“Genga Man”. The project was a special 45-min movie “Ogrest the Legend.” I really started as a freelance key animator in 2011 on Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine at TMS.

Q: What was it like working on that project? What were the time constraints at the time?
Herole: The biggest difficulty during my first experience in Japan, and for a long time, was the language. I never used English or Japanese before. I tried to learn by myself before going, but it was quite challenging. I used mostly broken English at that time, trying to put some Japanese phrases in the middle as much as I could. Only three people out of 12 spoke English in the studio.

The second difficult part was the everyday transportation routine. I lived more than an hour from the studio. I used to take the express train, but I quickly abandoned it because of the crowd, I preferred to spend an extra 30 minutes every morning and night to just breath. It was roughly about 90 minutes every morning and night, three hours a day inside the slow train.

For my first 2D project, "Baby Rock," I made little comics at that time explaining the process. (see below)

My first job as a genga animator was at Ankama. Since I never went through the douga process (Japanese animators always start drawing the inbetweens for a few years before starting genga), I started with a test. They challenged me for a paid one month trial. It worked well, and I continued for three more months on a trial basis with a better salary, and then I was accepted into the studio as an employee.

Because it was my real first experience in traditional Japanese animation, I spent a lot of time with the director (Atsushi Takahashi) and the character designer and animation director (Hiroshi Shimizu) to ask them how to write a timesheet, how to note the inbetweens, etc. It was a good time, the staff was great here too and kind, I really felt lucky to be here. I worked about six months on it. I did more than 80 cuts, I think.

Q: What was it like as a freelancer?
Herole: My first experience as a freelancer was the hardest I've ever done. After quitting Ankama, I had to find a job. I didn't know anybody, nobody knew me. I had to prove myself again. For the 2D animation industry this time. I was already 30 years old, it made it even more difficult to convince the studios to let me start.

Luckily, the people I met at Ankama helped me find a job. Shimizu even convinced TMS to give me a good contract for Fujiko. My salary was ok, not too high but definitively higher than any beginner animator would expect for their first time. The other side of it was the work schedule.

I worked seven days a week, 12-14 hours a day, with some extra all-nighters once or twice every week. For four months. I even got calls on Sunday nights at 1 o'clock to be asked to help on some cuts.

The tightest schedule was toward the end of the production. As I finished my genga on Monday, the episode was aired the day after at midnight. I was glad to work on this project, with really talented artists, but I promised myself “never again.” [laughs] Actually I did it again, the same year, but that's another story.

Q: How did you afford your living expenses?
Herole: For my job as an employee [at Ankama], I started with a decent salary every month. At the beginning I was still at my friend's house, until I found my own apartment a little closer to my job but still about 45 minutes away. The travel expense (the plane from France to Japan, and the every day train) was paid by the studio too, they also made my working visa.

I basically lived my first year as a freelancer with my previously earned money. I lived off of savings.

Q: Are your current working the conditions the same as when you first started?
I'm a freelancer, despite the fact that the beginning was a real living hell, I can now better use my schedule and choose projects. After almost five years, I think I have enough contacts to never be out of a job. My conditions are better, I don't do all-nighters and I can rest on Sundays. In general, my salary is better too. I used to work on several projects at the same time [as an employee], but my salary never changed according to the amount of work. Now I can stack different contracts at the same time and get paid for the amount I do. I also have more opportunities to work with different great studios, expand my contact book, and do some designs too. I can afford some holidays too!

Q: Do you do any other jobs at the same time as animating to help with expenses?
Herole: Yes, working on several projects at the same time helps to have a more decent salary and to avoid gaps between projects. I am a 2D key animator, 3D chief animator, 2D animation teacher in Tokyo, and a game monster designer. I also do some image boards from time to time to help studios.

Q: What keeps you within the industry?
First of all, It was my dream as a kid to be in Japan, so wish granted!

Also, the animators and designers here are incredibly good. I always feel like I cannot compete with them, but it is so challenging and rewarding. I learn a lot everyday. I may change my mind in the future, who knows, but I don't really see myself working anywhere else. Especially because the 2D animation industry is almost dead in Europe and America. I am not interested in drawing Sponge Bob style cartoons. Japan better suits me for now.

This article has a follow-up: Foreign Animators in Japan Weigh in on Industry Conditions Part 2: Scott MacDonald (2015-05-13 12:38)
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