Professional animator in Japan

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Professional animator in Japan

Post by Sour Puss on Fri Apr 17, 2015 12:39 pm

Anime has become one of Japan’s premier “soft power” exports in the last few decades, spawning legions of fans across the globe with creations such as “Dragon Ball Z,” “Naruto” and “One Piece.”
Yet as anime encourages many budding artists to replicate the art style, very few, if any, non-Japanese have pursued their passion to the point where they are employed in the anime industry. For American Henry Thurlow, becoming a professional animator in Japan was a journey fraught with challenges and setbacks.
“I tried to do as much research as I could before deciding to move out to Japan, but could find very little information on foreigners working in the Japanese anime industry outside of a few 3D artists,” he says. “I pretty much just came out here ignorant to the whole process.”
Thurlow’s path to Japan began when he met Hideyuki Kikuchi and Kevin Leahy, the original author of “Vampire Hunter D” and English translator respectively, during New York Anime Fest in September 2008.


“We discussed many things, including ways I could possibly get to Japan,” he says. “If that night had never happened, I would likely not be in Japan.”
When work completed on the first season of “Superjail!,” an American animated television series that Thurlow worked on at Augenblick Studios, he left the U.S in July 2009 and took up an English teaching position in Japan.

Thurlow says the English teaching job was “absolutely necessary” in getting a foothold in Japan and bringing him closer to the anime industry.

“I learned the language and the culture, and could slowly work on making connections and refining my portfolio thanks to the fact that I had a stable English teaching job,” he says. “Without it, I would have simply been jobless in Tokyo, which as a foreigner or anyone for that matter, is obviously not good.”

Some industries, such as finance, emphasise skills over Japanese language proficiency, allowing expats to come and work in Japan without too much difficulty.

In specialised sectors such as anime production, however, Thurlow says it is not enough for a non-Japanese artist to be a skilled to get a foot in the door.

“Some people out there might be so unbelievably good at art that the studios will want to work with them even if there is a language barrier, but I never thought for one second I would fall into that category,” he said. “I knew from the beginning that I would have to walk into the studio and interview in Japanese.”

While teaching English for a living, Thurlow spread his time between studying Japanese and sending off his sample portfolio to various studios until he finally made a breakthrough in August 2013.

He was hired by a smaller studio, Nakamura Production, to work as an in-between animator. In the industry the position is known as “doga-man,” where doga is the Japanese word for moving images.

Nakamura Production provided Thurlow a first taste of working in the Japanese anime industry, a sector mostly devoid of any “salarymen.”

“Animators certainly have no dress code, and can decorate their areas however they like,” Thurlow says. “Some people have cluttered desks with papers stacked to the roof, while others, like myself, like keeping the desks as clean as possible.”

Thurlow’s stint as an animator at the studio, which focused in producing in-between art, was exciting at first, though the reality of the job soon dawned upon him.

An artist typically earns ¥100 per drawing, which Thurlow says translates into an income of ¥500 to ¥2,500 a day or ¥30,000 a month.

Despite the conservative wage, Thurlow says the anime industry has provided him with a more satisfying creative outlet than his better paid job in the U.S.
By toughing it out at Nakamura Production, Thurlow found a job opening at the studio’s parent company, Pierrot Co Ltd, in April 2014, which is known for anime hits such as Naruto and Bleach.


In addition to continuing as a “doga-man” at Pierrot, Thurlow has had an opportunity to work on secondary key-frame animation (“daini-genga”), and one day hopes to move up to work on key-frame animation (“genga”) as a “genga-man.”

Thurlow’s pay rate went up to ¥200 to ¥400 per drawing, so he is able to take home ¥100,000 a month.

“Pierrot is a parent company and Nakamura Production is a sub-contractor, so it’s not really surprising the conditions of the studios themselves, the environment, and the pay for their workers are quite different,” he says.

While such an income may not make Thurlow rich in a material sense, he says it is worth it to work on “cool anime” such as “The Last: Naruto the Movie” and “Tokyo Ghoul.”

The job still requires significant investment of time and effort, and Thurlow admits opportunities to draw “fun stuff,” such as fight scenes and transformations, can be rare.

“What you should be interested in is the overall project itself, so any scene you get to work on, even if it’s not the most exciting scene, is fun in its own way and an honor to get to work on,” he says.

Besides the tough work hours, often consisting of six-day workweeks of 10-hour days, Thurlow has had to adjust to how different the work culture is compared to the U.S.
“I keep suggesting to people that they should really have ‘lives’ outside of work, or at very least we should all eat lunch together and go out some Saturday nights,” he says. “It is incredibly important for artists to live their own lives and have their own experiences, and have strong opinions on politics, relationships, humanity, etc., which they can then use as influences in their artwork.”

However, so far he has found his words have fallen on deaf ears, and instead some people interpret his advice as “excuses to try to get out of work.”

“From my experience, the anime industry is filled with people who already think ‘Japanese animation’ is perfect, and that drawing in different styles and breaking outside of the ‘already perfect’ mold is completely unnecessary,” Thurlow says. “I hope that changes, but I have very little faith at this point that it will.”

The Immigration Bureau of Japan has often been reluctant to give a work visa to non-Japanese animators, since it is not a role that requires any particular overseas specialisation or knowledge.

Thurlow admits obtaining an Artist visa is “nearly impossible,” so he will be extending the Specialist in Humanities/International Services visa he was granted as an English teachers.

“Illustrators, photographers, other animators, all seem to have this one, which allows art-related work in Japan,” he says.

Even with the studio’s promise that everything will be all right with the visa extension, Thurlow says the entire process, irrelevant of the industry, can be “extremely nerve-wracking.”
Despite all of the challenges and complexities of being an animator in Japan, Thurlow says it is “always worth it” to witness static sketches comes to life as moving images on screen.
“No matter what the wait, getting to see your work is always rewarding,” he says
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