Anime screenwriting — a comparison with Avatar: The Legend of Korra

Korra

When I first thought of doing this On Anime ‘Writing’ project, my initial inclination was to go digging for what other English-speakers had already written about it. A number of prominent bloggers and even industry personnel have, in fact, covered anime production in depth over the years. But as I watched SHIROBAKO and puzzled over some of the translator’s word choices, I realised that I’d neglected a major resource—Western TV animation. One year on, after reading some fantastic articles about how episodes of The Simpsons and Avatar: The Legend of Korra are/were made, let me endeavour to share what I’ve learned.

Key differences between the Western and the Japanese TV animation industries

As most anime fans probably know, one of the major differences is that the voice recording for Japanese anime takes place after the animation. That’s why this element is known in Japan as the ‘post-recording’ 「アフレコ」. In Western animation, voice recording is typically done beforehand, so that the voice actors (VAs) can focus on creating their characters.1 Another major difference is that Japanese VAs record together whenever possible—so they can play off each other and even ad lib—whilst Western ones record alone, with the director as their ‘sparring partner’ as they record their lines with a range of delivery patterns for flexibility further along the creative process. If other actors have recorded before them, then they may have their work to play off as well.2

Afureko_SketDance Ralph_recording
Sket Dance post-recording (source) Wreck-It Ralph voice recording.

But there’s far more to it than this. In fact, the differences in voice recording arguably stem from how the shows are ‘run’. That is to say, from what the showrunner wants to achieve and the best way for them to achieve it given the resources they have to work with.

Hand-drawn animation is extremely labour-intensive.3 US creators realised years ago that outsourcing the bulk of animation work to lower-waged countries such as South Korea and the Philippines significantly reduced the cost, even if they had to employ translators to make sure their directions were accurately conveyed. Whilst Japanese animation has been increasingly outsourced over the last decade or two (as evidenced by the appearance of overseas companies and foreign names in anime credits), the most important aspects tend to remain in Japan, conducted or around at a central location belonging to the animation studio credited for “animation production” 「アニメーション製作」. Whilst most of the lower level production staff (e.g. Aoi in SHIROBAKO) work for particular studios, animators are typically freelance, which allows those in charge to secure the services of artists that they trust to pull of the look and feel that they want to achieve.4

And that brings me back to the ‘showrunner.’ This isn’t a term I’ve seen often in anime discussion, and it’s probably the key to the majority of misunderstandings about what screenwriters like Okada Mari and Urobuchi Gen do. In the Western TV industry, the showrunner “may be credited as the executive producer, creator, or writer-producer; in any case, his or her duty is to maintain the integrity of the overall canon of the series and keep the writing staff on task and on message.” Because of the way the US TV animation industry is structured, they’re often writer-producers who were involved in coming up with the original concept of the show in the first place (Simpsons; Avatar). But in the anime industry, the creative aspect of what the showrunner does is not the job of the writer or series composer 「脚本・シリーズ構成」—it’s the job of the director 「監督」. Even more importantly, neither writer nor director are usually behind the concept of the show. In the case of ‘originals’, many interviews I’ve read suggest that the concept for a show typically comes from a high-level producer associated with one of the big funding companies, such as Aniplex. The director and series composer are people they approach and hire to help them realise that original vision.

10-anime-directors
How many of these 10 esteemed directors do you recognise? (source)

From planning to script writing

And that’s where the differences in ‘writing’ begin. Since the Avatar TV series format is most similar to that of the average anime—i.e. it’s planned for and ends in a certain, pre-determined, number of episodes—I’ll use that as my primary example. From showrunner Michael DiMartino’s incredibly informative series of posts on The Legend of Korra, the show’s writers go through four stages when penning an episode: breaking the story => premise => outline => script.

Breaking the story involves all the writers brainstorming and deciding the basic outline of the entire season (show)—the theme, the main character arcs. In other words, they start off by coming up with the ‘big picture’ items. The premise is the next step along: an in-depth summary of what happens in a particular episode, which one writer is assigned to write based on what the entire team has agreed the episode will cover. The Avatar team would then develop a more systematic outline (other shows might combine the premise/outline steps into one), before the writer was sent off off to write the first draft of the script. This would then be kneaded and polished to add and improve scenes and lines of dialogue, to produce a 26-28 page version know as the Record Draft. That’s the version of the script used by the voice actors for recording, and by the storyboard artists. To summarise, the process used to write Avatar seems to be quite thorough, because the showrunners have to make sure the script, storyboard and recording are as complete as possible before sending it off to the animation studio overseas, where they correspond with and rely on the studio’s directors make sure that the animation achieves the intended look.5

Korra-2

In Japan, fewer people seem to be heavily involved in the “breaking the story” stage. Typically, the core planning team consists of the series director, the series composer and perhaps the assistant screenwriter and main producer, the one who secures funding and thus helps determine how many episodes they have to work with. I’m still unsure whether there’s a separate premise/outline stage, with a specific document produced as with Avatar, but it’s clear from SHIROBAKO and from the interviews I’ve read that the director, the series composer, the assigned scriptwriter (if different from the main one)—and possibly a few other individuals, such as another major scriptwriter, the line producer or even key production personnel—meet to discuss more specifics of what an episode contains before the scriptwriter goes off to draft the script.6 This also goes through several revisions before the director approves it for the storyboarding process. In contrast to Avatar, however, the person who storyboards an episode is usually the episode director, who’s responsible for making sure that the episode does what its meant to do, as discussed beforehand with the series director. At this stage, dialogue and even scenes can still be changed, even though the writer’s role in the production process is effectively over. On the other hand, the series director continues to oversee and approve all the work that is done, often through delegation to episode directors and the heads of the various production sections.7

kyakuhon-kaigi
One of the emergency ‘script meetings’ that we saw in SHIROBAKO. However, they don’t always involve this many people. For example, the Sound! Euphonium script meetings appear to have involved just three people: Ishihara (executive producer/’chief director’), Yamada (series director) and Hanada (series composer/scriptwriter).

In conclusion

Let me stop here for today, since the role of the series composer/scriptwriter in the production of an episode is effectively over at this point.8 I trust that this brief article shows why the director of an anime series is closer to the showrunner in the Western TV industry: even if the writer/series composer is one of the core team, ultimately, it’s usually the director who’s responsible for maintaining the vision and overall integrity of the show.

It should be noted, however, that this isn’t always true: in the case of Macross, Executive Producer (or ‘Chief Director’「総監督」) Kawamori Shōji should probably be considered the (main) showrunner; the same may apply for Urobuchi Gen with regards to Thunderbolt Fantasy, the upcoming Japanese/Taiwanese puppet drama series for which he is credited as scriptwriter and ‘Chief Supervisor’ 「総監修」. Furthermore, I doubt that the work of the show runner in the Western TV industry and the anime series director fully overlap. For example, the anime director isn’t responsible for hiring people to execute the project — that’s what the producers do (edit: although the director is important for who he can bring to the project, it’s the line producer who makes sure that important staff meet the satisfaction of the production committee, and who makes sure it’s all within-budget.).

Nevertheless, the ‘director is basically the show runner’ rule—for the creative side of the process, anyway—generally applies whether the show is an original or an adaptation, which means that it’s usually the director that viewers should be crediting (or blaming) when they discuss whether a show’s ‘writing’ works or not. More specifics about what we should actually be crediting the writer for will be the subject of another post, somewhere further down the line.

Disclaimer: As I noted yesterday, I am not involved in the anime industry in a professional capacity, but merely as a fan. I also do not watch all that many Western TV shows, much less follow what goes on behind-the-scenes in that industry. I can only hope that I have presented a faithful—if short—overview of what the creators on both sides do. If I haven’t, please let me know, and I’ll correct it as soon as possible. And of course, any other feedback or comments are welcome too.

Two weeks from now, I should be posting another interview. Current plan is to do something involving Okada Mari, so please look forward to it!

—karice

IBO-Harem
It probably won’t be Iron-Blooded Orphans, though that could be fun, too…


  1. In practice, Japanese voice actors have to work work with animation in varying states of completion, depending on how far behind the production is (see SHIROBAKO and Seiyu’s Life). Additionally, ’pre-recording’ of ‘pre-scoring’ [プレレコ] is sometimes employed, depending on the effect that the director wants to achieve. Key works that have done this include the Rebuild of Evangelion films, Valvrave the Liberator and SHIROBAKO (the episode 14 scene where the relevant staff discuss the auditions). 
  2. There are numerous videos on Youtube for those of you who want to see the contrast. 
  3. Even though the rest of the process has largely been digitised, the key animation and in-betweens are mostly hand-drawn before they are scanned in. See Kevin Cirugeda’s first post on anime credits for more detail. 
  4. In most cases, the production studio is really just the place that all the important staff work. Higher level staff such as directors, writers and episode directors also can and often do work on series at a range of studios. In fact, you’ll often see them ‘helping each other out’—Ei Aoki, for example, was probably called in to storyboard episode 10 of Bakemonogatari because the production had run behind schedule and they needed a pinch-hitter. 
  5. The Simpsons and both Avatar TV series have been animated by studios based in South Korea. Do check out those three posts by Michael DiMartino for far more detail and examples of the premise, outline and Record Draft. 
  6. These script meetings 「脚本/シナリオ会議・本打ち・シナ打ち」 can go for hours, as the Aldnoah.Zero ones apparently did. In Japanese, the script is referred to as the ‘scenario’ 「シナリオ」 during this part of the production process. 
  7. As Takayama Katsuhiko (Aldnoah.Zero) explained, the series composer heads the scriptwriting team, just as the chief animation director 「作画監督」 heads the animation team and the background art director 「美術監督」 the background art team. But they all report to the director. 
  8. Remember to check out Kevin Cirugeda’s articles on ANN for the rest of the process, as well as his overview of writing/directing when he gets to it. The links in the first paragraph are pretty good value as well. 

About karice
MAG fan, amateur translator and political scientist in training. I also love musicals, photography, travel and believe it or not, the game of cricket. よろしく!

5 Responses to Anime screenwriting — a comparison with Avatar: The Legend of Korra

  1. Frog-kun says:

    Mari Okada… how timely. The neverending Okada talk reared its head with Mayoiga too (e.g. https://geekorner.wordpress.com/2016/04/03/mayoiga-the-lost-village-episode-1-the-okada-hammer/)

    I’m burning with curiosity now to know what she actually does in these projects that have her name stamped on them. She’s worked on too many different series in too many different capacities for me to see the commonalities. When she is credited as the writer, does that mean is she more involved with the 設定 rather than the minutiae of the script? I’m genuinely curious here.

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    • karice says:

      Well…despite not having started Mayoiga yet, I’ll admit that I saw that opening paragraph to Guy’s post, and that it may have influenced which name I chose to throw out… ((; =゚3゚=))~♪

      But Okada did seem to be the most topical, so it’s probably time for me to translate something associated with her. I am hoping to find something about one of her new series, actually, given that she seems to have worked on several coming out about now. But if I can’t find anything, then I do already have a good back-up interview in mind ^^

      In terms of whether she’s involved in creating character/story settings, where she is THE creator (e.g. Ano Hana), then yeah, she’d definitely be the key person. But otherwise, I’d say that it depends on the series and what the director/other showrunners want — I’d still say ‘usually’, but how much influence she has probably varies from show to show. Unfortunately, that’s about as much as I know of how Okada works at this point. I’m looking forward to finding out, too (^^;;

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  2. Pingback: Masterpost: On Anime ‘Writing’ Project | HOT CHOCOLATE IN A BOWL

  3. sikvod00 says:

    It was a smart idea to start this project off by comparing anime writing to how it’s commonly done in the west. Much more relatable to your readers. Also, I like the image of Korra! The simple use of lines on her back to convey force is cool.😀

    I prefer Japan’s post-recording style simply because it seems more fun and entertaining for VAs to play around with one another. Recording with the director is like having your boss hover over your cube, haha. I’m personally way more productive when I know the manager isn’t breathing down my neck. Obviously there’s more to it than that.😛

    The writing thing…ugh. It sucks that crediting anime writing can’t be more straightforward.:/ But I understand that making inaccurate claims about the production process is also unfair to everyone involved. Why give hell to the writers when there’s a host of things–with the director’s orders likely at the top–influencing their work? And who knows what conditions they have to write under? It makes more sense to first lay the responsibility at the feet of the showrunner. At least if there’s not explicit information saying otherwise.

    Your link about anime studios is also an eye-opener, although I’ve recently read similar sentiments. I also hear more praise and disparagement from viewers about the studio than the writers. Again, it’s a little frustrating not being able to generalize (a little bit) most studios and make simpler viewing decisions based on these names. If the volume of shows every season wasn’t so large, I don’t think I’d care as much. Like the video mentioned, it’s more common in the West for entities like video game publishers\developers to have a consistent brand (good or bad) attached to them.

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    • karice says:

      It was a smart idea to start this project off by comparing anime writing to how it’s commonly done in the west. Much more relatable to your readers. Also, I like the image of Korra! The simple use of lines on her back to convey force is cool.😀

      I honestly don’t know if it was all that useful, to be honest! I haven’t even seen Korra myself! But I am considering a little follow-up post for this weekend now, because I’ve found a little bit more to write about in terms of the differences ^^

      The animation in that show is seriously quite amazing though, isn’t it?

      I prefer Japan’s post-recording style simply because it seems more fun and entertaining for VAs to play around with one another.

      Same. I know that when I’ve seen panels that Western voice actors have, they generally don’t come across as being that familiar with each other. Which is a huge contrast to the Japanese side, where all the ad-libs that come from familiarity with each other are what make those seiyuu events so much fun to watch! ^^

      Why give hell to the writers when there’s a host of things–with the director’s orders likely at the top–influencing their work? And who knows what conditions they have to write under? It makes more sense to first lay the responsibility at the feet of the showrunner. At least if there’s not explicit information saying otherwise.

      The more I read, the clearer it is that a lot of orders actually come from the producers. The producers set the boundaries, and the directors are the ones who try to make the best product they can within those boundaries. This is why it’s so hard — in the West, the showrunners are often writer-producers, but in Japan, a showrunner’s work is probably best seen as being divided across a range of people–mostly producers and the director. So the closest analogy to a showrunner is probably the director most of the time, but we still can’t underestimate the influence of those above him, those who hold the purse strings.

      Again, it’s a little frustrating not being able to generalize (a little bit) most studios and make simpler viewing decisions based on these names. If the volume of shows every season wasn’t so large, I don’t think I’d care as much. Like the video mentioned, it’s more common in the West for entities like video game publishers\developers to have a consistent brand (good or bad) attached to them.

      I know the feeling — just last year, I was still making comments about certain studios that didn’t reflect the freelancing reality. Hopefully, I’ll no longer be doing that!

      But I’d argue that it’s still ok to use names and studios as a guide, as long as you know how to do it. Kyoto Animation is a good example, because we know that almost everything is done in-house there. But even then, different directors, art directors and photography/composition staff (for example) will all bring different styles to the shows/episodes they work on. It takes a bit more effort to pay attention to what those differences are–and admittedly, you probably need access to information that’s only available in Japanese to be able to do it to a reasonable degree–but I’ve found it pretty worthwhile. I just wish it weren’t so difficult to share all of this stuff with everyone else!

      Like

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