Working in a studio (in Japan)


I’ve been working at Polygon Pictures here in Tokyo for the past couple months as a full time freelance character animator, so I thought I’d write up a blog post about my experience transitioning from A.M to a studio.

The job/company:
I’m working on an international TV series and while it has just been announced, I’m not quite sure how much I can publicly say here about my project so won’t go into it.
The studio is also working on a TV series for Studio Ghibli and in the past worked on Transformers Prime, Star Wars:Clone Wars, Street Fighter IV and Tron Uprising. They have also just released their own anime TV series, Knights of Sidonia (シドニアの騎士). There are currently around 300 people, with the animation department taking up about 50 – 60 people. I think there are 3 others who have been through A.M.

Thoughts on working on a TV series and not a film:
The plus is the variety of work you get. All kinds of shots, characters, etc. There’s a high turnover so you’re always working on something new and different. I think it’ll also help to make you more confident in your choices, there’s no time to noodle things around. You really have to push things too far and bring them back, rip parts of animation out, trust your instincts, etc.

The downside is there’s no time to really go deep into planning or polishing. I haven’t seen anyone doing thumbnails or shooting reference. The other downside to the high turnover is I can see how it could be easy to become lazy in your animation.

What’s different between work and school:
Time. This isn’t a film studio and A.M is definitely gearing students towards film so a difference is to be expected. But  working with TV quotas (30 – 40 seconds a week) is a massive difference to what we get in school.

Style of animation. Being TV based the style of animation is more limited. It’s not like you have to relearn animation, but is a bit of shift in thinking. I’m also faced with types characters that aren’t available among the A.M rigs, especially creatures that can fly or have more than 4 legs.

What I found useful from the A.M course:
Surprisingly one thing I noticed was having animated a quadruped was a huge help, I was animating one in my first week on the project. Taking time to study the mechanics really made the process easier and it was something my supervisor actually commented on.

The way A.M is set up is really quite similar to how the studio runs, so it was quite easy to adjust. Feedback is similar, workflow is similar, rigs are similar, etc.

My thoughts on A.M’s collaboration classes:
Now being in team environment, I can say I don’t feel any disadvantage in taking A.M’s classic classes instead of their new collaborative classes. If anything I feel my reel is stronger and was a bigger help in landing the job in the first place. I would however love access to that line up of new lectures on story they’ve created.

Unexpected problems:
Repetitive strain injury. I spend way too much time on a computer now that I work in a studio and do A.M on the weekends. Luckily i haven’t had any serious pain, but did feel a bit of wrist strain in the first couple weeks. Stretching and making sure to take breaks has sorted out those problems.

Procrastination. Wanting to check Facebook, email or whatever doesn’t simply just disappear because you’re at work. I have a workflow where I do blocks of time, purely doing animation and then set aside short breaks for anything else, from writing an email to grabbing a snack. It works pretty well. There are people who leave at 7pm and there are people who leave after 10pm. I want to be one of the former.

My impressions of working in a Japanese studio:
It’s quiet. Japanese animators from what I’ve seen so far are incredibly introverted. Put a beer in their hand and they’ll be quite open and willing to talk, but the next morning they’ll be back to being very introverted.

The studio has about 8 or 9 translators in house, so people have widely varying degrees of English and Japanese fluency. The pay is quite a bit lower than what I would expect in a western country. Contrary to what some might believe, working long hours is actually discouraged.

You quickly get a sense of how lucky you are to be an English speaker. You don’t have to look far to find someone who dreams of working at a top Hollywood film studio but can’t speak a word of English. It also explains why there are so few Japanese students in schools like A.M, I’ve met a few animators who’ve said they’re mainly self taught.

The application process:
I applied directly through their site and actually just sent shots just from classes 2 and 3. From there I was asked to do an animation test. All applicants receive one round of feedback and are asked to refine it. From there I had an interview with HR, an Animation Director, Animation Supervisor and Line Producer. I also showed work which I had just completed from class 4 around the time I sent in my animation test. It took a few weeks from applying to receiving an offer (I should note I was already living in Tokyo).

About working in a studio while studying:
It’s hard. Really hard. To balance work, putting in the time and effort into assignments while having some kind of social life is actually harder than it sounds. 80 hour weeks and getting to bed at 4am on assignment days are a norm. Doable for short stints, but definitely not healthy. It affects the way you eat, sleep, socialise and simply move your body.

It also affects your quality of work. To do one well you have to sacrifice the other, or you have to do both at a level that isn’t your best. Working a full time job (especially any kind of demanding job) while doing A.M is not something I recommend. Luckily I’m near the end of the course.

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