Armchair Quarterbacking: Animator Wages

I think it was a couple weeks ago when the animator wages survey results was published by JAniCA. It made its rounds as usual. Here’s just a link to one of many.

The last coverage I read was one of the matome blogs blogging the Japanese translation of 4chan reactions to someone posting Yuyucow’s translated averages. I’m like, this is like a cow eating grass in one stomach and regurgitating it and re-eating it into another (no pun intended). But also /a/ sure does not get it. And I think it’s important to have some context.


Obviously I don’t have first (or much second) hand experience as an animator trying to make it into the industry. And it might even be fair to say the vets who have been doing it for 10+ years might faced different challenges as people who are trying to be an animator in Japan today.

Making animation, for the most part, is something you learn on the job. You can certainly enroll in some higher level classes and pick up trade skills in academia, but typically people (and industry) approach this as you would an associate’s or trade degree. I mean if you enroll and graduate from Kyoto Animation’s schools, I’m sure you can start well as an animator but that’s a very specific kind of training you have gotten. Learning to animate is something you can certain do it yourself, too. In the past 10-15 years this has been something actually possible because of advanced (piratable) software you can run on consumer laptops, and rendering would only take tens of minutes for a short clip. Nerdy enough, you can pull a Shinkai (he’s really nerdy). Today, it’s even more accessible for artists to fool around with animation.

The story/use case goes like this. So when people join the animation biz in Japan as an animator, typically they start as in-betweeners. And on that JAniCA report we know they don’t make much money per month. We can double check this pretty easily because in-betweeners are typically paid by the drawing, and you can work backwards and estimate how many drawings are produced on average, and how much time it takes. at the super low price of 100 yen take home pay per drawing, we’re talking about 925 drawings per month. Is that a lot? A little? Assuming an inbetweener work 5 days a week on average of a 22-day work-month, that’s 42 drawings a day roughly. Does that sound way too low?

So one thing off the bat is that a lot of inbetweeners do not work full time. I mean given this kind of pay, it makes sense; it’s like master and doctorate students working for pay to fund their life while slaving away under a form of academic apprenticeship. Animators too work in this form, at least on a certain level. Meanwhile the freelance-y nature of the job gives them flexibility to work somewhere that pays better.

The real issue with low in-between pays isn’t that it’s not enough to live off of, although that too is problematic. The real problem is the entry pay is too low compared to other things people with similar aspirations and skills could be doing. That’s the core long-term issue with Japanese hand-drawn animation. Or any industry with low wages, excessive working hours, and high stress. Without new and young people going up that apprentice ladder, there will be talent drain, as fewer and fewer people learn the craft as more of the seniors leave the industry, or people quitting half way. Making a living as an in-betweener is possible, it would be very hard, and it might limit the potential pool of applicants to people lucky enough to be working with a KyoAni or living in their parents’ home, but it’s not how the numbers suggest how it’s typically done.

What’s also good to note is that inbetweening is the kind of grunt work you unload on the new guy in the animation studio, if they need that extra work to learn, but it’s literally the kind of grunt work that could be eliminated through better automation and computing advances. There are a suite of software that will auto-inbetween for you, when you insert the key frames. And these software will only get better as time goes on, to the degree that established animation companies might use it. In-betweening is typically checked as they’re colored anyway, so that low-paying job might disappear altogether in the near future and fold into some kind of in-between check or shiage role.

Anyway, the freelance/part-time/full-time kind of nature of majority of Japanese animator professionals is something we have to take into account in looking at data like this, because otherwise it doesn’t make any sense.

One Response to “Armchair Quarterbacking: Animator Wages”

  • Chad

    KyoAni is one of the few studios that actually cares about its animators. They actually pay a livable wage. And they also pay a fixed salary instead of paying by the drawing. Also, the cost of living in Kyoto is considerably lower than in Tokyo.

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