How Foreign-Born University Students Became Animation Coordinators on Wonder Egg Priority

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Wonder Egg Priority was the dark horse of the Winter 2021 anime season. As an original anime helmed by debut TV series director Shin Wakabayashi, the series quickly took viewers by surprise with its bold explorations of trauma, guilt, and gender identity, among other themes. And it did so while delivering each episode with the production values and visual ambition of a short film.

Yet behind the obvious quality of the final product, the production was struggling in a very public way. Notably, the staff failed to deliver an episode on time for the broadcast, resulting in an impromptu recap episode for episode 8. The series is now scheduled to conclude with a “special edition” episode on June 29.

In today's understaffed industry, it's possible for practically anyone with an online presence and art samples to receive an invitation to work on a Japanese anime. It was in this context that foreign animators were recruited en masse to work on the second key animation in the back end of the show. For some, it was their very first time working on a TV anime, and they needed help navigating the language barrier and workflow.

I reached out to Blou and Far, who were credited for “Animation English Translation Assistance” on episode 10, to learn more about how this extraordinary situation came about. Although they are not animators themselves, they are heavily involved with English-speaking “sakuga” (animation) and fan animator communities. My conversations with the two of them shone a light on the often uncredited work of animation enthusiasts and translators in connecting animation companies with the foreign animators they are increasingly relying upon.

First off, can you tell me a little about yourselves? What made you interested in working with the anime industry?

BLOU: I'm Blou, a 22-year-old university student living in Belgium. I have been an anime fan pretty much since I was born, but around 2014-2015, I started taking interest in the so-called sakuga community through kViN's (@Yuyucow) tweets.

About three years ago, I was invited to join the narutosakuga discord server. It's a discord server with sakuga fans like myself but also artists, including animators who worked on anime already. Because I was fascinated by them, I also wanted to become an artist and eventually an animator one day. Sadly, drawing (or any type of creative activity whatsoever) isn't my forte so it didn't work out.

However, taking interest in those artists and supporting them was enjoyable so I had this dream of becoming a producer, without considering it a real possibility either.

When the pandemic started, I was a bit depressed (like most people, I would guess) and realized that I needed to make my life more exciting or else I would be stuck in that state for the rest of life. That's when, after careful reflections and discussions with some family and friends, I decided I wanted to aim for my dream of becoming a producer in the anime industry.

FAR: Hi, My name is Federico Antonio Russo, aka "FAR." I started being a sakuga nerd in about 2014, I would say. I am a third-year university student of Japanese Studies, and I also work as a translator from Japanese to Italian and English. From Japanese to Italian I do pretty much only manga translations; from Japanese to English my main and preferred translation task is anime production materials for use by foreign freelance animators. I started this last activity in a very informal situation quite suddenly in the summer of 2019 by helping some friends in difficulty with their first television anime production. Only over time did it become something more serious.

I'm a bit different from most of my fellow colleagues because I started learning Japanese years before entering university, when a friend of mine introduced me to a lot of untranslated visual novels and light novels when I was around 17. That gap in language skills definitely helps making my university life a little bit easier and getting more work done while still studying.

I would honestly tell you, however, that I never felt like becoming a true “professional” anime production materials translator, both because this current occupation of mine came out really by chance and because I struggle to see it as the more or less stable job that I will do for the rest of my days due to monetary restraints. I see it, more than anything else, as a first step in my anime career or in my translation career, which are both two interconnected fields that I love madly even at the expense of the daily difficulties that they both place in front of everyone.

So, if I'm understanding this right, you first became an intermediary because you have friends who were getting offers from anime companies? And by helping them, what you were basically doing was translating the communications between your friends and the companies?

FAR: Originally it was just like that, and it's also how it went with WEP episode 10. But once my name started to be recognized by studio people – I would say around early 2020 – I started getting job offers totally unrelated to animators I knew personally: from production assistants and production managers who simply heard my name on the production site or followed me on Twitter.

BLOU: With WEP, I was helping the animator ani (@__ani__) after he was contacted by episode 10's production assistant Hayato Satō. It was ani's first job, so I was helping him with several things (related to drawing the LO, or layouts, and also translating his interactions with Satō). It included contacting Far to translate his storyboard and notes.

(Interviewer's note: I recommend checking out ani's interview with Sakuga Brazil for a detailed description of the work from ani's perspective.)

At first, we didn't plan to make my presence known – I was simply helping a friend. But for various circumstances, we helped them with the key animation, even ones that weren't from ani's scene, so we ended up deciding to ask for credit.

Far's business blog contains a list of anime productions they have worked on until now. How often do you get credited for this work?

FAR: The only time I've been credited is on WEP thanks to animation producer Shōta Umehara, who is a very honest man and grateful for the contributions of each professional on his own cartoon. All other times it was not possible for reasons of a different nature. Sometimes, it was an explicit request from the producers, sometimes it was just "forgetfulness" on the part of those who physically wrote the credits and sometimes my proposal for a credit like “translation assistance” was rejected because "you can't give such credit to someone who doesn't come from a big TL company.” Other times, however, since it was maybe a very minimal amount of work, I preferred not to be credited because I felt it wasn't really right.

Fortunately, now I'm only working on projects that, influenced by the WEP ED credits, will credit me correctly and completely. Although not all of them will be pure translation credits!

Blou, even before you joined Wonder Egg Priority, you were working with the narutosakuga discord server to make a fan animation, right?

BLOU: Indeed. It started as a project with some people from the narutosakuga discord but it has become its own thing now (@studio_tonton). In fact, I didn't know about 30-40% of the actual members before the start of the project.

The completed fan opening animation, released in May

So how was that experience for you? What was the most valuable thing that you took from it?

BLOU: It was very new for me but also a valuable experience. Creating something as a team, working towards the same goal – it's a wonderful feeling.

The most valuable thing for me was the importance of a great leader in any team project. Technically, I don't create anything myself – it's all the works of the artists. However, I have to be the person that connects them all, and assembles their contributions into one common project. It's an essential role, and one that proved to be much more difficult than I thought.

How does it compare to the “Animation Overseas Assistance” role for Wonder Egg Priority?

BLOU: It was much easier since it was only one small part of the pipeline. For Tonton, I have to imagine the whole pipeline, from "What is the project?" to its entire completion.

On WEP, I had to find animators who would accept to do key animation for the cuts I was given. I would also explain some stuff in case it was their first time or if the cut had some particularities. When they were done, I carefully checked if everything was done correctly. Then at the end, I made sure the folder organization was done the way the production staff asked for, and sent the cut to the producer.

What was it like working with the animation producer?

BLOU: It was a very valuable experience. The truth is that my first private interaction with Umehara was him thanking me for my support after WEP #01 aired. I think that already says a lot about him. He's very efficient and I never had any issue working with him. It always went very smoothly thanks to him. I think he's the kind of producer who wants the vision and talent of his staff to be seen on-screen no matter what.

I should also say the same for Satō. It's the first time I got to interact (even though it was all through ani) with a production assistant and I was impressed by his professionalism throughout it all.

As cool as it is to see so many foreign animators in the credits for WEP, the context in which it came about is rather... stressful, to put it mildly. I think in times like these you really see the mettle of production assistants and animation producers. I'm sure you saw a glimpse of the stressful conditions faced by the people who work in these management roles. What kind of impression did that have on you, as someone who aspires to a similar job in the anime industry?

BLOU: It sure makes you think twice about your choice of career. Even my own limited experience was incredibly stressful and difficult. And compared to them, I did nothing.

However, I also think about the positive sides. When working on WEP, I was constantly interacting with a group of artists who helped. It felt like we were a team working on the same project and that alone made the experience much more fun. I feel like this unique experience is something we all shared together and I got to know those people better. Also, when watching the episode, you see that it turned out good and that most of the reactions are positive... It felt rewarding.

I don't want to justify the extreme situation the staff of WEP went through, because it went way too far, but it was also the result of the quality they wanted to achieve. It's understandable on an individual level – sometimes we want to do our very best and forget about the consequences. Is it reasonable? Of course not. But I believe we are all inclined to make that mistake if it's something we're passionate about. Still, this experience is also a warning to not forget there are limits and that your role as a producer is to avoid this kind of situation. Hundreds of people can be hurt by the decisions you take, after all.

Is there anything you'd like to say to other people aspiring to work in the anime industry?

BLOU: This advice will be for animators, especially those who work on anime from abroad. First, be aware of the conditions and bad sides.

Another thing I want to stress: nowadays, production assistants are quite desperate and can offer anyone who can simply draw (in some cases, even that criteria wasn't fulfilled). You might be happy to receive an offer when you aren't ready, but the truth is that it's a poisoned gift. Take your first job only when you're (more than) ready!

Likewise, even after you're ready and work in the industry, manage your schedule well. After your first credit, you will likely start getting a lot more offers. It's important to decline most of them and manage your schedule, both for yourself and the staff.

FAR: Personally, I've always been the kind of person who, when a friend has an opportunity, tells them "take it and go, because you never know when it will come back.” But frankly right now if you write on your Twitter profile that you are an animator familiar with the Japanese production process, there will be a lot of production assistants, even from really respectable studios, who will ask you for help if they can find your profile, so I would say that there is no shortage of job requests. Better to hold your horses and ask yourself the following questions:

1) Do I have the level of skill and knowledge of the notations necessary to do a decent layout or second key animation job? Do I know how to correctly fill out a timesheet, dialogue lines included? If I lack this knowledge, who can I ask for help to improve on these technical aspects in order to be a reliable animator?

2) In the country where I live is it really possible to make a living with unit prices like 2,500 yen for a single layout? If not, what can I do to be able to quickly approach economic independence while still working as an animator on Japanese productions?

3) Do I know which animation studios use antiquated methods to pay freelance animators and which ones use PayPal or simpler systems? Do I know which studios have the worst reputation for payments and which ones are more reliable? If I don't have any info, do I know who to ask?

Well, if you can give an affirmative answer to almost all these questions, you are ready to receive your first job and probably your experience in the world of Japanese animation will be even more enjoyable than most. Maybe with a nice long-term plan you will succeed to become one of those few who manage to live with only Japanese animation jobs even in countries where the cost of living is relatively high. If you are unable to answer these questions, it is time for you to hone the skills that are typical of freelancing jobs, and that will save your ass countless times in the future. Better safe than sorry, I would say.

In general, how important do you think it is that translators like yourself are credited for their assistance, especially as the animation process becomes more and more international these days?

FAR: Personally, I believe it is very important, not only because it demonstrates respect for the work of a professional but because the more the production process becomes international, the more the responsibility for a well-produced episode also falls on the translators.

I'll give you an example: On the WEP board at one point the director of the episode Komuro made a specific reference to the Pokémon anime to make the animator understand how to avoid making the motion of two characters way too unrealistic and unsuited for the context of the scene. Now, if I hadn't been able to grasp that quote and reinterpret it in such a way that even a 20-year-old European boy understood it, I would have caused a great deal of production problems, especially considering how important that cut was. The quality of the TL in that case must be valued and must be left to a professional, or at least to someone who knows how to operate like a professional and not perhaps "the first person who knows passable English" as sometimes happens.

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