Ask John: What Determines a Show’s Animation Quality?
This question has been driving me crazy for nearly a month; after re-watching Bakamonogatari and Nisenmonogatari the difference in animation quality (in only two years for that matter) is so dramatic that one looked more like a visual novel while the other more resembled a big production anime film. Where did they possibly get the money for this? Revenue from the popularity of the series and advertising? To make matters even more confusing is seeing a studio as big as Sunrise who many say, “has more money than God” create series which have decent animation (Natsuiro Kiseki, Binbougami ga) but not what should be expected from such a big name studio who produces cash cow shows such as Code Geass and Gundam which generally have incredible animation. There seems to be so many inconsistencies with new, smaller studios creating series with high quality animation and other big name, veteran studios producing series with lacking animation that it is seriously making me scratch my head way too much.
A close examination of examples and trends reveals that animation quality is affected by a variety of circumstances including production staff, studio, and the estimated potential or profile of the project being animated. The most prominent influencing factor, however, seems to be the later. Traditionally certain directors seem to demand or place priority on animation quality. A sizable majority of the anime – including television anime – overseen by directors including Rintaro, Kouji Masunari, and Seiji Mizushima, for example, have unusually high averages for animation quality. This variety of director may choose to make inevitable compromises elsewhere in the production process rather than sacrifice animation quality. Or these directors associated with typically impressive animation quality may be more adept at motivating their animators to achieve higher, more comprehensive averages than normal. Of course, the possibility of coincidence is also present. Directors associated with unusually impressive animation quality may direct bigger budget productions more frequently than average, allowing them more flexibility to insist upon exceptional animation quality. Anime is one of the rare mediums that doesn’t seem to suffer from the compromise of too many cooks in the kitchen. Typically, productions that feature an all-star production cast actually come out looking tremendously impressive. But productions with an “all-star” cast of talented director and highly skilled animators don’t arise very often.
Considering that practically no prolific anime studio consistently churns out exceptionally animated shows, the observer must presume that animation quality isn’t characteristic of particular studios. Certain studios, including GoHands, Kyoto Animation, ARMS, and UFOtable seem to have an uncharacteristically high average of productions with impressive animation quality, but these are also small studios that typically only produce one show at a time and therefore have the ability to invest all of their effort into their current productions. Studios including Manglobe, Madhouse, Bones, Satelight, and Gainax are well known for their fluidly animated offerings, but these studios also craft a lot of anime that have only average animation quality. Especially large studios like Toei, Pierrot, TMS, Production I.G, and Sunrise have been known to produce exceptional animation but typically produce a lot of shows for quick turnaround, so speed is more necessary than stellar animation quality. After all, no one expects average weekly episodes of Detective Conan, Naruto Shippuden, and Fairy Tail to have consistently stellar animation quality. While short shows can afford to prioritize animation quality, very long-running shows typically have average animation with periodic highlight episodes.
The most common predictor of animation quality seems to be neither the staff involved nor the studio that produces the anime. The most reliable predictor for animation quality typically seems to be the anime title itself. Shows that are expected to be big hits or shows that are consciously crafted to make a big splash (along with children’s anime since children don’t distinguish exceptional animation quality anyway) typically get unusually exceptional animation quality. Shows that aren’t expected to be big breakout hits typically get more modest production values. Anime that are hoped or expected to become huge hits, like Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu, Lucky Star, Sora wo Kakeru Shoujo, Fullmetal Alchemist, Ao no Exorcist, Mushishi, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Durarara, Shin Sekai Yori, and K receive a lot of effort on their animation quality in order to look and move noticeably impressively. Shows with a lot of fan anticipation – particularly sequels to surprise hits – carry a lot of expectation and frequently exhibit unusually good animation to satisfy that expectation. New Gundam series need to be animated well because viewers expect no less. Nisemonogatari featured sequences of exceptional animation, like Koyomi Araragi’s memorable fight with his sister Karen, after Bakemonogatari turned into a smash hit. Fate/Zero had theatrical quality animation after the success of earlier Type-Moon adaptations including Tsukihime, Fate/stay night, Canaan, and Kara no Kyoukai. The subsequent Higurashi no Naku Koro ni anime had better art design and animation quality than the tentative, low budget first series. However, despite coming from high profile studios, when anime don’t have a lot of breakout smash hit potential or aren’t expected to be massive hits, shows like Binbougami ga, Natsuiro Kiseki, Hagure Yuusha no Estetica, and Koi to Senkyo to Chocolate receive moderate, ordinary animation quality. Even affluent studios know their business well enough to realize that devoting extra time and expense to fluidly animating a show that’s not going to become a big hit is a somewhat wasted effort. Even lush, high-frame rate, fluid animation wouldn’t turn a show like Inu x Boku SS, Tanken Driland, or Campione into a bigger hit, so dumping extra, special animation quality into these shows is a pointless effort.
Occasionally surprises do happen, like when small, low profile TV shows like Manabi Straight, Kamichu, Kurozuka, Tetsuwan Birdy: Decode, and Kanokon surface with unexpectedly good animation quality, but these shows are exceptions to the typical rule.