Interview with Kazuhiro Arai
Art Director (Background art), founder of Studio Homare
Arai sensei: Founder and art director at Studio Homare. Professional art director and background artist with 40+ years of experience. He is also a background art teacher at Tokyo Design Academy vocational school. His CV in Japanese.
Anime he's been involved in:
- Attack on Titan: Junior High (TV)
- Banana Fish
- Detective Conan movies 13-14
- FLCL Progressive
- Kamisama Dolls
- Naruto Shippuden The Will of Fire
- Dead or Alive
Anime companies he worked for (or collaborated with):
- Toei Animation
- Studio Basara
- AIC, Anime International Company
- Asahi Productions
- Studio DEEN
Other anime mentioned during the interview:
- Uchuusen Kayama
- Sazae san
- Dr Slump (Arale chan)
- Hokahoka Kazoku
- Reizunar (robot anime)
- Megazone 23
- Tatakae! Iczer One
- Guskou Budori
- Sorcerous Stabber Orphen, 2020
Filmed in 2019
Above you can see the full interview but we have shorter versions of it as well, all on our YouTube channel.
Mar: Hello! Today we're interviewing Arai Sensei. He was one of my teachers when I was studying animation in a vocational school here in Japan. And we'll learn more about his work.
He does background illustration for TV Anime. And he has his own studio.
Thank you for your time. Could you please introduce yourself?
Arai: I am Kazuhiro Arai. I do anime backgrounds.
Why did you decide to enter the anime industry?
Why? Close to my house... well, not this one. A studio opened close to my house. And I liked painting. And, since they painted in that company, I brought them a painting I did.
I see, a portfolio.
No, it wasn't a portfolio, just a painting. Just a single painting. I brought them a fanart from Uchuusen kayama. It was good so they agreed to have me try there.
That's so nice. And that was already for background art.
Yes, that company focused on backgrounds.
And from then, you've been in the anime industry.
Correct. I also went to a vocational school. It is the same school where I teach backgrounds now.
And I am grateful for that.
And that is until now (teaching + working in the industry). I started at the company "Mascotto" (now non-existent).
So, then you quit working at Suzuki's studio, and created this studio?
Arai: This, uhm..
Mar: Tell me what happened, from working at that company, to the creation of this studio.
Arai: Well in that company,... I think this info is on my website. After I graduated from the vocational school... I worked at my teacher's for a while and I made a career transition to the company which my teacher Kanekubo worked for. I had a teacher called Kaneboko-san. And he worked at "Mascotto" (where I started).
And I worked there. Kaneboko is a great artist. He/she worked as an art director. (Note: An art director is the direct superior of background artists.) I worked as his assistant. So I was an art director assistant. And gradualy I became an art director myself.
After I quit there, I worked for Sunrise. Well basically I stopped there and I worked with Suzuki-sensei's. (Note: in another interview in this channel!) And after that I worked at Sunrise, which produced "Reizunar" (Robot anime).
There were a lot of robot animes in that time!
What type of job did you do at that time?
At the beginning?
Was it as a part of a team?
What did I do...? I worked for "Sazae san" and "Hokahoka Kazoku"
And...I also worked for Toei. So I also worked at Dr Slump (Arale-chan) and others..
Woah, amazing! During that time, there was an art director, and he checked your backgrounds. So your art kept improving.
From what moment did you start your own studio? This "Studio Homare".
Tell me what happened, from working at that company, to the creation of this studio.
Well in that company,... I think this info is in my website. After I graduated from the vocational school... I worked at my teacher's for a while and I made a career transit to the company which my teacher Kaneboko worked for. I had a teacher called Kaneboko-san. And he worked at "Mascotto" (where I started).
And I worked there. Kaneboko is a great artist. He worked as an art director. (Note: An art director is the direct superior of background artists.) I worked as his assistant. So I was an art director assistant. And gradually I became an art director myself.
After I quit there, I worked for Sunrise. Well basically I stopped there and I worked with Suzuki-sensei's. (Note: in another interview on this channel!) And after that I worked at Sunrise, which produced "Reizunar" (Robot anime).
There was a lot of robot anime in that time!
Did you work on Gundam?
Not on Gundam the TV anime, but for a movie series. I worked at AIC, for Megazone 23. And Tatakae! Iczer One
So, then you quit working at Suzuki's studio, and created this studio?
And you actually work with students.
Students? My students? You mean Koyama and Sakai? Yes they were students at the vocational school. They are from quite an early graduation(generation?). Sakai does art direction. And Koyama does something similar too. They are both really good by now.
Could you please explain to us what's your process? For example, "First I am given a project..."
First I get a call or an email from the producer. They send me various information, and I check the schedule. If it fits the schedule, then it gets settled.
Do they give you a deadline already?
Hmmm a deadline... They give me a rough view of how many months I have. Sometimes it is strictly decided in advance, but not always. When it is not strict, there is more margin for corrections and improvements. When it is decided in advance, it all becomes really restrictive.
Hmmm. And in those cases, within one project, do they give you 1-2 chapters for example? Or do you take the lead for the full season? What do they ask you?
There are situations where the art director (me) and my team are in charge to do all the backgrounds. But not necessarily. So different companies do the backgrounds.
In that case, would 2 different companies participate in the backgrounds of the same chapter?
In the same chapter? That's not...
That wouldn't be good.
Right. 1 chapter = 1 company (at least). For a movie, it is possible that they could hire various teams but that's not common anymore.
Not even for movies.
I think so.
In that case, do they ask freelancers?
Hmmm. Probably. They (had? have?) a room for staff but most background artists are freelancers. And they work in different projects at the same time so...
Before, studios had staff dedicated to 1 single project. So they were together in a building/studio.
So they'd work morning to evening on Dr. Slump for example.
Exactly. But now they do other things all together.
Getting back to the process: you get the storyboard. And they ask you to do the backgrounds for the full chapter.
And then, they give you the graphic bible for the series, and ask you to do backgrounds based on that.
Yes, you mean the graphic bible and settings. If I am the art director, I do the settings. And I do the graphic bible. That is the job of the art director.
And the art director shows the graphic bible and settings back to the producer?
Well, the producer sees it but usually, you show it to the director. The director and editor check it. And from then you start the backgrounds.
So, when you get to do 1 chapter's worth of backgrounds, do you delegate some to other members of your team? Or even give chapters to other companies? Or do you usually do it on your own?
Aaaah. I don't want that. I would not commission other companies. So in this case I give it to Koyama (in this team). Or to others I know can do it, depending on their strengths. Depending on the project. If there is no schedule, I would keep chapters 1, 3, 5. And then ask someone else to do chapter 2, 4. That's how it gets divided. If we do that, then I only have to check it.
There is only 1 art director per project. And that person gives work to his/her team, as well as delegates to other teams. Am I right? So, for example, in Sazae San anime. It has a season with 12 episodes. Would you do the full season's worth of backgrounds? No, right?
Ah, other companies.
Other companies do it too. But all companies use the same settings and graphic bible created for that anime season.
Yes, exactly. That is the art director's job. And I also check other people's backgrounds for the season.
It seems the deadlines for the animators are super strict. With backgrounds, is it longer? Is there a margin for background artists?
The shortest they give you is 3 weeks.
In 3 weeks, how many backgrounds do you do?
Usually, I think we average 300 to 350 backgrounds.
Wow. That's awesome.
Imagine 3 weeks. It goes like this: (makes hand movements or overlapping stages). Chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3... Chapter 4... they overlap. For example, now we're doing chapter 1, 2, 3, 4... Until ch4. We do them together.
I see. And then it has to look like the same place. For example, in cut 1... For example if the first scene happened in this room. We would draw the same place from this and this angle. And then from this other. So in one scene many backgrounds will be similar.
There is that at least. Still, it is awesome.
Is the price decided by the producer? Or do you decide by checking...?
The money? The price is decided in advance: You check the schedule...
You check the storyboard.
No, no, this is before there is a storyboard.
That much in advance?
Yes, in advance...
The price is decided when checking the schedule. So then, maybe it becomes really terrible.
That is right. If that happens...well. If the amount of work is higher than expected, you let them know, so the price increases.
For example, when there are many big scene backgrounds?
So, for example, if we settled there are around 300 backgrounds, but actually it gets to 400... In that case... we ask whether the price can increase.
So, the price is set per cut?
No, in background art the price is set per chapter. 1 chapter = X yen. So, more or less 300 backgrounds. (1 chapter = 300 backgrounds.) And that is around...1,100,000-1,200,000 yen. But if the background number increases then the price per backgrounds decreases, right?
So we ask for an increase to 1,300,000-1,400,000yen for example. Otherwise, the team's salary gets low. That is why I act as a manager (studio director). So I have to negotiate.
You need negotiating skills.
That is how you have to do it. Staff (under you) can not complain directly to the producer. If I don't tell the producer, they won't get the money.
It makes sense. And it that moment, there is not even a storyboard.
It seems difficult! So it is not like you see "this chapter has 100 backgrounds" beforehand.
Yes, you have no idea. It is before the start so it is just approximating.
I see. No one has started yet at that point, right?
Sometimes it becomes easy, sometimes it becomes tough. When it gets easier than expected, I won't complain. I do if it gets tough.
Hahaha, of course.
Comparing to when you started working in the industry, what changed? Did something change for art directors or in general? Like, the change to digital.
Yes, the change to digital is a big change. There are barely any artists doing backgrounds traditionally now. I don't paint traditionally anymore but... anyone can paint digitally. And I don't like that.
Because of techniques like "copy-paste"?
Yes, the "copy-paste." And I hate drawings where everything looks like a stamp.
Right, like you can notice that a tree is the same.
I prefer backgrounds that are different drawings from each other. That is what I want to do.
This digital shift is something known. Are there other changes? Like, management-wise. Like, now everyone is becoming independent.
You mean "gyara?" Well, in 40 years of course it has changed. I think background artists have it better. For animators, it has become double hard. What they do is difficult. Backgrounds are also difficult to do but... it doesn't compare to the animator job. Even if it is different. And you can copy-paste. And use resources.
So over time the background artist's job became easier.
Some parts yes. Some things got tricky.
So, overall, working as a background artist is better.
Yes, I guess. Possibly. You know, even if you don't have a very high level, you can do backgrounds because there are resources from real pros. Now it is normal to use photographs.
Right, they take the picture and paint over it.
Yes, exactly. So they don't need to be so good at drawing.
An example is... Makoto Shinkai.
The director Makoto Shinkai does it often.
That said, it looks beautiful. Studio Chizu also does use photographs as reference.
They don't do paintings. They cover them. They hide the picture while doing a painting.
Aha. And you would rather paint from imagination.
You work for anime with "fantasy" backgrounds.
Oh, I have a question. When background artists use photographs to make a background, do they use pictures they have taken themselves? Or do they look for them online?
Ah, I think both. I mean, some things are not available right outside. In that case, you may buy reference books. Or you search for photographs online.
I have heard that many new animators don't endure more than a year in the industry...
At least from what I've been told. Is it the same pattern for background artists? Like, they start working but quit within a year.
Yes in backgrounds it also happens but, to begin with, there aren't many interested in the background art. From an anime dept. vocational school class of 20 people, only 1 or 2 want to do it. From that class 6 or 7 will become animators. And 3 or 4 will quit. From that class, at most 3 will be interested in background art.
And usually, do they keep working in the industry?
No, actually many may stop. I believe they shouldn't stop, just try another anime company. I keep telling them in class. They are closed.
Ah you are right. But actually, since I entered the vocational school, I realized people are really connected to others in other companies. There is a strong community feeling.
At least that's what I felt. They know people all around. I thought it would be more closed and individual work. From what I've read. In US companies the studios tend to be more private with their information. Like "don't tell certain things to people of the other studio."
In Japan, right?
No, that's for the US. Since I entered the school I saw I could gather lots of inside information easily. "Did you know that guy works in X?" That is something that surprised me.
Really? So in the US they are more closed?
It feels that the rival feel in US companies is stronger than in Japan. "Rival." "Competition."
It looks more strict. I haven't worked there either though. So this is just a feeling from reading information and talking to others. And when I entered the vocational school in Japan, I saw a strong network between staff. "Do you need an introduction in X company?"
But when it comes to money... People will try to hide the salary rates from where they work. Because if the salary is good, they'll try to go.
Then, there are taboo topics like money. What are other taboo topics?
The money is the biggest one. Then, there is working time. Like, when you start working in the morning, and until when in the night.
Sort of "overtime" taboo.
Well, technically there is no "overtime" since it is freelancing. I see. Other than that, is there another taboo? For example, which projects are starting.
Aaaah. No, that is not really a secret. At least, I am not the type who would keep it secret. It depends on the person.
It makes sense. And it will change depending on your group.
Yes. If there is no reason to hide it then... (I don't)
What is your favorite anime you have worked on?
From the ones I worked on? That I worked on... I like... Kurenai or Guskou Budori. I did Guskou Budori with Suzuki san. (Note: In another interview from us) With good anime, what do you mean?
I mean that you enjoyed doing it.
The yes, the two I just mentioned are the best. Even if they are a bit old. The reason is that the director didn't intervene much.
Ah, so you had creative freedom.
When I have creative freedom, that is the best. And the result also looks great. With loud directors it is not the same.
And then, for example... Has it happened that you've been asked to work in anime you liked, but then after working on it you don't like it anymore.
Because the director was too demanding.
Ahhhh yes that happens a lot. Like "No, don't worry I won't interrupt your creation much." But as it starts, they get in the way.
Do you have an example? Like, they ask for too many checks?
More than doing many checks... Depending on the results they give you an OK, BAD, REGULAR review. I mean that they will check your final background and give you feedback then. A good director will tell you what they want before that. "This is my vision of what I want to create." "Can you do it?"
So it is from the expectations time.
Yes, the director is specific early.
The director needs to give the details.
If this happens in the beginning, usually everything goes smoothly after that. They would only ask for corrections for very specific parts. "Only change this."
Now, how many... How many anime companies are you working with?
Anime companies come to you with requests, right?
Now, "Asahi Productions," "Studio DEEN" (Orphen's)... What else am I doing... These two are the biggest I guess. And then... There are also independent ones I do with friends. Then I just do the boards and art direction.
Do you do mostly anime and video game backgrounds?
No, I don't do video games at all now. Now it is just anime.
Anime for TV (TV anime). How about movies?
Do you watch the anime you've worked on when they release on TV?
(Puppy distraction :3)
So, after you finish working for an anime, you give it to production, and they put it on TV. Do you watch it on TV?
I look at it as a check, but...
They also send it to you with a DVD, right?
Yes. But I don't look at with so much excitement. Since I get absorbed looking at the art, I end up not understanding the story itself.
Maybe it is not the case but, I guess sometimes a phone call comes and they request you to work on a specific anime, and you don't know the story but you take the job.
Has it happenned that after working on it, you became a fan?
Aaahh. Actually, once it is finished, I guess I do like it. In Kurenai it happened. "Oh, it looks pretty good." I liked the final product and backgrounds.
In general, do you watch anime often?
Not at all. There is no time.
No time for anime... Well, technically, you "watch/see" anime every day (the art).
Hahaha. I really don't watch anime.
I watch movies instead. I watch a movie every day. A video/dvd.
Do you watch movies while working?
Arai: Yes, sometimes. I use Netflix.
The person watching this video may be wondering about entering the anime industry in Japan. Is there some advice you'd like to give?
Young animators from your country?
Or from other countries.
But, anyway, non-Japanese. And they want to work in the anime industry in Japan, right?
Or, is there something you can share that you learned from working in the animation industry?
Something I learned... Something I wished I knew beforehand? I think drawing fast is an important thing. Fast artists. How to become fast... Probably this is more relevant to animators, but many people want to become animators since they are kids. Or want to become mangakas. Yes, it is more usual to want to make comics. So it is important that at the beginning you draw what you like in sketchbooks and so on. Yes, I think that is the best (draw what you like).
Something I did in the past is to time myself when drawing (from start to end). And then I note the minutes next to each drawing.
You kept track.
Exactly. Then I could see my drawings and check how much time it took. "Oh, now I am faster." I did put emphasis on that.
And you did that for sketches and for complex illustrations.
Correct. "How many hours."
Do you still do it?
No, that was at the beginning.
The interview ends here. Thank you very much!
She is sleeping. (Looking at the dog on his lap)
Where did Coco-chan go? (referring to the other dog)
She went back.
Thank you so much for your time Arai-Sensei!
Send me the next interview!
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