Interview with Shin Watanabe
Traditional and Digital Background Artist
Shin Watanabe is a professional background artist in the anime and videogame industry in Japan! During his interview, you can watch him paint a traditional background based on a picture, but he has spent recent years working digitally, mainly using Photoshop.
He was one of Mar's background teachers at Tokyo Design Academy (anime department).
- Medabots, 1999, Backgrounds
- Yami to Bōshi to Hon no Tabibito, 2003, Art Director
- Diamond Dust Drops, 2004, Art Director
- Tsubasa Chronicles, 2005 2006, Art Director
- Robot Girls Z, 2014, Art Director
- Hitorinoshita, 2016, Art Director, Boards
Filmed in 2019
I do background for animation. My name is Watanabe Shin.
I've done this job for 21 years. I started by being employed at a background art company. I stayed like that for 10 years. I became a freelancer after that. That lasted for around 11 years. Although now I'm an employee at a production company. Doing backgrounds there.
I haven't painted backgrounds traditionally in a very long time. Although at the very beginning I started in a company that did background art traditionally. Back then I did backgrounds using poster colors. I struggled while learning. Now struggles are a bit different.
Starts watering the paper
First I am doing "mizubari." (Preparing the paper with water). This is about water control. I think in advance about where and how I will need the paper to be watery. That part is difficult.
Even if I have enough water, the paint could dilute too much. But if the paper is too dry, the paint will thicken quickly. In the beginning, you need to really control the water. And plan the time you'll have to paint in advance (before it dries). This part (water control) is said to take years to master. This is -----. I am missing some colors. This illustration may not go very well...
So first you make your color mix. I do it a bit from intuition. If this part doesn't go smoothly... hahaha
What is your role in the company you now work for?
I have been in that company only for a year. But most of the other background artists are younger than me. So lately, what I do is basically the art direction role.
(Note: The art director creates the background settings for an entire anime and then corrects final art backgrounds made by others.)
So you are not drawing the actual backgrounds we see in the anime. You do initial backgrounds that are the foundation (set the style). And then the younger artists will actually paint the final backgrounds.
Yes. Actually, there is another general art director that would be doing that. But in that company we're busy. So I help with that.
So do you act as the art director's assistant?
It is a bit complex. It depends on the company.
Do you work in a studio that creates anime from scratch?
Yes. Hmmm. In this company now we have a production department, background department, an animation department, and "final touch" department. ??? Seisaku? does...??? and controls the job flow (rotation). They manage so we artists always have some anime work to do (and keep making animes). It is a supportive kind of job. Then the animator department does character animation. The "final touch" artists then paint it. And inside that, the background artists... Well, we do background art.
Although it is rare that at this company we do a full anime from beginning to end. In this company, the jobs come divided. In the background dept., we simply do backgrounds they ask us to do.
In that case, is the company like Suzuki sensei's? They have departments from different parts of the anime production process. But they don't start the projects. (They don't own the IP).
(Note: in another interview of ours.)
Aaah. Sounds similar. Yes. In reality, another studio will create an anime project. We take commissions from those studios. So we collaborate with studios (our clients) to finish their job.
What is the name of the company you work for now? Tell us about your current job.
I work for "Ekachiepiruka Co., Ltd." The headquarters are in Hokkaido. And I work in the offices in Tokyo.
And that is where you go everyday to do backgrounds. So what you are painting for us today is for entertainment. Just for us!
You used to be a freelancer as well. It must be different from working in a company like now. The environment for example.
Yes, it is.
What are the top differences? I am guessing before you just did backgrounds.
From home? Or...
Yes, as a freelancer I mostly worked from home. And I simply did backgrounds. I worked for various companies at the same time. They gave me backgrounds to do. And from there...
So you did backgrounds for TV anime, movies and videogames, right?
That's right. I had to adapt to the art style of each company. Get used to it. For example... there was a company with a very soft coloring background style.
When did you shift from traditional painting to digital? Or did you start with digital when moving to freelance?
The first time I pained digitally... that was around 11 years ago. The companies I worked at didn't work digitally. They didn't have computers for digital background. They didn't expect this shift to the digital. And there was not a lot of work to do at that company. So I left there. At that time is when I started freelancing, and studied digital art on my own.
I had been doing backgrounds for a long time so I knew what to draw. The final painting was in my head. So, then... I focused on trying to get that picture into reality... "How do I do this with the computer?"
That's the way. Now, if I was to start from digital directly, it would have been different. Maybe.
When you started working in the anime industry... Did you find something that surprised you?
That the amount decreased. More than surprising... I was surprised that I couldn't paint (it was difficult).
You mentioned your interest was in oil painting actually.
Ah, right. Yes, I did oil paintings while at my university. So, more than wanting to enter the anime industry, since I did oil paintings, I wondered what kind of job was available for me. So anime was inside my options. And I chose it. That is why, before entering the industry, I didn't know how to paint for it.
What is the difference between oil painting and doing anime backgrounds?
Hmmm. For oil painting, you would add a lot of paint first. And then you keep correcting it and painting over. I didn't do many water-based paintings before this. And with poster color you do like this. With poster color, you have to first work with water. You have limited time until it dries. So you need to finish it within a period of time. That adds difficulty. As I said before, I really struggled until I could control the water.
Did more experienced coworkers help you adapt to paint anime backgrounds?
Yes, they taught me how to do it. You know... You have to also mix colors to get what you want. I didn't know how to get the colors right. So I learned gradually, piling up plates.
If you're not careful, you'll get very thick paintings. That is a struggle. If your paint thickens, you can't use it (well). Even if you do your best effort. That happened often!
From when did you shift to digital painting, did some things become easier? or more difficult?
Well, in digital art you have "Undo" (Ctrl+Z). So a good thing should be that you can fix things.
Well, there is good and bad.
What is bad?
Let's see... If there is no depth it is difficult but. But, when you do traditional paintings... When I started, I couldn't get it right. What I did was different. Uhm. It wasn't about being able to draw or not. It was craftsmanship that unless you practice for a long period of time, you often can't do it. But with digital art it is different. You don't need a previous career or long fundamentals. If you can adapt to the pace, that's enough.
So as long as you are fast, you can get it done somehow. Does this make sense?
So on one hand, a good thing is that with digital art you can learn faster. But on the other hand, when you paint traditional, there is a randomness/artsy factor.
With digital art you draw exactly what is in your mind.
Exactly, your art is limited by what you imagine. So you can draw the same all the time. But sometimes that is bad because there is no "change-randomness". And the end result doesn't look good. When you paint traditionally, you can't do the same drawing twice.
So with traditional art, sometimes the painting looks good just by luck. That is a good point for traditional art.
About the difference between working as a freelancer or in a specific company... In this case, you work in a company with various departments. How is it? What is different?
If you work in a company that does only backgrounds, you can really focus on backgrounds only, which is good. How to say it... Something good in these cases is that you can do your work while learning from coworkers.
But, honestly, painting isn't easy.
I can see the atmosphere from your current drawing. It is amazing.
No... My hand is not working. Hahaha. Not as before. There is this thing, that for every artist, there is a favourite brush. That's common.
Now that you mention that, most of your brushes are the same type. (looking around)
I can clearly see the one you use most of the time. That also happens when painting digitally, right?
There's infinite different brushes online. But I mostly use the same 2-3 of them.
Yes, somehow you find your favorite, right?
What is your favorite anime? (that you're worked on)
It can be a video game or a movie as well. Or that you just like the story.
I think... There are several where I like the story. But actually my most special is from the beginning. That was the first one where I created the background settings from scratch. As an art director, so I remember it the most. Even if I say the title, it is not very famous...
That first was actually a bit erotic. But what matters is that I got to think about the full backgrounds and environment. It was difficult but rewarding. So it brings me good memories. Even the things that didn't go so smoothly are now good memories. It is now done.
And story-wise, do you have a favorite?
Fate stay night perhaps? Wait...
That one was difficult you said.
Yes, Fate's the most difficult I have done since I worked on digital backgrounds. I put all my energy in it. And yet I was asked to make corrections, which surprised me. Well... Even if I struggled, it became a learning experience. There were a lot of blocks for me in there. That was interesting. Really, my most difficult one. It was really a new experience. The settings were based in a "new universe." "A place were no one is supposed to go." So the painting needed to show that "new" and "undiscovered" effect.
Were you a freelancer when you worked on Fate?
Yes, I was a freelancer.
In that case, you couldn't ask others for help or references.
Well, I was a freelancer, but the boss would give me corrections of course. Umm. They could check my backgrounds while they weren't finished. I was a freelancer, but even if I didn't go to the office, we used Skype to communicate. So I was at home but we did video calls. These things are possible now.
So, when retakes and corrections come, it doesn't come through post and on paper. You send it online and talk about it through Skype.
Yes, through Skype (video call platform). So we were checking while talking, "Oh, this part looks odd." That's how they check my work. In that case we did very long calls. Talking about the backgrounds until the evening.
As a freelancer, maybe the conversation will derail now but, a good thing about being a freelancer is using time freely.
There is the image you can do what you want when you want it. But it is the contrary. When you are a freelancer, what is work and what is private life gets blurry. It is difficult to manage time in that sense.
Do you have advice for people who want to become freelancers?
As said, I think planning is a very important skill as a freelancer. Make your own good schedule. And follow it, take care of it.
That is the key. Even if you work hard, without a good schedule, you won't make money. When you are employed at a studio, others take care of that. You just need to adapt to their pace. That is your only job. But as a freelancer, you need to do that by yourself.
And if you work too hard it can backfire as well. If you don't manage your time well.
So, as a freelancer, you have time freedom, but the advice for freelancers is actually to be careful with time management. Interesting.
Exactly. You need to manage your time and your money smartly. "How much can I make this month?" You need to do that on your own. And save for the time. You may end up working for months with no rest. That is difficult.
You have a family. Did it happen that... how can I say this? "Thanks to having a family, I did take some rest." "If I was alone, I would just keep working." That would be my case... Maybe
Uhm. On the contrary, I may have caused struggle to my family. Like, I couldn't be on time for something we planned. Things like that happened. Although that might be the same case for people employed at a company.
Do you watch the anime you have worked on?
Anime where I painted backgrounds? Yes, I do!
When the DVD comes?
Yes, or on TV.
With your family?
With family... We do if there is something I really want to show them. Although, how I watch anime has changed since I started working in backgrounds. Before, when watching anime, I would not pay attention to the background art. People don't usually pay attention to the background.
People will focus on the story. To check the background, you have to heavily focus on it.
Right, you may even need to mute the TV (to focus on the art).
Yes, you need to consciously look at it. Now that I work as a background artist, I do pay attention to them naturally.
Does it happen that when you watch the anime you worked on, you notice a background you did has been changed or cut?
Like "Wait! When I painted this one it was more like a sunset and now it looks like almost night time!"
Yes, sometimes they correct it. Someone inside the company will do so. Someone more skilled than myself.
I see, like the art director.
They'd correct it.
Yes. On the contrary, when I act as the art director then...
You do it to others then...?
No. Sometimes it happens that I gave a background an "OK." And then when it appears on TV, I think "Oh, I wish I corrected X in there." Haha. I didn't think I was in the position to correct that, but then I see I should have. So, I need to take responsibility for everything that goes through me.
Well, maybe this is a taboo topic, but. How many backgrounds do you do in a week or a month on average?
Of course. More or less? Although, now you spend time correcting others'...
Yes... When I focused on anime, in general 3 or 4 was the sweet spot.
In a week?
No, in a day.
In one day?! 3 backgrounds? Amazing.
It depends on the time though. That is what I used to do. Usually, in one scene, sorry. In one scene, there are around 10-20 backgrounds. So from those ten something.... I usually would finish 1 scene every 2-3 days. That is when I was a freelancer.
When you are a freelancer, do they give you the pricing for the full episode and then you manage your time and money to deliver. Or is the price set per background?
Ah. Yes, that's it. As a freelancer, you have to manage the amount of money. In the past, when I worked in a background company, I did only anime backgrounds.
So the company would be commissioned for 3-4 episodes. And we did them as a team. That was the job itself.
I understand you've done backgrounds for anime TV, movies, games, and advertisements. Which one pays less or more in comparison to others? Is there an average? Like, X always pays more.
About the money...
If this is a taboo, please dismiss it!
Oh, it is not.
Oh, is it different depending on the company?
Yes, that happens too. But I think Pachinko (slot machine) backgrounds are the highest paying. As a general rule, a background that stays a long time on screen has higher value. Same for videogames too, if a background appears repeatedly.
Ahhhh So that is how they price it!
Because in those you have to deliver high quality. Before, I worked just for TV anime. Which equals to backgrounds that barely stay on screen.
But actually, when I look at old animes, I see they were very cost-effective. Like, in a school anime. There are a lot of backgrounds that repeat. The same classroom shot, the same blackboard shot.
Did that change? Was is still at low price?
I think so.
When comparing the Japanese anime industry (games, TV anime) to the Western animation industry projects, what do you think is different? In a good sense.
Japanese anime industry?
I mean, focusing on the final product. Japanese anime. Like, why do you think it is so popular around the world? What is special?
Well, I don't know much but.... Hmmm. What would it be? This is difficult. Hahaha. I enjoy animation products from other countries. I watch it often. So, I do think Western animation has good points.
What I think is good in the Japanese side, is that is became an actual "product." So that is how there is a variety, and many sponsors.
So, the industry foundation is different.
Yes, "it must sell." I feel like animation in Western countries is focused on the art piece itself.
And the Japanese animes are made to sell. The sponsor must get a benefit (sell).
Aha. Yes, that is my view.
Do you have advice for people who wants to work in the Japanese anime industry?
I think... Compared to the past... how to say it? I think there are more ways to learn the craft now.
Yes, schools. Or just resources online. You can now learn before entering the industry itself. Anime art books... That was not a thing in the past.
Because people learned while already working in the studios, right?
I don't know for certain but, they just checked animes they liked, drew the characters they liked... In the past, that was the only thing you could do to prepare yourself. But now, even if you are just a beginner in the industry, if you can draw nice paintings by learning from resources online, it is ok. You can learn like that.
So, the advice would be to use those resources.
Of course. So, even if you don't have the work experience, just train yourself online. Paint, and upload your work online.
How about advice specifically for background artists? In digital.
People who want to do backgrounds...
Number 1 is paint what you want to paint. Hahaha. That's my opinion. Then, get a strong drawing foundation is a common advice. Draw a lot. About backgrounds, when you draw, try to understand the element itself. It is crucial that you study the element/thing while you are drawing it. Like, the shapes. Really observe your motifs. That is how you get better at drawing backgrounds.
Thank you very much. So beautiful! (looking at the painting he makes)
Haha. So difficult!
What's your feeling? Are you proud of this painting? (the one made during the interview)
No... I couldn't (do as I wanted?) Hahaha
Lately, you haven't painted much traditionally, right?
Right. I haven't at all...
When was the last time?
As work, I stopped almost 10 years ago. I think...
Woah! Did you do it in your own free time?
Yes, a bit. Or with watercolors. Not the poster colors (anime usage). It is not the same.
Yes. What do you prefer?
I think I like poster colors better. Since I used them for like 10 years. It is fun! But well, that's about my lack of skill. Hahaha.
Even if you didn't practice much lately, I still believe it looks amazing.
It is so beautiful!
No... Hahaha. Also, there is something I wanted to teach students when I was a teacher at the vocational school. Uhmm. If you always do traditional painting, instead of nailing the superficial part, it is better to strive to paint the atmosphere right. Like in here, I focused on the "space" and "roundness" first. And slowly get the tree and other elements come softly from the ground.
That effect. With nature, you need to create the atmosphere as a whole first. When I started trying to do that in digital... I noticed digital artists tend to focus on just the final elements (superficial art, not atmosphere based). And just make sure it looks pretty in the end. So, people who work mainly digitally and have no traditional background have a different approach. I noticed. There is a lot of digital background anime done like that now. And well, their art isn't like "super bad" of course.
Even for these digital artists focusing on "just pretty" there is a limit on whether they make it to TV anime. But still, there are a lot of simply "impressive" and "dramatic" backgrounds.
You can still feel good atmosphere backgrounds in Studio Ghibli movies but... in most anime TV that is not usual lately.
Can you show the art? (the painting he made onscreen)
Oh, this? Ok!
I am not so proud but... (shy) It is super unfinished... Hahaha
Thank you so much for today!
Thank you! Haha
It looks amazing.
Thank you Watanabe-Sensei!
Send me the next interview!
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