Anime backgrounds: the process

Stefan Riekeles, the curator of our current Anime Architecture exhibition, takes us behind the scenes of an anime studio. He talks us through the process of creating the complex worlds on show at House of Illustration until 10 September 2017.

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  • Exhibitions

The creation of a background is an essential part of the anime production process. The task for background producers or ‘architects’ is to give life to an imagined universe using drawings and painted scenes. The intention in both traditional two-dimensional and digital projects is to set the characters in a space that reflects the time and atmosphere of the story.

The world of an anime emerges through a cinematic montage of graphics and paintings. Although today all stages of the production process involve digital tools, a lot of the work is still done using layout tables, paper, pencils, and paintbrushes. The main stages of the process are: reference photography, setting, image boarding, layout creation and background production.

1. Concept photography
A concept photographer finds and photographs appropriate landscapes and cityscapes to underpin the film’s vision and inspire the production design.

2. Setting
The setting can be considered a sort of pre-production period that directs the next phases of production and character design. During this phase, a number of pencil sketches are created, ranging from accurate drawings to sketches that describe a first idea for the concept. Examples of setting sketches such as the one here can be seen in the exhibition.

3. Image boarding
In the image board, individual elements devised during the setting are combined to create more complete compositions. The variety of image boards range from coloured painted pictures to pencil drawings, created in order to establish a film’s general look and atmosphere.

4. Layout creation
A layout is an accurate drawing of the single shots (called cuts) composing a scene. Each layout is labelled with a scene and a cut number. It defines the details of the background, the position of the figures and other moving objects, as well as perspective and camera movements. There are many layout drawings in the exhibition alongside final background paintings.

5. Background production
The background picture in a shot is generally painted on paper, using watercolours or gouache, and digitally scanned into animation software at high resolutions. The background is then digitally retouched to remove possible imperfections and improve colour tones. Some backgrounds seen on screen are made from one painting on one sheet of paper, however others are made of several layers painted on celluloid, going from the background to the foreground. In this case, all the sheets are combined to create a book cel – the sheets are placed physically on top of each other, with the background at the base and the foreground on top. This compilation can be also done digitally with animation software.

Edited by Lorena Russo.

Extracts taken from Proto Anime Cut Archive – Spaces and Visions in Japanese Animation by Stefan Riekeles (2011). Click here to get it from our online shop.

Anime Architecture: Backgrounds of Japan is at House of Illustration until 10 September 2017.