Inbetweeners. They are a vital but overlooked group of animators that help breathe life into your favorite shows. Their job isn’t glamorous; they are responsible for drawing the “QUALITY” pictures that go in between keyframes. Basically, they draw the movement segments of scenes, and if they do a good job, you won’t really notice it.
Inbetween animators are typically the youngest and least experienced members of an animation team. Many great directors, storyboard artists, and designers got their start as inbetweeners. The position is usually viewed as a way for young animators to gain experience and learn the basics of the industry, but it’s slowly dying out.
The concerns that are threatening inbetweeners are harsh hours, low wages, and offshoring. As a whole, the industry is hit hard with 11 hour work days, only 4 days off a month, and an average yearly salary of 3.3 million yen ($30,136). For reference, the average Japanese yearly salary is about 20% higher at 4.14 million yen ($37,467).
Yasuhiro Irie is a recognizable and respected figure in the industry. He has been working since 1992 and has worked on Cowboy Bebop (key animation), RahXephon (animation director), Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (director), and Scorching Ping Pong Girls (director). He started his career as an inbetweener and knows the struggles they face.
Instead of studios taking on young workers in entry-level inbetweener jobs, many studios are offshoring work to Chinese and South Korean studios. Irie estimates that 80% to 90% of in-between work is done overseas, which limits opportunities for young animators to break into the industry and learn the skills.
Irie blames the industry’s production model, which has seen a sharp increase in shows being made. “The reason for this is that more TV animation titles are being produced today than before and that more and more these titles are being produced in quarterly blocks.”
Irie is referring to seasonal cours, which sees a series air for 3 months before concluding. In the past, series would air for an entire year, which Irie believes was beneficial to his skill development as he improved as an animator. His concern about the modern industry is that “starting over every three months is an inefficient way to work.” Irie continues, “It scatters your workforce, and you end up filling the gaps in your inadequate staffing by outsourcing overseas.”
According to Irie, there is plenty of young talent in Japan, but they end up quitting because the pay is too low, which has created a labor shortage. Since studios have to turn to offshore studios, Japan is losing its ability to cultivate new talent.
Irie laments, “Japan is capable of cultivating more new talent, if only these people could make a decent living at inbetweening.”