How Are Anime Figures Made?

How Are Anime Figures Made?

Understand the step by step process behind creating anime figures and gain a deeper knowledge for their artistry and craftsmanship.

Last updated: 2024-02-13
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To make a figure companies go through these steps:
  • Pick a character
  • Drawn design
  • 3D design
  • First physical prototype
  • First painted prototype -> Decoration master
  • Mass Production
  • Profit! or not...
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746 min read

Understanding the manufacturing process behind anime figures can help collectors appreciate the artistry and effort involved in creating these cherished items. By delving into the production journey of anime figures, enthusiasts can gain a deeper insight into the craftsmanship and dedication that brings these characters to life in physical form.

Idea and Rights Owner Request

The process of creating an anime figure begins with the initial stage of concept development. This involves brainstorming ideas and determining which characters or designs would make appealing figures.

To ensure the success of a figure in the market, extensive research is conducted on popular anime, manga, and games to identify potential market demand. This includes analyzing:

  • The popularity of certain characters
  • Fanbase
  • Overall appeal

Obtaining Necessary Licenses

Once a concept has been developed, the next step is to obtain the necessary licenses from the rights owners. This is crucial for producing official merchandise based on their intellectual property. This step is repeated multiple times throughout the development process until the mass productions, the rights owner must agree each time.

Prototype Creation

Turning the concept into a tangible form through the creation of a physical prototype.

Handmade Sculpting: Legacy Craftsmanship

Traditionally, handmade sculpting has been the primary method used to develop figure physical prototype. Skilled sculptors use clay or it's alternatives to shape and mold the characters by hand. In bigger companies this is usually done by multiple workers working on specific parts. Companies to this day still use handmade method the development process at least partially.

Example video from "Paolo fromTOKYO" channel - an artist is crafting a prototype from a specific clay (polyester putty).

3D Modeling Software: The Future

There has been a significant shift towards embracing technology through 3D digital modeling software. This advancement helps push the efficiency and precision of the prototyping process. With digital modeling, creators can easily make adjustments, experiment with different poses, and refine intricate details before moving forward with the production of the final figure.

3D Frieren model made by Metasequoia.
Frieren 3D model
© Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End production committee / Metasequoia

Physical Prototype Refinement and Approval Process

After the initial prototype is created using traditional sculpting and/or 3D digital modeling, the next step in the prototyping process for anime figures involves refining and perfecting the design. This refinement process is crucial to ensure that the figure accurately represents the character it is based on and meets the standards set by both the manufacturer and the rights owner. In case of 3D modeling the figure is printed often multiple times for review and adjustments.

After this step is done the prototype can already be sent to factories for a test run and begin corrections in preparation for mass production. This will also usually need multiple reviews and adjustments from the designer company to make sure the manufacturers get it right once the mass production begins.

Painting the Figure - Color Prototype

Once the shape of the figure has been finalized, it's time to add color. The figure is painted for the first time, either fully or partially depending on cost considerations. This first coloring prototype allows for a visual representation of how the finished product will look.

For a painted prototype usually a separate model is made from a different material than a physical prototype. The physical prototype's material usually is not the best fit for painting, since it can be hard to apply paint to some materials (due to their oiliness) and/or the material color can interfere with painting. Therefor for painting a completely white physical copy is made.

The painting process is done by hand and often uses airbrushes, decals and masking. This step again requires refinement until the company feels that the figure is done and it is again time to submit to the rights owner for approval. Any reusable design data like decal designs are sent to the manufacturing company to copy.

Decoration Master

At this step the company ends up with two prototypes. A physical non-colored one and a Decoration Master (DecoMasu - デコマス) which is the final anime figure of the prototype development. Physical prototype is used for mold replication and Decoration Master for color reference reproductions in mass manufacturing.

Decoration Masters not only are used in factories as a reference, but also in conventions and/or commercials to promote the upcoming figure.

Mass Production: Materials and Molds

Mass production is still mostly left to countries like China and there are several important factors to consider:

Metal mold production

Metal mold making
istcokphoto / AnnaElizabethPhotography

In contrast to prototype development where 3D printing and silicon molds are used for quick and cheap results. To achieve consistent quality and efficiency in mass production, metal molds are made in figure factories. These molds are created using advanced techniques such as CNC machining. Benefits of metal molds include:

  • Consistent reproduction: Each figure produced matches the original prototype's design specifications.
  • High durability: Metal molds allow for the production of thousands of figures without degradation in quality or accuracy.

Production materials

Anime figures can be made from various materials, each offering its own unique characteristics. The most common materials include:

  • PVC (Polyvinyl chloride): Known for being malleable and soft, allowing for intricate details in the figure's design.
  • ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene): Tough and less prone to bending, making it suitable for figure parts that need durability.
PVC pellets - used in factories. They are melted and with high pressure forced into metal molds.
PVC Plastic pellets

A single figure most commonly contains a mixture of parts made from different materials. Each material chosen so the part would achieve specific outlook or structural integrity.

You can read more on anime figure materials here.

Addressing visible seams or imperfections

The main challenge faced in the manufacturing process is simple, deviate as little as possible from the decoration master. The appearance of visible seams or imperfections on the final product are one of the obstacles. One of the first steps after taking out the figure part from the mold is review, sanding and polishing. If missed the defect will only become more visible after painting is applied and the figure will likely not pass quality control.

Mass Production: Painting and Packaging

Painting process plays a crucial role in bringing out their visual appeal and highlighting intricate details. Various techniques are employed to ensure that each figure is beautifully painted. Additionally figures are packaged in boxes that not only protects the figure but also complements its overall presentation.

Applying Paintwork

To achieve highest aesthetic appeal of anime figures and production efficiency, different painting techniques are utilized. These techniques include:

Anime figure factory painting techniques
  • Airbrush Painting: Airbrushing involves using an air compressor to spray paint onto the figure, resulting in a smooth and even finish. This technique is often used for larger areas or gradients.
  • Masking + Airbrush: Masking involves covering specific areas of the figure with tape, masking agent or a specialized clamp to protect them from being painted. This technique allows for precise application of paint in intricate areas. The factories most commonly use the clamp method due to speed and precision.
  • Pad Painting: Pad painting utilizes a soft pad or sponge to apply paint to the figure. It is commonly used for small details or textures that require precision. Process displayed in detail here Good Smile Company Pad Printing full video in the "Sum Up" section.
  • Painting Robots: In rare cases, automated painting robots are employed to ensure consistency and efficiency in the painting process. These robots can accurately apply paint to large quantities of figures with minimal variation. Good Smile Company factory was the first to develop one for their production line.
Custom masking tool with a figure book placed inside (source video in the "Sum Up" section).
Good Smile Company custom masking tool
© Good Smile Company

Last Quality Control and Packaging

Once the figures are painted, it goes through a series of final production steps to ensure its quality and authenticity. This is crucial in making sure that each figure meets the expected standards of craftsmanship and provides collectors with genuine merchandise they can trust.

After passing quality control, figures are packaged. Figure packaging serves multiple purposes:

  • Protection: The packaging must provide adequate protection to prevent any damage during shipping and handling.
  • Visual Appeal: The packaging should be visually pleasing and fit the context of the character or series. Eye-catching artwork or designs are often incorporated to attract collectors.
  • Branding Elements: Manufacturers pay close attention to branding elements such as logos, trademarks, and character names to ensure authenticity and reinforce the official merchandise status of the figures. These can often help distinguish bootleg figures just from the box appearance - Bootleg Anime Figure Differences.
Sum Up

As an avid collector or someone interested in the behind-the-scenes process of creating anime figures, having a deeper understanding of how these cherished collectibles are made can enrich your appreciation for the artistry involved.

Learning more about the process can also help develop knowledge where are the possible defect spots. Factories always reach for perfection, but it's inevitable that mistakes happen, if you can spot them before buying it can help you save a tone of headache.

We also highly recommend watching these youtube videos about Good Smile Company Nendoroid figure manufacturing.

There has been a more recent video in Japanese more focusing on the painting process with the famous @gsc_kahotan. You can turn on auto translation to get English subtitles.

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