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Why Are Anime Figures So Expensive? Part 1: How They're Made

Published on August 09, 2019

Welcome to the Solaris Blog! ヾ(῀ʚ̴̶̷́  .̫ ʚ̴̶̷̥̀ ῀)ノ”
The reasons behind collecting figures are as vast and unique as anime figures themselves. For many, it’s a way to surround your physical space with some of your favorite characters. For others, it’s a competition to build a collection that can rival those of even the most seasoned collectors. It’s a common question collectors get, what drives them to keep collecting these figures. 
But collectors have questions to ask too, and the most common one we see is: why are anime figures so expensive!?! (・・?)
Anime figures Questioning GIF
It’s a question that almost all anime figurine collectors have heard, whether they’ve asked it themselves or have heard it from fellow collectors. It’s a simple question, but a clear answer to it is hard to find. 
This lingering question often leads to the hunt for cheap anime figures - and when you fail to find cheap anime figures, it gets all the more frustrating as this question only rings louder in your head. (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻
Angry Anime statues GIF
So, we decided we want to try to answer this question as best we can. We researched online, talked amongst ourselves (we have been selling anime figures for over a decade now, after all), and began writing out exactly why anime figurines cost as much as they do.
And that’s when we realized that the answer was not as simple as the question asked. (一。一;;)
In order to better understand the cost of anime statues and figures, we need to first set the scene. That is, it helps more to understand the exact process behind a figure’s naissance and the production process to understand why it costs what it costs.
So the first part to this answer is not an answer at all, but rather an introduction to the world of figure production. 
Anime Factory GIF
So join us on this journey of figure production exploration as we work our way towards finally answering this burning question! (´∀`;)フ”
***Please note that the following steps of production are mostly based off of Good Smile’s description of their production process. These processes and the order of steps can and do vary between manufacturers!***
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Step 1: Who are you? Who, who, who, who?
In order to figure out which figures they will make, manufacturers first need to have their options laid out. 
Workers generally start by researching different anime, mangas, games and more to find out which characters and series are good options. They check to see which series are popular, which ones have a dedicated fanbase, which characters these fans want to see more of, and so on. (..;)?
Anime figure Research GIF
Many times, companies also hold surveys or check customer feedback to see if there are any series or characters that are in high demand. 
Once a character's been decided, a planning team member will begin to build a proposal for a figure - these proposals have to be as specific as possible since proposals can be rejected if they're too vague! _〆(。。)
Some things to need to be included are the name of the figure, the type of figure (Nendoroid, scale figure, etc.), and how it aligns with the series. These proposals are then submitted for review. 
Anime Planning
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Step 2: The name’s line. Deadline.
Once the idea of a figure has been approved, the next step is creating a very basic timeline. The planning team needs to schedule major deadlines, including when to show the prototype, when to open pre-orders, and when to officially release the figure. 
 
Anime Deadlines
The team also needs to consider how to promote the figure, which ties in with many of the deadlines above. This meeting does not really have much to do with the figure itself, but more of the logistics of its release. ( ̄ε ̄〃)b 
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Step 3: Planning the plan
The next major meeting now goes over the figure itself - Good Smile describes this meeting as planning out the plan, or the “recipe,” for the figure! ( ˘▽˘)っ♨
There are a number of things that the planning team needs to go over during this step: the expression(s) of the figure, how the figure is posed, the accessories that will be included, and more. 
As a final touch, they imagine what the user experience is like when posing or playing with the figure, so they can ensure all aspects of the figure’s design have been addressed. ╭( ・ㅂ・)و
Anime Workdesk
 
With all of the details figured out, a basic sketch of the figure is made, along with a rough estimate of production costs to come up with an MSRP. 
Once this is done, the license holder (usually a publisher) is approached with the figure’s “recipe.” License holders are incredibly important to manufacturers; not only do they provide the necessary rights to recreate a character’s image, but they know exactly how a character should look since they want to make sure the figure's in line with their vision of the character and its series. 
Funny Meeting GIF
Once the license holder has approved the idea, the manufacturers can continue to the next step! ٩(ˊᗜˋ*)و
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Step 4: You've reached the first checkpoint!
Once the figure is approved by the license holder but before a prototype is made, the planning team does a quick review of the figure’s details to make sure everything looks good. (◑‿◐)
There are multiple points they want to address and confirm before moving forward:
  • Does the character look as it should in 3D form? (there is a fine balance between looking animated and looking lifelike that manufacturers need to maintain when making 2D characters in a 3D form)
  • Is the overall look in line with company standards?
  • If the figure is articulated: does articulation add another layer of value or does it come off as gimmicky?
  • Does the initial visualization (sketch) match all of the notes from the planning meeting?
  • Do the textures of the figure match the character’s look? 
Once these points are addressed, the team is ready to pass the “recipe” onto the prototypers! o(≧∇≦o)
Nodding Yes GIF
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Step 5: The precious prototype
Prototypes can come in two different forms: the first is the more traditional, handmade prototype. For these prototypes, sculptors on the team spend months whittling away at different materials to create the prototype.
The initial stages of creating a prototype are also quite surprising - check out sculptor Hiroom!’s “rough draft” prototype to get an idea of a prototype’s starting point!  (  Д )ﻌﻌﻌﻌ⊙ ⊙
Shocked Anime GIF
The world of figure making has, of course, caught up with our modern times, which brings us to our second form of prototyping: digital! [◩_◪]
Using CAD or other computer graphics software, prototypers can digitally “sculpt” the prototype, then 3D print the completed model. 
At Computer Anime GIF
There are some drawbacks to digitally made prototypes, though. A Kotobukiya team member explained that the technologies are not that great at capturing the shape of fabrics or recreating body language, but instead are better suited for more symmetrical designs. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Kotobukiya Digital Prototype Example
And while a clear distinction hasn’t been made about which designs go to which department for prototyping, it's becoming more common practice for manufacturers to have both of these departments available. 
Anime Office
What is also important to note here is that the production process up to this point can take a lot more time than you may think - a Good Smile team member said it took his figure over a year and a half to get to this point! (!;"☉.̫☉) 
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Step 6: The second checkpoint!
Now that the prototype's complete, the next step is....you guessed it! Another meeting! (^。^;)
Anime Nodding GIF
Good Smile calls this meeting a direction review - to make sure the direction of the figure's on the right course, there are a number of points they need to check, like:
  • For figures of humans or animals: does the figure look anatomically correct? Does the bone structure look natural?
  • For fabrics and leather: does the texture and sculpt look realistic?
  • Can this figure be mass-produced? (if a figure involves too many small, intricate details or parts, it can become very difficult to scale production)
  • For Nendoroids: does the overall image match the form and cuteness of the Nendoroid series?
  • For scale figures: does the figure look correctly balanced (aesthetically and physically)? Do the hair and clothes match the movement of the figure?
If these points are all confirmed, then the figure's all ready for the next round of approvals. For Good Smile, the first approval needs to come from the company president. The president is especially busy, so finding time in his schedule to review a figure can be difficult! ⁽⁽◝(ˊʂ˴⁎)◞՞
Anime Thumbs Up GIF
Once the company president has given his approval, the next approval must come from the license holder. For this meeting with the license holder, either the prototype itself or an image of it can be brought to the meeting. 
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Step 7: For the masses 
Once approved, the next step for the manufacturer is to prepare for mass production. There are a number of concerns that need to be addressed before a figure is ready for production at a factory. 
One of the biggest concerns are “marks” from production - how can manufacturers make seams and spots less noticeable? (.•̵̑⌓•̵̑)
Production of figures usually includes a number of half pieces that are then joined together, leaving a noticeable seam. Manufacturers need to figure out how to smooth these out so they’re not as noticeable. 
Good Smile Factory
Also, for certain parts, silicone is usually poured into a mold through an opening. Once poured, though, there is usually a spot leftover from where the silicone was poured in. The manufacturer needs to figure out how to blend or hide this spot. 
Once these details are figured out, the manufacturer can start making a resin cast mold for the factory. 
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Step 8: Here comes the decoration master!
Perhaps one of the most eagerly awaited steps is the painting of the figure! And with such an important step comes an equally important team member: the decoration master! *✲゚*。✧٩(・ิᴗ・ิ๑)۶*✲゚*。✧
The decoration master uses the “recipe” from the planning stages to paint the prototype. And once this step is done, the figure is now ready for a photoshoot! 
Anime Painting GIF
Before any photos are taken, though, the team works out some details. They need to decide the color of the background for the photoshoot and which angles to shoot from.
Then, after the photo shoot is done, the images are reviewed to ensure that:
  • There are no defects
  • Everything is attached correctly
  • The expression of the figure is represented well
  • The charm and pose of the figure are captured well

 

Anime Photoshoot GIF
Once these are confirmed, it’s time for another meeting with the license holder. If the license holder has any feedback, such as requesting special effects or changing parts entirely, then the prototype is modified to match the feedback.
 
Anime Meeting GIF
License holders often provide a lot of feedback concerning the figure, both before painting and after so these meetings are incredibly important to the manufacturer.
Once the license holder has approved the painted prototype, it is time to get some marketing ready! ヽ( ・∀・)ノ
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Step 9: Are you ready?
Now that the prototype and its images are all ready to go, the team now needs to prepare for the figure’s release. (•́⌄•́๑)૭✧
First, they need a product description that is catchy and will convince fans to purchase the figure.
Next is a release poster and some advertisements for the figure.
Last is updating the website - for Good Smile, that means updating the Japanese, English, and Chinese versions of the website! 
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Step 10: Prepping for pre-orders
Blacksmith
Now, manufacturers have to prepare for mass production. What exactly does this include?
Well, first they need to create clear instructions for the factory so there are no errors on the production line. They will also need to decide on the exact materials for the figure - they will decide specifications for mixtures so that every product comes out exactly as expected. ('ε')
The manufacturers also need to consider any problems that may arise during production so that solutions can be planned ahead of time.
Once the instructions for the figure have been made, the next step is creating the necessary tools for the factories.
First, each factory will need molds for all of the parts. Manufacturers will check that the molds are properly shaped and that all accessories are shaped to fit exactly as they should. Then, they need to prepare tools for painting parts. ಠ_ರೃ
One of the most common tools the factory workers use is stencils. A lot of the paintwork is done with spray paint and stencils, so these are an absolute must when preparing for production.
Tampo Print GIF
Many factories also use pad printing, or tampography, to “paint” some of their parts. To prepare for this, manufacturers first need to organize the appropriate data and corresponding images for these machines. Once all of this has been gathered, the manufacturers are ready to start taking pre-orders! (ノ≧∀≦)ノ
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Step 11: Just how many?
Once pre-orders are closed, manufacturers will talk with factories about how many figures are needed. 
At this stage, manufacturers will also make a final estimate for the total production cost of the figure and will place their orders with the factory. (๑´• .̫ •ू`๑)
Cartoon Order Form
If you’re curious what it’s like in the factories, check out this peek at Good Smile’s Tottori factory and Chinese factory!
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Step 12: Out of the box, out of the box
One of the last steps of figure production is the first one you’ll notice when you get your figure: the box! 
Anime Box GIF
With the details of the figure all figured out, the next step is to design its container. Some questions manufacturers have to answer when considering the box of a figure include: 
  • What is the overall shape of the box? How big?
  • What kind of material should the box be made of?
  • How big should the window be? (if it’s too big, it can easily collapse, but if it’s too small, you can’t see inside)
  • Does the design fit with the overall appearance of the figure?
  • What shape should the window be?
  • Will the design of the box make it stand out if it's displayed in a store? 

 

Anime Store GIF
Once the box design is complete, the manufacturer will normally provide a sample to the license holder and request approval before continuing.
If the license holder approves, it’s on to the next step! ꜀( ˊ̠˂˃ˋ̠ )꜆
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Step 13: It’s the little things
There are a lot of smaller, technical details that need to be sorted out before the figure is ready for release. Things like customs for shipping overseas, how many figures per carton for wholesale, and more have to be decided before the release date. (╯•﹏•╰)
Anime Logistics
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Step 14: Finally!
The last step!! Now, after all of this work, comes the release of the figure! Orders are shipped out and additional promotions are run, but that's generally a wrap on the production process for the manufacturer! ゚・✿ヾ╲(。◕‿◕。)╱✿・゚
Anime Celebration GIF

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The art of making figures is really more complicated than it might seem. Even the most simple of figures takes a considerable amount of time and thought to ultimately come to life. Considering the effort and the time it takes to make figures (think about how much more time consuming it must be for smaller companies!), it becomes a little easier to understand just why figures can cost what they cost. (ᵒ̤̑ ₀̑ ᵒ̤̑)
But wait, there's more!
This is just the first part of our in-depth explanation of why figures can get so expensive. Make sure to check out our second part, coming soon, where we dive in even further on this topic and try to answer this omnipresent question!
Thanks for checking out our blog post and happy collecting! ᕕ( ᐛ )ᕗ
Did you expect the figure production process to be like this? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
 
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