Wit Studio is what made Attack on Titan’s first season so special

The first time George Wada picked up a copy of Attack on Titan, after seeing displays for the manga plastered all over train cars, he instantly made a connection between the characters in Hajime Isayama’s manga and his role in the anime industry.

“It was a story about people being stuck behind a wall,” he told Crunchyroll in 2019. “I synchronized that with my experience as a producer.”

Joining Production I.G in 2005, Wada had managed some memorable titles for the studio: series like Sengoku Basara, Kimi ni Todoke, and one established classic with Psycho-Pass. But it was toward the end of production for 2011’s Guilty Crown that Wada, and fellow I.G animation producers Tetsuya Nakatake and Kyoji Asano, became interested in building an environment filled with top-level talent, a place where they would fully dedicate themselves to working on one project at a time (rather than multiple series at once, which was the case at I.G). Series and films that would have high commercial potential and be of a higher quality than what they were working on at Production I.G. What they desired was to begin building a new brand, and to do that, they needed to form their own independent studio.

Anime characters in brown and white military attire crossing their arms alternately in front of and behind their backs in a salute in Attack on Titan. Image: Wit Studio/Crunchyroll

But before they could even come up with a name for this new venture, they had to inform their boss, Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, who was the president of Production I.G at the time. After hearing his producers’ plan to strike out on their own, Ishikawa not only gave them his blessing, he made them an offer so as to keep them in the fold. Instead of truly leaving the nest to face the uncertainty of establishing a new studio in the highly competitive anime industry, this new studio would become a subsidiary of I.G’s parent company, IG Port. They would be given the creative independence they desired, all while receiving financial backing, avoiding years of contract work to other studios. The producers gladly accepted Ishikawa’s offer, and with that, the Wada, Ishikawa, and Tetsuya — WIT — studio was formed.

In what Wada would later describe as “a miracle,” right as the company was coming into its own, Kodansha was in search of a studio willing to produce an anime based on the manga Attack on Titan. With one of the founders already familiar with the manga’s strong narrative, and all of them agreeing that the action found in the source material was a perfect fit for the kind of high-quality animation they were interested in producing, they were quick to express interest in producing the anime. Impressed with the work the studio had done for Production I.G, the publisher secured a deal with Wit to animate the series. Just a few months after moving into its first office — a small windowless room inside of Production I.G — Wit began laying the foundation for its debut anime series. Unbeknownst to the producers, the staff, and to the world of anime at large, Attack on Titan would change the course of anime history, and set the direction for what has become one of the most elite anime studios working today.

In what is now viewed as one of the more difficult high-profile anime productions in recent history, Attack on Titan’s first season follows Eren Yeager, his best friend Armin Arlert, and his adopted sister Mikasa Ackerman, denizens of a massive walled city, as they train and fight to prevent humanity’s extinction at the hands (and mouths) of colossal humanoid monsters known as Titans. Enormous creatures with humanlike attributes who we are told descended from the mountains a century ago and began devouring humans, the Titans’ presence led mankind to build three 40-meter-tall concentric structures (Walls Maria, Rose, and Sina) for protection. Then, Wall Maria is breached by the arrival of both the Colossal and Armored Titans.

A colossal “Armored Titan” kneeling in a cloud of smoke in front of the a gaping hole in a massive wall in Attack on Titan. Image: Wit Studio/Crunchyroll

Great care and exquisite artistry was used to make the world of Attack on Titan memorable. Everything from the romanesque south German-inspired architecture to the lush and majestic forests are all given an intricate level of detail. The season’s art design simultaneously showcases the beauty of the world, while also highlighting the Titans’ abnormal place in it. Asano’s sharp character designs, which were chosen after a studio-wide contest, were easy to animate thanks to their thick line work, and by giving them more expressive features, the characters could really sell the impact of each fallen comrade or small victory. It was a colossal improvement on the primitive and (admittedly) ugly illustrations seen in the manga’s opening chapters. Takaaki Chiba, who performed a number of roles for the production, designed the Titans, emphasizing the intrinsic strangeness and terror of humanity’s cannibalistic oppressors — which made it all the more satisfying when you see them get cut down.

The foundation of what would become Attack on Titan as seen on TV started with Guilty Crown, as the producers brought in many members of that production to work on the new series, starting with its director, Tetsuro Araki. A maximalist known for his talents in staging action and for using every element at his disposal (lighting, camera movement, effects, music, and even dialogue) to further drive up the intensity of any given frame, there is no one, with the exception of Isayama himself, more responsible for the success of Attack on Titan than Araki.

The director’s early involvement with Wit was a major factor in Kodansha handing the then-unproven studio the opportunity to produce the series in the first place. It was Araki who brought in animators Arifumi Imai and Yasuyuki Ebara, who, along with fellow animator/action director Yuuko Sera, animated the vigorous omni-directional maneuver gear sequences. Araki also made the (possibly series-saving) decision to have the characters in those now-iconic segments of action animated in traditional 2D.

Eren Yeager, the protagonist of Attack on Titan, suspended mid-air in front of the muscular “Colossal Titan” from Attack on Titan. Image: Wit Studio/Crunchyroll

Initially, all elements of those scenes (humans, Titans, and environments) were going to be rendered in full 3D CG, which in turn would have robbed the series of its second, and some might say key, selling point: its remarkably fluid and dynamic action animation. After being shown a demo of what these CG action scenes would look like, Araki, fulfilling the studio’s mission of pushing itself for higher quality, had both the 2D and 3D teams work in concert to have the 2D characters integrate seamlessly in the digital environment. The end result was long, impressive takes of 2D characters whooshing and zipping through the frame with both tremendous verve and aggressive elegance. Those motions are paired with a forceful and ever-moving 3D camera, exemplified not only the ferocity and beauty of the characters’ movements, but also the gravity of each Titan encounter. Araki’s merging of the animation teams provided the Attack on Titan anime with its most defining feature, which would be the focal point of many scenes and individual moments that would leave viewers in awe, and would help establish Wit Studio’s reputation as a destination for exquisitely crafted animation. It is difficult to picture either truly happening if the characters all ended up looking straight out of a PS2 platformer.

Eren Yeager, the protagonist of Attack on Titan, transformed into the “Attack Titan” with glowing green eyes while carrying a giant boulder on his shoulders in Attack on Titan. Image: Wit Studio/Crunchyroll

It’s no secret that anime production can be grueling. Low pay, long hours, and tight schedules are just some of the many factors plaguing the industry. Even with the high level of talent Wit had acquired, the producers and staff both found themselves overworked and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work it took to produce Titan’s first season. Speaking to Tokyo Otaku Mode in 2019, Nakatake went into detail about some of the trouble the studio faced bringing Isayama’s story to animation.

“We’d taken the position that 2D animation was very important to us, but at the beginning we just didn’t have that kind of infrastructure. When we’d finished the final frame, we still had a lot of corrections, and there were a lot of other problems so it was really hard work. The staff really suffered. Even thinking of it now still sends a shiver down my spine.”

Just a few weeks after its blockbuster opening episode, with accolades and attention swarming in from all over the world, Asano had to publicly tweet that the studio was in need of animators to assist them in finishing the season. A recap episode had to be aired in the middle of the season so as to give the animators some breathing room in order to meet demand. Even with the extra week, because of the amount of detail and complexity of certain shots and sections, the team worked on each episode until it was absolutely necessary to deliver it to broadcasters, with the president of the company having to rush out to TV stations to personally hand over episodes.

A titan leering over a helpless woman cowering in a dead-end corridor in Attack on Titan. Image: Wit Studio/Crunchyroll

“We could barely make it for the airdate,” Wada told his alma mater, Keio University. “For the last few episodes, I would take the freshly made tape, hop on an airplane to deliver it to TV stations around the nation. This was a really tough job, as I had to do it every week.” For other series with similar quality-control problems, this might end up hurting the anime’s perception once it’s out for the public to view. But even with Titan-sized production issues, it seemed like nothing could stop the show from becoming not just a hit, but a worldwide phenomenon.

While by far the biggest hit of 2013, setting up what would become the closest thing anime had produced since Neon Genesis Evangelion in terms of both acclaim and commercial ubiquity, the first season of Attack on Titan is by no means flawless. There is a lack of character development, from the leads to the supporting characters who don’t end up as Titan food by the end of its 25-episode run. Take Mikasa, the last person of Asian descent on Earth, and whose ODM skills make her to the air what Kristi Yamaguchi was to the ice; Mikasa’s one personality trait from the first to last episode of the season is pining for Eren. The series is also hampered by uneven pacing; when not wowed by the stunning action scenes or shocking plot twists, there are long periods of downtime where it seems that even though a lot is happening, there isn’t much actual narrative progress. What ultimately salvaged this series from being just a run-of-the-mill shonen — besides its initial hook and decade-best cliffhangers — was Wit’s spirited, and taxing, commitment to provide Isayama’s dark fantasy with a level of grandeur, style, and spectacle rarely seen in a studio’s debut project.

It was seen by critics and others who follow the industry as a gateway anime, the best since perhaps Araki’s debut as a director, 2006’s Death Note. Conventions around the world began seeing hundreds if not thousands of attendees dressed as members of the Survey Corps. It was the No. 1 streaming show on Funimation, and its rampant success led Netflix and Hulu, wishing to have anime (and its growing audience) on their platforms, to begin making deals to have the series featured on their services. Those who couldn’t wait for a second season rushed to purchase copies of the manga. Sales of the source material skyrocketed in Japan, selling almost 16 million copies in 2013 (around a 700% increase from 2012). It’s also the rare series that was able to seep into pop culture outside of anime. In the latest DreamWorks Animation feature, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, the daring feline battles a Titan-sized monster, maneuvering across rooftops and around his adversary much like Eren and the rest of the Survey Corps (something fans have noticed). And its first OP, Linked Horizon’s “Guren no Yumiya,” a song that stands among Yoko Takahashi’s “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” and Seatbelts’ “Tank!” as one of the most famous and recognizable anime songs in history, has appeared in everything from marching bands to Dodgers games to ill-advised political attacks.

Before April 7, 2013, Wit Studio was a company that no one had ever heard of, had no track record, and as far as anyone could tell, was just filled with a bunch of guys who used to work for Production I.G. But by the end of the Attack on Titan’s first season, it was now the studio with the hottest anime in the world. With just its first project, Wit had accomplished its primary goal of producing an anime with high production and commercial values, one that has become much more than just another anime franchise — it has come to represent the industry itself.

A sharp-toothed titan lifting a man wearing a black hat to their mouth in Attack on Titan. Image: Wit Studio/Crunchyroll

Wit would go on to produce two more seasons of Attack on Titan, the second in 2017 and third released in two parts in July 2018 and 2019. Araki would cede directorial duties of the later seasons to Masashi Koizuka (while maintaining the role of chief director), so that he could focus on his anime original, the Attack on Titan-influenced Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress. Both seasons would show an upgrade in production quality as, thanks to the four year gap between installments, many members of the main staff were able to return, more conscious and prepared to work on a series as demanding as Attack on Titan. There were fewer scenes that involved limited animation, greatly improving the craftsmanship of the non-action scenes, and even Asano’s character designs were given an extra gloss thanks to the makeup animation first used in Kabaneri. This was still Attack on Titan and the animators didn’t disappoint, executing action sequences that would match and at times even surpass what we witnessed in the first season, such as when Eren’s Titan body forms around him in his first battle against the Armored Titan, and Levi’s battles against Kenny and the Beast Titan in the third season.

Even though both seasons showed Wit’s growth as a studio, and tackled the more revelatory aspects of Isayama’s story, the later seasons would not have the impact that first season had on both anime and popular culture. And it was while working on that third season that, after many talks between members of the production committee and the studio, it was decided that the series would wrap up its final season elsewhere.

In an interview with Newtype translated by Anime News Network, producer Kensuke Tateishi stated that the decision to move Attack on Titan from Wit Studio was because the producers wanted to take the production of the series even further. He was perhaps referring to the recently aired Final Season Part 3, a one-hour special with movie-level animation. With Wit’s schedule seemingly getting larger by the year thanks to the reputation it has built up over the the past decade, and newer titles taking up fans’ attention (Demon Slayer, Chainsaw Man), the production committee may have felt it was best to have the series end elsewhere so as to assure that it would truly wrap up this year. After a long search (during which many studios actually turned it down), it ended up at hitmaker MAPPA, one of the few studios that could handle a project as large as Attack on Titan.

Mikasa Ackerman, a supporting main character in Attack on Titan, slashing through the neck of an unsuspecting Titan with a giant titan carrying a boulder visible in the distance. Image: Wit Studio/Crunchyroll

The loss of successful series has become one of Wit’s more unfortunate trademarks. While Attack on Titan is the exception at three seasons, others like The Ancient Magus’ Bride and Vinland Saga had only one season produced by Wit before subsequent seasons were passed to other studios due to Wit’s increasingly tight schedule. For other studios, losing a series on the scale of Attack on Titan would have been devastating for the finances of the company and its standing in the industry. However, over the course of the last decade, Wit has positioned itself as a studio that could deliver high-quality adaptations of well-respected manga of various genres, just like it did with Isayama’s story.

In 2017, Wit delivered striking color and a powerful, yearning soundtrack to Kore Yamazakia’s The Ancient Magus’ Bride. Two years later, as the process of the studio losing Attack on Titan was underway, it produced one of the best anime titles of that year with its adaptation of Vinland Saga, using tactics Wit first used in Attack on Titan to make the barbaric and primal conflicts between Viking warriors possess a level of swiftness that couldn’t be expressed on the page. The new decade saw Wit’s hit streak continue, first with passion project Ranking of Kings, bringing a superb level of polish and style to Sosuke Toka’s charming and bright storybook-inspired world, and with last year’s Spy x Family. A co-production with CloverWorks, the delightfully breezy and fun action-comedy that combines espionage and grade school hijinks broke ratings records for TV Tokyo when it premiered last April, and while not on the scale of Attack on Titan, it has become an international sensation.

Today, Wit Studio not only produces anime, but has expanded into live-action film and stop-motion animation, and it even has a regional branch, Ibaraki Studio, to mentor and train young animators. Announced in 2018, the studio has released one project so far, the magnificent and ethereal anime film The Girl From the Other Side. Asano and Nakatake still work for Wit, animating and producing on all of its hit series. As for Wada, the producer who first saw those advertisements for the Attack on Titan manga all those years ago, he still holds his position as president of Wit Studio, but since 2021, he is also known as the president and CEO of Production I.G, the company he left behind (Ishiakwa now serves as chairman of the board).

By the end of this year, the MAPPA-produced iteration of Attack on Titan will come to an end (or so it seems for now, anyway). For a series this large, it is not out of the realm of possibility that prequels, sequels, and even full remakes will come in the future. However, the journey of Eren, Mikasa, and Armin has already become part of anime history. While there are now series that can legitimately challenge its status the most popular anime in the world, it doesn’t change the fact that their success is linked directly to the success of Attack on Titan: a series constructed by a team of ambitious creators who, when faced with a wall preventing them from reaching their true potential, didn’t yield or stand in awe of it, but decided to scale it and then surpass it.