Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rescuing Orphans

As my nickname suggests, I'm an anime collector.  And like many collectors, I like my collection to be complete as well as inclusive.  Thus, nothing bothers me more than anime series that are started and then abandoned.

I understand the reasons why this happens.  In fact, the groups I've been part of  have abandoned almost as many projects as they've completed.  The usual reason is loss of interest by a key project team member, like the translator.  Without a translator, a fansubbing project is dead in the water.  Another frequent cause is competition.  If another competent group is working on the same series (or if CrunchyRoll has picked up the series), it's easy for a project team to lose interest and decide to do something else, or nothing.  A group may disband or disintegrate without finishing its projects.  And there's a fourth reason: a team may discover that a series is utter garbage only after working on the first episode, or a couple of episodes.

Usually, a fansubbing team's decision to abandon a project doesn't matter.  Popular series always have multiple groups working on them (or, these days, they're streamed); if one group gives up, another will see it through.  However, niche series often have only one group working on them.  If that group abandons the project, the series is orphaned: partially done, and possibly never to be completed.  In my five years in fansubbing, this has happened to many shows, including Hidimari no Ki, Maple Story, Perrine Monogatari, Love GetCHU, Kiss Dum: Engage Planet, Gokujou, Charady's Daily Joke, Jewel Pet, Yoshimune, Dash! Kappei, Saint October, Prism Ark, Souten Kouro, Amuri Star Ocean, Jang Geum's Dream,and the grand-daddy of them all, Lime-iro Ryuukitan X Cross, which was abandoned by no less than three groups.  There's also a long list of projects that have been stalled indefinitely but not formally abandoned.

I originally got into fansubbing more or less by coincidence: I offered some mild criticism of a group's release in their IRC channel and was told to join the team if I thought I could do better.  (I did, and I did.)  But I stayed in fansubbing because I wanted to complete orphaned series.  Unfortunately, I lack the crucial skill needed for that task: I don't know Japanese.  Accordingly, I have to make myself useful to fansubbing teams and bargain for translation help in return for editing and QC.  I did this first with the third episode of Usagichan de Cue, a low ecchi comedy.  The price was editing and QCing 41 episodes of the World Masterpiece Theatre series Peter Pan no Boukan: a harsh exchange rate, but one I gladly paid.

Over the last few years, I've managed to get a few more done.  Yoroshiku Fansubs picked up and finished Sisters of Wellber Zwei.  Frostii, under an alias, did the last episode of Mission E.  And my own "Orphan Fansubs" finished the last two episodes of Kage.

I'm not the only fansubber interested in abandoned series.  While it was active, digitalpanic often stepped in to complete series, like Beet Excellion, the second season of Emma, and Sakura Taisen NY NY.  MBT finished Chocotto Sister and Moetan.  A number of groups did "one offs," like the previously mentioned Frostii project.  But these efforts were rare.

Lately though, and perhaps as a consequence of simultaneous streaming, more groups are showing interest in the catalog of abandoned shows.  For example, Kiteseekers is working to finish both Ultraviolet Code 44 and Mizu Iro Jidai.  Gotwoot is 70% done with the incomplete second season of Moonlight Mile, while Dattebayo is almost halfway through Ninku.  ANBU has picked up Dragon Quest, Wasurenai Marie & Gali, and M.3.3.W Fighting Beauty Wulong.

Yet the number of completed orphan shows remains low: MUJI's Gallery Fake and Wasurenai-Licca's Les Miserables Shoujo Cosette in the last few months, and that's about it.  Ninku seems to have stalled out.  A third attempt to finish Love GetCHU collapsed before it could off the ground.  Again, there are multiple reasons.  It's hard to find raws, let alone good raws, for old shows.  It remains difficult to keep staff engaged in orphan projects, because the audience for them is small compared to current series.  And unlike fine wine, these shows do not get better with age.

Still, I remain optimistic that some of these series will find an interested translator, and if they do, I'll be the first to volunteer to do the editing or QC.  I'd really like to complete Love GetCHU, if it's at all possible.  Hell, I'd even work on Lime-iro Ryuukitan X Cross, a show that I wouldn't be caught dead watching.  Rescuing orphans is a noble cause.  If you want to help - that is, if you can translate - or if you have an "orphan" project that needs editing or QC help, give me a shout.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Resubbing: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

In my last blog, I discussed how simultaneous streaming has impacted anime fansubbing.  This time, I want to discuss another recent development, namely, resubbing.

At its simplest, resubbing is the application of existing subtitles to new video and audio sources.  The initial impetus for resubbing arose from the availability of better sources, such as DVDs and BluRays, for shows that had been subbed in the early days of fansubbing, when video capture technology, video codecs, and subtitling tools were all quite primitive.  Initially, resubbing was quite hard to do.  Early fansubs had hard-coded subtitles that had to be extracted by hand or with more-or-less useless OCR tools, then restyled and retimed.  Those subs also had hard-coded signs and karaokes that had to be replicated as well.

The recent shift to softsubs has made the resubbing process much easier.  Dialog, signs, and karaokes can be extracted from a softsubbed show easily, using the MKVtoolnix tool set.  Some groups, like gg, just publish their scripts, because there’s no way to keep them secret.

As with “Crunchysubbing,” described in my last blog, there are many varieties of resubbers.  Here’s a rough classification:

  • Resubbing to improve on the video/audio quality of an early fansub.  The original fan-made subtitles are applied against a DVD or BluRay source.  Examples include Redone, Retrofit, and Jumonji-Giri.
  • Resubbing to improve on the video/audio quality of a current fansub, or to access material left out left out if, or censored from, a TV broadcast.  To boost DVD or BluRay sales, anime companies include extra material in the DVD or BluRay versions.  This can take the form of extra scenes (for example, in Lamune or DaCapo) or removal of censoring (all recent ecchi shows).  Again, the original fan-made subtitles are applied against a DVD or BluRay source.  Examples include Coalgirls, Polished, Mudabone, DmonHiro, Atsui, Kira, Tamashii, and Elysium.
  • Resubbing to improve on the video/audio quality of an R1 (US DVD release) by using an R2J (Japanese DVD) source.  Because the remastering process from the original Japanese source to US DVD format sometimes impacts video quality, groups apply official R1 DVD subtitles to an encoded R2J source.  Examples include Dual-Duality, OnDeed, and Gray Phantom.
Many, but not all, resubbers in the first two categories use raws from other groups.  Resubbers in the third category, and some from the first two, encode their own.  Some resubbers clean up the original subtitles for editing, timing, or styling errors, but many do not.

As an editor and QC, I tend to focus much more on the subtitles than the video and audio.  Arguments about banding, haloing, and grain, or the value of FLAC versus lossy audio codecs, tend to leave me unmoved.  My aging eyes can’t see details all that well, and my aging ears don’t have the range to hear the fine differences.  In addition, most anime is drawn very simply, with straightforward audio and clich├ęd music.  So I have two serious gripes about resubbing:
  • Lack of attention to the subtitles themselves.  While some groups put the subtitles through an editing, timing, and QC cycle, many do not.  Because DVDs and BluRays have different timing, and sometimes different aspect ratios, from the original TV broadcasts, this results in visible, obvious, and annoying subtitle and sign problems.  Every resubbed version of Seitokai Yakuindomo that I’ve downloaded (except Coalgirls) has obvious timing problems with signs; one version didn’t even include fonts.
  • File bloat.  This is a contentious issue, so please remember that I’ve already disclosed my bias towards the words rather than the video and audio.  I think that many resub encodes are bloated.  To me, FLAC audio is pointless, and most TV anime is blandly drawn and easily compressed.  Hard disk space is not the issue; rather, it’s the bandwidth caps that most ISPs are imposing.  I don’t want to spend 11GB of my monthly quota for a 13 episode series (as in Coalgirl’s aforementioned Seitokai Yakuindomo).
Nonetheless, I usually investigate, and frequently archive, resubs.  Early fansubs were often done at 512x384, or even 320x240; the improvements in video quality can be impressive.  The additional material added to DVDs and BluRays means that a resub may be the only definitive version of some series.  And occasionally, a resub cleans up staggeringly bad editing or timing in the original fansub.  But I have a long and lengthening queue of resubs that need a lot of work on their scripts before I’d be willing to archive them in place of the original fansubs.

So if you’re resubbing a show, particularly from a fansub script, and you need help cleaning up the subtitles, give me a shout on IRC.  I can’t help much with timing, but I’m happy to fold, spindle, and mutilate the words for the sake of improved quality – provided of course, the series interests me…

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Simultaneous Streaming and the Future of Fansubbing

Over its short and tumultuous life, fansubbing has seen many changes.  Codecs have come and gone; hardsubs have been replaced by softsubs; better tools have allowed for more typesetting and fancy karaokes.  But few changes have had the impact of simultaneous streaming.  Less than two years ago, CrunchyRoll began streaming translated versions of anime simultaneously with the air-time in Japan.  The effect on fansubbing was immediate and lasting.

CrunchyRoll deprived fansubbing of its fundamental raison-d’etre.  Anime fans could see their favorite series with adequate translations at the earliest possible moment: the same time as the series aired in Japan.  Almost overnight, the enormous online audience that had followed popular series deserted fansubs for CrunchyRoll.  Fansub teams had lost much of their audiences.

[Note that I use the term “adequate” with great deliberateness.  I don’t wish to start an argument about whether CrunchyRoll translations are good, bad, or indifferent.  Like fansubs, their quality varies.  Indeed, they are pretty much exactly like fansubs, because the core of the company that does translations for CrunchRoll is ex-fansubbers, and their processes use pretty much the same toolset as fansubs.  The point is that CrunchyRoll subs suffice for understanding what is going on in  show.]

For some fansubbers, the arrival of CrunchyRoll, and the loss of their online audience, was the Apocalypse.  CrunchyRoll seemed to be getting more and more of the interesting series (and Viz and Funimation were simulcasting some of the rest).  Senior staff retired or quit; old-line groups disbanded or went moribund.  The few series that were not being streamed were subjects of fierce competition and significant oversubbing.  If the purpose of simultaneous translation was, as some surmised, to crush fansubbing, it seemed to be doing a good job.

But every reaction produces a counter-reaction, and for each group that has abandoned fansubbing, three or four seem to have sprung up instead.  These new groups view CrunchyRoll as a resource rather than a competitor – a free source of translations – on top of which they can add value.  They fall into a couple of categories:

  • Crunchyrippers (HorribleSubs, CrunchSubs).  These groups capture the Internet video stream, separate the video, audio, and subtitles, and repackage the result in standard MKV format.  Their processes seem to be semi- to fully automatic, as the results are available within minutes of the CrunchyRoll simulcast.
  • Crunchymuxers (Commie originally, many others).  These groups mux the softsubs from the Crunchyrippers onto better raws obtained from Japanese sharing sites or encoded from transport streams.  When it started, CrunchyRoll’s video quality was far from stellar, and these groups offered a better video experience, at the cost of some delay in time and larger file sizes.
  • Crunchysubbers (Commie today, Underwater, many others).  These groups take the process one step further, by putting the derived CrunchyRoll scripts through the full “back-end” fansub process: timing checks, editing, typesetting, encoding, quality control.  They may add karaoke translations, and even karaoke special effects (within the limits that softsubbing allows).  Because the CrunchyRoll subtitles are an adequate place to start, the timing, editing, and QC steps can be quite fast.

More of these groups seem to show up every season.  No longer is it necessary to find a Japanese translator to participate in fansubbing.  Almost anyone with a computer can do it.

Not all fansub groups are willing to concede their turf to CrunchyRoll and its downstream value chain.  Alternate translations are still being offered.  For example, FFF did its own original translation of Shinryaku Ika Musume, without the incessant squid jokes and puns that feature prominently in the CrunchyRoll version.  Personally, I’m glad to have the FFF version, as I find CrunchyRoll overly localized; but that’s a matter of personal taste.  Still, competitive translations against CrunchyRoll are not common, and many groups have abandoned subbing current series altogether.

This has had some interesting consequences.  One is a renewed interest in anime’s back catalog.  Many worthwhile shows from the past have never been licensed or fansubbed.  While there were always a few groups who worked on older shows (for example, Live-Evil, digitalpanic, and C1), the unbeatable competition from CrunchyRoll seems to have encouraged more teams to look back into the past.  Examples include Licca (Superdoll Licca, A Little Princess Sara), Takara (Treasure Island, Nobody’s Boy Remi), Saitei (Tokimeki Tonight), and KiteSeekers (Ultraviolet Code 44, Mizu Iro Jidai).  Nanto, of the Skaro Hunting Society, is working on several series, and his recent blog entry has pointers to many other groups subbing historical anime.

Some of these teams are rescuing “orphan” series – series that were abandoned while incomplete.  I’ve always viewed rescuing orphan series as a noble cause, so I find this development particularly hopeful.  But the mortality rate among back-catalog projects remains high, perhaps because the online audience is so much smaller than for current series, and the projects require dedicated translators.

Another consequence, perhaps less obvious, had been the eclipse of the elaborate, hard-coded karaoke.  Karaokes started as simple, line-timed translations of opening and ending songs, and some groups (like The Triad) stuck with this.  But most teams moved towards syllable-timed karaokes with special effects that displayed the song rhythm with animation.  These effects got fancier and fancier, to the point where they required computer programs to generate them and retime them.  Karaoke elegance became an end in itself.

Simultaneous streaming exposed the futility of this effort.  CrunchyRoll episodes don’t even have song translations.  Crunchysubbers at most add simple line-timed translations.  Viewers find these adequate.  What’s the point of investing in elaborate karaokes, when most viewers will skip the songs anyway after the first episode?  [Although I must confess, I watched koda’s brilliant and disarmingly simple opening karaoke for C1’s Nodame Cantabile every time.]  The pendulum has swung back to simplicity, and most groups now do as little as possible beyond translating the songs.

As the dynamics from simultaneous streaming continue to play out, I’m sure that there will be further changes in fansubbing.  But regardless of future changes in the anime industry’s business model, it appears than fansubbing is here to stay.