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  Codecs have come and gone; hardsubs have been replaced by softsubs; better tools have allowed for more typesetting and fancy karaokes.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.

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