Sunday, January 22, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing: Softsubbed Signs and Karaokes

The comments and forums of BakaBT contain a lot of whining about shows with hardsubbed signs and karaokes. Some members routinely downrate offerings if the signs and karaokes are not softsubbed. That got me wondering: seriously, folks, why do you care?

I can understand why viewers prefer softsubbed dialog. As an editor, I've been offended by more than one group's editing. If I care enough, I'll demux the script and fix the problems. For example, I recently fixed up Ryokunohara Labyrinth at Al_Sleeper's request. (You can download the revised subs here.) I'd do even more of this, except that editing sins are usually accompanied by both translation and timing problems. The former are beyond my skills, and the latter are too hard on my ergonomically-challenged wrists. So Polished/Ayako's Nagasarete Airantou, ARR's Urusei Yatsura Special and Space Neko Theatre, and many others, languish on the "To Do" list.

But signs and karaokes? Are viewers seriously concerned about fixing them up? I see no evidence that this ever happens. At most, viewers want to turn off karaokes. Well, let me break it to you gently: you can use chapters and skip the songs entirely if you're bothered. In fact, using mkvmerge, you can use ordered chapters to play a raw instead of the subtitled encode for the songs. Or you can mux the softsubbed script onto your own raw and omit those offending karaokes and signs.

From the fansub team's point of view, there are strong arguments for softsubbing everything. The most compelling is efficiency. The encoder can make a final version once, and after that, every change is done by muxing new scripts. This saves a significant amount of time. Another good argument is change management. With softsubs, any subtitle-related error can be corrected easily, with simple patches. That makes it much easier to produce a consistent final series release, although it also contributes to the proliferation of v2's, v3's, and v4's.

Still, there are limits to softsubbing, particularly for signs and karaokes. Complex effects, such as non-linear motion tracking, require frame-by-frame typesetting. For example, a 2.2 second clip of a moving sign in GotWoot's Showa Monogatari required 52 lines of typesetting. The signs script for the final episode of C1's Nodame Cantabile was more than 100KB long: three times the size of the dialog script. Typesetters can rarely take that amount of trouble. Instead, they'll approximate non-linear motion with \move and \t commands, resulting in signs that diverge from the motion of the Japanese text.

Another issue is performance. Complex effects can bring even the brawniest system to its knees. For example, tlacat6's Aoi Exorcist specials have a rotating title sign. My brand-new, quad-processor i5 cannot render that in real time. For its recent release of Denpa Teki, WhyNot warned that the viewer would need to alter parameters in MediaPlayer Classic to avoid performance lags.

For karaokes, the issue is visual creativity. Most softsubbed karaokes use either line-timing or simple k-timing (coloring). This is great for efficiency but boring to watch after a while. Visually creative karaokes are created by scripts and are too complex to be played as softsubs. This can get out of hand, but I would not have enjoyed losing, for example, the brilliant simplicity and thematic appropriateness of koda's opening karaoke for C1's Nodame Cantabile in the name of softsubbed purity.

As a result, some fansub teams, notably Frostii and AnimeYoshi, prefer hardsubbed signs and karaokes, despite the greater work they entail. Their typesetters work to an exacting standard: typesetting is successful if the English looks like it was drawn by the original animators. Their karaokes are intended to stand the test of multiple viewings. Is it worth it? Look at AnimeYoshi's logo for Another and how seamlessly it blends into the show's Japanese title. Look at Frostii's typesetting on Yurumates and Yurumates wa. Look at the karaoke's on C1's Nodame Cantabile or Ureshii's Rescue Wings. I think the results justify the extra work.

Who is really disadvantaged by hardsubbed signs and scripts? The only constituency I can think of is script stealers - ah, excuse me, script borrowers. If you're translating a script to another language, or creating a DVD or BluRay version of a TV series, it's helpful if everything is softsubbed. Well, I have news for you again: fansub groups don't exist for the convenience of your projects. Besides, if you ask politely enough, some fansub groups will provide project materials, including signs and karaokes, particularly for older shows desperately in need of better video.

So please, let's stop the whining and be appreciative of the hard work that goes into these shows; and if softsubbed purity is a make-or-break issue for you, watch someone else's version.

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