Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Technology Marches On

When softsubbing first became possible and then fashionable, it involved a number of compromises. Fancy sign typesetting wasn't really doable, and elaborate karaokes seemed to go the way of the dinosaur. The technology for elaborate typesetting, and the performance of softsubbed playback, simply wasn't there.

Well, time marches on. PCs have become powerful (I write this on a quad-core i5 that spends 99.9% of its time doing nothing). More importantly, the software for typesetting and subtitle playback has improved considerably. As a result, sign typesetting is approaching the glory days of hardsubbed AFX signs, and complex karaokes are rising from their graves.

For typesetting, the key development has been the use of motion tracking software, combined with automated frame-by-frame transforms of a base sign based on the tracked motions. This allows frame-by-frame typesetting of signs that move in non-linear ways, with none of the hassle associated with the manual process. Back in 2009, I set a 50-frame moving sign in Orphan's Hand Maid May by hand, and it took me hours, with manual computation of the position deltas between frames. I did a similar effort with a non-linear sign in Orphan's Space Neko Theater; after that, I swore off the practice. But with new software technology, it's no longer necessary.

The motion tracking software is based on the sorts of techniques used in motion-capture special effects. After designating an initial set of points to be tracked, the software follows the image (in this case, a sign) through subsequent frames, generating coordinates. Those coordinates feed an Aegisub automation script that applies the coordinate changes (including changes in angles) to an initial typesetting specification. The result is a frame-by-frame sign that accurately tracks the motion on the screen.

Complex softsubbed karaokes are a more recent development. When Polished released a DVD version of Tokimeki Memorial a few years back, the initial version, which emodied C1's hardcoded karaoke in the script, simply wouldn't play. Polished had to redo the scripts with a simple, line-timed karaoke. The problem wasn't the speed of PCs; it was the subtitle rendering software, vsfilter, which suffered from a number of design bottlenecks. Recently, the community became sufficiently fed up to code up a replacement, called xy-filter, which is significantly more efficient.

I saw this in action with the recent DVD redo of Rescue Wings. When topf(h) added the typesetting, he simply incorporated the Ureshii karaokes verbatim — even though some of them to thousands of lines. With xy-filter, they play back as smooth as butter on almost any modern machine. Now fancy karaokes are making a comeback. GotWoot's opening for the season's hit show, Magi, runs to 6500 lines. I'm sure more will follow.

These developments will not be without their detractors. Viewers with old PCs will be in trouble. Non-techies will have difficulties in figuring out how and where to install xy-filter. As with the advent of the MKV container, replacing OGM; of h.264, replacing XviD; and 10-bit encoding, replacing 8-bit; the fansub community will by and large ignore them. One hopes that recoders (who typically change the original format to MP4 for playback on tablets and phones) can provide relief to technology laggards.

So with beautiful signs and complex karaokes again with reach, I think it's time for updated versions of some classics. I'd love to see Amatsuki, Yume Tsukai, Nodame Cantabile, and other classics from Ureshii or C1 redone, with their original karaokes. (Some are probably still beyond reach: the Skip Beat OP karaoke is more than 8MB long.) If you've got the interest, and the raws, I have the scripts.

Summer's Over

Fall has arrived in New England. The days are cool and crisp; there's more rain. The nights are longer than the days and downright cold. While the leaves haven't started turning, the ferns are turning brown and folding up. Summer is over.

So it's time to take a brief look back at the Summer 2012 anime season. I don't have much to say, because I found most of it unwatchable. My favorites:
  • Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita. Quirky, maddening, and hilarious by turns, Jinrui was my favorite show of the summer. It's a ferociously angry satire about the human condition, and its fractured story-telling and bizarre changes of tone only added to its appeal. The nameless narrator ("Watashi" - "I" in Japanese) provided a sardonic, bemused tour through a fallen human world and its new inheritors, the adorable, dangerous, and malleable fairies. Some of the set pieces - like the headless chickens plunging to their doom to the strains of "Ave Maria," or the spectacular self-immolation of robot Bread-san - left indelible impressions. Alas, the BD sales for volume 1 are only so-so, so I think we've seen the last of Watashi and her world.
  • Binbougami ga. A mostly over-the-top, take-no-prisoners comedy filled with bizarre characters, parodies, and the like. There were occasional dips into seriousness - sometimes with disastrous effects - but mostly it was non-stop slapstick, much of it politically incorrect. I mean, seriously, an S&M-loving dog-god and a perverted monk who sing a hymn of praise to "oppai" (boobs) to open an explicitly labeled fanservice episode? gg did a great job localizing the show and the gags.
  • Hyouka. A carryover from the spring season, Hyouka worked at multiple levels: as eye candy, as a study of high-school aimlessness, as (occasionally) a mystery show, but mostly as a character study. The quartet of leads were interesting and complicated, and the series gave them time to show their characters developing and changing. Even Miss "I'm Curious," Chitanda Eru, was shown to have greater depths that the adorable, somewhat ditzy personality she showed on the surface. The show was beautiful to look at (KyoAni, natch), but it was also worth looking at.
  • Moyashimon Returns. Those talking microbes are irresistible; must be the science student in me. I wish the show hadn't left so many threads hanging, but it was fun to hang out with the gang for another season.
That's pretty much it, as far as I'm concerned. I lost interest in Natsuiro Kiseki, Joshiraku, and Utakoi fairly quickly. Hagure and Dakara were too shoddy for even the abundant fanservice to compensate. Many of the other shows (Kokoro, Oda Nobuna, Tari Tari, Koi, Campione, Arcana Famiglia) seemed like retreads of retreads. Accel World and its sibling Sword Art Online also get the DTD (done to death) award. I didn't finish the first season of Rinne no Lagrange, so the second season didn't work either. And as for the end of Sket Dance... there was much rejoicing.

Of the ongoing shows, I continue to look forward to Polar Bear's Cafe, whose droll style and shaggy bear stories seem to improve week over week, and Poyopoyo, which is truer to life that most cat fanciers would care to admit. If the fall shows prove disapointing, I may go back and start on Space Brothers, which failed to catch my eye the first time around.

See ya!