Monday, July 20, 2015

Typesetting Polar Bear Cafe

That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger.
                                Friedrich Nietzsche

If Nietzsche is to be believed, I'm a stronger typesetter than I used to be, but it was a near-run thing. It's taken about three months to typeset the whole show, and there were many times I was ready to throw in the towel and go back to Yawara!-style {\an8} signage.

Polar Bear Café is a very sign-heavy show. I think this is a direct consequence of its low budget. Stationary characters talking against static backgrounds don't give the eye much to do. (That's why the show works so well as a radio drama, once you’ve internalized the characters' images.) Adding signs is an inexpensive way to make the backgrounds more interesting. In addition, signs provide a way to add some humor for the adults watching the show, as I'll describe later. Accordingly, the signs are a vital part of the show's visual style; at least, some of them are.

Which Signs Matter?

In a show that's using signs as enrichment for backgrounds, not all signs are going to be important. In fact, most of them won't be.  The problem, of course, is how to know which ones do matter. The only real option is to translate them all and then decide.

The original translators provided the first clues. They translated about half the signs, and the ones that they translated are generally significant, usually for underlining a joke. (The endless puns are often reinforced with signs.) Unfortunately, the untranslated half can also matter.

When I started, I had to take a screenshot of every untranslated sign and then pester a translator to tell me what it meant. (Many thanks to convexity, deltakei, and Moho for putting up with this.) However, as I went along, I realized that the vast majority of the signs were in hiragana or katakana rather than kanji, so that the target audience of children could read them. Decoding the secondary alphabets is not a slam dunk, but it's much easier to deal with 40-odd characters than 4000. With the help of online sites like Nihongodict, I became more proficient at decoding hiragana and katakana and translated some signs myself.

The vast majority of the untranslated signs don't matter, and after a while, I started to omit signs with no relevance. For example, in episode 13, I typeset every menu item in the yakitori bar, complete with movement. In later episodes, I ignored those sorts of restaurant placards. In episode 20, I did as many of the festival booth signs as I could. Later, I didn't bother with most street signs.

But despite all the irrelevancies, every now and then an untranslated sign turned out to be significant. In episode 15, the "Dodo Bird" store sign is the punch line for the second half skit, and the joke simply isn't as good without it.

Insert or Overwrite?

When a sign is typeset, there's a fundamental choice to be made: insert the English into the scene, leaving the Japanese intact, or mask out the Japanese and overwrite it with the English. I ended up doing both, with very little consistency. Usually, though, I prefer to insert the English. My main reason is that the backgrounds for signs are rarely flat. They're often textured or shaded. Overwriting with a fixed color mask can produce a fake-looking result. However, if the background is uniform, the sign doesn't fade in or out, and there's no space for the English otherwise, I will overwrite the Japanese. The yakitori bar menu signs in episode 13 are all masked and overwritten.

Font Matching for Fun and Profit

If English in inserted into a sign, it really helps if the English font resembles the Japanese lettering. Thus, font matching is one of basic first steps in setting a sign. Polar Bear Café's signs are mostly done with a single font family. When I discovered this and realized that I had all the fonts, I sort of went overboard. Every sign was scrupulously matched for character shape, character weight, and so on. As a result, I ended up using more than 130 fonts.

Experienced typesetters don't do that. They realize that the subtle differences among Japanese fonts are rarely carried over into distinguishable differences in the English letters. Accordingly, they tend to typeset with a small repertory of fonts able to represent entire font families: gothics, minchos, etc. By the end of the series, I was able to see font families, but I still fell into the trap of trying to match fonts exactly.

One side effect of this is that each episode may contain eight or ten massive CJK (Chinese-Japanese-Korean) fonts, bloating the episode’s footprint and even breaking certain players.  Accordingly, I started compressing the CJK fonts, either by stripping OTF subfonts to create a "small" OTF, or by converting just the ISO-Latin characters into a really small TTF. Converting to TTF is more reliable, but it can have the undesirable side effect of changing character sizes. Accordingly, remember to compress fonts before use, not afterwards.

Compression had another undesirable side effect: elimination of special characters used in signs. As a result, many of the key fonts had to be compressed a second time, retaining specific special characters, and the episodes that used them redone. This is why episodes 1-13 and NCED01 will get v2s.

Color Matching

In addition to font matching, inserted English needs to match the color of the Japanese sign. Aegisub makes this easy with its color picker, but there are subtleties. As my wife the quilter points out, colors are not absolute; their appearance is changed by what surrounds them. I was constantly frustrated about this. An exact color match would appear faded if I added blur (and \blur1 is almost mandatory), or it would appear brighter if I added a dark border. I found I was often overriding the “exact” match for something that pleased my eye better. And that's a slippery slope, because my color sense is poor, at best. The yellow in OP1 doesn't really match well, for example. I made it too pale, and I still can't find a value of yellow that I like.


While some signs are static, many appear to move. Computer-based animation tools make it trivial to pan, zoom, or rotate a scene or sign to add some dynamism to a static background. If a sign moves, the English must move too (and if the sign is overwritten, the mask as well).

In the Dark Ages, the typesetter had to approximate movement with subtitle tags like \move, which assumed that motion was linear. This rarely looked good. Nowadays, motion capture software allows object movement to be tracked precisely, and Aegisub macros can translate the capture data into frame-by-frame typesetting. This bloats scripts enormously but provides very satisfying pans and scaling. (Motion capture is described in great detail in unanimated’s tutorial on typesetting.)

The motion capture software does have its limits, however. It's not terribly good at capturing rotation, particularly if that's combined with other forms of movement. In the first opening to Polar Bear Café, the circular show logo rotates and then begins to tilt down, eventually becoming a roadway. I had to fade the show title out a few frames into this sequence because tracking was lost as the circle began to deform. In episode 36, Grizzly’s door sign rotates on a pivot. The tracking software gradually lost the angle of the sign, and the sequence was ultimately set by hand.

Another limitation is that the motion-tracking software can't deal with true hand-drawn animation or deformations. Irregular changes between frames, particularly in object shapes, cause the software to goes off the rails. This was most evident in the Tanabata wish sequence in episode 13, where the paper tags containing the Tanabata wishes blow, twist, and curl in the wind. Every position in that sequence had to be set by hand. Fortunately, the animators were pressed for budget, and there are only 16 distinct configurations of the most critical sign, Panda's wish. However, the sequence also zooms in, so when a configuration repeated, the English had to be scaled and repositioned. That sequence took a week to do, mostly because I'd start to tear my hair out every few frames.

I’m fairly dissatisfied with the Tanabata signs. The English doesn’t appear to move correctly. This is because hand-drawn animation is not accurate. Angles and character sizes change from frame to frame, often incorrectly, but the eye forgives because it has no other reference point. However, when English is introduced, the discordance is obvious. The Japanese is moving "consistently," and so is the English, but they are not moving consistently with respect to each other.

Stock Signs

One interesting aspect of typesetting a long series with a low budget is getting to see how much animation (and signage) is reused.  Polar Bear Café uses stock shots, like the front of the zoo, the front of the café, and the front of Panda’s house, as a cheap way of indicating scene changes. If these stock shots contain signs, then the typesetting can be reused, with minor changes for coloration or zoom. I ended up compiling a "stock shot" index for the series, so that I could simply cut and paste the base typesetting for any stock sign.

The show also has standardized sets. Two of the most frequently used are the interior of the zoo office and the street in front of Rin Rin's florist shop. The zoo office has a whiteboard with the monthly schedule, always labeled "Schedule for the Month." Rin Rin’s shop has standard signs and is adjacent to a bookstore (just Books) and a gallery (Gallery Morita). Across the street is an antiques shop (just Antiques Shop). All of those signs were reused frequently.

Animation Errors

Another aspect of typesetting a long series in getting to see how often there are animation errors. Scenes are farmed out to different teams of animators, and sometimes details are inconsistent. For example, in the drive-thru restaurant sequence in episode 4, the microphone for ordering disappears and is replaced by a piece of horizontal trim as Polar Bear's car passes through. In various hand-animated sequences of Grizzly’s door sign in episode 36, the margins around the Japanese word vary wildly from frame to frame. BluRay editions often correct animation errors found in TV releases, but not in Polar Bear Café.


I'm still not a proficient typesetter. I stand in awe of how easy some of my colleagues make it look. However, I think Polar Bear Café looks better with typesetting, even if it's far from perfect. I hope you’ll agree. And if there are any highly experienced typesetters out there who are interested in the show… there are still some signs I have no idea how to do.


  1. Hi coll, I TS at Saizen.

    Looks like a cool show and I'd be happy to lend a hand later in the year, if you still need it. Just have my own projects lasting me till fall at the moment. Feel free to reach out and poke me on Rizon about it!

    1. Thanks for your offer - I'm sure I won't get done before the fall season starts!