Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Anime and Fansubs

This entry has been written by Scott Rothrock for Exfanding Your Horizons. He has been many different kinds of geek throughout his life: book geek, cook geek, CCG geek, comic geek, Japan geek, computer geek, prop geek... and will doubtless explore more geekdoms in the future. Right now, he has started a writing blog called The Prism Glass, which aims to produce four stories weekly as well as blog posts on every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Huge anime eyesFree anime!

What anime lover doesn't want free anime? If there's anything going against anime, it's the fact that it's an expensive hobby. One DVD could contain anywhere from two to four episodes of a 26-episode series, meaning that a single series is a not-inconsiderable investment.

Well, there's a catch. It's illegal, you know.

Back in the old days when anime was "that neat cartoon with big eyes", a lot of people were so enthusiastic about it that they wanted to show it to other people. Well, there was a problem then -- since it was new to America, there wasn't much of a market, which meant there weren't many companies bringing in anime. What anime was being brought in was old and expensive.

Lupin IIIFansubbing was a way around this. Even though it was illegal, a lot of people saw it as being a grey area and justified themselves in various ways. They said that the anime wasn't copyrighted in America, that they were exposing new people to anime and creating a customer base, that they were giving companies free advertising, and that they were spreading a foreign culture, just to name a few. While some of those may have been a little true, the fact of the matter is that fansubbing is essentially illegal. In the old days, it wasn't a terribly big deal because it was awkward and took a long time; you bought VHS tapes through snail mail.

After the advent of broadband, the fansubbing world exploded. Not only was it possible to find and download fansubs quickly, but it was also possible to make them even faster. Anime became more and more popular; it was increasingly hard to justify fansubbing by saying that it was free advertising. The truth is that with anime's rising popularity, many American companies would license anime as soon as it was announced in Japan.

Anime subtitle sampleSome fansubbers got around this uncomfortable fact by saying that they would stop subbing an anime once it was licensed; the vast majority simply ignored licenses until they received legal threats. Even then, groups would often splinter off into more clandestine groups to continue releasing the series "for the fans."

I may sound bitter, but don't get me wrong -- fansubbers were an incredibly valuable resource for me when I was into the anime scene. I even joined several fansubbing groups at the peak of my craze, which gave me an inside look at the culture.

Fansubbers are not evil pirates; they're simply fans who have the ability to subtitle anime. And yes, it does take a certain amount of skill. A typical fansubbing group will have about seven different types of jobs, each usually done by a different person, though some talented people can perform multiple jobs.

Anime subtitle exampleRaw Provider -- Unsubtitled anime is called a "raw". The raw provider finds raws, usually via Japanese peer-to-peer software. Sometimes they actually live in Japan and record broadcasts themselves, but this is rare.

Translator -- The translator's job is obvious; they create a script of the show in the target language. The vast majority of translators are not Japanese, although Japanese translators can be found. The quality of translation can vary depending on accuracy, understanding of nuance, and the ability to give characters "voices."

Timer -- In order to move the script to the screen, someone has to use a program like Substation Alpha to create a subtitle script. The subtitle script contains times for each line, telling the video player when to display the line and when to hide the line. This can be an incredibly time-consuming job when done well, though experienced timers can often time a normal episode of anime in about half an hour. This is also a critical job, since subtitles can make or a break a fansub -- are the subtitles too early? Too late? Is there too much to read in the short time they're displayed? This all falls onto the timer's shoulders.

Anime fansub exampleEditor -- Once the script is timed, an editor watches the entire episode anywhere from one to half a dozen times. An editor's job is not only to correct grammar and spelling mistakes, but also to ensure that speaking patterns, spelling, and word choice remain the same throughout the series. It wouldn't do to say that those giant robots are "combining", then "transforming" in the next episode, then "gattai-ing" in another, and then "fusing" in still another, would it? The editor should catch those kinds of mistakes and ensure verbal continuity. Additionally, if certain lines are too long, the editor can suggest line breaks or timing changes for the timer. The editor is also sometimes responsible for checking the translation -- you know those "mass naked child events"? That was an editor sleeping on the job.

Typesetter -- The typesetter job can be and is often performed by the timer. The typesetter is responsible for choosing the font used in the subtitles, the color of the text, the color of the outline, when the text colors/fonts change, and sometimes details like finding ways to subtitle signs and letters. In addition to all of that, the typesetter can also be tasked with creating an interesting-looking karaoke for the opening/ending of a show. Creating and timing karaoke can be so complex that some people focus ONLY on that particular task. Being a typesetter is truly a thankless job -- nobody notices the job you've done unless you've done it terribly. And there have been some terrible jobs.

Anime fansub sampleEncoder -- The encoder takes the various subtitle files and the raw file, then puts them together into one video file. In addition to that, he tweaks the raw file to improve the clarity, contrast, and color while also shrinking it to a manageable file size. Many modern fansubbers aim to fit an entire series on one DVD; in the past, the aim was to fit four episodes on a CD. Ensuring that the video is watchable, artifact-free, and the correct size is all the encoder's duty.

Quality Checker -- Many people consider this the easiest job, and for good reason. Groups often employ several quality checkers at a time per series. The basic idea of the job is that a checker will sit and watch the episode, noting when they see a typo, some kind of mistake, or a video artifact, at which point the fansub goes back through the process until it's fixed. However, too many checkers will simply check their brains out and enjoy watching the release early, which will result in missed mistakes. This is usually what happens when a group releases a v2, or heaven forbid, a v3.

Spanish anime subtitleSo there's a fair bit of skill going into every fansub release out there -- even the bad ones. Why do people put all of this time into a product that will never make them money? Why do people download these instead of watching official releases with professional translations? Well, enjoyment is one easy answer. Cost is another. Speed is yet another -- fansubs come out days after the show is aired in Japan, whereas the official releases are much, much slower.

But there's one more thing -- fansubs can often have a higher perceived quality than the average official release. Due to limitations in DVD subtitle technology, official subtitles are a boring, blocky white font. This can look irritatingly cheap and boring to someone who has grown up with fansubs. And hey, the official releases don't even have song lyrics or karaoke? What's up with that? The lazy bums...!

Why bother paying all that money for a DVD with a few episodes with cheap-looking subtitles and an English track you don't want when you can download it for free? Convincing thought, isn't it? On top of that, the anime industry has been known to recruit good translators directly from the ranks of the fansubbers, which makes it even easier to justify fansubbing. After all, they have to be doing something right!

Sample subtitleDespite the obvious benefits, fansubs are still illegal, just like downloading your favorite movie, comic series, or album from a torrent site. Just something to keep in mind.


AJG said...

Great post! Thanks for this, Scott.


Scott said...

No problem. Glad you enjoyed it!

zharth said...

This was a great post. And yay, more anime content on Exfanding! :3

I think you did a good job of touching on both the positives and negatives of fansubbing. It wouldn't be fair to ignore either side. It is illegal, but then again, fansubbing is not an evil empire, after all. ;)

Ken said...

Thanks for this post, Scott! It was a very good read!

Jay said...

Thanks for this, Scott! It was a good read!