The Volatile World of Fansubs: An Inside Peek!
By Holly Kolodziejczak
Ah, fansubs... the lifeblood of otaku around the world. Once the resources of anime available to us are exhausted, where to we turn? Fansubs. Once we read this great manga and find out that it's an anime in Japan, but alas, not where _we_ live, where do we turn? Fansubs. Once we're so tired of all the anime that we have seen and heard about ad nauseam, where do we turn for new inspiration? Fansubs! But even though we rely on fansubbers to bring us something fresh and new, many of us are still mystified when it comes to everything that's actually behind it. Where did fansub distribution as we know it today find it's roots? Why does it seem to be getting harder and harder to find something new? What impact has past fansubbing had on the commercial anime world, as we now know it? What direction is the whole business of fansubbing headed in the future???
For the answers to these questions and more, I tracked down Rei-kun, the front man for long time fansubbing group, Kodocha Anime. They've been around for about 5 years now, so they've weathered all the tides and have a pretty good scope of the past, present, and future of this ever-changing anime medium. So - if you watch fansubs, are thinking about starting to buy fansubs, or even possibly thinking about doing your own fansubs, then this interview is chock full of invaluable information. If you don't know what fansubs are, well… you're on your own. ^_~
Holly/AnimeFringe: well first of all, I would like to thank you for giving your time to give the Animefringe readers a little more of an inside edge on the fansubbing world. Your site has an extensive collection of fansubs available, more so than many others out there. What was it that made you decide to start doing fansubs?
Rei-kun/Kodocha Anime: Well, back when we started up, it was very difficult to find a reliable way to get them. The easiest way at that point was to share among a local group of friends and make copies for everyone. We started out as part of a Detroit group called Manna Anime back in late '94. The internet was in it's infancy; most of the people I knew that were online knew UNIX! This, of course, made fansub trading pretty much limited to e-mail contacts. The big guys were the ones who just made some posts on some mailing lists and newsgroups, offering to make copies onto tapes to anyone who sent them in (along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, of course.) When John joined Manna in early '95, he had a lot of resources to share, and a huge fansub collection, so he just started making copies for people. After limited success with small-scale distribution at club meetings, we eventually started offering the services online, but the system we had devised was overly complicated, and didn't work well. After John and I broke off and formed Kodocha in early '96, the internet had grown, and our experience made it possible to "take it to the next level." We weren't the first, but I think we had a better system than most of the other distros at the time. I think we're the only ones left from that era... @_@
AF: How so was it overly complicated? Just not easily understandable, or too difficult to maintain?
KA: Well, the original system was that people e-mailed their request in for a confirmation number, and then sent their money with their number, so John could copy them in advance. The problem was that people got numbers and then never sent the money. John ended up with a lot of extra copies... -_-;
AF: lol.. I bet! What have you found is the best way to handle that now?
KA: Well, we just buy a ton of custom-made tapes and run batches of tapes. We've found a lot of ways to keep quality up, which isn't easy with consumer formats like VHS... Then people just send in their request WITH the payment, either by money order (checks bad, checks bounce) or Paypal. We love paypal. :D
AF: From what I have seen, you distribute fansubs on VHS, like most places do. What do you think of digital (i.e., via internet) distribution? Which do you think is the overall best way to distribute a fansub: video, or digital?
KA: Well, since we don't have our own server, and our good hosts at ProHosting have their limits, this kind of precludes us from distro'ing digitally. Initially, we had a problem with digital fansubs, mostly due to the facts that a) they don't degrade over time (which is, I think, kind of important to what fansubbing is all about) and b) they cross over international boundaries too easily, into places like Japan, where the programs can easily be had legally. However, with the rise of DivX, they are clearly becoming the wave of the future. It could be argued that there is less opportunity to profit with digital fansubs. Lots of weird issues at work, and of course, there are never any easy answers. But as VHS starts to fade into oblivion (it is worth noting that Panasonic's highest-end consumer VHS deck is now $114.95) I think digi-fansubs will start becoming more and more prevalent over ol' VHS tapes. Many of them certainly look better...
AF: I would think that it would involve less work, since you don't have to transfer the completed product to a videotape. Does distro'ing digital fansubs really cut as much time out of the process as it seems that it would?
KA: Only out of distro'ing. It's actually quite a bit MORE work to produce a digi-fansub file. Most Digi-fansubs are just regular fansubs that have been captured from their masters, compressed, and uploaded. That takes a while. The ones that are made on, say, Adobe Premiere, or the various ways of having removable subs are a lot more work to produce that a regular video fansub, IMHO... But to each his own. I don't really even like watching stuff casually on my computer. Maybe if I had a laptop and a long morning commute I'd think differently.
AF: On the subject of the fansub process, can you give us a little more insight as to what the typical fansubbing process usually involves?
KA: Oh, man. Well, everyone does it differently. But I'm lazy and I think there are other, better things to talk about, so I'll just point you to the Kodocha FAQ, where it's all spelled out. How other people do it is listed on fansubs.net. Sorry...
AF: That's cool.. is it ok if I just ask how many people are involved in your fansub process, and how long it generally takes to produce a single complete episode?
KA: That's fine... Fansubbing is generally done by one person, not counting the translator. In some cases, some of the tasks are split up, like one person takes care of rewrite, and someone else does the timing, someone else does the mastering. It varies significantly by project. I'd say, depending on how much effort and polish you put into it, it can take about 5 hours of work per TV episode. But there are 4 people in Kodocha right now. At times there have been up to 6, other times just John and myself. Sometimes projects involve up to 3 people. Sometimes just one.
AF: Wow.. there's a lot more that goes into it than meets the eye. I've noticed with some fansubs that the font/color of the subtitles are hard to read, or just don't fit the style very well.. is there a trick to tweaking the actual subtitles in those areas?
KA: It took me a long time to find just the right font/color. If you look at earlier Kodocha works, you can see me experimenting. Once a subber finds a style they like, they usually stick to it. Avoiding reddish colors helps a lot, 'cause those bleed all over the place. But just making them big enough to read is something a lot of fansubbers seem reluctant to do. They don't want to cover up too much of the picture.
AF: ::laughs:: I've noticed that myself.. It's a vicous circle, I suppose. Once you finally complete an entire project, how do you get the word out to the anime-loving masses?
KA: I used to post on newsgroups and the like, but we got accused of being too commercial for a non-profit group. Now we just post on a few mailing lists and the website, and let the word of mouth take care of it.
AF: In your opinion, how does fansubbing help to build an American fanbase?
KA: Raising awareness, mostly. Nobody can be a fan if they haven't seen it, right? Now with DVD's, there's a lot less intrusiton into commercial companies' domains. People see the fansub and they want it on DVD. And that's a good thing!
AF: One of the ideas behind fansubbing is to bring a series to the attention of the commercial companies, is that right? So that when they are eventually released, the company gets more money, to bring us more anime.. any idea if the commercial companies see this as a beneficial relationship?
KA: They used to, but now there's almost no point in doing that. The biggest influence fansubs ever had on commercial companies is getting the ball rolling with shoujo stuff. That happened with Fushigi Yuugi from Tomodachi, back in the good ol' days. It's gotten to the point where there's very little that's new that fansubbers can show commercial companies. But they may help in getting them to remember some old classics that have been overlooked. There's also stuff that's been fansubbed that will simply never come to America, and there will always be fansubs for that stuff.
AF: It seems like the companies themselves have been on a licensing spree lately, and many fansub sites have halted production of a series as a result of that.. it seems to be running rampant. Has this had an impact on fansubbers in general, or Kodocha Anime in particular?
KA: Yes, there were a few series, even a few that we hadn't thought would get licensed, that actually have, right as we were starting work on them. So we're pretty reluctant to start a new series. Since all of us are so busy, something like that is a big time investment. We've slowed down on Kodomo no Omocha because of the various rumors that I think everyone has heard already, and we're working on some classic takahata movies that I don't think anyone has seen. Good stuff, just gotta dig for it. :p
AF: When you say that you have been reluctant to start a new series.. do you think that is pretty widespread? Can we expect to see a slow-down in new fansubs because of this?
KA: I think that mindset is very widespread, and did a great deal to kill off a bulk of the fansubbers. It sounds like a bad thing, but I think it was a good thing because it was just getting too out of hand. Too many otaku are just wanting fansubs for a cheap anime fix, and there is not enough commercial company support. Now that licensing has slowed tremendously in the last year or two, we're seeing new growth, this time in DigiSubs. I want to liken it to the internet crash, but I'm finding it hard to make a comparison. Well, anyhoo, that's where it is today, and I think we're kind of in a rebound. Like the economy, these things happen in waves.
AF: Going back a moment to your comment on KNO...judging from the name of your site, I would think that you have a special place in your hearts for Kodomo No Omocha. What has made that(HUGE!) project so special for you? When did you begin work on it?
KA: That was our VERY FIRST project, back in '96. John took it to one of the last Manna showings we were there for, we looked at it, and said, "this is the most spastic, f---'ed show ever. We must sub it!" It was a hell of a first project, and continues to be a great learning experience. It's also developed one huge cult following. So yeah, it does have a special place in our hearts. I really hope it gets licensed so more people can see it! (Did I mention Babbit rocks? 'Cause he does...)
AF: I'm really fond of Kodocha (and Babbit!) myself too ^_^ In addition to that, what are some of your more memorable projects? Do you have a favorite?
KA: I'm always really proud of Kenji's Spring, even though I can't give copies away anymore, because I think that one came out so darn nice that almost everyone that sees it asks, "Is this a commercial release?" :D I'm also proud of Megazone 23 Part 2 because I did such an insane amount of additional work on that. Took me over a year. I think that was the most work ever put into a fansub by anyone. I did additional sound effects work (having never done anything like that before, that was a challenge, but it turned out pretty cool), produced a new opening, and of course, translated every single credit. I drive my translators insane with all of that kanji, but I'm so anal about credits. It's my trademark! :D
AF: Is there a project that stands out as being the most difficult, giving you the most trouble?
KA: Oh, easily Kodomo no Omocha. You realize that once the show switches to the new opening theme, the OPENING THEME will require translation notes?! (cries)
AF: I figured it would be that.. not just all that, but Sana talks sooooo fast! It has to be hard to time that and still have it display long enough to read. Tomodachi Anime had the same problem with Miaka sometimes ::laughs::
KA: It was at first, but that show has a very strong rhythm, and if you time it the old fashioned way (hitting the space bar to advance to the next title) it gets to be rather fun. WAV timing it is hell. Ah, Tomodachi... Karen is really the best.
AF: To change the subject (again.. heh..) What do you think of vendors selling tons of fansubs at conventions?
KA: They will all burn in hell. ^_^
AF: ::dies laughing:: ok ok ::regains composure:: back to the questions... What advice do you have for people who are new to purchasing fansubs?
KA: Do your research. Get them from people that others know and trust. Use good tapes, not the cheap crap you buy at K-mart. ALWAYS replace them with commercial copies first chance you get! Follow the rules. And if you get to Marmalade Boy episode 62, expect life to stop until you've finished the rest of the series.
AF: Do you have any tips for people who are thinking about doing their own fansubs?
KA: Two questions for those people:
1) Do you have lots of spare time?
2) Are you so otaku that you should be institutionalized?
If you answer yes to both, go for it, don't skimp on production, learn from the fansubs you like, and go nuts. Oh, and if a commercial company licenses it (and PAY ATTENTION!!) YANK IT!
AF: And be in it for the love of the art form, and not for the profit!
KA: Exactly. If you are making profit, you are just inviting lightning to strike you.
AF: Is there anything else you would like to add?
KA: Hmm... It's been a pleasure to get to know the fan community so intimately all these years. I hope Kodocha will be able to continue serving the otaku community for years to come! Or something all official-sounding like that...
AF: Great ^_^ thanks so much for your time!
KA: Thanks to you too!
Well, folks... There you have it, the skinny on the fansubbing world as it stands today. The future of anime around the globe looks very bright. Personally, I think we all owe a big kudos to the early fansubbers who helped to bring more of this art form to all of us, everywhere. If it weren't for these pioneers, where would we be now? Would we still be seeing anime shows on major networks? Would anime still be a vastly accepted art form? Would _you_ still have that huge collection of anime memorabilia on display somewhere in your house? I, for one, would rather not find out...