Returning the Love: Three Fans Taking the Next Step
Animefringe may be closing shop, but the legacy of fans working selflessly for other fans is still going strong.
Anime can be an inspiring thing. Just ask yourself if you've ever scribbled down your own personal version of a favorite character. Most of us in the fandom have done it, and many have failed miserably, but that's besides the point. What matters is that anime fans are a creative bunch, and ever since the beginning of the fandom, they have been active in sharing what they love with other people in ways beyond simply letting a friend borrow an old VHS tape.
Some fans have gone into the industry. Besides store owners and independent dealers getting the titles we love from one side of the world to the other, folks such as Seven Seas Entertainment and the now closed Studio Ironcat have worked next to the big fish (also full of fans) to do the dirty work of licensing, publishing and printing, so that when we step into a bookstore, there are now too many manga to digest.
However, fans also make many contributions outside of the industry ring. Websites, such as Animefringe, have been serving the anime community since the early days of the Internet, and as transfer speed has increased and file sharing has become easier, there are now fans who are spreading their love of anime to as many people as possible through the use of direct downloads and file sharing programs, such as BitTorrent.
Torrenting with the Box
One such fan is Box, owner of BoxTorrents, a torrent tracker website that requires all files to be of full series and which strictly enforces rules on share ratios. Whatever your stance on file sharing may be, itís not hard to admit that websites like these are popular and influential.
Animefringe sat down with Box and asked him few questions about his website.
Animefringe/Maria Lin: First, please tell us a little about yourself and why you decided to start BoxTorrents.
Box: Well, I'm a student at university in England who likes anime, martial arts, and sky diving, a recent hobby I've found. My reason for starting BoxTorrents was partly due to revenge, but I'll get to that in a bit. Before I went to uni, I had always wanted to make computer games. I took a computer games programming course at uni, but failed it in the second year. During this second year, I began to hate programming, and my dreams had changed. Well, part of it. The plan was to learn the skills needed, then go to Japan and make games there, as the Japanese are very passionate about video games and whatnot. With the making games idea out the window, I still wanted to go to Japan. I decided that if I planned on going there in the near future, I should probably get used to hearing the language. I had a search around and managed to find a place to download anime that was very small. I only had a 256kb connection, so nothing too big. My search ended with Sailor Moon real media files, with each episode being about 30 meg, all split into 15 meg halves. This was at #sailorcenter on rizon (now called sailormooncenter). I kinda liked this anime, and carried on downloading them until I managed to get them all. It took about three months as some episodes were very hard to get hold of. After I had them all, I decided to stick around and be a fileserver there. After a few weeks, I became a dedicated seeder and was given access to private rooms where I could download more anime and whatnot.
This went on for about three to four months before I became very ill. Whilst ill, I turned the computer off as the noise became deafening and I simply laid in bed. I couldn't even eat. Lost a stone in weight in almost a week (14lbs) which wouldn't be so bad if I didnít weight 140 lbs to start with. Anyways, after four days of turning the PC off, I could eat again and the headaches had calmed down, so I turned the PC back on to share my Sailor Moon files again. To my shock, the owner of the channel had kicked me off the distro list and told me that if I wanted to be back on it, Iíd have to earn her trust and what not. Four months of file serving means nothing if you've been away for four days apparently.
Needless to say, I was a little pissed off and told her where to go and said that I'd create something that would put that room to shame and share out the Sailor Moon episodes faster than she could imagine. In the couple of weeks before that argument, I had been looking into BitTorrent with a guy I met in that room. He wanted to start a subbing group, and asked if I knew about Bitorrent. I learnt about it, but then he screwed everything up and the group fell apart after one release.
So after the argument, I started up BoxTorrents, although at the time it was simply known as box-has.no-ip.com. I put up my Sailor Moon episodes onto that, which I ran from my own PC. Each torrent was a complete season of anime. It was totally unheard of, but the masses liked it. Within one month, the site had 3000 members and a few more torrents from other people who had asked to put torrents on there. I simply told them as long as it's complete and you will seed it when needed, you can upload any series you like. I had to move to a real server after that though, as it was too much for my 128kb upload to handle. For a couple of months, it was known as boxtorrents.tk or crackrock.com/box, and then in January, I moved to a new host and got a real domain, boxtorrents.com. Two years later, the siteís still going strong.
AF: Besides the tracker, BoxTorrents has a pretty big community on the forums and IRC. Do you deal with administrating everything yourself, or are there people who help you out?
Box: It does have a big community, much larger than I ever expected. At first, I ran everything myself, but after I moved to a real host, I had to get help, as I donít know anything about linux and can't code php very well at all. The bigger the site got, the more I had to delegate the work out. To be honest, I'm pretty useless now. I can only fix mysql crashed tables (simple fix buttons), sort out feuds on forums, and find sources of income to keep the site running, which is becoming increasingly more difficult, as advertisers donít want to touch a torrent site or pay a fraction of what they'd normally pay for a 'legitimate' site.
AF: Have there been any big problems with running your site? Have you ever felt like dropping the whole thing?
Box: There have been many problems on the site and I don't think there has been one month where I haven't wanted to pack it all in. It can get a little stressful when a few dozen users complain each week, but it gets very stressful when the staff fights with each other.
I've had three main admins I've hired in the past two years. The first one was going great for a while, but then he tried to make me buy his friend a $10,000 computer to run BoxTorrents from. I refused, and he settled for a new processor at $100. One month later, I was kicked off and he was gone. To be honest though, I didn't mind; $100 for about three months of hosting is pretty good. The next admin did a lot of coding and he made the site run faster than ever. He really was an amazing coder, but his people skills weren't so good. After a couple of months, he tried to take over the site and kick me off it. So I had to let him go at the first opportunity I could. ...It was tempting to just let him take it all, but I really didn't want to give it all away to someone like that. Then my final admin, who has been around for quite a while and hasn't let power go to his head, is still doing a grade A job.
The latest major stress was when my main forum moderator let the power go to her head, and after I took away the emergency admin account she used to ban someone for a private conversation on MSN, she decided to start her own anime BitTorrent website with the guy who hosted me, and she told all my forums mods if they wanted to be a mod on her site, they had to quit mine, and all but one did! So I had to find a new team of mods pretty quickly to replace her act of mutiny. A month after that happened, I had to get my own dedicated server to host on, as the other one wasnít good enough to run two torrent sites.
There were also money problems at one point. When I first had to pay for the site, I asked for donations instead of putting up ads. Donations were sent quickly and one bill was paid, but then someone told Paypal that I was selling pornographic material, and they shut down the account. That's when the ads started on site. Since then, advertisers get 'tip offs' that Iím selling porn, and they cancel their accounts with me too. Last month, I was down to one advertiser who was paying pennies ($17 for three million impressions, and another $15 for seven million impressions due to a few clicks). This is why popups and extra ads were placed on site. I can't ask for donations either, because the person who's grassing me up to these ad companies will surely do it to Paypal again, and then I'm screwed again.
Recently, a bunch of people signed up to the site then reported the e-mails to Spamcop, who contacted the host and told them to stop the site. When you have people who hate the site this much to try everything in their power to bring it down, it starts to make you think if itís all worth it. If a hobby gives you this much grief, you'd surely quit doing it. But for some stupid reason, I put up with everyone's crap and try to think of the enjoyment I get out of it. That IRC room I mentioned in the first question now uses BoxTorrents to host their episodes and whatnot now, so I guess I did beat them!
AF: The whole file sharing debate is constantly raging, and people have responded to it in different ways. Since things such as BitTorrent are in the middle of the debate, what's your take on company versus fan rights?
Box: I generally try to stay out of these fights. BitTorrent is still a gray area, which is lucky really. Personally though, I do think fans think they have more rights than they do. Companies pay a lot of money to buy anime, which they intend to sell. Fans think they have the right to see this for free, because Japanese people do. But even the Japanese pay for the TV shows they watch. The rest of the world doesn't have these rights that they think they do. I do like fansubs though, as they give us a chance to see them before we buy them. And I know what youíre thinking, "People don't buy anime if they can get it free." This is simply not true. I know a lot of people who have watched an anime series and then bought the DVD. The DVDs are very expensive and people aren't going to buy something unless they know they're going to like it. I myself downloaded and watched all of Chobits, yet I still went out and bought the $200 limited edition box set. For me, this was the only anime I've seen which was worth paying those insane prices for. If it wasn't for fansubs, that's $200 that the anime companies never would have gotten. So it works both ways. Downloading anime can make them money and lose it.
AF: What do you think has made BoxTorrents successful, while other trackers had crumbled or disappeared?
Box: The main reason I think BoxTorrents was successful is because of the rules I placed. I threatened to ban from day one anyone that didn't seed. People could only upload files after asking me for access to do so, and I only accepted complete seasons or series. All three of these things were relatively unheard of back then. It was often hard to download a whole series due to some episodes being harder to find that others. With BoxTorrents, it was a simple one click download to get everything. A very lazy site, but I figure if I don't like searching for single episodes, surely other people won't either.
Art Lovin' with Ashley Cope
Besides running a website of some sort, the other most common way that fans spread the anime love is through art. There are countless pieces of art out there, produced with greatly varying amounts of skill. Many people who start out copying their favorite characters eventually move on to something more original.
One such artist is Ashley Cope, webmistress of Casualvillain.com. Both Eastern and Western influences are evident in her art, and her gallery serves as an excellent example of just how complex and detailed illustration can be. Miss Cope kindly shared with us her inspirations, aspirations and ideas about art.
Animefringe/Maria Lin: First off, please tell us a little bit about yourself. How'd you get into art, and specifically anime? What are the major influences in your art?
Ashley Cope: I'm twenty-five, female, and my pale complexion defies my southern US homestate, but is on the money for my zombie fixation. I'm on the tail end of a bad case of Final Fantasy VII recidivism -- it's a sickness, you must realize -- and I like wasabi roasted peas an awful lot.
How did I learn to art? You kiddin'? I bought one've them How To Draw Manga books and went at it!
But not really. I can rattle off adorable tales that my mother's told me of my first foray into drawing. I was three, I believe, when I produced a picture of Bert and Ernie that so closely resembled them the daycare woman stole it. I suppose that was my first fanart. After my Sesame Street period, I moved into other, longer stretches of fandom-love: Disney Afternoon shows, Marvel comics, um, unicorns. Throughout high school, I did a lot of very detailed, photorealistic still-lifes in pencil. They were my trademark, along with a comic about a little duck (as in a Disney duck) with lightning powers. I could do groovy things with dried-out Crayola markers.
Then I rented My Neighbor Totoro one day, and I was hooked -- but not hooked on drawing fanart. It wasn't until I played Final Fantasy VII in college that I felt the need to learn how to draw this "annie-may" business.
I think the influence of this lifelong progression of interests is pretty apparent in my style. There's some Disney bounce and cuteness in there, some western painterliness and anal-retentive attention to detail, and finally, the anime, which comes out most in my drawing.
I adore anime. I'll occasionally watch something and just find myself slack-jawed and awed by the sheer inventiveness of a certain scene or angle or pose. Gankutsuou really blew me away. The production values and art direction in that show put so many other series -- Western and Eastern -- to shame.
AF: Have you ever had any problems from putting your work online? Has the Internet contributed in any way to your growth as an artist?
AC: Internet art theft is always a problem, but I don't think it's as detrimental as many artists claim. For instance, I have never once had a drawing or painting of an original character ripped off, but I have constantly -- even seven years after drawing certain pieces -- had fandom work swiped. People put it on shirts and sell the shirts on eBay, or sell prints off their little Geocities sites. Then there are the kids who blur out my email address and slap a pixilated GOKU1992 in the corner, just to get some attention on DeviantArt or Gaia Online. It's obnoxious, but I don't believe I have any intellectual rights to fanart anyway, so I don't get into an uproar like certain other fanartists when it happens. I don't feel the need to slap a watermark over the character or disable right-clicking on my site anyway...
I could rant about this for hours!
The Internet, on the whole, has done amazing things for artists. Aside from the magic of Google Image Search, there are awesome communities like DeviantArt that provide instant validation, encouragement, and -- most importantly -- criticism. I think criticism is very, very important but it is unfortunately ignored for the most part on Internet art communities. Constructive criticism is seen as insulting or harsh, and the artist is instead pampered into an inflated belief in their own skills. I have always preached "Embrace Your Suckage!" Know your suckage, and strive to lessen it. Never buy a compliment at face value. I'm a little crazy with this. It's probably unhealthy. Pay me no attention.
Back to the Internet. Part of the reason I draw is to please other people. Having those "other people" so easily accessible has been nothing but encouraging over the years, pushing me to find new ways to make fangirls coo over the shape of a bishounen's lips.
AF: Your gallery tends to have a reoccurring character or two -- the first that comes to mind is that scratched up blue guy, Murkoph -- and judging from your descriptions, there's a lot of back story behind them. Have you ever considered putting it all down into a comic or two? And if so, what sort of comic would you write?
AC: Oh-ho, how funny you should ask about a comic. Murkoph is, in fact, from a comic, and many of the other characters I draw make appearances in it. I'm loathe to give too many details away, as this story has been eating my brain for three years or so, and I am spastically possessive of it, but it's an adventure yarn and a love story and an (of course) epic fantasy with zombies and religion and boobs. Some day, when I am older and more inclined to starve for my art, I will abandon full-time employment and draw the sucker. Until then, I satisfy my muse by turning out the occasional digital painting.
I really am flabbergasted by how much people love Murkoph -- who is undead -- without ever knowing anything about him, aside from his being a "scratched-up blue guy." I receive fanart of him now and then, and more than the occasional email requesting his backstory. There is a necrophiliac need in some people that is going unfulfilled, I fear.
AF: What advice would you give someone who is just getting into drawing and illustration, but doesn't have the first clue where to start? For example, should they go out and grab a Wacom tablet right away?
AC: Of course not. I am a stuffy and boring old traditionalist when it comes to art. I spent four years at a very expensive and pretentious art college, which means absolutely nothing, but I feel I should at least feign erudition. Kids like to draw Yu-Gi-Oh! and Naruto for fun, and I think that's terrific, but if a young artist wants to some day have an artistic career, they need to realize that art is work. You have to train yourself. Training is strenuous and sometimes kind of boring. What's this mean? Turn off the frigging anime and draw from life. Draw yourself, your mother, your fat old grandfather, and your bedroom. Keep a sketchbook and draw a few hours a day. Leave Photoshop alone. Learn what reality looks like before you try to stylize it. Learn to draw with a pencil before ever picking up a stylus. That is a THREAT. I troll art communities anonymously, and I relentlessly but cravenly flame amateurs who think they can hide a bad drawing with shiny CG. Ah, but wait, I'm being an idealist again; there are a lot of professionals who think this flies too.
AF: Do you earn money for your art in any way? If so, how easy is it to make it as an artist? If not, how do you balance work with your art?
AC: I have a graphic design job that pays me reasonably well, but it's only marginally more fulfilling than answering phones or producing sandwich-themed artistry. My dream is to self-publish one of my comic books, but it's a long road and a lot of work, and I am lazier than I let on. In August, I managed runner-up in TOKYOPOP's Rising Stars contest, and it was a lot of fun to see something of mine in print at last. I've been stalking the bookstore and leaving copies face-up and prominent on the shelves. Other than the TOKYOPOP thing, in the past year I've managed to be featured on TechTV during a special on DeviantArt, been offered a comic book by a major publisher, and I beat God of War on God Mode difficulty. 2005 was a good one.
I am so pessimistic when it comes to artists and art careers, however. I can't think of any advice that isn't simply a gentle way of screaming "Run away!" I strongly believe, however, that hard work and dedication pay off in the end. If you want it, you'll find a way to get it. So no, it isn't easy to make it as an artist, but it's not impossible for the talented and the strong-willed. This is why I'm so often unemployed.
AF: There are a lot of vampires and pirates in your gallery, but no ninja love. Why no ninja love?
AC: I blame the lack of an official "Talk Like a Ninja Day." Really though, I think if an artist can't draw a ninja/samurai/ronin/severed limb as well as Hiroaki Samura [manga-ka of Blade of the Immortal] can, they should stick to pirates.
Enter the World of ReníPy with PyTom
Of the many people who say that they want to make a living as an artist, very few manage to actually pull it off. However, the number of artists out in the world is exponentially greater than the number of game makers.
The reníai game is another source of information for many fans. They enjoy the interactivity of being able to choose their own plots, and after playing a particularly good game, some may be interested in making a program of their own.
But unlike artists, who need little more than a pencil and paper to start working, someone who wants to make a ren'ai game faces many more hurtles. The biggest is often the immense amount of coding that it takes to make a simple rudimentary program, and this is also where most grand plans for a fan made interactive novel falter.
Enter ReníPy. Created by PyTom, ReníPy removes the necessity of rebuilding the wheel with each game by providing a format where all you need to do is provide the script, alter styles and parameters, and throw in some art. With this language, people who would otherwise be unable to even get started on a game have their biggest challenge overcome for them. Animefringe asked PyTom about his creation, and this is what he had to say:
Animefringe/Maria Lin: First, please explain a bit about what ReníPy is.
PyTom: Well, before I can describe what Ren'Py is, let me first describe what visual novels are. A visual novel is a type of storytelling that uses a computer to present a story to the user, one screen at a time, accompanied by images and music. In my opinion, the images and music help improve the immersiveness of the story over prose, while at the same time not requiring as much work per line of dialogue as manga. Since the story is presented using a computer, visual novels contain points at which the user can make choices that influence the ending of the story. This allows the user a degree of control that isn't found in other media.
Visual novels (which are known by a number of names in Japan) tend to focus on relationships between characters, as opposed to the action you see in more traditional computer games. Many of the games are romantic (ren'ai) games, focusing on the relationship between the POV character and one or more other characters. Although it's probably fair to say that the bulk of these games released in Japan have been adult in nature, many are not, and this hasn't been the case in the original English-language game community.
Ren'Py is a programming language and engine that makes it easy to create visual novel style games. It allows a game-maker to write the game in a simple language patterned loosely after movie scripts, and then have Ren'Py run the game. This executable script concept makes it possible to see a working game early in the development process, while at the same time allowing the game to be easily changed even after it's running.
The games produced with Ren'Py run on Windows, Linux/Unix, and recent versions of Mac OS X. With little to no extra effort to the game-maker, Ren'Py provides a number of features people have come to expect from modern visual novels, such as menus, loading and saving, variable speed text, auto-forward mode, skipping, rollback, and more. One of the benefits of having a reusable engine like Ren'Py is that it makes sense to invest more effort into it than could be justified for any single game, especially games that aren't being released commercially.
Ren'Py has been used to make a number of games, many of which are listed at the Ren'Py home page, http://www.bishoujo.us/renpy/. A number of people more talented then me have released some great games, so I advise going there and checking them out.
AF: Why did you decide to make this program?
PyTom: I decided to make Ren'Py after seeing some of the early original English-language visual novels out there, those released before early 2004. After playing the few games that existed back then, I wanted there to be more of them, and so I went about seeing what I could do to help make that happen.
The way I see it, there are a few roles that need to be filled in order to produce a visual novel. A writer is needed to come up with a story idea, and then write up a script for the game. I believe all successful OELVN projects have been lead by a writer or writer-artist. Artists are then needed to produce the various art assets for the game, such as character art, background art and music. Finally, a programmer is needed to create a game engine that shows everything to the user, and to put together the actual game.
I'm not much of a writer or artist, but I like to think I'm a fairly decent programmer. So I decided to write a game engine that could be shared between projects, one that allows writers to put the game together themselves. In this way, one only needs to get together the writer and artist skills to make a game, skills which we often see together in comics and manga.
Over a year after I started the current Ren'Py codebase, I think that much of this has come to pass. I find it really rewarding to have Ren'Py used to create great visual novels, and I look forward to playing new games as people make them.
AF: The community that's grown out of Ren'Py is pretty small, but very productive. Do you have any hopes or plans for it in the future?
PyTom: I'm not sure if that is the right question to ask me. It's like asking the guy who makes paintbrushes if he has plans for how those paintbrushes will be used. I'm sure he has some ideas... but if someone wants to use his tools to make something far greater then he originally imagined, so much the better.
That being said, let me just mention that the community is centered around the Lemmasoft Forums, http://lemmasoft.renai.us/forums/. That's where someone can go to discuss creating original English-language visual novels.
AF: Aside from the constant updates you make to Ren'Py, are there any other projects in the works that might be interesting to people who want to make their own ren'ai games?
PyTom: While I've been spending the bulk of my time on Ren'Py, I do have some other things I've been working on that I'll just briefly cover here.
First, let me mention my game, Moonlight Walks, which can be downloaded from http://www.bishoujo.us/moonlight/. I'll probably be releasing a slightly updated version 1.1 of it sometime soon, so keep an eye out for it.
I also host and help out running the The Ren'Ai Archive. This is a site that hosts all of the original English-language ren'ai games that we can find. By hosting the games in one place, we hope to make them easier to find, while at the same time providing some degree of permanence if the original creators were to disappear.
I also sometimes work on tools to help people make games. These include editors that make editing the Ren'Py code easier, and a new project that should help with making images.
Finally, a longer term project is to find ways of increasing the profile of the OELVN community in general, and Ren'Py in particular. I'm working on a tutorial session I can give at cons to teach people how to use Ren'Py, and also trying to find other ways to distribute the games in the archive to people.
These three people have very different skills and interests, but each are connected by the fact that their passion for their hobbies led them to create things that everyone can use and enjoy. So the next time your Inuyasha comes out looking just like Spike, put your pencil down and look deep inside yourself for the skills you might be able to use in unique ways to make your own mark on this highly creative fandom.