Anime and Fansubbing

GintamaWhen I got back into anime in 08, I grew attached to a particular comedy series called Gintama. I found its approach to be unique and was getting my laughs from a mix of parody, references, word play, character interactions, and situation comedy. Much of the humor in the show is hard to understand for an outsider who isn’t submerged in the culture, myself included. For me, some of the anime references were easy to grasp, but there was so much material touching on Japanese pop culture (music, celebrities, commercials, manga, anime, companies, etc) that totally went over my head. Thankfully, the fansub group I was watching it through provided enough notes for me to understand. I know some say that if you have to have the joke explained to you, it’s not funny anymore. However, I appreciated the notes as I was able to grasp why it was funny as well as learn a bit of their popular culture at the same time.

I was in awe by the amount of effort put into the show by this group of fansubbers. It seemed like such a hard show to do regarding the amount of research that needed to be done to provide the information necessary for outsiders to understand. As I worked my way through the series, I finally caught up to that group’s most current release. Needless to say, I craved for more. The series was still ongoing but the releases from the group were too few and far in between. With no other options, all I could do was wait. When Crunchyroll picked up the show, I was somewhat happy that I could watch the episodes sooner. However, as I started to watch, I realized how much I missed the quality and notes that I was getting from the fansubbed episodes.

Azumanga Daioh - Episode 1 DVDSometime around the end of 2009, I stumbled across my daughter watching Azumanga Daioh on DVD. Having forgot that I had it, I sat in and took a peek for a bit. The blocky default font of the subtitles made me cringe a little after having been exposed to quality fansubs for a good while. It was then that I decided to take on a little project. I thought it would be fun and interesting to take the show and do a little fansub of my own. I downloaded the necessary tools and ripped the videos and subtitles from the DVDs. I fixed the timings, stylized the subtitles to my liking, and even threw in some notes here and there for the things I could find through the internet. I also took a crack at trying to make some karaoke effects which I had seen from the various fansubs I had been watching. I was pretty happy with the end result, considering it had been my first time doing such a thing.

My subbed version of episode 1After I was done with the first episode, the thought finally crossed my mind. Maybe I should’ve checked if another group had done this show. Sure, I was doing it more for the idea of improving something in my collection and to learn, but if someone had already done it well, then I didn’t want to waste my time. After some searching, I soon found that it had been done and the quality seemed to be good enough compared to what I had created. I was left wondering if I should continue the project seeing as the show had already been done and there was no way I would be able to explain some of the notes and references on my own. I could easily just use their scripts and change the styles if I didn’t like it. After some thought, I decided to drop the project. However, I didn’t want my new found knowledge and experience to go to waste. Since I had been a fan Gintama and had a lot of respect for the sub group, I figured I’d go ahead and apply for a position with them. I joined with the thought of hoping to help the team get their releases out in a more timely fashion. It was then that I officially started my “job” as a fansubber.

TS desktop
snapshot of my typical workspace.
Being a fansubber definitely keeps me as busy as any real job would, but minus the pay. It’s roughly about a workday’s worth of work per episode, depending on the complexity of the show. My perspective is simply from that of a typesetter (and now as a bit of a team lead as well). I couldn’t even remotely imagine how difficult translation must be when taking into consideration the accents and dialects used by the characters, overlapping dialog lines, and the amount of research and knowledge needed of Japanese culture, history, and such other factors. As a typesetter, it’s my duty to put up translations for the various signs you see in the show. For those who don’t know, signs are on-screen text. These signs can be in the form of sound effects, emotions, descriptions, or an actual object (like books, signs, papers, labels, etc). Not only do I have to put the word on the screen, but I have to match it in terms of the style and if it is in motion on screen. Picking out the right style can take a while because I have to dig around for a font that resembles the text. As for motions, sometimes it’s as easy as using a single line move command. Other times, I have to use several moves or match it frame by frame due to the motion being jittery or inconsistent. This can result in hundreds of lines just for a single word moving on screen. I’ll admit I took the short route with some of my typesetting because the scenes were long in duration. Doing a frame by frame move would take forever and I didn’t want the release to be held up because of that. However, I typically aim for quality regardless of the amount of work involved. Especially since our group has built a reputation for quality.

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I have also learned to do karaoke effects to some extent, which is an entirely different beast on its own. In order to learn it, I had to pretty much study the program documentation thoroughly and play with it to get a feel for the capabilities of each effect. I also studied several examples of other karaoke effects and had to delve into the Lua programming language. I still have a long way to go but I can at least output some decent effects. I’m pretty much limited to my CPU speed though, as processing certain effects brings my system to a crawl. Making tweaks and edits becomes painful since I have to wait minutes sometimes to apply new changes. It really wears on my patience and takes a toll on my productivity. Maybe when I finally upgrade my rig, I’ll get back into working on my kara skills and making those fancy particle effects that you see out there. My latest karaoke touched on it a bit and ended up being about 20-30k lines in the subtitle program after running the script (it used to generate around 70k lines, but I reduced the amount of particles produced quite a bit).

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I think a majority of anime consumers out there tend overlook the hard work and dedication that goes into fansubbing. Being on the inside has opened my eyes. None of these fansub groups get paid for what they’re doing and there’s no glory to be sought after. Most simply do it for their love of anime (though that can get lost in the process considering the amount of effort involved). As I was on my way in the door, there were also 1-2 people on their way out of the group with several years of fansubbing experience under their belts. It just became too time consuming for them as they were trying to move on with their personal and professional lives. I often wonder how I myself have the time for it, considering I’m a father of two and could think of several things far more productive that I can do with my time. It’s a fairly unforgiving job as well. If a group makes a mistake on a release, often times people will quickly turn away and look elsewhere for subs. It can be hard for individuals to catch every error, especially since most are striving to deliver the episodes within a timely manner. We’re all only human, after all. One should think about the effort of the individuals involved in this unpaid and purely voluntary endeavor.

after finishing work on an episode

I’m not going to get into the debate about fansubs and their relation to the anime industry (legal aspects, how it affects the market, etc). I just thought I’d provide a little peek into the fansubber’s world. I also wanted to shed some light on these individuals who deliver anime to the masses by providing such releases. To the people who nitpick about particular aspects of the episodes and delays, maybe they should consider joining in on the effort. That’s what I did. It’s quite an involved process and a learning experience. It can be stressful at times, and since you are working with other people, drama can sometimes ensue (thankfully no first hand experience of that at this point). Despite this, I don’t mind the work so much. My interest in the culture and language drive my efforts a bit as well.

In this day and age of streaming and simulcasts, I sometimes wonder if fansubbing may be approaching its demise. Until that happens, I’ll still be here doing my best to provide a means for fellow anime fans to watch their favorite shows in a timely fashion… at least for as long as I’m able to outside of real life obligations.

If you’re curious about the shows I’m involved in, check out the Rumbel-Subs website for Gintama, and Tomodachi-subs for Bakuman.