Answerman Tech Specs
by Justin Sevakis, Aug 16th 2013
Thanks to everyone that came out to see us at Otakon last weekend! We had a great time, and while an unfortunate technical issue ate our recording of the live ANNCast we did, I had a great time meeting all of the listeners that we normally don't get to see.
Also, can we talk about pit beef for a second? Bamboo, Mike Toole and I made the trek out to the legendary Chaps Pit Beef, a legendary little pit stop (that happens to be in the parking lot of a strip club) that has all sorts of amazing meat sandwiches and barbecue. Anime is fun and all, but this was the highlight of my weekend -- pork ribs so tender they fall off the bone, 4 different kinds of meat piled high on a single bun, and an incredible horseradish sauce known as Tiger Sauce. It was a $30 cab ride each way, but totally worth it. I will cry myself to sleep at night thinking about it.
Anyway, onto some anime questions.
Exactly how "bad" of a problem is reverse-importation? I'm sure most of us are well aware that anime is much more expensive in Japan, but do a majority of Japanese consumers actually import series from the U.S.? I remember that when Persona 4: The Animation was released on Blu-ray, a lot of people were angry due to Sentai Filmworks not including the Japanese dub. Why did Sentai take these measures when other companies like Funimation don't?
To be honest, nobody really knows just how bad the reverse-importation problem really is. There is simply no good way of tracking how many copies of a Blu-ray get mailed from America to Japan. Once a disc gets shipped to the retailer or wholesaler, there's simply no way for any publisher to see where it's going. A Hollywood studio might be able to commission multi-million dollar studies into such activity, but the anime industry obviously doesn't have that kind of money.
To recap for those who aren't familiar, "reverse-importing" is the term for when Western anime discs get imported BACK into Japan. Since the discs are so much cheaper (and the revenue from them, much more indirect), the show's producers see far less revenue from those sales, and that causes huge concern about sales of the regular high-priced discs, because the very production of the show depends on the money that those discs generate. (For more info, see my Anime Economy article.)
Reverse importing has always taken place, but back in the DVD era it wasn't such a big concern. Region codes on DVDs made playing back American discs in Japanese players impossible for all but the more technically savvy consumers who knew how to get around such things, and that limitation kept people from buying the American discs en masse. But since Blu-ray has fewer regions, and the US and Japan now share a single region code, the floodgates have opened. Now, importers are buying American discs wholesale, stocking them in Japan, and placing them on Amazon Marketplace (Japan), where they appear side-by-side with the Japanese discs at a far lower price. Anime producers are freaking out.
Last year, a few licensors noticed that, if they searched for their shows on Amazon.jp, the American discs were outranking the Japanese ones in the search results -- meaning that those reverse-imported discs were probably overtaking the Japanese ones in sales, at the time they did the search anyway. It looked like they might have to take drastic measures, cutting off all American Blu-ray releases in order to protect sales of Japanese discs. Luckily, a new technique of programming the discs, wherein the players are asked for their country of origin, was discovered, and crisis was averted.
The dub-only Blu-rays that were released (I know of only Persona 4 from Sentai, and Kurokami from Bandai) were a product of licensor demand, possibly after the contract was signed and license fees were paid, and those companies decided that in those cases a dub-only Blu-ray was better than none at all (which is debatable, but certainly their prerogative). Other publishers may have made other choices. For now, I expect the new country code protection to prevent additional releases like that from happening. The protection isn't foolproof, but like region codes, it's hopefully good enough to prevent the less tech-savvy from buying them.
What are the technical differences between creating subtitles for DVDs and Blu-ry Discs? And were HD-DVDs any better or worse?
Subtitles are a pain in the ass. No other part of making a DVD or Blu-ray is as complicated, error-prone, or as likely to be called out on mistakes by fans. They're also one of the hardest parts of making a DVD or a Blu-ray, due mostly to how complicated they are.
What all three of those formats had in common was that they get rendered as bitmap graphics, which then get layered on top of the video. DVD is so old that only four colors are used, and one of those colors has to be "clear" so that you can see the video from under it. One color needs to be black, for the outline of the text. Some discs use both colors for subtitles (yellow and green, for example), while others use one for anti-aliasing, to make the text look less jaggy. Subtitles are fed into the authoring program as a pile of either BMP or TIFF files, along with a timecoded script to note each image's start and end timecodes. Most TV anime runs about 400 subtitle graphics per episode.
Blu-ray and HD-DVD subtitles work pretty much the same way, except they can now utilize a 256 color palette, and are fed into authoring as transparent PNG files. Obviously, those formats also allow for a mix of resolutions and frame rates, so the subtitles have to be rendered in a way that matches the video.
One major issue is that only one of these subtitle graphics can be displayed at a time, so if there are any overlapping subtitles (say, a character holds up a sign while talking), they have to be chopped up into different graphics (i.e. line_0001.png has only the first subtitle, line_0002.png has both, and line_0003.png has only the second subtitle). There are myriad software packages out there that let you make subtitles and render them as graphics, and most are pretty terrible.
When a player reads a video track, the video, audio and subtitles are all "muxed" together into a Program Stream. The subtitles get temporarily loaded ("buffered") into RAM after they're loaded off the disc, to get ready to show on screen at the right time. Unfortunately, Blu-ray players were designed not to have enough RAM to accomplish this well, so if you have too many subtitles displaying too quickly, the whole thing goes to hell: the subtitle renderer on the player crashes, and starts displaying gibberish, or turns off entirely. (Some DVD players have a similar issue, as Right Stuf discovered when they made their epic His And Her Circumstances DVDs.) There's also a related issue with subtitles blinking every time they refresh, which can be worked around, with great difficulty.
Blu-rays were originally supposed to fix all of this by allowing text script subtitles instead of graphics based ones, but that feature ended up not working at all, and no disc that I know of uses it. Did I mention that Blu-ray is an ungodly mess of a format? For what it's worth, I have no idea if HD-DVD had these issues -- that format didn't last long enough for anybody to start pushing the envelope.
Why are the Japanese audio tracks and subs not included with digital purchases? I'd like to buy more anime digitally but if I don't like the dub and I'd rather watch it subbed well... I can't because it's not there. There are a couple of shows on iTunes that are "original Japanese language" versions but that's all I can find. However those are only sub no dub. It seems kind of backwards to me considering even Netflix has Japanese tracks and sub options for a lot of its anime selection.
It's one of those things that is much harder to do than it would seem at first glance. Having removable subtitle and multiple audio tracks is incredibly challenging to do technically, and very few of the existing technologies on which digital video services are built support them. And really, few customers other than anime fans really demand the ability to switch between different languages while they're watching something, so developing such features tends to be extremely low priority.
Think about what it would take to accomplish this. First, you would have to redesign your interface on every supported platform to make audio and subtitle switching possible. You'd have to reprogram all of your internal transcoding to accept multiple audio tracks. You'd have to ask for subtitles and separate audio from your content partners, synchronize them by hand, check to see that there are no sync issues, and do a quality control pass for every one of those tracks. That's a lot of work, and would require you to hire more people.
Then there's that whole issue with bandwidth. If you're streaming the video as it downloads, do you really want to add an additional audio track to the stream, and one that won't be used most of the time? It'll bring down the video quality, and make it more likely the player will stutter or have to buffer. That's a much bigger problem for most customers. Or, you can stream the audio separately and have the player software keep the two in sync, but that's a gigantic engineering challenge, and no commonly available streaming technology does this. You'd have to INVENT YOUR OWN FROM SCRATCH.
See what I mean? If you're that intent on offering both a subtitled and dubbed version of an anime, it'd be far easier to just have two copies of the video lying around, and most companies don't want to deal with that. How Netflix does it, I don't quite know, but I do know that they invest far more into research and development than any other online video platform. Most other companies know that 90-95% of their customers would never even notice a secondary audio track, and given the insane amount of time and money they'd have to spend, it's just not worth it.
Subtitles, which also double as closed captions for hearing-impaired viewers, are much more useful to the world at large, and many online video services have started adding those, although how much content is available like that is spotty. But there are some pretty major logistical challenges to bringing multiple audio tracks to the video world, and not a whole lot of demand for it, so I expect many online video services not to bother any time soon.
And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.
Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.
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