Answerman Weary Optimism
by Justin Sevakis, Apr 4th 2014
Hello! How are you guys? I am super!
I just got my new Mac Pro back from repair shop. It is my baby. Baby is home. Baby is happy to be home. I am happy to have baby home.
Without baby I cry a lot. I sleep next to where baby sleeps, and I curl up into a C. "Where is baby?" I howl in my sleep. But baby is not there. I sad.
But now baby is home and I happy.
I now use baby to answer your questions.
I entered the anime fandom in late 2012, well into the Blu-Ray era. I buy shows on Blu-Ray whenever possible, only going for DVDs when a BD isn't available. However, I hear the rumors of 4K on the rise, and I look at all the otaku of yesteryear with rows upon rows of SD shows that have since been released in HD and neither the money nor the will to upgrade them all, and I can't help but think "Man, that'll be me in 15 years." Of course anime will be created at a higher digital resolution as the market demands it, but what of today's HD shows? Do you think many of them will be upscaled like SD shows before them to whatever comes next? Would it fair better or worse than current upscales, since BD=2xDVD height, and 4K=4xBD height? How about older hand drawn animation that has none of the give-and-take of upscales?
Everyone needs to calm down about 4K. It is really not that big of a deal. In fact, for the average home consumer, even a video savvy one, its importance will rank equal or slightly under that of 3D. Which is to say, it's not important at all.
The TV industry is desperate. Everyone bought a fancy new flat panel 5-7 years ago, and since consumers basically think of TVs like a stove or refrigerator, they're not all that excited to upgrade them more than every 10 to 20 years. And so sales are flat or declining, and TV manufacturers are trying to think of all sorts of new features to tack onto them. But there's really just not much you can add that will make that much of a difference.
4K is roughly 4 times the number of pixels of 1080p, it's true. But the fact of the matter is, for TVs that are less than, say, 70", you need to be sitting only a foot or two away from the screen in order to see the difference. Now, 4K is a nice thing for an unrelated reason, which is that the optics of the display need to be better in order to display 4K. But the actual 4K content itself isn't going to make much of a difference in terms of visual clarity. It's just like how people used to get all worked up over how many megapixels their digital cameras shot in. After a while, it just didn't matter anymore, and despite what people thought of as a magic number, the quality of the optics made a much bigger difference.
The boost in quality from DVD to Blu-ray was a big one, but that wasn't just about resolution. When you're paying for a Blu-ray upgrade from a DVD, what you're mostly paying for is the remastering -- especially if it was shot on film. The technology and practices used to scan film into digital format has improved significantly over the last decade (and many DVDs re-used old analog master tapes anyway). Blu-ray also uses much more advanced video compression technology than DVD. Even if you're upscaling a digipaint show, the extra quality from Blu-ray's better compression can make a noticeable difference. It's literally impossible to tell the difference between a properly made Blu-ray and a master tape. (Believe me, I've tried.)
But is it possible for shot-on-film anime to look any better than it does on Blu-ray? In my opinion, no. The film used for most anime in the 80s and 90s was usually a little blurry, and its equivalent digital resolution is significantly less than 1080p in many cases. For a movie like Perfect Blue or Galaxy Express 999, if you were to watch the new master scaled back down to 720p, or maybe even 480p it would be hard to tell.
Anime is just line art, after all. We can already see the shape of pen and brush strokes, scuffs on the cells, dirt on the negative. Past a certain point, and I think we've reached that point already, the only thing that you're going to be able to see clearer is the shape of every individual film grain. I don't think that's an important feature in a visual presentation.
It's my honest-to-god belief that Blu-ray represents the point of diminishing returns for both audio and video quality in the home. (4K is probably as good as will ever be necessary in a movie theater.) Future formats might be smaller and more portable (likely living in the cloud), but any better resolution is of limited practicality.
I rarely buy DVDs and Blu Rays, generally I just simulcast. But I occasionally buy some to support a show I like or just want to make sure I will always have access to them. So naturally, I don't know much about the differences between discs and simulcast. The reason I ask is because I'm currently watching The Pilot's Love Song and I am enjoying the story, sort of, but I am finding the production values really bad. The faces are almost always distorted and the animation beyond the few rare aerial scenes is pretty choppy. While I don't anticipate it, should I be hopeful for improvements by the time discs come out? Are there incidents you know where that happened?
I don't know specifically about what fixes might be planned for The Pilot's Love Song, but the majority of anime get fixed up a bit before their home video releases these days, so it's a good bet that that one will be too. It used to be that only a few REALLY bad scenes or episodes got cleaned up for video, but with digital production making do-overs much cheaper and easier (and with more and more animation being outsourced to other Asian countries), it now happens more often than it doesn't, especially on shows that are expected to sell in decent numbers. Although a lot of times the differences are hard to spot.
Even theatrical movies get an extra polish before being released on home video, where anime nerds will pick it apart frame by frame, take screenshots of anything that doesn't look right, and otherwise analyze the final product. TV and theatrical release might be the hard deadline for an animation crew to finish a show, but it's home video where the pressure is really on to put out a good product. One might argue that the fixes are still not plentiful enough on some shows!
It seems like every now and again, when the stars align just right, an anime becomes a major phenomenon that anime fans in every circle can't stop talking about. Just to list two recent examples: Madoka Magica and Attack on Titan. Madoka Magica has been licensed and dubbed very successfully and at a very high price. People get anime, dubbing companies make money, everyone's happy. It's a good thing. Attack on Titan has become an Internet phenomenon the likes of which I've never seen before out of an anime and was more or less guaranteed to be dubbed and given a very nice box set at its conception. But isn't it relatively easy to tell that those productions will do well and people will buy into them and pay for the nice box sets with art books and cast commentaries, as opposed to lesser known shows? I recently read in your column that it can take 7k-8k to dub a single episode of anime (ouch). So how does a dubbing company like Funimation justify dubbing shows like Fractale, Medaka Box, or Aria the Scarlet Ammo when they can't predict how well those shows will do? Do more popular dubs subsidize the cost of less popular ones or do they only dub shows that are expected to, at the very least, break even and pay for themselves?
Well, they're not TRYING to produce something that won't be a hit. They run the numbers. They look at the quality of the show, how big its fan following is, how many people watched the simulcasts. They look at similar titles, and how they sold in the past. And only then will they decide to take the plunge. Funimation won't bother licensing a show that they don't think will make enough money to make back their production costs. It's a guess, as with everything in the entertainment business, but it's as educated of a guess as they can manage. The whole business of entertainment is dependent on being right more than you're wrong, or at least having the successes bring in enough money to pay for the mistakes.
And there are mistakes, without a doubt. Funimation never would have licensed, say, Big Windup had they known it would sell as little as it did. When you're wrong about a title that you invested in, you lose money. When you're right, you make money. It's like buying stock -- hopefully you're right more than you're wrong, because otherwise you're broke and out of business.
For what it's worth, Funimation (and Sentai) does their own dubbing in-house with local talent and salaried technical and creative staff. They don't need to rent a studio, or pay the overhead to oursource all of that to another company, and that saves them a lot of money. I would fully expect that this allows them to cut their costs per episode down to significantly under the $7k figure that it costs for other companies.
It's hard not to notice that your answers hardly ever stray from a world-weary cynicism that some would call "pessimism", and likely you'd call "realism" after seeing intimately the hidden working of the system for so long. It makes for an entertaining read but some times, after a particularly bleak column, I cannot help to feel a bit bummed. So today I'll try to break a bit the pattern: Can you tell us about the most positive, most promising and hope-rising trends and tremors in the industry that maaaay herald a slightly brighter future?
Let me tell you a story. Once, back when I was still in college and working for Central Park Media, we had to work on a library of titles starring B-movie actress Kei Mizutani. The movies were terrible and nobody wanted them. One day our illustrious president John O'Donnell asked me, in his usual "I've got something to teach you" voice, why I thought he bought those movies.
I replied, "because you could get all of 'em really cheap?" Stunned, having been called-out on his game, John walked away muttering, "God, you're a cynical f###."
That was when I was 20. I hadn't yet seen the US industry set fire to itself, witnessed Japan's descent into pedophilia and incest tropes, or teenaged fans twist themselves into knots trying to morally justify never paying for anything. I was already a grumpy realist. Webster's Dictionary defines cynicism as "believing that people are generally selfish and dishonest," and if I went into my career a decade and a half ago already believing that, I would say I have been vindicated.
But cynical does not mean pessimistic, and when asked about the state of things today, I'm actually quite the optimist. There is a regular, stable group of anime fans that buy DVDs and Blu-rays. License fees have fallen to a point where they are relatively reasonably priced, and an American publisher can reasonably be expected to buy the rights to a show, produce subtitles (or occasionally a dub), put it on sale, and make a decent profit. That happens today.
Japanese and American companies came together to offer new anime series simultaneously with their Japanese premieres, in a legal and ethical way, for free, and in doing so, reduced rampant piracy to a small subset of fandom. There is more anime being made today than at any time in history -- counting sequels and short series, I count 55 new shows this season -- and a few of them are actually accessible to "normal" Americans. All but a handful of shows every season are simulcast for free to North America, and the rest of the world is slowly starting to get more of them as well.
Toonami is back on Cartoon Network (and although it's not what it once was, it's a thing people watch). We had two anime nominated for Academy Awards this year. Classic shows that most of us thought would never be available Stateside are being freshly subtitled and put out on DVD and streaming sites left and right, and are finding an audience. There is so much anime being released and subtitled right now that fans are embarrassed for choice. While we've lost Satoshi Kon and Osamu Dezaki and we're supposedly losing Hayao Miyazaki to retirement (and will likely lose a handful of other old men soon), there are some interesting new filmmakers sprouting up to take their place. None are quite there yet, but the effort is there.
Anime is interesting and lucrative enough to have dedicated staff at Hulu, Netflix is buying anime directly, and entertainment conglomerate Chernin Group just invested millions into Crunchyroll. Bourgeois parents show their kids My Neighbor Totoro as often as they do The Little Mermaid. Classics from the 80s and 90s are being remastered in HD and look amazing. Anime is cheaper to buy than it's ever been (unless you count the post-crash fire sales).
Make no mistake, far from being bad days, we are in a golden era for both anime production and consumption. There has never been a better time to be an anime fan, to buy anime on physical media, to watch anime even though you might be broke. Some of the publishers or professionals might gripe, might be barely scraping by, are having to work really hard to keep their business going, but that's their jobs, and those aren't easy jobs. If they're smart and scrappy, they'll find new ways to keep pushing forward. Entertainment has never been easy or stable.
We might see a contraction in the future. There will certainly be bad times ahead. There are certainly a number of people in this industry who I would affectionately refer to as pieces of human garbage, and many, many others who I have a lot of respect for and I consider to be wonderful human beings. Fans consume in the easiest, cheapest way possible and gripe about it afterwards. This is the way things are and the way things always will be.
Don't mistake cynicism for negativity. Things are good. We are lucky. Enjoy yourself, enjoy this weird little financial ecosystem we have, the weirdly sexualized cartoons we adore, and the oddballs at conventions. Enjoy the flame wars, the petty arguments, the ludicrous analysis of screenshots comparing different pirated copies of Blu-rays. Enjoy the paranoid gossip of industry, the exhausted smiles of studio representatives, the frustrated panic of delayed simulcasts. We are lucky to have all of these things, and our wealth is not diminished for their existence.
I will continue to point out when the dreams of those on the sidelines don't match up to reality, because that is my job. In doing so I will continue to make things sound dirty and awful, because compared to dreams, they are and always will be. But if you stand back, and really take in the sum of things, it's pretty much impossible not to smile at this, at all of this.
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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