Discs of Steel

by Justin Sevakis,

Got slammed with work this week, so I've spent most of this week cocooned in my office making discs and stuff. Aside from eat some really amazing sushi and going to see The Wind Rises finally, I've done nothing particularly interesting. However, a friend of mine, taking advantage of new domain name suffixes that have gone on sale, successfully registered the domain name

That was pretty much the best thing that happened.

James asks:

Crowdfunding seems to be the new big thing. I have kickstarted many comic (including Tezuka's The Creator, yet to be released) and bigger games like Mighty Number 9. I know Mai Mai Miracle and Little Witch Academia 2 got funded quite well. Do you see other companies following in the footsteps of Anime Sols to get some higher end more poplar anime and manga released in North America that has not been licensed here like JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, First Of The North Star, etc.?

Yes and no. Crowdfunding, in its current form, is great for small-sized projects that require money, but not a ton of money. Short films like Little Witch Academia 2 and Kick-Heart. Localized DVD and Blu-ray releases like Time of Eve, Bubblegum Crisis, Mai Mai Miracle, and everything Anime Sols has been putting up. It's great for stuff like that, where a company isn't sure about demand, the Japanese rights-holder is openminded and patient, and the fans are numerous enough to rally behind the show.

But crowdsourcing has its limits. On the high-end, if a show is popular enough, there's no reason to bother with a Kickstarter: all of the rewards and stretch goals are a huge additional amount of work and expense (as is soliciting all of the fan input that some Kickstarter producers feel obliged to listen to). If the audience is a sure thing, it's way more efficient (and makes more business sense) to just fund it yourself, if you have the money. And at the low end, not enough fans materialize and you don't get funded.

When dealing with anime content, not getting funded can have real damage in your business relationships. Anime Sols, which has regularly struggled with getting enough awareness for its campaigns, recently reminded fans that if their campaign for the last box set of Creamy Mami -- one of the original classics in the Studio Pierrot library -- doesn't go through (and as of this writing, it's in very real danger of failing), Pierrot is unlikely to give the whole crowdfunding idea another shot. Same goes for crowdfunded release efforts from other companies who are still a little on the fence about the whole thing.

With anime fandom being the size that it is, there are very real limits to how much funding an anime project can hope to achieve. Little Witch Academia 2 is the current high water mark at US$625,000, and that's for a short film. With anime features and series budgeted into the seven figures these days, it seems like we're still a ways away from being able to make a major animated work via crowdfunding. (And that was a sequel to a popular existing short. An original concept would never have gotten so much love.)

Crowdfunding is interesting and exciting, but it's not the magical financial cure-all that some fans think it is. That said, it's early days in the field, and who knows what will happen in the future. It could be a fad that falls apart in a few years after a high-profile disaster or two; or it could get refined and become a real business model. All I know is that for now, it's a useful tool for a very specific kind of project, and doesn't fit much else.

As I'm sure people in the forums will point out, Discotek has released the entire Fist of the North Star franchise on DVD already. So... that one didn't need a Kickstarter campaign to get released. Perhaps some other classics won't either.

(Full disclosure: I am making the Time of Eve Blu-ray, and perhaps one other Kickstarter disc that hasn't been 100% formalized in my direction yet.)

Nick asks:

Recently, I saw Macross Plus for the first time - I'd been aware of it for years, but it never found its way onto my to-view list until now. I thought the series was fantastic, and was excited when I remembered that a blu-ray set that includes both OAV and movie versions was released in Japan not too long ago. I've considered importing it, given how old the R1 DVDs are now, but I'd rather not drop the cash if there's the potential it could be released here. I have no wish to re-hash the question of the Macross series' licensing limbo, but since Manga Entertainment successfully released all of Macross Plus on VHS and DVD, is there a chance they'd be able to bring over the blu-rays? Or is Plus now as paralyzed as the rest of the Macross franchise when it comes to the possibility of a North American release? Would you recommend them as a solid import?

Ah, Macross Plus. One of the best anime of the 90s, without a doubt. Not too many anime you can watch with your dad and have him be as excited for the next episode as you are. (Well, maybe not JUST as excited, but close enough.) Even today, the series holds up really really well.

I did indeed buy the Japanese Blu-ray boxed set that came out last year. While I'm glad I bought it, it's got its issues. The biggest problem is how English was treated on the discs: the OAVs don't have subtitles, and the subtitles on the movie version are... shall we say, not the most accurate things in the world. If you preferred the English dubbed version, which hasn't aged all that well but still features Bryan "Heisenberg" Cranston in a stand-out performance, you've got issues to contend with there too. Bandai Visual apparently never secured Manga Entertainment's dub of the fourth and final episode.

The fourth episode, for those of us old enough to remember the show's VHS release, had some issues with the isolated music-and-effects audio track used to make the dub, causing a six-month delay. Manga Entertainment, eager to get the much-anticipated finalé to its gigantic hit series onto store shelves, ended up literally buying the soundtrack CDs and piecing together a completely new M&E track for the episode. I don't know that this was done without permission, but the US companies did a lot of things without permission back then. I'm sure there was probably a fight as to who should pay for what (Bandai Visual was taking the English masters back to Japan and releasing them locally as the "International Version"). Rather than take Manga's cobbled-together English dub (which sounds pretty good, but clearly doesn't sound like earlier episodes), they made their own.

And therein lies the rub: as former Manga staffers have mentioned, once the series was complete many of the principle cast could no longer be booked for anime work, which was the excuse they gave when fans asked why they never bothered dubbing the movie version. So, Bandai Visual recast the show entirely for the last episode. David Hayter is recognizable as Isamu, as are a few other LA regulars, but this alternate dub is ATROCIOUS. The script sounds like it was written by someone who didn't know English all that well, and the actors slog through their lines as if they were forced to turn off their brains in order to even read dialogue that clumsy.

And so, between the messed up subtitles on the movie and the messed up dub on episode 4, I really can't recommend the Japanese Blu-ray to non-Japanese speakers. Which is a shame, because the video is absolutely gorgeous. Even the early CG work, which was printed onto film and then re-scanned to digital, came out looking pretty darn nice. At some point I'll take the time to reassemble the discs for my own personal collection, but I've just been too busy. When you spend most of your time authoring anime Blu-rays, the last thing you want to do for fun is make an anime blu-ray.

That said, I would be very, very shocked if we ever saw a Blu-ray of Macross Plus in the US. Despite still being fairly active in the UK, here Manga Entertainment is now just a brand name owned by Starz Media, and has been dormant for some time. After being bought out, something happened that soured their relationships with a lot of licensors -- you'll notice that they couldn't get the new HD masters for Ghost in the Shell either. (They likely got Ghost in the Shell 2.0 as a result of automatically owning every new Ghost in the Shell work as part of their inclusion in the production committee for the first film. But that doesn't really work when you just want new masters of old stuff.) Several major Manga licenses have now expired, although Macross Plus and Macross II are still both on Hulu. But if they ever do expire, as you allude to in your question, a license rescue that doesn't involve Harmony Gold is out of the question, due to their ownership and policing of the Macross trademark in the US.

Peter asks:

Why is it that anime Blu Ray releases usually have episodes 1-9 on the first disc and 10-12 or 13 on the second one? Why aren't they split more evenly, 1-6/7-12 or 1-7/8-13? I would think that'd allow for less compression and better quality. Sure, the second disc might need more space for extras, but those extras are usually just trailers and clean openings and endings. I don't imagine those take up much space.

Allocating extra space on a disc makes the quality better, but only to a point. For most digitally-made anime, a video bitrate of over 25 Mbps is overkill, and results in virtually no visible improvement in quality (assuming you're using a good encoder and encoding in 24p). That comes out to around 4.3 to 4.5 gigabytes per episode, plus audio.

Blu-rays, like DVDs, come in single layer and dual layer form. Single layers hold 25 GB, and dual layers hold 50 GB. (Well, more like 23 and 45 in reality.) This means that single-layer discs can comfortably hold about 2 hours of full HD video, and dual layers, about 4 hours. Dual layer discs are quite a bit more expensive to manufacture than single layer ones, and the difference can be as much as a few dollars per disc -- and when you have to replicate in chunks of 2,000 that can really add up. So, if there's a way to squeeze a 13-episode show onto one single layer and one dual layer disc, rather than two dual-layer ones, it's common sense to do it. Not having your discs be evenly-divded isn't REALLY a problem, and filling up two dual-layer discs won't really give you a quality boost.

It's just one of the tricks publishers have figured out over the years to save money with little to no impact on quality.

And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

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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