I Am Not At SDCC

by Justin Sevakis,

It seems like everyone I know is at San Diego Comic Con this week. I am not at Comic Con, nor do I wish to be at Comic Con. In fact, I am overjoyed at I am not at Comic Con. Comic Con is loud, sweaty, overpacked, and miserable. The nearby Gas Lamp District is taken over by private parties for every imaginable TV network and production company, and you are not invited to any of them.

Honestly, I don't know anyone that actually has a good time at SDCC anymore. Even my mainstream showbiz friends basically go for their panels and their events and their parties, and then stay as far away from the show as possible. Also, it's really really hot, and being inside a packed convention center sounds roughly like being locked in a car with no air conditioning and a very flatulent dog.

Maybe there's a social aspect to this Comic Con thing I'm missing. Or maybe I just really like not sweating through my clothes.

Anyway... Time for some questions.

BJ asks:

I have a weird question about contract work like what Toei did back in the 1980s on shows like Muppet Babies. Does a company like Toei own a small piece of whatever animation work they did on the show, or does it depend upon the terms of the contract? Like, for instance, would the terms of their contract have anything to do with why Muppet Babies is still not on DVD in any real capacity (save for a few single-episode releases and bootlegs out the wazoo, like Sailor Moon had been for the past few years while the licensing arrangements were allowed to lapse)?

No, of course they don't. That's the whole point of contract work, it's work-for-hire.

Muppet Babies, like pretty much every other part of the Muppets universe, is owned pretty much entirely by Disney at this point. Most vintage cartoons of the 80s aren't out on DVD, and as the DVD market has cooled, the major studios have been dumping less and less TV boxed sets on the market in general, because they simply don't sell enough for them to bother. The exceptions tended to be the ones with strong cult followings, or mega-hits that have spawned new intellectual property that's still relevant today -- Transformers, for example.

Muppet Babies was a major hit, but was itself the first of a trend of derivative 80s and 90s kids' content that made well-known existing characters into young children. The show was actually inspired by a scene from the 1984 Muppets Take Manhattan movie, in which Miss Piggy wonders what it would've been like had she and Kermit grown up together, and the show was put into production as part of a coordinated marketing push with the film, which came out in theaters two months before the show debuted. This set off a trend of re-inventing existing "adult" characters as babies or kids to reboot an old franchise. In an essay for Animation Magazine some years ago, animator John Kricfalusi labeled this trend "Super-Bastardization" (as it basically undermined the original characters and their creators for a cheap buck, he felt). At its best, this trend gave us shows like Tiny Toons Adventures, and at its worst we got crap like Tom And Jerry Kids. Regardless, most of this subsection of American-produced animation might have done well in the ratings, but aren't considered classic, and the majority haven't seen DVD releases. Given that the show was made starting in 1984, I'm sure the master tapes look terrible today, and would need lots of expensive remastering. The show also occasionally used clips from popular movies, which might not be cleared for home video use.

Several major Japanese anime studios, including Toei Animation, TMS, Topcraft, and several others were doing work-for-hire animation on Western cartoons in the 80s and 90s, since they were high in quality, but relatively cheap compared to hiring Western animators. By the late 90s Japan had become very expensive and more of the work went to Korea and other parts of Asia, but even today companies like Production I.G and Sunrise occasionally do work for Western producers. Most of the real creative work, including design, writing and direction, are done in the US, and Japan only really steps in to produce the animation itself. Toei was only even hired to do the first 3 seasons and some change; the show went to Korea's AKOM Productions after that.

Work-for-hire animation means that the studio is doing the work for a fee, as a service. Once the fee is paid, the producer, not the animation studio, owns the work in its entirety, and they can do with it what they want. Toei has absolutely no business interest in Muppet Babies, I assure you.

Zach asks:

Every season they make a bunch of shows that aren't full episodes, but are shorts. They only last about 5 minutes per episode. But nobody brings them out in the US. Why is that.

There have been a handful of "short TV series" that have been brought out Stateside. Hetalia is the only real hit among them -- the anthology anime series Anime Complex gave us a bunch of shorter series that nearly all ended up getting licensed: Omishi Magical Theater: Risky X Safety (Anime Nation), Neo Ranga (ADV), The Adventures of Mini-Goddess (Geneon), Kurogane Communication (Media Blasters) and Steel Angel Kurumi (ADV) all got US releases. But the Anime Complex shows were all about 12 minutes per episode, and most "short" anime are significantly shorter than that.

It's hard for short form anime to find an audience or make money overseas. 5 minutes isn't long enough for most people to become engaged in a serialized story or involved with its characters. It's a format that's better suited to simplistic storytelling, and so the majority of those shows are either meant for preschoolers, or as advertising for character goods. It's not long enough to attach more than one video ad to an internet stream. It's faster to subtitle, but the logistical work of tracking down materials every week for a simulcast is the same as for a regular show. They aren't all that entertaining to marathon, since each installment is so frustratingly short, and there are probably credits every five minutes that need to be skipped. As soon as the episode starts, it's pretty much already over.

Since viewer engagement is low and the format is hard to work with both online and in home video, anime publishers generally don't bother with them. Hetalia is the exception that proves the rule, mostly because it already had such a huge and rabid fanbase. Besides, Japan makes so much anime these days that staying current with all of the full-sized TV series is already hard enough.

Fred asks:

I used to see a lot of voice actor commentaries on DVDs, both from the dub cast and from the Japanese cast. These days, they barely ever show up, even if they're on the Japanese release. Why is that? I never watched one all the way through but it was kind of nice that they were there.

You probably never made it through an entire voice actor commentary track for a reason: they're not very interesting.

Voice actors are talented folks that work hard, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll have a lot to say about a show. Live action actors have a job that's much easier to talk about. They develop the character in their heads, imagine back stories and scenarios for them, family relations and other things that bring the character to life and develops their nuances. (This is referred to as "doing the work.") They have funny stories from the weeks they spend on a set, stuck with their co-stars and the crew in a location they probably don't call home. They have stories of technical malfunctions, reactions to the role from friends and family, tales of having to do things like shave their heads, lose or gain weight, or wear strange makeup.

Voice actors have none of these things. Their very short prep time usually means doing any sort of background work on their characters is a no-go. The direction they get is usually on a line-by-line basis, meaning any insight they have into the characters is usually about that very specific line at that very specific moment of the show, and not the character as a whole. Their time working on the show is spent in isolation in a soundproof booth, saying the same lines over and over and over in slightly different ways. Japanese actors seem to get a little more direction in terms of their roles, and can have a more direct influence on their characters, since they're working directly with the show staff as it's being made, but dub voice actors are only trying to maintain the integrity of what's already been made. They might spend a couple of days here and there over a period of months dubbing a show, at most.

It's not diminishing from their work to say that this scenario does not make for interesting storytelling. So, unless one of them was also the writer or dub director, they tend to run out of things to talk about, and so the commentaries are reduced to what I call "actor banter." This is where actors who don't really have much to talk about hype themselves up and try to be entertaining by riffing off of either the show or each other, trying to be funny off the cuff. With the right mix of people it can be fun to listen to, or it can be interminable. But one thing you can be sure of, it will not be all that informative, and you'll probably tune it out after a while because it's pretty much just white noise.

For the publisher, commentary tracks are potentially more expensive to include than they might appear. Most voice actors will at least request some amount of payment to record a commentary. After all, it's considered marketing for the show, and they're spending their time in front of a microphone, having to be "on." If the commentary track is coming from Japan, it has to be subtitled, which is orders of magnitude harder than subtitling the anime itself. There's no script to work from, people mumble and talk over each other, and it can be hard to even follow the conversation, let alone transcribe and translate it. There's a reason why nobody fansubs those things. They're a nightmare.

So yeah. That's why. They're expensive and/or a pain in the butt, and even if you find them entertaining they don't really add much to the show.

Julia asks:

So, correct me if I'm wrong, but anime openings now are almost like promotional pieces for the artist? And, they weren't as popular back in the day, at least not featuring popular music, right? Can you give us the history of the anime opening?

Anime openings and endings have been promotions for music for decades and decades. For a producer, the opening and ending are invaluable. At their standard 90-seconds of running time, that adds up to 3 minutes you get to pad out in each episode. That's a lot of extra scenes you don't have to animate! So if you're going to spend that time playing the same song every week, you need to work with a talent agency to find a singer and a composer. Most of the good singers already have record deals, so why not just talk to a record label and get everything you need from them? That 90 seconds is a great platform on which to market a musical act, or a particular single.

It's such a natural fit that even back before companies were actively trying to promote pop acts, the theme songs themselves became pop music, and would do decent business when sold at record stores. Even to this day, the theme songs to old anime from Tatsunoko shows, superhero themes, and sentai shows are some of the most popular selections at karaoke places all over Japan. And as the songs got poppier, they got more popular. Theme songs from classic anime like Dragon Ball Z ("Cha-La Head-Cha-La" by Hironobu Kageyama), Cat's Eye ("Cat's Eye" by Anri), and many others were big business throughout the 80s. When you bought an anime song on a vinyl 45, the paper sleeve would have the anime art on one side, and a glamorous shot of the singer on the other.

The songs became so integral to the business, and musical acts would get such a boost from appearing on a hit anime, that music publishers started anime divisions (Sony Music Japan owns Aniplex) and anime publishers started music labels (Bandai Namco owns Lantis), and that "corporate synergy" is highly beneficial to both sides. When a new anime is produced, whoever the music partner is for the show provides a handful of upcoming pop songs, and the series director picks the one they think fits the show best. On occasion, a special song will be written specifically for that show, or an existing song will be licensed. But that's rare.

So, while it's technically true that anime themes weren't as popular back in the day, you have to go back many decades to find a point where marketing the music wasn't an integral part of the business. Probably at least to the mid-70s. And since TV anime only existed for about a decade before that, the two have been integrated for a very very long time.

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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