The Virtue of Curiosity

by Justin Sevakis,

This week I was listening to the podcast of KCRW's The Business, which is a weekly showbiz insider talk show produced out of Santa Monica. They had an interview with the director of the Oscar-contender Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu, which was fascinating and absolutely worth listening to. But one thing really struck me, when host Kim Masters asked him about his feelings in regards to current Hollywood blockbuster output, which are dominated by superhero movies. Here was his reply (which I edited a little for clarity):

"Many of these films, not all, but many of them are just basically 'EPIC,' as they love to say: loud, gross, full of special effects, but without soul, without storytelling, without meaning... Easy products to satisfy the mind rapidly -- all that immediate satisfaction. When you have a McDonalds hamburger, you eat three, but then you vomit. I tell you this because I have two daughters, and I have been witness to their development in how they watch films. They don't care what it's about. And when you ask them what it's about two weeks later, the don't know. They don't care. It's just about the visuals, the spectacle. And basically, [they're] about power. Violence. To rule the bad guys. 'I am right, you are wrong.' [There are] great filmmakers around the world, doing great, amazing films. The problem is, they never arrive to the people, and people have lost the ability to read them, to sit through them. The patience to observe human nature. Since I was a kid, I was fascinated by human complexity, and we've lost the ability to teach kids the complexity of our emotions, our nature, through cinema."

Of course, you may not agree with his assessment of mainstream blockbuster movies today. As someone whose tastes are usually far more in line with Iñárritu's, even I'm inclined to agree he's being curmudgeonly and perhaps a little unfair. But then, I wonder. Movie attendance by teens and young adults has dropped like a rock, and a frequently cited reason is "franchise fatigue." In other words, most of these movies are pretty much the same story over and over, so there's really only need to go to the movies when it's a really big, can't-miss event. For everything else, you can just stay home with your iPad and your streaming accounts.

But then I thought, clearly his daughters are not otaku. Because all of the anime fans *I* know are so interested and invested in human nature and emotion that they're willing to sit through hours and hours of anime to learn more about characters' background, to understand and to relate to them. In fact, anime fans are SO patient that I, lover of Ozu and slow subtitled art house movies, often find myself not patient enough to enjoy some fan favorites.

Anime isn't always full of meaning, or all that insightful into the nature of people, but even most of the mediocre shows at least have some interesting character moments, or an emotion to hang onto.

Is anime fandom benefiting from the emotionless pile of special effects-laden dreck that Hollywood puts out every year? Anime has always been an option for people left feeling empty by most Western animation, but is it now a destination for those left wanting by live action movies too? These are interesting things to think about. I don't really have any answers, but I'd love to hear your thoughts in the forum.

Anyway, onto things I actually CAN answer...

Nathan asks:

Just how many episodes can be fit onto a DVD or Blu-Ray disc before the quality noticeably degrades?

DVDs and Blu-rays can have either one or two layers of data written on them. The single layer discs are cheaper to replicate, but hold half as much. Single layer DVDs hold 4.3 GB (we call them DVD-5s), and dual layer DVDs hold 8.7 GB (we call them DVD-9s). Single layer Blu-rays hold just over 23 GB (we call them BD-25s) and dual layer holds roughly 46 GB (BD-50s).

DVD was made for an era when most people still had old fashioned tube TVs, which were far lower in quality and did a much better job of hiding compression artifacts and other video issues. Professionally, I try to talk clients out of trying to cram much more than 3 hours on a DVD-9 or 1.5 hours on a DVD-5. Any more than that, and things really start to fall apart. But for REALLY optimal quality, I would only put 2 or 2.5 hours on a single disc -- so we're talking 5 anime TV episodes.

But most people who really care about quality are going for Blu-rays these days anyway. And for Blu-ray the answer is a lot more complicated. People demand uncompressed or lossless audio, which is takes up a lot of space, so whether or not there's a dub on the disc, and whether or not it has 5.1 audio can really affect how much you cram on the disc. I generally don't like to put more than 9 episodes and some extra features on a BD-50, and 4-5 episodes on a BD-25.

I get a feeling you're asking this because of Sentai Filmworks' relatively new practice of putting 12 or so episodes on a single BD-50. I still haven't seen one of these discs, but I haven't heard any complaints about them yet, so I'm keeping an open mind. These discs are all (or at least mostly) stereo, subtitle-only, and are anime, which is far easier to compress (for Blu-ray) than live action. There are so many factors to making a good looking Blu-ray that I'm simply not willing to draw a line in the sand and say, "this is too much video!" Bad looking discs almost always have some other reason behind them.

Ruben asks:

Having digital copies of media from big studios are a really convenient way to have your media, everywhere you go. Would there ever be a point where a major studio, like FUNimation or Sentai Filmworks, include them with home video releases?

That would be nice, wouldn't it? But alas, it's probably not going to happen any time soon.

Working with iTunes or Amazon to offer download codes for video content with every disc you sell is a big task, and unless you're a major Hollywood studio selling millions of copies of everything, it's also quite expensive. Packaging those codes with your discs is simply not cost effective for anime companies at this time. Worse, because of DRM and cloud storage, digital download offers basically have to be connected to one particular store.

Think about that for a second. If Funimation put iTunes download codes with their discs, they would almost certainly be inundated with emails -- many of them weirdly angry -- from all of the fans who hate iTunes/Apple/everything that isn't a custom-built PC running Linux. "Why aren't you using MY preferred web service?" they would demand. "I paid for this disc, and therefore this download. You are making me pay for things I don't want! ANGER ANGER ANGER!" the emails would say (even if the downloads were included with no price increase). Similar things would happen with Amazon, XBox Live, PSN, etc.

There is very little to be gained for anime studios by including download codes, and doing so would be a considerable expense. Even Hollywood studios have largely transitioned to just including codes for their own UltraViolet service, if they bother including codes at all. (Nobody seems to like UltraViolet, and it had a lot of problems initially, but I kind of like it myself.) Most anime is already up on ad-supported streaming sites anyway, so I'm not sure there's even a point.

Melissa asks:

With manga and anime adapting and gaining a footing in the digital format world, but still maintaining their physical releases, could this prevent titles disappearing from the North America market, even if the physical edition is no longer in-print?

This is definitely already happening in the manga world. There are piles and piles of series that are increasingly impossible to find in print (or were never printed at all in their entirety) that are now quite easily available in digital form. Most of the bigger manga labels have been pretty good about taking their manga that didn't quite sell enough to bother with another print run, and getting the rights to re-release them digitally. Now, whole series that were once available in book form everywhere are now hard to find in all but digital form, and getting a second lease on life.

With anime, things are a little less clear, for a few reasons. First, we have a handful of Japanese licensors who are directly taking shows to which the US distribution rights have expired, and putting them up on streaming services -- and then being able to broker deals for physical distribution. So there are definitely a few out-of-print and hard-to-find shows that are streaming, a fair number of them are coming back into print. That's something that doesn't happen with manga -- the book publishing business tends to not support license rescues of older, more stale manga for whatever reason.

The other thing is, old manga is much easier to clear for online distribution than old anime. Manga really, in the end, only has one person with legal oversight over how it's distributed, and so tracking that person down and convincing them to sign off on new digital uses for their old work isn't the hardest thing in the world. Anime is the work of thousands of people, and everyone from musicians to voice actors have contracts in play, dictating how the show will be used, and how they'll get paid. Every time an old show gets put on a streaming site, somebody had to go through and re-negotiate addendums to all of those contracts. Now that every major trade organization has a standard contract and payment terms, this is a lot easier than it used to be, but it's still a nightmare. There are a significant number of classic anime that are still not cleared for online streaming, and are unlikely to ever be.

So for the time being, online will be the savior to a few anime, and a lot more manga.

Rodolfo asks:

I was watching the Panty and Stocking bloopers on youtube and started wondering if there were any original Japanese anime bloopers floating around. I couldn't find any. Not one. So i was wondering, do the Japanese not release bloopers or do they simply not exist the same way they do within dub companies because of their way of recording their lines? Is there some sort of idea that releasing bloopers would tarnish the VAs reputation in the eyes of the Japanese public?

I've never sat in on a Japanese recording session, so I don't know whether or not "bloopers" as we call them would be a real thing that happens there. However, I can make a very educated guess that they don't. Why? Because they barely actually happen in the US.

Fascination with screw-ups in movies go back to at least the 1930s, wherein movie editors would splice together the bad takes to make a gag reel, which would usually only get seen by the film's staff, often at the wrap party. (This tradition continues today with TV series.) In the early days of radio, particularly amusing screw-ups would seldom get recorded live, so some producers actually staged re-enactments of particularly bad moments, which ran in comedy shows as early as the 1940s. In the 1960s, one such producer named Kermit Schaefer released a very popular series of comedy records entitled "Pardon My Blooper," which were mostly these re-enactments. Bloopers made for popular segments on late-night TV, morning radio, and occasionally a TV special. Comedy films and TV shows began playing credits over blooper reels. And now, we have Fail compilations on YouTube.

Back in the early DVD era, the US anime distributors were looking for new ideas for DVD extras, as people got pretty excited over such things back then. It helped if the extra was something that the company could make themselves, for cheap. And if a show was being dubbed from scratch, it was a relatively simple thing to ask the actors to stay in the booth a few minutes longer and just sort of be "wacky" off-the-cuff. Many actors specialize in "wacky." I am deeply unamused by most of them, but that's besides the point -- plenty of people lap that stuff right up.

Most actual dubbing screw-ups aren't all that amusing to listen to. Occasionally an actor gets tongue-tied and might mutter, "aah, ****, let me start again." A handful of actors who are really quick-witted might spin a screw-up into a quick one-liner or something. But at least 90% of most dub blooper reels are actually staged antics.

I can't picture that happening in Japan for a number of reasons: first, the higher-end actors are getting paid a lot more, and since everybody records together, having those additional few minutes for wackiness would cost quite a bit of money. Everyone going off-script at once would probably result in unintelligible chaos in the final recording. While live action blooper reels are pretty common in Asia (where they're referred to as NG takes, short for "no good"), I've never heard of one for anime voice acting. I'd imagine the group nature of dubbing in Japan makes for a higher-pressure environment, so everyone probably stays a little more on task.

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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