Why Did Funimation's Attack On Titan Subtitles Fail?
by Justin Sevakis,
Funimation just had a very public failure of its subtitles for the live action Attack on Titan theatrical release, when the line "I've been waiting for this day!" got stuck on the screen while the movie continued playing. Funimation blamed a technical glitch that didn't get fixed by some theaters. But I still don't really understand how something like this can happen. Didn't they watch the film before they sent it to theaters?
Sure they did. Funimation meticulously checks everything before they send it out. Sure, they miss things occasionally, but everyone does. That said, delivering movies to theaters is a lot harder than it sounds, and it's a process fraught with potential technical pitfalls, particularly if the process isn't something you do every day. The format is very poorly documented and fraught with all sorts of compatibility problems that you'd never know about until they bite you in the rear.
I do a lot of DCPs, mostly for trailers and indie movies, and it's only through years of trial and error that I've managed to figure out all of the little quirks you have to know about. A surprising number are not common knowledge, and unless you've either been burned or someone in the know told you, you'd never know. It's similar to the problems with Blu-ray, but worse in a way, since it's a much simpler format and really shouldn't be this quirky.
First, some background info (and apologies if this gets a little technical). The format that movie theaters play is called a DCP, or Digital Cinema Package. It's an open format that's pretty straightforward: each DCP is delivered on a Linux formatted hard drive, and is made up of a folder containing video, audio and metadata. The video is just a huge stack of JPEG 2000 images (in an unusual color mode optimized for projectors). The images number in the hundreds of thousands -- one for each frame of the movie -- and all of those get combined into a single media file called an MXF. The audio is just a multichannel WAV, also in an MXF file. Then there's a bunch of files that contain information like running time, number of frames, frame rate, and all that good stuff.
A movie theater gets a hard drive, usually assembled into a special caddy. The theater manager mounts the drive and copies it to the server, along with an optional encryption key. The manager can then build out a presentation, by adding trailers and promos to a movie, and slotting it in a particular auditorium on a particular schedule. Since the whole theater is controlled by that server, a manager can easily move a more popular film into a bigger auditorium, or add or drop showtimes as needed.
For such a simple format, you would think that creating them would be a fairly idiot-proof endeavor, but you would be very, very wrong. Digital Cinema technology was rolled out to theaters over the course of a decade, well before the format could really be declared "finished." The different companies building DCP servers all built them with their own quirks and rules, and since nobody was really overseeing compatibility with a common standard, some of those servers don't support some pretty basic features of the format.
The first pitfall is the naming convention. DCPs have to be named according to an arcane system of abbreviations and rules, and if you get it wrong in some way many servers will reject it. For example, if I were making the Attack on Titan DCP today, here's what the name would be:
This means, "Attack On Titan", feature, 2D, 24 frames per second, flat (1.85 aspect ratio), Japanese audio with English subtitles, US release version, rated R, 5.1 audio, 2K resolution (nearly same as 1080p), independent release, October 2 2015 version, MXF Interop format (the kind of audio and video files you built), original version.
That last bit, "Original version", takes us to the second weird pitfall of the format. DCPs take a long, long time to create, so the format is meant to be extensible. You can have additional "version" DCP packages that reference the original and modify it slightly. They can do things like patch a few frames, cut out a scene, or add subtitles. These features were added mostly for international distribution. That way, ideally, the creation of a DCP doesn't have to be done separately for each individual area. One "master" DCP can be made, and then whatever subtitles, dubbing and necessary edits can be made for each territory after the fact. It can also be used to fix mistakes that accidentally made it into the release.
And this is where Funimation got burned. While this is all part of the DCP spec and SHOULD work, it doesn't always. Older DCP systems that haven't been updated can have real issues with things like removable subtitles, and subtitles in general crop up in American movie theaters so seldom that many theater managers don't know how to turn them on, or bothered to apply updates to the system to address bugs. The format itself is fraught with compatibility issues. Most of the companies that release subtitled movies in the US have given up on the DCP subtitle spec, and have decided to just burn the subtitles onto the video and rebuild DCPs from scratch every time.
I haven't talked to Funimation's tech crew about this film (and I highly doubt they could tell me anything I could share anyway). But we can take an educated guess that they started with the Japanese DCP and made a "version" DCP to go with it that adds the Funimation logo and subtitles. Without someone to tell them how problematic that could be, they would have no idea. Whatever they did with the subtitles initially caused problems with some theater systems, and they worked with their cinema management service Deluxe (who takes care of duplication and shipping to theaters) to issue a new Version. Unfortunately, not all of the theaters got the memo.
Anyway, lesson learned. Funimation has stated that they'll just burn the subtitles into the video and make a new DCP next time. And hopefully they can put this whole, ugly incident behind them.
Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.
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