How Was Anime Retouched for Television In The Old Days?

by Justin Sevakis,

Maria asks:

I've been watching old English dubs of Samurai Pizza Cats and Sailor Moon from the 90s and I wondered how they 'Airbrushed' and edited various things out before the use digital software. I had heard that for the 90s dub of Dragonball (Z) it was expensive to paint out the things that were deemed inappropriate for a western audience, while nowadays we can use a program like After Effects which speeds up the process and is considerably cheaper. How were the series edited?

For the most part, digital airbrushing didn't become all that commonplace until the late 90s. But prior to the 80s, it wasn't even possible.

Prior to video going all digital in the mid- to late-90s, manipulating a video image was kind of a difficult process. The first devices that were even capable of layering text on top of a video signal weren't even invented until the late 1960s, and didn't become commonplace until the 70s. SuperPaint, a system that was able to capture, manipulate, and then print back out video (one frame at a time), was invented in 1972, but the technology required to run it was very uncommon and high-end, so it spent most of its life in research labs. For anything more than big clunky, jaggy text, any manipulation would be an expensive process that would be done using optical effects on film, not video.

All that changed in 1981, when UK-based company Quantel came out with Paintbox, a revolutionary computer workstation that, for the first time, allowed for advanced graphics and animation effects to be rendered in (and layered with) video. I say "workstation," but it was so big that by today's standards this thing would be considered a mainframe. Boasting a pressure-sensitive graphics tablet, a 4U rack-mounted hard drive, an 8-inch floppy drive (that could store one video frame per disk!) and specialized graphics hardware, Paintbox completely changed, and in many ways defined, the look of video of the era.

Paintbox brought about many of the innovations we take for granted in graphics today, from pop-up menus to cut-and-paste. In fact, in the late 80s they tried to sue Adobe for patent infringements in Photoshop (though they lost the case -- the earlier SuperPaint demonstrated many of the abilities they claimed as patents).

By 1990 the Paintbox and a handful of similarly-priced competitors became a mainstay of video production anywhere there was a budget -- meaning, local TV stations, major post-production facilities, and other well-heeled video people could manipulate video using these new tools. They were still quite expensive, but in this era most entertainment companies rented out time at a post-production facility to do their work, rather than buying gear themselves.

There used to be a video up on YouTube from decades ago, showing off early days at Funimation, where a guy with a thick Texas accent grimaced that he didn't exactly go to broadcast school to draw underwear on top of little boy peen (even if said little boy was Goku in Dragonball). I can't find that video now, but if I could, perhaps I could tell what system he was using. Regardless, it was almost certainly a later version of Paintbox or a similar system.

Such work was very painstaking, and required some skilled engineers/artists to pull off. As equipment and engineers were often employed by the hour, such work could easily eat up a huge chunk of a localization budget. Not many companies were capable of managing work like that, and most of the time localization producers would just cut out problematic scenes rather than try and retouch them. By reworking the script enough, any lost continuity could easily be explained away. Samurai Pizza Cats, to use your example, was so heavily edited that nearly every cut is trimmed by at least a few frames.

Paintbox eventually stagnated and got folded into other production packages, and is mostly just a video nerd's memory. Graphics work eventually lost its reliance on dedicated hardware, and is now something that happens on normal commodity computers. Nowadays digital retouch is much easier, with software like Adobe After Effects, Autodesk Flame and The Foundry's Nuke now commonplace in post-production worldwide. But it's still a painstaking process, so it's still not very common -- and usually done only for television broadcast.

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.

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