How Is Anime Transported To Other Countries?

by Justin Sevakis,

Shem asks:

How do anime studios send and/or accept animation frames overseas? Over internet or physically sending memory disks? What technology are they using? Do anime streaming sites also get the anime masters physically like in Japan for TV airing (according to Shirobako)? If not, how do they get the material?

(Shem gave me a bunch of questions, and I combined two of them here because they were both interesting but shortish answers.)

In years gone by, when anime needed to be sent to other countries for fill-in work, coloring or photography, all of the key frames would be packaged up and sent to the studio in the other country, along with detailed instructions on what to do with it. The finished work would then be sent back for photography (unless that work was being done overseas as well, in which case they'd send back film as well). While it was cheaper than doing the work at home, it still wasn't cheap.

When animation went digital, the industry eventually settled on what became the Retas! Studio suite of animation apps. Retas! has a built-in module that files away each cel, organizes them by cut, and keeps track of each stage of the process of each cut. All of that functionality is networked across a studio, and so offices in other buildings or even other countries can easily log into that system, deposit drawings (either as scans or as vectors drawn with a Wacom tablet), and submit them for checking, coloring and so on. The synchronization between offices is very fast, so farming things out is no longer the chore it once was.

As for sending the final masters to distributors in other countries, that's changed a lot too. Until about 4 or 5 years ago Japan was utterly dependent on tape-based workflows, since tape is still the format that broadcasters in Japan prefer to broadcast from. The most mainstream video tape formats were D2 (digital composite SD) in the 90s and early 2000s, then DigiBeta (short for Digital Betacam, a distant ancestor of Betamax -- still SD but much better quality than anything before it). Then when things when HD, most studios switched to HDCam format, which was backwards compatible with Digibeta. HDCam was affordable for most studios, but was a bit of a compromise: it wasn't FULL HD (1440x1080 instead of 1920x1080), and had compression that often introduced banding.

Eventually, most studios upgraded to HDCam SR, which is the best master tape format currently in widespread use. It's the format Japan now uses for archival, final mastering, and delivery to TV stations. (Each format has its own distinctively colored plastic box -- and Shirobako viewers know that HDCam SR is a grayish white! Regular HDCam was darker grey, while Digibeta was dark blue.) However, with decks so expensive (they start at US$30,000) they're simply out of the price range of many overseas publishers. The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake also badly damaged the one Sony factory in the world that made HDCam SR tapes, causing a worldwide shortage that forced many producers to go file-based for final assembly. Japan still uses a lot of tape for final delivery and archival, however.

For most of anime history, every time a licensing deal was struck, someone had to pay to have all of those master tapes copied and FedEx'ed overseas. This, as you can imagine, got really expensive. Since basically no Western publishers ever bothered getting an HDCam Deck, the Japanese companies eventually worked with local post-production companies (or their own internal staff) to capture the HD video off of the tape and into files, which can easily be copied and sent on standard USB 3.0 hard drives -- just like the ones at Best Buy.

For a long time many Japanese post-production companies used a format called Canopus HQ (later called Grass Valley HQX after some upgrades and buy-outs). This was a decently high quality video format that originated with a series of professional video capture cards, and the file format itself was a proprietary video format and uncompressed audio in an .avi file. It looked okay in the early days of HD, but its color reproduction left a lot to be desired. This format was never widespread in the US.

After a few years, the entire world entertainment industry settled on Apple's ProRes format. ProRes is technically a lossy format (i.e. some small, invisible bit of quality is lost with every encode), but it's such high quality that it's become a de-facto standard. ProRes was introduced with the Final Cut Pro editing app, which was hugely popular (until Apple re-invented it as Final Cut Pro X). Its major limitation is that those files can only be created on a Mac (but can be read on other platforms). Because it uses the extremely flexible QuickTime file format, the ProRes files usually include multiple audio tracks (isolated music and sound effects tracks are often included for dubbing purposes), timecode, and closed captioning (which is in a Japanese format that is usually useless overseas).

Now that simulcasts are a thing, there's no time to send a physical hard drive to Crunchyroll or Funimation or Viz. Instead, the anime studio will transmit the file to the overseas publishers over secure FTP, or more likely, via Aspera. Aspera is a high-speed secure transmission technology that is commonly used by the entertainment business to volley giant master video files around. (A typical anime episode is around 37 GB, a feature can easily run over 100 GB.) Sometimes a more advanced studio will encode the video to a smaller format, such as h.264 .mp4, but many Japanese post-production facilities aren't very good at that.

Addendum: Many simulcasts these days now make use of a format called XDCam35, which is a Sony-invented MPEG-2 format in an MXF file for professional camcorders. It's about half the size of ProRes. Mastering for DVD/Blu-ray is still done on ProRes as it's a slightly higher quality format. (Thanks to Exedore for the update.)

Aspera is an interesting technology -- rather than transferring all of its data over the open internet, Aspera bypasses most of the normal internet pipelines and uses a dedicated fiber network to get most of the way through the world. I have no idea whether it makes the transmission more secure, but it's supposed to go faster as well. (I have to use it over a crappy consumer cable modem connection, so I wouldn't know.) The transmission is encrypted and also has advanced error correction.

Once the overseas publisher has the file, they then may need to chop out minutes of black video during commercial breaks, and possibly title-free bits of animation that are often stashed at the end of the file. They select the audio that will be used, they encode it to their proprietary formats, and up it goes to the anime nerds of the world.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original 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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