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What Were VHS Fansubs Like?

by Justin Sevakis,

Michael asks:

Every once in a while, I'll stumble across old VHS fansubs; the unique quirks (like Kodocha's purple tapes) are absolutely fascinating. Were things like custom labels or tapes and fancy splashscreens common back then?

Man, did this question make me feel old. Mostly because I WAS one of the main members behind Kodocha Anime back in the day. It's like having traces of your adolescence unearthed in an archeological dig.

It's hard to comprehend today just how janky early fansubs actually looked, and how technically challenging they were to produce. Computers and video were two completely separate worlds, and almost everything involving the production of video required technical expertise and expensive equipment that most people didn't have access to. Computers in the early 90s were often not fast enough to render text with a black outline and/or a drop-shadow instantaneously. Adding text to a video signal required a piece of hardware called a "character generator", which only supported timed scripts in their most expensive models. And indeed, video captioning was restricted to specialized video production houses for many years.

Video overlay cards, or genlock cards, started coming out in the early 90s. These were peripheral cards that could take a video signal and overlay computer graphics on top of it, turning a personal computer into a low-end character and graphics generator. These tended to be very expensive, particularly for good ones. Since no subtitle software existed for general computers, a handful of rudimentary programs popped up, which were mostly freeware (if they were distributed at all). However, a handful of early fansubs were made with this method. AnimEigo also assembled their own custom subtitling software using an early Mac with a professional genlock card. After a few years, prices started coming down, and the Commodore Amiga platform proved itself especially adept at video work.

Early fansubs were very barebones affairs -- loosely timed and rough in appearance. Not a whole lot of thought was put into credit or presentation in those early days: fans were just trying to make anime watchable for people who didn't speak Japanese. Fans would copy them for each other, but the problem with analog video is that each time you copy it, the quality gets worse and worse. A copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy would look so blurry that you had to squint to make out the subtitles. Cheap cables and tapes would make copies even worse.

As the fansub scene organized via the early internet (mostly on IRC, email lists, newsgroups and eventually the web), various groups began popping up. These groups were often named after the show they were subtitling ("Ranma Project," "Orange Road Project," etc.). Probably the most visible of these early groups was Arctic Animation, an extremely prolific group that subtitled very sloppily, but managed to subtitle a number of long series in their entirety. These groups used whatever source materials they could -- usually laserdiscs but sometimes VHS tapes of taped-off-the-air Japanese TV shows that you could rent at Japanese grocery stores in parts of North America. Their credits were literally just text on top of the video, with perhaps a rudimentary graphics effect. Occasionally a group would get ambitious and throw on an early anime music video, or even a logo that they'd cobbled together in a 3D rendering program. However, none of these guys were professionals, and it showed.

These groups often relied on fans to copy these fansubs for each other, but eventually the bigger groups tried to disseminate their fansubs by having fans mail blank tapes into them, along with a self-addressed, stamped return envelope. Eventually, they'd copy the tapes and mail them out. "SASE" distribution, as it came to be known, was extremely slow. People waited months, sometimes over a year to get their tapes back. The problem is, as more and more fansubs became available and more and more fans wanted fansubs, copying tapes in this way just didn't scale. Each tape had to be copied one at a time, which then had to be labeled and packaged one at a time. People would often send in cheap and used tapes, which would clog the heads and get eaten by the exhausted VCRs. Orders would get mixed up and lost. It was a nightmare.

Enter the "distribution group". Rather than dealing with return postage and other people's questionable tapes, distributors acted more like a commercial duplication company. They'd accept orders by money order (via mail), produce stockpiles of each fansub via a network of daisy-chained VCRs, and buy their own tape stock and postage. Many of the best known groups of the VHS era both distributed, and produced their own fansubs. Some did only one or the other. While some fans were never comfortable with money changing hands for what was essentially piracy, most of these groups were careful to keep prices low enough that they'd never make a profit, at least. And with popular titles being licensed by the ACTUAL anime companies, the more respectable distributors would pay close attention to license announcements and pull those titles as soon as they were announced. (Fansubs would occasionally show up in less ethical stores and rental shops, but fansubbers would always put as many "not for sale or rent" tags on the video as good taste would allow.)

This is the era that a lot of fans remember as the golden age of VHS fansubs. The network was big enough and well-organized enough that those involved could afford to be ambitious. A lot of fansub distributors took great effort to make their tapes look nice. Many of them did design custom labels (usually just on the spine), which they would print out on sheets with an Ink Jet printer.

New fansub groups would pop up all the time, and fansubber mailing lists turned into toxic stews of flame wars, over-inflated egos and pointless competition -- both direct and indirect. Some groups (mine included) put elaborate animated logos at the beginning of their fansubs. Some groups started playing with fonts, colors and positioning -- what modern subtitle fans refer to as "typesetting." Other groups produced long, graphical introductory slide-shows, with translation and cultural notes.

At the risk of bragging, I have to note that Kodocha was a little more ambitious than most VHS fansub groups. John, the guy who was in charge of duplication and distribution, was a huge stickler for tape quality, and he found that we were locally very close to a custom tape manufacturer called Producer's Tape Service that could custom-spool extremely high quality tape for us at a price far lower than buying packs of Maxell Hi-Fi tapes (our preferred brand) at Costco. PTS also let you stamp a custom logo on the flap of the cassette, which we all thought was really cool. (The "Purple Barney Tapes" came about because those shells really were leftovers from a cancelled order of "Barney and Friends" tapes. They were durable and we got a ton of 'em for very cheap.)

Personally, I may have gone a little nuts as well. I edited an improved sound effects track for one feature I fansubbed. I had entire credit rolls translated and presented them with music and copyright language. I even edited custom trailers and got a family friend -- who happened to be a professional voice talent -- to record voice-overs for them. If someone else went this nuts in the VHS era I don't know about it. (Years later, when I went pro, I found out that some in the industry referred to us as "the professional fansubbers.")

All of this ego-stroking came to a fairly abrupt end around 1999 or so. While the fansub community had been playing around with digital captures of fansubs, until then the quality had been pretty poor. But with the coming of the DVD era (and recordable DVDs following not much later), fansubs no longer felt like such an ephemeral thing. They were permanent, they never degraded, and every copy you made was the same quality as the last. For some of us, that crossed a line. It was no longer what we had signed up to do.

Kodocha, and many others from that era, called it quits then, or soon thereafter. Others stuck around, either offering DVD-Rs for trade, or crossing over into the new "digisub" era of fansubbing. As we all know, those exploded way bigger than the physical limitations of the VHS era would ever allow. For better or worse.

I don't have many regrets about that era. It was a different time, and we were pretty careful not to hurt professional interests. And for however much we may have laid the seeds for the crazy era of bittorrented fansubs that was to follow, I'd like to think that the 18 years of service I've given this business since has been my penance.

Thank you for reading Answerman!

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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