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Interview With The Fansubber

by Zac Bertschy,

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Editor's Note: our interview subject has requested anonymity, so we are referring to him by his Internet handle. However, he has requested that if you'd like to give him feedback on his comments personally, he can be contacted at the following email address: Tofusensei [at] live-evil.org.

Please tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.

The handle I go by online is Tofusensei. I am a founding member of Live-eviL fansubs; we started in 2001, as a sort of spin-off of BakaMX, which is a pretty primary group, at least since the digital fansubbing scene has emerged. There were a group of us in BakaMX that went on to form Live-eviL, and the rest is history from there I suppose.

Myself personally, I started fansubbing during the VHS days in the late 90's, but I didn't really do anything substantial until digisubs came along. As far as what I personally do, I've done everything except timing, and that's because I speak Japanese so I'm much more valuable as a translator, so I should be working on that or editing the script, things like that.

As I said, I'm a founding member of the group – we don't have an official leader, we don't operate in that way, but I am the spokesperson, I guess you could say. I am a translator more than anything, though.

What was the first show you worked on?

The first show I ever worked on was Panda Ko-Panda back in the late 90's – I did a VHS fansub of that. Basically I just put everything together, organized the whole thing. The next show I worked on is a Miyazaki show called 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, which is amusing because I started working on that show in the late 90's and as of right now I've subtitled a total of 11 episodes in 10 years.

With digital fansubbing, the very first thing I ever laid hands on was encoding Noir for BakaMX.

What –and I know it's complicated so try to be brief if you can - exactly is the process that creates a fansub? Where does it start, where does it end and what are you doing in the middle there?

Initially, we have to obtain the raws. That comes from a variety of sources – some shows we buy the DVDs for, at one point I was living in Japan and capturing the shows off of television myself – but primarily we get them from Japanese peer-to-peer trading sites. Sometimes people use bittorrent, but primarily we use the Japanese peer-to-peer trading sites, where a new show will appear typically a couple hours after broadcast.

The next important point is getting the translation done. That's the first thing that needs to happen so everyone else can get working, so the translator has to get the ball rolling. So the first thing we do is get the file to a translator and it's as simple as translating the show into a text file and going from there. There are a few different steps there, from having someone go over the translation to having someone time the text file to the video. The program we typically used for that was called SubStation Alpha, but the software we've been using is called AegiSub, which is a full life-cycle subtitling package.

Then there's editing the script, and getting it all timed, the pretty fonts, the karaoke, all of that. We have a team of people specialized in their trade – so you'll have someone who's an editor, someone who's a timer. And then we slap it all together, do a quality check – and different groups have different ways of doing things, we have a dedicated group of people that volunteer to watch shows multiple times and scrutinize everything. The last step is distribution, which in these days is a piece of cake; it's not like it was 5-6 years ago.

If you have a good translator and skilled people, the typical episode will take 12-20 hours to complete and release.

How much time do you personally spend on an episode?

It varies, depends on the show. On a lot of the shows I work on, I do a couple different things – I do translation, typesetting and encoding. I'm probably looking at about 5 hours per episode.

So that 20 hours is split up across how many people? I'm sure it varies between groups and shows, but what's the distribution of work here?

Typically, for any group that has a core group of people with certain specialties, you're going to have probably 3-4 people in that core group. Someone will be encoding the show, timing the show, editing the script – which is really important – and typesetting, which can be very simple but if there are lots of complex signs or things that need to be fancied up in the episode, it can take hours.  Encoding is very simple now, much quicker than it used to be. On average I'd say you're looking at about 3 hours per person on a team with 4-5 people

So basically this is kind of like an assembly line?

Yeah, basically. There are some people who are trying to come up with ways to do it all at once, but we haven't perfected that yet. There's a thread on another forum I was reading where they were trying to come up with the theoretical fastest time you could get a fansub out – in theory – and I think the conclusion they came to was something like 3-4 hours.

[laughs] Wow, OK. That's really interesting. Going back to something you said earlier, you mentioned you get the files from Japanese peer networks. I've heard this before, and I don't know if this is the case, maybe just not with your group or with most groups, is that they have one guy in Japan who provides them with the stuff. One dedicated guy who helps out by providing raws. But this sounds like it's completely anonymous, you're pulling them off the peer networks because the Japanese are sharing them with themselves, and you're yanking it and sub it that way?

Well, typically, if they do have someone like that, and you'll see this in the credits of some shows, they'll call them “raw providers”. Typically what that is is they have someone with a dedicated computer, a dedicated connection. It does take a bit of work to get these files; you have to share a bit of data to get the data you want, and it take some time, so it's helpful to have someone like that.

The fastest project I ever worked on was when I had a guy in Japan creating the raw files for me – and he's notorious in the fansub community – he had an automated system where he would record the shows and automatically upload them to a webserver and I could get it 15 minutes after it aired in Japan.

So now that we know how it operates, let's shift gears a little. The primary method of distribution is bittorrent, but from what I understand, the actual community lives and exists in "Internet Relay Chat", or IRC. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Sure. IRC has been around forever. It began with internet geeks and it'll die with internet geeks. We needed a collaborative place where we could come together and do our work; IRC kind of naturally fit into that, because it's a chat network and we were fansubbing for people who were inclined to be chatting on an IRC network. Plus, it had a very rudimentary file distribution system. There were anime channels on IRC before it even had a file distribution method, and anime IRC channels before fansubs even existed.
Now, basically, it's where the groups hang out and collaborate. You spend hours and hours working on fansubs and chatting with eachother on the computer; it's basically a community that's come around that.

It used to be – before Bittorrent came out – IRC was the main place people would go to get fansubs. Now, obviously, Bittorrent has taken the distribution from IRC. But it's primarily a community – like-minded individuals who enjoy going there. It's no different from, say, Second Life. The video game. It's really the same thing. It's the social aspect of it. That's really where everything happens for at least 90 percent of the groups out there.

It's funny that you would mention that. We just released a show the other day where we decided to do it IRC-only; I didn't do any bittorrent distribution for it. It's because we wanted some nostalgia, we wanted people to come back to IRC and sure enough we get all these faces we haven't seen in years, because they're just downloading the files and we don't get to talk to them anymore. A lot of the old subbers miss that aspect of it.

But it's all about the community, that's the heart of it.

So realistically this is really about a community that's grown up around fansubs? It's less a concerted effort to distribute anime illegally  as it is this community that's grown together and this is simply the work they do.

That's absolutely correct. A long time ago it was about getting anime out there – things you couldn't get, or things you could see before they came out here. A little while ago things got blurred… but yeah, it's become a community. Many of us liken it to an MMORPG, where it's really no different from people playing Warcraft all day. There are people playing under nicknames, adopting a character – we even gain “experience”, getting to “higher levels”. There's a lot of one-upsmanship, doing things other people haven't done before, releasing files before someone else releases them. It used to be a lot more competition between groups, before the advent of bittorrent, because distribution used to be a lot more difficult. You really needed a lot of people with high-bandwidth connections in order to get the files out to people.

Bittorent leveled the playing field, so you had a whole influx of new people coming in doing speed subs, because if you were the first person to release a file, you were going to get that notoriety, that attention. People would recognize you and be interested in you. It really is a competition; there are people who are friends and people who are enemies. At the end of the day, it's one giant social environment, and instead of playing Warcraft, having guilds and fighting eachother, fansub groups compete with one another for downloads.

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