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“Make it like a Hollywood Movie” - The Story of Macross Frontier Films' Official English Subtitles

by Coop Bicknell,
Fun fact: the final scene was left out of the script of Wings of Farewell to avoid any leaks of who Alto would choose. Sheryl or Ranka? Photo credits: Sean McCann

On May 20th 2022, Big West and Fathom Events announced that the Macross Frontier film duology would be hitting American theaters in June. The expectation of most people who go to see a previously untranslated anime film is that it will have a fresh localization. Well, surprisingly that isn't the case here. Like Fathom's Macross Plus Movie Edition premiere in December 2021, the Frontier films will be using a revised version of the subtitles developed for a Japanese special edition Blu-ray set.

Yes, you have just read that correctly. Macross Frontier: The False Songstress and The Wings of Farewell have had official English subtitles for nearly a decade.

Considering the well-documented distribution hurdles the Macross series has faced until very recently, this is a bit of a shocker. On top of that, the story behind the existence of these subtitles is more intriguing than their life as a bonus feature on a fancy Japanese Blu-ray set.

Here's the story as told to me by a majority of the people who worked on it: Adrian Lozano, Gwyn Campbell, Sam Pinansky, Sean McCann, and J. Collis.

From Left to Right - Gwyn Campbell, Renato Rivera Rusca, and Adrian Lozano at a Macross Delta Announcement Event.

June 2013.

Adrian Lozano, Gwyn Campbell, and Renato Rivera Rusca could regularly be seen at Macross events across Japan. Talk shows, concerts, book signings; if it was happening, there was a good chance they would be there. Over time, the Japanese Macross community welcomed them with open arms, lovingly referring to them as the “Gaijin Butai” or “Foreign Legion”. The fans were not the only people to take notice of the trio; series creatives started to recognize them as well. Campbell mentioned that they even got a few concert shout-outs.

“There have been one or two concerts where we've been picked out of the crowd by the performer. Like, 'Oh! The Gaijin Butai are here tonight for some Macross!”

These interactions led to the beginning of a working relationship with employees at Satelight. I was gobsmacked when Lozano told me what their first project was.

“Here's an email subject: ‘Comic-Con 2013 Screening - Shoji Kawamori of Macross’ Anybody mention that yet?”

Macross series creator Shoji Kawamori was looking to attend San Diego Comic-Con 2013. Applying through Satelight, he intended to talk at a handful of panels and screen both Macross Frontier films. Lozano asserted that despite the licensing situation, Kawamori was fully within his rights to do so.

“The screenings would fall under exposition of creator's work, so as long as they're being shown in a festival and not sold or tickets sold, it's kind of out of the reach of that era's licensing. That would be the only way they could do it. If it was shown at a con, then Kawamori would have to be there to be able to say like 'this is the body of my work, you cannot keep me from showing what I worked on'.”

The Legion were brought in to develop the program information for Kawamori's panels and screenings. Two of Kawamori's three panels were approved, one on Macross specifically and another focusing on his general design philosophy. Additionally, SDCC had agreed to arrange screenings for both films. Lozano told me that their plans were on track to happen, until Satelight got a look at footage of the convention's notorious Hall-H panels.

Source: Groundwork of Macross Frontier artbook

“They saw those videos and just said 'he simply cannot do this.' They did not understand that there were smaller panel rooms. They thought he was gonna go up on this big stage and do a bunch of stuff.”

Despite his SDCC plans being thrown out the window, Kawamori still attended SDCC 2013 unannounced. As they had licensed Aquarion Evol and some of his other works, Kawamori found himself signing autographs at Funimation's booth.

Despite that disappointment, the con season wasn't over for Shoji Kawamori just yet. He had also been invited to attend France's Japan Expo 2013 as a Guest of Honor. He had a slick new reel of his work set to the Macross Frontier opening theme, “Lion,” to show off. Though he planned to screen both films at the event, his plans ended up getting scaled down to just one film. It was decided that the second film, Macross Frontier: The Wings of Farewell, would be screened. Looking at the time table, a Satelight staff member realized that it was almost the middle of June. The convention would start on July 4th. They needed a localization job done fast.

Enter Yomiuri-TV Enterprise or YTV. It's a name that might be familiar to you if you remember the early anime crowdfunding distributor, AnimeSols.

Source: Groundwork of Macross Frontier artbook

The captain of the AnimeSols ship, Sam Pinansky, was knee-deep in the middle of running YTV's Media Strategy Localization Section. If that sounds like a mouthful, Pinansky himself was kind enough to break down exactly what his section did.

“Primarily we were in charge of domestic digitization and uploading of YTV programming to domestic digital stream platforms, as well as running a group of translators, editors, and timers for media subtitling localization. We primarily handled simulcast anime, jobs for other TV stations and production companies subtitling shows for sales purposes, as well as handling a lot of subtitling of YTV network variety/documentary shows for things like in-flight programming and other stuff.”

The “other stuff” often included localizing numerous films – such as the Adam Lensenmayer-translated Hentai Kamen or Sean McCann-translated Cleopatra – for one night only, film festival showings. The efforts of these mostly contractor-powered teams were often uncredited, even if the subtitles made their way to a home video release. McCann told me this was common in the projects they worked on.

“Those subs [Cleopatra] ended up on a DVD somewhere, eventually, but I don't think we were credited. Par for the course, really. I was pretty used to not getting credited for anything I did at YTV outside of AnimeSols.”

Knowing that his team could provide quality work despite a brutally short turnaround time, the Satelight staffer, a friend of Pinansky's, approached him to commission the YTV team to tackle the lightning-fast localization of The Wings of Farewell. The idea was that the English subtitles could maybe be reused later on.

“I think basically the ball was passed around for a bit and ended up in the lap of the production studio [Satelight], and they reached out to me since my friend knew only we could handle something ridiculous like translating, timing, and subtitling the entire movie and providing a fully HD Blu-ray on BD-R for the convention to screen. At this point, I don't think Big West was involved in any way. The commission was for a one time use at a single event”

Photo source: Groundwork of Macross Frontier artbook

Negotiations quickly wrapped and the YTV team was provided with the final work order on June 15th, 2013. This gave the team roughly two weeks to get the film localized, checked, and authored to a disc before sending it to France. Their time frame ended up being cut in half, as Pinansky had difficulty staffing the project due to the circumstances at play.

“Like everything at the time, I put out a general call for volunteers. I got quite a lot of interest but many people turned it down due to the ridiculous deadlines and massive amounts of song lyric translation.”

Looking down the barrel of an ever-tightening schedule, he was able to corral a team of passionate giant robot fanatics together to gerwalk this project to the finish line. Pinansky himself oversaw the team, performing quality control and authoring the Blu-ray Disc. With him were Sean McCann providing the translation, J. Collis timing the subtitles, and Alicia Ashby editing. McCann described the team's workflow as fairly par for the course for this kind of project.

“The script of the film, like many anime films, is divided up into reels of about the length of an anime episode each. I sent those to Collis as they were finished, so that people further down the chain would have more time to do their work. After that, they went to Alicia for editing, and then on to Sam for the final TLC pass.”

Then again, the time frame they had to do this in was anything but average. McCann told me they knocked out the film in five days, starting their work in earnest on June 22nd and finishing on June 26th. However, Wings of Farewell wasn't the only project McCann or his teammates had on their plates that week, providing new challenges for him on top of it.

“I had an episode of Tobikage to do for AnimeSols, as well as quality/translation checking on the Hanasaku Iroha movie for possibly the same convention, and some Japanese game show for format sales at YTV going on at the same time. Also, Collis wasn't available to do pre-timing, which I was used to working with, so it was probably the first project that I had to turn in a script for without the timing already mostly done. I seem to have missed a few lines that I had to go back and fill in later in the process as a result.”

Photo source: Groundwork of Macross Frontier artbook

While the YTV team was at work, Gwyn Campbell received a call from the very same Satelight staff member. A friend of the trio, the staffer asked them for a favor: whether they would take a look over the subtitles for Macross terminology and ensure that characters didn't sound odd in translation. According to Campbell, Kawamori wanted the subtitles to properly reflect the series as a whole.

“I remember it was said in particular that Kawamori wanted to make sure it was Macross-y enough in not just the terminology, but the way people spoke. I mean Macross has a very specific kind of lore and the way music is referred to and its effects and culture. It's all very specific to the franchise. They just wanted to make sure we Macross'd it up”

Unaware that it was being passed from YTV's hands to theirs, the Legion received the translated script on Friday, June 27th. They completed their work in ten hours, on top of working their full-time day jobs. Campbell was in one room comparing the timing of his personal Blu-ray to the Excel spreadsheet he had been provided. In another room, Lozano was surrounded by a mountain of printed source materials for Frontier and the entire franchise. Campbell told me this frenzied Saturday of work was incredibly important to them. It would be the first time many of the series' names and terms would be presented in English.

“A common challenge when doing any form of Macross subtitling is that because most of the franchise so far hasn't been out in English before, spelling any word in those subtitles is a first. And maybe the way fans have spelled it, that may not necessarily be the way it's supposed to be or it may be? You don't know until you sit down and take a look at it. So every time we came across terminology we had to put our heads together and make a judgment call.”

Michael here has had a few different readings of his name, such as Mikhail or Michel. Photo source: Groundwork of Macross Frontier artbook

Glad they were able to provide some peace of mind to a friend in a tight situation, the Legion submitted their work. From there, Pinansky made his final checks and authored the disc. Once finished, he sent the fresh Blu-ray Disc on a first class Fed-Ex flight to Paris. That was one more project down for the YTV team as they shifted focus to their other assignments.

The Legion heard the Japan Expo screening was a success. Though what stuck out to them even more was the unfortunate gaffe Kawamori made on the train to Narita. As Lozano described:

Macross 30 [Macross 30: Voices across the Galaxy, an action-RPG for the PS3] already came out, the YF-30 Chogokin came out, and Kawamori was taking a brand new YF-30 to give away, signed at Japan Expo. He put it on the train rack above him on the train to Narita and he left it on the train.”

That derailment fortunately didn't hit the YTV team. Upon hearing of the screening's success, Pinansky started talking with Satelight and Big West on what future train tracks they could lay down together, acutely aware of where the subtitles now sat.

Photo source: Groundwork of Macross Frontier artbook

“After this successful "impossible" gig, Satelight had the rights to a script they could not use in any way, so they connected Big West to my team. We had a very large number of meetings over many months. Basically, the discussion was 'Hey, we could subtitle the series or first movie and then you could, you know, sell it or stream it or something and wouldn't that be nice?'“

All parties involved went back and forth for about six months before the discussion bore fruit. Big West and Pinansky agreed on a budget for his team to subtitle the first Macross Frontier film, The False Songstress, along with polishing up their work on The Wings of Farewell. As for the Macross Frontier TV Series, Pinansky told me it was off the table.

“Big West passed on asking us to subtitle the actual series, they claimed they did not "have the budget" to do so.”

In the meantime, Lozano and Campbell escorted Macross illustrator and mechanical designer Hidetaka Tenjin to Macross World Convention 2013 (now Super Dimension Convention) on October 5th in Torrance, California. As Lozano tells it, Tenjin's eyes were opened to the Macross community outside of Japan.

“What was interesting during Macross World Con, Tenjin was taking all these photos. And Tenjin, he had- he still has a Facebook page, but Facebook wasn't really being used by Japanese people at the time. Very little. He was amazed to see how big- the fan museum had artwork that has been missing in Japan forever and a day. Like whether it's cels or concept art. He took all these images, photos, videos, put them up and everyone in Japan was like 'How did they get all this stuff? Yahoo Auctions?' With Tenjin being there, he started understanding how the foreign fans are. Right? And how you'd make a presentation or what not.”

Photo source: Groundwork of Macross Frontier artbook

Following the convention, Campbell and Tenjin headed back to Japan while Lozano stayed in the U.S. to visit family. Once he returned, Campbell told Lozano that they had been asked to look over something for a project. They later met with Tenjin, who revealed that a Blu-ray set containing both Frontier films was on the way with English subtitles included. This time, the Legion's work would be more than just a favor; there was little cheddar on the table. No formal plan for exactly what they were doing was in place just yet, but the Legion agreed to come on board with Tenjin giving them two main criteria:

  1. Make it like a Hollywood movie
  2. No profanity

While the Legion waited for the work to come in, the YTV team found themselves able to breathe a bit easier this time around.

“The work schedule for when we went back and worked on the first movie [The False Songstress] was more relaxed. We had a couple of weeks for it, so the script probably benefited from the less rushed schedule. Both scripts have had enough other eyeballs on them that I'm confident they should be in good shape,” Sean McCann told me.

Photo source: Groundwork of Macross Frontier artbook

Speaking of those other eyeballs, the Legion then received the film's scripts fully translated. Their finalized instructions, in addition to a Macross terminology check, were to make adjustments for flow and characterization, aiming for a generally less literal translation. One scene specifically that came to Lozano's mind was early on in The False Songstress, in which protagonist Alto Saotome tries to rescue heroine Sheryl Nome after being blasted off the top of a stadium.

“They're falling and he's saying 'calm down, calm down' in Japanese to himself. How do you say it? Do we do the direct translation of that? We would just try to find something similar, but would help the scene more. Instead of 'calm down, calm down, calm down' cause he's talking to himself, in the real world when we're doing stuff and something's not going right, we tend to go 'not good, not good, not good'. So even if it's not completely correct as a direct translation, we were taking the scene 'cause he's calibrating how he's gonna save Sheryl and he knows he's screwed.”

As Campbell told me, this approach led to their team even bending Tenjin's second rule a little bit, including the word “shit” in Wings of Farewell.

“We specifically asked permission for that 'shit.'" Campbell said. Lozano elaborated further that this helped to cut down any repetition on some of the words they used as you could only say 'crap' so many times in place of 'yabai' or 'mazui'.

Continuing their work, the two teams were still unaware of each other's identities. Pinansky was told by Big West that they would like three “enthusiastic overseas fans” to review the scripts, but that was it.

When Anime News Network reported the announcement of the newly-christened Macross Frontier the Movie 30th d Shudisuta b Box Blu-ray set and its English subtitles, they soon figured out whose notes they were reviewing. The Legion noticed that Pinansky was in the associated forum post to the announcement, reassuring fans that the subtitles would be of good quality. His involvement made sense to Lozano, knowing that Pinansky's team had also provided English subtitles for Space Battleship Yamato 2199. Even though Lozano had run into him a few times at networking events, he didn't have any contact info for Pinansky. This realization came at a good time as Lozano told me the Legion wanted to ensure the series' cute and cuddly mascot character, Ai-kun, didn't have his name fall victim to a standard localization practice: the removal of honorifics.

“I remember we came to one issue, because it was the whole thing of 'are they gonna put honorifics in it?' Like ‘Ranka-chan’, 'cause everyone calls Ranka, ‘Ranka-chan’, except for Ozma. Do we call her ‘Ranka-chan’? Do we use honorifics? What does it look like? What do people want overseas? Do we not wanna do it? Do we do it? And we ended up coming around to ‘we probably shouldn't do it’ because the one character that has an honorific or that style is Ai-kun. So if we have Ranka calling Alto, or somebody ‘kun’, it could become confusing for the reader all of a sudden. We looked through the books, and we found out in the Japanese books that he's not listed as ‘Ai’, in print he's written as ‘Ai-kun’. When you read about the character Ranka, they don't call her ‘Ranka-chan’, that's just how she's referred to by certain characters. So we said Ai-kun is his name, so let's go with ‘Ai-kun’ and leave everyone else as Ranka, Sheryl, Alto.”

Realizing they should probably explain this to the YTV team so Ai-kun's name was preserved, Campbell shot Pinansky a private message on the ANN forums. After explaining who he was and the situation, the situation was settled promptly. Lozano does wish they had noted some other things that slipped through the cracks on the set. However, their job was to make suggestions; any final changes were in the hands of the YTV team and whatever company had authored the discs. With Lozano and Campbell working full time jobs at the same time, Rivera Rusca did most of the longer passes on their end.

Photo source: Macross Frontier Illustrations artbook

With the project in the can, Pinansky was ecstatic that the May 2014 release of the Shudisuta b Box would allow fans in the West to purchase officially subtitled Macross media. However, that excitement was met with disappointment when he learned that the set was generally not available for export. Corroborated by Lozano and Campbell, Collis told me why that was the case.

“The issue with the Blu-rays is that Amazon and most stores wouldn't export the set because the game disc meant it was sold in the video game section, which retailers refused to export, rather than anime. I believe a similar issue cropped up with the original Blu-ray of Do You Remember Love? because that was also a hybrid game release. Later reissues were just the BDs and exported fine.”

Diehards were able to purchase the set through certain specialty retailers like AmiAmi, but the mass majority had a middleman or friend in Japan hook them up, though it could make an expensive set even more pricey. Having been those “friends in Japan” more than a few times, the Legion were greeted on their doorstep by a huge box from Big West. Arriving three days prior to the set's release, the box contained a set for each of them. Excited to see their work finalized, they popped in the first disc and were shocked to see the songs translated. In their time with the scripts, they had only received the base translations from the YTV team. They noticed some other things too, but they'd have a chance to revisit them, eventually.

In the years following the set's release, Pinansky and his team moved on from YTV. Some of them stayed in anime localization, others joined him at his current company, J-Novel Club. As for Lozano and company, they had kept a close working relationship with Hidetaka Tenjin. In addition to accompanying him to international events, they worked with the artist to provide English text for his artbook, VALKYRIES - Third Sortie -. With the release of Macross Delta in 2016, Tenjin asked the group to pitch Big West on developing English subtitles for the series' Japanese Blu-ray releases. With a successful pitch, the group became Creative Sphere. Since then, they've provided English subtitles for all of Macross Delta including its films, the concert film Walküre 3rd Live, and content on the series' official YouTube channel.

Following the historic licensing agreement made between Big West and Harmony Gold in April of 2021, Creative Sphere was brought on to work on Fathom Events' release of Macross Plus Movie Edition. Pleased by the results of that event, Fathom told Big West that they wanted more Macross. This brings us to today and the Creative Sphere's chance to revise their work nearly a decade later.

Lozano explained that the pre-existing Blu-ray subs wouldn't look flattering on the big screen. The “overhauled” subtitles, as they describe it, are updated for the theater with numerous fixes, including new subtitle alignment to better fit the screen, adjustments to lines, and punctuation updates, specifically the removal of em-dashes. Lozano strongly reminded me that this is the same translation Sean McCann had done, but updated to reflect the changes in localization practices over the past decade. Campbell was enthusiastic to return to these subtitles with all the experience they had built up since then.

“We've been really fortunate with our work on stuff like this because there's been multiple passes, there's been a bit of—I mean, the first time was quite rushed for everyone involved, but as the years have passed and we had a bit more time for the boxset, there's been time to think about it. To kind of let osmosis work and let the the essence of the show sink in and really get the meaning behind the words and having that little bit of freedom to exercise that creativity to make it sound more natural has really been a godsend. In most IPs and in most projects, that is something we don't get.”

When asked how he felt about the announcement of his team's work being seen by a wider audience after all this time, Pinansky said, “That's pretty cool! Once you work long enough in this space, you realize that rights to your translation are very, very loosely tied to the work itself. If your subs end up surviving a rights holder change, or a format change, you should just count yourself lucky.”

Both groups I spoke with weren't exactly sure who had the initial idea to give English subtitles to the Macross Frontier film duology, but the common temperature of our conversations implied that it just might have been Shoji Kawamori himself. Regardless, Macross fans and newcomers alike will be able to see these excellent films very shortly. Fingers crossed that these once “impossible'' subtitles will continue to have a life in the future.

Coop Bicknell is an occasional writer and co-host of podcast Dude, You Remember Macross?. You can follow him @RiderStrike on Twitter.

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