Tales Of The Industry Getting a Foot in the Door
by Justin Sevakis,
Welcome to “Tales of the Industry,” a column where we will share stories from real working professionals in the anime business. This week, we return to an autobiographical story by the author.
Are you a current or former member of the anime business or convention staff? Do you have a story you've been dying to tell, but just can't tell it the normal way? Get in touch with Justin Sevakis through any social media you like. His Twitter account is @WorldOfCrap, if you aren't acquainted.
Central Park Media was not my first time in the anime industry. It was my third, even if you don't count Anime News Network in its nascent form as being "industry." But the first two went by pretty quick.
I moved to New York City for college in the fall of 1999. While I would be attending film school at School of Visual Arts, it was clear that, expensive as that city is, I would also need a part-time job. My parents were paying for a lot, and helping me out with the rent for the dorm room, but I would be on my own after that.
I was fine with this arrangement. I'd always had a job since I was legally allowed to, and I enjoyed working. I'd also started the first, very early version of Anime News Network a year earlier, but the site wasn't really bringing in any money. I figured I might have the connections and the resumé, having been a VHS fansubber, to do some professional subtitling work. And since I was going to be in New York City, I had my sights set on only one company... and that company was Media Blasters.
I knew about Central Park Media, of course. Most of my first anime had been CPM titles. However, by this time CPM did not have a good reputation among the people I knew. Their dubbing was poor, their VHS subtitles were ugly, their licenses were mostly mediocre, and their employees inaccessible. I didn't want to work for them. The only other game in town was Media Blasters, and despite having gained its footing releasing a bucketload of hentai, they were starting to churn out some pretty cool stuff, from Magic Knight Rayearth to Kite. With no other perspective on how these businesses operated other than that of a fan, I had made my decision.
I'd had some email conversations with Media Blasters proprietor John Sirabella a few times during my time running ANN. I reached out to him by email, saying I was moving to the area, and he was nice enough to treat me to lunch. I came to their small startup office space on 28th Street in the Fashion District, which was a lot more spartan than I had imagined. We had a nice conversation, but upon hearing my interest in working for him, he informed me that he preferred to keep out of the production side of things, so he wouldn't consider hiring me himself. Instead, he introduced me to the guy running his production department, a guy named Sam.
Sam was the sort of guy that people from the Midwest imagine when they picture a New Yorker: Fast-talking, harried, and impatient. He looked up at me and shook my hand in the most unenthused way possible. "You do subtitles?" he asked.
"Yes. I'm especially good at editing and rewriting raw translations," I began, referring to the practice of reworking a clumsy and overly-literal translation, which is usually what came from translators, into something more readable. "I also do timing work." I hated timing work, since it was very tedious back then, but I'd do it.
"Great," shot back Sam. "Got any jobs you've done?"
I'd prepared a VHS tape of some of my more impressive VHS fansub work. Mind you, this being the video production stone age, the exhaustive typesetting, enhanced sound effects, custom opening titles, and other work I'd been so proud of back in the day would be pretty quaint by today's fansub standards. At the time it was far more elaborate than most of the American distributors had attempted. I was very proud of it.
Sam glared at me with an impatient look on his face. "I don't watch fansubs. On principle."
Oh. Well, crap. I had not anticipated that. My mind raced. Why wouldn't he watch it? I mean, I could understand the sentiment from a professional, but how else are you going to gauge someone's work? I simply didn't have anything else to show him. "This is all I've got," I admitted.
"Leave it here," he said. "I'll contact you if I need anything." He signaled that the conversation was over, and I took that as my queue to leave. I was happy to get out of there.
To my surprise, a few weeks later Sam emailed me. He had work for me, and said I should stop by their office to pick up the VHS copy of a project with the timecodes burned in. (This is what most professional work was done from back then.) I took the subway over to their new office -- they had just moved -- and was greeted by the sight of Sam on his cell phone yelling at the phone company for not having the land lines hooked up yet. He motioned for me to sit down. And so I did, and watched as he got increasingly frustrated over the phone and, after making a few choice remarks about getting his lawyers involved, hung up. He looked at me and motioned to a VHS tape on his desk.
I looked down. It was labeled, Spanking Love. I had to laugh. "This is seriously the title?"
Sam was unamused. "Don't rewrite the script, I already have someone else doing that. I just need you to time it. When can you have the timecoded script back to me?"
I tried to hide my disappointment. The reworking of text was the fun part. "Is a week okay?" I asked. He nodded. Noting that there was not going to be any small talk, I turned to leave.
I went home to my college dorm room, and popped in the VHS tape. As I thought, it was one of those grade-B live-action softcore exploitation movies, the sort Japan makes by the dozen. I was greeted by an opening shot of a dungeon, shots of guys in cages getting candle wax dripped on them, women in leather with ball gags, and all that sort of thing. I sighed deeply. I thought back to my time running ANN, and how I'd reached out to the various anime publishers, trying to get on the list to receive screeners, only to receive a giant stack of hentai to review. "Why can't I get away from the porn?" I thought to myself.
Subtitle timing back then was done one of three ways. My preferred method was "twitch timing," where you watched the show in real-time and hit a button on a computer to advance to the next subtitle or clear the screen, while the computer recoded the time. This required a few correction passes afterwards, but it was kind of fun, and I'd gotten good at it. Some people had switched to WAV timing, where you set the start and end times for each line of text by clicking on a display of a WAV file of the show's audio. But at that time neither method could be used for professional subtitles, so I was stuck using the least fun and most tedious method there was: scrubbing through the video and then manually typing each timecode into Microsoft Excel.
In spite of my initial reaction, I actually found myself kind of enjoying Spanking Love. It actually wasn't a terrible movie. I mean, it was ludicrous in both its perceived shock value and its cheesiness, but it also had some surprisingly interesting things to say about Jungian psychology (as it applies to porn actresses and bondage queens). Most importantly, it wasn't boring, so I didn't lose my mind during the tedious subtitling process. I snuck in a few edits to the text, to address how sentences flowed, and hit save. The whole thing took me a good 6 or 7 hours.
I emailed the final script to Sam, along with an invoice. Later, I stopped by their office and left the tape with a co-worker, not caring to run into Sam again. I wondered if I'd ever get any more work, but honestly didn't care if I did. The whole thing was just not what I imagined. I didn't really know what I HAD been imagining, but it wasn't spending hours timecoding a terrible exploitation movie in the most painstaking way possible. I thought I loved doing this stuff, but this... this was WORK.
It ended up taking them three and a half months to receive a check in the mail for my work. Sam left Media Blasters not long after that, and was replaced by a crew of genuinely cool people, some of which became good friends of mine. But while I did a few uncredited jobs where I helped out friends working on Media Blasters titles, I never directly did anything on one of their titles again. (Years later, my subtitles would be spat out on a zero-effort DVD, which I would buy for posterity.)
I'll admit, the experience soured me on the business. Suddenly, it all seemed far less impressive, far more seat-of-its-pants and low-budget than I had ever anticipated. I started to think better of working in the business. And in the meantime, money was getting tight. I had been wasting time and living off of my savings, but I needed a job. I stopped at a newsstand and bought a newspaper so I could pull out the want ads. But just then, I received a mysterious email. It was from a huge fan of ANN, who wanted to hire me to do something similar.
And I could not believe who this company was. It wasn't just anybody. It was someone big.
It was Sci-Fi Channel.
To be continued...
Any opinions expressed above are those of the expressing party and do not necessarily reflect those of Anime News Network, it's staff, or it's owners. While Anime News Network will never knowingly publish a false or inaccurate story, please remember that there are two (or more) sides to every story.
If you are a current or former anime industry professional and have a story to share (we can keep everyone anonymous), get in touch with Justin Sevakis via social media.
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