Sunday, April 01, 2007

A History of Fansubbing

Part 3: Early Digital Subtitles.

This April, we continue a series of articles on the history of fan-subtitled anime in the English-speaking world, with a discussion of the almost forgotten early days of digital fansubs. In the early- to mid-1990s, growing fan dissatisfaction with analog media for exchanging anime, such as Video Home System (VHS) tapes and crude homebrew laserdiscs (LDs) fashioned from Tupperware and aluminum foil (see Part 2) led a small group of pioneers to experiment with distribution schemes for digital video. The internet did not exist as such at the time, however, and existing technology such as magnetic core memory proved too bulky and unstable to physically ship between fans. A high-tech solution for the distribution problem was offered by the invention, in 1992, of the punch card (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Legendary fansubber Bryce Carson edits his latest project (ca. 1993).

Punch cards are light and able to store large amounts of data, up to 6 kilobytes in a standard 25 kilogram carton of cards. Early fansubbers, often impoverished college students eager to save on postage, created an innovative compression method called American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) art, in order to pack as much anime as possible into a shipment of cards. Sophisticated subtitling groups such as the Urusei Yatsura Project (UYP) drew full-color ASCII art representations of every frame of animation, by hand, then applied nearly professional-quality subtitles, based on translations by members who had become fluent in Japanese by listening to weekly Nippon Housou Kyoukai (NHK) news broadcasts on shortwave radio (Fig. 2). Dialogue, music and sound effects were represented by rich, life-like 3-bit digital sound.

Fig. 2. Frame from the 1994 UYP subtitle of Top o Nerae! Gunbuster, ep. 3.

Other fansub groups, such as Polar Animation, focused less on the technical excellence of their subtitles, and more on translating large amounts of anime. Polar was able to release full runs of several dozen series, including Kimagure Orange Road (Fig. 3), by employing a cutting-edge automated program to rapidly generate ASCII video. This program ran on top-of-the-line Amiga computers, reported to be on loan from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Early Polar subs were subject to some artifacting from the ASCII compression process, and sported translations that were often less literal than hardcore fans demanded, but most observers feel that these difficulties were adequately addressed in the group’s later efforts (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3. Earlier Polar Animation subs lacked refinement. (Frame from Kimagure Orange Road, ep. 17).

In spite of advances in compression technology, distribution of digital subtitles by mail remained relatively expensive and slow. A single 25-minute TV episode, which could be stored on about 80 kilograms of punch cards, would have cost $1.25 to ship from Utica to Bangor in 1994, or approximately $420.00 in 2007 dollars. With a shipping time of 3-4 business days, the postal method achieved transfer rates of only 0.000000088 kilobytes per second (kbps).

Fig. 4. Sample frame from a later Polar Animation subtitle (Maison Ikkoku ep. 62).

Resourceful fans living near estuaries developed a clever method of transferring fansubs via laminated punch cards, carried by the ebb and flood of the tides (Fig. 5). Multiple fans could take part in distributing a video file, with individual users retrieving cards from the water, duplicating them, and returning cards to the current for others to share. This method was called bit torrent (BT), and could reach transfer speeds of nearly 0.00000046 kbps. A related technique, direct download (DDL) was even faster, but was practical only in urban settings, where cartons of punch cards could be gravitationally transferred from a sender on the upper floors of a building, to a receiver (or “leecher”) at ground level. New York University students, in December of 1996, used DDL to transfer the entire Patlabor TV series—on 11.4 metric tons of punch cards—from the top of the Chrysler Building to viewers at street level. The students managed to record, at the moment of file receipt, a data transfer rate of 438 gigabytes per second, which is impressive even when compared to the speed of present-day cable modems.

Fig. 5. Bit torrent file transfer in progress at Hell Gate, New York, ca. 1996.

But even at the height of the first digital subtitle boom, the days of watching anime recorded on punch cards were numbered. Production of new digital subtitles was dealt a serious blow in February of 1997, when the entire Polar Animation staff died in a tragic Feng Shui-related accident, while attending a party in a dormitory lounge furnished in a catastrophically unharmonious manner. VHS tape, despite markedly inferior video quality, made a temporary resurgence. The final blow to punch card fansub distribution was delivered by the internet, which was invented on March 4, 1999, by Al Sharpton.

Please look forward to part 4 of A History of Fansubbing, titled “HD-VCD: The Future of Anime?” It’s coming soon, and will be made available on bit torrent.


Alex said...

After switching to DVD I was glad I didn't sell all my old punch cards on eBay right away--burning them helped us survive during the blizzard of '97.

Matt said...

Ah, those were the days, to the best of my recollection.

Andrew said...

I'd like read part 1 and part 2 of this article... where i can find it?

Thanks ;)

Matias said...

I can´t find the first too parts of this article. Hope i can get to read it soon.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I have never read such thick satire. Took me way too long to realize...