One of the questions we get asked the most is, "how did AnimEigo get started?" Well, telling the story the first 10,000 times we got asked was fun, but to be honest we're starting to get a little tired of it. Also, it's getting hard to keep our lies straight without a written record of them.
In The Beginning
AnimEigo got started one day in 1988 in Ithaca, NY. Robert Woodhead and Roe Adams were at the time allegedly working on a computer game (Wizardry IV, the Return of Werdna - and if you think AnimEigo's titles are late being released, count yourself lucky, we blew our deadline on that game by 2 full years! [1
One afternoon, while taking a break from pretending to program, Robert was playing with a new toy, a "Colorspace II" video board that let him superimpose Macintosh graphics on video. Roe, taking a break from pretending to design the game, wandered by and saw this.
Roe was a huge anime fan, and he inquired as to whether it would be possible to use this hardware to subtitle some of these weird videos he loved. At the time, at meetings of the Cornell Animation Club, they watched 5th generation SLP VHS copies of anime shows while some poor bastard [2
] unfortunate enough to know Japanese was encouraged [3
] to provide a real-time translation. Roe figured that if he could provide subtitled versions, he'd score big Otaku points [4
]. Robert thought about it for a moment, and said "sure, it'd be easy" [5
Roe then suggested that we could make copies of the videos and send them around to other anime clubs so they could see them [6
]. Robert thought about this for a moment, and then replied, "I have a better idea -- I'm always going to Japan on business, why don't I go get some licenses and we'll try and sell the videos?"
Five minutes later, after both Robert and Roe had finished laughing their asses off about this really stupid idea that could not possibly ever make any money, AnimEigo [7
] was born, mostly as something to do on the weekends when they didn't have any work to pretend to do.
The AnimEigo Titling System
AnimEigo's first titling system was primitive, but it got the job done. Based on the Macintosh II (16mhz 68020 processor) and the ColorSpace II video board, it had to surmount several technical problems. The biggest of these was that even when operating in 2-bit (4-color) mode, the processor needed about 1/20th of a second to change the screen buffer (and thus update the titles). Since video runs at 30 frames a second, this meant that the screen could not be changed in a single frame, and depending on the relative timing of the changes to the screen buffer and the scanning of the video raster, titles could flicker.
The solution to this was a cute technical hack. If the program needed to change the subtitle at frame "X", it would instead wait until frame "X-1", wait a little longer to give the video beam a head-start, and then follow behind it changing pixels in the screen buffer. Since the video beam was reading the buffer faster than the computer was changing it, the beam would get futher and further ahead. When the beam retraced and started displaying frame "X", the computer would still be painting the frame, but would now be far enough ahead that it could finish just before the beam caught up.
The trade-off was that this meant that the subtitling system could not change the subtitles every frame; at best it could do so every other frame. However, for subtitles this was not a serious limitation. It also meant that the subtitles had to be displayed using only 4 colors [8
]. Since 1 color had to be used for the "transparent" color that let the background video through, and 1 color was needed as a dark "surround" to make the subtitles visible against any background, this meant that only two colors of subtitles could be visible at any one time. Since at this time Robert was blissfully ignorant of the 1-color tradition of subtitling, he considered this to be a drawback; in fact, it was a major improvement in the art.
Research was also done about what subtitle colors worked best, both perceptually (for people) and technically (for video). Drawing on dim memories of one of his perceptual psychology classes (or at least, one of them he didn't sleep through), Robert came up with AnimEigo's infamous "optic yellow" color. This color, and the color of the surround (a very dark brown), were then adjusted so that they could be superimposed on background video without causing video bleed. TV sets in those days were not as good as we have now, and swift changes from very light to very dark pixels would cause problems. But we found that a typical TV set could go from anything to the dark brown surround, from the brown to yellow, from yellow to brown, and from the brown to anything. The secret of AnimEigo's subtitling magic was that very dark brown [9
The other major technical problem was timing the subtitles. At the time, not only were there no timecode-reading devices for Macs or PCs, but nobody in AnimEigo even knew what timecode was. So we made up our own. This involved a simple program that would count video frames and superimpose them on the video (since the frame count was small in area, we could update it every frame), which allowed us to make a copy of a tape with a visible frame count. Then someone (in the early days, mostly Roe) would watch the tape on a VCR with jog-shuttle, and hit pause whenever they heard a line of dialogue. Through trial and error we determined each person's unique "reaction" delay time, so by counting back from where the VCR stopped, we could tell (to within a few frames) where the line should go, and enter that time in the script.
Then we would do a test subtitling run, watch it to see if it looked good, and adjust titles by hand if they seemed early or late. But since we didn't have any timecode to lock to, we had to come up with a good way of syncronizing the whole set of subtitles to the video. This was done by watching the video frame count in real time and releasing the mouse-button at some predetermined point. Then a few seconds later would come a couple of test subtitles located at some very visible point in the film (say, a scene break, or the appearance of a logo or title). By watching carefully, we could determine if our mouse-finger had been early, late, or just right. Since being wrong meant we had to stop everything, back up, and try it again, we all got really good at this really quickly. On the first few AnimEigo titles, we actually used this system to sync everything up in the video studio. After subtitling a video, we would then go back and edit out the "sync" subtitles.
Another problem we had was that what with all the moving around of frame buffers, the Mac would often get so bogged down that it didn't have time to draw all the subtitles before they were needed, and if there was a sequence with a lot of titles in a short period of time, titles would start coming on late. This was solved using a circular buffer containing (usually) the next 16 subtitle transitions. After loading the script, the subtitling system would pre-compute the first 16 transitions, and as the subtitling run progressed, any time the Mac wasn't moving a subtitle buffer to the screen, it would look to see if there was an empty slot in the buffer (that had already been used) and would fill it up with another subtitle. As long as the Mac could keep at least a buffer or two ahead of the needs of the script, things would appear at the right time.
Believe it or not, all of the basic design decisions and coding for the first subtitling engine (including all the features discussed above), were implemented and debugged in the first week. We were, by the way, so clueless that at the time we thought NTSC video actually ran at 30 frames per second. When we found our subtitles were drifting in time, we determined by experiment the true frame rate of 29.97 frames per second. It was another week before we were able to find out that this was in fact the case (we thought maybe our Mac was a bit screwy), and a full two years before we found out why it is the way it is (it's a brilliant technical hack that allows the color video signal to be shoehorned into a black and white signal without screwing up B&W TVs).
The first major improvement in the subtitling system was in timing. Having obtained a little box that could digitize sound, the framecounting program was modified so that just below the frame count, it displayed a horizontal bar-graph showing the current sound level. Thus, after pausing the tape and rewinding to where you though the dialogue started, you could jog-shuttle around and look for the frame where the audio level bounced up; this was the frame where the dialogue started.
Well, not quite. Actually, it was the frame after the dialogue started, because we had to measure the audio level before we could display it. So at first, we always subtracted 1 frame from this point to find the real start point. But we quickly learned that although this was correct, the result was subtitles that sometimes seemed to come up early.
The reason for this was that (1) light travels faster than sound, and (2) the eye is faster than the ear. So the combination of the subtitle being seen by the eye before the sound got to the ear, and the faster communication between eye and brain, made it appear as if the subtitles were coming up early. The solution was to simply not subtract the 1 frame of audio-display delay on our video level-meter; the two errors cancelled each other out.
A interesting tidbit - people seem to be much more sensitive to subtitles being late than them being a bit early. So if you err, err on the side of the subtitles coming up early. You can get away with a 1 frame early subtitle, but a 1/2 frame late subtitle is noticeable. Michael House, before he was stolen away from us by Gainax (the quintessential Otaku version of "an offer you can't refuse") got so sensitive to subtitle timing issues that he could adjust subtitles by eye and ear to exact 1/2 frame precision.
The final improvement to the classic AnimEigo titling system was to stretch the level meter into a strip-chart that scrolled down the screen. It displayed a record of the previous 2 seconds or so of audio level at all times, so when you paused the tape, you could simply look back and see where the speaking started, then rewind back to that point to find out the timecode. It also displayed both the average and peak intensity of the sound, which was helpful when the initial sound of the speech was a low-energy sibilant (ie: the "sh" in "shimatta!") And at about the same time, timecode reader devices that could interface to the Mac became available, so we could now automatically sync to timecode just like in the big studios.
Except, of course, that VHS didn't support timecode. We got around this by having our studio take the D2 digital master tapes we'd get from our licensors and make Super VHS copies of them with the dialogue on the left channel and a timecode audio track ("linear" timecode or LTC) on the right channel. Then we could use these in our office and feed timecode into the Mac through the new box, while still being able to hear the dialogue. Fortunately, we didn't need stereo to do the timing.
This system worked well for many years, but recently we've updated things to take advantage of digital technology. Today, we digitize the video and audio, and use cheap iMac workstations to do the timing. Effectively, the process is the same; we see the video, we hear the audio, and we have a nice display of the audio level. The advantage is that it's much easier to "scrub" back and forth on the audio and video to find the right start point.
While many people know that Metal Skin Panic : MADOX-01 was our first release (early 1989), very few people know that the first video that AnimEigo actually subtitled was Vampire Princess Miyu OVA 1. We subbed Miyu to test our subtitling system, and also so we had something to show potential licensors. In effect, Miyu was almost certain the first "fan-sub".
At first, we couldn't get the Japanese licensors to take us seriously (a wise judgement on their part, actually), so we ended up getting in touch with Pony Canyon's US office, FujiSankei Communications International. After a meeting in New York, we were able to bamboozle them into giving us the choice of releasing either MADOX or, believe it or not, Project: A-KO. We decided on Madox because it was (a) shorter, (b) cheaper, and (c) we figured it was more approachable to non-fans. This was a particularly stupid thing to do because at that time you had to be a fan to want to buy anime.
The packaging of MADOX and several of our early releases was created by Robert Woodhead using a Laser Printer and a X-ACTO knife, and it shows.
Armed with an actual product (to show that we were for real, as opposed to a bunch of clueless geeks), Robert returned to Japan to get more licenses. This time he'd worked out a deal; he would appear as a guest at a computer game convention run by this bizarre company called Gainax, and in return, Toshio Okada, one of the founders of Gainax, would arrange some meetings for him with various Anime companies. The meetings ended with no deals made, and when Robert moaned about this to Okada, he made a sage comment -- "Robert, everyone wants to be the second person to do business with you."
According to Okada, at every Japanese company there is an unwritten book of rules, and as long as you follow the rules, even if a deal messes up, it's not such a bad thing. But if you do something new and that messes up, then you're up the creek. And unfortunately for us, there was no rule about selling Anime to the US, because nobody had ever really done that before. Once one of the companies did business with us, assuming things went well, then all the other companies would copy from that company's unwritten book of rules into their (also unwritten) book of rules, and we'd be home free [10
From this explanation, it is clear that Toshio Okada is either a philosopher of the first order, or a major bullsh*t artist. These days he teaches at the University of Tokyo. You decide...
There was one other interesting development from this trip. Okada provided Robert with an interpreter. As soon as the meetings were over, he asked her out on a date. After demonstrating her lack of judgement by saying "yes," she confirmed that fact that she had no common sense whatsoever by agreeing to a second date [11
]. Knowing that the chances he would find another woman who was smart enough to argue with him and
dumb enough to laugh at his jokes was practically zero, Robert knew that she was "Miss Right."
At the time, however, Natsumi considered Robert to be "Mr. Maybe".
While Robert persisted in his pathetic plans to woo a woman who lived on the opposite side of the earth, things were afoot in Tokyo. Out of the blue (but probably after a night of extremely heavy drinking, if the rumors are true), a company named Youmex offered us the rights to a 1-shot OVA called Riding Bean. And we quickly found out that Toshio Okada was indeed right; once Riding Bean came out, it became very easy to get new titles.
AnimEigo - The First Internet Company
AnimEigo was one of the first Internet-based virtual corporations, and we did it before there really was an Internet. When we first got started, we needed to recruit some people to do translations, so we posted an inquiry on rec.arts.anime. Back in those days, rec.arts.anime traffic totalled a few message a WEEK. In response to our troll asking for suckers willing to work for "a share of the profits" (in other words, for free), Michael House and Shin Kurokawa started working for AnimEigo. We didn't actually meet them in the flesh for several years.
Around Xmas 1989, Robert moved to Japan in a wily attempt to kill two birds with one stone and marry the remaining bird. In addition to chasing Natsumi, he was going to work on a multiplayer-game project, plus do some AnimEigo work on the side. Meanwhile, back in the USA, his mother, Janice Hindle, took over the job of running the entire company (sometimes we sold hundreds of tapes a month!). When she moved down to Wilmington, NC, the company moved down into palatial offices in her new spare bedroom [12
Unfortunately, when Robert got off the airplane at Narita Airport, he heard a loud popping sound. Looking down, he discovered to his dismay that he had accidentally stepped on Japan's Bubble Economy. But while the funding for the computer game project eventually dried up, AnimEigo took up the slack, and for the next 6 years, work sloshed back and forth around the planet every 12 hours as the two halves of the company kept in touch almost exclusively by email.
And oh yes, Natsumi finally gave in and married Robert in a ceremony that involved an interactive "adventure game" wedding in which the guests got to decide how things progressed [13
]. The fact that Natsumi would put up with such nonsense confirmed to Robert that she was "the one" [14
The Japanese Years
Robert, Roe Adams, and Michael House spent about 6 years in Japan, and during that time produced several hundred hours of subtitled Anime. Michael, as you will recall, eventually got stolen from us to work at Gainax, and given that Toshio Okada (of Gainax) had introduced Robert and Natsumi, they couldn't really say no, could they? Some of the more unusual events of this era included:
- Licensing all of Urusei Yatsura except Movie 2 (Beautiful Dreamer), figuring we'd head across town to Toho when the deal was done to pick that up, while at the exact same time, John O'Donnell of CPM was at Toho licensing Beautiful Dreamer and figuring he'd pop across town to Compass to license the rest of UY .
- Doing the subtitling work (for CPM) on the most notorious unreleased anime title of all time, "I Give My All" (Minna Agechau).
- Obtaining, under circumstances that cannot be revealed, a large number of Miyazaki cels.
- Getting a call from another company asking if we were in the market for free cels, saying yes, and having a truck arrive the next day full of them. Filled up an entire room.
- Finding out, when we were about to leave Japan, why we got the free cels - because they are considered Toxic Waste and cannot just be dumped in the trash.
- After arranging at some expense to have the extra cels we didn't need properly disposed of, having the problem of getting them all (well over a ton!) from our third floor office down to the truck. Solution: mattress in the truck, heave-ho off the balcony!
- Numerous other things we're trying to forget.
Wilmington - Hurricane Central
As dubbing became more important, it became more and more necessary for us to spend more and more time in Wilmington, AnimEigo's US HQ. Eventually, Robert and Natsumi moved back to the US, while Michael stayed at Gainax and Roe pursued more computer game projects in Japan. Around this time, Shin became more involved in AnimEigo, eventually moving to Wilmington to work full-time [16
Since Robert moved to Wilmington, almost every hurricane that has threatened the East Coast has scored a direct hit on his house. He and Natsumi are getting a little tired of turning on the Weather Channel and seeing a satellite view of our subdivision with a bullseye superimposed on it. Typically after one of these annoying storms passes through, we have to run the office and the webservers on a generator for a week or so [17
]. The one year we didn't get a hurricane some bozo smashed a car into Janice's office (lucky for him she wasn't in it at the time). And so far this year, while we haven't had a hurricane, a water leak collapsed the ceiling in Robert's office.
And that, so far, is a rather sketchy history of the company. As time permits (and we come up with better lies), we'll add to it.
] Our motto was, "It'll be ready 'next week'"
] Usually Masaaki Takai, who later translated for AnimEigo until his parents found out, kidnapped him, and had him deprogrammed.
] Often by threats of violence...
] At this time, Anime fans were not called Otaku. They were called "#$%&@ing weird."
] As it turned out, the programming was easy. It was all the other jobs, such as subtitle timing, editing, and hunting down and torturing Otaku who complain about our dubs that turned out to be difficult and time-consuming.
] In other words, "Robert, I want you to do a lot of work so that I can become the Godfather of American Anime..." Also this probably means that Roe invented the idea of fansubbing.
] AnimEigo is a play on "Anime" and "English". It's pronounced "Ah-nee-may-go," not "Anim-Ego". Anim Ego is our philosophy, not our name.
] Although the later incarnations of the subtitling system, running on faster computers and using better digital video boards, allowed more simultaneous subtitle colors (as well as anti-aliasing of the letters), the original "two colors at a time" heritage of the system remains. This turned out to be very handy when it was upgraded to output DVD subtitles, which have exactly the same "2-bit" restrictions as our original subtitles.
] This color was, if you'll pardon the expression, some seriously good sh*t.
] To give you an idea of how undeveloped the concept of licensing Anime for international release was at that time, shortly after releasing one of our early titles we ran through our initial advance, and sent the licensor some extra royalties. They faxed back a letter asking "what's with this money you sent us?" Turns out they'd never gotten any additional royalties on any previous license they'd ever done.
] There are persistant rumors, strongly denied by Robert, that this was the first (and only) second date he ever had. All he will admit to is that he thinks it was the last second date he will ever need.
] When AnimEigo decided to start dubbing, it turned out to be very convenient to be located in Wilmington, which being a major film / TV production center, has a lot of decent, underemployed actors who would practically pay us to voice-act.
] Sample branch point: Should the cake be cut with (a) knife, (b) karate chop, (c) samurai sword, or (d) chainsaw? [Audience wisely chose (c)]
] Robert also used to joke that it was cheaper to marry an interpreter than hire one. Then they had children...
] We actually translated and subtitled Beautiful Dreamer for CPM so as to maintain continuity between the two releases.
] Actually, he worked double- or triple-time, until Natsumi and Janice started coming in every evening to kick him out of the office at a reasonable hour.
] If "Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and three times is enemy action," then what's five times? We figure these hurricanes are a plot by one our competitors to get rid of us, and as soon as we figure out which one of them is responsible, our retribution will be biblical in scope. And we're talking the real old testament stuff, too.