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Remix this: anime gets hijacked

Fans defy copyright by ripping footage then 'synching' it to music

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Tim Park sits at home in his one-man studio in Ontario, Canada surrounded by piles of anime DVDs and a ton of tech.

He’s already “ripped” footage from the anime series “Genshiken” from one of his DVDs to his computer. Now, 34-year-old Park is loading up a CD soundtrack of the comedy musical “Avenue Q.” Using editing software, he’s going to make the characters created in Japan sing a tune written for a Broadway show by painstakingly matching the mouth movements in the video to the lyrics of the song.

Park is one of a growing community of so-called fan editors who “remix” Japanese pop culture by themselves, then upload the results online for others to see.

“A lot of my videos are comedic,” says Park, who works as a video-game programmer. “I think of a footage/song combination and wonder if it will work.”

Until recently, few outside the world of anime fandom knew, or cared, about the anime music video (AMV) phenomenon. After all, what could be possibly be dorkier than taking footage from Japanese animation, obsessively re-editing it to music, and calling it a new work of entertainment?

But fan-edited anime clips are now getting attention from some very high places. In the United States, National Public Radio recently reported on an “Iron Editor” competition where anime music videos were created while the clock ran down; and Stanford University professor and digital age-guru Lawrence Lessig shows AMV clips in his lectures to demonstrate how “creativity is being strangled by the law.” Then there’s the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a watchdog for free speech on the Web, which cites AMVs uploaded on the popular video-sharing site YouTube as examples of user-generated media that should be monitored by people, rather than be subject to the automated censorship of filtering software.

Even the U.S. music industry is keeping an eye on this legally gray area where fans churn out copyright-defying clips one after another for fun, not profit.

“People are becoming more aware that something is happening out there,” says information-systems engineer and AMV creator David McKeen, 29, from Troy, New York. “There’s a whole movement of fans making their own media creations and it seems like AMVs were ahead of their time in that respect.”

Who is watching them? Thousands and thousands of people — some fellow editors, other just anime fans — who get their fix through YouTube or elsewhere on the Web. At anime conventions around the world, packed houses for AMV screenings are common.

The magic typically begins in a bedroom studio where, using video- editing computer software such as Final Cut Pro for Macintosh or Adobe Premiere for the PC, AMV makers can spend anywhere from several hours to many months setting animated footage to music.

Basic techniques include lip-sync (making the anime character look like they are singing the song); timing the sound of the beat to the visual cuts; or “lyric sync” (one of Park’s favorite tricks), when the events on screen relate to the lyrics of the song in some way. The challenge is to make an AMV that stands out from the thousands of new such clips that debut every year.

For Meredith Cantoni, 26, a current “Iron Editor” champion from New Jersey whose day job is in IT for an NPO, “a good video has a beginning, middle, and end. You have to tell a story, which is hard because you are working with two entities (sound and image) that aren’t your own. It’s up to the editor to make something unique.”

According to geek lore, the first fan-edited music video was most likely made in the 1970s using footage from the original “Star Trek” TV show (though somehow no one remembers the choice of music). Then, in 1982, a 21-year-old college student named Jim Kaposztas hooked up two VCRs to each other and married violent scenes from the anime “Star Blazers” to “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles to humorous effect. With that, the anime music video was born.

“Being a communications major at the time,” Kaposztas remembers, “it seemed a way to share my hobby, as well as getting practice in editing.” With only a handful of fans like Kaposztas willing to take on the difficult challenge of producing clips on their VCRs, anime music videos spent most of the ’80s and ’90s as a novelty in the then-tiny anime market catering to U.S. fans.

But when the popularity of Japanese pop culture exploded in the West around 2000-2001 — thanks in part to the opening up of the U.S. market for anime and manga in the wake of Pokemon and other hits — so did a new breed of AMV, one that was created digitally, using footage often ripped from DVDs and edited by fans on their personal computers.

As Cantoni, who made her first AMV in 1998, points out: “It used to be very difficult to get into this hobby. But now the technology is so affordable and the anime is so affordable. Even the illegal ways of obtaining both . . . it’s really opened up so that anyone can do this.”

When they aren’t busy editing footage, either by themselves or with other editors, or competing for prizes at AMV contests held at anime conventions, top-level editors are interacting with each other in the huge online community at animemusicvideos.org

The Org (as editors refer to it) hosts around 120,000 AMVs that are directly downloaded (the preferred mode of distribution, as YouTube’s sound and picture quality is inadequate) by more than 700,000 members.

The site even keeps track of the anime and music commonly used in AMVs. Footage from Japanese anime like “Naruto,” “Bleach” and “Fullmetal Alchemist” have been among the most popular for makers in 2007, while bands such as American rap-metallers Linkin Park, Dutch goth-band Within Temptation and Canadian punks Three Days Grace provide the soundtrack. “The combination of megapopular anime ‘Dragonball Z’ and Linkin Park became so prevalent that people started calling it ‘Linkinball Z,’ ” says Park.

So far, it’s been the music side of AMVs that has created the biggest headaches for animemusicvideos.org. In 2005, the label Wind-up Records sent a cease-and-desist request to the site’s administrator, demanding that links to AMVs using music from their acts Evanescence, Creed and Seether be removed. “They took them down and that was that,” McKeen says.

But the issues of copyright and legality continue.

“There are a lot of people really in denial about it,” Cantoni says of her fellow editors. “They think, ‘Oh, it’s not hurting anybody!’ or they think that the (anime) industry looks at this as promotion, but it’s pretty blatant that what we are doing is illegal. It seems like the best thing you can do is make sure you purchase all your software — DVDs, music CDs . . .”

Says McKeen, “It used to be that we could say what we did fell under ‘Fair Use,’ but in the current environment that’s becoming less and less OK.”

In an era of increasing litigation over Internet piracy, is it only a matter of time until AMV makers become as criminalized as people downloading movies and MP3s? Or will the anime industry itself continue to turn a blind eye because, as fans like McKeen put it, AMV creators are “not trying to make any money off it”?

Regardless of what happens, what is certain is that Kaposztas’ original AMV tape from 1982 has spawned a boom in user-generated media whose influence continues to travel and mutate.

“In the last few years, there’s been a lot of interaction between editors from different countries. There’s a big scene in Europe as well and a lot of anime conventions all over the world now have AMV contests,” says Cantoni.

Editors’ techniques have developed, so that they are now using special-effects programs, experimenting with adding new computer-graphic elements and toying with crossovers, combining characters or backgrounds from one show and pasting them into another.

Where does Japanese pop culture stand in all of this? It may merely be some kind of cocoon for a wider revolution in entertainment where consumers make their own media — rather than buying it at the mall. The techniques pioneered by AMV are inspiring other fandoms to make their own “Harry Potter” music videos, “Lord of the Rings” music videos, you name it, using film footage and favorite songs.

Will this emerging remix culture actually produce anything of lasting merit? Who says it has to?

“People tend to write off AMVs as being uncreative,” Cantoni says, “but there is a creative side to it, regardless if the video is awesome or not that great. Either way, someone has put their heart and soul into something they are enjoying. I think that anyone who is a fan just wants to create and work with the footage that they love.”

Patrick Macias is the editor in chief of OTAKU USA magazine and the author of Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno: Tokyo Teen Fashion Subculture Handbook. He can be found online at www.patrickmacias.blogs.com