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How not to run an AMV competition screening

Day 1 of Anime Los Angeles has officially drawn to a close. Due to various factors including my travel schedule (I didn’t actually arrive on-site until close to 2:30 this afternoon) and my body’s need for a sudden unscheduled nap (remember what I said about human frailties…) I only made it to one panel today, but it was an interesting one – all about anime conventions in Japan and how they differ from the typical style of anime conventions we’re used to in the Western world. I’ll post more on that later. However, the evening ended on a bit of a sour note… The Anime Music Video (AMV) contest is something I really look forward to at every anime convention I attend. Having tried (and failed) to make one myself, I know how hard it is to make an AMV – and how much harder it is to make a good AMV. The creativity of the AMV community simply astounds me. Plus it’s a great way to discover new anime – I often see scenes, characters, etc. that interest me and motivates me to go online and find out what series they came from.

Anyway, back to tonight’s AMV contest. For starters, they were late letting us in. No biggie there – late starts and line-ups are pretty much par for the course when it comes to an anime convention, and we’re used to that sort of thing. Once we finally got seated, however, the event didn’t start – they were running late. Again, no biggie, and at least they were running AMVs from previous contests on the big screen to entertain us while we were waiting.

Then things started to go south. Specifically, the computer that was running the AMVs started freaking out. Badly stuttering/pausing video, sound dropouts, Windows crashes (did I mention this was being run on a Windows machine?), and multiple occurrences of the Windows “USB device connected/disconnected” sound (which seemed to indicate problems with an attached USB hard disk – presumably the source from where they were playing the videos.) The natives began to get restless, and there was some jeering and heckling from the audience (some of which, I’ll admit, came from the Otaku no Podcast camp).

Finally, the MC, the inimitable Tadao Tomomatsu, appeared on stage to get the ball rolling. Only… it didn’t. Again, frequent video stuttering/pausing, sound dropouts, program crashes, etc. If it weren’t for his (sometimes corny, but always funny) jokes and entertaining stories, I fear the scene would have turned very ugly. While he vamped, the tech crew was busy trying to get things to work. Finally, they got it working more or less, with only the occasional slight audio glitch, and we proceeded through the Drama, Action, Comedy categories. But there wasn’t enough time to show the final category (“Pro,” for high-production-value videos, similar to the “AMTV” category in Anime Expo’s AMV contest).

So what went wrong here? Let’s do a little hypothetical post-mortem analysis here…

I’ll ignore the late start/late seating issues, as these are common at conventions. Clearly the main issue was technological in nature. What happened?

First of all, it turns out that the computer being used was the personal computer of (presumably) one of the A-LA staff. This was his (or her) gaming rig. It would have been far easier to use a less, umm, riced-out machine. Less complexity and all that. Almost any machine is capable of playing back video these days, even many lower-end notebooks (and even some netbooks).

Second, apparently the videos were being played back from a USB Drobo – a professional-grade highly redundant external storage device. Again far more complexity than was needed. It would have been much simpler to use a standard USB external hard drive, such as a Western Digital My Book. (Or even a USB thumb drive, which are pretty much bulletproof and highly reliable.) It turns out that the Drobos require specialized drivers for the best functionality – during one of the periods when Tadao was vamping, tech staff were frantically downloading the latest Drobo drivers and software.

Finally, it looked like the videos that were supplied for the contest were in a variety of different formats. Unfortunately there’s not much you can do about this. Working with video is a complex procedure, especially given the wide variety of formats that AMV source material comes from (retail DVDs, fansubs of various formats, and now HD video). You could attempt to use one of the video “Swiss Army Knives” – programs that attempt to decode and play back a wide variety of video formats. (in fact it appeared that they were using VLC, one of these type of programs.) Unfortunately sometimes even these versatile tools fail or generate undesired results. You could also enforce a “standard format” that all submissions must be sent as – say, for example, H.264 video with a maximum bitrate of 1500, and a maximum resolution of 720×480. The tools for converting between video formats (transcoding) are widely available and generally work well enough. Or – best of all – standardize on the DVD format. Most computers these days come with DVD burners, the DVD format is robust and reliable (it’s withstood the test of time), and it is very difficult to screw up computer-based DVD playback software. And if the unthinkable happens and the computer crashes or whatever, then all you have to do is hook up a cheap $40 Wal-mart DVD player to your A/V system and you’re back in business.

Lastly, I feel that most, if not all, of these problems would have been averted, or at least lessened in severity, if the staff had used Macs in the video preparation and/or playback workflow. I’ll acknowledge that Windows has done some serious catching up in the multimedia department in the past 20-odd years that it’s been out; however I still firmly believe that the Mac still has an edge when it comes to working with digital media, especially video. (and before you hit that “comment” button – I don’t want to turn this into a “my computer/OS is better than your computer/OS” thread. So stop right there. If you still feel the need, please do so by contacting us directly.) One of the conventions I spoke of last year, FanimeCon, used a completely Mac mini-based video playback system for all of their screening rooms, and (to my knowledge) did not have any computer-related video playback problems whatsoever.

I do feel I must give credit where credit is due, however. The staff did their darndest to ensure that “the show must go on.” And if it weren’t for the always-entertaining Tadao-san — like I said earlier — things would have turned REAL ugly. Finally, unlike Anime Expo of several years ago, A-LA actually had an AMV contest. They didn’t mysteriously lose their files or equipment, with no backups to be found anywhere.

I’ll post links to all of the AMV candidates (as well as links to their entries at where available) when I’m less tired. Tomorrow’s looking to be a pretty full day, and in order to survive it, I really do need my beauty rest. Oyasumi nasai…

1 comment to How not to run an AMV competition screening

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