Genesis of the digital anime music video scene, 1990–2001

Ian Roberts

AbsoluteDestiny, Oxford, United Kingdom

[0.1] Keywords—AMV; Japan

Roberts, Ian. 2012. "Genesis of the Digital Anime Music Video Scene, 1990–2001." In "Fan/Remix Video," edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 9. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0365.

1. A brief history of AMVs

[1.1] The development of the anime music video (AMV) scene, as described here, is centered around Western anime fandom and the music videos created by its fans between the 1980s and the early 2000s. (The tradition of Japanese-created fan videos is an entirely separate tradition that would require its own article.) Western AMV development during this period was dependent on a number of related developments: (1) a growing demand for and access to anime in the West—that is, the availability of anime and the way in which anime video-sharing created an environment for the creation and distribution of fan videos; (2) the development of anime fan communities—how local anime clubs grew to convention communities and finally to AMV communities; (3) the emergence of new technologies—including VCR, LaserDisc, camcorders used for linear editing through analog capture, DVD capture devices, and digital downloaded source for digital nonlinear editing; (4) the cultivation of expertise—in particular, the mastery of professional editing techniques and their application to AMVs by fans; and (5) the codification of AMV aesthetics—comprised not only of the changing, maturing, and diversifying of genre and theme, but also a density and diversity of visual technique.

[1.2] Some questions to consider when watching an anime music video include: What is the subject of the video? What kind of message is being communicated about that subject? What prior knowledge, if any, is required of the subject? How do editing methods influence, guide or realize this message? Who is the potential audience (personal, friends, convention, Internet)?

[1.3] Anime music videos, or AMVs as they are commonly known, have a history that goes back to the early days of anime fandom in the United States. In the 1970s and 1980s, the everyday TV, movie, and media fan knew little about anime. The commercial market for anime was limited to English-language dubs shown alongside Western cartoons. Battle of the Planets (aka G-force, aka Gatchaman) and Speed Racer were watched but with little knowledge of their Japanese roots and no knowledge of the diverse genres to be found in Japanese animation. For those few who did know about anime, access was very difficult. Importing VHS tapes from Japan was difficult, rare, and expensive, and English translations were nowhere to be found. The dawn of consumer VCRs and consumer chroma keying technology changed all this, and throughout the 1980s, anime fans would copy and distribute tapes to any fan who would send them blank tapes, postage, and packaging. Fans formed local anime clubs with lending libraries, and as soon as technology allowed (in the late 1980s and early 1990s), fans began to produce their own subtitled tapes (fan subs).

[1.4] The technology used for tape distribution was the same technology fans used to make their own music videos, and in 1982 Jim Kaposztas created what we believe to be the first fan-made anime music video in the West: an ironically violent Space Battleship Yamato video set to "All You Need is Love" by the Beatles.

2. The analog era: From VCRs to the dawn of digital editing

[2.1] Early AMVs were often added to the end of fan sub tapes to fill in space that could not fit an episode of a TV show. Many fans saw their first AMV this way, with "I could do that" being the cursed response of many a soon-to-be AMV creator.

Video 1. Bobby "C-ko" Beaver, "Everything She Does Is Magic" (1993).

[2.2] Bobby "C-ko" Beaver's "Everything She Does Is Magic" is the classic two-VCR vid: simple idea, thoughtful execution. C-ko's AMVs are among the most cherished of the tape distro era. Sentimental works of this kind were fairly common during the VCR editing years. The inclusion of the source movie's credits was quite popular in the 1980s and 1990s, partly for attribution and partly to advertise and promote a show or movie to fellow anime fans who might not know about it. Fan videos have always been a strong part of anime promotion in the West—the inclusion of videos on fan sub tapes served to act as promos (traditional trailers would carry a burden of translation where fan-made videos are often flattering and accessible).

[2.3] Trivia: You may notice that the brightness of this video fluctuates. This is a side effect of MacroVision copy protection, an early antipiracy measure that later appeared in a simpler digital form on DVDs.

Video 2. Corn Pone Flicks, "Comfortably Numb" (1992).

[2.4] A group of Atlanta-based anime fans made a vast contribution to anime fan works in the 1980s and 1990s. Corn Pone Flicks produced fan parodies, reviews, fan subs, and large number of fan vids. This is possibly the worst surviving copy of this vid, but it's also the most prolific—a very low-resolution MOV file distributed in the mid to late 1990s at the dawn of the digital anime era. There's another classic story here, digging deeper into the psyche of Tetsuo from the groundbreaking movie Akira. The English audio is from the original Streamline Video dub. For many anime fans (myself included), this particular dub was their first real introduction to anime as something distinct from Western cartoons.

Video 3. You Know Who, "Girls with Guns" (1990).

[2.5] A fan known only as You Know Who made a number of excellent AMVs in the 1990s with a significant focus on timing—especially internal motion. Jump cuts, while not the easiest thing to do when armed with a flying erase head and a stopwatch, were very much the norm in AMVs by this point, but internal motion (gun shots, explosions, jumping) was often accidental. You Know Who uses internal motion and timing to great effect in this spunky action AMV.

3. The 1990s convention scene

[3.1] As anime grew in the United States, the emergence of fan conventions also led to AMVs becoming part of con programming. This began with AMV viewings in late-night slots or showings to fill dead space in convention video programming. As AMVs became more popular as a convention activity (since the difficulty of distribution meant they were something you usually couldn't see at your local anime club), formal AMV shows appeared. At first, AMV shows worked in simple terms—bring your VHS to the con and we'll copy your AMV to a tape and show the tape. As participation grew and the art form developed, the first AMV contests began.

[3.2] Contests were the catalyst that formalized many key AMV aesthetics. Late 1990s AMVs competed in comedy/fun, drama, and action categories, and techniques and a visual language were formed and purposefully used in new AMVs to win awards.

[3.3] Anime and AMVs grew fast, thanks to the greater access to technology, and among these contests and changing technologies, the second wave of AMV makers emerged.

Video 4. Brad Demoss, "Dangerous" (1992).

[3.4] "Dangerous" is an early 1990s comic convention video and one of many multisource projects by Demoss in the two-VCR era. Demoss had a number of collaborators on this and other VCR projects. Just as in vidding, the expense of the equipment resulted in the formation of small groups who would make fan videos together. "Dangerous" is interesting in a number of ways: this is a video about animation of all kinds. This is effectively a celebratory show reel of everything this group of fans love about animation. By the late 1990s, crossover between Western and Japanese animation in fan vids would be almost unheard of unless it was a deliberate parody—which is more a sign of anime fandom growing large enough to stand on its own two feet than anime fans proactively disliking Western anime.

Video 5. Lorraine Savage, "My Euthanasia" (1996).

[3.5] Unlike vidding, the AMV scene at this point was largely male. It is only since 2005 that female participation in AMV making has grown to match the number of male AMV makers. That's not to say that women making AMVs is anything new—this shocking but hilarious AMV from 1996 is as well regarded as any comic work from that period.

Video 6. Duane Johnson, "500 Miles" (1996).

[3.6] With fans watching the same shows and listening to the same songs, it was inevitable that several different videos would appear featuring the same idea. The song "500 Miles" spawned a number of AMVs in the 1990s, and many of those were to this very character in Ranma 1/2—Ryoga has a terrible sense of direction, leading him on round-the-world travels when he only needs to go next door. He also has an unrequited love for Akane who, unknowingly, cruelly tortures his affections by keeping him as a pet when he inevitably turns into a cute pig, which he does when he comes into contact with cold water. Johnson's take on this idea is fondly remembered by many AMV fans and represents a core AMV principle for videos of this era: Represent an aspect of the show as it is felt by the fans. In a sense, this distillation of feeling is the most essential principle of all fan creations.

Video 7. Duane Johnson, "Gotta Keep Em Separated" (1996).

[3.7] The fun action video is a hugely prolific genre that has regularly cross-pollinated with comedy since creators started making AMVs. Johnson follows the playful manner of the source movie here and keeps the action very tongue-in-cheek, managing to stay fun, humorous, and action packed. The importance of the contest scene, however, unintentionally discouraged cross-genre works as the years went on, since editors came to feel that cross-genre videos would not win against purely comic or purely action-packed competitors. Here again we see the impact of contests on the development of AMV aesthetics.

Video 8. Duane Johnson, "Linger" (n.d.).

[3.8] In the early 1990s, straight romance videos like this were very common—surprisingly so, considering the young men making the videos. This end-of-an-era romance video is a stellar example of the genre, but as the convention scene grew, videos like this would not fare well in the drama categories when compared to more somber drama videos. It is not until much later (around 2002), when romance/sentimental emerged as a common fourth category at contests, that there was a revival of videos like this one.

Video 9. Lee "Lostboy" Thompson, "La Resistance" (1999).

[3.9] Another prolific AMV maker of the time, Thompson used a camcorder to create the transitions for his videos before he switched to digital. This video is also a strong crowd-pleaser: It is designed so that the audience eagerly anticipates each new singer to see which of their favorite anime characters have been cast.

Video 10. BigBigTruck, "Crazy-ass Violence" (1999).

[3.10] "Crazy-ass Violence" is a real gem of 1990s AMV making, featuring fun, upbeat action. Using every anime she owns, BigBigTruck (aka EK) showed us all why anime is straight-up kick-ass. There is some very impressive action synchronization evident here, with a superb feel for what is right for this joyous and campy rap hit. It also handles the considerable length of the song very well, saving some of its best moments for last.

Video 11. Kevin Caldwell, "Phantom of the Opera" (1998).

[3.11] Incredibly, this tightly edited video was linearly edited using a LaserDisc player and a VCR. Finesse cutting (such as the white and black frame flashes) was likely achieved thanks to the ability to perfectly pause LaserDiscs and the ability to insert single frames in the high-end VCRs of the time. The technical aspects of the video were only part of what impressed audiences; part of the effect is created by the surprising anime choice ("Magnetic Rose" from the Memories shorts), which would have been largely unknown. Sci-fi opera house horror with a techno Lloyd-Webber soundtrack plus superb editing made this a real hit.

4. The dawn of digital editing

[4.1] By 1999, consumer video capture technology was becoming common, with VCR-based editors switching over to video capture and a whole new crowd of editors appearing as anime gained popularity. While the technology was revolutionary, the change in participation was more evolutionary, with 1999 through 2001 showing a rapid growth of the convention scene as more cons appeared around the country and more editors submitted their videos to contests.

Video 12. Brad Demoss, "Come out and Play" (1998).

[4.2] This AMV was made around 7 years after "Dangerous" and the difference is very clear—much faster cutting, lots of technical flourishes (like the crowd-pleasing lip-synch at the start), internal motion—everything you would expect in an upbeat action AMV from the late 1990s. For "Come out and Play," Demoss had upgraded from his VCRs to an Amiga 3000. Amiga computers were fairly popular in the mid to late 1990s thanks to the success of the Video Toaster card, which had very good chroma key (an important technology if you wanted to create your own fan subs) and a number of other helpful editing tricks. After the death of the Amiga, Brad and many other AMV makers switched to an Apple Mac and Final Cut video editing software.

Video 13. Artificial Suns, "Push It" (1999).

[4.3] Technology improved tremendously in the late 1990s, but alas, access to good source footage did not. Anime was an expensive, expensive hobby. The anime End of Evangelion had a famously long wait before a commercial English release. An AMV maker either spent a lot of money on a LaserDisc player and imported the LaserDisc version, or used a fan sub or someone's raw untranslated VHS copy. A lot of different sources are visibly mixed here, including a very deliberate fan translation of Asuka's famous "Kimochi warui" line.

Video 14. Maboroshi Studio, "Sleep Now" (1999).

[4.4] With digital editing arrived the ability to add to the footage instead of simply appropriating it. In this excellent Serial Experiments Lain AMV, Joe Croasdaile of Maboroshi Studio punctuated the themes in his video by adding his own text to the sea of messages represented in the show coming from "the wired."

Video 15. Maboroshi Studio, "Far and Away" (2000).

[4.5] This video was a massive departure for AMVs at the time and would still be seen as ambitious at conventions today. "Far and Away" is a long, instrumental AMV narrating what was then a brand-new show (His and Her Circumstances) that did not have a huge following. The success of this AMV (and many found it immensely enchanting) was in its storytelling and strong association of musical intricacies with movement and feeling.

[4.6] By the end of the millennium, AMVs had grown from a minor hobby with a handful of participants to a significant part of anime fan culture: AMVs at some conventions were becoming as important as cosplay. The growth both of anime fandom and of AMVs was immense—by the year 2000, many US anime conventions were growing 50 percent a year, and AMV participation grew with them.

5. The rise of spectacle: Contests and innovation in the early 2000s

[5.1] The end of the VCR era saw the beginning of the digital era for anime fandom in general and AMV making in particular. The all-important anime conventions and the annual AMV contests they would host became the focal point of AMV creative efforts. Editors would make several videos and send them all to one or more contests to give them an audience, enjoy them on the big screen, and hopefully win an award or two.

[5.2] Then came Anime Expo 2000. Nobody could have known what a turning point this particular contest at this particular con was at the time. The AMV scene had grown to have big names and big (and mostly friendly) rivalries. In 1999, Kevin Caldwell had won every category at Anime Expo (the biggest con in the country). In 2000, the competition was fierce, and practically every big-name AMV creator was either competing or in attendance. AMVs had become an established genre and, in response to growing competition, were now increasingly technical. Overtly technical work in AMVs, particularly in terms of special effects and composition, were the cause of many arguments among creators. Then Caldwell's impressively composed video "Believe" lost the drama category to the simpler, emotionally charged "Rhythm of the Heat." Many believed, Caldwell included, that the effects in "Believe" were distracting and detrimental. It would be the last AMV Kevin Caldwell would make.

[5.3] The following AMVs illustrate the culture of AMV innovation at the anime cons of the early 2000s.

Video 16. Brad Demoss, "Episode 1" (2000).

[5.4] Playing perfectly to the crowd, this trailer parody (a common fannish practice) relied on how heavily the Star Wars: Episode I teaser trailer had entered fannish consciousness. Also parodied by South Park, the Star Wars: Episode I trailer was watched repeatedly in the lead-up to the film's release, stirring the hype to unsustainable levels. With some obvious and some clever matchmaking, this AMV was tailored for convention success. Neon Genesis Evangelion was the big anime fandom of the time, and while the AMV doesn't hold up especially well, it was a massive success when it premiered and for several years after. It became something of a recruiter AMV, the kind of video that fans would show other fans to introduce them to AMVs and the kind of fun they can bring.

Video 17. Brad Demoss, "Rhythm of the Heat" (2000).

[5.5] The influence of cinema trailers is clear here: the Ghibli credits at the start and the fades to and from black are techniques that are borrowed from Hollywood. Literalism is a common feature of Demoss's videos (all the way back to "Dangerous," in fact), and here it is somewhat at odds with the seriousness of the video. Nonetheless the themes build very well here to make a strong dramatic AMV. What's important here is what is missing—there is no lip-synch (of the lyrics). Lyrical lip-synch is a tool of the AMV comedian—here Peter Gabriel's howls and cries are those of the tortured animal spirits. The strongest moment in the video actually comes with the longest cut—the powerful moment between San and Ashitaka that leads into the bridge.

Video 18. Doki Doki, "Senshi on Springer" (2000).

[5.6] In "Sleep Now," Croasdaile added graphics to the video in a way that would preserve the aesthetic of the source and would appear, hopefully, seamless. Doki Doki's AMVs, however, showed that (much like the comic lip-synch) deliberate, visible techniques have comic potential. The annotations in this excellent example of early AMV photoshopping do deliberate joke building. This level of manipulation was unheard of until that point, but would within a few years become very commonplace in AMVs and fan vids of all kinds.

Video 19. Maboroshi Studios, "Sweating Bullets" (2000).

[5.7] This is a direct successor to the kind of character profile seen in "Comfortably Numb," this time with a lot of precise cutting and lip-synch to frame the song as a villainous autobiography combined with the requisite number of flashy action sequences suitable for this AMV genre.

Video 20. Vlad Pohnert, "Villainous Destiny" (2000).

[5.8] Bringing the old school up to date a little, Pohnert took a classic AMV character comparison trope and spiced it up with some modern editing techniques. Thematically, this AMV feels very 1990s but was still appropriate for the convention scene, where AMVs did not need to be complex or pioneering but simply collected and curated the shows AMV creators liked into a pleasing statement.

Video 21. Kevin Caldwell, "Caffeine Encomium" (2000).

[5.9] What's remarkable about "Caffeine Encomium" is not just the incredible attention to timing, which was unparalleled at this time, but how much thought has also been given to the overall structure of the video. This is a day in the life of the hyperkinetic schoolgirl Sana-chan—from dawn to dusk. During her day she has to overcome all kinds of challenges as she goes to school, fights with bullies, pursues her acting career, fends off would-be boyfriends, and is pestered by her eccentric mother. This marriage of high-precision editing (with a lot of time manipulations in order to repeat and loop motion to match the overture) with the macrolevel narrating is what makes this AMV so successful.

Video 22. Kevin Caldwell, "Believe" (2000).

[5.10] Few would disagree that "Believe" was, at the time of its creation, the most technically ambitious AMV to grace the halls of an anime convention: the masking, the composition, the lip-synch, the timing, the internal and external (effects-applied) motion. It was mesmerizing and divisive—were the effects too distracting? Was this video really just effects for effects' sake? At the convention, this version of "Believe" lost to "Rhythm of the Heat," but in the growing Internet AMV community, "Believe" was hailed as a triumph.

[5.11] After the departure of Caldwell from the AMV scene, there was a growing appreciation for his works, especially "Engel," "Caffeine Encomium," and "Believe," and for many years "Believe" was regarded as a work unsurpassed in technical excellence and among the best AMVs ever made—high praise, considering that 1999–2001 saw the release of some truly excellent AMVs (by 2003, AMV fans were referring to these years as a golden age, though I'm sure that term has been reapplied since).

Video 23. Lee "Lostboy" Thompson, "Video Girl AI: The Fall" (2001).

[5.12] Lostboy moved on from his camcorder days to digital editing and many subtle effects were added. The use of masks to selectively fade out parts of a scene and a lot of overlay use give this video its dreamlike "romance through the TV glass" feel. A keen eye will notice that he borrows some static from the show Lain at a few points: the static of an empty signal is an integral part of the loneliness theme. There are a lot of elements in this (and other AMVs of the time) that are genuinely experimental. Lee's addition of a vignette on the idyllic dream sections is borrowing a visual language from film and TV and applying it to AMVs. This is an integral part of the experimentation of these years—editors trying techniques to see if they were equally useful for conveying meaning in their videos.

Video 24. Lee "Lostboy" Thompson, "Rhythm Animation" (2001).

[5.13] "Rhythm Animation" takes the "every show on the shelf" AMV and expresses it through motion. Subtle digital editing techniques here are used to try to seamlessly bring each different anime into the same fluid universe. Possibly the most important theme in AMV making that emerged in these years is the creation and celebration of spectacle. Here we have a celebration of the physics-defying madcap high jinks of anime with a few visual effects here and there to emphasize the motion. It's also the kind of video that allows a crowd of anime fans to cheer when their favorite anime shows up looking spectacular.

Video 25. Vlad Pohnert, "Memories Dance" (2001).

[5.14] Pohnert was always tech-savvy, and he has made his most successful works in the age of digital editing. The use of Photoshop in this AMV (to frame by frame composite different sources together) was considered cutting edge at the time. Again we have a merging of sources, here emphasizing themes prevalent through the works of Miyazaki. There is a deliberate framing device also: a photograph of a landscape sparks memories of nature, flying, and adventure.

Video 26. Aluminum Studios, "Dreams of Red" (2001).

[5.15] Will Millberry of Aluminum Studios was renowned for aesthetic experimentation, and his work inspired many subsequent creators. His two Sailor Moon videos, "Blue" and "Dreams of Red," rely heavily on visual effects to create juxtapositions explicating the facets of the characters while also experimenting with musical cues matched to deliberate inserted effects such as lens flares, blurs, transitions, and color manipulations.

Video 27. Aokoketsu Digital, "Odorikuruu" (2001).

[5.16] Another hit from the "edit together every anime I own" school of AMV making resulted in a massively popular dance video that would for years be considered the top of its class. This is AMV spectacle in its purest form—a big, happy ensemble dance performance from a hundred shows with eye-popping colors and effects every minute. The rarity of some of the shows here (particularly Idol Defence Force Hummingbird) and the list of sources used at the end of the video act somewhat as bragging rights, but it's all in good fun.

Video 28. BigBigTruck, "Failed Experiments in Video Editing" (2001).

[5.17] EK made numerous attempts to create a Cowboy Bebop music video for Anime Weekend Atlanta 6. After a long line of failed experiments, she decided to make a video about her failures. With sentiments shared by all AMV makers, this comedy AMV has become iconic. It is among the earliest examples of AMV meta, a tradition that would become more popular as the community grew and AMV making (and the community surrounding it) became as important as the anime itself.

Video 29. E-ko, "Tainted Donuts" (2001).

[5.18] This massively successful AMV was not the first anime crossover, but at the time, the use of rotoscoping and Photoshop to create a crossover narrative was unique. It would later become a common feature in AMVs as editing tools such as After Effects became the norm instead of the exception. "Senshi on Springer" put Sailor Moon on stage and "Memories Dance" combined Miyazaki films together, but the idea of taking two shows and making a coherent narrative out of the primary themes of both was fresh. Here, the bounty hunters of Cowboy Bebop are trying to catch Vash from Trigun, luring him with his favorite food. The song was chosen so that lyrics would not distract from the storytelling (unless you understand Japanese, in which case there may be some dissonance).

Video 30. Doki Doki, "Right Now Someone Is Reading This Title" (2001).

[5.19] For many, the defining moment of Otakon 2001 was seeing this video win best comedy. AMVs were no longer just about a character or a show or even a subgenre of show: They had become a part of anime fandom, and this video is about fannish experience.

6. This way to the future

[6.1] By 2001, the AMV scene was almost entirely digital. The convention scene had become sufficiently large that creators began collaborating on large multieditor projects for display at conventions. The DDR 3rd Mix Project, conceptualized by Brad Demoss, was a landmark collaborative effort that would spawn three sequels and many other projects of its kind.

[6.2] AMVs were commonly shared online, with AMV makers creating their own Web sites or sharing their videos on the popular (if hard to find) Hawaii FTP server (subsequently Waldo's server). The AMV mailing list on Yahoo! was at peak use, and the forward-thinking Phade created ( as a database for AMV makers to log their videos. Many convention-scene AMV creators felt that the surge of participation from 1998 to 2001 was overwhelming, but the digital revolution had only just begun.

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