Friday, December 09, 2016

Train guide and tips: Crewe to London

If you know me reasonably well, you probably know that I travel on trains a lot, often with no reason other than to travel on the trains in the first place (no I'm not a train spotter, I just like visiting new places and train travel is awesome). Living in Crewe, I can take trains going in all directions and get to places with few to no changes. One of these locations is London.

Crewe is one of the few places in the UK to actually have more than one train operator with services to London. In Crewe's case, Virgin Trains and London Midland (you could change at Birmingham onto Chiltern Railways, but I'll get on to that later). This means there's some degree of competition. You can get yourself a bargain if you know what you're doing and it doesn't even have to be complicated. However, you need to know the differences between the two before you can confidently say "this is a bargain". I've also got a few tips on how to spend a little more for additional comfort, but still retain a bargain.

The Differences

Virgin Trains vs London Midland

I'm covering the differences between the two companies first because that's really important before looking at prices. If all you care about is cost, then scroll down and don't say I didn't warn you.


Virgin Trains is faster. Mostly. Kinda. Virgin Trains is often praised for running at 125mph, however that's not the whole story. There's several issues with this ideal. Firstly, there are two different routes into London from Crewe that Virgin take: via Nuneaton (not necessarily stopping there) and via Birmingham. The latter came into play when Virgin connected up the services from Scotland that terminated at Birmingham and the services from London that terminated at Birmingham, leading to Scotland to London VIA Birmingham services instead. Going through Birmingham is very slow to the point of adding on an additional 45-60 minutes compared to other, similar Virgin services that go down the Trent Valley Line (where Nuneaton is). Here's some example times (correct at time of writing):

Train 1 - Virgin via Rugby (1 hour 44 minutes):
07:57 Crewe
08:47 Rugby
09:41 London Euston

Train 2 - Virgin via Birmingham (2 hours 31 minutes):
08:01 Crewe
08:45 Wolverhampton
08:55 Sandwell and Dudley
09:10 Birmingham New Street
09:20 Birmingham International
09:31 Coventry
10:00 Milton Keynes Central
10:32 London Euston

A difference of 47 minutes! First thing you notice is the higher number of stations called at. Some of which have long waits. In total, 21 minutes of the journey is waiting at stations, though 13 of those are at Wolverhampton. Plus, with more stations, speeding up and slowing down more often means a longer journey time too.

The two trains above are examples only, and journey times vary depending on which stations are called at. The quickest journey I can see at the moment is 1 hour 36 minutes which is an express from Crewe to London Euston, not calling at any other stations. There are several at one minute longer that stops also at Stafford.

One final thing, there are only parts of the West Coast Main Line where Virgin's trains are allowed to go the full 125mph. Always check the actual journey times first.

RIGHT, next up we have London Midland, previously known as Central Trains I believe (before my time I think). London Midland are slower than Virgin. Kinda. Actually, London Midland worked on what is known as "Project 110", allowing their new Desiro electric trains to travel at 110mph on sections of track, only 15mph less than their red cousins over at Virgin. However, much like Virgin via Birmingham, London Midland stop at LOADS of stations. Here's a sample train:

Train 3 - London Midland (2 hours 48 minutes)
Crewe 09:02
Alsager 09:11
Kidsgrove 09:15
Stoke On Trent 09:28
Stone (Staffs) 09:36
Stafford 09:56
Rugeley Trent Valley 10:05
Lichfield Trent Valley 10:13
Tamworth 10:20
Atherstone (Warks) 10:28
Nuneaton 10:36
Rugby 10:53
Milton Keynes Central 11:15
London Euston 11:50

Just to put that in perspective, that's 17 minutes longer than travelling with Virgin via Birmingham, but 1 hour longer than via Rugby (or more if you pick the even quicker services). Again, speeding up and slowing down takes time. However, because the London Midland trains are shorter than Virgin's, they can do that a lot quicker and also have much shorter dwell times, where some stations even have less than a minute stop before moving on again, compared to a minimum stop of at least a minute for Virgin.

Please be warned though that at weekends and early mornings, London Midland services to London are slower at a maximum of 100mph and sometimes go via Birmingham too. Combining London Midland AND via Birmingham results in a service of 3 hours 31 minutes (I believe the only service where this happens is the 06:47 from Crewe, and a non-Birmingham one leaves 5 minutes later and is amusingly cheaper than via Birmingham).

And now it's time for a


There are two routes to Stafford from Crewe. The direct route (no stations on the way) or the slow route (via Alsager, Kidsgrove, Stoke-on-Trent and Stone). If you want to go to Stafford, you almost always want to get the direct train as it takes 20 minutes rather than 47. The London Midland trains from Crewe to London go via Stoke, so take longer to get to Stafford. Well why not meet it there?

London Midland run trains from Crewe to Birmingham as well as the Crewe to London trains. If you have a Crewe to London "via London Midland only" ticket, you can save a fair bit of time off your journey if you intentionally "miss" the London train and take the next train to Birmingham that calls at Stafford. The Birmingham trains typically leave Crewe 17 minutes after the London service, and arrives in Stafford 15 minutes before the London one even arrives there, giving you plenty of time to get to the other platform. Here's an example:

Crewe - London (London Midland) leaves Crewe at 11:02. You miss this one.
Crewe - Birmingham (London Midland) leaves Crewe at 11:19.
It arrives at Stafford at 11:39

The Crewe - London train leaves Stafford at 11:56, giving you 17 minutes to change platform (Stafford station isn't huge, so that's plenty of time).
Congratulations, you saved 17 minutes off your journey. You will arrive in London at 13:50, giving a total time from Crewe to London of 2 hours 31 minutes, less time than Virgin via Birmingham.

IMPORTANT: If your ticket says "London Midland only", you can't use a Virgin service from Crewe to Stafford or, indeed, at any point in your journey. Additionally, if your ticket is an advance ticket and it tells you to use the earlier service via Stoke, you MUST go via Stoke as otherwise your ticket isn't valid.

ONE OTHER THING: By essentially skipping all stations from Crewe to Stafford, you will find the train is more busy and you may find it harder finding a seat compared to joining the train at Crewe. Something to keep in mind.

That's it for speed I think. Those are the four basic routes to consider, with timings varying slightly. I'll come onto pricing later.
1) Virgin direct
2) Virgin via Birmingham
3) London Midland via Stoke
4) London Midland changing at Stafford

Officially, you can take a route via Reading to arrive in London at Paddington station, but this isn't a common route, is only valid using the "any route permitted" ticket that Virgin use, and is also slower. You'd also risk having to argue your case to conductors and gate attendents, though they should know these things. It is actually cheaper and valid to use a Crewe to London any permitted ticket to get to Reading than a Crewe to Reading ticket. The former ticket allows break of journey, so you can leave the train at Reading without issue (though you do have to explain to the gate operator that you are breaking your journey there). Unless the timings tie into a meeting you have near Paddington, or you want to go to Reading, specifically or on the way, then I wouldn't bother.

Seats and General Comfort

This is where things might start to get a bit subjective, but I'll do my best.

First off, there's something very important to be aware of: Virgin have TWO different types of train: . The "Pendolinos" (or Class 390) are electric ONLY and are either 9 or 11 coaches long. The "Super Voyagers" are diesel-electric and have 5 coaches, though often there's two connected together to make a 10 coach train, which sometimes join/detach part-way (more on this shortly).

Seats, the most important part. In terms of comfort, they're okay until someone sits next to you. Then it gets very cramped. Legroom is also quite poor and, amusingly, I feel there's more legroom in non-table seats than the table seats, assuming there's someone in front of you, otherwise stretch out; that space is yours, congratulations! Amusingly, I feel there's more legroom on London Midland trains and they're less cramped too. Of course, more room in all directions in first class.

Power sockets! Everyone loves them and there's never enough of them. London Midland have them in first class ONLY except for a small number of their most recent trains, so make sure you've got plenty of battery. Virgin Pendolinos, however, have them at every table by the window* seats (so there's two sockets for every table). If you're on a Super Voyager however, there's a power socket at EVERY window* seat.


As I mentioned, Super Voyagers have power sockets at every window* seat. Therefore, if you're travelling between two locations that get both Pendolinos and Super Voyagers, you're more likely to find a power socket free on a Super Voyager. Virgin have a tendency to mix and match Pendolinos and Voyagers on their London to Scotland routes, while services to Liverpool and Manchester are consistently Pendolinos (I think). The only routes guaranteed to be Super Voyagers are those that aren't electrified: Chester, North Wales (Holyhead, Bangor, Llandudno Junction), Shrewsbury and Blackpool. So if you're given a choice of Virgin services, check the final destination if you want an extra chance of getting a power socket.

HOLD UP, why are you adding an asterisk next to "window"?

Virgin Pendolinos and Super Voyagers are notorious for having terrible seat alignment with windows. In many seats, you just end up looking at a wall (perhaps "wall seat" would be more appropriate?). If you want to enjoy the view (and there's some nice views on the Trent Valley Line) then London Midland's trains are much better.

Food and Drink

There's a rather pricey shop on-board Virgin Trains and nothing on London Midland. If you want anything more than a microwaved burger or a cold sandwich, you'll need to be first class. Nothing comes free with a standard class ticket though, so I'm gonna assume you'll be sensible and buy from the station or a nearby shop instead.

Number of Seats and Getting a Seat

Here's where it gets a bit complicated, so I'll try to break this down.

9 coach Virgin Pendolino carries 294 standard class seats and 145 first class seats. Add an extra 92 standard class seats for 11 coach train.
As standard on a 5 coach Super Voyager, there's 178 standard class seats and 26 first class seats. However, that only accounts for four of the coaches. There is one coach that can be used as *either* standard or first class. There's 52 seats in this coach. Double those numbers for doubled up Voyagers.

The number of seats in a standard 4 coach London Midland train is 210 standard class and 19 first class (according to Wikipedia). That's across 4 coaches (first class on LM is a compartment in the middle of the train. Occasionally, London Midland double up their 350s and split them part-way. For example, I was on a train that was 8 coaches from London to Northampton, then the front four coaches went to Crewe while the rear 4 coaches terminated there and became a train back to London. However, London Midland are now using 8 car trains on select services from Crewe. Due to length of platforms, these don't call at Alsager, Kidsgrove and some others, but gives double the number of seats.

In terms of actually getting a seat, this is also a bit complicated. Advance tickets are cheap tickets that are ONLY valid on pre-set train(s). As such, you are required to get a reservation with it. On Virgin, that means you are assigned a seat, so you can kick up a fuss if someone sits in your seat (and you should by the way. On London Midland, they have a number that they think they can get away with and sell up to that number, but don't assign actual seats, so you may turn up to find a standing-room-only train even if you've pre-booked it. That being said, I've never had this happen, and due to the number of stops, people get off and on regularly so you are unlikely to be standing for very long in my opinion.

Saving Money and Making the Most of Your Money

Hello again. There's a high chance you didn't read past the first section and skipped right here. That's fine. Wanting to save money is natural, but trust me: just plumping for the cheapest tickets is dangerous as you might get angry and then take it out on the wrong people (95% of complaints that the train companies get isn't their fault. That isn't an accurate statistic, but when you understand the industry and you look at what people complain to the train companies about, you feel sorry for them having to deal with the general public who don't know any better). Anyway, read on for money saving tips, which is what you really care about.

Ticket Types

Let's get the main one out the way. First off, understand the different types of tickets available. Here's a brief summary:

Advance (cheapest, not flexible): Valid only on the train(s) you booked for so must be booked in advance and are not refundable. If you miss your train and it's your own fault and you can't persuade a staff member to let it slide, you're gonna need to buy a new ticket at a higher price than advance tickets.
Off-Peak and Super Off-Peak (cheap, flexible with restrictions): Off-Peak and Super Off-Peak are tickets that allow you to use any train to make your journey provided they don't fall within the ticket restrictions, typically time-based. Restrictions vary drastically depending on start and end point and the times you want to travel. Remember though: restrictions are set by the ticket, not the train. There are no such thing as "peak trains" or "off-peak trains", though those terms are often used in areas such as London and, even if your off-peak ticket is valid at, say, 8am, the guard might give you a hard time about it if it's an uncommon one. Some tickets have afternoon peak times, others do not. Tickets may also limit you to certain operators to be cheaper. For example, the cheapest non-advance ticket from Crewe to London is a London Midland only Super Off-Peak ticket. This ticket restrictions say you must not arrive in London Euston before 13:00 Monday to Saturday (no restriction on Sunday).
Anytime (most expensive, very flexible): Any train basically. Again, there is a cheaper anytime ticket for London Midland only.

First class tickets are...well...something else. I'll get to that.

Splitting tickets (ugh)

This has been talked about a bit in the news and whatever. They're more common when passing through different passenger transport authorities on slower routes with more stations. Routes into London are the most scrutinised for loopholes like this anyway, so you're lucky to find them. You may find some by mixing and matching flexible and advance tickets, but this gets quite complicated. The best site I can recommend is who can run searches for split tickets, but the system isn't the best and they take a cut of the saving you make rather than charging card fees, etc, which neatly brings me on to.

Buying Tickets

There's a few good pointers here. First off, there are two different types of websites selling UK train tickets: first party (i.e. run by the rail companies like Virgin or London Midland) and third party (stand-alone companies that don't do anything else, e.g. The Trainline and RailEasy). I would never use third party websites to buy tickets for many reasons, but the main one is they CHARGE FEES! All the websites use the same database with the same ticket prices and same advance ticket booking engines, so no matter where you buy a particular ticket, it will be the same price on all the sites. The extra charges are either transaction fees, card fees, booking fees, postage fees, etc.

So, to save on charges, you choose a train operator's website (you can use any train operator as they all have to have all tickets and stations. You could use the Northern Railway site to book a South Eastern Railway ticket if you really wished). Some sites offer Nectar points now (such as Virgin) so that might be something worth considering.

One final thing to do before buying your tickets is to see if there's any offers going on for the train operator you're going to be using. Check Virgin's and London Midland's sites to see if they have any special offers on. In contrast to standard fares, promotions will often only work on the operator's own site. My recommendation would be to sign up for newsletters on the operator(s) sites you plan to use and keep an eye out for offers on their sites. I also feel like I started getting more offers from certain train operators after I bought tickets from them, particularly the "we haven't seen you in a while, here's £5 off when you buy a £50 ticket" and things like that. Apart from that, choose whichever site you feel most comfortable using.

While buying your tickets, you will be asked how you would like to get the tickets. Some operators let you get them sent by email or to a phone, but the human wall upon the approach to barriers at stations makes it nearly impossible to get through and I wouldn't want to be waving a phone around for that, so I always prefer to get proper tickets. Getting them sent by post costs money, however it's free to get them set up in a central booking system for picking up at the station ticket machines. They offer a "collect tickets" option where you insert the same card used to book the tickets, enter the code you're given at the end of the booking process and you get your train tickets printed there and then.

Short version:
1) Sign up to newsletters on the sites for the operators you travel with to get special offers
2) Never use a 3rd party site. Always use a train operator's booking engine to avoid fees.
3) Collect at the station to avoid postage fees and headaches at the barriers.

Additional note: Get a railcard. In some cases, it can make the money back in a single journey (if you need to travel at peak time, you could probably save £30 in a single ticket). There's 7 national railcards (6 available on that link, plus the HM Forces railcard) and they give you 1/3 off fares providing you meet the criteria. However, they do not work on open first class fares. They do, however, work on ADVANCE first class fares, so you can get yourself a bargain first class journey. Virgin no longer let railcard users use off peak tickets at peak time.

Pay a Bit More and Get a Lot More

First class can be super expensive, but not if you book in advance. Advance tickets are available for both standard class and first class tickets. Sometimes, advance tickets for first class are cheaper than standard class (when standard class is running out typically) or are not much more. First class on London Midland gets you a reclining, more comfy chair and a power socket. Right now, for a ticket in two weeks time, advance tickets are going for only £10 more each way. In my opinion, that's worth £10. At weekends, you can upgrade on Virgin Trains for £15 each way and London Midland for £10, or £15 for a return. Honestly, for the legroom and general room on Virgin, that's totally worth it. You do get some snacks and stuff on Virgin too, but it's a much milder affair compared to weekdays.

Let's talk about Chiltern Railways

Not exactly a famous train operator to many round here, but there's a third operator serving Birmingham to London in addition to Virgin and London Midland. Chiltern Railways have their own route through Warwick and Banbury to London Marylebone. Their pricing is about halfway between Virgin and London Midland, and their journey times follow suit. However, that's all well and good if you start your journey at Birmingham. Where does Crewe come in?

Well, the "any permitted" tickets allow you to change at Birmingham, walk the 10 minutes from New Street to Moor Street, and then get on a train there. For the most part, it's going to be a longer journey than directly from Crewe to London with Virgin. Potentially a little quicker than London Midland, but you're paying for the Virgin ticket, so why bother? Well, Chiltern have a few different kinds of trains. A handful of their trains each day are their locomotive hauled "silver trains". The standard class seats on this train are the nicest standard seating on any train in the UK. Also, they have one carriage that is something special: The Business Zone carriage. For £10 (off peak, any day of the week), you can upgrade to this carriage for even better seats (the best seats on National Rail) and tea & coffee. Also, all seats have large tables and loads of legroom. Seriously, this is worth trying at least once.

That's all well and good, but how much would this set me back, both in time and money?

To be honest, this is gonna vary drastically due to the timings of off peak and/or super off peak being wildly different between operators and are also subject to change. Here's a general example.

You want to leave Crewe after 9am on a Friday and want to get to London. Here's your best options for all three operators, avoiding the steep "anytime" fares:
Option 1) Virgin Train leaving Crewe at 09:01 and arriving into London at 11:34. This is a slower Virgin train as it goes through Birmingham, but is the first train you can take that lets you use the off peak ticket from Crewe (must arrive in London after 11:29). Time: 2 hours 33 mins. However, you can get a later, but faster, train at 09:56 getting you into London at 11:39. A few minutes later than the slower one, but you can leave much later. Cost: £75.30. Time: 1 hour 43 mins.

Option 2) London Midland leaving Crewe at 09:02 and arriving into London at 11:50. London Midland's standard off peak ticket lets you arrive in London after 10:00, so you can take this train, or even an earlier one! As mentioned, you can leave Crewe slightly later at 09:19 on a different London Midland train and change at Stafford, meeting the earlier London train at 09:44. Cost: £39.00. Time: 2 hours 48 mins. Reduced to 2 hours 31 minutes by changing at Stafford.

Option 3) Take the 09:19 London Midland train to Birmingham New Street arriving at 10:18, make your way to Birmingham Moor Street (takes about 10 minutes to walk I reckon, but less when you get used to it) and then get the Chiltern Railways train at 10:55, arriving in London at 12:44. This train is one of the silver trains usually and has the super comfy Business Zone you can upgrade to for £10. Chiltern's off peak tickets let you arrive after 10:05, while super off peak tickets allow you to arrive after 11:30am, so you can get an even cheaper super off peak ticket!
Cost Breakdown:
Crewe to Birmingham off peak: £26.30
Birmingham to London (via High Wycombe) SUPER off peak: £29.20
Business Zone upgrade (optional): £10 each way.
Total: £55.50 plus business upgrades
Time: 3 hours 25 minutes.

Yes, changing at Birmingham is a bit longer than either of the other routes. You do get half an hour not-on-a-train in Birmingham though, so you could grab something to eat on the walk between stations.

Something worth mentioning is that all prices mentioned are A) subject to change, and B) walk-up tickets. These are tickets where you can get the ticket on the day and then take any train based on the restrictions of the ticket. It's not a case of "miss the train, you need a new ticket". This is an extra bonus for the Chiltern route, as you buy two separate tickets. You could spend more time in Birmingham or even, as it's a month-long return, spend a few days in Birmingham and then carry on to London, etc. Things like that.

This is the way I see it.
Speed: Virgin Trains.
Cheap: London Midland.
Comfort: Chiltern Railways.

There is a 4th option which involves getting a train to Birmingham, changing onto a CrossCountry train to Reading and then changing onto a GWR train to London Paddington. This costs the same as the standard Virgin Crewe to London ticket, but takes much longer. However, it's cheaper to buy a Crewe to London ticket than a Crewe to Reading ticket, so this route is useful for going to Reading, and that's about it.

I think that covers everything about Crewe to London. I go to London semi-regularly, so this is all info I have in my head, save for specific times and prices, both of which are subject to change. To be honest, this is only really useful if you don't like advance tickets and getting tied to a specific train. Shows you there's other options out there, and also ways for a more interesting journey, even if it takes longer.

Any errors (except timings and prices, cos those will change all the time) let me know.

Monday, December 05, 2016

What is the difference between IMAX and iSense?

This isn't something made clear by Odeon on their website, so I'm going to explain it both simply and extensively.

Simple explanation: IMAX is a branded and marketed product with absolutely massive screens, iSense is Odeon's own brand and creation to create something similar with industry standard equipment that doesn't have "IMAX" written on it. For most people, there won't be much in it, though the selection of films available for each will vary (i.e. some films made for IMAX may not be in iSense, and the other way around. iSense screens are large, but not IMAX large.

Long explantion: When you see a film trailer, you will never hear "see it in iSense", but you may hear "see it in IMAX". That's because IMAX is an international brand that has a finger in every filmy pie from cameras to cinemas. I won't go into the film production side, but that's quite interesting. Instead, I'll focus on the cinema side.

IMAX, as a brand, has strict rules on how screens marketed as "IMAX" screens operate and behave in order to maintain consistency between cinemas (including different cinema chains, as it's not just Odeon with IMAX screens, e.g. the Cineworld in Ashton-under-Lyme and the Vue in Cheshire Oaks).

IMAX Digital screens have two IMAX-branded 2K projectors projecting onto the screen at once, IMAX Sonics sound systems, IMAX get the idea. Everything is branded and comes from one place. "proper" original IMAX is film-based and is usually one film projector rather than two digital projectors. There's not many of these in the country any more, and most films don't make film prints any more, so digital projectors are also used in these cinemas, and a rail system is used to swap the projectors around.

iSense, however, is Odeon's way of having a similar experience to IMAX, but without the costs of getting all the branded equipment and maintaining it to the level IMAX wants, which makes it more cost-efficient for smaller cinemas. iSense uses industry standard equipment, such as a single 4K projector and Dolby audio. It's still a "large screen experience" (i.e. a floor to ceiling screen thing), just with different equipment. However, this isn't the end of the story.

IMAX screens can only show films that are "made for IMAX". In other words, you can't show any random film made in super high resolution. iSense, on the other hand, doesn't have those restrictions. If a film is made in 4K, it can show it, as the only people they have to answer to is Odeon themselves. This means that the films shown in iSense can be much more varied than those in IMAX. Pretty sure somewhere was showing Bridget Jones's Baby in iSense, while IMAX wouldn't touch that with a 10 foot barge pole (not enough action and explosions I reckon). A quick check on Odeon's website, and they're currently listing the following films as showing in iSense and not IMAX: Moana, Passengers, Sing and Arrival. Moana I would definitely like to see at 4K, as that film already looked great on a standard film screen.

Here's something interesting. IMAX Digital, with two 2K projectors, creates an image at a percieved 2.9K, not 4K. This means that, in theory, iSense will have a better picture quality at a constant 4K. Of course, original IMAX with 70mm screen is a theoretical 12K (I say theoretical as it's film, not digital, so not measured in pixels). It does depend how the film was produced though, as the quality of the cameras or output will determine image quality, so your milage may vary.

I hope that clears things up. You'd be surprised how difficult it is to find a straightforward explanation on what iSense is, as I guess Odeon don't want to talk down their IMAX offerings. That being said, until recently there was only two iSense screens in the UK. Now, Odeon are building new iSense screens including one in Northwich, which opens next week. I suspect they will start making more noise about iSense in the coming few years as the ratio of cinemas with IMAX vs iSense starts to even out.

Monday, October 31, 2016

What's writing a video for on-demand like compared to broadcast TV?

When in university, I wrote a paper about the dropping relevance of mass broadcast media (i.e. TV and radio) compared to on-demand media sources (i.e. iPlayer, MixCloud, etc) and offered potential methods to encourage watching live programming instead of watching on-demand (i.e. audience participation, gamification, etc).

But what about from a production point of view? How does developing a "TV [sic] series" intended for an on-demand service from the start vary to one intended for broadcast? Series such as "House of Cards" and the new season of "Black Mirror" are two such series. Billed as "Netflix Originals", they are created for and on-behalf of the on-demand service provider as original content designed to add additional reasoning to use their service compared to other such websites or even traditional disc-based media.

One such limitation of broadcast media is the scheduling around other programming, plus any advertising of course. Here's an example schedule for a generic "1 hour" TV programme broadcasting in the UK on a commercial channel:
11:02 Programme starts
11:14 Cut to advertisement break
11:17 Return to programme
11:29 Cut to advertisement break
11:32 Return to programme
11:44 Cut to advertisement break
11:47 Return to programme
11:58 Programme ends
12:02 Next programme

So the programme itself is actually 46 minutes long, but the adverts pad it out to a 60 minute "block". Because this amount of adverts and the timing of which is fairly standard in the UK, you can't make a 55 minute episode and expect it to be broadcast without special arrangement from the channel. Similarly, if your series is weekly, you can't make the lengths of episodes vary and expect the channel to mess with the schedule each time. You have to be consistent and roughly a standard episode length. For minor adjustments, the channel can put in some idents or trailers on top of the usual adverts to pad for time, but there's only so much they can do.

Staying on the theme of TV scheduling, you have to take into account the timings of advertisement breaks and add them into your programme yourself. You don't want the channel to cut to a break mid-sentence, do you? Scenes are often timed around the advertisement breaks if it's made for TV. They'll also be designed to keep people tuned in, as the ad breaks are when people are most likely to tune out. In other words, you want to end each part of an episode as a cliffhanger so people stay tuned in.

Also regarding time is the suitability of language and visuals for the time your programme will be broadcast. TV in the UK is well known for having a set time where content can begin to be unsuitable for children, and that's at 9pm, known as the "watershed". After this time, strong language, violence, etc is permitted, though this isn't a binary rule as the further away from the watershed it is (the later at night it is), the more appropriate said content is. You will have to make your programme taking into account the time of day it will be shown and, thus, the audience watching it. Radio doesn't have a set watershed, and instead relies on being particularly aware of the audience and whether those who would be offended are expected to be listening at the time broadcast. Side note: This makes broadcasting anything particularly strong on radio very dangerous and is why I am very keen on not having any swearing on my show, even though I could probably argue that kids won't be listening to it.

So where does this leave on-demand? Well, for the most part, premium on-demand services have no advertisements within the programmes, so there's no concern about timing scenes to finish at the right moments and taking into account the breaks, etc. This isn't true for all services, though. Were Channel 4, for example, to create programming exclusive to on-demand with no intent to broadcast them ever, the programmes will still have advertisement breaks within the episodes as that's how Channel 4 is funded. As such, there wouldn't be much change in production timing compared to broadcasting it. However, for all platforms, there's now no issue in the length of the episodes, as there's no further programming to fit in around. Episodes could vary from 50 minutes to 150 minutes for specials without needing to clear it with the channel scheduling first. This allows for a lot more creative freedom in creating programmes as there may be moments that would've been cut out to shrink the episode down to a single block, or scenes could've been dragged out to fill the full block.

What does make a difference however, regardless of on-demand platform, is the age gating of content compared to watersheds and audience estimation. On-demand services have parental controls and other settings to restrict or limit access to stronger material for those more sensitive to it. As such, knowing when your programme will be viewed isn't an issue any more, as the platform will do the protection work for you.

One last note is that, while programming may be made for on-demand in the first instance, it may still be considered for broadcasting in future as an additional revenue stream. In which case, it could regardless be formatted around hypothetical advert breaks in the event that this happened in the future. Same goes for the length of the episode. Until broadcast TV dies a death completely, I suspect this will be the way to go unless the on-demand company takes control of all rights of the series in question (Netflix Originals, for example, will almost certainly never be on another streaming service or on TV).

For a quick example of a series taking this extra freedom in its stride, take a look at Black Mirror. Originally made for Channel 4, the episodes were 44 minutes long save for the two longer specials ("Fifteen Million Merits" and "White Christmas"). At 44 minutes, that's similar to the example I made up above and covers for the advert breaks and idents/trailers. Season 3 is Netflix exclusive and so far the runtimes have been 63, 57, 52, 61, 60 and 89 minutes. A range of 11 minutes across the first five, then a movie length finale to the series. Considering each episode is self-contained, this series in paticular makes good use of the freedom to vary the length of each episode and not feel confined to television scheduling. Of course, you need a guideline length of time to aim for, which is why it's still around an hour, but it means you can adjust it to be perfect, rather than settling for what fits a TV slot.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Let's talk about letting/estate agents...

So I'm working on permanently moving out from my parents' house right now. I want a place to live in an okay area, with parking and two bedrooms. I've got my price range and all the right answers the letting agents want to hear.

1) I work full time on a permanent contract, so no guarantor needed.
2) No pets.
3) No smoking.
4) No kids.
5) I've rented once before.

I'm, basically, the perfect tenant in their eyes.


I went to all the letting agents in Crewe the other day on Saturday morning to mid-afternoon. Here are the following responses I got, from great to reasonable to really stupid.

- "Great, shall we head over now to take a look?"
- "Sure, we've got an opening this afternoon in a few hours."
- "Sorry, we're fully booked all day. How about next Saturday?"
- "We only do viewings in the mornings on Saturdays, so we can book you in next Saturday?"
- "We don't do viewings on evenings or weekends."
- [shop isn't open at weekends]

Is it expected that people with full time jobs book holidays to view properties? Or just plain will pick anything from the fuzzy photos online? How can these agents that are either not open or literally don't open on Saturdays at all get any business? Side note by the way: these shops also close at 5pm during the week. You *have* to book a day off work to do this, which is unreasonable! Don't open during the week for a few days and open at weekends, and boom you get loads more business.

Incidentally, I have half a day's holiday left for the rest of the year. I'm not wasting that on property viewings for companies that are oblivious to the world. I've found plenty of nice places from the other companies that are accomodating, especially the one who took me straight there.

I'll hopefully be moving out by the end of the year.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Let's talk about sci-fi

As some of you may be aware, I have a card that lets me watch films in a certain major cinema chain as much as I want for a monthly fee and a minimum 12 month contract. As such, I am seeing most of the latest big films as they come out, or a little later to avoid the big rush. There's something that's been bothering me for a long time, and I'm reminded of it more than ever lately with seeing lots of examples in the cinema:

Cinema's view on robots and aliens.

Okay so hear me out on this. A huge number of films out there, particularly the more famous ones, are all about how either A) aliens want to invade and/or wipe out/enslave the human race/etc, or B) same as above but with robots, or C) both (wait, has that actually happened? I dunno, but probably). The big thing is for films to have something threaten humans, then the humans destroy it and we all live happily ever after. Occasionally, the film will throw in a "aww but we need to feel sorry for some of them", but it's usually like 1 or 2?

Imagine, if you will, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) receives a transmission of a video of some aliens killing humans. You'd panic and think they're coming to kill you, when it's actually just a fictional product and a form of entertainment. Works the other way around. The way aliens are almost exclusively portrayed as "the baddies" would certainly put me off visiting the planet. Of course, I'm pretty sure that the world's governments would want to weaponize anything they could get their hands on if an alien actually turned up, so they probably wouldn't want to turn up for that too (and that would be a real issue, not a movie issue).

I don't think we'll ever get to meet aliens if we keep portraying them in this way. I also worry for how people would react if one turned up. If your only experiences with aliens was through fictional media, and then you met one, you'd panic, maybe even attack it, etc. Certainly if films are anything to go by, most governments will just attack aliens without considering any peaceful methods.

While I don't "know" there's aliens out there, there's a moment in the film Contact where the main character played by Jodie Foster is asked if there's aliens out there in space. The response is a line I will always stand by: "if it's really just us, it seems like an awful waste of space". Incidentally, Contact is probably one of my favourite films of all time and also one that treats aliens far more appropriately than most big films do.

Let's talk about robots.

For similar reasons as aliens, we seem to have a fear of artificial intelligence taking over from us or killing all humans as we're inferior, etc. While, yes, humans are definitely inferior to robots in countless ways, we do seem to obsess over it and think that's a reason for robots to kill us. As long as we don't pose a threat, they won't really care. But similarly, if we want to get along with robots with advanced AI, then we have to treat them right. I highly recommend watching the two episodes of The Animatrix called "The Second Renaissance" which revolves around humans using robots with AI as slaves and then steadily destroying themselves as they refuse to treat the robots properly.

When you make a robot more human, the robot is not a robot, it is an electrical human. Treat electrical humans like biological humans.

Cinema has started getting better with robots, much more than aliens. There are two types of robots shown in films, though. The ones with robots indistinguishable from humans (such as Time of Eve, AI Artificial Intelligence, Terminator) and the ones that are visually non-human, but are often mentally very human (such as Chappie, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Wall-E). Whether there's a disconnect between the viewer and the character is a very important thing depending on what you end up doing with them. I've found that movies with humanoid characters are more likely to make you feel bad for the robot as part of the film than those without, though that's not to say films don't try. Chappie and Wall-E both make the audience feel for their respective robots and draw hatred towards the humans instead, though Chappie is a little more balanced with you feeling for some of the humans too.

As part of my cinema going shenanigans for the past few months, I went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey presented in the original theatrical format, complete with 10 minute intermission. It wasn't my first time seeing the film, but it had been quite a few years. Now, for the majority of viewers, I don't think anyone would really be feeling sorry for HAL, but I genuinely felt the slow "death" of HAL to be heart-wrenching. I do still blame the humans somewhat for jumping straight to considering turning off HAL as a solution for one mistake, so HAL acting in self-defence was fairly justified.

Oh would you look at that? It's past 2am. I should probably sleep. Anyway, basically I want to cuddle robots and aliens and we can be friends. More movies about cuddly robots and aliens please.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Let’s talk about cinemas, ticket pricing and also Scotland Loves Anime

I love going to the cinema. If I get the chance to go see a film I love on the big screen, even if I’ve already seen it before at home, I’ll try to do it. It’s a shame that it’s getting particularly money-grabby and pricing it way out of the pockets of some. But anyway, let’s talk.

So first of all, as I said at the start, I love going to the cinema. The number one reason I go, apart from the improved picture and audio quality and size, is the fact that you can share the experience of watching the film with other people who, most notably, are typically there because they want to watch the film too. While there are of course exceptions where people have been dragged along by their mates and end up talking through the film, or spend most of it on their phone because they have nothing better to do, the vast majority are there because they want to see the film in the best possible way. I have witnessed occasions where people have been ejected from the cinema by other audience members for messing on their phone or talking a lot, so there’s definitely some passionate people out there. But the number one moment for me was going to see the Love Live movie in Scotland. People came from all over the UK and beyond to see that film and filled out the cinema. Throughout the film, everyone reacted in a variety of different ways to scenes in the film, but they all meshed together to create an incredible atmosphere that I don’t think will ever be recreated for that film again, especially not at home on a TV.

I also get to concentrate on the film, without getting distracted by Twitter, etc. I can’t begin to explain how often I start watching an episode of a TV series, let alone a film, and it takes me an hour or two to watch one 24 minute episode because I keep pausing it, flicking over to Twitter with a thought or a screenshot, etc.

For both of these, I make the yearly trip to the “Scotland Loves Anime” festival in either Glasgow or Edinburgh to watch a bunch of films with people who are into anime and want to experience films that they’re interested in seeing too. I typically see upwards of 6 films, though I have been for the whole week before now and seen 10 or so across the week.

A complaint I heard about the films at “Scotland Loves Anime” I have heard is that the films all have advert and trailer reels at the start, and that other film festivals they have been to didn’t have them. Well, I don’t know what film festivals they’ve been to, but the tickets at SLA are fairly cheap for cinema tickets, plus discounts for buying multiple in the festival. Then you have the fact that these films probably cost a fair amount to get from Japan for theatrical release at all, and I can’t really blame them for wanting to subsidize the cost somewhat. To be quite honest with you, the adverts at SLA have become somewhat of a running joke with the people I talk to. As we see the same ones so often across multiple films, we make jokes about some of the particularly bad ones, and even got a standing ovation for the final screening of one particular advert one year (looking at you Kevin Bacon) because we were so glad to never see it again.

One complaint I will accept about SLA is the timing of the films. If you are watching almost everything like I usually do, and I know some others do too, you don’t really have much time in-between films in the evening to have a meal. I have known people to bring in a pizza into the film screening before now!

So I mentioned pricing. Let me talk to you about the price structure at major cinemas.

I went to see Deadpool on the weekend of release, on a Saturday, at the Liverpool One Odeon. Here’s the price breakdown:
Base ticket price for an adult at peak time: £10
IMAX: £5
“Premier Seat” (aka not awful seat and good view): £1.80
BLOCKBUSTER PRICE (charged because they feel like it): £1
Total: £17.80

Most important to note here is the fact that there’s an extra charge for wanting to see a film near release. This was applied all week. The seats at Odeon are particularly bad, so paying extra for a good seat, plus wanting a good view, means you have to drop that £1.80 as well to be honest.

When you add on a drink or a snack (unless you manage to sneak in some of your own stuff, which I highly recommend doing by the way) it gets north of £20. So here’s where Odeon’s pricing gets even more complicated:

We paid £25.75 each for our tickets to Deadpool.

So Odeon have a thing called “The Gallery” at some of their cinemas. Base ticket price for this is £20.25 at peak times, plus £5 for IMAX plus 50p because I don’t know (maybe a discounted blockbuster ticket? I have genuinely no idea where that 50p comes from). This gets you access to a lounge with unlimited soft drinks, nachos and popcorn (all self-serve, so grab whatever you want), a bar where you can buy alcoholic drinks and massive seats with a direct view of the screen and a little table on the armrest to put your popcorn/nachos/etc. For the IMAX screen, you were on a balcony above everyone else facing dead-centre of the screen. For an extra £8, it’s only really worth it if all of the above matter to you. If you don’t eat lunch and really like nachos and popcorn, well this will probably work out for you haha! I wouldn’t bother doing this for any films, but if it’s a super long one, then it will probably help to have access to the drinks and comfy seats, plus there’s also a toilet right outside the doors to the screens, so you can be in and out without missing much of the film at all.

Back to the point I originally wanted to make in that it’s really complicated buying tickets for films. It’s like RyanAir, charging for everything they can get away with. If you didn’t go IMAX, for example, there’s D-Box (the chair moves and vibrates, etc for £3.55), 3D film (+£2) and 3D glasses (+£1).

Odeon just launched a pay monthly and watch unlimited 2D films package nationwide. Still have to pay extra for premier seats, IMAX and The Lounge, but it makes things a lot easier. Cineworld have had an unlimited card for years and gets you a discount on food and drink, but Odeon have way more cinemas to choose from. Will have to see how things pan out, as both require a 12 month minimum contract.

This has been a very rambly blog post. Apart from cinema ticket pricing being super complicated, I don't think I really had a point to make haha! See ya.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Let's talk about the rumoured Aikatsu reboot

So there's rumours and crazy theories flying around about the potential killing off of the current Aikatsu universe and its characters, maybe popping in on occasion in a new series, maybe not, maybe a new art style, maybe not, etc. While I try not to concern myself with rumours until they are confirmed, let me talk about my number one concern: Akari.

Unlike most other characters, we've been following Akari for longer than any other character from this season. From her audition with Ichigo judging, through to going on tour. During that time, the appearances of Ichigo have gradually reduced, allowing a good transition from Ichigo to Akari as the main protagonist. There was no moment where I felt they straight up cut Ichigo out of the picture.

I am scared, nay, /terrified/ that Aikatsu will end suddenly and not transition out Akari like they did with Ichigo. I want her departure to be natural, and not "I'm going away, bye", which I get the impression was the plan for Ichigo's departure for America in episode 50 but only came back 2 weeks later in the real world after a one year timeskip in-universe.

That being said, the second movie is coming, and I suspect this will be used (if the rumours are true) as the true send-off for the characters from the current generation. So here's what I am asking, Namco Bandai, I want two things:

One: Please leave us with happy memories (you've managed this one so far, so don't ruin it in the movie).
Two: Please let Akari and friends be happy in whatever they do next.

Do that, and I think I'll be fine with whatever you do next.

Yours Sincerely,

Peter Shillito
Dirty Foreigner

Monday, January 11, 2016

Peter Shillito’s 2015 Aikatsu Awards

It’s that time once again. I give out completely unnecessary awards to bits of Aikatsu! that really stood out to me (or didn’t, as the case may be). 2015 has come to a close, so it’s time to wrap up the year. We’ve got the return of some previous awards, and a few new ones. Nobody’s probably gonna read this, so let’s get to it!

(Side note: While the first movie came out in 2014, I didn’t see it until it got translated in 2015, so I’m going to include this in my review of the year.)

The 'My How They've Grown' Award for Best Character Development
2014 winner: Akari

2015 saw the departure of most of the idols we grew to know from previous series. Most of the Starlight Academy idols pop in occasionally, but it’s a rare cameo if anything. Dream Academy are not as dead as in 2014, they had speaking cameo roles in episode 38 and in 47 where they also perform a song. They also feature as an advertisement on the side of a truck in the opening sequence of season 4, but no in-episode role yet. There has also been the introduction of several new characters, who have all had some sort of development over the year. To be honest with you, nobody has really stood out as getting serious development in quite the same way Akari did last year. Everyone is introduced as being already quite good at what they do, almost to the point of being unrealistic (see: Nono and Risa who were literally farmers then became idols in what seemed like a week or two, I dunno time didn’t make a lot of sense).

You know who got character development who I wasn’t expecting? Johnny Bepp.

The introduction of Rin, who grew up with street dancing, etc, provided the show with a character who would know Johnny Bepp from before his idol training days. From the moment Rin was introduced to Bepp, we got background knowledge on a character who was just some goofy teacher who occasionally had some good advice or helped out with things. There was even an episode or so almost dedicated to finding out about Johnny Bepp’s past while Rin seeks out Dance Fusion’s top designer (an old friend of Bepp). Add on the fact that with the increasing number of male characters in Aikatsu!, Bepp has been seen outside of work with these people, showing himself, not as a teacher, but as a regular person. We also find out about his family in a hilarious marriage confusion episode.

I’m gonna call it right here.

Johnny Bepp wins the 'My How They've Grown' Award for Best Character Development
Honourable mention
to Naoto Suzukawa who got promoted from groundskeeper to a teacher in the second half of season 3, though this was never really followed up with much information. I feel this is quite appropriate considering how insightful and helpful he was to Ichigo and friends from the very start, and also provides a cool, calm contrast to Johnny Bepp. Further to that, he has experience as lead singer of More Than True (from episode 11 of season 1).

The “Deus Ex Machidol” award for being useful to everyone but themselves
New award for 2015

As with many shows, there’s a lot of “what a coincidence” moments that allow the show to do stuff it wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. Sometimes, someone’s talking about “oh I wish I could do X” and then the head teacher comes in and is all “there’s an audition to do X” and you have to have a certain suspension of disbelief when this happens. It’s a kids show, shut up. However, what’s quite interesting is that there’s a certain character who has been around since episode 77 who seems to have this role permanently. Hattori Yuu.

Yuu was previously Akari’s roommate until her room started leaking and they moved into separate rooms. Further on in the series, Yuu goes on an exchange programme TWICE, each time bringing a different idol from the other school into Starlight. More recently, Yuu shows off jewellery to Akari and friends and prompt them to audition for a jewellery advert. Yuu then hitches a ride to Kyoto and get the others to join her in a halloween TV special.

You never see Yuu perform. Ever.

Yuu wins the Deus Ex Machidol award for being useful to everyone but themselves.

The “Who?” award for character lost in the gap between seasons
2014 winner: Literally everyone from Dream Academy

In the run up to and previews for season 4, it seemed like the Luminas Japan Tour would be the main focus, meaning that you’d have the three girls from Luminas and any new people they meet on the way, losing everyone else in Starlight (most notably Rin and Juri). Fortunately, this was not the case, and they keep returning to Starlight between visits to places around Japan.

So did we lose anyone between 3 and 4? Well, at only 14 episodes into season 4, it’s difficult to say for sure. We’ve only seen the main trio from the original series so far (Ichigo, Aoi and Ran) but everyone appears in the opening credits, so it’s hard to say. However, everyone also had an appearance in the “best giant robot anime ever” episode, so they’re definitely not forgotten.

Hikari is still forgotten though, so that’s good.

I feel like I should mention Shion as someone who has been forgotten, but her involvement with the show has been rather unfortunate in general. Shion first appeared way back in episode 14 of season 1, but it took until episode 148 (episode 47 of season 3) to get a singing debut, as her role as an actor meant she was always too busy to be on stage. When she said “Everyone in the audience, I'm sorry to have kept you waiting” in episode 148, this felt not only as part of the plot for that episode where she was running late in the episode, but also to the fans who have been hoping to see her perform. I suspect we have another pile of episodes to go before we see her again.

Nobody really has been forgotten, so no winner this year.

The 'Kanzaki Mizuki' Award for Worst Character Other than Mizuki
2014 winner:

As Otome’s appearance frequency has dwindled drastically in season 3 and 4, I cannot give her this award. Heck, even Mizuki hasn’t appeared much. I have to actually think this time.

So the people who come to mind as being annoying and within the past year are Madoka, Kokone and Nina. Let’s review these:

Madoka is known for being very honest to the point of being somewhat insulting, which everyone writes off with an “oh you” sorta thing. It’s a bit weird to be honest that people put up with her like that. That being said, it’s not often she does that, so it might be that people put up with her occasional lack of tact for the rest of her, as she’s not an all-round bad person.

Kokone has the catchphrase “The Center of the World is Kokone!”. I’ve never really understood why this was a thing. It’s a really self-centered thing, yet everyone seems to go along with it and humour her. Maybe the catchphrase thing is what bugs me, as Otome’s “love you” was particularly bad, though that wasn’t helped by her voice. Kokone’s intro episode is based around her realising that the world actually isn’t centered around her (because she did actually believe that, because everyone around her back in Kobe knew her and humoured her catchphrase) and, from what I understand, she reverts to thinking that at the end because everyone starts humouring her at Starlight too.

Nina’s just a bit weird tbh, but she’s a comedy idol I guess…

I got angriest writing about Kokone, so…

Kokone wins the “Kanzaki Mizuki” award for worst character other than Mizuki.

The “It sucks to be a fat foreigner in a little Japanese girl world” award for Aikatsu! thing I’ll never be able to experience (previously known as the “It sucks to be a fat foreigner in a little Japanese girl world” award for Aikatsu! merchandise I’ll never be able to obtain and/or use)
2014 winner: Aikatsu! glasses frames

So a couple of weeks before the Christmas break off work, someone decided to crash into my car on the way to work. They confirmed that it was their fault, accepted all responsibility, etc. You’d think I wouldn’t be out of pocket, right? That their insurance would cover everything right? Well, no. My car has been written off and I have a courtesy car until the other person’s insurance sends me the settlement cheque, but even then I won’t have enough money to get a similar car without putting an amount of my own savings down as well. Plus, cars have gone up in price since I got mine, even the same model, so I can’t get the same again without spending more per month AND a deposit down. Basically, a car accident that wasn’t my fault has fucked up my new year, soon to be eating into the savings I had for going on holiday to Japan again and, as such, probably won’t be able to see the new Aikatsu! movie in the cinemas like I hoped I would. My year is ruined and we’ve only just reached January. Add onto that the plan to move closer to where I work (possibly even close enough to take public transport sometimes *gasp*) and that’s something else I’m gonna have to delay probably until next year.

Fact is, unless I find a way to save up a lot of money quite quickly, watching the new Aikatsu! movie in cinemas is likely to be the winner of this award.

“Watching the new Aikatsu! movie in the cinema in Japan” wins the “It sucks to be a fat foreigner in a little Japanese girl world” award for Aikatsu! thing I’ll never be able to experience (may be retracted if I can work something out with money).

The “damn son, where’d you find this?” award for best overall Aikatsu! song in 2015
New award for 2015

2015, and season 3 in general, brought major changes to the Aikatsu! lineup of idols, both in the series and in the real world. As you may or may not be aware, each character in the series has both a speaking voice actor and a corresponding real-world idol for their singing. In the original series, everyone had an idol (or two, looking at you Yurika) from STAR☆ANIS. Akari is voiced by Ruka for singing, for example. With season 3, STAR☆ANIS started taking a back seat role with AIKATSU☆STARS taking the baton instead. Ruka and Mona are in both groups, which makes things complicated tbh. Anyway…the first opening theme to season 3 is "Du-Du-Wa DO IT!!" by Ruka, Mona, and Miki from AIKATSU☆STARS! with Waka from STAR☆ANIS. Waka is the singer for Ichigo, furthering the as mentioned handing over of the baton from Ichigo to Akari, or from Waka to Ruka.

Songs eligible:
Du-Du-Wa DO IT!! (S3 OP1)
Good morning my dream (S3 ED1)
Lovely Party Collection (S3 OP2)
Tutu Ballerina (S3 ED2)
lucky train! (S4 ED1)
Etude of Radiance (movie insert)
Passion flower
Hello! Winter Love♪
Pretty Pretty
Love Like Caramelize
Poppin' Bubbles
Enchanted Party
Hello New World
Hey! little girl
Light Pink Day Tripper
Sweet Heart Restaurant
Emerald Magic
Little beat, Little wing♪

Gosh that’s way more tracks than I realised. I’m slowly narrowing the list down. Lovely Party Collection and Start Dash Sensation are nice, but nothing special. Almost forgettable. lucky train is catchy and fun, but doesn’t really go anywhere. Got an ace dance by everyone’s favourite farmer idols though! hashtag potato katsu. Tarte・Tatin was very different to any other Aikatsu! track out there, but it doesn’t seem to know what sort of track it wants to be. It bounces between genres, etc. It works well in the show as it’s only one section, but the full length song doesn’t flow quite the same. Pretty Pretty is an interesting one for having both the singer AND the voice actor for Akari in the song. The only song to feature *any* of the speaking actors in addition to the singers. MY SHOW TIME! was part of the introduction for a new character (Rin), who I’m particularly fond of, and used to showcase the upgraded CG engine with some incredible lighting effects. This was furthered by Tutu Ballerina, also featuring Rin, which is incredible in both the anime and performed live. Good morning my dream has an incredible introduction and verses, with very cool uses of alarm and clock noises throughout. This track made a lasting impression on me and it’s one I’ll never forget, though the chorus isn’t anything special sadly.

I was very close to giving the award to Tutu Ballerina at this point, but then as I started comparing songs against each other, there was one track I couldn’t remove from the list. One that is superior to even Tutu Ballerina: Chica×Chica. With a Spanish feel for the character of Juri, and the incredible sword dance performance in the anime, this is a stand-out track unlike any other used in Aikatsu! except perhaps Passion flower, but much more “passionate”. Chica×Chica is one song I never skip, along with Signalize right back from season 1.

Chica×Chica wins the “damn son, where’d you find this?” award for best overall Aikatsu! song in 2015
Honourable mention: Tutu Ballerina. You should see AIKATSU☆STARS perform this like, they’re really quite incredible.

This is the part where I would start saying who my favourite Aikatsu! character is, the “Mai Waifu” award, to be exact. The easy way out would be to just say Yurika again and call it a day, but is that truly what I think? Let’s take a step back for a moment.

Season 3 of Aikatsu! started in October 2014. Between then and January 2015, the transition between Soleil (Ichigo, Aoi and Ran) and the new trio Luminas (Akari, Sumire and Hinaki) was in full force to the point where the original cast were present in fewer and fewer episodes. As April 2015 arrived, further new characters were introduced to fill in the roles of the side characters such as Yurika, Otome, Sakura, etc, leaving even less room for the original characters to appear.

Yurika will always have a place in my heart, but I feel like it’s time for a change in this award I’ve only ever awarded once. Calling it the “mai waifu” award for best Aikatsu! character doesn’t feel appropriate any more. So, I am proud to announce:

The “Toudou Yurika” award for this year’s most stand-out Aikatsu! idol
That’s better.

So, for this award I am actively discounting idols who weren’t regularly featured prominently in the 2015 episodes of Aikatsu! This means I’m looking at Akari, Sumire, Hinaki, Juri, Rin, Madoka, Nono, Risa, Miyabi, Kokone and Nina. I would be tempted to include Ichigo as well, and maybe Aoi, but then I’m gonna start arguing with myself about where I draw the line.

Following on from last year’s 'My How They've Grown' award, I’d be very temped to go with Akari who, as the main protagonist, is the default choice. I do feel like she deserves a lot of respect, more so than Ichigo to be honest. Ichigo had a lot of flukes as the series got off the ground, while Akari is genuinely a hard working and fantastic idol.

Rin is also high on the list for me at the moment for having a visually attractive style, an incredible dancer and being almost like another Johnny Bepp, but we’ve not really had much fleshing out for her, so I can’t really justify giving her this award.

I feel like giving Sumire the award might be most appropriate. As has been made even more clear in recent episodes, but has been present since the start, Sumire is dead set on prioritising her singing over anything else. Partnering with dance expert Rin to form Dancing Diva was a fantastic idea as while Rin has the dance moves to show off to the song, Sumire can sing to her heart’s content without needing to dance as well. She’s regularly releasing CDs solo and is my favourite to be the next Starlight Queen currently, pending any events between now and then. She’s the most independent of all of the group and typically pushes a lot of the typical idol stuff to the side in order to prioritise singing events and performances. I can respect that.

The 2015 “Toudou Yurika” award for this year’s most stand-out Aikatsu! idol goes to Sumire Hikami.