How Were VHS Releases Mastered?

by Justin Sevakis,

Nate A.M. asks:

What was mastering a VHS release like, in the dark times before NLE software and in-house video editing? What was the typical relationship between a licensee and a post-production firm? How did the technical process work? Aside from materials issues, what could (and did) go wrong?

Back when everything was on VHS, the act of mastering a show for duplication was much, much simpler than authoring a DVD. However, video equipment was so expensive and kludgy to use that I definitely cannot say it was easy. In the days before non-linear editing software like Final Cut Pro made editing broadcast quality video something that could be easily done in a publisher's office, all work had to be done at a specialized post-production facility. These companies had racks and racks of broadcast tape decks, warehouses of archived master tapes, and specialized rooms where a client would sit back and munch on snacks while an engineer sat at a large control desk and did all of the work. It was extremely expensive -- usually several hundred dollars an hour.

Back before desktop video, doing any video work required painstaking tape-to-tape copying, all in real-time. When it came time to format a final VHS master for duplication, the editor would start with a "black" tape -- a professional video tape, which depending on era, was either an open-reel 1-inch Type C, Betacam SP (an analog broadcast quality descendant of Betamax), D2 (which was the first digital format in widespread use), or finally, Digital Betacam. In "blacking" one of these tapes, the tape was filled with black screen and timecode. The editor would then shuttle the tape to the proper place, and then insert -- that is, record the video and audio track -- of everything that needed to be added to the program: an FBI Warning screen, company logo, and trailers.

Finally, the anime itself would be inserted. While copying from the original Japanese master tape, everything necessary for the final presentation would be assembled. Dub audio would be laid back on top of the video and synchronized by timecode. Subtitles would be added by passing the signal through a specialized "character generator" computer, loaded with a timecoded script. Any on-screen text or song lyrics would be captioned over, and finally, credits were rendered, using whatever video effects were available.

ADV Films was the only company during the VHS era that actually invested in the equipment to do most of this in-house. Nearly all the other publishers were dependent on post-production companies to do this work. Sometimes, these services were at least partially handled by the dub studio. Some of these studios were better than others.

The final assembled master tape would then be sent to a duplication house for copying onto thousands of VHS tapes, which were usually custom-assembled according to program length. They would then be packaged, shrink-wrapped and shipped. Copying to VHS had to be done in real-time. Occasionally, master tapes would go to a special plant to be made into LaserDiscs.

When something is this simple, one would think it would be hard for it to go wrong. But things did go wrong. Most anime companies never bought the extremely expensive Betacam SP or D2 tape decks required to watch the masters, so they would get the master tape back from the post house and send it off to the duplicator, not fully knowing whether everything was fine or not. There were a few memorable incidents. The first dubbed volume of Serial Experiments Lain went out with Japanese audio and no subtitles -- the duplicator had used the wrong audio track! One subtitled volume of Video Girl Ai was only partially subtitled -- the computer that generated the text overlay for the subtitles crashed and nobody caught it.

In order to actually check tapes before they got duplicated, publishers would have to pay to have them copied to a single VHS "check tape," which they would carefully screen for errors. Since VHS tapes had a lot of glitches, many hours were spent trying to track down errors, only to find that the master tape was fine -- it was just a VHS glitch.

The switch to DVD in the late 90s was a rocky one, partially because so much about how the master was made had to change. Japanese and English audio tracks had to both be on the same master tape, or at least synchronize with each other. Subtitles had to be rendered separately and couldn't easily be checked against video until authoring. And authoring itself was a giant ordeal that not many companies had the expertise to handle. The publishers had to get a lot more hands-on when it came to wrangling all of the moving parts that make up a disc, from Menu Design to subtitles.

We've come a very, very long way from those days. Most of those giant video post production companies are now long dead, and the millions of dollars in very expensive equipment have since been replaced by a simple, humble computer. In fact, a smartphone loaded with the right apps can do far more than a million dollars worth of studio gear from 1992. Dealing with video today is a different world. You couldn't pay me enough to go back to the bad old days.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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