How Have Anime DVDs and Blu-rays Changed Over The Years?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jake asks:

By now DVD's have been on the market for over 20 years and Blu-ray disks for over a decade and I have been thinking about how much technology has changed in that time. It has me wondering about the technical, under the hood changes DVD's and Blu-rays have gone through over all these years. I know there have been some advancement to editing tools like final cut pro and some better storage capabilities, but beyond that not much else. I was wondering what is different about DVD and Blu-rays now verse the first generation disks.

DVDs have changed a lot over the years. This is partly because back when technology was new, so was the concept of interactive menus, removable subtitles, and even, to an extent, bonus features. (A few VHS tapes and laserdiscs had small items like trailers, but they were pretty rare.) So, for the first few years, there was a lot of experimentation, a lot of weird, expensive and time consuming work being put in to ridiculously ambitious discs.

There were a lot of weird special features made for DVD, from behind-the-scenes dubbing documentaries (which were all basically the same -- dubbing is probably the least visually interesting part of the whole process), to storyboard comparisons, to Pop-Up Video style translation and cultural notes (somehow utilizing the severely limited subtitle functionality of DVD). There were choose-your-own-adventure style interactive games and quizzes, dumb little Easter eggs, and inane commentary tracks with voice actors who had clearly never watched the show before.

Eventually the publishers caught on to the fact that most fans didn't really care about most special features that were made with the dub cast and crew, and cared more about the presentation of the show itself. In other words, bonus features are nice, but they don't sell the disc. As the lean years of the market crash of 2007 set in and publishers looked to trim budgets, bonus features were the first thing to go. (Fans cared more about getting bonus features from the Japanese releases, which were often not available.)

Early DVDs also spent a ridiculous amount of effort on menus -- not just on design, but on painfully long transition sequences, looping motion animation, and ambitious graphical treatments. There was a bizarre obsession with locking out user controls on various parts of the disc, making viewers sit through things as pointless as the Dolby Digital logo animation. (Nearly every DVD is encoded with Dolby Digital sound. It was not special, and nobody was making them include that logo animation.) The anime publishers weren't quite as bad as the major Hollywood studios in this regard. But for all the ambition, there was also worry from some publishers that users would be confused by the menus and not know how to work them. This was still an era in which a large percentage of people never figured out how to set the clock on their VCRs. So for all the effort put into menus, they usually had very big, chunky options, overly verbose explanations, and time-out functions (where the feature would just play if you stared dumbly at the looping menu for long enough).

But for all that effort, there was a major lack of understanding early on about video quality. Early DVDs were usually mastered from D2 videotape, or worse, Betacam SP -- two then-common formats that introduced a lot of video problems but had been standard in the VHS era. Rather than include a "songs and signs" subtitle track for use with the dub, DVD producers would just burn captions for song lyrics and on-screen text into the video. Various Internet forums, most notably, provided an important back-and-forth between DVD staff and technically savvy fans, leading to an ad hoc creation of a loose "best practices" standard that most discs now follow. This includes leaving the Japanese video more or less untouched (except perhaps to translate credits), and having the separate "songs and signs" subtitle track for use with the dub. Producers also learned that discs should follow the players' preferred language settings, and have anamorphic widescreen and progressive video whenever possible.

By the time Blu-ray came about most of the best practices of DVD production were already sussed out, and so Blu-ray productions built on those foundations. There were a few teething problems early on with both encoding (why did anyone ever use VC1?) and menus (publishers had to learn the hard way that Java and streaming on Blu-ray are just hopelessly broken). There was also a short time where the Blu-ray association was insisting that we all buy special codes for each disc in order to implement a "managed copy" feature that ended up never being developed. But overall there haven't been many changes.

The real benefit of Blu-ray has arguably been that decades-old analog master tapes are now known to be unacceptable, meaning a lot of old classics are getting new digital restorations. Additionally, the video quality is so good that it's forced a lot of production changes to improve image quality across the board. Old hardware and file storage standards had to be replaced in favor of newer, better hardware and software. The better quality has made everything look better, from Blu-rays to streaming to DVDs. And that, honestly, had been the best change.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original 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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