Answerman Why Do Older DVDs Look So Bad?
by Justin Sevakis,
I've been collecting anime DVDs for a long time. I've noticed that the ones I've bought in the last few years have looked really really good, almost Blu-ray quality. But if I play a disc I bought in the early 2000s, most of them look AWFUL. (Some live action discs look bad too, but my anime discs from back then look really really crappy!!) Any idea why that is? The DVD format didn't change at all in that time. I guess we do all have much nicer TVs now.
We do have much nicer TVs now, don't we? And now that we do, revisiting favorite old discs from the past can be quite a gruesome experience. Quite a few discs that used to look just great back in the day are now almost completely unacceptable on modern equipment. When I was working on the Blu-ray set for Magic Knight Rayearth a few months back, I popped in an old original-issue Media Blasters DVD and my jaw just about hit the floor. CPM's Revolutionary Girl Utena discs, Funimation's original Fruits Basket discs and Manga Video's Angel Cop are also some of the worst looking discs that have ever passed through my collection. And they weren't unusual for that era, either.
How did we ever find these acceptable?! For one, most of us were still using cheap tube TVs back then, and those were so blurry that it basically hid all of the horrible compression problems, video noise, and other impurities. Even computer monitors were more forgiving. Also, since none of us were used to high-definition video, our personal standards were simply lower.
There are two major reasons why discs back then look so bad versus the discs of today. The first is source material. Many of those old discs were made from master tapes made with analog equipment, and intended for use on analog TV broadcasts, laserdiscs and VHS. Most of them looked OK back then, but it's literally not possible for one of these masters to ever look as good as something that originated on digital equipment, let alone HD.
Conversely, nowadays nearly all DVDs are being made from down-converted HD sources. In addition to being pristine and having perfect color, just the fact that they're natively HD makes them better: it's an interesting quirk of digital imagery that if you start at a higher resolution and down-convert, the final image is far clearer and more detailed than if you started at the same image size you end up with.
The second big reason is that, frankly, production practices of the day were still adapting to the digital transition. Some production facilities were way ahead of others. Even if a show was produced digitally (or transferred to video with digital equipment) and stored on digital master tapes (Digital Betacam or D2), odds are that SOMEWHERE along the way, the video would pass through older analog, sometimes even composite cables and gear, mucking up the image.
A few companies would even do the final "formatting" of the show -- the step where the logos, previews, and episodes would all be arranged and English titles would be added -- on analog tape! Media Blasters used Betacam SP to master all of their programs until at least a few years into the DVD era, when they switched to DVCam -- a cheap digital format that had its own problems, but at least it was digital. Every step spent in analog-land further dirtied the image, and made it harder to compress cleanly for DVD.
Lastly, a lot of times production in the early days of DVDs was outsourced to specialized authoring companies (and later, authoring departments in larger post-production companies) that simply didn't know what they were doing. If a digital tape was captured through analog cables, the publisher would have no idea. If the person authoring the disc encoded the video in a low-quality, single-pass "draft" mode, the publisher would be none the wiser. (I distinctly remember having to explain widescreen DVDs to our authoring house because the concept freaked them out -- even though most mainstream Hollywood discs were already widescreen by this point.) Very early DVD authoring workstations also didn't do the best job at encoding, but were so expensive that those companies often couldn't justify upgrading to a better encoder later.
One additional fly in the ointment was that everyone was still excited about DVD and its potential back in those days, and were constantly trying to push the boundaries of what the format could do. This resulted in a lot of experimentation with features like multi-angle that really had a negative affect on the image.
These days DVD is settled technology, and for the last decade or more things in DVD-land have been more or less unchanged. Even better, the fact that most fans are switching to Blu-ray means that even the DVD versions are being mastered from pretty gorgeous HD sources. Obviously, I prefer Blu-ray too, but if you have to buy a DVD for whatever reason, nearly all of them look pretty nice these days. And most of those shows from those early days of DVD have since been reissued and now look far nicer.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's 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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