Friday, June 5, 2009

Anatomy of a Bad Dub

This article, while originally posted several years ago, is (sadly) still very relevant today. For when you have searched high and low for that hard to find movie there may be no recourse but to turn to "collector's video", especially if you want to see that movie again before you die. If you don't know what "collector's video" is it's that gray market DVDr product. There used to be a clear cut line between legit DVD releases, meaning the factory produced silver backed DVDs, and homemade product burned onto recordable media. Sadly, since this article was originally published, that line has blurred to insiginifigance as certain studios have opened their own "stores" to sell DVDRs.


The sad truth is studios will often "sit on product", meaning they squirrel movies away in their vaults waiting for their set licensing fees to be met by third party DVD labels. Alas the studios, and rights holders, often demand such ridiculously high fees for their film's use and video rights that, hard as it is to believe, there's never more than a fraction of the total number of movies ever made in "official" video releases.

Worse, many of these forgotten films suffer from the ravages of time due to the very type of film stock used. Movies have even been lost due to neglect while left sitting on a shelf. Some forever because they were never released to video in any form. But this no longer need be the case.

Back in the Jurassic era, when behemoth monsters known as laserdiscs still wandered the Earth, there was really only one feasible option for cult movie aficionados to acquire rare and hard to find movies. Collector's tapes. If ever there was a Golden Age of gray market video future historians will likely agree it would begin with the mass production of the VCR. It is, after all, what made "collector's video" accessible to a wider audience.

Of course there was a thriving home video market prior to VHS. Alas we take it for granted that VHS was the first entertainment system for home movies. And, no, I am not talking about Betamax. For years before video equipment became accessible to the general public there were other, often very expensive, video formats. But before even that, in the distant Precambrian era, there was 8mm and 16mm film.

In this day and age of instant gratification where pictures can be downloaded from a camera and printed on demand we take it for granted that film, once upon a time, actually meant film; as in celluloid. We forget that because we live in a time where digital cameras are ubiquitous, movies are 90% CGI SFX, and most movies come into our homes thanks to a satellite dish. We forget that, once upon a time not that long ago, things were very different. We have forgotten there ever was a time that cell-phones and videogames didn't exist! Try to imagine that. It's very difficult, isn't it?

Worse, we've forgotten that home video was once seen not only as threat to films but was reviled by the film industry. Bored conspiracy theorists of the future will undoubtedly claim this is why so many early’ve forgotten. .


We take it for granted that video should be crisp, clear, and vibrant. Not only was this not always the case but, once upon a time, video collector's were willing to put up with a lot worse.

The above is a still from a factory prerecord, recorded in SP mode, of Mines of Kilimanjaro. This is one of the older VHS tapes in my collection. Notice how fuzzy and full of grain the picture is, how it lacks definition, and now compare it to a screen cap from one of the last movies I ever purchased on VHS:

That is a scene from early in the movie Masque of the Red Death. By DVD standards that picture seems a bit fuzzy. However that tape, which proclaimed on the cover that it was 'digitally remastered', was actually a marked improvement over the video quality on older tapes like the one mentioned above.

Now you have a general idea of the range of quality that existed on VHS prerecords. Many, if not all, of the so-called "collectors" DVDRs are likely taken from similar tape sources. Some vendors will try to give grades of quality from "A" to "D" alas they are mostly in this for the money, meaning there is no real way to tell what the picture quality is until you sit down to watch a "collectors video" and by then it may be too late.

Behold Exhibit-A :

1. Poorly done, and very fake, Letterbox effect. Probably done to cover up dub bar streaks.

2. What appears as extreme blurry grain on VHS becomes pronounced interlacing artifacting on the screencap. (From DVD-R.)

3. Evidence of dub stretch marks that the poorly executed Letterbox effect failed to cover up.

That, friends, is F- quality video. Of course it wasn't listed as such. This is the sort of garbage opportunistic gray market vendors looking to make a quick buck heartily fob off on us unsuspecting consumers. If you're lucky you might even get a cheap case with a color label produced on a laser printer. Alas you'll rarely be that lucky.

Another factor to consider is price. Most of the gray market vendors are selling their wares for premium DVD prices. That's just ludicrous. The studios are doing the same but, and you have to consider this, the studios are far more likely to stand behind their product than some anonymous basement dwelling re-burner. The studio product is also likely to be of better quality and come with a case and artwork. In the current economic times these are all matters for consideration before placing an order. Be sure you know what you're getting and that you're dealing with a reputable vendor.

Caveat Emptor.

Copyright © C. Demetrius Morgan

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