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Site created 12/15/97.

page created: 12/29/98

Cover of pirated Titanic DVD Pillaging the Titanic:
A Closer Look at a Bootleg DVD

A few weeks ago, a long-time Bits reader in Australia e-mailed me to let me know something rather surprising, but I suppose inevitable: he had seen a bootleg DVD copy of Titanic for sale at a local retailer. What's more, he had purchased a copy (for around $20 U.S.), and he sent me a high resolution scan of the case insert (click here to view the image). A number of things are obvious, after even a quick examination of the cover artwork (and the features it lists). There are glaring errors present in the text and disc specs, which immediately identify the disc as pirated (read on for a list). But before I drew too many conclusions, I needed to look at the disc first-hand.

As many of you know, I've been working closely with the MPAA to investigate pirated DVDs. This in mind, my contact in Australia was able to obtain a copy of the disc itself, and I finally received it yesterday morning. Much more will become known once the MPAA's digital piracy forensic team has had a chance to put the disc through its paces (in the next week or two). In the meantime, I did some research of my own, and examined the disc carefully. What follows are the details of my own findings and some tentative conclusions.

The Titanic bootleg disc
A bootleg Titanic DVD. Notice the high-quality, two color printing.
Let's start with the physical disc itself. Upon cursory inspection, it appears to be of much higher quality than previous bootleg DVDs I've seen. For one thing, the media used here looks much more like a legal DVD. It's more silver in color, not the deep gold all the Disney bootlegs I've seen thus far have been (deep gold color being a possible indication of DVD-R media). It also appears to be a standard DVD-5 disc (single sided and single layered). Yes, you read that correctly - the whole movie is contained one side of this one disc (I'll get into that more in a moment). The face of the disc bears very professional looking labeling. This is high-quality, two color screen printing.

There is very little in the way of manufacturing markings on the disc. The inner boundary area of the disc (the shinny ring just inside the clear, clamp area of the disc), bears only the disc's barcode, and the characters "DVD-98-030". The printing on the face of the disc names the film correctly as Titanic, and the 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment logo is present, along with the DVD Video logo. Many people have questioned the presence of the Fox logo, pointing out that Paramount was the distributor of the film. That is only partially correct. Fox actually produced the film, and invited Paramount to participate very late during the film's production, to help defer the mounting costs. As part of the deal, Paramount obtained U.S. domestic distribution rights (both theatrical and home video). Fox, however, retains all international distribution rights. So the presence of the Fox logo makes perfect sense, seeing as the disc appears to have originated in outside the U.S..

In addition to the Fox and DVD logos, there are markings indicating the disc's audio content. The Dolby Digital logo is present, as are the markings "AC-3 5.1". There is also a Region symbol, indicating that the disc is in NTSC format, and is compatible with DVD players in all regions.

Interestingly, the following message also appears on the disc face: WARNING: ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. FOR HOME USE ONLY. UNAUTHORIZED PUBLIC PERFORMANCE, BROADCASTING OR COPYING IS A VIOLATION OF APPLICABLE LAWS. How like digital pirates to copy the warnings - sort of an "in your face" gesture.

Now, here's where it starts to get interesting. At the very bottom of the disc face, are the words: (c) 1998 Universal Home Video, Inc. 70 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608. All Rights Reserved. Made in Japan.

Huh? Universal? In fact, much of the layout of the labeling mirrors Universal's standard face layout. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure that Fox hasn't suddenly given Universal international distribution rights to Titanic. And although the disc says Made in Japan, given the dubious nature of the disc itself, I doubt that is accurate.
Titanic... copyright Universal?
Titanic... copyright Universal?

Country of origin... if accurate.
Country of origin or red herring?

Oh, it gets more and more silly, believe me. Back to the disc packaging. The case the disc comes in is a high-quality variation of the keep case which is widely used for DVD in Regions 2 and 4. The insert (again, click here to view a full, high-resolution scan) is printed on high-gloss, high-quality paper, and uses the artwork we've seen on the VHS and Laserdisc versions. This is no color photocopy, or cheap printing job, although I did notice that the trimming of the insert was a bit haphazard. Of greater importance, however, is the text on the insert. Or rather, all of the errors contained therein.

Spelling error

Usage error
Errors on the packaging.
Among the errors in the text (as compared to the VHS and Laserdisc sleeves):

1. The word ultimately is spelled "ultiately".

2. The ship name R.M.S. Titanic is listed as "R.S. Titanic" (R.M.S. stands for Royal Mail Steamer, or Royal Merchant Ship).

3. Bill Paxton's name is spelled "Aill Paxton".

4. Film Editor Richard A. Harris is listed as just "A. Harris".

5. Special Visual Effects is spelled "Special Visual Ejjects".

6. The doomed luxury liner collides with an "icederg", at least according to this text.

Disc features grid with more errors
Universal-style disc features grid... with still more errors.

Oh, but there's more. The insert includes a disc features grid on the packaging (another Universal-style feature that even pirates have adopted - now if only we could get the rest of the studios to do the same!). Among the features listed are English audio (correct), Chinese subtitles (correct) and Color video (also correct). But the rest are almost all inaccurate. The Dolby Digital sound is listed as 5.0, although the disc does have true 5.1 audio (including a subwoofer channel). The video is said to be in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, but the film's theatrical aspect ration is 2.35:1. The actual video on the disc is 2.35.1 matted letterbox - certainly not anamorphic widescreen. The disc is listed as dual-layer, although it's really a DVD-5 single-layered disc. Finally, the running time is listed as "3 Hours and 16 Minutes", or 196 minutes. The film is really 194 minutes long, and the program on the disc is, in fact, 194 minutes in length. Whew! Guess the studios aren't the only ones who label discs wrong.

So much for a close visual examination or the packaging. So how about the contents of the disc? Upon putting the disc in the player, the Dolby Digital Egypt trailer appears, in pristine quality (which, as on some of the Disney bootlegs, appears to have been taken straight from the Delos DVD Spectacular disc (just a guess, but the quality is that good).

The Main menu screen looks surprisingly good, with two selectable options specified in Chinese text.
Main menu
Main menu on bootleg DVD.

The first option (1) starts playing the movie, while the second (2) takes you to a Chapter selection menu. The Chapter menu is also surprisingly good looking. To begin with, it is fully animated. The word "Chapter" burns into the screen, then an explosion blasts another selection button onto the screen (which returns you to the Main menu).

"Chapter" appears

Main menu button explodes onto the screen

The final Chapter menu
Top to bottom: a sequence of
shots showing the Chapter
menu animation.
The animation is surprisingly elaborate. One last touch - all of the chapter preview boxes are in full motion (you can see that they change in the images at the left). But here's the funny thing - the entire 194 minute film has only 6 chapter stops (for the record, the Laserdisc has some 30 stops, over 4 disc sides).

Once you begin playing the film itself, you start to notice one thing about the video quality. It's very, very bad. The program starts with the 20th Century Fox logo animation (again appropriate, given the circumstances). The actual film begins immediately, and again, all 194 minutes seem to be present. So how could the pirates have possibly squeezed all 194 minutes onto one side of one disc? Well remember how bad I said the video was? A quick look at the bit rate meter on my Pioneer DV-414, showed that the video bit rate never went higher than 3.2 mbps, with the average being about 2.4. The result was constant and nasty digital artifacting - the worst I've ever seen on MPEG-2 encoded material. I mean, we're talking MAJOR mega-blocks here - it's really not pretty.

Normally, MPEG-2 compression of a digital source for DVD, is done in several passes - a baseline pass, followed by additional passes to tweak the bit rate for difficult scenes (with lots of action, explosions, etc...). It appears that this disc was mastered from a Laserdisc version (hence the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio - perhaps the Japanese release, which would also account for the Fox logo), but it was done in one rough pass, at absolutely the minimum possible bit rate. THAT is how they were able to squeeze a 194 minute film onto one side of one DVD.

The video also suffers from all of the typical problems associated with copying an analog source. The color is, at times, red-shifted and prone to bleed, and is at other times very washed-out looking. The video level is also sometimes overblown. All in all... yuck. I would compare it to making a VHS copy of a laserdisc at the EP speed, with tons of digital artifacts thrown in for good measure. I've seen bad VHS copies of the Academy screener tapes that looked better.

Interestingly, the Chinese subtitles on the DVD are burned into the video. They are not a function of the player, and cannot be turned off. At least they are always in the black bars of the letterbox, but they're annoying nonetheless.

By the way, I was able to determine that this disc was mastered using a Laserdisc, because there is, in fact, a moment or two of missing program. Side One of the first disc of Titanic on Laserdisc, ends at 57:20, with a shot of the ship steaming off into the sunset. When the picture goes black, the audio continues for just a brief instant into the black. On this DVD, the program has obviously been edited to remove the side change. The result is that the audio is slightly (but audibly) clipped at the end of the sunset shot. The same effect was noticed at two other places in the program, exactly where the other side changes on my Laserdisc copy were located.

Bootleg screen shot
A screen shot. Note the Chinese subtitles that can't be turned off. I wish this picture accurately conveyed just how awful the picture quality is.
So how about the audio? Well, coming straight from a Laserdisc source (containing Dolby Digital 5.1), the audio is actually relatively good. It has somewhat less clarity that the original, and the volume has been increased, but it's still better than I expected. There are indeed a full 5.1 channels, including a subwoofer channel, and all the surrounds are quite active. Still, this is no high-quality DVD.

Clearly, this disc has been produced and manufactured by some fairly well trained individuals, with serious authoring and manufacturing equipment at their disposal. The complexity of the authoring (particularly given the animated Chapter menu) is surprisingly complex for a pirated DVD. That said, the disc really looks like crap. I mean this is some really, really bad MPEG-2 video compression. What amazes me, is how these pirates really seem to put some effort into some aspects of their work, but just really blow others (like for example, simply spell-checking the text on the insert). I suppose one has to consider the audience they're shooting for - masses who could generally not care less about quality.

Again, I'm sure we'll learn more about those who produced this disc after the MPAA's investigation. In the meantime, those of you would run out to try to purchase this disc have been warned - you're really much better off sticking with VHS or Laserdisc. Trust me - this disc sucks. And with any luck, Paramount will get around to announcing the official DVD version of Titanic in the next two or three months (which we all know is in the works - even Cameron has said so). So try to be patient.

But message to Paramount Home Video - I'd suggest you light a fire under yourselves, folks. Get that legit Titanic DVD out and PRONTO! Enough said.

LATE UPDATE (12/29/98 2 PM PST)

After posting this article this morning, I received an e-mail from a knowledgable Bits reader in Asia, who noted some interesting points:

Hi, after reading your write-up regarding this issue, maybe I can contribute some hints from what I observed:

Quick look at the subtitles and the menu screen shows that the pirate uses the complex Chinese characters. Only few countries use this form of Chinese characters: Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Since the Chinese phrases are closer to Mandarin (as opposed to Cantonese), we can rule out Hong Kong. Malaysians are not in good financial status to invest in DVD authoring system (and LDs release in Malaysia will most likely to have no Chinese subtitles).

Titanic VHS and LD are officially released in these countries. It is not unusual for the local distributors to "localize" the material (like adding subtitles) from either D2 or Digital Betacam dubs they receive directly from US distributors (such as Fox).

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