Thursday, October 20, 2011

What is a VCD?

You may have noticed that in a number of my reviews, I watch most of these movies in a format called VCD.  What is a VCD?

If that's what you want to know, this is the post for you.  If you want to learn some tips and tricks for working with VCDs, this is also the post for you.

VCD stands for Video Compact Disc.  It's a weird hybrid that developed when CDs and CD-ROMs were pretty common, but before DVDs really took off.  Basically, it's a CD-ROM with up to an hour's worth of video, super compressed and crammed onto it.

Because of this, the video quality kind of sucks.  Watching a VCD is about the same quality as watching an old VHS tape.  It's easy to see why:  A single DVD disk holds 4.7 GB of video data.  A single VCD holds only 0.6 GB of video data.  Even with the most brutal video compression, a whole movie rarely fits on a single VCD.  So most VCD movies come split over two discs.
Common VCD Logos

The format never really caught on in the US.  However it was a huge success throughout Asia, where VCDs are still manufactured for new movies right along with DVDs.

Why does this matter?
  1. VCDs are a whole lot cheaper than DVDs for the same movie.
  2. There are literally thousands of Hong Kong films that have only been released on VCD, and will probably never see the light of day on DVD.
  3. Unlike DVDs, VCDs have no "Region" lock-outs, and no DRM.  You can buy a VCD from Beijing and it will play just fine in Kansas.  That won't work for a DVD, unless you've got a special, region-free international DVD player.
The bottom line is this:  If you want to become a fan of Hong Kong movies, sooner or later you will have to get comfortable with VCDs.

But don't worry.  I'll take you through it one step at a time.

How To Read the VCD Case

Here's a VCD, fresh from the store.  This is the back:

Back of VCD
It looks a little confusing, and you will notice that there isn't a lot of English to help you out.  Even the spine of the case just has the Chinese title of the movie:

Don't despair!  Usually the other side of the VCD case (the side opposite the hinge) has the English title of the film:

Aaahhhh no!  That's a really unfortunate translation of the title!
Generally the English translation of the Chinese title is very, very bad, and it will sometimes have almost nothing to do with the movie at all.  So with this movie, we get our first WTF moment before we've even taken the plastic off!  From the Gweilo's perspective, that's awesome!

Did I mention that VCDs are really cheap to buy?
Let's take a closer look at the cover and see what we can find out:

Besides getting an idea about the movie's theme (Woot!  Apparently, we've got Ninjas in this one!!), there are a couple of other things to look for on the front cover:

Hidden somewhere on almost every VCD cover is 1) the English title of the movie, and 2) whether or not it has English subtitles.

This particular VCD is very helpful, because it actually uses English to mention the English subtitles:

English Subtitle!

While it certainly makes sense to use English to announce English subtitles, I've unfortunately found that many, many Hong Kong VCDs with English subtitles only announce this fact in Chinese.  Therefore, when shopping for VCDs, it's important to always look for these characters:

The magic symbols that mean you might actually understand at least some of the movie.
Sometimes this information isn't on the front, but on the back of the VCD case:

This is another polite one.  It's also got an English language description of the movie!  Sometimes, the WTF-Level of the English language description of the movie is a good indication of the WTF-Level of the movie overall.  Like with this one.

Print this out when you go VCD shopping!  These characters are your friends!
A Few Words about English Subtitles in Hong Kong Movies

Hong Kong used to be a British colony.  It remained a British colony all the way up until the turn-over of 1997 (which is really late in the game for England to still be messing around with colonialism, but that's another story).  Because of this odd situation, it was actually required by law that every movie made in Hong Kong up to 1997 have English subtitles on the final print of the film (official language of the Empire and all that.)

So, English subtitles was something the studios had to do, but they didn't have to like doing it, and they didn't have to do it well.  As a result, big budget studio movies would sometimes spend as low as $50 on the English translation subtitles.  And it shows!  Creative, zany, and downright poetic WTF translation errors in the subtitles are some of the most amusing things to watch for in any Hong Kong film!

Also, just because there legally had to be English subtitles on the film, and just because the cover of a VCD promises English subtitles, doesn't actually guarantee that the subtitles will be there.  About 1 in 10 VCDs will have no English subtitles.

If you get one like this, don't rage.  Just go with it.  From the Gweilo's perspective, no subtitles just introduces a little more challenge into the mix.  If you are truly hard core about watching a really weird and unusual movie--a WTF movie like nothing you've ever comprehended before--then no subtitles makes the experience even more sweet.

How to Play A VCD

Open the VCD case, and you'll find two CD-ROMs inside, containing part 1 and part 2 of the movie:

You have a few options at this point.  The easiest thing is to try playing it in your DVD player.

Most DVD players don't advertise that they also play VCDs, but almost all modern DVD players can actually play them.  Remember, this is still a very popular format in Asia, so any DVD player made by an international company will probably support this format.  If your DVD player comes from an Asian company, like Sony for example, it is certain to play VCDs.

So, pop the first disk in your DVD player and see what happens.  Here I've stuck our VCD into my crappy Pioneer DVD player:

It looks like it's not working, but it actually is.

See the letters "VCD" up there in the blue bar?  That means it the Pioneer recognizes the disk.  There's no menu, or any kind of start-up screen, or previews, or anything, because none of that fancy stuff will fit on the super-compressed CD.  Instead, just press play and off you go.

But there's one last thing to do, if you want the audio to sound right!

Once the movie starts, you'll notice the audio will sound weird.  Whenever someone talks, you will hear two different voices stumbling over each other.  This is because all Hong Kong VCDs have two separate audio tracks for two different Chinese dialects:  Cantonese and Mandarin.

On a fancy DVD, you can have as many language tracks as you want.  You can select them individually with the remote, and each language stays separate from the others.

As the DVD's cheap-ass cousin though, the VCD format presents its two audio tracks in the cheapest way possible:  as the left and right channels of a single, stereo track!

So to make it sound normal, you have to press the "Audio" button on your DVD player's remote, and make your machine play only the left (or the right) audio track, instead of stereo.

Selecting Audio Left
Here I've selected only the left audio track, so I can hear it in Cantonese (the language the movie was filmed in).

You'll also notice the subtitles, both Chinese and English, at the bottom of the screen.  On a VCD, these are permanently a part of the video you are watching--they are burned right onto the print of the film.  Pressing the "subtitle" button on your DVD remote will never do anything when you are watching a VCD.

If you want to try watching them on your computer, most software video players ought to be able to handle the VCD format.  I personally prefer VLC.

Hacking the VCD Format

You don't need to read this last section at all, unless you are having trouble playing a certain disk, or you want to understand the nuts and bolts of how the format works.

Every so often, I'll get a VCD that my computer has trouble playing.  In that case, it's nice to be able to temporarily extract the video data from the VCD and play it directly from the computer's hard drive.  This is actually pretty simple to do.

VCDs are in fact just CD-ROMs.  They are CD-ROMs with a certain expected set of directories and files.  To see them, stick your VCD into your computer's optical drive, and mount it as a normal data CD.  (Don't "play" it, but "open" it or "explore" it instead.)

You'll see something that looks like this:

Click picture to enlarge
Note:  Make sure your file explorer is showing you "hidden" files and showing you file extensions as well.

There will be several folders here and some files.  Look for the MPEGAV folder and open it.  This folder will have one or more files with the .DAT file extension.  These are not Windows .dat files; they contain the video information.  What you want to do is choose the .DAT file in this directory that is the largest.  (In this case, there's only one file, but some disks will have a lot of them.  In any case, you always want the largest file size!)

Copy this file.  Then change the extension from .DAT to .MPG

Click picture to enlarge
In this case, I'd change AVSEQ01.DAT to AVSEQ01.MPG.  Now you can play the mpg file with any video player you like.


  1. Thanks dude, very educational and amusing.

  2. Yes! I thought my VCD was broken. Now I copied out the mpeg file and I can play it on my computer!

    Thanks so much!!!

  3. I've been a collector of VCDs since 2001, and I thought I'd
    tell you and your site's visitors how to get around copying a VCD's
    DAT file to the hard drive then re-naming it as an MPG file.

    There are two ways to get around it: open the VCD from My
    Computer, or open the VCD from Windows Media Player.

    | Open a VCD from My Computer |

    1. Put the VCD disc into your CD-ROM drive
    2. Double-click on My Computer
    3. Double-click on DVD Drive (on my PC, it's the D: drive)
    4. Double-click on MPEGAV
    5. Double-click on the DAT file with the highest number
    6. A Caution box will appear, saying You are attempting to open a file of type 'DAT File' (.DAT)
    7. Click on Open With...
    8. A box will appear, asking What do you want to do?
    9. Choose Select the program from a list, then click on Okay
    10. An Open With box with a list of programs will open
    11. Do not click on the box that says Always use the selected program to open this kind of file.
    (Another kind of .dat file is in your PC's system files, so clicking this box is not advised.)
    12. Select Windows Media Player, then click on Okay
    13. The movie will start

    Two dialogue tracks might be running at once. If so:
    1. Move the cursor to the top of Windows Media Player.
    2. Click on Play in the menu bar, and scroll down to Audio and Language Tracks.
    3. Select either Audio Track Two (Left channel) or Audio Track Three (Right channel).

    | Open a VCD from Windows Media Player |

    1. Put the VCD disc into your CD-ROM drive
    2. Open Windows Media Player
    3. Move the cursor to the top of Windows Media Player.
    4. Click on File in the menu bar, then click on Open...
    5. Near the top of the window, there is a folder icon with a green Up arrow (Up One Level).
    6. Click on the Up One Level folder icon.
    7. Click on the Up One Level folder icon again and again until you get to My Computer.
    (Alternate to 5 & 6: where it says Look in: at the top of the window, choose My Computer.)
    8. Double-click on DVD Drive (on my PC, it's the D: drive)
    9. Double-click on MPEGAV
    10. Click on Files of type. It will be on Media files (all types).
    11. Scroll down and select All Files (*.*) [or Any File (*.*), depending on your system].
    12. Click on the DAT file with the highest number or file size, then click on Open.
    (Alternately, you can double-click on the DAT file with the highest number or file size.)
    13. The movie will start

    Two dialogue tracks might be running at once. If so:
    1. Move the cursor to the top of Windows Media Player.
    2. Click on Play in the menu bar, and scroll down to Audio and Language Tracks.
    3. Select either Audio Track Two (Left channel) or Audio Track Three (Right channel).

    Some VCDs come with their own built-in VCD player which will
    auto-start when you put the disc in your computer. VCDs with
    built-in VCD players can also auto-start when you go to My Computer
    and click on the drive the VCD is in. If you don't want to use
    your VCD's built-in player, go to My Computer, and where the drive
    containing the VCD is, right-click and select either Open or
    Explore. Then you click on the MPEGAV folder like usual.

    A very small handful of VCDs will not play in a PC because they
    have a menu structure that won't allow it. One such VCD that I know
    for sure has this problem is the Universe Laser & Video Co., Ltd. VCD
    for the 1993 Streetfighter 2 movie Future Cops, starring Andy Lau,
    Jacky Cheung, Simon Yam, and Chingmy Yau in a super-cute Chun Li
    costume. :)

    Steven Feldman
    Chang Cheh: the Godfather of the Kung Fu Film webmaster