So I finally got a couple LaserDiscs to go with my new player. This technology, predating even the Compact Disc, was a truly wonderful and terrible invention.
I used to have a MiniDisc player, back before iPods even existed, and I was a big fan of the format. The discs just looked so cool and futuristic. And I remember debating with my dad about the future of the media. He insisted that MiniDiscs would never take off — not for any technical reason — but simply because they were too small to be marketed. He referenced the LP of his day, and how owning an LP felt like you owned something of value. The design of the cover art, and the size and heft of the media in your hand made it something people wanted to collect and own. And that a MiniDisc, sold as they were in two-inch squares, could never compete with that tangibility.
I’m not sure if that’s why MiniDisc died, or it was simply because Sony refused to embrace digital media until it was too late, but I do know now what he was talking about…
But first, a technical review.
LaserDisc videos look better than a VHS tape (which was its primary competitor) — way better in fact. It could display more lines of video, and could contain multiple audio tracks. Some of the later LaserDiscs I own sound as good as a DVD. They definitely don’t look as good, though.
There are some purists who would argue that the digital compression used to create a DVD creates visible artifacts that a purely analog medium, such as LaserDisc, would never have. This is true, and there are possibly moments in a given moive where the LaserDisc might look better. Over-all, however, the sheer number of lines that a DVD reproduces ensures a sharper image. Additionally, the weakness of the digital compression is also its strength: a lot of video “noise” is eliminated in a compressed video, but shows up clearly in analog.
LaserDiscs could have many of the features of a DVD — but it came at a cost. A “Standard Play” (or CAV – Constant Angular Velocity) disc had random chapter access, freeze frame pause, and frame-by-frame stepping, all like a DVD. Unfortunately you could only fit 30 minutes of video per side this way. That means a 2 hour movie came on 2 discs, requiring you to turn the disc over, halfway through each disc. More modern players, like the one I found, could flip the laser head around the disc automatically, saving you from getting up to flip it yourself.
An “Extended Play” (or CLV – Constant Linear Velocity) disc had most of its features neutered to get 60 minutes of video on each side of the disc. You could pause, but not with a freeze frame. You could skip chapters one-by-one, but you couldn’t skip from chapter 1 to chapter 11 in one jump. And there was no stepping through frames. The functionality of a CLV disc was only a little better than a VCR.
LaserDiscs could have director commentary on one of its audio tracks, but it couldn’t have menus like a DVD. When you put a disc in the player, it just starts playing. If you power down the player, it will forget where you left off — although I’m sure there are better players than mine that wouldn’t. Actually, lots about LaserDisc is dependent on the quality of the player. Most Standard Play features could be simulated on an Extended Play disc if your player had read-ahead memory — but those were expensive players.
Also, although there were at least 3 different surround sound encodings supported through-out the life of the LaserDisc, AC3– the digital standard most used in DVDs — wasn’t introduced until late in the game, and most players supported it with an odd RF connector that needed to be re-modulated for a AC3-capable receiver.
None of that, though, changes what was wonderful about LaserDisc. I have 7 discs in my collection now (costing from $0.99 to 4.99) and each of them feels like a work of art. Much like LPs, the box art looks magnificent with all that space for the artist to work with. LaserDiscs lent themselves to “Special Edition” versions — especially when compared to their retarded VHS competition, so movie studios went all-out including booklets and extra discs with special features on them — like DVDs now, only again, with much more space to work with. And there’s real weight to them. When you hold a LaserDisc box set, it feels like something tangible — something valuable.
That I ever thought a VHS tape was cool technology only shows my ignorance. While I was collecting my Star Wars VHS tapes — two spools of magnetized tape forcibly threaded through a head that pressed on the media to read it — real collectors had these giant shiny laser-read discs wrapped like works of art.
That this technology existed in 1976 and had no real competition until the late 90s only shows the ignorance of consumers in general. In cupboards everywhere, our cassette tapes are rotting now, their quality diminished after each time we played them, while LaserDiscs remain a beautiful and desirable media…
If anyone spots the original Star Wars Trilogy box set on LaserDisc at a garage sale or Flea Market, pick it up for me, would ya?