The story of LaserDisc, the predecessor to DVD and a physical media format that put VHS to shame.
LaserDisc. Readers of a certain age may have heard of it, but chances are most mentions of the format will be met with blank-faced, slack-jawed indifference.
The 12” video disc format never really set the home video market alight, though its success did vary in different countries. It saw the most market penetration in Japan, while in the UK, despite valiant reports from some studios and distributors, it really never took o at all, and we certainly never had the kind of deluxe or special edition releases that the US saw.
LaserDisc was launched by MCA and Philips in 1978 (initially under the name ‘DiscoVision’, until new majority owners Pioneer rebranded the format as LaserDisc), and was built on advances in optical video disc technologies that had begun in the 60s.
It’s now commonplace for the latest home video formats to rely on a collection of new and classic high-profile titles to get their launches off the ground, and LaserDisc was no different. The first US title released in 1978 was the mega-hit blockbuster du jour (and a movie guaranteed to make an early appearance on any new format), Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.
The picture and sound improvement was immediately apparent when compared to the video tape formats common at the time, with a far higher resolution than VHS was able to offer. In addition, NTSC discs could carry multiple soundtracks, in the form of stereo digital and stereo analogue tracks (though PAL format discs – that we got in the UK – were limited to just one). While only stereo, the tracks often used Dolby Pro Logic, which, when played back through an appropriate home cinema amplifier, would be decoded into four channel surround sound. Later advances allowed more cinema-like 5.1 Dolby Digital (known at the time as AC-3) and DTS tracks to be included on American NTSC discs as well.
A steady flow of releases would follow into the early 80s, but it took a new indie label to show the true potential of the format, and set the bar for all physical media formats since then.
The Criterion Collection has built a reputation over the decades as one of the premier home video labels, specialising in giving its releases the very best treatment they deserve, in the form of new director-approved video and audio transfers and restorations, audio commentaries, documentaries, booklets, liner notes, and more. All of this was a new concept when, in 1984, the company launched its first ever title, a LaserDisc edition of the classic Citizen Kane. As well as featuring a painstakingly remastered and restored version of the film, the release included a specially produced visual essay, an at the time very rarely seen trailer for the film, and a text essay.
Criterion would follow Kane with hundreds of titles over the years, including King Kong, Akira, Dr Strangelove, This Is Spinal Tap, and Raging Bull, to name just a few. Some of its releases would include the premier of previously unseen versions of some films, like the legendary uncut version of RoboCop.
Criterion opened the floodgates when it came to special edition and restored releases, and other labels soon appeared on the scene. One of the best at the time was Elite Entertainment, whose debut release in 1994 was the classic horror Night Of The Living Dead, complete with a stunning – for the time at least – new restoration, and a great selection of extra features. Chief among them was an at times hilarious cast commentary track, which can still be found on the most recent Blu-ray release from – ironically enough – Criterion.
Other notable Elite releases included the special editions of Maniac, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Dawn Of The Dead, I Spit On Your Grave, and Evil Dead 1 & 2. While these indie labels blazed the trail, it wasn’t long before the big studios caught up and started getting in on the action with some incredible releases.
From Disney, for example, came an exquisite release of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Spread across three discs, the film was presented in a format that allowed the viewer to study the animation in previously unseen detail. The set also included a ‘making of’ documentary, animation tests, short films and more, not to mention a hardback book featuring design artwork and a ton of behind-the-scenes images and information.
Meanwhile, Fox brought us a release of cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which included an ‘audience participation’ audio track, an alternate ending and takes of some of the musical numbers, retrospective documentary, 24K gold soundtrack CD, and a book about the history of the film.
One of the benefits of the home video market has been the ability to release longer versions of films, free from the requirement for cinemas to fit in a certain number of screenings per day, and from the limitations of the human bladder. Here, LaserDisc once again led the way, with director James Cameron in particular taking full advantage of the format.
Over a few short years, we saw extended cuts of sci-fi sequel Aliens, underwater thriller The Abyss, and the epic Terminator 2: Judgment Day, all restoring significant previously excised footage back into the film to flesh out characters, story and action. Plus, on top of that, was a treasure trove of bonus material, including audio commentaries, documentaries, behind-the-scenes test footage, stills galleries, and more.
The early to mid-90s were probably the golden age of the format, with releases like those mentioned above, as well as other contemporary blockbusters such as Aladdin, Jurassic Park, True Lies, Die Hard, and more, alongside new releases of classics like the (then unaltered) Star Wars trilogy and The Sound Of Music. An increasing number of releases also came with THX certification, which acted as an assurance of optimal video and sound mastering, squeezing the very best out of the format.
While for the average customer and casual movie fan VHS was good enough, and selling in huge numbers, LaserDisc represented the best that the technologies of the time could offer. A tank-like LaserDisc player would often be at the heart of any home cinema set-up.
But LaserDisc didn’t come without its… quirks.
The main quirk of the format involved its limited running time capacity, which varied depending on the playback format used. The CAV format allowed for just 30 minutes of film per side, but did allow for ‘trick play’ features, such as slow motion, freeze frame, and so on. CLV discs, on the other hand, allowed for up to 60 minutes of playback per side, but didn’t support those trick play features (you could fast forward or pause, but would just get a blank screen, rather than the film’s picture).
This meant that, whichever format was used and depending on the length of the film, you were guaranteed at least one interruption to your movie viewing while you got up to change the disc side, or insert a second disc. Later, more advanced LaserDisc players would feature dual side play, achieved by moving the laser assembly round to the underside of the disc (in a speedy 20 seconds or so), and would also be kitted out with the circuitry to allow trick play on CLV discs.
However, for all its pros and cons, perhaps the biggest hurdle to the widespread adoption of LaserDisc was cost. Even an entry-level player would cost several hundred pounds, while the films themselves would start around £25-30 for a new release, with a commentary and a couple of trailers if you were lucky. For the more fully featured special editions, prices approaching – and often exceeding – £100 were the norm. And that’s for an American import, so add on shipping and customs charges, and it’s clear that LaserDiscs were often almost luxury items, and not the kind of thing you’d just throw in the trolley with your weekly shop.
Over the years, several attempts were made to introduce new, cheaper formats, such as Video CD, also known as VCD. Aside from the more compact physical size, the format offered little in the way of benefits. One single disc could hold up to 80 minutes of audio and video, so multi-disc releases were still needed. In addition, the low video resolution only offered VHS-level pictures, although this was often marred by poor compression, further affecting the viewing experience.
While VCD took off across east Asia, in most territories the format was a dud, and LaserDisc’s reign as the collector’s format of choice continued, seemingly forever. Ahem…
DVD (or Digital Versatile Disc) was born out of two competing electronics industry projects to develop a new high-capacity optical storage format. In an effort to avoid a repeat of the Betamax and VHS war of the 80s, eventually the two projects combined their efforts into a single new format, the DVD, which could be used for computer data storage, as well as digital video and audio (hence the ‘Versatile’).
Launching in late 1996 in Japan and the US, and around the world in 1997, DVD was an instant hit. As a data storage format, the advantages were clear, and computer and console makers quickly adopted it as their removable storage media of choice.
As for the home entertainment consumer, DVD really did tick all the boxes. It boasted the same familiar, convenient size as the ubiquitous CD, more compact packaging than VHS tapes, with vastly improved picture and crystal-clear multi-channel digital audio, often in several different languages. Best of all was the price. Players at first carried a premium, but thanks to the economies of scale quickly dropped, to the point where a player can now be bought for less than £30, making them almost disposable.
As for the discs, early titles were in the £20-£25 range, comparable with a standard LaserDisc, but would often include the kind of in-depth extra features only previously found on those £100+ collector’s editions. Now, as HD and 4K disc formats have footholds in the market, a brand-new DVD release is usually priced around £10, while a whole TV season boxset can be bought for £30, an option that was never feasible from a cost point of view on LaserDisc.
While, as a collector, it was a shame to lose the often beautiful, sturdy and imposing LaserDisc collector’s editions, you really couldn’t argue with all of the benefits of DVD. Despite the introduction of LaserDisc/DVD combi machines, there was no coming back from the success of the new format, and LaserDisc’s days were truly numbered.
By 2001, studios had dropped the format for home video releases, and while Pioneer continued to produce players until 2009, these were generally for specialist applications, such as karaoke. Despite its ultimate failure, the format was groundbreaking, and its legacy lives on, responsible as it is for much of what we’ve come to expect from special edition releases of our favourite films on the latest physical formats.
Lead image: Autopilot/Wikimedia Commons
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