nimoy-ld

Mr. Spock Explains Futuristic Home Theater Technology

It’s a slow news day (as far as our concerns around here go) and there aren’t many exciting new movies opening in theaters this weekend. In lieu of anything else going on, let’s dig a very fun old video out of the YouTube archives, in which a mustachioed Leonard Nimoy introduces the concept of home theater to 1981 viewers, with the assistance of a talking rock. Why a talking rock? The ’80s were a very strange time indeed.

Watch this thing. It’s awesome.

For those of you who weren’t around for the Laserdisc era, the format was fully analog in both picture and sound in this early stage when it was called DiscoVision. Discs could hold up to an hour of video per side at a stunning 425 lines of resolution, with two channels of noisy stereo audio.

Because the concept of letterboxing had not yet been introduced, films photographed in widescreen would be panned-and-scanned to fill the 4:3 television screens of the era. Viewers of the day didn’t know any better and thought that was perfectly acceptable. DiscoVision discs were notorious for poor quality control during manufacturing. They had a very high defect rate. Even if you were fortunate enough to get one that could play, the picture would very likely suffer “dropout” artifacts that appeared as while flecks on the screen. Within certain limits, these were considered tolerable. However, the glue used to bind the two halves of a DiscoVision disc was prone to eroding, which let air and imperfections between the layers, corrupting the picture with colored speckles. Once begun, this malady known as “Laser Rot” would steadily progress until the disc was unplayable. Pretty much all DiscoVision discs were rotters. The odds of finding a DiscoVision disc today that hasn’t been destroyed by Laser Rot are extremely low.

Although bouts of Laser Rot would continue to be a problem throughout the Laserdisc era (discs manufactured at the Sony DADC pressing plant were particularly susceptible), quality control for Laserdisc greatly improved after the DiscoVision days. Cases of Laser Rot typically developed within two years of a disc’s manufacture. A disc that still plays today without Laser Rot will probably not develop it in the future.

In the mid-1980s, digital audio was introduced in PCM stereo format (the same used on a CD), which would greatly bolster Laserdisc’s reputation as a high-fidelity product for audiophiles. PCM remained the default audio standard for Laserdisc until the format’s demise. Though both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 were unveiled in 1995, only a relatively small number of discs were released with these soundtracks. All Dolby Digital discs also contained a primary PCM soundtrack, while DTS discs fully replaced the PCM tracks and were not backwards compatible with older audio equipment.

The practice of letterboxing a widescreen movie to fit onto a 4:3 TV screen without altering its original aspect ratio was actually first introduced on the competing CED video format, with the release of Federico Fellini’s Oscar-winning Italian film ‘Amarcord’. Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’ was one of the first Laserdiscs to receive a letterboxed video transfer. According to legend, viewers were so confused by the appearance of black bars on their TV screens that many returned copies of the disc to stores with complaints of being defective. However, by the early 1990s, letterboxing had become standard practice for widescreen movies on Laserdisc.

In the early years, if you wanted to utilize any of those fancy freeze-frame or slow-motion video functions that Nimoy demonstrates in the video, you could only do that on a disc recorded in CAV format, which only fit a half hour per side. On a good player with a jog/shuttle dial on the remote, the remarkably smooth forwards and backwards scanning abilities on a CAV disc are still superior to the choppy fast-forward or reverse scanning we have on any digital formats today.

Later generations of LD players would offer digital field buffers so that you could do freeze-framing and slo-mo even on CLV discs (the ones with an hour per side), but the quality while doing so was about half the resolution of CAV. Because of this, CAV was still considered the premium authoring method, despite its disc-time limitations, especially on artistic movies deemed worth studying in detail. The Criterion Collection released a CAV edition of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ spread across no fewer than eight disc sides.

In a worst case scenario, viewers were required to get up and manually flip the disc over (or remove it and put in the next one) at each side change. You can imagine the inconvenience of this on that CAV edition of ‘Lawrence’. In later years, high-end Laserdisc players would offer an automatic side change mechanism, during which the movie would pause for between 7-20 seconds as the laser assembly moved from one side of the disc to the other and started back up again. Ideally, the player would display a black screen while this happens, but some models distractingly freeze-framed on a still from the movie instead.

With automated side change and a CLV format disc, you could make it through a two-hour movie without leaving your seat. Unfortunately, if the movie ran even one minute over two hours, that necessitated a disc swap. Locating good places in a movie to position side change breaks was an art to itself that some studios did better than others. I’ve suffered through more than one Laserdisc that interrupted a scene with a side break right in the middle of a line of dialogue.

Pioneer released at least one Laserdisc player model capable of holding two discs simultaneously and automatically switching between four disc sides, but the mechanical complexity of its belt and laser assemblies was problematic and prone to breakdowns.

Even with all of its flaws and limitations, Laserdisc was an extremely high quality and innovative product for its day – one that pioneered countless features we take for granted today, such as chapter skipping, audio commentaries, preservation of a movie’s aspect ratio, and digital surround sound.

Nevertheless, the next time you pop in a Blu-ray disc and find yourself perturbed that it has a slightly less-than-pristine high-definition video transfer when viewed on a huge projection screen, try to put that in perspective with how amazingly far home theater has come within many of our lifetimes.

[Thanks to Russell for the link to the video.]

12 comments

  1. Home theater has come a long way since that time, hasn’t it? I was in my early teens, and while Laserdisc did nothing for me at that time, I was excited that we were one of the first families on the block with cable TV. :)

  2. Its interesting to note how they say that LaserVision is vastly superior to Video Tape. I saw another promo disc that shows them preparing the master tapes for encoding to Laserdisc. :-p Superior to VHS is probably a better term.

    It is interesting to note that the clips they use in the demo are horrible! Incorrect color, soft picture, video noise on quite a few clips. The part of Leonard Nimoy is actually the best looking of everything!

    You know what would be intereseting? Someone on Youtube taking clips from something that was released on laserdisc many times, say, Star Wars, and showing how the quality just got better over time.

  3. As bad as DiscoVision was, it had to be better than the (more popular) RCA “SelectaVision” which kept the disc inside a plastic holder, and would degrade after repeated plays…in fact, it was highly unlikely that a brand-new disc wouldn’t have some kind of A/V flaw in it…usually a segment or segments (sometimes just a second, but often several seconds) where the image would “skip”.

    But the player and movies were cheap for the day, which is why this was my primary source of home video viewing before VCRs became affordable.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      CED (SelectaVision) was never very popular. That format only lasted from 1981 to 1986, and was mostly dead by mid-1984 when RCA canceled production of the players. The format was a blip on the home video radar.

      Laserdisc was introduced (as DiscoVision) in 1978, and discs were steadily released until 1999 in the U.S. (2001 in Japan).

      • Well, it may not have sold very long, but it certainly got more of a public push than the other disc formats. I used to be able to buy movies at any National Record Mart (and several other national chains) – they had an entire section devoted to the discs – and a number of mom and pop stores rented them as well. Granted, they were only available for about 3 or 4 years, but from 1981 to 1985 or so, I had no trouble finding Selectavision movies for sale. When I got a Laserdisc machine several years later, I could never find them for sale in stores (like many, I direct-ordered from Ken Crane’s).

        Then again, my experience may be totally regional. I know wherever you could find an RCA TV for sale in those years, you could find those movies for sale, though. I read somewhere that although the players never sold well, the movies sold better than expected – which, I guess, shows how loyal customers were to the brand (it helped that most movies were $20 too).

        It would be interesting to take a poll of our older forum members and see which format had the most penetration in their part of the States.

        • Josh Zyber
          Author

          I totally missed CED in its day. Didn’t even hear of it until years later. My experience with Laserdisc started in the early ’90s. Several retailers near my college campus carried discs, including a Tower Records with a big selection (even imports). I imagine they were harder to find in other areas, though I know that Suncoast Video mall stores often had a small section for them.

          • William Henley

            Yeah, I don’t remember hardly anything before 1982ish. By around 1984, anyone who had a player at home had VHS or Betamax machines. I know of ONE person who had laserdisc, and no one who had CED.

            I actually had a Blu-Ray player before I had my first laserdisc player, and I have never had a CED player.

  4. ’21 Jump Street’ uses the “”and that’s the end of the second act!” at the end of the second act”-joke, so I wonder: did any movie ever reference chapter breaks, in a postmodern/meta way? Like a character stopping mid-sentence and saying: “time to swap discs, folks!”?

        • William Henley

          It wouldn’t surprise me at all if people are doing this now. You can pick them up for pennies to a couple of bucks at garage sales and used book stores. I have had laserdiscs given to me over the years, mainly by someone going to clean out a building or storage unit they won at auction, and having no clue what thest things are. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if people are trashing these things not knowing what they are, but I am not digging through people’s trash.

  5. Julian

    Just saw the full clip. It’s all kinds of awesome!

    I think the close-ups use a female finger. And they actually made a disc explaining how to “watch” football? I’d say “use your eyes and you’re all set”?

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