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 white 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.]