Monday, October 21, 2013

The Second (Larger) Disc: Laserdiscs

Everyone has a little something they're obsessed with without really knowing why or being able to explain it. No problem with that as long as it's legal if you ask me. For me this obsession is laserdiscs. I touched on these in a previous post but in case you didn't read through that, basically laserdiscs are DVDs before there were DVDs. Or should I say that DVDs are just mini laserdiscs?... Hmmmm....
Anyway, these were seen as a higher quality answer to VHS. They provided a sharper image without the grain that came with a VHS tape, and the format also embraced widescreen. So for the first time for many movies they could be presented the way they were meant to be seen right there at home. Because of their quality it was also where the now famous distribution company The Criterion Collection got their start (Will be writing about them in time you better believe it). Their mission has always been to release the best version possible of a movie, effectively making it the last time you would ever need to buy it. The format was somewhat popular for a fair number of years, more so among hardcore film fanatics than anything else but it never really caught on to the masses. This could be because of the downsides which were just as big as their upsides.

The first downside is their size. They are the same size as a vinyl record. To some people this may not be an issue, and it's kinda cool because of the extra stuff that could be included with the movie. But in an era when things were getting smaller and smaller it just wasn't appealing. The next is the flipping. Laserdiscs were a primitive disc based technology and only 30-60 minutes of a movie were on a single side of the disc depending how it was formatted. So for an average length movie you could find yourself getting up to flip or switch discs not just once but maybe two or three times. All depending on the length of the movie. I have Ben Hur on laserdisc and it is a whopping two discs, four sides, and that's with approx 60 minutes of movie on each side of each disc. I think it's a small price to pay for the product it was at the time, but I remember complaints about a movie being on two VHS tapes and having to switch them half way through. Then the biggest thing was the price.
Nowadays these movies are on the cheaper end. Not VHS cheap but cheap none the less. But back then these were pretty expensive. And understandably so. It was a new technology and new tech tends to be more expensive for some time when first released. I remember paying around $30-$40 for a blu-ray disc in 2007 but today you could go to Target and buy a bunch at $5 a piece. It's just the way the industry runs cause they either find a way to mass produce in a cheaper way, or there's enough interest to justify the smaller prices and still make a profit. Blah blah blah. But unlike blu-ray or even DVD this was an era when there weren't full TV seasons in one package on a regular basis. So I'll use Twin Peaks as a point of reference for the price. Extreme example but it conveys the right details. Twin Peaks was only two seasons long but was released on four separate volumes on laserdisc. Each volume contains 7-8 episodes and when they first came out they ran for around $125 each. So if you wanted the entire series on laserdisc back in the day you were looking at paying an upward of $500. But that doesn't include the original pilot. That was released separately so that would be another $35 on top of that. Then if you wanted the movie Fire Walk With Me that was another $35, making it around $570 new off the shelf when it's all said and done in 1993 dollars. To think that those folks could have waited about 15 years for the complete box set to come out and they could get the same thing with extras (minus Fire Walk With Me) all in one complete package for around $60. But that's how it was back then.
All that stuff aside I love me some laserdiscs. And I love how easy it is for me to access and enjoy them now that it's way past their time (aka, I can get em really cheap!)

Why? Why do I love laserdiscs so much? Again, that is something I just don't know how to explain. But throughout this process I'll try and find the words for it. So basically get strapped in as I suck off laserdiscs for the next few paragraphs.

One of the easiest elements to look at is the novelty. There is a charm to be part of something that not a lot of people were or are anymore. It's a whole other world to discover in film. I don't know about you but watching movies on different formats does make a difference. If I watch Godzilla vs King Kong on VHS it's going to be a different experience than if I watched it on DVD. This is why I get such a unique experience on laserdisc. It isn't like VHS and it isn't like DVD. When I describe what it's like I usually say it's a cross between the two. This is because it's a much higher quality video than VHS but it's not as sharp as DVD. Also it doesn't have the digital feel and more of the analogue feel, giving off an aura of VHS. And it's such a unique experience for someone like me not just to watch but to collect. Seeing them on a shelf or flipping through them in and of itself is a unique experience. Also I like the large cover pictures with the cool stuff inside like extra photos or notes from the director for some titles. Take a look at some examples of that.

But on top of the novelty of just collecting there is the preference level, too. I already gave a brief description of what the video shows up like but there's also a reason why I would rather watch movies or shows in this format over others. Part of it is context of the time. When you watch a movie on VHS is it far from a similar experience to the theatre. It's a very cheapened experience if you ask me. Now in the digital age that has changed but that's not what we're talking about here. With laserdisc it provided a much better image that was closer to what it actually looked like in theatres. And with the movies that were released on laserdisc around the same time they were in theatres I believe are some of the most accurate representations of what they did look like in theatres at the time of their original release. Does this mean they're the prettiest? No, of course not. Just because you can buy the original Godzilla on blu-ray doesn't mean it looked that sharp when it first came out. Personally I prefer watching movies the way they were originally seen to have a proper experience. I'm not terribly strict with this rule as I own 2001: A Space Odyssey on blu-ray, a movie that is almost 50 years old. But there are some I am terribly strict on this rule. One in particular which I'll use as a jumping off point is why I only watch The Shining the way I do.
The one way I'll watch The Shining (until it's impossible to do this anymore) is on the initial release VHS copy. Yes I was crapping in VHS earlier but hear me out. When home video became more popular Stanley Kubrick hated how his beautifully photographed films would get chopped down to fit in a 4:3 pan and scan format. So in his last few films (Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut as other examples) he shot them in a way where it would be presented in widescreen theatrically showing more on the left and right but less on the top and bottom, and then on home video it would be 4:3 with less on the left and right but more on the top and bottom. So if you watch The Shining on VHS or earlier DVD releases and you see it in full screen it's actually not a bad thing. It's how it was meant to be seen on home video per the director's request. So seeing it in "full screen" on home video is the way I want to see it because of those reasons. But why VHS? Easy, I don't like how sharp and digital The Shining would look because I feel it would take away from the creep factor of it. I could talk about this for a lot longer but I'm definitely gonna save that for another day. There's also the nostalgia feel because this is the version I've always known, and if I really wanna eat my words I would get a laserdisc copy of The Shining for the properest of proper experiences.

So with that in mind I come back again to Twin Peaks. The first and only time I've seen anything regarding Twin Peaks has been on laserdisc. This is because and I actually stumbled on the Twin Peaks laserdiscs one day by chance, and being a big fan of David Lynch I went for it. This was before the complete series was common on DVD and I obviously love laserdisc so I took advantage of a situation. But since watching them on laserdisc I fell in love with how they looked and felt. I watched a lot of TV growing up in the 90s so I've got a good idea how TV looked and felt back then. Whenever I would watch TV shows on VHS whether it was a formal release or taped straight from TV it gave an idea of what it felt like to watch when shows first premiered but it still didn't quite capture it properly to me. Now keep in mind this was my first viewing of Twin Peaks, yet knowing how TV was back in the 90s the look and feel that laserdisc gave really did make it look like the way it would have looked when it first premiered. It felt so much like 90s TV and all that was missing was the station logo in the bottom right corner. And when I say it felt 90s I don't mean in just style and execution of the show, but the quality of the sound and image. It wasn't perfectly remastered. It had a hint of a blur to it even much like TV from that era had because of the lower definition. It was a beauty to look at because it felt I was seeing it the way that it may not have been intended to be seen but the way it was seen because of the limitations of the time. So watching Twin Peaks on DVD would probably spoil it for me, not giving me that same look and feeling as it did on laserdisc. Not even sure if I'll ever get it on DVD for such a reason.
But it's not just Twin Peaks this applies to. I've watched a bunch of movies from the era laserdisc was popular(?) and I get a similar feeling. One example of this is Alien 3. Yes I know it's not exactly a great Alien movie (I enjoyed it just fine, whatever) but this is where I first noticed this element. Alien 3 used some organic effects but they also used some pretty primitive CG effects as well. So there are parts where they Alien looks pretty okay but there are other parts where he stand out worse than a white guy at a rap concert. But the thing is that, that's simply what was part of the technology at the time. You can argue til you're blue in the face how it could have been done better because of this and that example but that's besides the point. Convincing CG wasn't 100% fully available to everyone and it definitely wasn't as effortless as it is now. It was still primitive. But to me there's a charm to things like that cause it puts it in the context of the time. Anyway, I like watching this movie specifically on laserdisc cause it had that closer to theatre quality image but it wasn't remastered in a re-release. Yes we have the tech to make it look better, but I don't want it to look better. I want it to look the way it did when it was originally released because they were using tech that was only so far advanced. Seeing it that way puts you in the time frame. It gives you an idea of what people saw and how they saw it. And while it may still have the rough CG, usually these "lower def" releases hide details that were covered up by taking advantage of the tech at the time. Sometimes in HD re-releases these mistakes or limitations are seen a lot easier. Then it looks even worse despite there being more pixels on screen (which apparently makes everything look better, even though it doesn't).

So for me with laserdiscs it comes down to three main things I love about them: the novelty, the historical impact it had on home video, and how it captures the product of it's era.
First, novelty. I tend to be the type of guy who looks for the hidden gems instead of just spending all my time with the popular stuff. So for me laserdiscs are awesome in the novelty alone. They were somewhat obscure, never catching on with the mega masses even when they were at their most popular time. And now they're even more obscure, but in such a cool way. I don't see them the same way as other formats like VHS. Trust me, VHS has it's place in history and novelty but overall it's sad to look at those old tapes. Laserdisc still shows the technological advancement of it's day. While VHS was more convenient, laserdiscs were a treasure to film collectors. And so with them being so obscure and actually appealing when you can find them somewhere, it's hard not to shuffle through and pick some up. It takes me to a time and a technology where serious hardcore film collectors could finally embrace their love, properly at home. To me they just look way more professional and appealing than the other formats at the time.
I sort of already touched on the historical impact. But I guess what I want to touch on here is how it did introduce the world to the idea of digital vs analog formatting at home. To make this explanation short it told the world how awesome DVD would be years before DVD became a mainstream technology. Also it got some people used to the idea of having their movies in widescreen at home. There were some VHS tapes that would pop up from time to time that were in widescreen, but for the most part it stayed at full. The audience who bought up tapes were all used to that. But with laserdisc showing people were actually interested in having widescreen available it made way for that becoming exactly that when DVD came around. Sadly it wasn't until 16X9 tvs were the standard and blu-ray came into action that widescreen would actually be the golden standard. Seriously, try and find a newer movie in full screen. Damn near impossible unless it was filmed that way (like The Artist).
Then finally I love how much it represents being a product of it's era. I already extensively talked on this but only in regard to Twin Peaks. Shut up I'm gonna keep talking. The way it's definitely a product of it's era is in the way it handles itself in every way from the packaging to the picture. Most of the ones you're bound to run into will look similar to the VHS edition of the movie. Like the Star Wars laserdiscs literally have the same image for their laserdisc release as it did for the VHS tapes. However they also have a series that make it very obvious what you'll be watching will be a unique technology that only laserdisc can take you down (at this point in time). In the same way Blu-ray first had a big display all over the case representing the format you'll be watching, so does laserdisc in some of their titles show off this tech representation.

When was the last time you saw a blu-ray that flaunted "Beyond High Definition?"

And honestly I think that stuff is great! It actually takes you back to that era more and more. Like when you watch old TV shows on TV Land or ME TV and in the pre/post show credits they may flaunt around using stereo sound or, and this is my favorite, COLOR! That along with the VHS style feel of fast forwarding and the fact that any and all laserdisc players look and feel like VCRs, sound system receivers, basically they're big and bulky and I love every inch of them.
Yes they have their flaws especially by today's standards. But there's something special about how they look and feel that add an extra sense of charm to the technology. Even though I just spent many paragraphs explaining how and why I love laserdiscs so much I still feel it's truly hard to explain exactly why I feel they're so great, especially when they were so niche and still are so niche.

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