Tuesday, January 27, 2009

R.I.P., Laserdisc

If you had asked me yesterday, I’d have told you that Laserdisc players had died out long ago, so the news that Pioneer was permanently discontinuing the players was somewhat less surprising that the fact that they had still been manufacturing them at all in the past few years. I knew firsthand exactly what DVD did to the Laserdisc industry, because at one point my laser catalog numbered well over a thousand (and that’s a conservative estimate) titles. Luckily, space considerations had forced me to sell off a large chunk of the collection about a year before the first DVD player hit the market, and the value of used laserdiscs sunk like a stone. And even while I was an eager early-adopter of DVD, I didn’t get rid of my last few lasers until about 2 years ago – long after the grumblings from the last few analog holdouts had quieted, and apartment space considerations won out over laziness and nostalgia. But that's water under the bridge, now - as Laserdisc has finally, officially gone to that white elephant graveyard according to this article at Home Theater Magazine.

I still remember the day I bought my first LD player in the early 90s. It was a floor model, on super-sale for only $499, and purchased at the now-defunct Newmark & Lewis chain. Before I even got it home, I stopped off at the also defunct RKO Video (yes, feeling old now…) and picked up 2 discs that I regarded as must-haves: Patton and Die Hard. In the years that followed, both remained ‘demo discs’ that was used to show people what 400+ hot lines of resolution could produce. Even on the 19” tube set that I had at the time, the analog, non-anamorphic image absolutely blew away the smeary blotch that was VHS; I was hooked. It’s hard to judge how much the Laserdisc format is responsible for turning a love of movies into a benign obsession. The roots must have already been in place, otherwise the cost (movies could go for anywhere from $30 to $125) would have been too prohibitive, but the concept of running audio commentaries, informative documentaries, and detailed documentation of promotional material was then unheard of, and the nuts & bolts of how films are put together had never been presented this excitingly. There was something so exciting about the big collector’s editions; the sheer size of the larger box sets told you that you were holding something special, and even the most comprehensive DVD sets have trouble holding a candle to the mammoth boxes released by Fox for Alien, Aliens, or The Abyss, featuring virtually every bit of paperwork from the productions, from artwork to studio memos. Or the massive Pioneer Special Edition of Amadeus that included a fully re-mastered soundtrack on a 2 CD set. And while the DVD picture quality far outstrips their poor analog output, I’ve never felt the attention to detail that was brought to the best Laserdisc sets.

But Laserdisc was and would always be an unapologetically “boutique” format, beloved by cineastes and utterly foreign to the majority of the American public. Though price may have been the biggest factor in keeping Laserdisc on the home video margins, it was far from the only problem.

Selection – plenty of new releases never even made it to Laserdisc, and though many releases received amazingly comprehensive treatment there was a big chance that your favorite movie might not even be available on the format.

Size – although we lament the loss of some truly wonderful bits of packaging, remember that the standard cardboard sleeve that laserdiscs came in were the same size as LP records (only with slightly thicker stock) and large collections tended to dominate the average living space.
Availability – in case you haven’t clued in yet – Laserdisc was a collector’s medium, and unless you lived in a major city – good luck renting them. The few stores that carry them were far more inclined to sell rather than rent. And Amazon may have been around back then, but back then I didn’t have a job to screw off at and the only interwebz connection at home was the 28k modem in my Dreamcast.

Laser rot – though VHS tapes were eaten with the regularity of Idi Amin’s opposition party, you never worried about popping in a favorite tape and see that the image was full of speckles and snow after just a few years. “Laser rot” was the name given to what happened when the glue that bonded the disc elements together leaked through the lacquer outer seal and attack the actual data. Not what you wanted to see only 6 months after dropping upwards of $50 on a disc.

Awkwardness – the two disc formats were called CAV and CLV; CAV allowed you to do a frame by frame step-through and was often used for presenting supplemental materials, but only gave you 30min of playtime per side. CLV offered 60min per side, but hitting pause gave you a black screen. Obviously, most companies went for CLV, but that still meant finding a point for the side break (later models offered automatic playing of both sides, but that still meant a 10 second pause while the mechanism loudly hummed – still better than having to get your ass out of the chair to flip the disc).

Before the end of the decade, DVD had already completely enveloped the market share of Laserdisc and was well on its way to doing the same for VHS. DVD was digital, easily storable, and relatively cheap. I can’t imagine who exactly was buying the last three models being manufactured (the DVL-919, DVK-900 and DVL-K88) It’s hard to say that you’ll miss a format that you haven’t so much as glanced at in nearly a decade; but for better or worse, much of my nerduocity can be credited to that shinny, clumsy, pricey disc. Go with God.