The Movie Waffler Dead Format Month - Why Laserdiscs? | The Movie Waffler

Dead Format Month - Why Laserdiscs?

Laserdisc fan Denny Spangler on why he loves those big shiny discs.
Sooo, why laserdiscs? Good question. Why the "big, bulky" 12-inch disc of now-obsolete technology?
Let's consider several answers.
First off, the quality is not bad at all, provided the print is decent and the mastering was adequate.  It's overall slightly less than DVD, but connected to a line doubler or an upconverting DVD recorder the results can be pretty impressive. I once stunned a friend with the Elite "A Nightmare on Elm Street" 2-disc set from 1996; he thought it was a DVD.
People will literally give them to you.  When my Hollywood Video closed, all rules went out the door.  I brought in my 'flipper' (plays both sides of the disc) and a stack of discs. One customer said "Is that a laserdisc player?  I haven't seen one of those in ages!" He then told me he had a stack of discs, adding "I should just give them to you- do you want them?"
Does a chicken have a pecker?
Within a few hours he returned with them.  Among the titles were the 3-disc "Tron", the "faces" issues of the "Star Wars" trilogy, "The Lion King" in 5.1, and the CAV "Blade Runner: Director's Cut".
A Facebook friend sent me his entire collection of classics, mostly MGM titles, roughly 85-90 titles, including "Greed", "Marie Antoinette", the now-new-to-DVD 6 hour documentary "MGM: When the Lion Roared", two Joan Crawford boxes containing 5-6 films each, and the "Snow White" and "Fantasia" box sets. I learned a lot about the classic years of Hollywood that autumn.  And winter.  Most of the spring too.
Flea market sellers and thrift stores will often confuse them with LP's, selling titles for a buck and under. One flea market in Detroit yielded "Mommie Dearest" and "Xanadu", both monoliths in the over-the-top, so-bad-they're-good, Ed-Wood-Film-School of movies. A buck each. When I purchased 10 or so at a local Goodwill Store for a buck each, the manager asked what they were and I told her. A few days later the prices jacked up to $5.99! I'd weeded out the ones I wanted and the remainder sat there for a month or so.
Now for the technical details: Laserdiscs were the very first hi-def format. It's true! In Japan, there was the Muse system, which was the start of 1080i. In 1991. It didn't really take off due to the lack of televisions capable of reproducing that resolution and the price. However, it started with Laserdiscs.  The Muse discs can command a hefty price these days, due to people who have wrangled a Muse system for their HDTV's (the lucky bitches).
CAV titles could do frame advance, something that really diesn't work too well with DVD, trust me. You remember the brouhaha about supposedly being able to see Jessica Rabbit's cooter in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"? That infamous frame originated with the CAV release of the film.
After the release of titles from Criterion and Elite, other companies could see the technical possibilities available with Laserdisc, causing better prints to be used and titles being remastered and reissued with better artwork. Three excellent examples include the 25th Anniversary "Night of the Living Dead" from Elite and Criterion's "Halloween" and "Pink Flamingos".
If you can withstand the forced subtitles, you can get some great titles from other NTSC countries such as Japan.  No region coding here!
The sound? The PCM audio on laserdisc far surpasses CD quality. In fact, there was an attempt to release albums on laserdisc with the incredible sound quality, however it too did not take off as expected. Several titles from 1994 on were available in DTS or AC-3 (aka Dolby Digital 5.1 or 6.1).  The DTS tracks were uncompressed (as they are on DVD) and sound quite impressive on a good system. Laserdiscs were the first to employ discrete surround sound for film and, again, can sound better than their DVD counterparts.
And my favorite topic, bonus features. The Elite "Elm Street" disc I mentioned above has deleted scenes only available on the laserdisc, not on any of the various DVD or Blu-Ray reissues. The "Jaws" box set came with a gold CD of the film score and the paperback novel the film was based on.  "Cannibal Ferox" came with music from the film on a record. Commentaries originated with laserdiscs, and several of them are still only available there. Best quote: Kevin Smith exclaimed “F*ck DVD!” at the start of the "Chasing Amy" commentary!
Laserdiscs have been called unsuccessful, which is slightly inaccurate; it hit the film fanatics and people who care about quality. It also lasted 22 years (from 1978 til late 2000- almost exactly 22 years). Sales of discs and certain higher-end players can produce fierce bidding wars on eBay, and the community will swap or sell discs among themselves. Some titles can sell for roughly the same dollar amount (or 2-3 times as much) in 2012 than their original retail price in the mid/late 1990's, same with the players.
Big and bulky? Perhaps, but consider in 10-15 years, today's iPod will be considered "big and bulky" as well!

Check out a gallery of great covers from Denny's collection here.

Denny Spangler