Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Memory Bank: Laserdiscs


Once upon a time, I was certain that the future of home entertainment media belonged to the laserdisc format. 

From about 1992 to 1999, I amassed a huge (now virtually worthless…) collection of laserdisc films and television programming, and paid a pretty penny for those discs too.  I remember that when Goldeneye (1995) came out on laserdisc in the mid-1990s it sold at (the now-defunct) Media Play stores for the princely sum of forty-five dollars.

But still -- for a while anyway -- laserdiscs were the best game in town.

At some point, probably during the mid-1980s, film lovers, scholars, and critics began to see and understand the inherent limitations of the VHS home-video format, and that’s what created an opening for laserdiscs, I suppose.

For one thing, most movies on VHS saw their original aspect corrupted, reducing the rectangular frame of the silver screen to a box.  I remember seeing somewhere (was it on Siskel and Ebert at the Movies?) a side-by-side comparison of a scene from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in theatrical format and VHS format, and feeling pretty darn upset at how much of the frame was sacrificed on the latter.

One of the tremendous benefits of the laser disc “optical storage” medium was that, as a collector’s format, it most often featured films in their original, theatrical widescreen ratio.  You didn’t losing anything of value, frame-wise, and the picture was crystal clear. 

Laserdiscs were wonderful as well, for their capacity to navigate frame-by-frame (in CAV mode, anyway).  They could also feature a host of extras outside the film itself, both on the discs and on the over-sized, record album-like packaging.   The laserdisc for Aliens (1986) and The Abyss (1989), for instance, featured extended cuts of the film.

But I’ll be honest: I didn’t join the laserdisc revolution because I had to see my favorite films in immaculate widescreen and with extra material. 

I purchased a Pioneer laserdisc player in late 1993 because that format represented the only way I could view the entirety of Gerry and Sylvia Andersons’s Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977) again, for the first time in over a decade.  Image Entertainment and J2 Communications had released (virtually) all of the four-dozen or so episodes on laserdisc, and, well, I was determined to see the series again after it had disappeared from the spotlight.  If this was the way I had to see it…well, so be it.

Not that finding all of the episodes was easy or cheap. 

It was a months-long and expensive proposition to hunt down all the laserdisc volumes of the series.  Fortunately, I found an outfit in Fairfield New Jersey called U.S. Video Source (“America’s Laser Disc Store”) that was selling a number of the Space:1999 releases, at $26.96 a disc (consisting of two hour-long episodes).  

To demonstrate what a crazy and obsessive collector I am (as if I haven’t already…) I still own many of my invoices from U.S. Video Source during the span from 8/25/93 to 01/05/94.  I have no idea why I’m still keeping these documents, except that they reflect a time in my life that I remember fondly. 

There was something wonderful and exciting about hunting down every laserdisc volume of Space: 1999 I could find at both at both remote venues like Video Source and at real locations such as the Camelot Music store that was located on Central Avenue in Charlotte, North Carolina.

I have great memories of that Camelot Music store laser disc bin, although the store is long-since closed.  It was there that I found some truly great (and bizarre…) deals.  Still, I’m not sure what fever possessed me to buy a laserdisc of Mom and Dad Save the World (1992).

But for me, the absolute truth is this: I became a professional writer in large part because I had to legitimize with my then-girlfriend/now-wife the amount of time and money I had sunk into collecting all the Space: 1999 volumes.  In the end, it turned out okay for me, of course…and here we are.

Over the years, I collected everything I could on laserdisc.  I even began collecting Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes in that format…even though I didn’t like them so much that I had to own them. 

On the other hand, I’m thrilled that today I own the Star Wars Original Trilogy on laserdisc, sans the CGI changes of the Special Editions and DVD and Blu-Ray releases. 

I also love re-reading the liner notes on my Star Wars laserdisc.  George Lucas – who sued Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979) for copyright infringement - commented there (“Behind the Scenes”) that he made Star Warsso everyone will copy it.  Then I can go see the copies and sit back and enjoy them.”

Uh-huh.

Anyway, laserdiscs (LD) never really took off in the United States, and even after several years on the market were only in something like 2% of American households.  And then came the real kicker: DVDs were on the horizon by the mid-1990s, and the new, cheaper format represented the death knell for laserdiscs.

Today, I still possess my Space: 1999 laserdiscs, though many have succumbed to the dreaded condition called “laser rot.”  And, I’ve again bought the series on DVD and once more (Year One, anyway…) on Blu Ray. 

Given my penchant for collecting, my wife is extremely happy that DVDs and Blu Rays are much more affordable than laserdiscs.  Yet there’s something about that oversized format that I still cherish. And yes, I’m nostalgic for it. 

Although, I suppose, I don’t miss getting my ass up off the sofa to flip laserdisc sides…

16 comments:

  1. I also had a player in the early 90's. The thing I love about laserdiscs was the sound. I think the first two films I bought were Beetlejuice and Pee Wee's Big Adventure. The discs really did justice to Danny Elfman's music, and I swear, if a door slammed in the film, it sounded like it was right next to you. My player is long dead, and I parted with every disc long ago. I miss them too.

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    1. Hi Jane,

      Great memories. Danny Elfman scores sounded great on laserdisc, I remember. The sound quality was an important aspect of the format, though, if I recall, my player sounded like a jet taking off when it started, and you could always hear a kind of whirring when it played...

      Great comment!

      best,
      John

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  2. I feel your pain, John, and I share your sense of nostalgia. In the late 90s I went out of my way to purchase a copy of the single laserdisc release for Millennium (featuring "Pilot" and "Gehenna")... in spite of the fact that I have never owned a laserdisc player! I just had to have it in my collection. I have it to this day.

    It especially amuses me that you began the article with a reference to GoldenEye. How many times have I bought GoldenEye? As a true 007 fanatic, I, like many film aficionados, have been driven to completely replace my ever-expanding collection of the James Bond films every single time they're released in a new format or revised edition. And believe you me, they know they have a hand in my wallet, staggering DVD releases and continually withholding obvious special features for future special editions. When MGM announced the 50th anniversary Blu-Ray box set of the series I didn't know whether to cheer with joy or groan aloud with pain! Of course, I promptly pre-ordered.

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    1. Brian,

      Oh my gosh, I remember that Millennium disc, featuring the pilot and first episode, and wondering if the whole series was going to be released in that format. I wish I had picked up that disc!!!

      And like you, I'm a Bond fan, and have bought the movies on VHS and laserdisc. Getting all the Bond movies on DVD was such an expensive proposition, however, I don't know if I'm ready to open my wallet for the Blu-Ray collection just yet. I'm sure I will...

      Excellent thoughts on the format we loved...

      best,
      John

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  3. Some great tech and film memories, John. I never owned a Laserdisc player, but I was well acquainted with it. In fact, the very first time I ever viewed James Cameron's director's cut for ALIENS was at my wife's co-worker's home where her cohorts had a get together. I fondly remember him, sadly he passed away earlier this year, showing me all of the wonderful facets of the technology, and what it was capable of. He brought out that LD and teed it up for me. I was suppose to be with my wife, mingling and all, but once this film started, I couldn't leave it. Come to think of it, more and more of those at the party decided to join me in this. Half of everybody there that day ended up glued to his projection screen till the film ended.

    It is an unhappy reality that technical and media formats go by the wayside. You also bring up a good point regarding laser rot. I can assure you that many in IT are well aware that digital doesn't mean forever, even if it's sold as such. Even if you keep a pristine disc (away from sunlight, especially), you're still up the creek without a paddle if the player of that specific format dies or can no longer be serviced. And not everything comes forward with new formats. Here's something for you to think about media and content:
    - out of the all of the movies on film since inception, only a fraction of that library ever made it to VHS/Betamax
    - of those on consumer tape, only a fraction of them ever made it DVD (and some never in the original aspect ratio or theatrical cut)
    - so you can guess what the situation is currently with Blu-ray Disc; what makes it to your home is a dwindling number, even if you count the new movies being released 3 - 6 months after their theatrical runs.

    Sorry to carry on, John. Your post really got me going. Many thanks.

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    1. Hi Michael,

      Your post really made me think about media and the way that we consume it. My intensely paranoid side worries about the looming supremacy of streaming, because it's single-serving. You know, you order one episode of The X-Files or Star Trek at a time, and then it disappears after a few days from your library. I'm convinced that this is the future, and that collectors' mediums like LD, DVD and Blu-Ray will be dinosaurs. I guess I better always make sure I have a machine on hold, as a back-up...

      I also love your memories of seeing Aliens (1986), and how that great film literally pulled everyone into the room. Awesome!

      Thanks for remembering laserdiscs with me...and I'm very sorry to hear about your friend who passed away.

      best,
      John

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  4. John, your disc-by-disc purchase of Space:1999 reminds me of my set-by-set collection of the series on DVD in the early 2000s... for a price per episode much higher than the recent Blu-Ray release (but lower than in your Laserdisc set.)

    Nonetheless, if your purchasing quest resulted in you writing "Exploring Space: 1999", then I say it was worth every penny. :-)

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    1. Hi Brian,

      Thanks for the good words about my Exploring Space:1999 book. That enterprise (and my writing career) truly did begin with me trying to turn the purchase of all those expensive laserdiscs into an "investment." So far, it's working!

      I remember buying those DVD sets of 1999, and then a dear friend of mine who works at Library Journal sent me a review copy of the megaset as a gift. That mega-set saves a lot of space on the shelf...

      Great memories!

      best,
      John

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  5. Thanks for the trip down nostalgia lane. :)

    My parents owned two video stores since 1980 and Laser Discs were one of our more popular formats. The two stores were located in areas where we actually had a lot of Hollywood folks lived, and for research purposes they'd often want to find the Laserdisc copy of a film to see it in the original aspect ratio. But as the library expanded, we got more and more renters. As you pointed out it never really challenged VHS, but our Laserdisc base was pretty loyal.

    There were some really excellent special editions in the format. "Blade Runner" was a revelation on Laserdisc. Not only was the movie amazingly clear, but the huge vault of concept art, costume design and other behind the scenes goodies really opened my eyes to how detailed that production was. For me "Star Wars" was the real treat. The sound and picture was amazing on these films - with John Williams score blaring away. Great stuff.

    Collecting became a lot easier when DVD rolled around. They took up less space, you didn't have to flip them and they were cheaper. LD didn't stand a chance. But like you I still have fond memories of the format. And I watched the original Star Wars trilogy so many times on the format, that I still remember where all the disc flips occur. Now when ever I watch the series in their original form mumble "and flip the disc" much to wife's annoyance. :)

    One more memory to share. You mentioned "Goldeneye" as a memorable LD. Actually I remember that as our best demonstration DVD. The sound and picture on the "Goldeneye" DVD were amazing, and that sucker was on constant rotation. It was one of the early releases that really helped sell the DVD format, along with "The Matrix" and "Austin Powers".

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    1. Hi Roman,

      I loved reading your comment about the video store experience of your parents (and you), and it warms my heart to know that the laserdisc format found a committed and devoted audience. I remember the Blade Runner laserdisc...wow. As you say, it was bristling with incredible extras. I also proudly own Star Wars. Laserdisc is my preferred mode for that film!

      I do remember that one of the first DVDs I purchased was The Matrix. I knew I had to succumb to DVD inevitability, but I still love my laserdiscs...

      best,
      John

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  6. I never owned a LD player but I had a friend who did and I managed to get him to tape a bunch of things for me, like BLUE VELVET letterboxed. Before DVDs, I was obsessed with that film and heard that the image was severely compromised in pan and scan so I had my friend make a copy on video tape. I must've worn out that tape I watched it so much.

    I think that the one great thing to come out of laser discs and the reason to still hold on to a player are all the rare Criterion Collection special editions with extras that have, in some cases, yet to migrate over to DVD/Blu-Ray for legal reasons. For example, I cherish my video tape copy of the Criterion edition of THE FISHER KING with Terry Gilliam's awesome audio commentary and all the extras. Will these ever see the light of day? Hopefully, Sony will license the film over to Criterion but I'm not going to hold my breath. Or, David Fincher's THE GAME? There are rumblings that Criterion finally has gotten the rights back for this one which makes me wonder/hope if they will port over the extras from the LD. Those discs are still worth their weight in gold, IMO.

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    1. Hi J.D.

      You make an excellent point about Criterion. Those laserdiscs were incredible. You could tell that the company really went all out to assure a great film experience with every disc. I would love to see a new release of The Game with the extras you note, because I'm a huge Fincher fan. I got very close to writing a book Movies that Scar: The Films of David Fincher, but another writer who I know and like very much got to the subject of David Fincher first. D'oh!

      Great comment,

      best,
      John

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  7. Anonymous2:25 AM

    Once upon a time I was the laserdisc marketer for a certain studio. Laser was always a prickly little thorn. Less than 10% of the market and over 70% of the mailbag on any given day. Just the name was a pain in the derrier. One word or two? Lowercase or caps? And the format! Widescreen or letterbox? Pan & Scan or Standard? Looking at that old Widescreen Edition logo on Star Wars slays me! Is it a Special Edition or is it Collectors Edition? And is it Collector's or Collectors? Even the laserdisc logo was a gnarly little hairball for me. Not quite...anything, really. I credit laserdisc with my first actual anxiety attack, with a 1AM phone call that ripped me from my bed to shakily announce, "Something has gone wrong in production." You may remember that laser was notoriously off schedule. Especially if it had the word "Director" on it. At the end of my stint in LA, I remember the freedom I felt when I stacked my whole pile of lasers in the alley next to the garbage cans. My lonely stack of countless hours of toil, begging for favors from manufacturers, apologizing to consumers, liner notes I had corrected, edited, then finally just written myself for God's sake; soothing over bruised egos and balancing soaring expectations with mushrooming budgets. Yes, there it was, an entire chapter(stop) of my life on display with the bird droppings. I felt lighter, as if I had shaken those shackeling discs off my very wrists and ankles. There they sat, autographed and well-preserved in their stubborn boxes, quietly waiting for a savvy waste collector to scoop them up and take them home, where they would torment his wife with paper cuts and unruly bulk. Freedom! Freedom at last!

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    1. That is an awesome comment. Great to read your perspective on it!

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  8. Very interesting post on a subject I admit I knew little about. I never went for LD, but stuck with VHS (which for me has only been "supplemented" by DVD, not replaced by it!) Despite relatively poor quality, everyone in my family (movie collectors, all) stuck with VHS for the simple expedient of being able to record movies ourselves (not so much TV shows, but movies). While we did buy our share of "pre-recorded" motion pictures on VHS, the bulk of our collections was movies we had taped ourselves (either off TV or from rental copies, when they didn't have copy-guard!). And while in the early years (I think we first bought our first VHS recorder in 1978?) we settled for alot of edited-down movies off both local and network TV stations, patiently working the "pause" button during commercial breaks, once all the pay movie channels got going, we were able to record full-length, uncut and uninterrupted movies. We weren't "purists" in picture quality, but wanted the most complete collections of our favorites possible. And, as with any collectors, finding the right movies was "half the fun"!

    Especially for my folks, just having a personal collection of their favorite movies was truly a "dream come true". They both grew up in the 1930's, and were true "movie buffs" (or self-described "movie nuts"!). Back in the days when only the super rich like William Randolph Hearst had private theaters in the home, both of my folks dreamed of one day having their own "private theater" and collection of movie greats. And finally, with the advent of the VCR, it was possible! Our own family room became our "private home theater". So at any rate, for us the ability to record movies was paramount, and LD just wasn't an option.

    I would also like to point out one thing, regarding the your comment that most VHS movies had their original aspect ration "corrupted" (a great descriptive term, BTW). As I recall, it was simply that during the "heyday" of VHS, letter-boxing simply wasn't widely available to the VHS movie-buying public (or desirable, for that matter). I think it was only in the latter-part of the "VHS era" that letter-boxed versions even became somewhat standard, and I can recall both "full-screen" and letter-box being available simultaneously. I always liked letter-box, myself, but I sure remember how much opposition to letter-boxing there was from many people -- who were annoyed with the black bands on the top and bottom of the screen (and the fact that letter-boxing made the images on a standard TV smaller). My own folks, movie-lovers that they were, took quite awhile to get used to letter-boxing.

    I recall that the first two VHS movies I ever bought that featured ANY letter-boxing only utilized it for their key scenes: "Ben Hur" (the chariot race, of course), and 1955's MGM musical "Hit the Deck" (for the final dance number on the deck of a battleship). It was almost like they considered it "daring" to even show a single scene letter-boxed! Seeing the possibilities of letter-boxing in these two pictures really made me a "convert", and yearn for more. At any rate, I did end up with quite a few VHS releases in letter-box, but definitely only towards the end of the era. Even TCM, once they started to show all their movies in letter-box, had to keep airing a mini-documentary that touted the virtues of letter-boxing, showing scenes from "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" in standard, then letter-box, format -- to demonstrate to recalcitrant viewers how much they'd been missing!

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  9. John - Hello. I hear you. Bloody Aye right - Eye, those disc were EXPENsive, I even Bloggered ( my new word ) about some of the reasons why I still love my old Laserdisc Collection. http://2x-file.blogspot.com/2013/07/what-i-like-best-about-laserdisc.html

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