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Useful Notes / LaserDisc

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A LaserDisc (left) compared to a DVD (right).

"This looks like a silver record. But it's not a silver record, it's a LaserDisc! There's a movie on there, heh."
Mark, SLC Punk!

LaserDisc is an optical disc format, primarily used for playback of analog audiovisual content.note  It was the first laser-based storage medium to be sold as a consumer product, and is the direct ancestor of formats like CD, DVD, and Blu-ray. The technology first began serious development in the late 1960s; however, it didn't debut as a retail product until 1978 (United States), 1981 (Japan) and 1982 (Europe).

The format was envisioned as a high-tech audiovisual successor to LP records, and early advertisements called players a "video turntable." Though the two formats ended up having effectively nothing in common, LaserDisc still bears a few vestigial similarities to an audio LP: physically, it's a double-sided 12- or 8-inch disc made of (usually clear) vinyl, stored inside a plastic sleeve in a cardboard jacket. A LaserDisc can store up to 30 or 60 minutes per side (depending on encoding), for a maximum play time of two hours on one disc.note  Physically, all 12-inch LaserDiscs are double-sided, though if the program is on only one side, the side without content is called a "dead side."note 

LaserDiscs are strictly playback-only, but a substantial library of program material was published during the format's 23-year retail lifespan—especially in Japan, where LaserDiscs were more popular than anywhere else. The final consumer LaserDisc releases came out in 2001note , with industrial releases (mostly for Japanese karaoke venues) winding down the following year.

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    The disco years 

The early years of LaserDisc were turbulent, to say the least. For the first few years of the format's existence, a name could not even be agreed upon by Philips (Dutch electronics giant) and MCA (parent company of Universal Studios), the co-developers of the format; the two companies had come up with their ideas separately, then decided to team up (especially with RCA's rival CED format looming on the horizon...nobody figured magnetic tape would amount to anything at first). Philips, in charge of player manufacturing under their Magnavox brand, preferred "Video Long Play." MCA, handling the software side of things, called it "DiscoVision."

LaserDisc production in the early years of the format was plagued with problems. In a stunning example of corporate naiveté, MCA had assumed that manufacturing a LaserDisc—a precision object constructed of many stacked, alternating layers of plastic, glue, and aluminum—would be hardly more complex than pressing vinyl records, allowing for a handsome profit margin on each disc sold. DiscoVision LaserDiscs were made (largely by hand) in a facility that was not equipped with clean rooms, and was the former site of a furniture factory. Needless to say, the quality of early LaserDiscs was horrendous, with return rates exceeding 90 percent. MCA's profit margins on DiscoVision titles evaporated practically overnight. Corporate panic ensued, and retail prices were raised in an ultimately-futile attempt to cut their losses.

Meanwhile, Magnavox was having its own problems with player manufacturing. The machines had a nasty habit of overheating, sometimes to the point of melting the disc inside. Even worse, Magnavox was calibrating each player strictly by the book, without regard for the wild quality variations of MCA's early LaserDiscs. (Worst of all? A LaserDisc informercial, produced by Magnavox around this time, which devoted an alarming amount of screen time to Leonard Nimoy inexplicably talking to a rock.)

Both companies were pushing the envelope incredibly far for what was, after all, a '70s consumer product, and making too many critical mistakes along the way. The end result was technological chaos. Magnavox's players largely could not play MCA's LaserDiscs; when they did, the image onscreen was often covered with snow and distortion, and the audio was usually filled with static.

And let's not even get into the subject of laser rot, which is discussed in detail further down this page. Suffice to say that the bane of LaserDisc's existence first appeared here, during the DiscoVision era, and it would continue rearing its ugly head on a regular basis right up until the twilight years of LaserDisc in the late 1990s.

All of this was in spite of the fact that, at the last minute before launch, playing time per disc was temporarily slashed from two hours to just 50 minutes, making them (supposedly) much easier to manufacture and play back. (The ensuing side effect—that all early DiscoVision movies had to span across two or three LaserDiscs instead of being contained on just one—added insult to injury for those unfortunate early adopters, and helped to drain MCA's coffers even further.) To this day, watching an old DiscoVision LaserDisc is a fraught experience because you simply have no idea what you will see or hear... if the disc will even start up at all, or how long it will keep playing if it actually does start.

Barely out of the gate, LaserDisc had essentially shot itself in the foot at a critical time in history, just as home video was within reach of the average consumer at long last. As LaserDisc stumbled through its first years on the market, most buyers brought video cassette recorders into their homes instead. The entire DiscoVision debacle, and RCA's own issues with their CED disc system, ensured that videotapes, not videodiscs, would be the standard format for home video entertainment during the '80s and '90s. As the seventies came to a close, the LaserDisc format itself was practically dead, less than two years after its debut.

    A format reborn 

Because of their disastrous experience with DiscoVision, MCA lost a fortune and was eager to be rid of the format. In 1980, Pioneer Electronics bought out DiscoVision's rights and patents, and subsequently renamed it "LaserVision," with the format introduced in Japan in 1981. (Had Pioneer not stepped in, LaserDisc as a format would have assuredly ceased to exist after 1980.) Although they would later use "LaserDisc"note  as a brand name, LaserVision was the official name of the format until the early 1990s, when Pioneer finally began to use "LaserDisc" as the format's official name.

Despite superior sound and picture quality (once Pioneer took over and began to fix many of the myriad issues that had previously affected DiscoVision), LaserDisc never caught on like VHS (in large part because of MCA and Philips shooting themselves in the foot during the format's early days), but it did manage to carve out a 5% market share until it was phased out completely by DVD in the year 2000. It was more popular in Japan with 10% of households owning a LaserDisc player (which weren't discontinued until 2009). It was also popular in other wealthier East Asian regions, including Singapore and Hong Kong. Its popularity there was mainly due to the humidity in that part of the world causing mold to grow on magnetic tape, and optical media didn't have that problem. The LaserDisc's quality came with some flaws. Storage capacity was quite low, and depending on the format would range from 30 to 60 minutes per side. Any movie that was over two hours would be a Multi-Disc Work. The size of the disc also required a fairly noisy mechanism.

In addition, the type of glue used to attach the two sides together was known to rot away, exposing the reflective layer inside and causing it to oxidize away, slowly turning the discs black and affecting playback and picture quality (this was called "laser rot" back in the day, and became more commonly known as "disc rot" after it was discovered to be possible in later optical disc formats as well). Perhaps more importantly, in the days before TiVo and other DVR devices, the LaserDisc couldn't tape your favorite shows.note  That plus a steeper retail price for both the player and discs gave the VHS a decisive advantage.

That said, in the '80s, the discs were significantly cheaper to buy than VHS tapes, which were largely intended for the rental market, which made LaserDisc popular with collectors. In the heyday of the medium, the difference in quality between LD and VHS was significant enough that when LD aficionados bought a new disc, they would sometimes invite their (non-LD-owning) friends over to watch it at a "LaserDisc party" (as seen in the Friends episode "The One Without The Ski Trip"). Dropping prices for VHS tapes eroded LD's advantage when Hollywood began to focus on video sales and studios targeted LaserDiscs for expensive Limited Special Collectors Ultimate Editions aimed at film buffs. Said film buffs also enjoyed the fact that letterboxed versions of almost every filmnote  were available on LaserDisc in The '90s, thus preserving the widescreen frame the director intended to present, unlike VHS and Beta releases where Pan and Scan was everywhere and letterbox was rare.

LaserDisc is unique among home video formats for being an effectively uncompressed medium. Of course, data compression has no application for an analog medium like LaserDisc, but even VHS is notorious for its poor resolution, especially with regard to color. LaserDisc, at least in theory, is capable of preserving the full bandwidth of a standard-definition master videotape, something that DVD—for all of its unflinching digital purity—can occasionally fail to do.

Indeed, a well-mastered LaserDisc, played back on a high-end machine, can deliver picture quality within spitting distance of a typical DVD. Some diehards still insist, to this day, that LaserDisc is the superior format of the two. (Which isn't quite true when comparing both formats at their best, but considering the 19-year age gap between LaserDisc and DVD, it speaks to LaserDisc's technical prowess that they can be seriously compared at all.) The audio capabilities of LaserDisc also trade blows with DVD, with excellent-quality soundtracks available on most titles released during the '90s, often transferred directly from theatrical sound mixes at full resolution. (DVDs by default use a lossy compression scheme, and often have inferior sound mixes designed for the home.)

LaserDisc data could be burned onto the disc in two different ways, Constant Angular Velocity (CAV) and Constant Linear Velocity (CLV). On CAV discsnote , once around the disc was one frame of image. The advantage of CAV was that freeze-framing, scanning forward and backward, etc., could be done by a simple mechanical variation of the motor speed. The disadvantage was that it wasted space; the data recorded towards the outside of the disc was spread out relative to the data close to the center. CLV discsnote , by contrast, wasted no space, but showing the picture while pausing, fast-forwarding, and such required mildly complicated math on the fly. Cheap LaserDisc players couldn't do it. Those that could were referred to as having "the chip". Note that one physical disc could have CLV data on one side and CAV data on the other. The Fugitive has the first side encoded CAV, and the other two sides are CLV. Thus, if you had a cheap LD player, you could freeze-frame the movie only on the first side.

    Notable uses 

The LaserDisc format introduced quite a few novel features that became taken for granted during the DVD era. As discussed above, the sophisticated audio capabilities of LaserDisc were refined and simplified for DVD, with almost no differences besides the necessary removal of analog audio tracks.

Just as notable, but far less well-known, is how LaserDisc brought anamorphic films into the home by way of "squeeze" discs, the term used by Pioneer in Japan. As The '90s progressed, 16:9 widescreen televisions were already on the horizon, and companies like Pioneer knew that the days of 4:3 were numbered. To this end, they began offering films on LaserDisc in "squeeze" format, which shrank the letterbox bars above and below the picture and intentionally distorted the image, so that the film returned to its correct aspect ratio when viewed in 16:9. The net result was a dramatic 33% increase in image resolution, compared to a standard 4:3 letterbox title. In the end, only a tiny handful of films were released on Squeeze LD, and the format was never even available at retail outside Japan.note  As it turned out, the Squeeze LD method is, effectively, the same technique DVD later used to store anamorphic film content, on thousands upon thousands of releases. The only difference is that Squeeze LD was fully manual, requiring the viewer to ensure the film was being unsqueezed properly, whereas DVD automates the process and makes it transparent to the end-user. When viewing a film on DVD, chances are it is in "squeeze" format, just like the LaserDiscs from all those years ago.

LaserDisc also "pioneered" the idea of DVD Bonus Content, such as DVD Commentary which first appeared on The Criterion Collection LaserDisc release of King Kong (1933) in 1984. Some of these releases had extra features that can't be found anywhere else, and some are highly sought-after by collectors. The 1993 LaserDisc boxset of the original Star Wars trilogy is still sometimes said to be the best release the series has gotten, since future DVD and Blu-ray releases don't have the unaltered versions of the films or the extensive extras and giant hardcover booklet that came with the set (the masters used for the original unaltered trilogy in the 2006 DVDs as extras were sourced from these discs).

LaserDiscs are also perhaps best known among the video game community for being the format used to created well known arcade games such as Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, which pioneered the use of full motion video in video games. There was even a LaserDisc-based console system called the "Halcyon", which was discontinued after only two games were released for it: Thayer's Quest and NFL Football.note  In the mid-1990s, Pioneer released the LaserActive, a game console that was more of a high-end all in one solution that, aside from LaserDisc-based titles, could also play Sega Genesis, Sega CD, TurboGrafx-16, and TurboGrafx-CD titles (and special titles that combined either the Sega or NEC stuff with LaserDiscs); however, two different modules were required to play them. While lasting longer than the Halcyon, the LaserActive was also short lived with only several games released for it in Japan and North America. Namco also made the Theater6 arcade cabinet, which used two LaserDisc projections side by side as pre-rendered backgrounds for Rail Shooter video games, such as Galaxian 3: Project Dragoon. In Layman's Terms, it's a video game layered over a movie.

In North America, LaserDisc found more acceptance in institutional settings like schools and businesses. The ability of players to connect to computers made them a popular way to implement promotional video kiosks in stores, convention booths, or interactive museum exhibits as early examples of multimedia computing. Before personal computers had video codecs, educational multimedia programs used LaserDiscs for the video portion. An innovative use of LaserDisc was The BBC's Domesday Project which allowed users to navigate the streets of British cities, predating Google Street View by about 30 years.

    LaserDisc in Japan 

One thing that contributed to the longevity of the LaserDisc player in Japan was that it was the preferred media for Karaoke in the country. While the west frowns upon Karaoke and many other countries in Asia switched to the more compact (albeit inferior image-wise) VideoCD format, Japan stuck to LaserDiscs until it was finally discontinued in 2009 for no other reason than being an analog format. LaserDiscs are capable of carrying two distinct audio tracks: an analog stereo track and a digital stream which can pretty much be used for any type of audio. In the west, this was usually used for 5.1 Dolby Surround on premium releases and sometimes Spanish SAP or Descriptive Video Service (DVS) in stereo PCM, but in Japan, Karaoke discs used them as PCM stereo tracks that carried a minus-one version of the song to be sung along to. The ability to store PCM audio tracks also allowed for the creation of "CD Video" discs in the west that either featured a full-length movie with a digital audio track or combined a CD single in Red Book audio with a small analog video track featuring either a music video or an excerpt from a concert recording. While ambitious, the format only lasted four years due to its inability to find a clear audience; more on that can be found on the Compact Disc's own page.

The LaserDisc's popularity in Japan meant that it was the preferred home video format for anime, especially OVAs. This carried over to anime's nascent popularity in the West in the '80s and '90s. A lot of localized anime was released in the format, and the U.S. and Japan using the same NTSC TV system meant that dedicated fans could import Japanese discs and watch them without a converter, provided they were proficient in the Japanese language. PAL users would also benefit once their televisions' capability of NTSC compatibility was perfected. LaserDisc's ability to create clean freeze frames that low-end VHS machines lacked also allowed screen captures to circulate around the early internet. This feature also became an invaluable asset for early fansubbing groups: because editing on videotape, even for something as simple as adding captions, had to be done frame-by-frame, the clean freeze-frames provided by LaserDisc players made it easy to cue up each shot, with the lack of surface degradation on LaserDiscs making it easy to re-use the same disc again and again without worrying about losing picture quality along the way (provided that laser rot hadn't set in yet). What's more, the high video quality on LaserDisc releases heavily minimized the amount of generation loss sustained on the final, fansubbed VHS tape, allowing for much sharper-looking releases than tape-to-tape edits. While the writing quality of said subs... varied, to say the least... the fact that they were around at all is hugely indebted towards the flexibility LaserDisc players gave to amateur video editors. However, going back to the CAV and CLV types above, it needn't be said that movies released on CLV discs would not provide clean freeze frames (or indeed, any freeze frames at all) unless a player with "the chip" is used.

Aside from that there were also High Definition LaserDisc players in Japan starting in the early 90s. These "Hi-Vision" discs carried 1035i video compressed in the MUSE format (a Japanese analog HD compression scheme) along with the usual 5.1 Digital Dolby Surround track and Stereo Analog track. However they required a Hi-Vision capable player, and the monitor, projector or TV must also be Hi-Vision compatible and capable of decoding the MUSE signal. Though the option to purchase an external decoder or Hi-Vision player that decodes Hi-Vision to 1080i component video does exist later in the format’s lifeline. A MUSE capable display paired with a 5.1 kit was considered to be the ultimate in home cinema experience of the time, and would be perfect if it wasn't for the fact that one had to get up and change the disc every hour or so, two hours or so if you own an uber-expensive auto-reverse Hi-Vision player.