Time Warp: The Don of discs

Laserdisc (LD) has been around longer than you might think. David Paul Gregg invented the optical disc format in 1958 and about a decade later MCA refined the technology and named it ‘DiscoVision’. It wasn’t until 1978, however, that the first Laserdisc player (from Pioneer) and the first Laserdisc movie – Jaws – was released in North America. While LD didn’t scare VHS out of the water, it did mark the beginning of a new era in video and audio quality.

By today’s standards, Laserdisc probably seems absurd. The discs were a massive 30 cm in diameter – about the size of a dinner plate – and could store only about 60 minutes of audio and video per side.  There was just enough room to squeeze on a regular movie, so those films with longer running times were packaged as a two-disc set. In addition, most players were singled-sided, meaning the disc needed to be manually flipped once the first side had finished playing. Double-sided players were rare, but played the second side of the disc automatically – although there was a long pause while the disc came to a halt, started spinning in the other direction, and the laser pickup moved to the other side of the disc.

Also, unlike today’s DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray discs, which are completely digital, Laserdisc initially stored both video and audio in analog format. Later, it became the first format to deliver 5.1 digital surround sound to the living room, and while video remained analog, the MUSE Laserdisc format was able to deliver it in high definition – and 15 years before Blu-ray and HD-DVD appeared. However, in addition to a MUSE Laserdisc player, MUSE decoder and MUSE movies, you needed a compatible TV which, alone, cost $US10 000.

Even though VHS dominated the home video scene, Laserdisc was superior in many ways.  LD created a much sharper picture, producing 440 (PAL) lines of resolution compared to VHS’s 240. The discs cost less to produce than the plastics and assembly required for a VHS cassette, and with multiple audio tracks LD could provide a director’s commentary and other extras, sparking the birth of ‘Special Edition’ disc releases.

Laserdiscs also did not degrade over time like VHS tapes and, importantly, the format introduced ‘chapter-based’ browsing of video. This provided instant access to any part of a movie very quickly, with no tedious rewinding or fast-forwarding as was necessary for VHS tapes.

Despite this, LD didn’t supplant VHS, principally due to the reluctance of movie houses to produce Laserdisc titles, and poor marketing of the recordable Laserdisc format.

But over the years, Laserdisc evolved towards the DVD format that we?re familiar with today.

Today, Laserdisc is coveted by videophiles and ‘purists’, its analog nature being perceived as providing a more ‘film’ like look to movies, compared to DVD’s colder, more ‘digitised’ feel. Also, as Laserdisc did not use any form of video compression, it has none of the blockiness, colour banding or compression artefacts associated with DVD reproductions. The uncompressed audio tracks stored on LD can outperform DVD too, and sound is said to have greater richness and depth.