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Random thoughts about sound and vision.

Mirrors With Movies: Reloading The Laserdisc

It's 1993 and I'm in Aladdin's cave.

Well, technically it's New York and there's a TOWER RECORDS sign over the door but - hey - whatever. More important matters are afoot. I'm staring at racks upon racks of movies not yet released on video in the UK. There are even films here that are banned on video in the UK. All stored on the premium laserdisc format and within easy reach and acquisition. The choice is staggering. Yet many are stocked but few can be chosen. What to buy, what to buy...

That was a game-changing moment, the point when I went from not just being a movie fan but a fully paid-up movie collector. I already owned a few films on pre-recorded videotape but as a format, VHS was all function, no allure. Yards and yards of magnetic tape, perilously threading its way through the maze of drums and wheels in your VCR. The strong likelihood of a grinding sound and the tiresome prospect of coaxing black spaghetti from the darkest recesses of your videotape player...

Laserdiscs were different. Laserdiscs were - well - sexy. Housed in glossy sleeves, these elegant discs oozed class and sophistication - circular twelve-inch wide mirrors. They cried out to be owned, played, replayed and proudly demonstrated to friends and family. The picture quality was far sharper than VHS. The sound - both analog and digital - was punchy, full and enveloping. And they didn't just have the style - they had the content. Extended cuts, documentaries, deleted scenes, director's commentary...laserdiscs had it all. VHS was for recording - laserdisc was for savouring.

And a bonus for us UK laserdisc fans - you sometimes had early access to films. Back in the day, release dates of films in the U.S. and the UK were more often than not several months apart...which meant that I could invite friends round to see my just-out-in-the-US, THX-verified laserdisc of Speed the same day it opened in our local multiplex. 

The downside to laserdiscs was price. A film was £25-£30 to buy on import - more if it was a special edition or boxset. UK discs were admittedly a bit cheaper and looked better too - the benefit of the higher line resolution of PAL over NTSC. Companies like Columbia, Pioneer and Encore Entertainment flew the flag for PAL laserdiscs in the UK.  But the really good stuff was generally to be found elsewhere on the planet, on Japanese and American discs. The jewels in the crown tended to those films released under the Criterion Collection banner in the US. Criterion produced lavish releases of what they considered "important" films. Films would be carefully mastered for laserdisc and bespoke extras produced. Criterion was a byword for quality in the laserdisc world.

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I bought three laserdiscs on that trip to New York in 1993. First: The Jungle Book (not then on video in the UK). Secondly, The Exorcist (withdrawn from sale on video in the UK). Finally, A Clockwork Orange (withdrawn from exhibition in the UK by Stanley Kubrick himself). They were the spearhead of a collection that eventually topped out at around 200 discs.

A few years later, the winds of change blew yet again through the home entertainment industry and it was all change. I switched my movie-buying allegiance to DVD and then Blu-ray (via an ill-considered dalliance with HD-DVD). I kept my extensive laserdisc collection but the discs stayed on the shelf - properly stored alphabetically arranged but never once seeing the inside of my Pioneer laserdisc player. Their time had been and gone. My attention was elsewhere.

Then recently, I stumbled upon the Laserdisc Forever! group on Facebook. These were people who had gone through the same experiences with laserdisc and who still held a special place in  their hearts for the format. But this wasn't a nostalgia-only, "those were the days" kind of group. These guys were firing up their LD players on a regular basis, enthusing about recent disc bargains they'd found and showing off their home theatre set-ups.  

Their passion was infectious. I put fresh batteries in my LD player's remote control, dusted off Capricorn One laserdisc, and pressed play. OK, the picture wasn't exactly up to Blu-ray standard but it was certainly watchable. The sound, however, was something else - a warm, organic roar that made Blu-ray seem tinny in comparison. It was literally a blast from the past.

I'm now regularly going back through my collection of laserdiscs - revisiting old favourites and experiencing the room-trembling whomp of their soundtracks. I owe a lot to the LD format - for kickstarting my hobby of collecting movies and for deepening my knowledge and appreciation of the work that goes on behind the silver screen. 

You never forget your first love and it looks like the same is true for home video formats.