Looking back, in my geeky opinion, LaserDiscs are kind of the Blu-Ray of the VHS era. VHS video tapes were one of the first mainstream consumer video recordings. Sure before these there were old Super 8mm films and even BetaMax, but VHS was the most common and after winning the format war it would go onto dominate the market for years until finally being defeated by the digital DVD.
Above is a LaserDisc copy of Toy Story, which looks like a giant compared to it’s modern DVD version.
But before DVDs came along there was an analog video format, with an analog or digital audio track called Laserdisc. A Laserdisc is about the size of a vinyl record, with a cover just as big. Allowing for a great piece of cover art, and a book-like jacket with notes, descriptions, stories, and photos from the film. Laserdisc players and movies were expensive, and they were very slowly being adopted. Most users didn’t know the difference of the media and decided not to bother with it. LaserDiscs also couldn’t store the entire movie on one disc, even though each one was double-sided. Many movies over an hour were split across multiple discs. For Example the 1993 LaserDisc release of Star Wars has 5-sides just for the movie, that’s 3 discs with 2 sides per disc, with the 6th side remaining for supplemental features such as trailers and interviews. Early players could only play one side of the disc at a time, requiring the viewer to get up and flip over the disc manually. It wasn’t until later on where more advanced players could read the other side of the disc on their own. So if you wanted to watch “The Empire Strikes Back” from start to finish you would need to get up from your cozy sofa at least 5 times to switch discs and sides. 6 times if you wanted some bonus material.
Above is a LaserDisc compared to a DVD. The DVD is almost the size of the middle of the LaserDisc!
But the picture quality was a bit better then VHS and instead of needing to rewind a tape, you could navigate to a chapter in the film instantly. No rewinding was ever required and you could easily skip to your favorite part in no time. This quality would also not degrade overtime and was consistent. Unlike VHS cassette tapes there is no wear and tear. A laser reads the information off of the disc without ever touching it, unlike a VHS cassette where the tape comes into contact with a series of wheels and servos. The Laserdisc image and audio will remain the same for years to come… unless the disc succumbs to laser-rot, where the physical layers of the disc separate and deteriorate. This usually happens to discs stored improperly or if the disc was poorly manufactured.
The makeup of a laserdisc is an analog composite video track and various audio tracks. Some audio tracks were actually digital and some were analog. In the case of the Star Wars Trilogy – The Definitive Collection LaserDiscs, the analog audio track was actually used as a commentary track. While the commentary track is not for the whole length of the feature, and there is a lot of silence between tacks, it would pave the way for DVD feature-length commentaries in the future. Players usually had composite audio and video output with maybe a digital audio connection if you were lucky. If your LaserDisc player has an S-Video port you may still be better off using the Composite video connection unless your player is really high end. But even then your TV’s comb filter is likely far better and will work with the Composite signal better.
Not only could the LaserDisc pause and freeze-frame, but with more advanced discs you could usually scan through a scene with a frame-by-frame control. Allowing you to study the frame of the film as detailed as you’d like. Also some discs included pre-set chapter stops, where a screen would inform you of an artwork gallery ahead. You would then use the skim or frame buttons to navigate through the gallery of images.
While DVDs have made VHS cassettes and LaserDiscs a thing of the past, DVDs would never have came to be if it wasn’t for the advancements of the first big experiment in the consumer home video market – the LaserDisc. It was the Blu-Ray of it’s time, but unlike Blu-Rays they died out before their popularity could peak and before the format got a true chance to shine. Well, more like HD-DVD… but there was no popular competing disc format to get in the way.
I started collecting LaserDiscs for their cover art, and I mainly still do. They have beautiful pieces of artwork, usually a more grand version of their cramped VHS counterparts – and sometimes a surprising styled cover adapted from an alternate poster. I have my LaserDisc player setup today and even though it’s kind of silly to have it plugged into an HDTV it’s sometimes fun to take a disc out and see what it was like to be on the cutting edge of home entertainment many years ago.