|BACK TO SAM / BACK TO PART 1|
ALL HAIL THE GIANT SHINY DISC!
- PART 2 -
And that disc was James Cameron's True Lies. The scene where the wall of Bill Paxton's trailer is ripped away as a helicopter drops down into frame exhibited far too much bass for my speakers to handle on their own. The Rat Shack woof box fixed all that. True Lies was also one of the very first discs to contain the aformentioned Dolby Digital encoding (aka AC-3). Until that time, laserdiscs came with an analog stereo track (like VHS did) and a PCM digital stereo track (full CD quality sound), the latter of which generally kicked ass.
On DVDs, ProLogic surround tracks are invariably encoded with the lossy Dolby Digital codec, whereas laserdiscs had the real uncompressed deal on theirs. In order to encode laserdiscs with 5.1 Dolby Digital (which has stereo surrounds instead of mono like with Pro-Logic), one of the two analog audio tracks had to be sacrificed in order to make room. Then you had to be lucky (or rich) enough to own a Dolby Digital receiver or processor. Then you had to buy a new laserdisc player with an RF out to transfer the signal, or have your current player “upgraded” for three to four hundred dollars. I still remember being in Tweeter Etc. at this time, buying more speaker cable when one of the salesmen told me that everything that wasn't in AC-3 now officially sucked, and that he could never listen to ProLogic again.
It was at this moment that I decided it was finally time to get in tune with the modern world and step into mono surround sound for the very first time. There was a funky Florida-based company named Chase that often advertised a cheap surround option called the HTS-1 in the pages of Widescreen Review. It was a passive system that pulled surround signals from your receiver, yet still had enough juice to (just barely) power the little surround speakers they also sold. I had seen a similar device (a Paramount surround unit) on the shelves of Pace Warehouse in 1992, and was apparently the only person in awe of passive surround sound decoders. The coolest thing was that there was room to connect it to external amplifiers for surrounds and also a center speaker, rendering it relatively upgradeable. It was shiny and black, adorned with two simple knobs on the faceplate. And it was the epitome of low-cost cool.
At this time I also decided to move the whole HT rig into my finished basement, where shag carpeting and cinema lived in harmony for a long time. I had still yet to plunk down the cash for the industry standard Video Essentials system calibration laserdisc, which was… well, essential for setting things up right. Luckily I had a few LDs with a PLUGE signal (a strip of varying blacks at the bottom right of the color bar image you've probably seen countless times) at the end of one side, so I could roughly tune in the brightness and contrast. Sadly, it took me years to buy a Rat Shack sound pressure level meter to dial in the speakers properly, which is essentially like learning to drive without a steering wheel.
I tried my best to tune the gear up by ear and then proceeded to watch everything I owned anew in the magnificent realm of surround sound! Yay! Things were behind me! Whoah! Discs like Apocalypse Now ruled my surrounded world. In case you hadn't noticed by now, I tend to take pride in being slightly behind the curve when it comes to the latest HT technology. I like to think that it makes me appreciate what I have even more, but it might just be because I'm poor. So once I was fully steeped in surround sound and laserdiscs, I finally picked up a Magnavox twenty-seven inch TV (massive!) and an RCA 'Home Theater' series stereo hi-fi VCR (futuristic!). Now I could see those giant letters reading ‘Pulp Fiction' in all of their glory and tape copies of Captain Supermarket (the longer Japanese cut of Army of Darkness with the original bleak ending) for my friends.
This was a great time for experimentation and learning – oftentimes I could be found crawling around on the floor looking for elusive ‘bass nodes' (called ‘Bass Gnomes' by my roommates) or building Howard Hughes-like twine spiderwebs to perfectly align my front speakers in an equidistant semicircle in relation to the ‘sweet spot' listening position. I also discovered that proper placement of my surround speakers was actually mounted up high behind the sweet spot as opposed to just plunked haphazardly at either end of the sofa. These were good days, fueled by an ever-growing laserdisc collection and an ever-thinning back pocket.
It's hard to believe in a world where DVD releases of teenage sex comedies have commentary tracks and supplement discs loaded with extras, but back then a laserdisc boxed set (containing essentially the same content as today's twenty dollar double disc of The Abyss) would run you around a hundred dollars or so. The true bank buster was the (far from) Definitive Edition of the Star Wars Trilogy, a monstrous box of CAV discs that retailed for well over two hundred dollars. “Mmmm, broke you is I sense”.
The Criterion Collection was a coveted series in those halcyon days, and discs like the much-anticipated boxed set of Terry Gilliam's Brazil (which you could probably find for forty-something on DVD) came out with the hefty price tag of $145.00. But we were such a voracious bunch of collectors that these steep price tags dissuaded none of us. The poor. The proud. The Laserdisc film fanatics. And so it was that one of my biggest dreams came true. A talented little feller named David Fincher had released a film in 1995 called Se7en, that literally blew my mind (in fact, you can still see the stain it left in the fourth row of Auditorium One at East Windsor's Showcase Cinemas). If you think that DVDs are guilty of milking you dry by re-releasing titles every few months or so, imaging how much more annoying it would be if those initial discs cost you forty to fifty bucks, only to find that a pricier Criterion set loaded with extras would come out a year later.
But this time, I was shocked to see a full-page ad in the June 1996 issue of Home Theater announcing that a Criterion boxed set of Se7en was coming out on the exact same day as the stripped-down New Line Cinema release. The end result was an amazing package loaded with commentary and piles of extras. Discs like this made LD collecting a worthwhile investment, and made you feel like you had a truly special item. Unless, that is, you encountered the aforementioned laser rot, an unfortunate result of bad disc manufacturing.
Bum 'rotting' discs suffered from an oxidizing aluminum layer, resulting in horrifying video dropouts. Some discs would deteriorate to the point of being unwatchable. Luckily, if it didn't happen within the first few years of its existence, the chances of a disc rotting thereafter was relatively unlikely (or so it is told). Columbia/TriStar discs were the worst offenders, and I can attest to that mainly because I have a copy of The Professional that ate itself like Pizza the Hutt. Other obnoxious artifacts were occasional rolling bars (my copies of The Shadow and James Cameron's The Abyss Special Edition had these) and dropouts due to fingerprints on the surface of the discs, but overall these conditions weren't enough to deter us freaks from purchasing more silvery nuggets of joy.
And in those last dying years of the laserdisc format, many more great releases came rolling out. Even MGM's double disc of Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions felt like it was worth twice what you paid for it in terms of content value and packaging. So much so that it still amazes me that I can run out and get the same stuff (minus the kick-ass gatefold package) on DVD for ten bucks. And yes, I did finally relent and pick up a DVD player, but not before buying another laserdisc player first (a Pioneer CLD-504 with an AC-3 RF-out and disc-flipping capabilities).
Around 1998 or so I finally took the plunge and bought a new receiver with Dolby Pro-Logic built in (space-age!) and input capabilities so that I could hook up an outboard Dolby Digital/DTS decoder. A year later I picked up a refurbished Pioneer DVD player that suffered from massive lip-synch issues and barely worked at all. Things looked grim for the world of Digital Versatile Discs. But my tried-and-true tradition of buying software first (in this case Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery) forced my hand yet again. I unloaded the dud player and went across town to pick up the newly minted Panasonic A120U, an ugly sumbitch that cost roughly three hundred bucks and would still probably play a shoe if you stuck it in there.
And then it was all over in a sense – after getting ripped off on a receiver by an online dealer, I decided to buy local and saved up enough cash to snag a Rotel receiver with DTS and Dolby Digital decoding built in. I was experiencing true discrete surround sound well behind the curve. And it was good. Next up were a 43-inch Sony TV (no HD capabilities here, baby!) and a real deal subwoofer from SVS. Yet now everyone and their mother has a Home Theater setup, a pile of DVDs with supplemental material and a gigantic HD display. And it's not slowing down anytime soon. Home Theater has infiltrated the mainstream, and won't likely go away. Every Tuesday people line up at brick and mortar stores to pick up fifteen dollar DVDs packed with enough content to have filled a hundred-dollar laserdisc set. With this knowledge I find myself having a blast in today's video market. But beyond any elitist stance, something was just really cool about the world of Laserdiscs and Home Theater in the nineties.
So still I find myself dragging out LDs from time to time. Mainly the Star Wars series, which remain un-maimed by George Lucas on their laserdisc incarnations. And in these moments I'm not drawn to the fact that DVD has superior image quality, color stability and detail - but to the fact that I'm truly living the dream I had envisioned as a youth. I remind myself that if I could reach back in time and reel in the eight year old Sam (who had drawn those pictures of an HT rig in his bedroom), bring him into the future with me to watch a Star Wars LD on a big TV with PCM surround sound… well, he would probably explode from all the excitement. And then I wouldn't exist. So thank god that little bastard lives safely in the world of 1980. And thank the video gods for that wonderful gateway drug of the home theater world… the ubercool silver oddity called Laserdisc.
UPDATE! I admit that when I originally upgraded from a direct-view tube TV to my 43' Sony RPTV, I was a bit surprised at how grainy, noisy and non-solid the picture (and especially the colors) looked when viewing my old LDs. So I expected the worst when I recently upgraded to an HD Sony LCD projector and popped Star Wars up on the wall for the first time. But it looked awesome! At nearly 100 inches diagonal width and despite the fact that I had to zoom in on the non-anamorphic picture to fill the width of my screen, black levels and colors were rock solid compared to my old rig.
The results flew in the face of reason - no more rolling bars, no more fuzzy looking reds and purples. And this coming from a crappy midrange player! So I did what any reasonable fellow would do - I celebrated stepping up into the world of High Definition by bringing all of the titles I don't own on DVD back down into the HT area and hopped on Ebay to buy a Pioneer CLD-704 to replace both of my other players! Obviously the resolution isn't quite up there with progressive scan DVD, but when I popped in Spawn one night (I know, it ain't Shakespeare) to check out the picture settings I found myself watching the whole damned thing - and it looked great! Vive Le Laserdisc!
DOUBLE UPDATE! I've now stepped up yet again to a Sony SXRD HD Projector, and still find myself watching laserdiscs on occasion. While DVDs are occasionally disappointing next to Blu-rays, I still always fall back into 90s mode when spinning my LDs - it doesn't matter how soft they look compared to HD, I can always remember when they were cutting edge and can easily imagine my younger self salivating over the notion of seeing them projected on a huge screen. Just last weekend I fired up Return Of The Jedi, and it was still a blast!