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Living in the past with LaserDiscs

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Press Play "This looks like a silver record, but it's not a silver record, it's a LaserDisc! There's a movie on there!" -SLC Punk
  • Press Play "This looks like a silver record, but it's not a silver record, it's a LaserDisc! There's a movie on there!" -SLC Punk

I don't know why exactly, but I've always been a collector. My first memories are filled with scenes of me picking up rocks and keeping them in a box to look over later, or sifting through my parent's change to find old coins to keep (I still have a penny from 1896). Once I got into comic books at 8, I found a hobby that let my imagination soar, and I collected several thousand comics from Spider-Man to Swamp Thing, lovingly placing each book in a plastic sleeve to protect them.

Yet, comic books soon got expensive, old pennies stopped turning up, and the rocks found their way back to the fields where they belonged. I was a collector in need of an obsession. In 2007, I found what I was looking for: a dead media format called LaserDisc.

An Affair to Remember

My love affair with LaserDisc movies began in Santa Rosa. It was in a thrift shop, Sacks on the Square, in the heart of Railroad Square. I saw a dozen or so vinyl records sitting together in the corner.

Or so I thought.

As I pulled the first title from the shelf, I mistook it for the motion picture soundtrack to Terry Gilliam's Brazil, the 1985 dystopian science fiction film in which a man stuck in a totalitarian world dreams of flying on metal wings. It's one of my favorite films.

I had been toying with the idea of going whole hog on collecting vinyl records, as I already had a box of old LPs culled from thrift stores at home, so I grabbed the 12-inch record off the shelf to inspect the soundtrack.

Yet when I pulled the "record" out of its sleeve, a shining silver disc greeted me. As the light reflected in my eyes, that theme to Brazil somehow started playing in my head.

I began to stammer, completely unprepared for the supremely smooth slab of media I was gazing upon, before the words "LaserDisc" met my eyes, and I realized I was holding the actual movie itself, presented in an outdated, oversized and thoroughly obsolete technology.

I was hooked. In fact, there were over 20 LaserDisc films in that lot, with such classics as David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Sylvester Stallone's arm-wrestling masterpiece Over the Top in rank. I grabbed them all.

As it happened, the LaserDisc movie player, a Pioneer CLD-D406, was sitting on the other side of the store and in perfect working condition (a rare feat for thrift store shopping). I walked out of Sacks on the Square with the movies and the player, weighing in at about 40 pounds of awesomeness, for less than $20. I had finally found what I was looking for.

LaserDisc Legacy

What the heck is a LaserDisc? The retro tech goes back to 1958 when Dr. David Paul Gregg developed optical disc storage while working at California electronics company Westrex, a part of Western Electric. Gregg first developed a transparent videodisc covered by pits and ridges, with video and audio stored in analog format that was read by a laser rather than a needle such as vinyl records used.

He patented the technology in 1961 and again in 1969, when he sold the patent to Phillips, one of the largest tech and consumer electronics companies in the world. Phillips had already been working on a reflective disc system similar to Gregg's, and they used his patent to develop LaserDiscs with the intention of selling it as a home video system. To do this, Phillips teamed up with MCA, who owned the rights to the largest catalog of films at the time, to bring the LaserDisc technology to market, and they demonstrated the technology first in 1972. Five years later, in 1978, Stephen Spielberg's original blockbuster Jaws became the first LaserDisc movie to hit the market in North America.

At the time of its initial release, the medium was not actually called LaserDisc. Rather, MCA decided to call it DiscoVision, hoping to capitalize on the disco craze at the time, I suppose. Guess how long that name lasted? Not long.

Along with their own film catalogue, MCA also manufactured discs for other companies, including Paramount, Disney and Warner Brothers.

While home movie lovers in the early '80s were obsessed with the VHS vs. Beta conflict, film aficionados were flocking to LaserDisc. It was considered the format for serious home video collectors, offering twice as much resolution as a VHS tape and the ability to store multiple audio tracks on one disc. This gave birth to the director's commentary feature.

LaserDiscs were also the first video format with chapters, like DVD and Blu-ray today, that the viewer could skip directly to. This feature led to the creation of LaserDisc-based video arcade games, beginning with Dragon's Lair in 1983, which wowed gamers with smooth animated graphics that were otherwise unheard of in the era of Galaga. LaserDiscs were also an essential teaching tool in the classroom, given that lessons could now be accompanied by illustrations, animations and video interviews to heighten the learning process.

In 1984, an upstart video distribution company, The Criterion Collection, began releasing films on LaserDisc exclusively, starting with the release of Citizen Kane and King Kong, and adding to LaserDisc's appeal to serious collectors.

At its peak, 1 million LaserDisc players were operating in North American homes, and in Japan, the phenomenon grew even greater, with the anime market driving approximately 4 million people to own LaserDisc players. A collector's market for LaserDisc is still thriving there today.

The Future Past

In North America, LaserDisc production lasted until 2000, with Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow and Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead being the last two titles released on the format. Once DVDs came into the market in the mid-90s, the large, heavy, expensive and sometimes inconvenient LaserDisc format went the way of the Beta.

Gone, but not forgotten, LaserDisc has become an obsession for people like me who love the throwback look and feel of them, as well as the thrill of finding a true treasure of a film in a bin somewhere.

As a result, I've driven to every distant corner of the Bay Area and beyond to relieve them from Craigslist sellers. I've scrolled countless Ebay listings, scoured miscellaneous racks at every vintage store I come across and chatted on Internet forums like LaserDisc Database to find out the specifics of certain releases.

My beloved collection of 500 or so LaserDisc movie, television and educational releases is quite modest in comparison to others I've talked with. One serious dealer I contacted needed to use their entire garage to store approximately 10,000 discs he owns.

Recently, I've taken the obsession to a new height by starting a podcast, Laser Discourse, which is dedicated to revisiting the best and worst of LaserDiscs. So far, we've talked about classics like Jaws and The Terminator, as well as obscure movies like the Billy Blanks and Roddy Piper-starring 1993 head scratcher Back in Action.

Sadly, the truth is that LaserDiscs will never have a vinyl-esque resurgence, and the format is suffering; laser rot is a very real issue for many collectors. For now, all I can do is store my beloved collection as safely as possible and share my love of LaserDiscs now, while they are still around.

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