Let’s Talk Laserdisc

I never got into Laserdisc. I remember it being around when I was a kid (and early teenager). I remember thinking it was cool. I wanted a player and some movies, but they were all too expensive. I also remember that when I was around twelve years old I was at a friend’s house and he told me his dad had a laserdisc player. When I asked him to show me, he pulled out this large plastic box and put it into a player and a movie came on. I just remember that at the time I was unimpressed by what he had shown me, and also confused. I knew Laserdiscs were large shiny discs like CDs. A Laserdisc was bare, not in some caddy. Or so I thought. But he said it was a Laserdisc and I might have disagreed, but for all I knew at the time, inside that caddy was a shiny silver Laserdisc and that’s just how this one came. That was the end of that discussion at the time. I wasn’t sure and he was confident he was showing me a Laserdisc.
It wasn’t until I was in my thirties when I first learned about the RCA CED format; that’s when I remembered what he showed me and realized it must have been a CED.
I also remember reading the book Rebel With A Crew by Robert Rodriguez when I was a teenager. He had been gifted a Laserdisc player by some studio or agency people for his birthday. I thought that was cool.

By my late teens however, DVD had come around and Laserdisc (at least in my mind) was immediately outdated by this smaller more capable format. A format that was also more affordable and successful in the market. A format I quickly jumped onto myself in 1998 when I build my first PC with a DVD-Rom drive in it from the get-go. I loved DVD back then and didn’t really think anything of Laserdisc for a couple decades after.

At some point though, I started watching some Youtube videos about Laserdisc. I don’t know whose videos first, probably Techmoan followed by a more in the depth video series by Technology Connections. It stirred up my interest in Laserdisc again. I learned from Techmoan that there had been a Hi-Def Laserdisc format released in Japan in the early 90s. Very cool. While I had known since the 90s that Laserdisc is an analog video format, that’s also a fact I had forgotten over the decades. Back in  he 1990s I would have considered that a negative, since digital was all the rage. But today it has some appeal. Mostly due to the novelty of this big shiny disc read by a laser that holds 425 lines of analog video. With the Hi-Vision Laserdiscs being in 1035i HD. Wild.

I’ve since joined some facebook Laserdisc collector groups and have browsed through the used Laserdisc section of one local record shop near me. But I haven’t made any purchases. It’s possible that one day I may buy one disc, just to have. Just to pull out and hold and reference if I want to get a physical feel for the format. Maybe also just to have the big album sized artwork. But I doubt I’ll ever buy a player, unless I can find a cheap working unit at a garage sale or something. That’s doubtful. Most used working players these days go for hundreds of dollars online. And unfortunately most people today are internet savvy enough to list such electronics online to get as much money as they can for them. Or at the very least they look up their value online to sell at high dollar in person. Which is disappointing for bargain hunters and really reduces the chance you’d going to find that person with a garage, estate or flea market sale that doesn’t really know the value of what they are selling.
The format has also gained an even bigger cult following these days because of the kind of Youtube videos I mentioned. As I said, even thrift store these days check online prices for gear like this to price it. I suspect many of them don’t even sell these items in their stores but just go straight to ebay or craigslist with them. All I ever see in my local thrift store are the old junk electronics. The under $30-40 DVD or CD players missing remotes. Stuff they probably don’t bother putting online to ship out. This is all a guess. That or people are being smarter and not donating that stuff these days and going online themselves with it. That’s probably more likely. The point is, I don’t ever see good finds like working Laserdisc players in thrift shops around me and I’m not going to spend hundreds online to buy into a format I don’t even own any movies for. A format that is technically inferior to DVD. Especially when I barely watch my DVDs anymore because I’d rather watch those moves in HD, if available.

That said, having started a vinyl collection over the last decade, I have come to appreciate the larger artwork and disc size. As a collectable piece of media. Technically movies are even less portable than music. Or should I say, less portable than music is often desired to be. I want my music to be portable. I want to take it with me. Most of the time. My vinyl record collection is an exception. That said, I don’t usually take my movies out of the house. I watch them on my TV at home. And gone are the days of renting physical media, where I would need to cart a movie back and forth from a video rental store.
My point is, having movies on large 12″ discs with nice big artwork is not a deal breaker. These days it’s a positive. If anything it is more desirable from a collectors perspective. After all, the Laserdiscs and packaging are usually thinner than DVD and Blu-ray cases. So despite being taller and wider, I’m guessing that if all my DVDs and Blu-rays were Laserdiscs, they would actually take up less shelf space. Even though they are much bigger discs. I can’t say that for certain, but I’d bet a dollar that at the least, they wouldn’t take up any more space. Yet that large artwork would be nice. Especially in this day and age where owning physical media is not necessarily, it’s something you do because you like it. You like having the disc, the packaging, and artwork. All of that. So bigger artwork is a plus in that instance.
For that reason, I see the appeal of Laserdisc collecting. As I said, I may eventually pick up a disc myself. Just for that reason alone. Kind of like a few of my friends had collected some vinyl before they even owned a turntable. They bought them for the artwork and because they were collectable. Even if they never planned to listen to it. That could end up being the same with me in regards to Laserdisc. Just buy a copy of one or two of my favorite movies on Laserdisc. Just to have. But then always watch the movie on Blu-ray or streaming instead. Nothing wrong with that. Sure beats spending hundreds of dollar gambling on a potentially non-working (used) LD player. Especially if that LD is just going to offer a less-than-DVD quality picture experience. Not that I wouldn’t still be intrigued to see it anyway, on occasion. Just to see it and play around with some of those analog trick play functions. Especially on a CAV formatted disc.

It did get me thinking though. It would be kind of cool if we had a modern (digital) high definition or 4K version of Laserdisc for collectors. Something with all the bells and whistles of Blu-ray (including 3D) and UHD Blu-ray (like HDR). Something all in one package, on a disc, with that nice big artwork in sleeves like vinyl and Laserdisc offer. A sort of last end-of-the-line physical media format for movie collectors that combined the best aspects of all the formats together. Something that didn’t try to please the masses, but was all for the movie buffs and collectors. You could argue, probably successfully, that we already have that with Blu-ray and all the small indie distributors releasing niche cult classics in collectable packaging. The likes of Criterion, Shout! Factory, Vinegar Syndrome, etc. That’s true. We’re just missing the big disc and big artwork. Probably just the big artwork. We don’t even really need the big disc to be honest. Not if it can’t act like a vinyl record anyway. Where you could get it in translucent colors and splatter designs. Where you could drop a stylus on it and watch it spin. Otherwise a Laserdisc is just a big CD that goes in a drawer. It’s really not all that exciting as a physical disc. It’s really the bigger sleeve artwork that makes the format intriguing and collectable.

I remember Techmoan (years ago) showing a video about a couple Disney Blu-ray releases in the UK that came in 12″ Big Sleeves like Laserdisc/Vinyl. It was purely a limited edition marketing thing for that area of the world only. But it struck me as pretty cool. Just looking it up tonight, apparently it wasn’t just the UK. They got some in Spain and Germany as well. A variety of other movies labeled “Vinyl Edition” Blu-rays. We never got anything like that here in the US. We never do. We’ve missed out on a lot of the cool Steelbook artwork releases other countries got as well. But that’s another complaint for another day.

If all the studios and indie distributors did Vinyl Edition or Big Sleeve Edition (whatever they want to call it) releases, and only that, we could switch over to that kind of packaging. Then we would have that big artwork that slips onto a shelf like a Laserdisc or vinyl record. Nice and thin, but also large and beautiful for the collectors. Maybe that’s the solution to all of it.

There have been some movies that came with the vinyl soundtrack or a single. The packaging is bigger to account for that. Like the Terminator 2 release. Which is cool. But I wouldn’t want to pay huge collector dollars for every release of every movie just to get the bigger artwork. I’m kind of a cheap collector. I really don’t want to be paying $50-$200 or more for every movie just because it also comes with the vinyl soundtrack, and who knows what else. While that stuff cool… sometimes. Especially if I really like a movie. Most of the time I just want the movie with some special features. Having the bigger artwork would also be nice, so long as the price is still relatively the same as a standard new movie on Blu-ray/4K Blu-ray.

But I doubt distributors would ever switch over the packaging of discs to something like that. Certainly not completely. Especially here in the US. If it isn’t happening already in the wake of the vinyl trend going on right now, I doubt it ever will. Plus just having a couple special collectors versions in that packaging defeats the purpose. It makes them odd accessories you have to find a special shelf for when all the rest of your shelves are fitted for DVD and/or Blu-ray. So the idea is to have your whole collection (or at least most of it) uniform tot he larger standard.

Since most of us already have discs in the standard DVD/Blu-ray cases and have for decades now, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to switch over now. It’s something they really would have needed to do from the start of one of these formats. For example, if they had switched over to that kind of packaging with the launch of UHD Blu-ray in 2016, so that every release on that format was in the big sleeves, that would have been cool.

Oh well. Nothing is ever perfect. But I guess I do see the appeal of Laserdiscs in the sense they are more uniform like that. They had to be, the physical size of the disc required they come like that. With DVD/Blu-ray it was a different story.

I just see these pictures these guys have of their LD collections on shelves, with all the discs in their paper sleeves and then in the plastic protective sleeves. Hundreds all nicely pressed together, and it reminds me of a vinyl collection, except it’s movies and I think that’s so cool. Especially for someone like me who is an even bigger movie buff than music buff. Seeing that makes me want a collection like that myself. Just not as a standard definition, outdated, hard to find working players (because they don’t make them anymore), standard for collecting and watching movies.

That’s pretty much my perception and history with Laserdisc. At least for now. Maybe it will change in the future. But as of this writing I don’t own any players or discs. Like I said, at best I might pick up one or two used discs at some point just to have one for reference and artwork. Just as a fan of physical media in general. But otherwise it’s not a format I could see myself getting into at this point in my life. Had I been able to pick up a player and some discs as a teenager in the mid 90s, I would probably still have them today, just like I do my CDs, DVDs, Minidiscs, etc. Still kicking myself for donating my NES games. And who knows whatever happened to my Genesis and I think single Altered Beast game I owned for that. Damn! But again, another story for another time.

[EDIT] Did some format editing and rewriting on this article on 2023-05-24 for the sake of better clarity and grammar.

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