Yet Another Format, Blu-ray

A trademark of Sony

I’ve had all the home video formats. It started with the Sony Betamax, then quickly moved to VHS, as the electronics company JVC won that war. Marketers take note, never use the word Beta in the name of your product. From my perspective Beta was superior to VHS in almost every way. Then Laser Disk came along and I was immediately seduced by the texture and depth of the visuals and crispness of the soundtrack. No more tapes to get tangled or broken, an easy way to skip to chapters/scenes, and no rewinding! Laser Disks are the size of record albums (you remember those 12″ black vinyl circles with grooves that produce music when you pass a diamond needle across the surface) only shiny. They were also much easier to store than tapes. But the format never caught on. My hypothesis is the studios knew they could eventually reduce the disk size to a 5″ optical format like CDs. And sure enough they did as the DVD debuted and put VHS and LD out to pasture. Now we have the next generation of home video in high definition; Blu-ray. My experience started with Sony and has now come full circle with Blu-ray.

The launch of Blu-ray seems well timed now that the latest format war has ended and HD sets are rolling into consumer homes at a healthy clip. When I got my first HD TV five years ago I was anxious to see what my LDs would look like on that beautiful flat screen. I plugged in the cables and fired it up. I was horrified. The TV production quality had, for the first time, surpassed the source material, making those shiny disks look like mud. I had to retire my Pioneer LD player to the basement keeping it connected to my 35″ ProScan tube monitor. It was a sad day. Not just for the financial investment, but for the many hours of enjoyment watching CAV versions and hearing the delightful hum of the motor turning the laser reader over to play the other side of those platters that mattered. I purged all my vinyl albums when CDs came along and did the same with VHS when I purchased the same movie on LD or DVD. But I’ve kept my entire LD collection. All 275 of them.

Some of my Laser Disks
Some of my Laser Disks

So Blu-ray. Video tape was primarily mechanical, LDs and DVDs were fully compatible, simple read only formats. But a Blu-ray player is computer-like and the discs are software programs. They have a longer load time and many players have an ethernet connection used to get firmware updates from the mother ship. Be sure you get one with this feature. None of this is bad, and all necessary to get to the phenomenal picture quality of Blu-ray. But it does evolve the consumer from a movie watcher who inserts a media format and pushes play into something closer to an interface user. I don’t find there is much difference in sound on Blu-ray from the later generation DVD. The first DVDs on the market had less than pristine sound, but it has been pretty reliable the last few years. The picture however is in another league all together. Blacker blacks, richer colors, amazing depth, texture and clear details from the surface to the farthest background image.

Like any display format, the source material is key. Newer films like Iron Man and The Dark Knight are solid all the way through. But older pictures, The Godfather is one, are a bit uneven. This is less the fault of the format than the horrible preservation practices of the studio system. Still, I saw dozens of visual details while watching The Godfather that I can honestly say I hadn’t noticed before, and I’ve seen that film probably over 50 times in the theater, on TV, VHS, LD and DVD. For example, when Captain McCluskey and Virgil Sollozzo are driving Michael to that fateful dinner meeting in the Bronx, they pass a commercial sign that reads Exterminating Co.

Studios are rushing to bring their films to Blu-ray to cash in on sales. The process costs money, and some will cut corners. Wen Laser Disks came out, I learned this lesson the hard way. I began to rely on Douglas Pratt’s Laser Disk Newsletter to help guide which films I would buy on LD. Mr. Pratt would watch all new LD releases and rate them for technical quality. There might be a market for this kind of service for Blu-ray, but online this time. I would strongly suggest you not go out and replace your perfectly good DVDs with Blu-ray versions. You may be disappointed in how the new version looks. Instead a good strategy would be to purchase only newer films, or favorites you have seen via rental or at a friends house. Since all Blu-ray players are backward compatible with DVDs there is no hurry and nothing to lose

Some final thoughts. Some releases come with a digital copy DVD which allows you to insert it into your computer’s drive and download a free digital copy from iTunes using an activation code. It’s like getting two versions of the movie for one price. Also noticed that you can sometimes get a rebate if you have the same movie on DVD. Send in the proof of purchase codes from both formats and get a check in the mail. These are very good marketing tactics to help consumers make the switch. I’ve also noticed one other benefit. No Blu-ray disc I’ve watched so far has any coming attractions or ads! Please, please keep it that way studios. Is it possible that this is the end of Disney’s Fast Play? One can hope.

Here’s a logo gallery of all the home video formats I’ve watched and collected for over time (so far that is).