Features & Columns

Digital Artifacts

Before Netflix, DVDs and even VCRs, LaserDiscs opened the
door for viewing movies at home
Now a technological relic, LaserDiscs were too far ahead of their time.

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. I collected several thousand comics from Spider-Man to Swamp Thing, lovingly placing each book in a plastic sleeve to protect it.

But 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.

Silver & Gold

My love affair with LaserDisc movies began with a simple mistake, which I made at a Santa Rosa thrift shop called Sacks on the Square. It was there that I spied what I assumed was the soundtrack to Terry Gilliam's seminal 1985 dystopian sci-fi film, Brazil.

I had been toying with the idea of going all in on collecting vinyl records. I already had a box of old LPs I'd culled from thrift stores. I lifted the 12-inch recording off the shelf to inspect the album artwork and scan the track listing.

When I pulled the disc from its sleeve, I was not greeted by the oil-black sheen of pressed vinyl. Instead, my eyes were met by a bright silver surface, which reflected and refracted the surrounding light. "Aquarela do Brasil," the film's main theme, echoed in my mind as the circle of plastic bounced a polychromatic rainbow back at me.

It was a startling revelation. I was completely unprepared for this glittering, supremely smooth slab of media. Then I saw the words "LaserDisc," and I realized I was holding a copy of Brazil, the film—preserved in an outdated, oversized and thoroughly obsolete technological format.

There were more than 20 LaserDisc films in that lot, which included David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Sylvester Stallone's arm-wrestling masterpiece Over the Top. I grabbed them all.

As it happened, the thrift store also had a LaserDisc movie player—a Pioneer CLD-D406. It was in perfect working condition. I walked out of the shop with the movies and the player. It weighed about 40 pounds altogether. I paid less than $20.

I had finally found what I was looking for.

Laser Legacy

I've learned a lot more about LaserDiscs since that fateful day. Those who even remember the short-lived format may recall using it to watch an educational film at school or perhaps catching Jaws—which was the first film released on LaserDisc in North America in 1978—in the home theater of an early adopter.

The technology feels like it belongs somewhere in the 1980s or 1990s, since that is the era when consumers first began buying LaserDiscs and their players. However, the underpinnings of LaserDiscs can be traced back to the late 1950s.

The retro tech was first developed by a man named David Paul Gregg—an electrical engineer and a pioneer in the field of information storage. Early in his career, Gregg briefly worked for Ampex in Redwood City before he moved on to Westrex, a Southern California-based subsidiary of the New York-based Western Electric Company. It was while working at Westrex in the early 1960s that Gregg patented the technology that would make LaserDiscs a reality.

Unlike the textured grooves of a vinyl audio record, Gregg devised a system that encoded video information in pits and ridges on transparent discs. These pits and ridges were then read by a laser rather than a stylus.

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, which owned the rights to the largest catalogue of films at the time, to bring the LaserDisc technology to market, and they demonstrated the technology first in 1972. In 1978, Stephen Spielberg's classic maritime thriller 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. Along with their own film catalogue, MCA also manufactured discs for other companies, including Paramount, Disney and Warner Brothers.

In the early '80s, the battle between VHS and Betamax preoccupied camcorder-wielding home movie-makers and those who sought to record episodes of their favorite shows to watch at a later time. LaserDiscs, on the other hand, captured the imagination of cinephiles. It was considered the format for those who were serious about in-home theater systems, as it boasted better resolution than tape and had the ability to store multiple audio tracks on one disc—which gave birth to the director's commentary feature.

LaserDiscs were also the first video format with chapters. Just like with DVD and Blu-ray today, LaserDisc viewers could skip quickly through films and never had to worry about rewinding. 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. This also added to LaserDisc's appeal among serious collectors.

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

Space Oddity

Located in a cloistered basement space just a short walk from San Jose City Hall on Santa Clara Street, the Gameshop Downstairs is a treasure trove of vintage and contemporary video game paraphernalia. The store carries refurbished Nintendo Entertainment Systems and Game Boys, less popular consoles such as the Panasonic 3DO and Sega CD, and lightly used newer platforms like the Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. The Gameshop also sells titles for all of these systems, as well as trading cards, action figures, VHS tapes, DVDs and vinyl records.

Behind the glass countertop case, displayed for all to see, is a sealed LaserDisc copy of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.

At 27 years old, store manager Anthony Guarino says he can't really remember ever watching a LaserDisc as a kid. However, as a gamer and collector, he is interested in all forms of vintage technology. Not long ago, he also picked up his own LaserDisc player. Guarino got it at the Goodwill; he says the clerk threw it in for free when he bought a VHS player.

He now has more than 20 LaserDiscs of his own. And while Return of the Jedi is definitely the most valuable LaserDisc in the store, according to Guarino, it is not the most interesting.

"I collect '90s Vietnamese karaoke," he says, noting that a lot of this genre was released on LaserDisc. "It's kinda hot."

He disappears for a moment before returning with a hand full of 12-inch-by-12-inch cardboard sleeves. One of them, simply titled Karaoke, features a scantily clad woman in wraparound shades who has been cut out and placed in front snow-capped mountains. There are two other collections of Vietnamese karaoke—along with the 1996 Uma Thurman-starring romantic comedy The Truth About Cats & Dogs and a National Geographic Video installment about panda bears.

Part of the appeal of vinyl records—if you believe the insistent audiophiles who champion LPs—is that they allegedly sound better than CDs and MP3s. No one is arguing that LaserDiscs are better than streaming video. "The quality is definitely better than VHS, but noticeably grainer than a DVD," Guarino says. However, the old and obsolete format may appeal to some specifically because it is old and obsolete.

As Guarino notes, some of the more obscure titles here—namely the Vietnamese karaoke selections—might not be available anywhere else. Unique titles like Karaoke become even more precious when one considers that all LaserDiscs are literally disintegrating.

"There's a phenomenon called 'disc rot.' This happens with CDs, DVDs and LaserDiscs," Guarino explains. "Moisture, humidity and heat will mess up the layers of the disc. It's a huge issue in Japan because of the humidity on that island."

All collectors of laser-read media discs must reckon with disc rot, he says. Ironically, depending on the conditions, a neglected collection of LaserDiscs may translate to a pristine collection. The ideal place to store discs like these are in cool, dark places—like a basement, which is exactly where many LaserDiscs and their players have been hibernating for decades.

When it comes to LaserDisc players, Guarino says it is common to see them in great shape.

There are many obscure video releases that may not exist anywhere but LaserDisc.

Unlike the older Xbox and Playstation consoles in his shop—some of which were played every day, for hours on end, for years—many LaserDisc players were used only briefly before they were tucked away and forgotten.

"It seems like they never really got consistent play," Guarino says. "It was sort of an oddity even back then."

Pete Johnson, a former vice president with Warner Bros. Records, backs up Guarino's assertion. He remembers buying into the trend before giving up on LaserDiscs.

"As a crazed technophile, I had a LaserDisc player," he says. "The discs were large and expensive and, if I remember correctly, limited to one hour playing time per disc side. Videophiles liked them, but they were generally a pain in the ass. I'm not a videophile, not even a movie buff. I had one purely because I lust after technology and I'm happy watching Jaws over and over again."

The Future Past

In North America, LaserDisc production lasted until 2000. Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow and Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead were two of the last major titles released on the format. Once DVDs hit the market in the mid-'90s, the large, heavy, expensive and often inconvenient LaserDisc format went the way of the Betamax, the eight-track tape and the MiniDisc.

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 his 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; disc 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 while they are still around.

Metro Arts & Features Editor Nick Veronin contributed to this story. Listen to the 'Laser Discourse' podcast at soundcloud.com/laserdiscourse.