Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A (Somewhat Personal) History of DVD

The VHS format was massively popular and influential and it changed the way people watch movies. VHS's successor, the DVD, was not quite as much of a game changer, but it still had a huge impact on the home video market.

DVD came on the scene in the late 1990s, but the story actually begins in the early 1960s. In 1961, optical recording technology was patented by David Paul Gregg and James Russell. It wasn't until the 70s that progress was seen on this front and in 1978 the Laserdisc format was released. Laserdisc was the major predecessor to DVDs, but it never really gained widespread popularity, due to its numerous drawbacks. The discs were massive and you couldn't even fit a whole movie on one side of a disc. Laserdisc never challenged the dominance of VHS.

In 1986, Warner Home Video started saying that a new format should be developed where movies were stored on a five-inch optical disc like a Compact Disc used for music. The next year in 1987, another precursor to the DVD came out, the CD Video format. This was a sort of amalgamation of CD and Laserdisc technology. It didn't go over well (partially because of very small storage size) and was basically gone by 1991.

However, a similarly titled Video CD format was released in 1993. It was a bit more popular than CD Video, especially in Southeast Asia, but it still never really caught on. A major problem with the format was that there was no way of stopping people from making illegal copies.

As the Video CD was coming out, a group of companies that included Warner, Pioneer, JVC, Toshiba and others was working out a new home video format they were calling the Super Density Disc. 

The only problem was that the Philips corporation had the rights to some very important patents regarding optical discs that could be useful. Warner, Toshiba, and the others reached out to Philips to get them to collaborate on the project. 

However, Philips had other ideas and they started working on their own project with Sony called the Multimedia Compact Disc. The stage was set for another format war just like VHS versus Betamax.

The home video format war was actually quite costly for many involved, so a lot of companies had a vested interest in avoiding a repeat. A group of corporations including tech giants Apple, Microsoft, and Dell formed an organization called the Technical Working Group in order to get everyone to agree on a single standard. They even got Lou Gerstner, the president of IBM to pressure executives of the various companies to come together.

The plan worked and a compromise was reached. They decided on a format that was basically identical to the Super Density Disc with two small modifications. This resulted in DVD specification 1.0, which was unveiled to the public in 1995. 

DVDs would be the exact same size and shape as CDs, which meant that the manufacturing process would only have to be slightly altered to work with the new format. The storage space ended up being 4.7 gigabytes.

In November of 1996, the first DVD player was released in Japan, called the Toshiba SD-3000. The first movies on DVD were Eraser, The Fugitive, Blade Runner, and Point of No Return.

Americans didn't have to wait long as they came out there in March 1997.  By August of that year, Warner was selling DVDs across the country in most of the major retail stores such as Best Buy and Tower Records. That September, Disney announced they would be putting their films on DVD as well.

The year after that, in 1998, Europeans could finally buy DVDs. At this point, the impending dominance of DVDs was becoming clear. By that May, 1000 movies had been released on the format and by the end of the year, almost 1.5 million houses in the United States had players and DVDs were responsible for $350 million in revenue. 

1998 also saw the founding of Netflix, which many know as a streaming service, but got its start mailing DVDs to people.

In 1999, DVDs finally hit stores in Australia. There was also a major milestone hit as the Titanic DVD became the first DVD to sell a million copies. Later that year The Matrix went even higher in selling 1.5 million. Furthermore, by the end of 1999 two million DVD players had been sold. 

In September of 1999, Blockbuster announced that they would start renting DVDs, which was another huge milestone. Another big moment was in October when Disney released Pinocchio as their first DVD.

In 2000, Sony released their new gaming console, the Playstation 2. The PS2 was the first video game system to play DVDs and this was a huge selling factor and reason for the system's success. It was actually cheaper than many dedicated DVD players at the time and gave Sony a big advantage over the competition. In turn, this helped DVDs as many who wouldn't have necessarily bought a DVD player got exposed to them through the PS2.

It wasn't long before DVD became the number one home video format and VHS began to fall to the wayside. By 2002, over 30 million DVD players had been shipped. The year after that DVD sales passed those of VHS and Best Buy stopped selling videocassettes. Walmart followed suit in 2005.

DVDs were at their peak, but the next generation of home video was soon on its way. In 2006, Blu-Ray discs were released and DVDs were no longer the best way to watch movies.

Despite this, DVDs are still quite popular and still have large sections dedicated to them in retail stores. Many films are sold as DVD/Blu-Ray combinations and Blu-Ray players are capable of playing DVDs.

Interestingly, the same year that Blu-Ray came out, the last VHS movie was manufactured.

It will probably still be a few more years at least before DVDs are phased out entirely. Regardless, there's no denying the massive influence they had on the home video market.

The advantages of DVD over its predecessor VHS are clear and many. An important one was the improved picture and sound as the DVD frames were 720 pixels wide compared to the maximum on VHS at 250. But the main factor was interactivity. 

With a VCR, the viewer's options on how to interact are pretty limited. They can play, pause, fast forward, and rewind, and that's pretty much it. With DVDs, the options were limitless.

This led to the adoption of many features that people now take for granted like interactive menus, chapter selection and the ability to change the audio language and subtitles, which were impossible with VHS.

Another huge advantage was the possibility of including "special features" such as deleted scenes, making-of featurettes, and filmmaker commentaries on separate audio tracks. Occasionally such things were included on VHS tapes, but they had to be put at the beginning or end, and only a limited amount due to space restrictions. With DVDs, they could be accessed at will through the menus.

The gap between DVD and its successor Blu-Ray is much less significant than the jump from VHS. It's much nicer watching films and shows in High Definition as opposed to the Standard Definition of DVDs, that's pretty much the only big advantage it has over DVD, besides extra storage space.

My childhood home video experience was defined by VHS, but my teenage years were all about DVDs when it came to watching movies and TV shows.

My first DVD player was a Playstation 2 and I was quickly hooked. I soon got my favorite movies on DVD, like Star Wars, The Matrix, Dark City, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was also great to be able to buy entire seasons of shows like The Simpsons, South Park, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force and watch the episodes over and over.

My personal DVD collection

The special features were a huge part of my appreciation of DVDs. At first, I watched all the content for movies like Star Wars because I was a huge fan. I listened to the commentaries on my favorite show, The Simpsons.

But then, I started using them to gain insights on films such as Reservoir Dogs, which gave me a much greater appreciation for film history and filmmaking. I ended up working in the television and film industry and I don't think it's hyperbole to say this may not have happened if it weren't for DVDs.

It seems like special features have given people in general a greater understanding of filmmaking as well. But it's also arguably led to a certain cynicism about movies as every fan knows exactly how his favorite flicks are made.

I ended up getting a pretty decent DVD collection, but eventually started slowing down on new purchases. Part of this was because I rarely rewatched films as I grew older, unlike in my childhood when I'd watch the same movie endlessly.

It was also because of streaming services like Netflix and the ability to easily torrent whatever I wanted, Spending $20 on a home version of a movie I may never watch again just didn't seem to make sense anymore, and by my mid-20s, I barely bought DVDs.

I was also a late adopter on Blu-Ray as I didn't get a player until I bought a Playstation 4 in 2015. I still only have one Blu-Ray, Birdman, but I hope to change that soon.

The relatively minimal difference between Blu-Ray and DVD shows the basic concept of DVD is difficult to improve upon. A Blu-Ray is basically just a DVD in HD, and it's hard to come up with potential features that might need to be added.

Having said that, I might be a bit biased as I'll always have a nostalgic soft spot for the DVD format. And every once in awhile, I'll still get some use out of those old discs. They come in pretty handy when the internet goes out and it's fun to show a friend one of your favorites they haven't seen.