CDs on steroids
Just as HDTV is the television of tomorrow, DVD is the compact disc of tomorrow--and most likely the laserdisc of tomorrow and, quite possibly, the videotape of tomorrow as well.
Of course, with DVD, "tomorrow" is really today. DVDs have been on the market for a year.
Short for Digital Video Disc or Digital Versatile Disc, depending on who's explaining it, DVD is a CD on steroids. On a disc that looks identical to a CD, DVD can store six times as much data--and that's just for one layer of one side. DVDs can be double-layered and double-sided, and since DVDs spin three times as fast as CDs, all that extra data is accessed faster than with a CD.
With all that extra space on one side alone, you get better-quality sound than on a traditional audio CD, you can make software packages even fatter than they already are, and you can cram more than two hours of digitized video that has twice the resolution of VHS tapes and get to it with the convenience of a CD and the interactivity of a CD-ROM.
The latter is the primary ballyhoo for DVD right now. After all, with audio CDs such a well-accepted, high-quality format, there's no urgency to introduce DVD audio, even if it is better. As for DVD-ROM, the technology's computer format, it's only a matter of time before the ever-faster, ever-larger computer industry forces it into the consumer feeding frenzy. In fact, many new computer systems already come equipped with DVD-ROM drives since DVD players are backward-compatible with CDs.
No, the real innovative possibilities for DVD lie in the home video market.
Besides the plus of having a better-looking copy of a movie, the sheer amount of information available on DVD allows for all sorts of extra features. The most obvious extra is including multiple versions of the film on one disc. This is most commonly demonstrated by having both a widescreen, letterbox version of the film (with black bars on the top and bottom of the screen as it appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio) and the more consumer-friendly pan-and-scan version (where the movie fills the entire screen, but only by cutting out some of the picture). But the technology exists to include versions with different MPAA ratings or even extra "director's cut" scenes accessible on the fly, with space still available for alternate language tracks, unused takes or bloopers, "making of" documentaries, supplementary audio tracks for commentary, or even varied camera angles for a different viewpoint of the same scene.
Most of the DVD versions of the big-name films available at the local Best Buy or Blockbuster don't make use of these features. But the potential is there for an entirely new content-on-demand way of watching home video, and a few companies are making the most of it. The California-based new media company 2014 is using DVD to produce filmed magazines, and its first effort, the SHORT Cinema Journal, provides a showcase for what DVD can offer. Each of its two available volumes offers an array of short films, including live-action narratives, animation, documentaries, and interview pieces, with hilarious wrap-around vignettes featuring Ryan Stiles of The Drew Carey Show and Sean Masterson (who had a small acting role in Wag the Dog) trying to dream up an independent film. From a film lover's perspective, the volumes are worth the price of admission solely because each has a classic short film that has been turned into a popular feature. Volume one has Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade, the black-and-white piece Billy Bob Thornton and director George Hickenlooper produced before Thornton got financing for Sling Blade--and an almost shot-for-shot rendition of the feature's opening. The second journal has the only version of director Chris Marker's approved cut of his famous experimental film La Jetee, which inspired Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys. But these, as well as a documentary on the making of Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady, are just the obvious hooks. Resistor and its sequel Bride of Resistor are inspired stop-motion animations about a wiry guy's adventures in a world of junk. Depth Solitude not only provides a beautiful, surreal take on man's isolation, but also makes use of DVD's multi-language tracks so the viewer can see the film in Swedish or French, making the film even more surreal for those of us who don't speak the language.
Billed as the first commercial use of DVD's multi-angle capability, the Academy Award-nominated The Big Story, which features an animated Kirk Douglas in three classically melodramatic roles, allows the viewer to jump back and forth between the finished 3-D piece and the original pencil sketches. While more of a "gee-whiz" use of this new technology, it serves as an excellent introduction to the possibilities of multi-angle productions.
SHORT also makes solid use of alternate audio tracks, though these efforts are a mixed bag. A Guy Walks Into a Bar, a clever homage to the Western genre starring The Wonder Years' Fred Savage, shines because the commentary of the filmmakers, American Film Institute students, gives keen insight on the travails of independent productions. The commentary for Shape Without Form, on the other hand, is as dense as the images of the actual film. Henry Rollins--Easter Sunday, NYC, a SHORT original performance documentary, provides--to the joy of Rollins fans and the disdain of his detractors--complete audio versions of songs used in the film.
That all of this may seem like overkill unless you're a film geek is part of the point of DVD and content-on-demand. If you're interested, it's there. If not, then you just have some great-looking movies. Of course, some would say, much of this extra content and high quality has been available on laserdisc for years. In fact, a look at the Criterion Collection's releases of John Woo's The Killer and François Truffaut's The 400 Blows reinforces the idea. Both are basically reissues of Criterion's critically acclaimed laserdiscs in the DVD format.
However, the average consumer never embraced that golden record-looking format, either because he didn't care about sound and picture quality, didn't like the idea of flipping or changing discs a few times during a screening, or wouldn't swallow the $50-and-up price tag. If the last two issues locked laserdisc into the niche of cinephiles and gearheads, DVD has solved the problem. It is convenient, and it is cheap--the average cost of a DVD movie is less than $25, and even Criterion's more pricey editions, which have a suggested retail price of $40, are still less than half the cost of the laserdisc versions.
There's no guarantee, though, that the DVD format will win in the marketplace. Other technologies are gearing up to compete. Digital VHS, as the name suggests, will offer not only a higher-quality tape format but also recordability, something lacking in the foreseeable future with DVD. Then there's Divx, a pay-per-view off-shoot of DVD technology for which consumers buy a movie disc for $5 and pay a charge every time they watch it. While neither of these technologies is necessarily better than DVD, history shows that only one will dominate.
Anyone remember Betamax?
The future of home video is here; see it while you can.
--Scott Kelton Jones
SHORT Cinema Journal 1 and 2, The Killer, and The 400 Blows, as well as other DVD titles, will be available in the InterActive Zone throughout the run of the Video Festival.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.