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Home media part 2

2012/04/03

As I covered yesterday, having home video at all makes a huge difference in how we experience movies. Home video itself has hardly stood still and advancements have continued to alter things, mostly to our benefit.

When I was kid, you  could watch moves at home, but there were all kinds of limits. It was not uncommon to take a couple of years to hit video. Wealthy people might have a large projection-based system and Dolby surround sound, but I didn’t know anyone like that. VHS was fuzzy and expensive (most tapes cost over $100 in modern money). You could buy tapes rental were done with for a reasonable price, but they were worn out and looked and sounded worse than usual. You were pretty much limited to whatever came out approximately a year ago. You could watch whatever the local rental places stocked, which tended to be classics and anything moderately popular from the last few years. If you wanted to see something more obscure, you better hope you live in a big city. Otherwise, you could go to Suncoast and special order it for $80 or so.

Laserdiscs looked and sounded about as good as NTSC could, which wasn’t great, but they were large and even more expensive. They also allowed chapter search, clean pause, generally were available in widescreen and sometimes had special features. They also only held about an hour of video per side and I never actually saw a play until I was about 15. They never really caught on in the US.

When I was eleven, Apple came out with Quicktime, which was the first digital video solution for the common user. It only ran at 320×240 resolution, looked about as good as VHS and had files way too big to be practical. VCD soon followed, which was similar quality on a CD, but in the US it never caught on except as a pirate format for people wealthy enough to afford CD burners. My family owned a TV capture card, but it was mainly useful for watching television and taking screencaps. Hard drive space was too limited for recording more than a clip here and there.

Things changed when I was in high school. DVD came out when I was sixteen. Shortly after graduation, I got a graphite slot-loading iMac. I paid a hefty premium to get it with DVD, but I wanted to be able to watch high-quality movies. It came with A Bug’s Life and I soon acquired a few more movies. DVDs had roughly the same quality as laserdisc, but allowed increased resolution on widescreen . More importantly, you could fit a whole movie on one side, had room for extensive special features and could have multiple subtitles and language track. This last item was key as it meant we no longer had to choose between dubbed and subtitled versions of foreign movies. I could buy movies for $10-$20 a piece and took about a third as much room as VHS. It was now in the range of the common man or woman to by the movies they wanted.

Of course, it was still limited by NTSC tech, which was about sixty years old at this point, but it was way better than anything that had been available before. Computer monitors, even in the late nineties and early aughts, were far higher quality than televisions. Watching on my computer looked way better than any movie ever had for me outside the theater before.

Then, CSS got cracked. Anybody could copy and manipulate files to hard drive. Space was way cheaper by then as well. You didn’t just have the option to rewatch movies again and again, but could alter them to suit your purposes. This did wonders for film criticism and amateur movie-making of course. I the early days, you had to put your creations on the peer-to-peer networks, which were mostly a piracy venue or put them on the web, where you could find your self deep in debt for hosting bills if your creation got too popular. (Or your site would be shut down, depending on ISP policy.) E-Commerce was growing at this same time, so any movie that had been released could get to you in a few days. The broader market combined with dropping manufacturing costs meant more and more got released. In 2005, YouTube hit, giving us a practical venue to release our homemade creations with most of the difficult stuff taken care of.

HDTV was growing at the same time. HD broadcasts started in 1994, but there was the chicken and egg problem. No one wanted to spend the money to make shows in HD if theit weren’t any customers with HDTVs to actually watch them and people didn’t want to buy HDTVs if there was nothing to watch. DVDs ended up driving adoption. They weren’t high-def, but DVDs could look a bit better than on standard TVs and they were actual widescreen. The move away from CRTs made large sizes far more practical. Thanks to weight issues, a tube TV more than about twenty-seven inches is very difficult to move. A flat panel with four time the screen area weighs about the same. Blowing DVDs up to this size just emphasizes that they were intended for smaller, blurrier TVs, though. There were no consumer high-def formats and you could only use the tech to the limit of its ability watching live broadcast, much as had been the case for TV in general thirty-five years earlier. Technically, you could get movies on D-VHS, but only a few dozen were ever available, the equipment was quite expensive and recording ability was limited.

The real break came in 2007 with the release of HD DVD and Blu-ray. They allow a digital recording better than many theatrical prints and thanks to the plummeting prices on TVs and audio equipment and the deteriorating quality of theaters thanks to a switch to unskilled labor, anyone with a few thousand dollars and a suitable room can make a system look and sound better than a lot of theaters. For instance, when i saw Hellboy II in the theater, it was badly zoomed and had scaling artifacts that made it look like it was being projected on a paper towel. When I saw The Hunger Games, the projectionist put the theater in the wrong mode and cut off the sides of the movie. Thousands of movies are available in our homes for better quality than theater audiences generally had for affordable prices. If you are willing to step down the quality a bit, you can stream from Netflix, Amazon or several other sources and see a large portion of movies that exist whenever the whim strikes you. You don’t need to wait for shipping or even get off your couch.

I still didn’t cover everything, so tomorrow, I’ll get into how this affects how movies are made. Or maybe I’ll get back to religion. I’ve kind of forgotten where I was going with this series.

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