How do laser discs work

Compared to video cassettes (tapes) for film storage, the system had the following advantages:

Contactless scanning, no wear and tear. Freeze frame, slow motion and time lapse without interference stripes. Quick access to chapters, no “rewinding”. Multiple audio tracks and switchable subtitles in NTSC format

Image data are stored in analog form and uncompressed. In the so-called CAV mode, one image is saved for each plate rotation. The plate rotates in the device at 1500 rpm (PAL). This enables a running time of 34 minutes per page. Both sides of a laser slide are normally used for film storage. The CAV mode enables picture-by-picture forward and backward movement, slow motion and time-lapse motion at different speeds, each picture can be selected individually (54,000 pictures per page).


In order to do justice to the running length of cinema films, a second variant of data storage was developed: the CLV mode. There is also an image on the inner tracks of the disc, 1-2 images on the middle and up to 3 images on the outer edge, which can be read in one rotation of the disc. This achieves a maximum running time of 64 minutes per side. The possibilities of slow motion and fast motion are lost here, however. CLV discs initially rotate at 1500 rpm, but then become slower (and quieter) as the film progresses. In contrast, CAV disks rotate at 1500 rpm for the entire duration.

Sales of devices and records started in the USA in 1978. The first real film on this medium is often called “Jaws” (The great white shark). The first devices were sold in England in May 1982 and in Germany at the end of 1982. The first German titles were: “A man sees red”, “Das Omen”, “Alien”, “Buccaneer of the seas” to name but a few. The first German laser disc, which is much sought after, did not exist. A whole series of titles came onto the market at the same time in order to offer customers a corresponding incentive to buy the player.

The first devices in Europe came from Philips and Pioneer. Pioneer was very committed to the laser disc as a medium and continued to develop the system until the late 1990s.

Gradually, digital audio sound, switchable subtitles, 5.1 multi-channel sound and also DTS were first introduced on the laser disc.

Incidentally, the CD (compact disk) is a "waste product" of the laser disc. In fact, Philips developed the CD based on the technical specifications of the LD and almost all LD players after 1984 can also play CDs.


In the promised land

Due to the fact that the television system NTSC (USA and Japan) is defined with 480 picture lines and the European PAL with 576 lines, one can already guess that a film of the same length in NTSC requires less storage space than in the PAL format. The result is (and bad luck for Europe): With PAL, only the film and a sound track fit on the laser disc. With NTSC recordings, the film and up to three sound tracks fit on the laser disc.

The medium was able to fully demonstrate its capabilities in the USA and Japan, e.g. the publication of David Fincher's "Seven" in March 1996 by Criterion:

Digital sound track: film sound in stereo
Analog audio track 1: audio commentary (mono)
Analog sound track 2: Movie sound in 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio

It should not be forgotten that the medium “DVD” did not exist at this point in time, or only existed on paper (the first DVD player came from Toshiba at the end of 1996).

The technical limitations of the system at PAL, but also the wrong marketing of the record companies in Europe, especially Germany, meant that the laser disc was almost not widely used in Germany. The discs were usually 50% -80% more expensive than the videos they had bought, the devices cost at least DM 1,000 and you couldn't record them yourself. A real disadvantage compared to VHS.

Between 1982 and 1999, around 1,000 films were published in German (and a few hundred music LDs). Compared to more than 16,000 in the US and more than 16,000 in Japan. The German editions were often only 1,000 or 2,000 copies, some even as little as 500.

Perhaps the distribution and acceptance could have been increased through video stores. In Japan and Hong Kong, special rental versions of films were made, where, for example, the covers were made of thicker (firmer) material in order to survive more rental cycles. In Germany, industry did not take this route.

The German companies Astro Filmworks, Dragon Entertainment and Laser Paradise occupied the small market for horror and violent films quite successfully in the last half of the 90s and with small editions of 500 to 750 pieces each were able to attract a loyal group of buyers with many titles from this Serve segment. The sales prices were between 79 and 149 DM. Top titles such as Braindead, Hellraiser or Zombie were quickly sold out despite these high prices (and legal sales restrictions in Germany such as index and confiscation). Astro resold its last 5 licenses to CMV in 1998 after giving up laser disc production. Some of the CMV laser discs begin with an astro trailer.

In America, many titles were issued with more than 10,000 copies. Often there were editions from different companies or in different presentations. So there were also many enthusiasts for collection boxes with several discs and inserts.

CAV boxes in particular, i.e. publications in CAV format on 2, 3 or even 4 laser discs, sold well and are still in demand today. Retail prices of US $ 100-150 per film were not uncommon.
AC3 - Dolby Digital was introduced in 1995. The first disc with AC3 was "Clear and Present Danger". From 1997 the first titles with DTS audio were published in the USA. Many collectors did not hesitate to buy their old editions again. AC3 is stored (digitally, of course) in the memory area of ​​the right analog audio track. Late beginners must be warned: The AC3 signal from laser discs is "RF-coded", so it requires a special amplifier with AC3-RF input, or a separate converter into "normal" AC3.

As already mentioned, AC3 sound can only be brought onto the laser disc with an NTSC image signal. Nevertheless, or because of it, two German laser discs with AC3 were released: "Deadly Christmas" and "True Lies".

In Japan, 12 titles were published in anamorphic image format, i.e. in real 16: 9, e.g. "Cliffhanger".
From 1997 onwards, the DVD quickly captured the hearts of buyers, which was also due to significantly lower production costs and the associated lower end prices. The majority of customers wanted and welcomed the development into a cheap medium, but of course the real movie fans miss elaborate boxes like “Jaws: Signature Collection” or “Seven: Criterion Collection” or “Sleeping Beauty: Masterpieces from Disney”.

Natural Born Killers Directors Cut
Pioneer Box from 1996, 3 laser discs,
Initial price US $ 79
Jaws-Limited Edition Signature Collection from 1995,
4 laser discs, paperback, soundtrack on CD,
Initial price US $ 149
Sleeping Beauty Disney Masterpiece Box from 1997,
3 laser discs,
Initial price US $ 99


The image quality


A large number of testers in the 1980s certified the laser disc as having "outstanding quality" or "studio quality". Today, in the age of 4K video and 156 cm flat screens, these statements have to be put into perspective. One must not forget: The image information is stored in the composite process. Brightness and color values ​​are mixed in one signal (FBAS). A simple chinch cable is sufficient as the output of the player. Some players from the 90s also have an S-Video output. But you have to be aware: The composite signal comes from the disc, not S-Video. With these devices, it is only electronically split into S-Video. The picture doesn't get any better. An S-Video signal makes sense with long cable lengths, for example to a projector under the ceiling. With cable lengths up to 1.5 m, I myself could not notice any difference in the picture quality of the chinch output or S-video output of my Pioneer DVL-909.
As always in life, everything is relative. There are better and worse laser discs, just as there are better and worse DVDs. The output master and the care taken when "dubbing" are decisive. The layman will not be able to distinguish good LDs from a DVD up to a screen diagonal of 84 cm. Even on a 106 cm plasma, almost every LD is a pleasure, provided you don't sit two meters in front of it. What many have forgotten: The first VHS recorder came from JVC in 1976 and the first S-VHS recorder (which recorded S-Video) also came from JVC (Model HR-S5000) in 1987, 9 years after the introduction of the laser disc.


Laserdiscs as an investment?

Whoever wanted to hand over his Laserdisc collection in 2006 had to find out that there were always between 400-800 pieces on offer on eBay. Most were priced between 1.99 and 6.50 euros. There were also copies that were not sold for 1.99 euros. In Germany, many of their discs were still parting in 2017, and the few collectors that exist usually have all common laser discs in their collections. Notable German specimens are: "The Story of O", "Blade", "Die Raumpatrouille Box", "The Godzilla Box", the two "Tim & Struppi" and perhaps a few other indexed titles such as "Tenebre", "Zombie", "The Church" or the titles of the "Black Series" by Astro. But none of these editions comes close to the former new prices. Abroad there are discs that still achieve the issue price or more today: "The Matrix", or from Japan the last releases of the "PILF-28xx" series from 1999, eg "The Cell", "The Beach" or "X -Men ". Prices of more than US $ 150 are still possible here.

Black series from Astro. 6 tracks,
each in an edition of 750 pieces
Starwars Special Edition from 1997. Box with 4 LDs and
Booklet. Edition of 3,000 pieces. First retail price: DM 299
The film “Prom Night” in “Disco Vision” format


Astros "Black Series" was planned with the following 6 titles, each with an edition of 750 copies:

A zombie hung on a bell rope / Lucio Fulci (1980)
Ghost town of zombies / Lucio Fulci (1981) (* not published)
The New York Ripper / Lucio Fulci (1982)
Eaten Alive / Umbero Lenzi (1980)
The Revenge of the Cannibals / Umbero Lenzi (1981) (* not published)
Naked and Mangled / Ruggero Deodato (1980)

all titles had been indexed or confiscated in Germany since the 1980s, so distribution was very difficult. The series was therefore only officially available in Austria. Of the original 6 titles, the two with (*) were never published, so that the series actually only contained 4 titles. In anticipation of sales difficulties, Astro could not spend a fortune on the best possible master tapes, so that the image quality of these laser discs is actually unworthy of the medium. Due to the still valid indexing or prohibitions, the discs are extremely difficult to find and are accordingly expensive.


Laser red or how was that with "wear-free"?

The English word Laserrot (from "to rot": rot, rot) denotes image disturbances that can occur with many laser discs after years - up to and including complete uselessness. The first symptoms are picture and color noise, then occasional black spikes (like on analog satellite TV in heavy rain), then multi-colored snow or sound disturbances, up to and including the complete refusal of the player to accept the disc. The problem has nothing to do with incorrect storage (too hot, too cold, too much oxygen) and cannot be stopped or slowed down.

Many old records from the 80s are affected, especially those made by Sonopress or PDO in England. Also many manufactured by Sony in the USA from the 90s, such as "Air Force One" or "The Replacement Killers". In contrast, panes made in Austria or Japan are less or hardly affected.

The reason for the image disturbances are decomposition processes due to incorrectly selected materials in the manufacture of the laser discs. One reason seems to be the glue used to hold the two sides of an LD together. Over the course of years, this could attack the aluminum layer, which leads to increasingly stronger image disturbances. Oxidation can also be a reason. Some plates often show the symptoms “close to the edge”, especially with the golden discs by PDO from England, which were produced in the late 1980s. Here you can already see the evil when you hold the disc in your hand.

There are four main symphtomas:

• More or less strong color noise, as is also known from old video tapes
• fine white snow, spread over the whole picture
• Black picture dropouts (spikes), as we know them from analogue satellite TV in heavy rain
• Sound disturbances, crackling and hissing, mostly at the beginning or end of the record


As a rule of thumb, the older the discs, the more likely it is to be laser red. German discs with analog sound (before 1985) are almost all more or less affected. The "golden" ones from PDO from England will also end like this.
Anyone who thinks they have to smile pityingly at the laser disc collectors about their crumbling collections should take out their old audio CDs. As early as the 1980s there was speculation about the lifespan of audio CDs. Some old CDs from the early 80s now also have sound interference or are no longer accepted by playing CDs.

In general, you will notice the decay later because the data is digitally recorded with complex error correction mechanisms. Originally intended for copying scratches, this error correction naturally also works to a certain extent with laser red on audio CDs. The first German DVDs came out in 1997. It will be seen in a few years whether the manufacturers of optical media have learned this ...


Storage space

I would like to say a few more words about the storage space on the laser disc. The laser disc has no real memory that can be measured in gigabytes because the video data is stored in analog form. Just like the sound or video on VHS tape on a record player. There is no computerized compression. The reason for this is, quite simply, the inadequate computing power at the end of the 1970s. (Note: VideoCD / VCD did not come out until 1993 and offered 352 x 288 pixels digital video encoded in MPEG1. At that time you needed an 80386-20 to play it back for the necessary computing power).

The storage capacity of the LD could be determined as follows: the CAV mode allows approx. 54,000 individual images per side of the plate. If we assume PAL resolution, that is 720 x 576 points. Each picture would then have 1.24 MB in color. Everything uncompressed. So 54,000 images x 1.24 MB x 2 pages = 133,920 MB = 133 GB. That sounds impressive at first. However, not every pixel can be clearly addressed and dirt or scratches can lead to image disturbances.
As I said, it is not possible to specify “storage capacity in bytes” for an analog medium, but the above calculation can roughly reflect the order of magnitude of the uncompressed data.


Laserdisc as an exclusive medium

Below are some German-language films that were not yet released on DVD in 2008, but only on laser disc or possibly on VHS:

The Great White Hope (1970)
Liselotte of the Palatinate (1966)
X-Ray from CMV Laservision In the Clutches of Madame Sin (1972)
Return of the Undead (1990)
Shadow and the Curse of Khan (1994)
X-Ray - The First Murder Happened on Valentine's Day (1981)
The Eyewitness (1981)
Dead Bang (1989)
My Blue Heaven (1990)
Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)
Red Rock West (1992)
The Jungle Olympics (1979)
Countdown to Hell (1979)
Zorro with a Hot Blade (1981)
Bilitis (1977)
Mr. Billion (1977)
Last House on the Left (1972) - only abbreviated in German on DVD
Friday the 13th Part 9 - Jason Goes to Hell (1993) - in German only as a bootleg on DVD
Leviathan (1989)
Wishmaster (1997)

to name just a few.

The last laser discs

There are contradicting information about the last laser disc published in Germany. In any case, the last German records came onto the market in autumn 1999. The last laser disc ever was released in Japan in September 2001: "Tokyo Raiders"

The last German laser disc ...

can unfortunately no longer be determined with certainty. The fact is that the last German LDs were published at the end of 1999. The search for "the last one" reveals contradicting statements:

laserdiscs.de names:
"The return of the zombies" (CMV 10/1999)
"Sado - Open the gate to hell" (CMV 9/1999)
"Killers" (Laser Paradise 8/1999)
"Snow White" (Lime 8/1999)
"Blade" (Laser Paradise 7/1999)

CMV itself names:
"Sado" (9/1999) two months after "The Return of the Zombies" (7/1999)

laser-disc.de names:
"Mike Mendez`Killers" (Laser Paradise) and "Snow White" (Lime Pictures) for 10/1999
"Blade", "Night of the Scarecrow" and "The Return of the Zombies" for 8/1999
"Sado - Open the gate to hell" for 7/1999

wikipedia.de also mentions “The Return of the Zombies” as the last one, which was probably copied from laserdiscs.de.

An illustrated, current catalog of all laser discs, in German or with German subtitles, can be downloaded here:

Laserdisc catalog German 2021