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70mm films on LaserDisc. Part 1

This article first appeared in
..in 70mm
The 70mm Newsletter

Written by: Ole Alstrup Issue 39 - June 1995
This article, entitled "70mm films on LaserDisc" is about how a unique consumer video system, called LaserDisc, are taking advantage of modern and very sophisticated film-to-video technology using the original 70mm film process, to bring those who collect old 70mm films on laserDisc video a quality many would not think was possible.

"Film is film and video is video
and the video of a film is NOT that film......
The video is an after-image of the film,
an electronic impression.

James Cameron. Writer-producer-director....and LaserDisc innovator.

Okay, so we all know and agree that watching a film on television or video at home is not exactly the same as watching that same film on a large curved cinema screen, especially if the film was photographed in 65mm or other large formats and projected in 70mm.

Contemporary electronic video display systems today is based on 30-40 year old television standards (1) that simply cannot equal the image quality of good 16mm film projection, not to mention 35mm or 70mm. Even the most ardent supporters of High Definition Television (2) today admit that conventional 35mm film still has much better resolution and other advantages that will be impossible to equal or let alone surpass on a screen larger than 100 inches with the HDTV standards proposed today.

Still, we like to collect a variety of films on video, either recorded from TV broadcasts or purchased on sell-through VHS videocassettes. In this way, we can watch our favorite movies at home whenever we like.

Today it is therefore a well known fact that most films released eventually earn more money on video than when released in the cinema. Since the advent of Dolby Surround loudspeaker home systems, recent years have also created a new kind of demand for improved video quality at home. Many people, especially those who like to collect films, are no longer satisfied with the mediocre quality and reliabillity of the VHS videotape system. Fortunately, there is an alternative for such people and it is a videosystem called LaserDisc. In the theatre the king is 70mm, at home on video it is LaserDisc.

Further in 70mm reading:

Part #2

Ultrascan 70

Internet link:


LaserDisc - An Introduction

LaserDisc is an optical 12-inch videodisc format that originally was co-developed by Compact Disc inventor Philips and record company MCA in the late seventies and marketed in Europe and the U.S., then under the name "LaserVision". Although physically much larger than a 5 inch Compact Disc, the LaserDisc is similar to the CD in many ways.

The disc itself is made of tranparent polycarbonate plastic that contains high-resolution analogue composite video images and sound in a recording format known as PWM (3). This information is pressed on the disc in a circular track, (similar to the vinyl process) consisting of microscopic pits imbedded on the inner surface of the plastic. A layer of shining aluminum is used to reflect the information when exposed to the light of the laser in a special LaserDisc player that reads the track and converts it to video and stereo sound information. A conventional LaserDisc can contain up to 2 hours of combined video and audio information without compromising the high standard quality. Because the image quality on Laser Disc is almost as good as the professional digital videotape format from which it was sourced, it is superior to all other consumer video formats, even better than the best direct TV-broadcasts. the pictures are crystal clear and very detailed with almost no noticeable video noise whatsoever, even when viewed on a large direct-view television set or front video projector with a large projection screen above 50 inches! (Remember, this is only video).

Comparing LaserDisc quality with that of VHS video is like comparing 70mm film to 35mm in the cinema. As the information recorded on the LaserDisc, just like the CD cannot be erased and replaced with new information, "LaserVision" failed as an alternative to the VHS system. The system was in 1985 refined with additional stereo digital 16-bit PCM sound and re-introduced under the brand name LaserDisc by the Japanese electronics manufacturer Pioneer. Pioneer chose to market the system in Japan for Karaoke video sing-a-long entertainment purposes because of its durability, superior quality and quickly achieved phenomenal success. At the same time the sell-through video market in Japan and USA were gearing up, now suddenly people wanted to buy and collect films on video. Pioneer then decided it was time to release feature films on LaserDisc and initially managed to strike deals with the major American film studios to distribute their films on LaserDisc in both Japan and USA. Today, LaserDisc is a very popular medium among film collectors and videophiles alike all over the world. The current American LaserDisc catalog consists of over 8000 titles, with over 100 new being released each month. Current LaserDisc players which also play back 5" CDs are available from $400 and upwards and for sale at many radio/TV retailers that sell Dolby Surround and other A/V related equipment.

One of the unique things about LaserDisc that is very popular today among both consumers and film directors is that films shot in the various wide screen formats are transferred onto video with their original aspect ratios preserved within the 1.33:1 television format. This kind of transfer is usually referred to as "letterbox", since the displayed film image on the TV screen has a reduced hight to accommodate the wider picture within the framework of the almost square television picture. The top and bottom of the TV screen is therefore covered with black bands to mask unused screen area. Normally widescreen films are transferred onto video using pan & scan techniques whereby up to 45% of the width of the filmed image is not seen on the TV screen, if the film was shot in 65mm or 35mm anamorphic Panavision. This effectively destroys the original cinematography to such an extent that the film is almost lost. (Imagine a Cinerama film shown without the side panles!). Another popular feature on LaserDisc are special collectors/definitive editions of important classics or contemporary films, where substantial addition materials are featured on separate discs. These can include everything from deleted scenes, original trailers, pre-views or featurettes to documentaries and even interactive CAV (5) still-archives featuring storyboards, sketches, test footage, hundreds of exclusive photographs, background study or complete production diary. Some of these releases also include alternative soundtracks throughout the film itself as extended interviews or scene-specific audio commentary by the film's director, actors, production personnel or well known film historians. Although normal LaserDisc releases of films are priced around $40, these special boxed sets can cost up to $150 for a single film, but is everything a fan or collector could wish for. The most popular of these editions sell more than 50.000 units, which is a lot, considering the fact that the current LaserDisc machine population installed in the domestic U.S. market is now about 2 million.

Notes to the article

1) Three original colour TV standards still in use today; NTSC, (525 scanning lines, 60 Hertz display), PAL and SECAM (625 scanning lines, 50 Hertz display). Although video systems are based strictly on these standards, slightly different broadcast versions exist.

2) Current HDTV standards proposed are based upon an increase of the number of the horizontal scanning lines, typically 1125 or 1250 lines, thereby doubling the vertical picture resolution capability. The aspect ratio of the TV picture will also be changed from its old 1,33:1 Academy film format to a wider 1,78:1 (16:9) picture.

3) The Pulse Width Modulation is a form of frequency modulation whereby the separate base band analogue video and audio information are combined so that more information can fit into a transmitted or recorded space.

4) The difference in overall perceived picture detail resolution, when comparing video systems within a specific television standard are based upon two different kinds of resolution within the actual TV picture. Vertical resolution; the measure of how many horizontal lines (light to dark transitions) can be fit into a picture in the vertical direction. This number is fixed to the number of available horizontal TC scanning lines in the television standard used. (Either 525 or 625 lines). Horizontal resolution; the detail resolving power of a single horizontal TV scanning line. That translates into i measure of how many vertical lines that can fitted within the picture. Horizontal resolution is based upon the available video bandwidth in MHz in the video system used and can be translated into 80 lines per MHz. A professional digital D-2 composite VTR machine has apx. 6 MHz horizontal resolution = 480 lines. LaserDisc has up to 5,5 MHz = 440 lines. TV Broadcasts: NTSC max 4,2 MHz = 336 lines, PAL/SECAM max 5 MHz = 400 lines. Super-VHS apx. 5 MHz = 400 lines and VHS has only around 3 MHz = apx 250 lines.

5) CAV is a special LaserDisc recording format where every frame on the disc is numbered and can be accessed seperately within seconds by the LaserDisc player. This format allows perfect still picture without compromise in quality and is ideal for text and photographs files.

Part 2 of this article will feature an in-depth look at film to video mastering and especially the revolutionary UltraScan 70 process used for the direct transfers of 65mm and 70mm film materials onto video for exclusive LaserDisc release. Also extensive coverage and exiting information about 70mm films on LaserDisc.

Ole Alstrup, 28, is a fan of the 70mm theatrical experience and a LaserDisc collector since 1987. He has been working with LaserDisc in the past 3 years and is currently the manager of a LaserDisc store in Copenhagen, Denmark. He has a keen interest in film restoration, especially the large formats and old Technicolor features.

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Updated 21-01-24