DVD: Five Years and Still Sizzling

Five years ago to the month, six SGHT writers gathered in the Guide's then home base of Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the magazine's first evaluation of the hottest new development in video: the DVD. Until then, the favored videophile format was the laserdisc. The LD had not only served us well for many years but, arguably, had made home theater a reality. I don't think any of us truly believed that DVD would seriously outperform that trusted 12-inch silver platter.

But it was no contest. Even in ordinary letterbox mode, the DVD's picture made laserdisc's look soft and fuzzy. Add true anamorphic, "enhanced for widescreen" transfers and the margin got wider. DVD's resolution only fed our appetites for bigger video screens. The advent of high-definition television provided an ample supply of widescreen sets that, in the absence of true HD broadcasting in many parts of the country and not enough of it in others, made DVDs—standard-definition though they are—look better than ever.

Early on, the Dolby Digital and DTS camps slugged it out for DVD soundtrack dominance, though it was never much of a battle—there just weren't enough movies available with DTS soundtracks. But that hurdle was jumped when DTS promoted its half-rate compression. (Originally, DTS used an audio data rate of 1.5Mb/sec, the same as CD, compared with Dolby Digital's most common rates of 384kb/sec or 448kb/sec.) That allowed DTS and Dolby Digital to coexist on the same DVD, though (in my judgment) at some loss of DTS's sound quality over its original, higher rate. Not all DVDs provide both options, but an increasing number do. And while some diehards still argue that LDs sound better, you won't find many home-theater enthusiasts complaining about the sound of movies on DVD.

DVD has continued to evolve. The pay-per-play Divx format delayed its wide acceptance for at least a year, but that early threat finally dissipated. Several studios were slow to come aboard, but finally relented when they saw increasing sales being chalked up by the new format's most fervent supporters, notably Warner and Sony (Columbia TriStar). Extra features began to proliferate as movie fans warmed to them. Pricing, with a few exceptions, remained affordable despite off-and-on murmurs of a two-tiered, "rental" pricing structure in which less popular titles would be priced so high initially that only rental outlets, not collectors, could afford to buy them.

Today, the biggest threat to those who care about DVD quality is the mass market. While the widespread popularity of the format is good for its continued viability, it has several negative effects. Studios rush titles out to meet demand, and sometimes quality takes a back seat. While this hasn't been a big problem so far, it may have future implications. And with more and more average consumers getting into DVD and complaining about letterbox black bars, some studios are beginning to release separate widescreen and pan&scan editions of popular titles. This alone would not be a cause for alarm. What is troubling are recent rumblings from one or two studios that certain categories of titles—"family-friendly" movies—might be released in pan&scan only. Disney appears to be first in line to adopt this policy. For more on this, see "Viewpoint" in this issue.

Whatever the outcome of this particular battle, standard-definition DVD should be with us for a very long time. The DVD you buy today can be enjoyed for years to come.

DVDs: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
For those of you awaiting our annual survey of DVDs release in the past year, the wait is over. The list that follows is only this writer's opinion, and I claim no infallibility; only a rather, ah, eclectic taste in films. How else to explain my positive reactions to movies as diverse as Bubble Boy, The Dish, Jurassic Park III, and Sunshine?

The biggest video flaw in today's less-than-pristine transfers is edge enhancement—a particularly noxious form of image sharpening that cannot be dialed out by the controls in your video display or DVD player. EE makes the image look like bad video rather than good film. While it's relatively innocuous on a small television, it's a serious problem on a big-screen display. A little edge enhancement is present on most transfers, but it requires a very light touch in the mastering stage to keep it from getting out of hand.

Observant readers will note that a few reviews here are much more critical about video quality than some of our earlier, full reviews of the same titles. The main reason for this is the projection system used for this survey. All of the titles here were viewed in whole or in part on a state-of-the-art 9-inch CRT projector from Reference Imaging, driven by a Teranex video processor and projected onto a 78-inch-wide, 16:9 screen. If you are using a well-adjusted consumer set of under 50 inches or so (diagonal), you can safely add a half star to the video ratings of DVDs that are downgraded here for excessive edge enhancement. You may still see it, but it's less likely to be distracting.

All of the titles here, with one exception, are enhanced for widescreen and were viewed in full anamorphic resolution. Any full-frame version that might be available, whether on the same disc or a separate release, was not evaluated. For consistency, all of the sound ratings apply to the Dolby Digital tracks, even if DTS tracks were present. (It has not been my experience that DTS tracks always sound better than their Dolby Digital counterparts, as some enthusiasts feel, so don't assume this.) Extra features included on the discs were not factored into the ratings in any way. Features are nice, but it's how well the film itself is served that makes or breaks a DVD release.

The ratings range from one star to four. They are identical in meaning to those in "What's On?" and are explained in more detail there. On with the show!

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