A Year In The Life Of A DVD Addict

A reflective report by Dean McIntosh


    It has now been a year since I was formally introduced to the virtues and traps of the DVD Video format, which is undoubtedly the best thing to happen to home theatre since the mere concept was introduced. The rather shaky ride I've had through my first year of DVD usage has been quite an interesting one, as well as being a real eye-opener and a source of some frustration with the manner in which some distributors behave. So, in writing this article, I thought I would share with you what I felt were the highs and lows of what has so far been the breakthrough year of the format, as well as some things I want to see in the next year.

A Year Of Looking At The Retailer's Shelves

    In October of 1999, hunting for an enjoyable title on DVD at the local branch of Grace Bros. was something like trying to pull diamonds out of a bucket filled with cow dung. Within the first week of having acquired my DVD player, I had bought all of the titles that I had any interest in, and had even begun to look through the films that didn't interest me at all. The first film I had actually bought, rather than been given as a gift, was Wild Things, an interesting exploration of people's hidden natures that featured one of the most fascinating sex scenes in the history of celluloid. Having viewed this film a number of times on the Very Hazy System, seeing the DVD version was something of an eye-opener as to how much picture information I was missing out on with VHS. An excellent example is the shot in which Neve Campbell pours champagne all over the front of Denise Richards: on VHS, only Denise is visible, but on the DVD, all three participants in this scene can be clearly viewed. This resulted in me making a firm decision in regards to how I view films: either I view it at the theatre, on DVD, or not at all. By the way, distributors, that happens to be a hint, since it has resulted in me importing several of my favourite films from overseas simply because they are not available here at all, Robocop and The Evil Dead being the two most prominent examples.

    Of course, in October of 2000, the list of available choices in the Region 4 DVD market has grown quite substantially, but it also has quite a long way to go. The USA has a catalogue of titles numbering somewhere in the neighbourhood of seven thousand, whereas Australians only have around a thousand titles to choose from. Given that both nations speak the same language, and used to use the same censorship and classification system until the Australian government realized how absurd the American model was, I see no justification for this discrepancy. When I emailed the industry-supported DVDUserGroup about this in December of 1999, their response to the lack of variety available at the time was that they were trying to ensure that "only the best quality titles are available in Region 4". I kid you not: that is really the response I got to one curious and frustrated email I sent them. Given the industry's current track record in the titles they have brought to Region 4, I hardly believe them to be the best judges of what the best quality titles are. Robocop 3 in place of the original, which happens to be the greatest Christ theme-based story of the Twentieth Century, and possibly the greatest story to be based on this popular Pagan legend in its entire history? Well, so much for only making sure the best quality titles are available to Australians and New Zealanders.

    This brings me to what distributors and film studios can do in order to improve the state of the market, and thus improve their sales in Region 4.

A Year Of Looking At Hardware

    The price of DVD Video hardware has decreased quite substantially since October of 1999, with prices being drastically reduced to the point where one can now buy a good DVD player for seven hundred dollars, a price that was unthinkable as recently as six months ago. However, the problem with buying a DVD player is not the price at the moment, but the inherent unreliability of the players put onto the market by a number of manufacturers. Indeed, there are some DVD players out there that feature MPEG decoding chips which are simply not up to the task required of them by high-bitrate discs. Given that the format itself is still very much in a transitional stage, this is obviously not the best way to put together any kind of DVD player, especially now that the market is being flooded with more ignorant buyers. This situation is not helped by the fact that there are some less-than-honest salesmen in various retailers who lie in wait for customers with a weak understanding of the format, in much the same way as lions lie in wait for careless tourists.

    Thankfully, almost all DVD Video players available as of October 2000 feature an S-video output, which I feel is the bare minimum a DVD needs in order to look its best. The number of artefacts which are taken for granted on VHS and are solely introduced by composite video processing is something of a rude shock when you first notice the difference. The absence of dot crawl, cross-colouration, and chroma noise brings films to life in a way that was simply not possible before the advent of DVD. Considering that we will very soon be seeing television screens with a wider aspect ratio, and the fact that the sound offered by the DTS format is already better than listening to the film in theatres, the owners of theatres should be very worried indeed. Of course, they wouldn't have to be if they charged a more reasonable price like Village Parramatta did while the Sydney Olympics were in full swing, but good business decisions seem to be beyond them at this stage.

    The digital amplifier is a fascinating piece of hardware, considering the numerous sound formats that are in existence today. Finding one that is compatible with every sound format you are likely to encounter on DVD is next to impossible, especially considering the existence of MPEG soundtracks, as well as the Dolby Digital EX format. If there is one thing that the past year has taught me about home theatre, and indeed many aspects of my daily life, it is that the first step to truly being happy with one's setup is not to think about what your equipment cannot do, but rather what it can do and how well it does it. Obviously, if your DVD copy of Total Recall sounds like it was recorded inside a giant tin can with an answering machine, then buying that new two-thousand dollar set of speakers is a good idea, but one has to learn to leave well enough alone.

A Year In The Life Of A DVD Collection

    When filling out a survey about my usage of DVD hardware, one of the questions related to how many DVD Video discs I was planning to buy in the next year. I extrapolated on the question somewhat and pretended I was being asked how many discs I expected to have in a years time, and thus answered that I would own at least fifty. I was hoping to have at least a hundred, but the slow output of titles in this Region and the difficulty I have in ordering from overseas has resulted in falling slightly short of my personal target. However, I am perfectly happy with the quality of those titles, although such films as Soldaat Van Oranje and De Vierde Man (the film which screenwriter Joe Eszterhas tried with mixed success to Americanise in Basic Instinct) remain conspicuously absent. Some effort on the part of Region 4 distributors to make these films available locally would be much appreciated.

    This is not to say that all hope is lost when it comes to the Region 4 release sheets. Indeed, we seem to be in a period where the release lists are going to explode, with the team of reviewers on this site having doubled in size through anticipation of this situation. Thanks to Columbia Tristar, we can soon rejoice in the beauty of having a DTS version of Gladiator, a film which I firmly believe should topple Ben Hur's record Oscar haul. Metro-Goldwyn Mayer and Twentieth Century Fox are all set to have all of the nineteen films in the official Bond canon available on our beloved discs by the middle of next year. Even Village Roadshow have substantially increased the value of their recent releases, with works of art such as American History X and Sleepy Hollow gracing the Region 4 shelves. Even Warner Brothers have lifted their game by dumping the lamentable Snapper case and bringing us such beloved classics as Gremlins. Perhaps even Buena Vista will wake up to themselves and start putting out something other than the cheapest, most worthless crap they have, and possibly even in something other than the cheapest, most worthless presentation they can come up with.

    One worrying trend, however, is the release of DVDs to the rental market, which is really of little benefit to the serious movie collector. Most of the films that I will really want to own I will have more than likely seen them already in the theatres, and the care with which DVDs are treated by rental outlets leaves quite a lot to be desired. Their understanding of the format and its virtues also leaves quite a lot to be desired, and I often have to wonder if they are even aware that television screens are being widened, much less the reasons why. Technophobia is quite a worrying thing, and the advertising used to increase public awareness of the DVD Video format is not helping to reduce this psychological reaction at all.

A Year (Well, Almost) Of Reviewing DVDs

    It has been approximately ten months since I began reviewing DVDs for this site, and I originally only began doing so a month beforehand as something of a time waster. In that time, we have seen the death of the snapper case, the brief resurgence of the button case, and the emergence of a host of other cases that still make me wonder what on earth the manufacturers were smoking when the cases were thought up.

    Many people seem to think that reviewing a film consists of little more than seeing it and then basically giving an opinion of it, but this is far from the case. Reviewing a film, be it at the cinema as I did for a friend's magazine in the case of The Blair Witch Project (my review was equally scathing there), or on DVD, is a tough job. In the case of merely reviewing the plot and the execution, one has to analyse the way in which the story is told and how the characters are developed, as well as the way in which the film was photographed. These tasks are easy enough for a writer like myself, who used to take a perverse delight in writing fifty thousand words about nothing, but reviewing a film on DVD is even more work.

    When viewing a film on DVD, we here at Michael D's are expected to make explicit notations of any serious or persistent flaws we might find in the video and audio transfers, as well as any obvious cuts that have been made to the film for arbitrary reasons. With the emergence of films and music videos on DVD that have soundtracks encoded in the DTS format, comparisons must also be made between the Dolby Digital soundtrack and the DTS soundtrack. This is to say nothing of the fact that understanding why the differences between soundtracks in these formats come about is a very hard ask for someone who is not completely inclined towards the technical side of things, as is the case with me. This is to say nothing of how tiring it can be to view a film with audio commentary tracks, because a good commentary track, such as one provided by Paul Verhoeven and Edward Neumeier, can be a joy to listen to, but a particularly bad one such as that provided with The Matrix can be quite painful to listen to from start to finish.

    It's something like pulling an engine apart piece by piece and putting it back together again: doing it for your own benefit can be quite enjoyable, and it can even be so if you do it for a living, but explaining to an audience in explicit detail what you are seeing and doing makes it a lot harder. This is certainly not helped by the fact that suffering major personal problems, as I was at the beginning of this year, can have a noticeable effect on the end result of your work. Reviewers are only human, even if they have been blessed with a slightly greater understanding of the medium in question and how it works.

In Closing

    Now that I have been viewing films on DVD for a year, I believe that we have a lot to hope for in the future, and I think that some of the film studios will quite probably deliver on those hopes. Hopefully, we will see the emergence of more independent operators, ones that take a little pride in the workmanship of their transfers and don't believe in recycling VHS or laserdisc masters. The introduction of High Definition Television is something of a worry, given that DVD Video is not yet a high-definition format, but this is why it pays to insist that all transfers be 16x9 Enhanced: to future-proof one's investment as much as possible. In any case, I have to say that this has been a good year for DVD Video, and I hope that the next year will be even better. After having reviewed so many discs, and learned so much about the format in the last ten months, the mere existence of DVD Video gives me a lot of hope for the future.

© Dean McIntosh (my bio sucks... read it anyway)
October 27, 2000.