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By Brad Cook | February 21, 2005

Van Ling and Charles de Lauzirika are DVD veterans who started out in laserdisc and moved over to the new format in the early days. Ling cut his teeth on the DVDs of such James Cameron films as “The Abyss” and “Terminator 2”. He later moved on to produce the Star Wars Episodes I and II sets as well as the recently released original Star Wars trilogy collection.

Lauzirika has worked on the DVDs of many Ridley Scott films, including “Alien” and “Gladiator” as well as Scott’s upcoming movie “Kingdom of Heaven”. In addition, he put together the exhaustive Alien Quadrilogy set that came out last December, and he recently completed work on “Spider-Man 2”.

How did you get involved in creating DVDs? How does the medium stack up against its digital forerunner, laserdiscs?

VL: I was, among other things, a laserdisc producer and advocate before the advent of DVD, so I feel that DVD is a logical evolutionary step from laserdisc. The experience of producing laserdiscs was crucial to me in getting to DVD, because it was like learning long division by hand before getting to use a calculator. DVD combined some of the best features of laserdisc and CD-ROM.

Most importantly, laserdisc gave us a good idea of what was good about the optical medium and what features we still needed to get into the spec for DVD. In 1995, the organization that was working on the DVD specifications held a forum in Universal City, California, and invited a large, varied group of consumer electronics manufacturers, software programmers, audio folks and content providers for such formats as CD-I, 3DO, MPEG1 VideoCD, CD-ROM and laserdisc (including myself) to provide feedback about what we wanted in this new DVD format. We each got to demonstrate what we had been able to do with the existing media and explain what our wish list of features for DVD would be. They took those suggestions and incorporated a lot of them. As a result, we came into DVD with specific goals in mind and sometime specific tools available from our feedback. It was a natural progression for me, at least. Many of the things I wanted to do with laserdisc but couldn’t due to the limitations of the medium became possible with DVD.

CL: One of the reasons I became an early adopter of DVD was because of my frustration with the laserdisc format. Don’t me wrong, I loved laserdiscs and still have a fairly nice collection of them. But the side breaks and linear interface seemed too restrictive and crude. So when DVD was announced, I jumped right in. Around this same time, I was working for Ridley and Tony Scott’s production company, and in 1998, I heard that Fox was putting together an “Alien” boxset. So when I encouraged Ridley to get personally involved, and gave him a very enthusiastic lowdown on what DVD could do, he just sort of looked at me and said, “Is this something you could supervise?” And I’ve been stuck in DVD ever since.

Current DVDs are already much slicker than the early ones. What’s the future for the medium? Where can it go from here?

VL: As people learn the capabilities of the format, they expand their use of it. Back in the day (1996-97!), it was all you could do to make the DVDs work properly at all on the majority of players. Now that we’re past that, we are exploring the medium, finding the limitations and often finding ways around them. Really, what we’ve been doing with the current DVD medium is to acclimate the consumer to the nuances of the new technology, a new paradigm of how to watch movies at home, if you will. A few years ago, having menus was a computer-only thing to the general (non-laserdisc-savvy) public that was used to VHS; now people have accepted the format and the new paradigm for the most part, so we can concentrate on content and presentation in new or innovative or more complex ways without having to dumb it down as much for initial users.

We’ve all been trying to figure out the format –producers, studios, manufacturers and consumers– so we learn what features we like, which ones we don’t care about, what is cool and useful as a feature, what is cool but useless, and so on. We’re still exploring how we can use the DVD format to convey what we want to convey from the studio and/or filmmaker’s side, and learning what the consumer wants to see. It really all still comes down to the worthiness of the content, though. Things have gotten slicker overall, but in a way they’ve also become more pedestrian as studios settle on certain default special features, like commentaries for practically every film.

CL: To be honest, I’m not sure where DVD goes from here. There are a lot of studio politics involved at this point in regard to creating content, multiple release strategies and future formats. I often think that the Golden Age of DVD is over, at least in terms of the creative side. Obviously the business side is booming bigger than ever. But instead of that success opening the format up and empowering DVD producers with the freedom to create better and more interesting and ambitious content, it actually seems to have had the opposite effect. So now it’s really up to the filmmakers to encourage studios to push the envelope, as they’re the only ones with the power to make that happen anymore.

Given how entrenched the current format is, do you see the same rate of adoption when next-generation DVD is introduced?

VL: As long as the general usage paradigm remains the same to the consumer, I think that the adoption of these higher-resolution formats is going to be fine. The biggest challenge is the lack of a single standard that everyone can agree upon; this is not so much a bad thing as a call for manufacturers to allow multiple format capabilities in their hardware. The great thing about computers is that they CAN be multi-format, so as long as our DVD players and our TV are going to be digital and pretty much be computers anyway, we should take advantage of that. You can see this at work in the current generation DVD players, which also can play back home-burned DVD-Rs and MP3 and audio CDs. If the TV manufacturers follow suit–and they have to in the sense that they have to make any HD sets compatible with standard-def as well– the adoption should be smoother than otherwise.

CL: I think that because of the storm clouds already brewing over a probable format war, the next generation format could have a rocky start, similar to the DVD vs. DIVX debacle. The difference this time is that the reasons for making the leap to HD might not be as obvious to the average consumer as it would be to a home theater buff. I mean, this isn’t like laserdisc where an elite niche of film snobs were grumbling about having to replace their huge LD collection. This time, millions upon millions of average consumers have now invested a lot of money into their DVD collections. And for better or for worse, they’re the ones who will determine how successful the next format is. I wonder if it might be too soon for them to make the leap. I think once more HD sets are in consumer’s homes, and once there’s some significant HD programming in place, then the seeds will be planted for a more hopeful hi-def DVD future.

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