I had watched the scene on television so many times before: the Wicked Witch of the West disintegrating after Dorothy splashed water on her. But now my experience was altered. For rather than hearing Margaret Hamilton's familiar voice ("I'm melting!"), the witch was squealing in dubbed Spanish ("Me derritto!"). A moment later, I pressed a remote control, and replayed the scene in French ("Je fonds!"). Finally, I pressed the remote again, and returned to Hamilton, and the original motion picture soundtrack in English.
Such are the possibilities when viewing The Wizard of Oz, or other flicks, on DVD, the latest high-tech goodie for film fanatics. Indeed, DVD (digital video disk or digital versatile disk packs a wallop on a shiny 5-inch platter that is a dead ringer for an ordinary compact disk. But DVDs encompass much more: multiple dialogue tracks and screen formats, and best of all, smashing sound and video.
After lengthy delays tagged to a variety of copyright, legal, and technical hurdles, $500 to $1,000 DVD players from Denon, Panasonic, Philips Magnavox, Pioneer, RCA (Thomson) Sony, and Toshiba have only recently made their way into electronics stores. Others will show up soon.
A few dozen movie titles have appeared, or will soon debut, in the new format. There's a wide range of offerings, most costing $20 to $25: Columbia Tri-Star titles include In the Line of Fire and Jumanji; MGM/UA offers GoldenEye and Rain Man; Warner has Space Jam and A Streetcar Named Desire; New Line has come out with The Mask; and PolyGram plans to offer Fargo. But some major studios, notably Disney, Fox, Paramount, and Universal are DVD holdouts.
As a movie buff, I sure took to the new format. The first reason is DVD's remarkable picture quality, especially when you compare it to VHS tapes. In technical jargon, DVDs boast more than 500 lines of picture resolution, better than double the image capabilities of VHS, and superior to 12-inch laser disks, and satellite TV. Of course, the picture quality you get will only match the capabilities of your television set, but most TVs built this decade should display DVD at its finest. But "as good as DVD is, it still falls short of the picture quality consumers will get with true high-definition television," says Marty Levine, editor of the Digital Technology Report newsletter.
DVDs also deliver dramatic sound, especially when connected to an elaborate home theater system, with state-of-the-art Dolby Digital surround-sound gear and speakers. After years of seeing DVD at trade shows, I was eager to see how it would measure up on my own TV. I hooked up two new models, the Toshiba SD-3006 and RCA RC5500P, to a 20-in. stereo RCA TV monitor, and came away impressed. The pristine picture was far better than anything delivered over cable, and the sound was equally stunning. You can also play audio CDs.
As with audio CDs, DVDs let you rapidly access any portion of the disk, without the need to fast-forward or rewind. You can stop a movie at any point and admire a perfectly clean image, without the distortion that comes through when pausing on a VHS cassette. You can also move forward or backward in superslow motion, without any drop-off in quality.
What's more, just as each musical selection on a CD is divvied up into track numbers, DVD scenes are carved up into chapters (Over the Rainbow, Dorothy Meets the Lion, There's No Place Like Home). By using your remote to call up an onscreen menu, or by punching in the corresponding chapter number, you can jump to a particular passage in the film. It didn't take long to cut away to some of my favorite screen moments: Harrison Ford in The Fugitive escaping a runaway train, a bovine getting blown away by a Twister, the Copa scene in Goodfellas, and Gene Kelly Singin' in the Rain.
Because of DVD's ample storage capabilities--a single-side, single-layer DVD can house 4.7 gigabytes of data, or more than the capacity of seven audio CDs--a disk contains more than two hours of video. That's enough to hold about 95% of all new film releases. Some, such as Woodstock, include data on both sides of the disk, so like an old LP, I had to flip the platter over to watch Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. The vast storage on DVDs lets studios add the movie trailer, an actor's filmography, or special director's cuts.
SUBTITLES. The studios can also load up to eight audio language and 32 subtitle tracks on a single DVD, though most early titles only include English, Spanish, and French. The players include "angle" buttons that will let you enjoy films, or concerts, shot from myriad points of view, though the early titles don't take advantage of this yet either.
A single disk may also contain numerous versions of the identical film: a PG-13 cut for the kids, and a password-protected R version for mom and dad. Several disks already give viewers the option to watch a movie in the "pan-scan" format (the picture is cropped to fill your TV screen, thus possibly cutting sides of the picture), or the "letterbox" format (masking bars appear above and below the theatrical image).
Despite these enhancements, don't discard your VCR just yet. For one thing, consumers won't be able to record on DVD machines until the next century. Moreover, with Disney and other major studios staying on the sidelines, only 50 or so DVD film titles are currently out, reaching perhaps 250 by yearend. That pales next to the many thousands of flicks available on both VHS and laser disk. (For laser enthusiasts who've already invested in a library of disks, Pioneer sells combi-players that can handle laser and DVD, starting at around $1,000.)
DVDs are cheaper than laser disks were when they first appeared--and CD-sized disks are easy to store. And, unlike tapes, DVDs won't deteriorate over time. Early sales are somewhat encouraging. Through the first five weeks that titles have been available, VideoScan Inc., which tracks sales at 14,000 retailers, reports that 67,000 DVDs have been sold. The top sellers to date are Twister and Eraser. Meanwhile, the Best Buy electronics chain says that in its launch markets, consumers are gobbling up nine disks on average for every DVD player that has been sold.
But most folks will want to be able to rent titles at their neighborhood video stores. For now, Blockbuster rents and sells titles in only 100 test outlets in six markets. In June, Philips Magnavox and PolyGram will initiate a program with video stores nationwide in which consumers can rent both a DVD player and two software titles, at a likely cost of $20 for two nights.
For all its value as a video playback machine, DVD's destiny may lie in personal computers. DVD-ROM drives, which are starting to turn up in PCs and upgrade kits, may eventually replace CD-ROMs. A DVD-ROM disk not only takes advantage of the technology's massive storage capabilities, but is much faster than most current CD-ROM drives. No need to fret, however: DVD-ROM machines will be able to read conventional CD-ROM software. Several software companies are working on DVD-ROM offerings, and with additional hardware, you'll be able to watch movies on your computer.
Ultimately, DVD films might come with Web browsers. Just stop the flick, fire up the browser, and get the dirt on your favorite star. Who knows: DVD may even carry you over the rainbow.