Experience the Dazzling Visual Difference

The DVD has shaken up the home-video market and introduced new possibilities for visual expression.

You think you've seen "Fight Club," but are you really sure? Consider the scene when Edward Norton and Brad Pitt are standing in a skyscraper, talking about dynamite rigged to explode in a van parked far below. Suddenly the camera zooms away from the characters, races 30 stories downward to the street, and zips into a close-up of the bomb.

It's a dazzling Hollywood effect, and there's literally more to it than meets the eye.

"If you look at it frame by frame," said director David Fincher to Sight and Sound magazine, "the camera goes through the wall" as if the building were as ephemeral as the film's fantastic plot.

This bit of magic isn't essential to the story, and it's only three frames long, too fast for visibility on movie screens. But it's the sort of thing that only high-tech cinema can offer - and as Fincher points out, "you'll only be able to see it on the DVD."

Those three letters, DVD, stand for the latest -and some say greatest - of the many revolutions that have transformed the motion-picture industry during its century-plus history.

Already poised to replace the VHS cassette, the Digital Video Disc (DVD) has shaken up the home-video market and introduced new possibilities for visual expression.

Viewers are embracing those possibilities. The entertainment paper Variety reports that sales of DVD players soared 300 percent from 1998 to 1999, riding the wave of newly available titles like "The Matrix" and "Titanic" to sell 1 million players and 50 million discs during the recent Christmas season alone.

DVD players will soon allow consumers to record movies from TV broadcasts (as cassette machines already do) and to link their DVDs with Internet and video-game entertainments. By the end of 2000, no fewer than 10 percent of American homes may boast at least one DVD machine.

DVD technology still has a long way to go before it pushes VHS completely out of the running. A whopping 90 percent of American households have videocassette players, according to Variety, and some may be reluctant to change.

Some of Hollywood's money-watchers are resisting DVD as well, since its lower over-the-counter costs - discs can be cranked out more quickly and cheaply than VHS cassettes - could mean lower revenues for the studios that produce motion-picture content. But most of Hollywood regards DVD's triumph as inevitable, and few insiders fear it will fade from the marketplace the way Betamax video and eight-track audio did in bygone years.

What's behind the new technology's success? Several factors play into the equation.

*DVDs cram a lot of information into a small space. Along with the movie featured on the cover, many DVDs offer additional material not so readily available - or not available at all - from other sources. A specially produced edition of "The Wizard of Oz," for instance, includes everything from awards information and cartoon clips to shots left on the cutting-room floor by the original filmmakers. All this was included in a 1993 laserdisc release, but as the trade publication Billboard notes, the DVD version takes up a single dual-layer disc while the earlier edition comprised three larger and bulkier platters.

*DVDs are similar to a CD in that each scene is numbered. This allows viewers to jump from scene to scene at the touch of a button.

*As another extra, many DVDs include informational commentaries. The new 10th-anniversary edition of "Pretty Woman" has a full-length account of the production by director Garry Marshall, for example, which replaces the film's soundtrack at the flick of a remote-control button. Other companies are branching out to include commentaries by performers and technicians as well as directors. Not everyone is interested in such supplements, but some viewers enjoy the possibility of switching away from the main feature to hear behind-the-scenes gossip or learn how a favorite scene was done.

*In some cases, DVDs offer a variety of ways you can watch a movie. Many modern films are made with wide-screen images that look great in a theater but require a "letterbox" format - blacking out the top and bottom of the TV tube - to be properly viewed on video.

Since some living-room spectators reject letterboxing as a waste of screen space, videocassette companies often chop off the edges of wide-screen movies, distorting their artistic content in order to give them a familiar TV-set shape. DVD allows more than one version to be included on a single disc, letting viewers choose which size and shape they prefer. Ditto for sound, since DVD technology allows more than one dialogue track to be encoded on a disc. Watch the new Hollywood thriller in English - then flick a switch and practice your Spanish or French!

Multiple viewing options like these point to an important reason DVD is replacing VHS and laserdiscs: The history of motion pictures has moved steadily toward increased control by individual viewers. For cinema's first 50 years, commercial movies could only be seen if they happened to be playing in a nearby theater.

The spread of television in the '50s and cable TV in the '70s added an important new resource, but spectators were still at the mercy of anonymous programmers and schedules. Only in the '80s did VHS make a large number of movies watchable on demand, and only in the '90s did telephone and Internet marketing make a wide range of cassettes available to people everywhere.

DVD is the next logical stage in this evolution. It adds little that's really new, since all the bonuses and extras packed onto digital discs have long been present in laserdisc editions. But laserdiscs never caught on with everyday consumers, and DVD has advantages that make it more appealing than its predecessors: easy-to-store compactness, more reliable performance than relatively fragile VHS cassettes can provide, and image quality that's superior to any currently available format outside real movie theaters.

Like all new gizmos, DVD has its drawbacks. Visual sharpness may suffer if too much content is crowded onto a single disc, or if the film-to-video transfer is carelessly done. In a development that real movie buffs consider inexcusable, some wide-screen films are digitized in non-letterbox versions that distort the original movie even on DVD players. It's also worth remembering that most films are made with theatrical audiences in mind, and no video technology yet available can duplicate the crispness, clarity, and cleanliness of old-fashioned celluloid run through an old-fashioned projector.

None of this appears to bother moviegoers now jumping on the DVD bandwagon, or filmmakers starting to recognize its importance as an additional way of reaching large audiences.

After years of treating video as a negligible upstart, director Francis Ford Coppola has reportedly issued a new DVD transfer of the classic "Apocalypse Now" under his supervision, acknowledging that most people will now see the movie in this form whether he likes it or not.

Video may be having an even deeper effect through its impact on young filmmakers. Music composer John Adams, whose works include "Shaker Loops" and "Nixon in China," has called himself a product of the LP era, with eclectic tastes formed by the stacks of phonograph records that surrounded him as he grew up.

Filmmakers like "Pulp Fiction" director Quentin Tarantino and "Magnolia" director Paul Thomas Anderson have had a similar relationship with videocassettes, growing up with much of world cinema at their fingertips. The movies they now make - full of leaps in time, space, and logic - reflect their lifelong ability to manipulate movies in ways their parents never could: starting and stopping them at will, pressing the slow-motion switch to study them in detail, shuffling stories and genres into mix-and-match collages.

DVD is adding new momentum to this trend, for better or worse, and will continue to do so until the next wave of video technology - offering movies on demand from satellite or Internet sources - pushes it aside in turn. Many authorities expect that to happen in a decade or so. Until then, expect DVD to reign supreme in living rooms, video outlets, and even some state-of-the-art theaters. The future is here. And you don't have to rewind it.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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