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DVD turns 20!

On 20th December 1996, the first small round discs featuring high quality all digital copies of films were released to the buying public in Japan. The first batch of discs included Blade Runner, Point of No Return (also known as The Assassin), Eraser and The Fugitive - films that made up the majority of early adopters of the format's first purchases.

Back then VHS was still going strong and DVD also had to compete with the much bigger and more cumbersome laser discs and the CD-based VCD. There was no guarantee that DVD would take off and the rollout across the globe took a couple of years to build up steam. We picked up our first DVD player here in the UK in late 1998 - the Sony DVP S715 - a huge beast that roughly matched the dimensions of the standard video deck in most households. The choice of films in the UK then was limited - our first discs included Sphere and Face/Off which was a flipper! Our early DVD collection looked like a mishmash of different packaging, we can't have been the only people to order our collection based on the type of box the disc was in - the earliest Warner releases came in 'Snappers' which were cardboard/plastic monstrosities that ended up looking tatty after being handled a few times. Then there were the Universal-favoured jewel cases which looked nice but were so, so fragile - one drop and you've got a broken hinge or crack. Finally we had the plastic Amaray cases that eventually became the norm.

You see DVD back then was a format in development that meant there were a huge variety of different types of release on the market - single layer DVDs were capable of storing shorter films in their entirety but maybe didn't have the highest bit rate or extra features. Dual-layer discs were rarer than rocking horse teeth due to the difficulty in manufacturing and high failure rates - in fact early DVD players had a noticeable pause at the layer change that varied in length depending on how the film was recorded to disc. Then there were the aforementioned flippers - many longer films were placed on these rather than dual-layer discs in order to get them to market and meant that at the half-way point of the film; sometimes mid-scene, you'd have to get up, take the disc out and flip it over. They weren't popular.

DVD was the first time the wider public became aware of other things that film fans had long been battling - regional restrictions; which with DVD became locked in with region codes; the differences between PAL and NTSC (PAL was better quality but ran slightly faster sometimes resulting in a change in pitch, America and Japan's NTSC was more accurate in runtime but with the trade off that was lower resolution) and even more noticeable the difference between Pan and Scan and widescreen.

Most VHS releases featured Pan and Scan versions of the film that was designed to fill the more common 4:3 TVs that were on the market until then. Pan and Scan effectively chopped off the edges of the picture and then shifted the frame from left to right to focus on the salient elements. It was a hack that many people had just accepted as being the norm. widescreen films were less available and in many cases the public hated them - they felt they were losing most of their viewable picture with the black bars top and bottom and it took a long time for acceptance that widescreen was the better format. For years many releases included both versions of the film - often on opposite sides of the disc - a practice that seems to have eventually stopped at somepoint when widescreen TVs became dominant in UK homes.

DVD had many challengers over the years - most of these thankfully didn't make it to UK shores and the biggest threat was a format known as Divx - a phenomenally stupid idea that seems reckless in these environmentally more elightened times. Divx was the DVD we know and love aimed at the rental market - each disc would have a limited and fixed number of times it could be replayed after which it was discarded! Think of all that potential waste! Thankfully, mail-based rental services rose to replace that with the like of Netflix in the US and LoveFilm in the UK - the former eventually became the huge streaming behemoth it is today while LoveFilm was swallowed by Amazon and still operates a disc rental service in the UK.

The rise of DVD in hand with the rise of the internet led to a huge increase in movie piracy - while pirate films back in the eighties and nineties were mostly supplied by dodgy workmates on almost unwatchable 10th generation VHS copies, now high quality digital copies were ripable and then downloadable by anyone with an internet connection faster than the average 56k modem. Despite this DVDs success was immense - I don't think anyone thought it would take off so quickly and permeate so many homes as it did over the last two decades. Even the advent of Blu-ray a decade ago only made a dent and DVD is the dominant format in most homes.

Many things are attributed to the take off of DVD - some suggest that the Playstation 2 brought the format to many homes that maybe wouldn't have bought a dedicated film player while it could be argued that some of the cheaper brand region hackable players like the Wharfedales and Prolines may have brought DVD to many homes that wouldn't imagine spending £400 on something to replace their tape deck. Either way, DVD has achieved a penetration that VHS couldn't have ever dreamed of.

Twenty years on, sales may have peaked and streaming and digital copies may be eating up more and more of the physical disc market but there are still shelves in supermarkets and other retailers buckling under the weight of thousands of DVD cases. DVD changed film for the better - making it more mainstream while opening foreign cinema and classics to audiences that would have never considered them before. Home releases of films became things that were treated with care and attention and extra features such as commentaries and documentaries have opened many eyes to the art of film.

Happy birthday DVD!

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