DVD nonsense

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Technology
November 27th, 2003 • 5:43 am

Go to Amazon.ca. Search for “Solaris” in the DVD section. Look at the list of results. Today, I am only interested in the new version of Solaris by Steven Soderbergh. There are no fewer than three different versions of the same thing:

  1. a widescreen version
  2. a full-screen version
  3. a widescreen English/French version for Quebec

This doesn’t make any sense. As far as I know, the DVD format is flexible enough to provide both the widescreen version and the full-screen version on the same disc. Most DVD titles I buy from Europe come in a single version that contains both the widescreen and the full-screen version. Why not in North America? Is the North American audience really so DVD-illiterate that they need to be provided with two separate packages, in order to avoid any confusion?

And then there is the language issue. Here again, the DVD format is flexible enough to accommodate more than one audio track. In fact, many DVD titles include both a 5.1 audio track and a traditional stereo track. They can also include more than one language on the same DVD. So why the need for a separate version for Quebec? Couldn’t they just include the French audio track on the English DVD? (That’s how it’s done for many other titles, even in North America. It’s then just a matter of slapping some vaguely bilingual packaging on it.)

It is always so disappointing to see a technological advance that becomes hugely popular — and DVDs certainly are such an advance — and yet remains used in ways that far from realizing its full potential.

We have the same problem with our pay-per-view satellite TV provider. It has something like 17 different pay-per-view channels that show typical Hollywood fare non-stop 24 hours a day… and then it has 17 other channels that show the exact same Hollywood fare dubbed in French. What a colossal waste of bandwidth!

9 Responses to “DVD nonsense”

  1. MacDesigner says:

    “I have never come across a DVD with both widescreen and pan-and-scan versions (I think your labeling this as full screen is a little deceptive, since you?re _losing_ information from the original widescreen version)”

    2 Points:

    1) It’s called full-screen because if fills the entire television screen so there is no deception. On small screens, at the least under 19″, the widescreen format is very small and almost pointless to watch. Some would argue watching anything less than a 24″ screen is pointless also. However, my 19″ TV has worked very well for me and will continue to work until I am able to afford something larger.

    2) Many of the early DVDs were both widescreen and full-screen, I own a few in my collection. “The Devil’s Own” with Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt is one of them. The DVDs were 2 sided with the widescreen version on one side, or you could turn it over and watch the full-screen version. So neither side had any printing on it, save which version of the movie, except on the inner ring near the center.

    I believe with the practice of additional footage and special features, plus all the printing they like to put on the DVD itself, has caused the version inflation.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    I call it “full screen” because that’s what they call it :).

    Most of the DVDs I buy from France are labelled “widescreen 16/9 compatible 4/3”. Whether that means that the picture can only in so-called “letterbox” format on a 4/3 TV or not, I don’t know. My understanding was that, since the “full screen” version is basically, as you said, a “pan-and-scan” version of the widescreen version, DVD makers could save a lot of disk space by just recording the widescreen version along with a track containing the pan-and-scan coordinates for each and every frame. But maybe I am misunderstanding something.

    I agree that widescreen versions look ridiculously small on smaller TVs, but you can’t really blame the movie :).

    And Will, if you do move to America, just get a multi-region DVD player :-). They are not hard to find, really, and I don’t think the police is going to come knocking at your door because you have one. I agree the region thing is entirely driven by commercial considerations (mostly the Hollywood studios being afraid that Europeans would purchase American DVDs before their movies actually come out in the theaters in France). The stupid thing is that it affects all kinds of DVDs on both sides of the Atlantic that would never have any kind of commercial success anyway. But even if you didn’t have the regions, you’d still have the NTSC vs. PAL issue, so you’d still need a converter, which most people in America don’t have.

  3. Will says:

    I have never come across a DVD with both widescreen and pan-and-scan versions (I think your labelling this as full screen is a little deceptive, since you’re _losing_ information from the original widescreen version), but I’ll believe you for now :)

    I am the firmest believer in keeping movies in the same format in which they’re shot. If you have a film like Lord of the Rings, which was shot in a 2.35:1 widescreen format (width is over twice as long as height), then to cut off the edges to fit it into a 4:3 TV almost removes HALF of the total viewing area.

    In my strong opinion, 4:3 ratio DVDs should only be made if the original source is in that format, and with the emergence of wide-screen digital TV, that situation is becoming less and less common.

    Oh, and agree with everything you said, Pierre! I’d add that regional DVDs are also ridiculous. What happens in 4 years if I move to America from Australia and all of my DVDs are unplayable? Stupidity!

  4. Will says:

    There was something about the Australia Consumer something something considering banning NOT selling region-free DVD players over here. I don’t know what happened with it, but I do know that it’s pretty easy to get one (I think it’s fairly standard across most brands).

    Similarly it’s the norm to get NTSC and PAL in the same package, but now that I think of it I can’t remember if it’s the TV or the DVD player that supports both of them. Maybe both!

    Anyway, with the pan n scan thing, as far as I am aware there is no way to implement it “on the fly” with current DVD technology. It’d be nice though, and you wouldn’t think too technically challenging…

    Finally, I believe dual sided DVDs were more common before multilayer technology was widespread. It was really stupid when they would say like “this DVD can hold up to 18GB”, but if you have to eject the DVD and flip it over, it defeats the purpose. I imagine cutting dual sided DVDs would be more expensive and I think people like having one side which isn’t as delicate as the other.

  5. Pierre Igot says:

    The NTSC/PAL issue depends on which country you are in. In North America, it’s quite challenging to find TV sets that can handle the conversion themselves. Some region-free DVD players have a built-in converter, but it’s not always of the best quality. You’re probably better off getting a quality stand-alone unit. Yes, it means more cables and more shelf clutter, but the picture quality is worth it.

    As for DVDs themselves, I too remember the early days when they were touting the “up to 18 GB” capacity. But I believe that this capacity could only be achieved with a combination of multiple layers and dual-sidedness.

    Right now, they are coming up with these “blue laser” DVDs that — I suppose — are able to hold more data on the same side.

  6. Volodya says:


    I’m curious what you think on Soderbergh’s vs Tarkovski’s Solaris.

  7. Pierre Igot says:

    Haven’t watched Soderbergh’s version yet :).

  8. BincyJines says:

    What’s insanse is that there was a time when DVDs, including the ones you rented, had both widescreen and fullscreen available. I can definitely remember being able to change the aspect ratio as it’s a button on my ancient DVD player. Now, if you go to a video store you face the prospect of all the widescreen versions being rented. Unbelievable downgrade in technology. Is this really because it’s easier to understand if it’s widescreen or fullscreen by being on the box? Is there not another reason that could somehow be just slighly more justifiable?

  9. Pierre Igot says:

    BincyJines: Like MacDesigner said, part of the reason is that they put more extras on the DVDs, so there’s less room for two versions.

    Fortunately, more and more people are buying 16/9 TVs, so this is becoming less and less of an issue. That’s also why all the widescreen versions are rented :). Not much you can do about that except try again later. I guess popular titles will always be in limited stock!

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