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6. February 2019 07:20
by m
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James Bond on CD-i/Video CD

6. February 2019 07:20 by m | 0 Comments

Philips launched its Compact Disc Interactive (CDI) console system in late 1991. Initially it could play audio CDs and interactive content like CD-ROMs, Kareoke discs and a few games. In 1993, an optional Digital video card was made available, allowing it to play full motion videos on CD. However, these were not quite the same as the Video CDs that were becoming very popular in Asia and would really give VHS some competition there. The disc structure and video specifications were different enough that CD-I videos could not be played in standard Video CD players, though standard Video CDs could be played on a CD-I player. Only about 20 film titles were released on the original CD-I format before Philips switched to the more standardized Video CD Format in April of 1994.

I remember seeing some of these on shelves in shops in the early 1990s, but there were rarely very many of them on display, a reflection of how poorly they were selling. So when I spotted a grouping of four of these James Bond CD-I Video CDs on eBay a few weeks ago at a very reasonable price ($5 each, plus $5 shipping) I hit the Buy It Now button without hesitation.

4 James Bond films on Philips Video CDi

These James Bond discs are from 1995, and have a resolution of just 352 pixels wide by 240 pixels high. Here is a single frame from the MoonrakerMoonraker Video CD, at that resolution:

When played back, the aspect ratio is corrected to 4:3, resulting in a slightly smaller(!) 320x240 picture. Those of us who are old enough to remember the early days of the internet, will recall that this is the same as the "really high quality online video" of the mid to late 1990s (with "low quality" video being half that, with horrible compression artifacts), but of course any kind of video would still take hours to download over a dialup connection.

How did the resolution of Video CDs compare to other standards of the day? VHS tape has a resolution of approximately 220 wide by 480 high, but the picture is interlaced, meaning each frame of the film is actually shown in two parts called fields. Each field is only 220x240, with one field displaying all the even lines and then the other showing all the odd lines. This happens so fast that your eye sees all 480 lines at once and that gives you the impression of a full image, except in scenes of high motion where you can sometimes see the two fields separately:

It was harder to see this "combing" effect on an old CRT or Tube TV, but it's is very easy to spot on a modern TVs and monitors. These Video CDs are "Progressive", meaning there is no interlacing, so every frame is a complete frame. The frame rate is 23.976 frames per second, and each CD contains approximately 1 hour of video, so the films are split across two CDs.

Other competing formats of the day included Betamax tape which has a resolution of approximately 250-280 x 480, and laserdisc which is about 400-425 x 480. Just a few years after these discs were pressed, DVDs would hit the market. DVD video is stored at 720 pixels wide, by 480 high with no interlacing. The pixels aren't square though - they are either squished or stretched to fit the 720 wide mark, and then made square when played back, so that 4:3 Full screen/pan and scan titles like this one would playback at 640x480, while the widescreen ones would be approximately 854x480, though much of that vertical resolution would still be lost to black bars. MoonrakerMoonraker on DVD in widescreen was about 854x362. Today we have James Bond on Bluray (1920x1080) and no doubt it will soon be available on 4K UHD bluray (3840x2160), so digital video has come a long way since 1995.

I do have a number of Video CDs from asia - mostly Kung Fu movies - and the quality of those is best described as "about the same as VHS", because they are at once both better and worse than VHS tape. The problem with the standard Video CD Format is that the combination of primitive MPEG1 video compression and a fixed bitrate of just 1150 kb/s results in better than VHS tape quality in low motion scenes (less color noise), but often a horrible blocky mess when there is fast, complex motion, so I had pretty low expectations.

However, I was quite surprised by the high quality of these discs, even today, on my 42" screen these were very watchable. Most of the film looks like a very good VHS or betamax tape, quieter scenes are almost laserdisc good, and even the high motion, action sequences don't look that bad. There is, of course, some blockyness, but on a Standard Definition TV it isn't as bad as some other VCD titles I've seen. Take this frame for example: If I zoom way in, you can clearly see some compression blocks, but in the image in the corner, which is the video at 100% resolution, it's not nearly so obvious:

close up view of the compression artifacts that plague most VCD titles

Mpeg1 compression works by dividing each frame into 16x16 "macroblocks" and tracking the color and brightness of each pixel within them between frames. Every few frames a complete image is saved, but the frames in between are split into these macroblocks and only the information that changes frame to frame is saved, and there is clearly a lot of averaging. I'm simplifying a very complex process, but hopefully you get the idea. Looking at the enlarged frame above, it is easy to see how the motion is estimated using these small blocks. 

Here is a short sample so you can see it in motion:

Audio, as you would expect, is CD quality, despite being compressed as MPEG 1 Layer 2 at 224 kb/s. The video is, as you can see, full screen "Pan and Scanned", and at this resolution that's a good thing. The title sequence is presented in letterboxed widescreen, and the result is some really tiny text!

letterboxed title sequence for Moonraker on VCD

Letterboxing reduces the picture size to just 320x156!

Just eleven of the sixteen contemporary James Bond titles were released under the Philips CDi banner. By 1998, Philips CDi would be dead, but Video CD would live on and James Bond would return to the format more than once:

Even as late as 2017, Video CDs were still being produced for the Asian market - meaning, yes, you can actually still buy Spectre on Video CD if you really want to.

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