It's a DVD World

Not so long ago I was a holdout. A friend told me to buy a DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) player but I resisted. I was fine with VHS, and DVD players were much too expensive. I wouldn't even consider taking the plunge until the price dropped below $200. Then it did and I caved. Now you can buy DVD players for under $100; some are selling for as low as $70. DVDs are everywhere and have far surpassed VHS tapes in sales. According to Video Software Dealers Association reports, 2002 saw $8 billion in sales from DVDs, roughly 65 percent of the $12.4 billion generated from all video sales. DVDs were only 35 percent of the rental market, but that was more than double the rentals from 2001. During a week in March 2003, DVD rentals actually topped VHS for the first time ever.

What's behind the DVD popularity surge? The discs have much sharper picture and sound quality than VHS. DVDs are smaller and much more convenient than their forerunner, the bulky laser-disc. DVDs allow you to instantly jump to a particular section of the film without having to rewind or fast-forward. These reasons are all similar to those behind the rise of the CD compared to audio tapes.

But with DVDs there's something more - the special features, the goodies, the "bells and whistles" - whatever you want to call them. They are the little extra things that some with the film itself. Some are standard, such as the film's trailer. (For the record, no matter what it says on the DVD package, "interactive menus" are not a special feature. The menus are what allow you to navigate the DVD. It would be like buying a car and getting the steering wheel as an added bonus.) Some DVDs have "Easter eggs," - hidden features. Some have music videos or games related to the film. But the special features mostly fall into three categories: deleted scenes, documentaries, and commentaries.

Deleted Scenes
Deleted scenes are by far the most popular special feature. They are also the easiest to include, especially with films produced since the advent of the DVD. Directors or producers may specifically cut scenes out with the understanding that they will be included with the DVD.
Usually the DVD will set the scenes as a separate item from the film itself. Sometimes though they will be reintegrated into a "director's cut." Most notably, New Line issued two versions of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the original and an extended version with 30 minutes of extra footage.

Deleted scenes can help flesh out a character or story element. The Lord of the Rings extended version has a touching scene between Frodo and Bilbo that offers a glimpse into their relationship before the story. Terminator 2: Judgement Day has a dream scene with Kyle Reese, the late hero of the first film. Sometimes these scenes are actually alternate or longer versions of a scene already in the film. Pulp Fiction includes an extended conversation between Butch and Esmeralda in her taxicab after Butch kills his boxing foe.

For the right film deleted scenes can be a godsend. Director Rob Reiner and his team assembled the theatrical cut of This is Spinal Tap from many hours of the actors improvising. As you might expect, the process left much on the cutting room floor. The Spinal Tap DVD includes enough of the footage to parallel the film in both length and story arc. To a devoted Tap-Head, the "deleted scenes," play like a bonus film in and of itself.

But remember that most deleted scenes are deleted for a very good reason. The scenes may or may not work by themselves, but often they would slow the story flow and momentum. The Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones DVD has a scene where Anakin Skywalker and Senator Amidala visit her family. If George Lucas had included this in the film I would have been checking my watch. But give Lucas credit: For both of the Star Wars DVDs, the deleted scenes come with fully formed special effects that are indistinguishable from the rest of the film Peter Jackson did the same with Lord of the Rings. Many don't, and the result is a very rough, sloppy cut. The DVD for XXX has a scene where Xander Cage looks at a computer screen while talking with a child. Fine moment, except whenever we should be seeing what Xander sees on his computer all we get is a sign reading "Insert Video Image Here."

Many DVDs advertise documentaries, but this can be misleading. Some so-called documentaries are merely puff pieces created before the film to air on HBO, Showtime or other cable station. These pieces include actors discussing how wonderful it was to work with each other and the director. For added variety we also have the director talking about how wonderful it was to work with the actors. In case we the viewers still don't understand, everyone talks about how this film is a true gem, or at least a fine example of top-notch entertainment. The purpose is only to sell the film, not to give you any insights into its creation. It's all too easy to take one of these promos, slap it on to a DVD and call it a documentary.

Thankfully many DVD documentaries offer more and take advantage of the medium. These documentaries can vary widely, often depending on the film. The Citizen Kane DVD documentary examines Orson Welles's fight to release the film in the face of intense pressure from media mogul William Randolph Hearst (who believed that the story was a thinly veiled personal attack). DVD documentaries for more modern films, such as The Matrix and Fight Club, focus more on special effects. These offer viewers a glimpse into the process and technology behind some of the more eye-popping sequences. New Line's "Infinifilm" series lets you go straight from a scene in the film to information about that scene.

George Lucas's last two Star Wars films have become the gold standard for DVD documentaries. Lucas allowed a camera crew complete access to the filming of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. These pieces truly give the viewer a fly-on-the-wall understanding into how these films were created. Attack of the Clones also includes specific documentaries on visual effects and sound (which is often overlooked).

The men and women who create these documentaries usually work in anonymity. But there's one exception. Laurent Bouzereau produced documentaries for Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., and other Spielberg films. He's also worked on pieces for films such as To Catch a Thief, The Last Picture Show, and the Back to the Future trilogy. His documentaries both educate and entertain. They give you a flavor not only for how the film was made but also the personalities behind the film. While other documentaries feel thrown together, his always display thorough research and careful planning. The interviews are insightful and not lame testimonials to the film's greatness. If you see Laurent Bouzereau's name on a DVD, and you have any interest in the film, buy it.

Casual fans can enjoy the deleted scenes and the documentaries. The audio commentaries are for the hard-core afficionados. You watch the film but the normal sound and dialogue are turned down. Instead you hear someone talk about the film you're seeing. Obviously you'd have to have seen the film before - you can't enjoy the commentary if you're also trying to keep track of what the characters are saying. I'd argue that you also have to love the film, or at least have a strong curiosity. Otherwise you'll grow bored quickly.

As with deleted scenes and the documentaries, the types and quality of commentaries vary. Who's giving the commentary? Usually it's the film's director. Sometimes they go solo but they're just as likely to be joined by actors, screenwriters, producers, editors, cinematographers, or many other professionals affiliated with the film. Of course with older films these people may be deceased or otherwise unavailable, so these commentaries might feature a film scholar or a film restorer instead.

As you might expect, the tone of these commentaries depends both on the film and the commentator. On the Vertigo commentary, restorers Robert Harris and James Katz treat the film like a sacred text. On The Naked Gun commentary, the filmmakers joke about their film and seem to have a good time. Actor Mark Wahlberg was reportedly drunk when he recorded his Boogie Nights commentary.

Commentaries should provide insight into every key aspect of the film, including the script, the casting, the shooting, and the construction of individual scenes. Try to avoid commentary pitfalls, such as "Too Many Cooks." Commentaries with several contributors can often grow jumbled and disjointed. Everyone has to get their two cents in, often at the film's expense. Also, beware of overspecialized commentary. The Cast Away commentary was dominated by sound designer Randy Thom. True, sound was extremely important in that film, and I wanted to learn more about it, but not for every scene, especially when other aspects of these scenes were ignored.

I generally prefer commentaries with just the directors because they are involved in every aspect of the film. They can best decide what part to emphasize. But even here there's variety. Paul Thomas Anderson on his Boogie Nights commentary offers stream-of consciousness ramblings, that, while entertaining, have little to do with the scene you're watching. The late, great John Frankenheimer on The Manchurian Candidate, missed the point of the commentary. Upon a scene with his trademark closeup of a face in foreground and full figure in background, he remarked that he liked to shoot scenes that way. Yes John, I figured that out, but why exactly do you like that technique?

More commentators should follow the example set by Francis Ford Coppola with The Godfather DVD. He's articulate, thoughtful, and covers all the bases. He tells stories about the production, the actors, and the pressures he faced while making the film. But he never loses sight of the scene you're watching. Coppola also gives you insight into his own psyche. You would never know from him that critics and audiences regard The Godfather as a masterpiece. Coppola points out what he sees as the film's flaws and even calls it "sloppily made." Beyond being self-deprecating, this commentary gives you a glimpse into his perfectionism. You can better understand how he would drive himself and everyone else crazy while filming Apocalypse Now.

Also, look for unusual commentaries that provide a new wrinkle in the format. Writer-director Cameron Crowe included his mother on the Almost Famous commentary. His mother was a perfect fit given the importance of the mother in his semi-autobiographical tale of Crowe's childhood. She helped compare and contrast the film with reality. Her interaction with her son also showed ways the mother-child relationship evolved from what was depicted in the film. The Spinal Tap DVD reflected the art-imitates-life history of the film with commentary from the lead actors as their Spinal Tap characters, as though the film were a real documentary.

So how can you learn about these extra features before buying a DVD? Its not difficult -- many websites are devoted entirely to DVD news and reviews, including DVD Review and Digital Bits. More mainstream media, such as Premiere magazine, are reviewing the DVD features along with the film itself.

One last hint - before buying a DVD with few special features, do a little homework. Studios will sometimes issue a bare-bones DVD and then months or years later issue a special edition of the same film. These new editions will have many features missing from the original versions. So if don't buy a disc if you know or even suspect that a souped-up version of the same film is on the way.

The DVD tidal wave grows. Lucasfilm just announced the Indiana Jones trilogy DVD for this November, leaving the original Star Wars trilogy as the last significant holdout (whenever you're ready George). In a few years most stores will not sell any films on VHS. Rentals will likely go completely DVD before too long. Most people with DVD players still use VCRs to tape programs off TV, but even that will change. Recordable DVD players have already hit the market. Currently they cost thousands of dollars but the price will drop just as prices fell for VCRs and regular DVD players.

Try as you might you can't escape the DVD onslaught. So why fight it? Come join us. You know you want to.

Adam Spector
May 16, 2003

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