Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Heath Holland On...Special Features

by Heath Holland
This week I’m thankful for all the hundreds of hours I’ve spent watching the extras on DVDs. And pie.

We talk a lot about the special features on DVDs and Blu-rays around here, and it sometimes seems that the documentaries, deleted scenes, commentaries, and gag reels that used to round out the supplemental materials on just about every shiny disc we buy have become either absent entirely or are now little more than air and fluff. Is it possible to spend thirty minutes watching footage and interviews of a movie being made and still not learn a single thing? You better believe it is. Increasingly, studios seem to be dumping extra content onto home media releases that contain precisely 0% substance and value. It’s the video equivalent of white noise. Bye bye, insomnia!

It wasn’t always like this. When the format of DVD was new, each release brought a new and deeper connection with the film’s stars and creators. Robert Rodriguez taught us everything from financing our own indie films to the best recipe for fake blood. Tarantino (via interviews) taught me when 8mm was a better choice than 16mm and vice versa. Commentary tracks were usually very honest and revelatory; it took a while for most directors to realize that they had to walk a political line when they sat in front of that microphone, and those disclaimers that warned us that “the views and opinions expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of the studio, its parent company, the plant that pressed the discs, the guy who Photoshopped the cover art, or your mama” were there because you knew somebody was going to be dishing some delicious dirt.
Just like everything, the purity of the experience has been diminished over time and studios more and more frequently dump EPKs (Electronic Press Kits, or also Exotic Penis Knockers) with stock interviews of talent giving just as much of a performance as they were in the film itself. We haven’t had one of Robert Rodriguez’s “Ten Minute Film School” features in what seems like ages and it seems like a lot of audio commentaries have become snooze-fests with long stretches of silence. There was a time when I would sit with an open notebook and take copious notes as I hung on every word, nothing escaping my attention. Now physical media is on the decline and streaming is the new standard. Sales are dropping faster than panties after a Bruno Mars concert.

However, physical media, like that guy who gets thrown onto the corpse cart in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, is not dead yet. Just because it’s on the decline doesn’t mean it’s ever going to go away completely; there will always be a dedicated group of enthusiasts (like us!) to keep the format alive. In honor of that sentiment, here are a handful of my random thoughts, reflections, memories, complaints, and endorsements of DVD bonus material. Three cheers to you, special features; I toast to your legacy. Long may you live!

The DVD for Barry Levinson’s 1998 film Sphere featured a commentary track that was spliced together from at least three separate recordings. Actors Dustin Hoffman and Samuel L. Jackson were not in the same room for their comments; SamJack talks about what a great experience the movie was and how happy he was to be involved in the project. Hoffman, on the other hand, complains repeatedly about the difficult working conditions and how horrible the whole shoot was for him. I was really put off by how two actors could be in the same movie on the same sets and have such different experiences. In retrospect, I’m sure Hoffman came from a very different school of acting and was out of his element in the special-effects-heavy picture; nevertheless, it’s been years now and I’ve still not totally warmed back up to Dustin Hoffman.

I wish directors like Steven Spielberg, the Coen Brothers, and Quentin Tarantino did audio commentaries. I think the excuse that “the movie should speak for itself” is a total cop-out. Yes, the movie should speak for itself, but we’d still love to hear how your movie was made, and technology has made it incredibly easy for you to bring us even deeper into your film. Come one, you guys, take us on your magic carpet ride.

On the documentary for The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the filmmakers reveal how they performed a stunt in which Spider-Man grabs onto a passing automobile as it speeds by, the speed and momentum causing him to go horizontal behind the vehicle. They didn’t use any tricks, and was accomplished without any wires or special effects. It’s a recreation of a Buster Keaton gag, and the crew vowed that “if Buster could do it, so could we.”
The DVD for Se7en contains a featurette that shows how color timing is accomplished. The color editor explains how he changed sky color, took the brightness out of the film, and matched shots from different days so they looked like they were all filmed at the same time. I found the quiet clicking of the mouse and the editor dude to be so mellow and soothing that I would watch the featurette whenever I couldn’t fall asleep. It worked every time.

I used to consider Robert Rodriguez’s commentary for El Mariachi to be the most approachable and informative track for aspiring filmmakers. I must have listened to it 50 times. I’ve probably moved on since then, but that commentary made me feel like I could do anything.

I rip audio commentaries as MP3 files and put them on my mobile devices so I can listen to them whenever I want to. There’s nothing like listening to Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall on the commentary for The Breakfast Club while you sit in traffic.

Star Wars movies have become notorious for home video re-releases, but there’s usually some pretty sweet special features exclusive to each edition. The original DVD of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace contained a one-hour documentary called The Beginning. Culled from over 600 hours of footage, it offers a very real, honest look at George Lucas as he struggles to bring his vision to the screen. Lucas takes a lot of guff for being out of touch, but The Beginning contains a scene where the director tells Frank Oz “I made More American Graffiti and it made 10 cents. Failed miserably.” Frank Oz seems taken aback, so George continues, “you CAN destroy these things, you know. It IS possible.”
Lucas is also often accused of surrounding himself with yes-men who won’t object to his decisions, but the documentary features a scene in which Lucas sits in a screening room after watching his near-complete film; an exasperated Ben Burtt, the editor, tells him that he’s gone through four different emotional beats in the final 90 seconds of the movie. Lucas is quiet for a while and then eventually says “I think I may have gone too far.” The next scene shows him telling his producers how it’s too late to completely change the ending, but that he can try to diminish the effects on the viewers.

While we’re talking about Star Wars bonus features, how do you guys feel about George Lucas answering years of fan requests by slapping the original, unaltered trilogy of films as extras on the 2006 DVDs in non-anamorphic transfers? I mean, I’m an apologist, but even I thought that was kind of a backhanded way of sticking it to fans. “You want to Original Trilogy on DVD? I gave it to you in 2006. YOU’RE WELCOME.”

Some of my favorite DVD special features are found on the Lord of the Rings extended editions. There are about 16 hours of documentaries that span the entire creative process of the original trilogy and follow the actors through casting, filming, reshoots, and finally their parting of ways. The extended editions for The Hobbit trilogy are shaping up to be even more informative and lengthy with 18 hours of documentary footage out already and with one movie still left to go; they’ve warmed me on The Desolation of Smaug, a movie I was really disappointed with. It’s hard not to spend hours with everyone from the costume designers to the guys that carve the mountain faces out of polystyrene and not appreciate the thousands of man-hours that were put into making the movie. The Hobbit special features also make it abundantly clear that the subversive horror maniac who made Bad Taste in 1987 is still the same guy who is making one of the biggest movie sagas of all time.
The picture-in-picture technology that allows “Maximum Movie Mode” on Blu-rays like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is awesome and I want to see more studios utilize it for their home video releases.

The Alien Anthology features one of the coolest user interfaces that’s just as atmospheric and unsettling as the films themselves. The documentaries on the discs are also incredibly informative and cool. There’s around SIXTY HOURS of extras. This has to be the winner in terms of sheer content.

If you ever see a kung fu movie with a commentary by Bey Logan, it’s worth a blind buy. That guy is an encyclopedia of chop-socky movie lore and talks a mile a minute. Ninety minutes with Bey Logan is like three hours with most other commentators.

Why didn’t the “multi-angle” feature catch on outside of porn and concert films? It seems like there was so much promise for that neat little option that was never fully explored.

While we’re at it, why don’t we see more video commentaries? You guys remember when the first edition DVD of Ghostbusters came out back in the day and you could see the members of the commentary in silhouette form, MST3K style? Did any mainstream movie ever do that again?
Mad props go out to the audio commentary for This is Spinal Tap. As far as I know, it was the first time a commentary was given entirely in character. It’s like getting double-tapped by Tap.

The director’s edition of Almost Famous contains a deleted 12-minute scene that would have centered around Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” but the footage didn’t make the final film. Cameron Crowe tells you how to cue up your own copy of “Stairway” and sync the song to his scene. It’s a great, unconventional special feature that cleverly avoids any legal ramifications, almost like if The Wizard of Oz told you when to hit play on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. In fact, why has that not been done?

I could go on and on; if you want to read some of the ones that didn’t make the final cut, go to the top menu and select “deleted scenes.”

The special features on our shiny discs are one of my absolute favorite parts of the culture of film. It’s easy to take them for granted now, but the relative low cost and accessibility of DVDs leveled the playing field and brought the filmmakers so much closer than they had ever been to us, lowering the barrier just a little bit more and showing us that we were capable of great things on our own. They gave us the tools we needed to become better movie fans. Thanks, shiny discs, and thanks to movie studios for taking a gamble that I wanted to know as much about my movies as possible. I did, and I still do.

What special features have had the biggest effect on you? What are your favorites?

29 comments:

  1. I suppose it's obvious to mention the special features on the Criterion DVDs and Blu Rays, but for my money they still have the most consistently entertaining commentaries out there. I was lucky to get my hands on the Criterion versions of Spellbound and Rebecca. The former has a wonderful "visual essay" about Salvador Dali's dream sequence, and the latter features a great doc on the search for the main character. The DVD and Blu Ray for Psycho has one of the best making-of docs I've ever seen, along with every one of Saul Bass's storyboards for the shower sequence.

    David Fincher is known for putting extensive extras on his DVD releases. There is a 3-disc DVD for Panic Room (now sadly out of print, I think) that is a treasure trove for movie buffs. I mean, he goes into EVERYTHING on the making of that movie. And of course, the Blu Ray for The Social Network has that great making-of documentary. I continue to be amazed at how much "invisible" CGI goes into his movies.

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    1. I love the actual essays in the booklets of Criterion discs, too. Such a sucker for a good essay.

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  2. I love it when a director is generous and informative with special features. I do also wish that Tarantino and like gave more access into their filmmaking process, but I'm happy for the David Finchers of the world. He's one who I have always felt cared about including great, extensive, informative special features. I always enjoy and get a lot out of his commentaries.

    I enjoyed this column, and I hope special features never die!

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    1. Ha, Steve K. beat me to it with the Fincher love, but I agree!

      Also, you mentioned video commentaries in the column, Heath, and I definitely wouldn't mind seeing more of those.

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  3. tarantino's commentary on "true romance" is pretty good... i remember he did one for jackie brown too (i think...)

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  4. Heath, to follow up on your Spinal Tap in-character commentary note, Bruce Campbell gives a commentary for Bubba Ho-Tep in character AS ELVIS! Highly recommended. I love this column, as a special feature completionist I really appreciate all of the love, and this gives me a few more things to track down! Long live special features!

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    1. that's my favourite commentary of all time! "hey junior, gene, cliff, red... come on, y'know? knock it off..."

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    2. If I knew Bruce Campbell did a commentary AS Elvis, I had forgotten until you mentioned that. I've seen Bubba Ho-Tep but don't own it. This has to change. Especially since I was a late-blooming Elvis fan. Thanks!

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    3. I did not know that too Matt and I own the movie.

      Its friday night here. Ive finished work for the week and im sat watching Bubba-hotep and listening to the Elvis commentary. At this point as im typing this Elvis is explaining how to make the perfect peanut butter and banana sandwich. Brilliant

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  5. I've mentioned this on a post before - my fav commentaries are Die Hard with McTiernan (it's insanely technical in some spots but I like that about him), Donnie Darko (crazy informative), Usual Suspects (fun and informative) Mallrats (a lot of fun), Bamboozled, Inside Man (Spike is insanely unfiltered in these, they are a must listen), The Goonies with the whole cast and Charade with Donen and Stone; two grumpy old men arguing about how they remember the movie.

    I echo the Seven special features. I had the laserdisc that was insane at the time. I also bought the Robocop LD at the same time and those special features were great too.

    I have to say, The special edition Memento dvd is the most infuriating special feature ever. You had to pass a quiz to fuckin' access the movie!!! What a jerk.

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    1. "Insane" seems to me my word of the day.

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  6. I think like most of us on here, I love watching the extra features. Just worked my way through all the stuff on the Desolation of Smaug extended Blu-ray set. I eat that stuff up.

    Oh and Heath, in regards to the Hobbit films etc. Keep the faith brother.

    I tried to run the Ghostbusters MST3K style commentary a few weeks ago and was bummed to find it is not compatible (won't play) on new TVs, bluray players or some combination thereof that I am using. (it gave me an error message about not being able to play in widescreen mode.

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  7. Great article, Heath and I agree wholeheartedly. It's often a deciding factor on whether or not I buy or rent a movie (even though I don't always get to them as often as I'd like to) - I managed to watch almost all of the amazing Alien extra features - someday I hope to slam through The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit stuff.

    A lot of great stuff already mentioned here - Hearts of Darkness (re Apocalypse Now) probably counts as a standalone documentary so I won't nominate that (though holy shit, watch it if you haven't), so I'm going to go with the philosophers' commentaries on The Ultimate Matrix Collection blu-ray set (it may be on the DVDs as well). They really turned me around on the sequels to The Matrix - if they're good enough for Brother Cornel West, they're good enough for me!

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  8. You certainly hit a nerve there with me Heath. I totally agree about the white noise thing. It really frustrates me to feel that the people's views we are interested in are not allowed to be spoken. Were all adults. Lets them say what they want. I want controversy. I want the dirt. I want to hear about the bad days filming. Thats why I bought the bluray.

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  9. I'm not going to read this article. I'll wait for it on Laser Disc. It's supposed to have some extra stuff on it. I like when things have stuff on them...

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  10. I love this piece, and totally agree about the plight of the special-features junkie. I can't remember the historian's name off the top of my head, but I love the commentary track on Criterion's Godzilla bluray. It's incredibly informative and nowhere near as dry as historian tracks tend to be. On the flip side of that coin, just a couple nights ago I listened to Keanu Reeves' track on Man of Tai Chi and it was a draaaaaaaaag. You'd think a first-time filmmaker would be brimming with stories and tips, but it's 70% silence and 30% "it was cold that day"-style non-information. Very disappointing.

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    1. The guy who does the commentary on the Criterion pressing of Godzilla is David Kalat. I haven't listened to it yet--I got burned out on the G-man when I decided to watch every single movie for a column (it was cold that day...), but now I'm intrigued. Thanks for the heads up!

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  11. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church's commentary for Sideways is almost as funny and entertaining as the film itself. I still refer to lies as "tendrils of obfuscation" because of that track.

    By the way, you guys should F Sideways.

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    1. I'd be down for a good Sideways F'ing.

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  12. Steven Soderbergh and Lem Dobbs' commentary track for "The Limey" is fantastic, and it makes me long for a Criterion release.

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    1. YES! Great call...they're at each other's throats for a decent amount of it but it's packed with great information too.

      Unrelated to that, I just remembered another good one for those interested in the process of making a movie on the cheap: Robert Radler's track on The Substitute 4. No joke, it's entertaining and filled with information the way Robert Rodriguez's used to be.

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  13. To your question about visual commentaries, Barry Sonnenfeld and Tommy Lee Jones did one for the Men in Black DVD. They were sitting on the bottom of the screen, MST3K style, and I seem to remember they also drew stuff on the screen, like circles and arrows to draw the audience's attention and stuff like that. Kinda like some sports commentators do.

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  14. Special features are what made me want to be a filmmaker. The making-of documentaries for films such as The Lord of the Rings, Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, and the Star Wars films informed me on the filmmaking process and made me realize that I could do exactly what they were doing.

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  15. Thanks for a great column. I remember when Pee Wee's Big Adventure came to DVD and listening to Reubens and Burton get together in a room together for the first time in years. Heaven!
    I was more recently blown away by the commentary for Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. Ethan Hawke takes the opportunity to interview the great Sidney Lumet and ends up with a fascinating history of filmmaking. Philip Seymour Hoffman sounds a little sleepy at first, but he gets into things as the track proceeds. Can't recommend this one highly enough.

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  16. Great piece Heath! You've (literally) named all of my favorite commentaries/special features that have stuck with me over the years. More Fincher love here, he does a fantastic job with the commentaries and extras for ALL his movies (yes including the directer's cut of Alien 3).

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    1. While I agree that the special features for Alien 3 (found on the Alien anthology) are excellent, I'm not sure Fincher participated in the making of the release. He has such a bad taste in his mouth from the making of that movie that he declined to be involved. As such, the longer cut of the movie was made without his input (which is why it's called an "assembly cut" and not a "director's cut"). I hope one day Fincher will revisit Alien 3 - I think that movie is much better than its reputation.

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  17. Like most of us, you probably recorded some of your favorite memories onto a VHS tape. Preserve the good times by transferring the tape to a DVD. 8mm Video to DVD Transfer

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  18. Im preserving the good times. I own two Vhs players and one S-Vhs player too ;)

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