Extras: A How-Not-To Guide

A message to distributors from Dean McIntosh

    Since my review of The World Is Not Enough, I have been asked by various people both online and in the real world exactly what I meant when I said that "seventy minutes of extras encoded at a consistently low bit-rate is too much". Since just over seventy-seven percent of readers out there voted that there can never be too many extras on a DVD, I have been thinking about what sort of guidelines I would have in place in regards to extras, were I to be involved in the DVD distribution business. Of course, the first place I would start would be to make the extras provided as consistent across the Regions as possible, but sometimes the extras themselves are more of a problem than the lack thereof. I will therefore go through some of my favourite examples of the good extras, the bad extras, and the just plain ugly extras.

Audio Commentary - it's all about keeping the audience interested.

    I will start with the much-praised Audio Commentary because an extras package can be made or broken on the strength of this one extra, and there are many discs in Region 4 that provide excellent examples of both good commentary tracks and bad commentary tracks. I will start with examples of the bad commentary tracks in order to get the most unpleasant details out of the way first.

    By far the worst audio commentary I have heard on a Region 4 DVD to date is the one featuring John Gaeta, Zach Staenberg and Carrie-Anne Moss, provided for The Matrix. A commentary is meant to inform the viewer about the subtle intricacies of film-making, not to advertise the film that they have just purchased. It is not meant to be a dissemination of how brilliant you think your own work is, and it is certainly not meant to be a place where you make bold claims about the quality of your film's characters that you simply cannot back up. What makes this commentary even worse is the slipshod manner in which it was recorded, with long and frequent periods of silence taking place that reflect the lack of substance to the subject. Indeed, one statement I have heard about this commentary that is consistent with the end results is that Carrie-Anne Moss got so bored with recording this track that she went out to have a cigarette for twenty minutes at one point. Incidentally, Ms. Moss is the only person involved in this commentary that sees the film for what it is: a summer action film with an overblown special effects budget. Once she is taken out of the equation, the commentary makes the film incredibly hard to watch after its rather pompous and arrogant spiel.

    Of course, a commentary does not necessarily have to be reduced to an advertisement for the film I've already bought in order to ruin my enjoyment of the film. Before I viewed The Devil's Advocate on DVD, I was able to enjoy the film solely on the basis of its cinematography and forget about certain unpalatable qualities to the story that I had not considered before. That all changed when I listened to Taylor Hackford's commentary, which begins with a statement that the film is about morality and choices. This not only contradicts the very nature of the story, but is grossly offensive to a man like myself who values his right to choose above all else. Suddenly, a fantastic film that mixes a dose of natural greed with gothic romance is made unwatchable because it is made clear that the director doesn't know his history at all. My personal experiences of people's attempts to strip me of rights and choices for paltry ideological reasons have led me to view Al Pacino's character as the true hero of this film, and Judith Ivey as the supreme evil. Combined with the general misogyny and sexual phobia apparent in most, if not all, of the female characterizations, I felt this commentary was a grossly offensive tirade against human nature and the freedom to nourish rather than repress it. [Ed. I disagree.]

    Now that I have mentioned two examples of commentary tracks which permanently ruined the film for me, I feel that I should be fair, and point out two of the best commentary tracks that I have heard on Region 4 DVDs. In no particular order, these are Ghostbusters and The Thing: Collector's Edition. In the case of Ghostbusters, Ivan Reitman, Harold Ramis, and Joe Medjuck do not just provide a commentary for a film. They provide a commentary on, and a window into, the time in which the film was created, with insights aplenty into a Hollywood where having a completed script was necessary to get to the stage of principal photography. The insight this film provides on the world as it was in the early 1980s is enhanced by the humour and irony that Ivan and Harold inject into each scene, with an excellent statement about the evils of Panning & Scanning by Harold Ramis that one simply has to hear in order to understand why that dreaded technique is finally on its way out. The Thing: Collector's Edition is accompanied by one of the most historically insightful commentaries I have ever heard, with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell talking about every little subject that is relevant to the film. The coincidence that the film was released at a time when the AIDS virus was a relatively new mystery is given some exploration, as is mankind's natural fear of the unknown. However, what separates this commentary from that which accompanies The Matrix is that it seems very clear that John and Kurt enjoyed working on both the film and the commentary, and have things to say about the film's influence or strengths that are based in fact. Perhaps the most amusing parts of the commentary are those in which the duo talk about ideas for the film that were storyboarded or filmed, but never made it into the final cut.

    To summarize, I want my audio commentaries to be more than just advertisements for a film I've already bought. I want them to be revealing, insightful, and to offer me a perspective on a subject that will fascinate me, or at least keep me entertained for a couple of hours. If your commentary track cannot meet these simple basic rules, then I don't want to hear it.

Theatrical/Teaser/Television Trailers - the best possible quality, please.

    Obviously, it is hard to make a theatrical trailer that was made forty years ago look like it was transferred to video last week, and I can appreciate the fact that we are only just entering the long-overdue era of digital filming. However, the preponderance of trailers out there that look like they've been left to rot for forty years is truly disturbing, with such trailers as For A Few Dollars More and The Alamo giving a whole new meaning to the term film artefacts. Obviously, it is asking too much that these trailers have razor-sharp video and crystal clear sound, but considering the Before and After shots I have seen of the restoration work that was done to the Star Wars trilogy, I think a cleaning up of the print is not too much to ask within reason. If a film was shot in 2.35:1, and its sound was recorded in Dolby Digital 5.1, then I believe I am not asking too much when I ask for a theatrical trailer that is in 2.35:1 with 16x9 enhancement and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. However, if the only source material for the theatrical trailer is a 1.33:1 negative with mono sound, then I will happily accept that as long as no better source material exists.

    I would also like to see more theatrical or teaser trailers being described correctly, with an accurate statement of their role in the film's advertising campaign, or whether they were actually used at all. There are currently far too many DVDs on the market that have a teaser trailer labelled on the packaging as being the "original theatrical trailer". Total Recall and Terminator 2 are the most prominent examples of this in my collection. Accurate labelling of the trailer, or any extra for that matter, is not that hard to do, especially for a company that spends hundreds of millions of dollars making and advertising a film.

    To summarize, I want my theatrical trailers to be given the same treatment and presentation as my films, or the best possible presentation that the source material allows. A theatrical trailer presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with Dolby Digital 1.0 sound for a film that was made in 1999 is far from acceptable, and a waste of the valuable MPEG space on a DVD, unless that is the manner in which the trailer was recorded, or intended to be presented.

Featurettes - entertainment value, not advertising value, please.

    This is where The World Is Not Enough ran afoul of my discriminating tastes, as it contains more than seventy minutes of featurettes that are of limited value. Adding to this is the fact that the one featurette which is of real value, the memorial to the late Desmond Llewelyn, has apparently been shortened from the version that appears on Region 1's version of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Finally, just to inflame me even further, most of these featurettes are rife with obvious MPEG artefacts, and said artefacts are not just confined to the background, but also spill over into the foreground, with macro-blocking becoming evident in the fine lines of people's faces. If you want to put this many extras onto a DVD of a film from a series that has become something of a cash cow, fine, but please don't overcompress them in order to fit them all on the disc. If they won't fit on one disc without artefacts becoming visible as a result, then please put them on another, or leave them out. Sitting down to view small snippets of interviews with Denise Richards and Pierce Brosnan mixed in with footage from the theatrical trailer is not very high on my list of priorities, especially compared to listening to the two of them converse in fluent Russian. The World Is Not Enough could have done without just one of these featurettes in order to allow the others a little more space to breathe.

    Of course, The World Is Not Enough was at least presented in such a manner that the transfer of the film itself was impeccable in spite of the fact that space is at a premium on the disc, and so a few marks go to Fox Home Entertainment for not presenting so many extras at the expense of the film. Universal Pictures' biggest cult title, The Thing: Collector's Edition did not fare so well, however. More than two hours worth of extra features are compressed onto an RSDL disc with what is almost a two-hour film. Speculation that this transfer is merely a recycled laserdisc master aside, the results of the overcompression speak for themselves, with rampant aliasing and background blurring occurring throughout the film. Conference scenes that should have been a mass of admirable detail have fuzzy, indistinct backgrounds, and the outdoor scenes are all but ruined by the lack of resolution in the transfer. This is made all the more upsetting by the fact that the featurettes which the quality of the film itself was sacrificed for are not all that interesting to look at.

    To summarize, I enjoy featurettes that discuss the actual making of the film as much as the next man, but I draw the line at either the film or the featurettes showing visible artefacts as a result of their presence. If a featurette or a film requires more space to breathe, then I will certainly not miss the featurette. I will miss the quality that becomes conspicuously absent if too many featurettes are left on the disc.

Music Videos - quality, not fashionability, please.

    DVD distributors certainly seem to have their demographics more or less completely and utterly screwed up when it comes to deciding which music videos will make an appearance on their DVDs. Granted, relevance to the film itself is important, but the music videos that are presently included on DVDs of this variety fall well outside of the demographic of the average DVD enthusiast. As far as I am aware, I am the youngest person in my circle who owns a fully-featured home theatre system, and being that I'm in my early twenties, I am still old enough to remember when it took some musical talent to sell a thousand units. Selling a piece of pre-manufactured pop to the average home theatre enthusiast is an unlikely event at the best of times, and placing such "music" (I use that term loosely) in your film is a dangerous act in itself. Please have a listen to the theme song which Sheryl Crow contributed to Tomorrow Never Dies if you need to be convinced of this: a good title sequence is all but ruined by a vocalist who is trying to give a performance that her voice simply cannot support. Minnie Driver gives a far better performance during GoldenEye, and she was purposefully singing badly.

    A music video for the Violent Femmes' Blister In The Sun or Queen and David Bowie's Under Pressure, on the other hand, would have been a brilliant inclusion on the Grosse Pointe Blank DVD. Here are two quirky and very meaningful songs, especially in the context under which they appear in the film, that present an unparalleled opportunity to show the superiority of the DVD format and how a music video should look and sound. Naturally, Warner Home Video and Hollywood Pictures flubbed it. To provide a positive example of a music video that is a worthy inclusion on a DVD, one is well advised to take a look at Garbage's performance of the theme song from The World Is Not Enough. I have made it no secret that I have a general dislike of the genre which Garbage can be broadly categorized into, but this theme song is a strangely pleasant one to listen to with an imaginative, surreal music video that perfectly complements the theme of the film it accompanies. I realize that this contradicts my statements in my review of the DVD, and whilst I still consider the music to be uninspiring and dull compared to what I normally listen to, the video itself does complement the film, which is what extras are all about.

    To summarize, having the most current and fashionable music videos accompanying your film may mean something to advertising executives, but it means less than nothing to the average home theatre enthusiast. Please select the music videos you present on your DVDs a little more judiciously.

Outtakes/Blooper Reels - use the ones that are actually amusing, please.

    Nothing is worse than an extra that is meant to have comedic value, but is simply a waste of the data space that it occupies on the DVD. Nothing is more boring than watching actors simply burst into laughter at inopportune moments with no rhyme nor reason, and if I am to be presented with such an extra, I want some kind of annotation to explain exactly what is so funny. Of course, this is not to say that Blooper Reels in themselves cannot be funny without some annotation. One television show produced by the BBC that I would sorely like to see on DVD, Bottom, has an entire video cassette available dedicated to moments when Rik Mayall and Ade Edmonson have fluffed their lines. Some of these mistakes have actually been as funny as the show itself. What I don't want, however, is a series of dull, hard-to-make-out outtakes in which it is more or less impossible to discern when you're actually supposed to laugh, as was the case in the Blooper Reel for Crazy In Alabama.

    Ghostbusters contains an excellent example of the sort of additional footage I would like to see presented as a Blooper Reel or an Outtake. Under the Scene Cemetery menu, there is a forty-three second Outtake simply entitled Bums, featuring Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd arguing about various things that have nothing to do with the film as Rick Moranis is running from the Keymaster in Central Park. While this is not a particularly funny extra, it is interesting to see because of the new slant it brings to a key sequence in the film.

    To summarize, I want my Blooper Reels to be funny, enlightening, or at least have some kind of explanation (possibly even a commentary) as to what makes them worthy of inclusion as an extra.

Menu Animation and Audio - please make this extra a little more seamless.

    Unless a lot of care is taken with a preprogrammed music track or sound effect series, the beginning and end of these sequences of sound can stick out like the absence of extras on many Warner Home Video DVDs. The Matrix is a classic example of a good menu theme ruined by poor looping, with already annoying menu audio being made all the more irritating by a jarring pause at the end of the animation. Ghostbusters' main menu also suffers from poor looping, with the animation being of a noticeably short length. While I recognize that the menu is not meant to be looked at for more than a few minutes, returning to the main menu makes a far better option than hitting the pause button for those inevitable moments when you must unglue yourself from the lounge chair in order to make yourself a chocolate milkshake and some popcorn. The jarring pause at the end of the animation in both of these menus is quite disturbing to behold, even if you do understand all the subtle intricacies of putting together such a feature.

    In other words, I want my animated menus to flow together a little more smoothly. A slight skip when the beginning and end of an audio track or animation come together is barely acceptable, but the jarring pause common to so many DVDs with this feature is not.

Production Notes or Cast and Crew Biographies - please make these worth the time to read.

    There are a preponderance of DVDs out there with biographies and filmographies on them that just aren't worth the time and effort to read. While a listing of films that the star in question has appeared in may be helpful when more DVD titles are on the market, at the moment they just serve as a reminder of the vast amount of titles we are missing out on in Region 4. When I read a biography of Paul Verhoeven, for a purely speculative example, I want to read about the films he made during the ten years before he came to the United States and made Robocop. I want to hear about the problems he was having with the Dutch government and European censorship before he made this move, as well as some details of who released such films as Soldier Of Orange, and why the films from this phase of his career are unavailable in the English-speaking world. I do not want to be told his life story as if it simply began in 1986 with the shooting and editing of Robocop, as I know this to simply not be the case, and I find being told things I know to be patently false quite insulting to my intellect.

    Likewise, I don't want to be bombarded with patently false claims about a filmmaker or actor, nor do I want to hear a false positive spin on events that cannot be described in any other way but appalling. I also want my Production Notes or Cast and Crew Biographies to be presented in a readable form, which is simply not forthcoming on such DVDs as Wild Things and Unforgiven. Indeed, in the case of the former, the Cast Biographies are printed in such minute print that the zoom function is required to read them on an eighty-centimetre screen.

    To make a long story short, I want my Production Notes and my Cast and Crew Biographies to be grounded in fact, comprehensive right down to the last known detail, and readable. Three screens full of advertising material compressed into one screen is not acceptable.

DVD-ROM Extras - get them the hell off my disc!

    Every now and again, a DVD will arrive with significant amounts of DVD-ROM content on it for reasons best known to the manufacturer. There is no polite way to put this: I do not want them taking up the valuable MPEG space on my disc. Although there are some of us who choose to view our films through a computer, this percentage will diminish, rather than grow, as the market grows, as the vast majority of us out there are not computer literate. Speaking as someone who is both computer literate and DVD literate, there is no way or possibility that I will ever use a DVD-ROM enabled computer to view my films, as I have far too many bad experiences with computing to even contemplate entrusting my films to the whirring box of clunky components that I use to type these articles. With the inherent unreliability of the monopolized PC operating system market as it is today, I see no place in my day to day life for a DVD-Recording drive, either. In case you haven't got the point I am trying to press, I consider DVD in all its forms to be a leisure system, and I consider the PC-compatible to be nothing more than an aggravating work tool. Mixing the two is not something I want to occur at any point.

    Additionally, the specifications of many DVD-ROM features are somewhat alarming, with statements to the effect that they will only work in a PC-compatible computer. Apple may not have a very large market share due to the inherently costly nature of their computers, but their operating system is a thousand times more stable and reliable for use with multimedia applications. Excluding such a platform for use with your DVD-ROM software is tantamount to attempting to run a marathon with a broken leg: your results will be rather severely hobbled.

    To put it bluntly, I have no use for DVD-ROM extras, and I have no intention of ever upgrading to a DVD-ROM compatible computer. I want these sorts of extras gone from my DVDs post-haste as they are nothing more than a waste of vital bits that could be used to improve the video quality of the main feature.

In Closing

    In the rush to put as many extras on a disc as one can, it is easy to forget that in order to sustain interest, an extra must be of similar quality to the film which it accompanies. Placing an hour of extras on one disc is no good if the film or the extras suffer from artefacts as a result of the compression being too tight, and it is certainly easy to do a disservice to your film by placing a boring or annoying commentary on the disc. Having watched nearly a hundred discs myself in the past eight months, I have certainly been able to form an idea of what makes an extra worthwhile. Considering that a film on DVD needs as much space as it can get in order to look its best, an absence of extras is certainly preferable to a preponderance of extras with no entertainment value. However, putting together an entertaining and valuable extras package is not as hard as the number of worthless ones out there would have us believe.

© Dean McIntosh (my bio sucks... read it anyway)
June 6, 2000