DVD Film School
By Peter John Ross (www.sonnyboo.com)
What a world we live in today, originating with the laserdisc, supplemental material with a movie has become a standard as DVD's made their way into virtually every home. Filmmakers have benefited greatly from this, especially for the astute observers. Not a lot of us can afford film school, but I can help you make a curriculum from your own DVD collection and from discs available from the public library for free. A lot can be learned from DVDs in the form of commentary tracks, documentaries, as well as the obvious just viewing the movie for it's own value.
You can create your own "curriculum" from many of your favorite movies on DVD. If there are commentary tracks and extras, they usually contain a lot of valued information on how something was done. Not everything has techie, scary guys on how they did the special FX.
Commentary tracks have some of the best lessons to learn from. For example, Rob Reiner & Cameron Crowe commentaries are almost exclusively on performance and nothing on camera, and others are too much about camera tricks; they neglect to say anything about actors in the movie. And there's an all-new category of commentary tracks for people, like Tim Burton, who don't talk for 20 minutes at a time and teach us nothing.
My Best DVD commentary Tracks (for filmmakers)
ROAD TO PERDITION with director Sam Mendes. This isn't even one of my favorite movies, but it's, by far, my number 1 commentary track. Sam Mendes understands and has the perfect balance between actor's performance & directing the camera. A lot of commentaries are too skewed towards one & not the other.
STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN with director and uncredited writer Nicholas Meyer. It features the essence of storytelling from a formerly young up & coming director looking back after years of experience.
TRUE ROMANCE with Quentin Tarantino writer's commentary track.
A great story of how the kid from a video store worked several angles to become the "Quentin" that we know as a pop culture icon. More sedate than usual, and at his most endearing, Tarantino's storytelling is at its best with the commentary. Also an explanation of why he does his stories non-linearly is priceless.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS from Bryan Singer director, & writer Christopher McQuarrie discuss the beginnings of the story and again, the balance between story and acting plus the great cinematography of this movie.
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (Criterion collection edition) from director Jonathan Demme, Jodie Foster, and Anthony Hopkins. Not available on the "special edition" disc widely available, the commentary track has many insights into the actor's process and the director anecdotes and trivia make for interesting examination of a landmark film.
SLACKER (Criterion collection DVD) - the "crew" commentary with Rick Linklater & Lee Daniel has many cost-saving tips and other seeds that can grow in the minds of many young filmmakers.
CHASING AMY (Criterion collection DVD/Laserdisc) - Although it's the usual comedy & antics of a large group of buddies, in between the jibes mocking Ben Affleck's movie Phantoms, there are some insights into the creative process of Kevin Smith. A few, and it's selective but the few nuggets of info are worth the banter.
LORD OF THE RINGS (all 3 movies from the 4 disc special edition DVD sets) - all 4 commentaries on all 3 movies can mine many great ideas and information on filmmaking in general. That's over 40 hours of viewing/listening right there.
FIREFLY: THE COMPLETE TV SERIES - disc four, the last episode commentary by Joss Whedon. By his own admission, creator/writer/director/producer Joss Whedon does a somewhat less trivial commentary and tries to describe the origin of the concepts behind the ideas for an episode of phenomenal television. Getting philosophical and still maintaining his wit and humor, Joss' revelations and gratitude to everyone around him make this commentary special.
EL MARIACHI (all DVD versions & originated on Laserdisc) when the opening words of the commentary tell you it's more like "how to make a movie for $7,000 or less", how bad can it be? It has a lot of great information delivered as you watch the inexpensive action movie.
The BMW Films series "THE HIRE" has all 8 films made for the web, plus their commentary tracks. Hearing insights from directors John Frankenheimer, War Kong Wai, Ang Lee, Tony Scott, Joe Carnahan, Guy Ritchie, and more make this a riveting and educational tool on telling stories in the short form. Not many will have $1million per 6 minute short, but the style and motives are priceless if you can learn to adapt the knowledge to match your budget.
THIS IS SPINAL TAP (Criterion version DVD and Laserdisc long out of print) - the commentary track by the three lead actors Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest is very very different than the one on the commonly available "Special Edition DVD". On the Special Edition, they do a commentary as the characters. On the hard to find Criterion version, they do a commentary as actors, writers, and filmmakers. Lesson learned? It really boggled my mind to learn they never set foot out of Los Angeles County to make the movie. The power of suggestion of putting a title that says "Atlanta, Georgia" whilst showing a hotel can really effect perception in the viewer's mind.
Honorable mentions -
RUSHMORE (Criterion collection DVD) for Wes Anderson on his second movie features many great cinematic advice.
GOOD WILL HUNTING with Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Gus Van Zandt carry on about the experience working on this Academy Award-winning "indie" film.
GLADIATOR with Ridley Scott lets go a lot of epic filmmaking nuggets
MADE with the "action commentary" by Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn and Peter Billingsley aka Ralphy from "A Christmas Story" where they use the same technology from football games to literally point out things on screen. MADE was an indie film shot in New York and features a lot of Soprano's cameos but also has some indie film techniques.
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN/BLAZING SADDLES DVDs with commentary track from Mel Brooks let loose some comedy genius and methods of old from a guy who's been funnier longer than most indie filmmaker's grandparents have been fornicating.
SEVEN SAMURAI, Criterion Collection DVD, whose commentary has the sole distinction of being done by a film critic as opposed to a filmmaker, one of the cinemas greatest films ever made teaches a lot about the genius of Kurasawa from a unique, outsiders perspective.
My Favorite DVD EXTRA's
Documentaries & Extras offer up a lot of fluff and sometimes some of the best reality of the film business. Here are the most educational in my humble opinion
EL MARIACHI DVD (all editions)
TEN-MINUTE FILM SCHOOL from Robert Rodriguez is one of the most common denominators between new filmmakers in this, funnily enough 13 minute DVD extra. It's not as obvious why this is inspirational. After you've made several DV movies, and done 200 hours of editing, you can start to understand how genius Robert's shooting & editorial style was and what he's really demonstrating.
JAWS 25th anniversary DVD (actually the 20th anniversary Laserdisc set transferred to DVD) in the documentary "On Location" features one segment where Steven Spielberg describes how he wanted to do the Kinter boys death scene on the beach, he wanted to do it in one shot, and it wasn't possible with 180 degrees. Spielberg's solution is genius and every filmmaker should see why he is a master filmmaker at age 29.
ENGLISH PATIENT (Miramax Collector's Edition) - MASTER CLASSES EDITING with Anthony Minghella. A lot of DVDs have deleted scenes, so rarely are they accompanied with such a great explanation as to why & how they get left on the cutting room floor. Sadly, the great Walter Murch, Academy Award-winning editor of English Patient, gets missed in this session.
PULP FICTION (Miramax Collector's Edition & Criterion laserdisc) EXTRA, Quentin Tarantino on the Charlie Rose show. At the zenith of the Quentin era, his history, perspectives, and ideals get put through the passionate mouth of Quentin unfiltered.
FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (Miramax Collector's Edition), there are two extra's worthy of note... the entire feature film documentary "FULL TILT BOOGIE" on an extra disc, and one snippet from the "Hollywood Goes to Hell" featurette where Quentin's mom describes his beginnings, and Robert Rodriguez' family recounting his early years.
CLERKS X: TENTH ANNIVERSARY - The "SNOWBALL EFFECT" documentary is a fine example, and an exhilarating story on how a schmoe not unlike us gets catapulted to stardom & a career in film. It's a great manual on the selling of an independent film.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (original DVD release) - On the documentary "Into the Breach", Spielberg's father recounts, with additional stories from the man himself, several stories (including priceless clips) of his first super 8 and 16mm forays into war movies. Lesson Learned? At age 13, Spielberg was a better director & innovative filmmaker than 99% of the DV camcorder jockey's out there. Some people just have filmmaking in their blood and can be Mozart at birth; others have to work at it.
DIE HARD (2 disc edition) - On disc two there is a great supplemental on EDITING 2 scenes from the raw footage and also a cool 3 minute clip on "to letterbox or not to letterbox" which should be required viewing for anyone who needs to convince the idiots who think they get "less" picture with the black bars
AMERICAN MOVIE - The movie itself needs to be viewed by anyone who thinks his or her idea for a movie is so good it needs to be made. Mark Borchardt is a tragic hero. This is the guy we're all terrified to be. Lesson Learned? Whether we want to admit it or not, every filmmaker of any genre could very easily be perceived as wacked as him, but not all of us are as passionate.
THE GODFATHER COLLECTION (disc 4, the BONUS MATERIAL), the HBO documentary "A Look Inside the Godfather Family" is the antithesis of AMERICAN MOVIE. It's the same type of story except of a successful filmmaker with tons o' vision & talent. I don't think too many people can think that Francis Ford Coppola is not passionate. Unlike Mark Borchardt, though it's pretty clear he can get his vision on a movie screen and it exceeds expectations... whenever he doesn't cast Sofia Coppola in a leading role. Also the value of rehearsals and quality of script differ from Mark Borchardt. Lessons learned? Rehearsals and passion and teamwork and emotion and Al Pacino combined can make a good movie or two. Seriously, it's about how someone's passion & vision utilized in a collaborative environment can synergize a masterpiece. Tack on the business end of things & it's too rich to be passed up. For most filmmakers, we want to land somewhere in between Francis Ford Coppola and Mark Borchardt.
Walt Disney's FANTASIA, uncut version from boxed set DVD. The documentary and the commentary track, pieced together from archived radio & television interviews, demonstrate a lot of creativity and the innovative thoughts behind one of the 20th centuries greatest cinematic genius', long before it got raped by Michael Eisner for a few bucks at a theme park. How he conceived and executed so many radical ideas from nothing staggers the mind.
THE SHINING (from Kubrick Collection) - The documentary, on set material from Vivian Kubrick, shows a very real, not pretty at all look at Stanley Kubrick & his really evil directorial style. For all of us who hailed Kubrick as a genius needs to see what he could be like on set. Lesson Learned? I think you can get a good movie without resorting to this kind of anger and violence. In many ways this is great to see because unless your last name is "Kubrick", you will probably never get to treat people like this and ever make a movie again.
STAR WARS EPISODE I THE PHANTOM MENACE - On the topic of deleted scenes, the documentary preceding the deleted scenes section features Walter Murch, Francis Ford Coppola, and Phillip Kaufman explaining how & why scenes get deleted. The priceless story of Walter Murch excising a moment from film "Julia" and the director saying that the scene being cut from the film was the very scene that got him to do the project to begin with. Lesson Learned? Say what you like about the movie, all of the documentaries and behind the scenes on this DVD draw a pretty clear blueprint on how to tackle an epic in the new world of CGI, blue/green screen, and special effects.
THX1138 (2 disc version) - 2nd Disc the "Legacy of Filmmakers" doc on the early foundations of American Zoetrope is relevant to filmmaking not only for it's historical significance as it is the warning of being frivolous with money & opportunities as Francis Ford Coppola was, compared to the frugal nature of George Lucas. Then seeing the original short film "Electric Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB" has many redeeming qualities.
HIDDEN FORTRESS Criterion edition DVD - George Lucas' interview on the disc is indicative of ALL the 1970's filmmaking rebels and the influence Akira Kurasawa had on them.
BRAM STOKER's DRACULA (special edition laserdisc) the Featurette showcases the lengthy rehearsal process. Everyone was there from Anthony Hopkins to Keanu to Gary Oldman and how everyone worked long before cameras rolled. Again, the vision of the cast & crew living at the Coppola house & having dinner together makes me seek that sense of surrogate family (IE teamwork) that at least makes the work feel less like work & more like fun. Lesson learned? Rehearsals are important as is bonding between cast & crew.
LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS Special Edition, on disc four of this impressive set, the recounting of many stories of the fun of shooting the movie made this seem like the ultimate love fest of respect and antics. Lesson learned? Have fun and create an environment where people want to be there by allowing participation in the creative process and also mutual respect for every aspect of making a film.
SUPERMAN (special edition) - One word... "Verisimilitude". Watch the documentary on the disc & you'll understand. I refuse to say more.
ALIEN QUADRILOGY (as well as original Laserdisc sets) - the interview with Ridley Scott on why he deleted the "cocoon" scene in the original Alien, and James Cameron's idea to make an army of Aliens editorial by re-using the same alien suits make this another great catch for people making do with what they got and making the tough choices for reasons of "pacing".
1941 (collector's edition DVD and laserdisc set). The documentary features a very extensive history of the writing of the screenplay by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and their involvement with John Milius. Lesson learned? Being a USC film school grad used to be quite an "in" to Hollywood via alumni. Read between the lines - When you get famous, never forget to help someone out who needs it. Francis Ford Coppola took in John Milius who took in Robert Zemeckis who took in Peter Jackson.
Some of the movies listed are big budget Hollywood movies, so learn to adapt some of the information to your own style & even budget. A lot of the information is creative in nature, or even business related and can benefit the savvy filmmaker that can infer relevant info for them.
If your favorite movies have extras or commentary tracks, listen and learn. Take something from the creation of the movies you love. Knowing a bit about how a movie was made possible gets you closer to figuring out how to make your own visions. Deductive reasoning is the key. Adapt & overcome any obstacle.