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Class, Open Your DVDs to 'Extras'

April 07, 2002|JON MATSUMOTO

In "The World Is Not Enough," a speedboat chase on the river Thames introduces the 1999 James Bond movie in spectacular, jaw-dropping fashion.

How did director Michael Apted and crew pull off the array of high-speed stunts that make up this five-minute sequence? It's a question that is of particular interest to film students.

UCLA film professor Myrl Schreibman not only shows the clip of this sequence to his students, but thanks to DVD he can have Apted explain how this complicated chase was constructed as the scene unfolds.

Like many films in the format, the DVD version of "The World Is Not Enough" gives viewers the option of hearing commentary about the film instead of character dialogue. The Bond DVD has two commentary tracks: one from Apted and another featuring the production designer, second unit director and composer.

An informal survey of a handful of film schools suggests that DVD ancillary materials are not yet being widely utilized in the classroom. But some film professors are finding DVD bonus materials to be highly valuable instructional aides.

"There is a whole section in the 'X-Men' DVD that shows the animated storyboard to a sequence where the characters are battling at the top" of the Statue of Liberty, explains Schreibman, who teaches directing and producing. "I show this storyboard sequence, and then we go back and play that section of the film so the students can see that it exactly follows, shot by shot, the storyboard. Seeing the storyboard becomes very beneficial to understanding how certain scenes are constructed in advance."

Evan Chen, head of post-production at the Los Angeles Film School, says some commentary and bonus material is better at illustrating aspects of filmmaking than textbooks. Because film is a visual medium, it is helpful for students to hear and see simultaneously how and why certain scenes were developed.

Chen uses Sidney Lumet's "Night Falls on Manhattan" as an example of a DVD's director commentary that has proved valuable in the classroom. In his commentary, Lumet explains why he built a sound stage for a specific scene in the 1997 drama rather than shoot it on location. Starring Andy Garcia, the film involves police corruption.

"There is a crucial moment in the film where one of the characters breaks down emotionally," Chen says. "It was a really difficult scene for an actor to pull off. So Lumet explains on the DVD that he didn't want to risk the scene being ruined" by outside noise such as "a fire truck passing by with its sirens wailing. This is one of those scenes where you'll be able to get the actor to re-create the performance once or twice well and that's it. To try to loop [re-record new dialogue] in a totally different environment possibly a year after production has ceased is really, really hard to do."

Janet Bergstrom, an associate professor at UCLA's department of film, television and digital media, uses DVD commentary and bonus materials in many of her critical studies courses. She has even taught a doctoral course devoted to ancillary materials found on films in the DVD format.

As a final project, Bergstrom required her students in that class to create, as a group, their commentary for a film on DVD that didn't already have this feature. The students researched the history of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much." They then wrote their own commentary to the 1956 film, which they presented in class while the DVD was being shown.

The Criterion Collection, based in Chicago, prides itself on producing quality ancillary material for many of its DVD titles, which include such foreign-language classics as Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" and Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai"--the type of titles often studied in film history courses.

Criterion recently released Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" on DVD. The disc includes commentary by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie, a 90-minute documentary on the Swedish director, behind-the-scenes photos and a new English subtitle translation.

"Our DVDs are directed more toward cinephiles--people who are looking for a little bit more than what you might find on many contemporary film DVDs," says R. O'Donnell, Criterion's public relations director. "When you're dealing with a film like [Carol Reed's 1949 classic] 'The Third Man,' there's a lot of work to be done. Materials might be scattered throughout Europe and the United States."

Ancillary material also varies greatly in its worth to film students. Aspiring filmmaker John Nein, who recently earned a master's from UCLA, complains that many studios include "a great deal of trivial material on DVDs. I suppose the issue is that the material that is interesting to film students is probably not the kind of thing that the studios are trying to market to the general public. We're more interested in how they shot scenes or what cameras they might have used or how the director might have used actors in certain scenes."

"A lot of times the bonus material includes the trailer to the film and then a behind-the-scenes look at the film that masquerades as a documentary," he continued. "It may include interviews with the stars, which are sometimes pretty insipid."

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Jon Matsumoto is a regular contributor to Calendar.

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