Do you ever watch the special features on your DVDs? Here are some of my favorites.
1. “Animation Sound Design: Building Worlds From the Sound Up” – WALL●E
In this nearly 20-minute long special feature, Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt (Star Wars, as well as Wall-E and many other films) says of his craft, “You learn that the most important thing that you can do as a sound designer is to make the right choice for the right sound at the right moment in a film.” For example, Burtt demonstrates how pinging a giant, stretched spring (or wire cable) creates the sound of laser guns – and he briefly explains the physics behind how it works. (I love stuff like that!)
Considered by many to be the father of modern sound design, Burtt began his career at a time when it was not unusual for sound designers to go out into the world with portable recording equipment to capture natural sounds.
However, as he is also a film sound historian, Burtt shows what it was like back in the day when bulky sound equipment made it impossible to leave the studio. Old Disney cartoons used musical sounds (cymbal crashes for characters running into walls) and other prop devices (thin sheets of metal flexed to create thunder rumbling; a rotating cylinder full of dried peas to create the sound of falling rain) to develop their auditory components. Even for today’s films, Burtt shows us that there is value in building sound devices that can be controlled.
This feature is fascinating and really fun. As one of my film studies students told me after viewing this feature last year: “Being a sound designer would be the coolest job in the world!” I totally agree.
2. “The Cutting Edge” – Bullitt (Two-Disc Special Edition, 2006)
The second disc in this set contains some substantial DVD extras. “The Cutting Edge” is a full-length documentary feature on the art of film editing, narrated by Kathy Bates. If you’ve ever wondered what a film editor does, this is a good overview of the history and importance of film editing.
“Editing,” we are told, “is what makes a film a film.” A director shoots many hours of footage, from which the editor then finds the bits and pieces that are pieced together to form a coherent, compelling narrative. This bonus feature does a great job of showing what film editors do and builds respect for how difficult and important their work is. There are also many film clips to demonstrate the principles, and several editors and directors (including Jodie Foster, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg) talk about how editing can make or break a film.
Warning – this feature contains the infamous shot from Sharon Stone’s Basic Instinct interrogation scene, which may render it unsuitable for viewing by teens or children.
3. Rocky (Two-Disc Collector’s Edition)
Several cool DVD extras are contained in this set, including “Steadicam: Then and Now with Garrett Brown,” featuring the inventor of this now-ubiquitous camera. Brown also invented the SkyCam (a staple of televised football games today), the DiveCam (used in the Olympic games to follow divers all the way down into the water), and the MobyCam (also used in the Olympics to follow swimmers underwater – remember that amazing shot of Michael Phelps’s fingertips winning a gold medal?).
Actually, after you watch the Steadicam feature, you ought to go watch two movies that contain some of my favorite Steadicam shots: The Shining (with Danny riding his Big Wheel around the hotel, and the labyrinth chase in the blizzard at the end) and Atonement (with the incredibly moving scene on the beach at Dunkirk, shot in one long, extended take that contains no editing cuts).
4. Sunset Boulevard (Special Collector’s Edition)
First of all, this 1950 film, ranked #12 on the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 American movies, is lots of fun. There are scores of “in” references to the film industry that movie buffs will recognize, and the cast itself is one big, self-referential homage to the industry’s history.
Gloria Swanson plays one of the most unforgettable characters ever, the aging former 1920s film star Norma Desmond, (the younger version of whom is actually Gloria Swanson herself during her own period of silent-movie stardom). Norma lives in a rundown mansion on Sunset Boulevard, where all the stars lived during the heyday of early Hollywood when they could earn $18,000 a week with no taxes (according to William Holden’s character, Joe Gillis, an out-of-work screenwriter who becomes her “kept” boyfriend).
Assuming 1927 as a comparison point (the year The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie” was released), that $18,000 would have the buying power of $237,302 a week in 2012, or over $12.3 million per year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s CPI Inflation Calculator. And without taxes, that $12 million a year would be worth a lot more . . .
Is that big money for today’s movie stars, or just small potatoes? I have no idea.
Anyway, Norma Desmond’s butler is played by one of the actual great directors of the silent-film era, Erich von Stroheim. Cecil B. DeMille—also a silent-era director, who was still working in 1950 with his two best-known films yet to come—plays himself. Silent movie actors Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner (best known as Mr. Gower, the druggist in It’s a Wonderful Life) all play themselves, as does famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Jack Webb, of future television fame on “Dragnet” as Sergeant Joe Friday (“Just the facts, ma’am”), plays a young assistant director.
Also taking a star turn is Norma’s 1929 Isotta-Fraschini automobile (“all hand-made; cost me twenty-eight thousand dollars”), similar to the one commissioned by silent-film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino.
And for me, there is one neat local connection: Wholesome Betty Schaefer, the screenwriter who falls in love with Joe, is played by Milwaukee native Nancy Olson.
So . . . the DVD’s bonus features.
There are quite a few, but I have two favorites. One is about Franz Waxman’s Oscar-winning musical score, and the other is about Paramount’s legendary costume designer, Edith Head. To note another local connection, about 1,700 original sketches of Edith Head’s designs are preserved in the Edith Head Collection of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and housed in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison.
The Franz Waxman feature is a really nice introduction to understanding the role of music in movies. Waxman was trained as a classical composer in Europe but came to America after Hitler’s rise to power. According to the DVD extra, Sunset Boulevard was one of the first films to feature a complete symphonic musical score. Waxman’s score has three primary leitmotifs – the “chase” theme; the hip, young, Joe Gillis bebop tune; and the Norma Desmond tango – all of which play out in different variations as the film progresses.
Try this: Watch the movie Sunset Boulevard itself, then watch “The Music of Sunset Boulevard” featurette, and then finally watch the movie again, all the way through. Your appreciation for what good musical scoring contributes to film will be forever changed.
5. Lord of the Rings (Special Extended DVD Edition) – all three films
Wow, what can I say? Peter Jackson has earned my lasting admiration and gratitude for bringing Middle Earth to the cinema screen. Although I can never completely forgive his decision to omit “The Scouring of the Shire” from the end of Return of the King, I remain awed by Jackson’s achievement. His film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy are nothing short of spectacular.
Jackson also deserves thanks for producing the hours (upon hours!) of fascinating DVD extras included in the “Special Extended” editions of his motion-picture masterpiece.
If you haven’t yet seen the many bonus features on the six “Appendices” discs (two for each movie), you owe it to yourself to take a look.
Film school in a box. Or in this case, a three-box boxed set.