The Moving Picture: Learning from the Pros
Posted Oct 27, 2004

I had the opportunity this past summer to be a judge for the 2004 DVD Awards with Leonard Maltin. Both a pleasure and peril, it involved watching and rating some 140 different DVD titles spanning just about every genre. There were blockbusters and B-movies, independent theatrical releases and television series, documentaries and do-it-yourself videos, cartoons and multi-disc rock concerts, sports collections, and even one soft-porn video.

With all those styles, it would be impossible to compare straight content. Instead, judging for the DVD Awards looked at not just the movie, but also how it's augmented by the options and features afforded by the DVD format, including the Special Features, commentaries, encoding, menu design, and authoring.

For example, I find Sigourney Weaver's Alien movies novel, although not to my particular tastes. Still, Alien Quadrilogy was my easy pick for Best Multi-Disc set, as well as a Best of Show runner-up, because it's a tour de force of what DVD can offer. Each of the four Alien movies (Alien, Aliens, Alien3, and Alien Resurrection) had a different director, and this nine-disc set starts with all four films in both the theatrical release and a director's cut, as well as DVD audio-track commentaries from each director, the producers, editors, and actors. There is also a dedicated Bonus Features disc for each movie with a wealth of pre-production and production footage, interviews, deleted scenes, trailers, featurettes, image galleries, and even multi-angle camera views of certain scenes for each film, plus an overall Bonus Features disc for the entire set.

It's an impressive package, but from a DVD-creation perspective anyway, still within the technical reach of smaller-budget videographers with a capable authoring application. Putting multiple versions of the same content (without encoding twice) on the same disc can be a fairly simple matter of building stories from DVD chapter marks. Often used to include G and PG versions of a movie on one disc, event videographers might use it to build regular and extended versions of wedding or corporate sales videos. Indeed, not using this basic multi-version feature was an embarrassing black mark against eventual Best of Show winner (and otherwise wonderful), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Extended Edition, which instead greedily offered a coupon for $5 off the separate theatrical-release disc set.

Additional audio tracks are even more straightforward and are regularly used for multilingual titles, including corporate videos for international companies or hospitals serving multi-ethnic communities. However, the wedding videographer might also gain kudos, if not premium rates, by adding separate bride and groom commentary tracks.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World incorporates DVD's multi-angle feature with simultaneous camera angles of different battle scenes, putting you in both the director's chair and editor's suite. Panic Room is even more imaginative, combining multi-angles with a split screen to compare the finished film with either the storyboards or animated pre-visualizations. You can even toggle between four audio tracks for the raw on-set audio, the finished audio mix, or commentary from either the storyboard artist or the director. Perhaps a more accessible idea to the videographer is from the Quick and Dirty Guide to Salsa, which teaches Latin dance with the help of multi-angle front, side, back, and overhead views.

DVD menus are the most obvious area for creative differentiation. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers won the Menu Design category with a tasteful old-book theme that appears to make pages turn when a menu button is selected. It's an example of something several DVDs did using motion menus that ventured beyond the usual video playing behind a static or moving button.

Imagine static menus, or in the case of Finding Nemo, static text-based buttons over a motion animation. The menus aren't necessarily moving, but each is book-ended by motion menus that start or end with the exact frame of the static menu. Instead of going directly to the content, selecting a button triggers the new motion menu, giving the illusion of morphing out of the static menu. The re-release of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly used this technique to appear to roll across the screen between menus and sub-menus.

To do this you might need an authoring tool that can set specific end-actions. The first menu triggers the second motion menu with a button selection, but the second menu will need to trigger the content automatically if it doesn't bring you to a sub-menu. You'll probably have to build the motion menu in a non-linear editing or compositing application, importing the static menu graphics, and performing some effect. It's a little work, but well worth the effort.

Surprisingly, none of the 140 titles did much with Enhanced DVD. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl offered a script viewer, letting you read the script while you watched the movie, but only through a DVD player application and thus only partially leveraging the computer. A few titles used PCs to link to Web sites, but rarely revealed information that couldn't have been put on the DVD in the first place. I could also bemoan the many keypad lockouts that forced me to watch FBI warnings, and even more annoying previews of other movies or lengthy company (Disney is terrible) introductions.

Still, from a deceivingly simple format can come surprisingly imaginative work. A DVD can be as basic as having a menu launch a single video, or even a First Play just starting a movie automatically. But DVD also presents wonderful opportunities to be creative, to differentiate, and even offer premium services.