Mind over Meta!


Yes, I am serious. Jurassic Park III, one of the strangest sequels in film history, has a great audio commentary track – if you like the Jurassic Park (2001) films as well as visual and/or special effects.

I even think the film isn’t half bad. I only saw it recently and didn’t expect much, probably because Jurassic Park was such a defining film for both my youth and my academic work on realism in visual effects and The Lost World was an incredible disappointment. The good thing about JP3 (as the commentary people call it) is that it doesn’t make any pretensions: It’s an old-fashioned monster movie where a group of talented actors hobble from one dino-encounter to the next without too much of a tacky back story. The dinosaurs clearly are the stars and the actor’s don’t try to change that. They just go along with the fun.

The commentary consists of Special Effects Legend Stan Winston together with his visual and practical effects colleagues Dan Taylor, John Rosengrant and Michael Lantieri sitting in the studio and chatting not just about JP3, but about the way the effects developed throughout the whole series. They change between ignoring the action on the screen completely and discussing it very precisely shot by shot.

It’s this change that makes the commentary so interesting. Sometimes you can just lean back and listen to the pros talk about the buildup of digital techniques and, even more interesting, about the progress made in puppeteering. In key scenes, however, the crew switches to pointing out what is real and what is digital in every single shot we see.

The amazing thing, that I would never have believed possible, is that Winston and his chums are sometimes lost themselves about which dinosaur is a practical effect and which is digitally inserted. If even they can’t discern it and don’t remember it, they can be sure they did a pretty good job. I thought that after all these years I would have a good eye for effects as well, but I was equally stumped.

Whenever the filmmakers are lost for words, they start commending the actors‘ performances and the genius of director Joe Johnston, which is highly annoying. And while the end credits roll, Dan Taylor reads out and endless list of people he thanks for working on the movie, which is a bit boring.

The early noughties were something of a pinnacle for realistic-looking effects-driven films before Lord of the Rings dragged everyone into colour grading and green screen orgies. Hearing four professionals talk about the way to the top and actually being there when they get confused about their own work is both entertaining and highly educational.

(Photo: M. Keefe)

I’ve decided I should blog more in English (to cater to that great international audience out there), and since this post is the start of a new series that I will be loosely posting in fits and starts whenever I feel like it, I decided that I might as well begin (and continue) it in English.

What will this series be about? It will be about one of my favourite features of the DVD age, other than being able to watch movies in their original language: the audio-commentary. The feature has intrigued me ever since I started discovering DVDs in the late 90s, and I try to listen to as many commentary tracks as I have time for. So this series will feature a few musings about commentaries in general and some examples of what I find to be outstanding audio commentaries. Because, as most people who have listened to commentary tracks will know – there are good ones, bad ones and ugly ones.

„Most people“ is a good way to start this series off, because I have noticed that the „most people“ above does not equal „most people who watch DVDs“. Even a lot of film lovers rarely bother with the bonus material on DVDs and even if they do, the audio-commentary is usually last on their list. It’s not too hard to understand why. They take a long time (because you have to watch the whole film again) and they can be a very boring rehash of stuff you knew anyway or read in interviews. Sometimes they spoil the illusion of the film – and if you don’t like that, well, then you just don’t.

I recently linked to College Humor’s Commentary: The Movie – and a lot of audio-commentaries really are like that. They consist of people who love to hear themselves talk being either condescending towards the viewer, congratulary towards themselves or annoyingly admiring towards their actors and people they worked with. Other bad commentaries have directors speaking who clearly didn’t want to do a commentary track at all and have nothing to say.

But there are exceptions to the boredom. I truly love the feeling of watching a movie with the filmmaker right next to me, telling me what he was thinking while shooting or writing a scene, explaining how the filmmaking process worked its magic in a particular setpiece through a collaboration of people and fate. There’s two ways to watch a film: There’s the „suspension of disbelief“ mode, in which you hope to drown in the diegetic world, and the „curious about how it was done“ mode, in which you imagine that you’re actually standing behind the camera, shooting the scene you are watching. For the latter, audio-commentaries are perfect.

Good audio-commentaries often consist of a group of two to five people having a chat about making the film while they are watching it. It’s often better to have more than one person in the room, because this way it sounds less like an audio book and more like you, the listener, part of the team. And it’s better to actually have the people watching the film rather than having one narrator who then goes: „Let’s hear what Person X had to say about this scene“ after which you can hear a clip from an interview.

Good audio-commentaries offer a mixture of insight into the filmmaking process (people actually explaining about how certain things happened) and fun (people joking about the process and giving you a little peek into the human side of filmmaking). Actors are rarely good audio-commentators unless they were involved in the movie through more than acting a role or a friends with the director. Writers are good commentators, as are special effects people. Composers usually have a hard time speaking about their music, although there are exceptions.

I wanted to follow up these general remarks with the recommendation of one great commentary I recently watched and that inspired the series, but since this post is already very long, I will save it for the next post.

Because there is everything on the internet, there is also a site that rates and recommends commentaries. I only just discovered it, so I am not sure if it recommendable itself.

Worte zur Wochenmitte

14. April 2010

These flights that aim to give their spectators the same sense of motion through space have fast become the signature image of the 3D feature film, the sign that it has yet to transcend its theme park tendencies to assimilate the technology with the usual dramatic imperatives (or that 3D will always have limited applications).

Dan North , Spectacular Attractions
// How to Fly in 3D

As I settle down to try to unravel the eight centuries of myth and legend that have accreted around the outlaw, I am looking at a still from the new Ridley Scott movie, which will open the Cannes film festival on 12 May. Russell Crowe – looking the spit of Maximus, the hero of Gladiator, with cropped hair, bloodied cheek and an expression of furious determination – is astride a horse. The horse, naturally, is white: what else would a hero, about to save England from French invaders, ride? I fear there may be some historical disconnect here.

Stephen Moss , The Guardian
// My Search for the real Robin Hood

Ganz klein hat sich die ARD mit dieser Geburtstagsdokumentation gemacht. So klein, dass sie sich selbst riesig finden musste, schon wegen der vielen Leute! Und der ganzen Mikrofone! Und der blinkenden Lichter!

Stefan Niggemeier , Fernsehblog
// Der sechzigste Geburtstag, oder: Der ARD geht’s wohl zu gut

You’re watching „Commentary: The Movie“

„Dan Masters“ , College Humor
// DVD Commentary: The Movie
[via Cinematical]

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