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A few months ago we had the pleasure of covering the Region 4, 2-disc set of I, Robot, the Will Smith action piece which surprised in both its accomplishment as an entertaining action piece, and its presentation on our favourite format. That said, we were critical of a few aspect of the DVD menu system, in particular the second disc. So what better way to get a different perspective on the work in question, and on the DVD industry in general, than to go to the source itself.

Mark Rance, producer of the I, Robot set which is due out in the US shortly, has gladly entered into a discussion with us on the inner workings of the DVD industry. It’s a rare occurrence that we have someone who can fill us in on exactly how things are constructed behind the scenes, so we’ve welcomed the chance to give everyone the inside word. Read on.

DVDActive: Describe yourself as a worker in the industry. How did you become involved in DVD production?

Mark Rance: I started producing special edition laserdiscs at Criterion in 1991. In 1997, New Line Home Video, which at that time had a close relationship with Criterion, invited me to be their exclusive DVD producer. I did most, if not all, the Platinum series DVDs up through 2000. In 1999 I formed my own company, Three Legged Cat Productions. We continued to work for New Line but as New Line began to hire more DVD producers we began to work for other studios, notably Disney, Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox, MGM, Paramount, Artisan (now Lions Gate Films) and HBO.

Three Legged Cat currently is:
Mark Rance, Executive Producer, Producer, Writer, Director
Francois Maurin, Post-Production Supervisor, Producer, Graphics
Dana Kinonen, Project Management, Clearances
Mike Frost, Editor

On I, Robot we were joined by:
David Schow, Co-Producer, Camera Day Out of Days
Eric Saks, Co-Producer Sentient Machines
Kwesi Thompson, Camera Day out of Days
Andrew Sachs, Camera
Adam Harding, Assistant editor, Editor
Seaton Lin, Graphic Design
…and a few more friends helped us out with logging and kibitzing

Mark Rance

DVDActive: Take us through what is involved in designing, creating and producing a DVD. When do you start? How much collaboration is involved with various people?

MR: First and foremost, like laserdiscs before it, DVDs perform a unique service by preserving some record of the filmmaker’s efforts. The disc can be an archive. The film is transferred to the best available format (in most cases); supplements show the making of the film and explore the themes and inner workings of the movie. Filmmaking has to be one of the least documented art forms. Negative is easily lost or destroyed. A good DVD producer is a film historian.

One advantage Criterion has had is that all their titles ( well, most – Ed) are many years old. Coming in as documentarians and commentators on a film that has aged allows the producer to more easily create a thoughtful presentation. But DVD producers working for the studios are also asked to perform certain tasks for the marketing of the film.

Brand new films present a very different set of issues to the DVD producer. I think it is very difficult to see the character and uniqueness of the film from the inside when it is so young, but the goal is to do just that and document its coming into being. But the DVD is also a significant part if the film’s early life. Maybe there has to be many different versions of a Special Edition, perhaps.

Ideally the DVD producer is brought in somewhere near the green-light stage, when only a screenplay and some casting are in place. More often we are brought in as editing and post are closing down, and occasionally we are brought in way after that.

Collaboration is key to a good disc. You need an excellent relationship with the director and all the departments as well as the cast. You need to stay on top of the editing process and flag scenes and elements that could be used to tell the story of the film. It is easiest to shoot production, but these days so much happens in post, so you have to figure out ways to show the tedious work that goes into rendering the details in the film. Of course not every film these days, thank goodness, is post-heavy with loads of CGI, so the making-of from the set can be all you need. Lost In Translation has a marvellous documentary (by Spike Jones and others) about shooting that film. It renders commentary unnecessary.

So the answer to this question is the obvious: every situation is different.

What I hope develops over the next year is that DVD is brought in like departments and that department coordinates the EPK crew, marketing needs, broadcast specials, and DVD content creation. Ideally this thinking would extend into archiving materials for that special edition 10-20 years from now. That does not happen much at the moment, but who knows.

DVDActive: How much ownership do you get when authoring each disc? Is there a certain amount of pressure from studios to do it their way or do they trust you with creative license?

MR: I am lucky to be able to say that we have had an enormous freedom at almost all the studios. New Line, Fox and Artisan have all trusted us with new authoring ideas. Chris Nolan’s commentary on Insomnia and the spot-commentary on Gettysburg were very experimental at the time, they hadn’t been done, and Warners was very happy to let us try them out. Some studios insist on a house style, but we have encountered very little of that.

DVDActive: We’d probably have different opinions on the standards of DVD production, particularly the menus. Issues such as usability, design and overall theme come to mind as incredibly important to the make-up of the menu. Your views?

MR: We share the same goals, but I think we have different solutions to the issues.

In terms of production standards, I have had a strong belief that DVD features must look and feel different from broadcast and must never be the EPK (Electronic Press Kit) or marketing features used to sell the film before its release. My ideal is to present those materials (HBO segments, cast interviews on set, posters and trailers) as marketing ephemera under a “Marketing” chapter of the disc.

I mean, that is what they are when the disc is released. I hope there is a growing awareness on the part of viewers that EPK materials are not making-ofs. They are not documentaries. They are generally polite interviews done to sell the film and they feature footage of the work usually shot over very few days of the production. Interestingly, as many times as I have tried to do this, putting marketing in its own chapter has never worked out. And getting interviews with marketing executives at the studios turn out to be the hardest interviews to get.

So, back to the look and feel of DVD. I chose to shoot in a cinema verite style as much as possible; not to overlight, to make everything feel intimate and off the cuff. I had varying success with this approach. Frankly, I think it drove some people (particularly by-the-book, desk-jockey QC types) at some studios mad.

Mark Rance
I am not a fan of two shooting techniques that are now de rigour on DVD: the interview on a dressed set that we now see almost everywhere, nor the use of green screen to create that same effect in compositing (a technique we saw a lot of in 2002-2003). It dulls the disc for me. But they both solve the horrendous legal issues of shooting in the real world and I have had to do it and do it a lot. [I am gritting my teeth here.]

Legal clearances for DVD have become a nightmare! In the Criterion days of yore, a release form for a commentary was one sentence long! On another front, I once did an interview with a guy in his home and on the desk behind him, in the lower corner of the frame was a statuette of Marv, one of Frank Miller’s creations. The interview was hand held. Legal said, lose Marv or cut the interview. We spent a week rotoscoping poor Marv out. All I see these days is the little black blob on the guy’s desk.

So why CV (cinema verite)? Why handheld? Why not on a set, “properly” lit? Because people in their own world, interviewed intimately, even sloppily, shows you so much more about who makes the film, what they believe, how they work…it’s always more revealing. Because of legal we are more and more having to listen to people talking rather than seeing what they do, how they live. That said, I am bending to legal requirements and using CV now only when I think the filmmakers would prefer it and I have time to animate out all the legal red flags.

DVDActive: And your opinion on DVD menus, specifically?

MR: The Criterion lasers were Adobe Photoshop and After Effects (it was called TK at the time) heavy. It seemed to me at the time that no one (in the office) really listened to the commentaries nor watched the features. So, as a producer whose motto is “It’s the content stupid!” I developed a prejudice against over-produced menus.

When you have menus with umpteen doors you have to go through to get to a feature, or when you have to sit through some silly prompt spoken on the menu, “Which door has the tiger? Which door has the lady?” or even having to listen to some dreadful audio loop ad nauseam, I mean really, how many times do you want to do that?

In the early days of DVD, when sci-fi and action film lovers drove sales, this kind of menu was an extension of their game-playing experience. And I think it is that game’s mentality that lives on today in many menu systems. This kind of menuing is all about the menu vendor and often takes the filmmaking down a peg.

Films do not belong in gaming environments.

Certainly there are DVDs out there that boast game playing as part of their experience. Game playing was an early selling point for DVD. I think it was inherited from all the failed gaming companies of the mid-90s. I think it’s interesting that while the studios adopted the Criterion model for special editions wholesale, they did not look at what Voyager, the more innovative side of the company, was doing. There Bob Stein was exploring CD-ROM programming to re-imagine books on disc. If the Criterion model is essentially built on the book metaphor (the original logo for Criterion was a laserdisc turning into the pages of a book), then Voyager was working to extend that through hypertext into the next stage. The DVD spec is not that robust yet. The HD-DVD and Blu-Ray specs promise improvement, but I wonder if producers will be adapting the current one-dimensional models instead of re-thinking the whole thing.

For a time, the lack of robust programming on the desktop side of DVD forced game-oriented menuing and features over to the ROM side. Unfortunately, that is now returning to the desktop side. I think on the desktop side things need to be way more elegant to be useful. What you want is for the user to return time and again to the disc. Waiting to get from here to there should be minimal. Likewise, if you forget where stuff is it should be easy to find.

Rather than merely throwing down features just to pack the disc the producer should plan the authoring to enable the viewer to follow a path through the disc experience – and this should extend the film watching experience. In other words, we should be creating a narrative out of many pieces.
By the time DVD had its first big toehold on the public, approximately 2000-2001, the many new users forced DVD menus to simplify and standardize. Since the menu greets the user it has to be entertaining to a degree, but super-clear about how to open up the disc.
I think in this and a desire to keep menu costs down, menus are sometimes carelessly constructed. There are enough bad menu systems out there that we can mistake them for the norm.

COMMON MISTAKE CONSIDERED NORMAL: hiding commentary in the audio set-up menu. This use of menu language is confusing. I myself wouldn’t know to look there! Audio set-up means stereo, 5.1, and maybe language set-up, etc. That’s all. And you are often more than three clicks away from this choice. The same people who make this mistake often compound this and lock you out from surfing back to the feature from the commentary track. You are forced to go out and come in again. What is that about anyway? I think it is a misinterpretation of film presentation purity.

SOLUTION: Main Menu - Special Features - Commentaries - (Optional additional pages if more than 1 commentary). Audio channel surfing allowed. Let me explore the scene with and without commentary as I see fit.

DVDActive: And your new discs are obviously constructed with those theories in mind?

MR: Let’s use I, Robot as an example. What are the theories behind the design of the menu and the structure of the content within it?

The design of the disc should be transparent. I believe that menus should be intuitive and integrated into the experience of the disc.

1. Never more than 3 clicks from home.
Many menu systems today force the viewer to cycle back through 1-4 or so key menus and a number of sub-menus. The effect is to wear out the welcome of these essential pages, while simultaneously confusing the viewer. The menus seldom offer a reason for choosing one item over another.

2. Make the menus part of the content.
I, Robot employed Progressive Menus. Except for the main page, “home”, no one menu page is more central than another. As a result, the viewer is seldom more than three clicks from home (the main page) and the disc is authored to progress through the features and in this progression add to the viewers’ knowledge about the making of the film, its sources and themes in a way that creates a narrative. Show the viewer this thinking. Use footage from the documentaries or create a graphic system that extends the information in the features. Create match cuts from the menus to the features.

3. The disc tells a story. Organize that story through the menus.
When the viewer is faced with 3 hours plus of material, there needs to be a sense of it all coming together. The disc is always in Play All. The disc with all the features on it is organically constructed.

4. Authoring should allow the viewer to quickly return to their place in the disc.
DVD players cannot yet remember where you were once you eject the disc or turn off the machine. That may change, but in the meantime, the menu system should reveal a structure. It doesn’t have to lay out everything all at once, but it should indicate that there is purpose and direction. I use time-outs to let the viewer know that if they make no choice, the disc will make one for them. At least they are lead through a major part of the disc.

5. DVDs are movie theatres, not games.
Let’s not forget that watching movies is not the same as playing games in one crucial way: it is by-and-large a passive experience. Play All is the passive viewers cry for “Tell me a story!” The Progressive Menu system assumes that wish and allows for that choice as well as a more interactive approach. This use of time-outs encourages the viewer to develop an intuitive map of the disc.

Mark Rance
DVDActive: There has been criticism from reviewing circles (including DVDActive) of the menu configuration on the I, Robot discs. Have viewers just misunderstood its makeup or is it a case of possibly missing the mark during the production on that one?

MR: I am not totally happy with the look of the menus. We are correcting some things on the US Region 1 2-disc release. But I am very pleased with the way they are authored. I think the fact that the disc pretty much plays itself is lost on viewers used to the more typical carpel tunnel menu systems that abound these days. It was my hope that offering up the features in chunks as footnotes would be a good way of creating a progression of information that would be like a narrative, allowing a stop-start use because you know where you are on the disc. Using this system I think it is more likely viewers will watch everything but in their own time.

Also, there are two distinct menu systems on I, Robot. One is the Progressive Menu system. The other is a traditional Index that is thorough, well organized and features play all buttons for every feature. If you do the progressive menus once you can always use the index to scoot around or go directly to one thing.

Maybe where we fail is in creating whole linear pieces that do not fall apart as well as I would like. What I mean is that maybe they play less well in pieces than I had hoped. So the effect of information progressing is dampened. I will be curious to see what kind of reviews my other use of Progressive Menus will get. Lilo & Stitch is out in Italy and I think there is a review of the disc on a UK web site.

DVDActive: With the advent of the Internet basically anyone can become a critic. Do you tend to listen to the criticism from rank-and-file reviewers?

MR: Movies and movie going are changing. We are all part of this change. From Voyager/Criterion days onwards, critics have played an important role for me in developing approaches, rethinking disc structures and answering wish lists for features. I will read as many reviews from every source that I can find. I used to have a policy of not responding to reviews. Now I do (respond). I think the dialog is a necessary part of the evolution of the format. Critics and producers are weighing in from the trenches, and I think that’s really important. Let’s fight it out in the open!

Also I am an advocate of visiting stores to see how titles are presented on the shelves. It is a clue as to how the viewer first comes into contact with a title. This is especially important with less well-known films. The dialog has to extend beyond presenting the product and waiting to see what sticks.

DVDActive: Do you think there are many misconceptions when it comes to the general public’s view on DVDs? The time restriction on featurettes including actors, for example?

MR: Some of the issues for producers that viewers and critics may not be aware of are the restrictions under which we work. There are guild agreements in place that require an interview with the screenwriter be offered if the director is interviewed. If clips from a film are used in a documentary, the documentary cannot be longer than 30 minutes, so we often make many little documentaries that progress through the story of the disc (there is no Play All option for the Day Out of Days diaries on I, Robot for legal reasons). The DVD is perceived by some at the studio as additional marketing of the film as opposed to a continuation of the film (this is a subtle but extremely important difference in approach to the disc, like the EPK argument above).

So, before you complain about no Play All options or why every feature is short or why someone is missing from the disc, please consider there might be a very good reason for any one of these decisions.

DVDActive: Something we all bemoan is the difference in extras across different regions, or merely the lack of any supplements at all. How accommodating are the studios when it comes to collecting special features?

MR: This is a decision making process I do not know enough about. I believe our special edition of Seven was one of the first DVDs to be exported with all its special features intact. Our recent special edition of Reservoir Dogs, on the other hand, came over incomplete. Missing are the disc one features, including the critical commentaries. These were unique, jump all over the movie commentaries. I loved them because like our Chris Nolan commentary on Insomnia they re-sequenced the feature to fit the speaker’s argument. Too bad they did not come over. I liked them a lot.

On the other hand, I, ROBOT has all its special features everywhere except the US! That’s coming. Clearly DVD has the capacity to go “day & date” worldwide. As it should. I think the studios are still experimenting with release patterns. And I think the attitudes in various territories toward special features have been in conflict.

DVDActive: With a lot of the marketing of films now also focused on the eventual DVD release, how important is it that producers and collaborators on the DVD have some sort of a cinema/filmmaking background?

MR: Very. DVD producers should look at themselves as departments related to creating the film with the filmmaker’s guidance and extending the life of the film through thoughtful presentation. A film’s theatrical life can be as short as seven days; its DVD shelf life can be seven years or more (Criterion ports old laserdiscs to DVD, that makes my special edition of Lord Of The Flies about 15 years old – not bad for a small, experimental narrative!)

Mark Rance

DVDActive: I must admit to being a huge fan of the Magnolia diary on the DVD release. Do you have a favourite disc that you’ve produced? A favourite particular special feature?

MR: Thank you. That Moment – The Magnolia Diaries is probably my favourite feature that I have done until now. It just won the top award at a French festival dedicated to making-of productions. We don’t know who walked off with the prize money, but it certainly wasn’t me!

These days I would add to it all the work on I, Robot and a small Warner Independent Pictures title, Around The Bend, that streets in February 2005. I love commentaries and I think I have made some very good ones. The tracks for Lord Of The Flies, Naked and The Silence Of The Lambs, all for Criterion, lead directly to those on Boogie Nights (a great track, all Paul) and Blade.

I am extremely proud of all four tracks on Seven. We worked very hard to make sure there is no redundancy on the four tracks. Fincher’s wonderful – this was my second track with him and we did it without watching the film, just talking for about 4 hours!. I think both tracks on Dark City and the unpublished track for The Crow, Mike Leigh and David Thewlis with the late Caitlin Cartlidge on Naked, Lars von Trier and others on Dancer In The Dark, Chris Nolan on Insomnia, Randy Newman on Pleasantville, Lalo Shiffrin on Rush Hour and on The Corruptor James Foley (so good we made an additional set of commentary chapters for him to cover about 1.5 times the film) and Carter Burwell are both worth a listen.

When it comes to features (featurettes if you want, still called supplements in my book) I am very proud of the Criterion laserdiscs (some that made it as short lived DVDs) of The Silence Of The Lambs with its look at serial killers, This Is Spinal Tap with the first legal presentation of the outtakes, Lord Of The Flies with its piece on shooting the film, Naked’s a terrific look at scenes from Leigh’s prior work with a good commentary from him about how he works), Robinson Crusoe On Mars, featuring excerpts from the original screenplay by Ib Melchior and El Cid, which features a too-short look at director Anthony Mann.

The one project at Criterion that was a true labour of love, and for which I was almost fired was Andrei Rublev. I had the film completely re-subtitled and did that without permission because I knew they wouldn’t do it otherwise. I still like to believe that the Criterion “Scorcese” version is the director’s cut and it is the only edition properly subtitled. Andrei Rublev has clips of a lost documentary about Tarkovsky that’s recently been found, plus an innovative commentary for laserdisc by Vlada Petric.

Also while at Voyager/Criterion I love the editions I made of Hardboiled, The Rock (yes I like this film and I think the commentaries and special features are solid), Tokyo Drifted and Branded To Kill (I brought Suzuki to Criterion and HVE). The interviews I did with Seijun are some of my favourites if only because he is so playful.

More recent favourites include Blade, Reservoir Dogs, Insomnia (the Chris Nolan version), and the A Nightmare On Elm Street Box Set is pretty solid, Dancer In The Dark has some terrific stuff on it. I wish there was more of the material we had prepared with Lars von Trier though. That’s a long story…

The comic book documentary Unbreakable is a favorite if only because you get the gamut from Will Eisner to Frank Miller. All the documentaries on Cast Away are good. I wish I could say we shot them. But the 2-disc edition of Lilo & Stitch recently released in Italy has to be one of the best discs we have ever made, period.

DVDActive: Do you tend to stick with certain filmmakers over the course of their careers at some point?

MR: I have been lucky to be part of five filmmaking “families”: I love working with David Fincher and his cohorts. The Game and Seven are two outstanding discs. We have also now done a few things with David Lynch. I wish we had been chosen to do more. But I am very proud of Twin Peaks: Season One and all the features in Tibet. I think our version of Fire Walk With Me is a misfire. We are currently helping out the producers of the second season of Twin Peaks.

I have done all of John Waters laserdiscs and DVDs. Polyester was the first. I recreated the Odorama card to scale (this was repeated by New Line in miniature for the DVD release. I love the two newest titles we have done for him, A Dirty Shame from New Line and Cry Baby for Universal. And finally I am so grateful that Alex and Topher to have let me in a few times and that we have done good work on Dark City, The Crow[/i] (our version never made it to the street …but that’s a really long story), and now I, Robot. God, I hope there are more.

After looking back on all this, I am most fond of That Moment. Magnolia is an amazing film. What a great set it was. My documentary barely scratches the surface of what went into it, but at least I got the chance to try.

DVDActive: The advent and popularity of DVD has arguably changed our viewing habits to the point where the cinema experience is reserved for bigger budget releases. Is there a certain degree of satisfaction in authoring a smaller-scale production that can find its niche on DVD? The Dreamers, for example.

MR: This is something I want to explore even more. It has been my experience that titles can be re-invented and rephrased for the market when they get to DVD. I am very interested in titles that go straight to DVD. Where is the modern theatre? It has situated itself in many places at the same time and no one place is more important at the moment. You may enjoy a film as much in the theatre as you might at a friend’s house with 20 friends or just by yourself on your laptop while flying home.

The theatrical presentation of films is becoming a metaphor for presenting films. As I have said above, this is what should guide the design of DVDs. If the menus are the curtains that part to reveal coming attractions, followed by the feature film…well, you get the idea. We still need to explore and expand on the book metaphor that gives us chapters, footnotes (supplements), and a parallel version of the “book” with commentary on the main text.

Mark Rance

DVDActive: How do you see the future of DVD production? Is there scope for new techniques and standards or do you think it will taper off a little since DVD has become so mainstream?

MR: I think we are in a rut at the moment especially on big A titles – you can’t tell one producer from the other. DVD special features now feel like wedding videos to me: there’s the making-of, the CGI doc, the gag reel. Hey, I am guilty of this. The danger is that they all look alike. I, Robot is distinguished only by its menu system and maybe by its organic approach to the entire disc, but much of the content could appear on any big-budget disc.

DVDActive: Can you clue us in on what is coming up from Three Legged Cat? Any of your work DVD fans should be on the lookout for?

MR: I am interested in taking this menu idea further but by working more closely with the filmmakers. The disc should be an extension of the vision of the film. We have a lovely disc coming out about a first time filmmaker getting to make his labor of love after 10 years, Around The Bend. I mentioned it in passing above. It’s a very simple disc for WIP. I hope the making-of and the commentary combine to give viewers an insight into the real heartbreak of filmmaking as well as what it takes to get through your first feature. I also want to explore straight to disc titles. I think here could be a whole bevy of issues that ask to re-think DVD. Maybe we can argue over this when we do one.

Finally, thanks Pete for this opportunity.

No, thank you Mark. It’s been great to have a really good insight into the theories and workings of a DVD, in particular the menu system and its structure. So often we tend to take things for granted in terms of what we expect from those shiny round discs, but maybe this interview might lower our expectations on those actually producing the content and lay it on the studios to get more creative with their thinking for the home video format.

And finally, there’s no need to defend your love for The Rock on this site mate, that’s for sure.

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