2000 Movie News Archives

Superman: The Movie

August 27, 2000: Superman DVD in the News

Producing DVD's With Lavish Extras

LOS ANGELES -- On a sunny afternoon in the large library of a large house in Bel Air, the director Richard Donner, the writer Tom Mankiewicz and a group of production people from Warner Brothers are watching Mr. Donner's "Superman" on a 50-inch television screen. It is doomsday on the planet Krypton and the patriarch Jor-El, played by Marlon Brando, regards his infant son, whom he is about to send to Earth in an escape pod. "The kid's diapers are worth a fortune," Mr. Donner says. "Brando's dialogue is on them."

A huge hit when it was released in 1978, "Superman," with Christopher Reeve as the man of steel and a superb cast including Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Glenn Ford and Ned Beatty, is still remembered as one of the more entertaining action fantasies. On the Internet, fans have been clamoring for a special edition on digital video disc and early next year Warner will oblige with a DVD packed with extras, including an alternate version of the movie with added scenes; two documentaries; screen tests; deleted scenes; the screenplay with the director's notations; music outtakes; trailers and myriad other items.

The new, longer version will incorporate nine minutes Mr. Donner cut in 1978. "Usually there's closure with the films you make," he said, "but 'Superman' has hung on to me. A lot of it has to do with Christopher Reeve. I have a desire to see it fresh, to go back to some of the things I had taken out editorially way back then. For me, it's exciting to have my voice out there, to share how it was done, why."

The disc gives him that chance. As DVD becomes more widespread, viewers are increasingly paying attention to extra features that illuminate and explain. Six months ago, according to an industry study, consumers ranked enhanced sound as DVD's leading attribute, followed by better picture quality, disc durability, no rewinding and the widescreen format, which flattens the image into the dimensions it had on the theater screen. The highest-ranking extra, the director's commentary, was far down the line. Now, though, supplements not only are more familiar, but they are also becoming attractions.

Occupying two sides of a high-capacity disc called an 18 (for 18 gigabytes), "Superman" joins a fast-growing breed of fully loaded special editions that stand stacked up like jumbo jets on fall and winter release schedules. As demand increases, studios are taking more care to rummage their archives and, as is the case with "Superman," are putting a level of effort into producing their major DVD's that in some ways emulates the kind of attention directors themselves give to their films. What viewers get out of this depends on their degree of interest, of course, but even as amusements the supplements impart a good deal of information.

This afternoon Mr. Donner is recording a director's commentary aided by Mr. Mankiewicz, who is listed in the credits as "creative consultant" but who also wrote the final screenplay, for which Mario Puzo and three others were credited.

They are kidding about the diapers, but Mr. Brando, renowned for not memorizing lines, needed cue cards and other prompters spread around the set. It's the kind of anecdote made for DVD, and "Superman" benefits from having its principals still around to talk. Also, movies from decades ago frequently don't have as much of an archive to draw from. "Superman" had eight tons of it, including 1.25 million feet of film. Some was in France, but most was at Pinewood Studios in London, where the movie was made. Since February a team from Warner has been winnowing bits and pieces for the disc, overseen by Michael Thau, a film editor and Mr. Donner's DVD man. Directors get a chance to explain their work, and perhaps rework it.

Projects this large emphasize the bifurcated position DVD finds itself in these days: disc as both tool and plaything. Supplements have been on laser discs since the early 1980's, but now studios are in competition to accumulate as many extras as possible (a new "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" DVD lists 40). In the early days of DVD, one dictum held that the movie and its extras should fit on one side of one disc -- and they still do for most movies. But the biggest DVD's are running over onto two discs or, like "Superman," onto the back side of one disc. Many DVD's, in fact, are spilling off the discs entirely and onto the Internet, offering, through DVD-ROM drives in personal computers, interactive, movie-related activities like games and chat rooms, live discussions with directors and, of course, links to the company store.

Warner hasn't decided what "Superman" features, if any, will go on the Internet. The Web also makes a good repository for a screenplay or documentary that won't fit on the discs. One can consult the screenplay and storyboards on the Web, then jump to the exact spot in the film on the disc. That can be instructive, but it also can get silly. Toss in a game or two (there will be no games anywhere with "Superman") and DVD is pushed to the edge of arcade entertainment. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but at the studios serious efforts to illuminate films -- and they usually are relatively serious -- also recognize that supplements are pop diverions for many viewers.

Directors just want to see their work out there, or as much of it as possible. "When I started, I had to take a portable DVD player to their office, plug it in and walk them through what it did," said Michael Stradford, executive director of DVD marketing at Columbia Tri-Star. "I really had to convince them it was going to be a viable format. Now they call and say, 'Hey, I've got some stuff for the DVD.'"

DISC has become the reality in the afterlife of their films. Or as Oliver Stone put it recently: "DVD has a longer shelf life. For me, it's the record of what you did. Film is not going to hold up." This fall Warner will issue a set of 10 Stone films strenuously worked on by the director. DVD is at least an opportunity to gather and show everything that was involved, to explain, to preserve.

Some directors have their doubts about supplements, of course. Like viewers, most filmmakers value DVD for the enhanced image and sound and the widescreen format. "Videotape I have hated since it was invented," said the director Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption," "The Green Mile"). "It's the worst possible medium for watching a movie." Having his films in their original widescreen dimensions pleases him, but other aspects of DVD don't. "What I'm not crazy about are the audio commentaries," he said. "We live in a world with too much cultural white noise, and I feel why add to it? So many people explaining themselves, saying how brilliant they are. Adding all that tends to demystify how we do these things." Nevertheless, he added, he will make a commentary for a special edition of "The Green Mile." Fans of the film helped persuade him, he said.

It's not known how often viewers sit through commentaries. Some DVD's have several of them, not only by directors but also by stars, producers, cinematographers and others. It is great fun to settle in with Robert Altman for a movie-length discussion of "The Player." On "The Limey," the director Steven Soderbergh and the writer Lem Dobbs hotly argue their separate conceptions of the film. Ordinarily, though, commentaries are a snooze, little more than a vapid and usually self-serving recollection. "They're putting this stuff down for posterity, so they rarely get negative," said Douglas Pratt, editor of the Laser Disc Newsletter. As a reviewer of DVD's, Mr. Pratt is obliged to listen to all the commentaries. "Once in a while you get a director who's a wonderful teacher," he said, mentioning Ridley Scott ("Thelma and Louise") and Martha Coolidge ("Rambling Rose"). "Generally, though, they guard themselves."

Mr. Donner is not averse to a Brando tale or two among other anecdotes or to taking a swipe at the secretive and famously tight-fisted "Superman" producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, with whom the director had continual rows and legal difficulties. But the disc is mainly a tale of movie revival. Mr. Thau's first step was to make new prints from the camera negative, which had seen a lot of use. Then he color-timed the film, assigning colors and shading to each frame. "DVD is such a good transfer, the film itself has to look as good as possible," he said. Later the film was transferred to digital tape, from which the DVD is made. The tape has a higher resolution than disc and on studio screens has an amazingly clear look that approaches high definition. "So when you transfer to DVD, you aren't losing anything," he said. Directors value the enhanced quality and widescreen format of a DVD release, but some have their doubts about add-ons.

At the same time, he was restoring John Williams's score -- one of the first to be recorded in Dolby stereo -- as well as the dialogue and the sound effects. A movie made in 1978 has a different sound. "There were distinctive, signature effects," he said. Identifying and preparing all the sound elements took several months. Remixing them into Dolby 5.1 surround sound took six weeks.

Meanwhile, Mr. Thau was flying around the country gathering interviews for the two documentaries. One, about the making of the film, talks with principal actors -- including Mr. Reeve, Mr. Hackman and Ms. Kidder -- and production people. On a snippet of tape, Mr. Reeve describes his role as "temporary custodian of a past that was an essential piece of American mythology."

The other documentary will describe the special effects, reveling in the demands of those antiquarian predigital times. (With no digital assist, Superman flew on a wire.) In a third feature -- or "featurette," in DVD lingo -- Anne Archer, Stockard Channing, Lesley Ann Warren and Deborah Raffin audition for the role of Lois Lane, won by Ms. Kidder. In the clips the "S" hasn't yet been sewn on Superman's cape.

At Warner, 60 DVD projects might be in development at once. A special-effects blockbuster like "The Matrix" is the prize. "There are so many more layers of craftsmanship that you can explore and discuss as opposed to the standard drama," said Jonathan Gaines, founder of Acoustic Visions, an independent company that helps put together special editions for Warner and other studios. For big films, directors and movie companies are shooting behind the scenes with DVD in mind. "If they know it will be a hit, they'll bring me in before the movie comes out," Mr. Gaines said.

"For 'The Matrix,' we got in touch with the producers before they started filming. Luckily they were very DVD-savvy."

That's fine for "The Matrix," which is DVD's top seller. Older films, coming to DVD years after the fact, often have to scramble for material. Deleted scenes and outtakes have been lost. Families and estates have to be consulted, leading to delay and complication. There are no such problems with "Superman," thanks primarily to Mr. Donner. "It's unusual for an older production company to come in and revisit a film," said Ned Price, Warner's vice president of technical mastering operations. "Very few have survived from the 70's. Here we know we'll get something pleasing to the director and have a lot more artistic freedom. They can alter what they like."

At some point all the "Superman" supplements will come together in a chilly room at a Warner company called CVC out by the Los Angeles airport. At CVC, computers churn 24 hours a day mixing elements of scores of DVD's. When the "multiplexing" is done, the package is sent to the replicator, who sends back the "glass," or test disc.

Source: The New York Times Company

2000 Movie News

Listed below are all the Movie News items archived for 2000.

Back to the News Archive Contents page.

Back to the Latest News page.