Audio commentary explained

On disc-based video formats, an audio commentary is an additional audio track consisting of a lecture or comments by one or more speakers, that plays in real time with video. Commentaries can be serious or entertaining in nature, and can add a wealth of information which otherwise would not be disclosed to audience members.[1]

Types of commentary

Audio commentaries are located on separate audio tracks on the DVD. A single DVD can have several of these that can be selected by the viewer from the main menu of the DVD or by pressing a designated button on the remote. Each contains different content: one has the actual dialogue and sound of the movie, while others can contain different language dialogue (for translation purposes), a different type of audio encoding (Dolby Digital, DTS or PCM), music-only soundtracks, and audio commentaries. Some DVD productions include multiple commentary tracks. In general, directors are open to recording commentary tracks, as many feel it can be helpful to young filmmakers, or they simply want to explain their intention in making the film, while others (such as Steven Spielberg or David Lynch) feel commentary can de-mystify and cheapen a movie.

There are several different types of commentary. The two main types simply define the length of the commentary rather than the type of content. They are:

Commentaries can be done in various fashions. The majority of commentaries include one person, likely the director, but can often contain producers and occasionally cast members. Other types of commentaries include:

Sometimes, audio commentaries will also include hosts or moderators to keep the discussion flowing, and will feature either subtitling or a narrator to inform the viewer which person is speaking, if there are a considerable amount of participants. The goal of a commentary is of course to add some context to the choices made in making the film, whether that be of the actual filmmaking, or subtext in the writing or direction, although some commentaries, such as in-character commentaries or group cast commentaries tend to be more for entertainment than for educational value.

History of audio commentaries

The value of audio commentaries as a marketing tool was revealed during the heyday of laserdisc, the laser-based video format produced before the introduction of DVDs. The Criterion Collection company, for example, produced high-quality "deluxe" editions of classic films on laserdisc, using the best available prints and re-edited versions. These were often very expensive compared to today's DVDs and included bonus material such as trailers, deleted scenes, production stills, behind-the-scenes information, and audio commentaries from the directors, producers, cast, cinematographers, editors, and production designers. They were marketed to movie professionals, fans and scholars who were seen as an elite niche of consumers who could afford to pay more for definitive, quality editions. The audio commentaries on laserdiscs were typically encoded on secondary analog tracks which had become redundant, as modern laserdiscs had stereo audio encoded digitally alongside. This is why certain older videodisc players, which predate the digital audio standard, are only able to play back analog tracks with audio commentary.

The first audio commentary was featured on the Criterion Collection release of the original King Kong movie, on laserdisc in December 1984. It featured film historian Ronald Haver and his first words were:

The decline of the laserdisc format and the increasing popularity of DVD was highlighted in the fall of 1997, when simultaneous laserdisc and DVD editions of the movie Contact were released. The former contained one bonus audio commentary track by director, Robert Zemeckis, and producer Steve Starkey. However, the DVD contained two additional, separate audio commentaries (by Jodie Foster and the special effects producers), as well as other bonus features. Despite its history with laserdiscs, the idea of audio commentary was still such an uncommon notion that, in its January 1998 review of the Contact DVD, Entertainment Weekly scoffed, "Who in the universe would want to journey through more than eight hours of gassy, how-we-filmed-the-nebulae trivia included in this "Special Edition" disc? Meant to show off DVD's enormous storage capacity, it only demonstrates its capacity to accommodate mountains of filler."[2]

Director Steven Spielberg has not recorded commentary tracks for any of his films. He feels that the experience of watching a film with anything other than his intended soundtrack detracts from what he has created. Woody Allen has a similar lack of enthusiasm for commentaries, stating, "I'm not interested in all that extra stuff. [...] I want my films to speak for themselves. And hopefully they do."[3]

Notable DVD audio commentaries

Prolific commentators

Alternate commentaries

Originally inspired by a column by Roger Ebert,[4] a small but active fan base of DVD commentary enthusiasts has sprung up since 2002 offering their own specially-recorded fan-made DVD commentaries. These tracks (usually made available in MP3 format) allow the fans to put forth their own opinions and expertise on a movie or TV series in much the same way as an on-disc commentary. These commentary tracks are played either by starting a DVD player and MP3 player simultaneously, or using synchronization software such as Sharecrow.

The idea of downloadable commentary tracks has since been co-opted by TV show creators themselves, as creators of TV shows such as the 2004 Battlestar Galactica, , and the Doctor Who revival have recorded downloadable commentary tracks meant to be watched along with the episodes as recorded from TV.

Kevin Smith recorded a commentary track for Clerks II intended for download to an MP3 player for viewing in the movie theater during the movie's first run, coined In-Theater Audio Commentary; however, the commentary was not released because theater chains felt it would be distracting to viewers who were not listening to the commentary. This commentary was later included on the Clerks II DVD.[5]

Mystery Science Theater 3000 head writer and on-screen host Michael J. Nelson has started his own website to sell downloadable commentaries called RiffTrax. He also regularly commentates on the public domain films that colorizing company Legend Films releases on DVD, including Night of the Living Dead and Reefer Madness.

Stuart Green launched in January 2009 a new website in the U.K called Which offers alternative DVD Commentaries


DVD commentaries have been parodied by a number of people. Most notably:


Brooks [on the virtues of the then new DVD format]: "It's a better mousetrap."

Nicholson: "...What's better? What's better? You know, we're sitting here being remunerated for what is ultimately the cancer of film, which we claim to love above all else."

"After all the work we go through, to have it run in the cinema and then disappear forever is a great pity. To give the film added life is really cool for both those who missed it and those who really loved it."

Commentary re-use

Some film companies transfer the audio commentary of the laserdisc release of a film on to the DVD rather than creating a new one. For example, El Mariachi Special Edition, Total Recall Special Edition Spaceballs and A Nightmare on Elm Street all contain the commentary from the laserdisc release. This may be for financial reasons, depending on whether the rights to the original commentary are cheaper to use than recording a new one (a company releasing a film on DVD today may not be the same company who released it on laserdisc); or it could simply be that the original commentary does its job well without the need for an update. Contrastingly, some DVDs do not have a commentary even though the laserdisc release did (for example, Taxi Driver). This may be because the parties involved have not reached a publication agreement.

The audio commentaries of The Criterion Collection are often considered some of the finest and most informative commentaries ever made, and the Laserdisc releases of classic films can be highly priced because Criterion generally does not license their commentaries for use on later DVDs when the rights to films they have release revert back to the studio, including the aforementioned Taxi Driver. Other notables include the commentary for The Silence of the Lambs (featuring stars Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, along with director Jonathan Demme) and Terry Gilliam's tracks for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King.

Video games

Some video games, such as the episodic sequels to Half-Life 2 and , have experimented with audio commentaries. Unlike DVD commentaries, the systems used for video games do not use a predetermined continuous flow of speech, because the events of a game depend on the player's actions. Instead, in-game prompts are used to allow players to activate a relevant audio commentary for a specific area. The camera and action may also be altered to more readily showcase the developer's comments.

List of video games with audio commentary

External links

Website devoted to user-submitted ratings and reviews of DVD audio commentary tracks.

A feature of The Onion's A.V. Club focusing on the commentary tracks that accompany DVD releases of critical and/or box office flops.

Database of third-party DVD commentaries; offers synchronization software.

Notes and References

  1. Los Angeles Times: Archives
  2. Web site: Video Capsule Review: Contact. 1998-01-09. by Steve Daly, Entertainment Weekly.. 2007-01-25.
  3. Total Film: Woody Allen interview
  4. Web site: You, Too, Can Be a DVD Movie Critic. 2007-01-11. Ebert. Roger. Roger Ebert. 2002. February. Yahoo! Internet Life. 2002-10-12.
  5. Web site: Clerks II (2006) - Channel 4 Film Review. 2007-02-21. Luck. Richard. 2006.
  7. Web site: The Guide to Comedy. 2007-01-11. Lewisohn. Mark. Mark Lewisohn.
  8. Every film mentioned by Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino in their Hot Fuzz commentary track