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 information which otherwise would not be disclosed to audience members.[1]

Types of commentary

The DVD medium allows multiple audio tracks for each video program. DVD players usually allow these to be selected by the viewer from the main menu of the DVD or using the remote. These tracks will contain dialogue and sound of the movie, often with alternative tracks featuring different language dialogue, or various types of audio encoding (such as Dolby Digital, DTS or PCM). Among them may be at least one commentary track.

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:

Typically a commentary track will include feature-length commentary from the film's director, cast members, or occasionally writers and producers. Occasionally actors will perform commentary in-character. (In recording sessions with multiple speakers, a designated moderator may encourage the discussion flow.) Some DVDs include outsider commentary performed by film critics, historians, scholars or fans. In more elaborate productions, multiple speakers from various recording sessions may be edited together for a single audio program.

Some DVDs feature commentaries with on-screen video enhancements, such as telestrator prompts, (allowing the director or commentator to "draw" on the screen, pointing out specific details), or the Ghostbusters "video commentary", where one of the subtitle tracks is used to add silhouettes of the speakers in a manner where they seem to be in a theater commenting on the movie as it was screened for them in the style of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Less common are actual video commentaries, showing the speakers as they are recording the commentary, requiring separate video tracks.

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 pre-date 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 idea for the commentary track arose in the film-to-tape transfer room when laserdisc producers, Peter Crown and Jennifer Scanlin of Romulus Productions, Inc., thrilled by Haver's incredible commentary, suggested to Bob Stein and Roger Smith that this material needed to be included on the disc. They played back the completed movie as Ron watched and ad libbed his comments.

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]

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. Eli Roth, for example, specifically states on the producer's commentary track for The Last Exorcist, that he and the other filmmakers will offer advice to people interested in making films, as well as film school students. He is a strong proponent of the educational use of audio commentary, having recorded five commentary tracks for his debut, Cabin Fever. He also recorded insightful commentary tracks, with Quentin Tarantino, for both Hostel films, in which the two horror movie fans share film-making anecdotes and offer advice on working in the movie business. Meanwhile, others (such as Steven Spielberg or David Lynch) feel commentary can de-mystify and cheapen a movie. 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

A number of movies released today feature audio commentaries. While many of them will not hold the interest of the casual viewer, specific releases stand out, mainly those with elements of historical interest or subject-specific information from expert advisors. For example, the inventor of the steadicam, featured throughout the audio commentary track for The Shining, discusses his work with the ground-breaking technology in several films leading up to that landmark production. Non-movie buffs may be interested in the anecdotes offered by advisors to the filmmakers, such as the FBI profiler commenting on The Silence of the Lambs (Criterion DVD release). Filmmakers and cast may reveal stories from behind the scenes, explain the process involved in their work, or simply offer additional laughs. Notable audio commentaries include:

Prolific commentators

Alternate commentaries

Originally inspired by a column by Roger Ebert,[7] 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 by starting a DVD player with the movie and an MP3 player with the track simultaneously. A substantial community of fan commentators exists,[8] creating many hundreds of downloadable tracks available on the Web.

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.[9]

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.

Critiques and parodies of the audio commentary

The Audio Commentary has been a subject of discussion among filmmakers. Many directors see them as an unnecessary bonus feature, while others record "fake" commentaries, which may contain false information or inside jokes. Other filmmakers have parodied the commentary concept, as the following examples demonstrate.

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. News: Los Angeles Times: Archives.
  2. Web site: Video Capsule Review: Contact. 1998-01-09. by Steve Daly, Entertainment Weekly.. 2007-01-25.
  3. http://www.totalfilm.com/features/the_total_film_interview_-_woody_allen Total Film: Woody Allen interview
  4. News: Sciretta. Peter. Darren Aronofsky Releases The Fountain Audio Commentary Online. /FILM. September 17, 2007.
  5. News: Holland Does Child's Play Commentary!. Dread Central. September 16, 2008.
  6. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001752/bio
  7. Web site: You, Too, Can Be a DVD Movie Critic. 2007-01-11. Ebert. Roger. Roger Ebert. 2002. February. Yahoo! Internet Life. http://web.archive.org/web/20021012042315/www.yil.com/columns/column.asp?columnist=ebert&date=020201&page=01. 2002-10-12.
  8. Cataloged extensively at Zarban's House of Commentaries.
  9. Web site: Clerks II (2006) - Channel 4 Film Review. 2007-02-21. Luck. Richard. 2006. Channel4.com.
  10. http://www.snpp.com/episodes/DABF06
  11. Web site: The bbc.co.uk Guide to Comedy. 2007-01-11. Lewisohn. Mark. Mark Lewisohn. BBC.co.uk.
  12. http://tysto.com/articles08/q1/20080114hotfuzz.shtml Every film mentioned by Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino in their Hot Fuzz commentary track
  13. Web site: Game Developer Confessions: Rare Commentary Explains Whys And Hows. MTV. October 16, 2006. September 8, 2009. Totilo, Stephen.