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Docs Live Again on DVD

By Mary Schaffer

Over the past five years, consumers have adopted DVDs (Digital Versatile Discs) faster than any other form of home entertainment. Today there are more than 31 million DVD players in American homes. The medium owes its popularity to two things: First, the picture and sound quality is far superior to that of a VHS tape; second, a DVD often includes added-value materials, creating new markets and audiences for both documentary lovers and subject enthusiasts. Indeed, one of the best-selling genres among DVDs is documentary.

“From Mao to Mozart was produced 20 years ago,” says Donald Klocek, production manager of Four Oaks Foundation, which produced the Academy Award®- winning feature documentary. “It had been on the shelves for a while, but we brought it back to life with the DVD.”

The Mao DVD includes two additional documentaries, along with a host of other features. Musical Encounters is a short film documenting violinist Isaac Stern’s return to China 20 years after the original documentary was made. The Gentleman from Shanghai, another short, tells the story of a Chinese musician’s solitary confinement during the Cultural Revolution. This DVD has found new audiences, and is currently being used in schools, for example, to teach the history of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

One of the leading distributors of docs on DVD is Docurama, a division of New Video that was launched in 1999. Docurama’s catalog includes From Mao to Mozart (Murray Lerner), as well as the Academy Award®-nominated Speaking in Strings (Paola di Florio), Genghis Blues (Roko and Adrian Belic) and such classics as Dont Look Back (DA Pennebaker) and On the Road with Duke Ellington (Robert Drew), which will be released this summer.

Docurama worked closely with Pennebaker on the production of Dont Look Back. “Pennebaker kept everything,” says Steve Savage, president and co-founder of New Video. “When Pennebaker was on tour with Bob Dylan [in 1965], film was very precious. He could only shoot on film what he thought was important. But, he recorded everything on a Nagra. Thirty-five-years later, these wonderful monophonic recordings allowed us to resurrect five original, uncut audio performances.”

The Don’t Look Back DVD includes a never-before-seen version of the famous “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cue-card scene, the original theatrical trailer, as well as commentary tracks from Pennebaker and Dylan’s tour manager, Bob Neuwirth.

Pennebaker’s 1969 film Monterey Pop will be released later this year on a three-DVD set on Criterion Collection. “Monterey Pop was shot in reversal, and it looks absolutely beautiful on the DVD,” says Chris Hegedus, Pennebaker’s partner. “There is so much attention to detail on the DVD.” The Monterey Historical Society recently held a symposium with many of the people involved with the 1967 music event. Pennebaker and Hegedus filmed the gathering, garnering various materials and interviews for the DVD.

“It’s very much a growing market,” says John Richards, Vice President of Creative? for Warner Brothers Home Video. Richards, like New Video’s Savage, emphasizes close cooperation with producers and directors of documentaries. When producing the DVD version of Into the Arms of Strangers—Stories of the Kindertransport, the 2000 Academy Award® -winning feature documentary, Richards and his team met with producer Deborah Oppenheimer to discuss what available materials might enhance the value of the product. Oppenheimer and director Mark Jonathan Harris brought together scenes that didn’t make it in the film, as well as coverage of the London and Berlin premieres, and bonus interviews with Lord Richard Attenborough and other Kindertransport participants. English and French audio tracks were cut and have been made available with subtitles in eight different languages.

“By doing our DVDs in conjunction with the filmmakers we get a better product,” Richards notes. “Not only do they know what additional materials are available, they also understand how much the DVD enhances the value of their product.”

Warner Home Video has a variety of partnerships, including one with PBS. “If Warner expresses an interest in developing a DVD, then we usually pursue it,” says Rebecca Carr, PBS’s Director of Producers Services. The first DVD documentary the two companies partnered on was Ken Burns’ Baseball, released in October 2000.

“The DVD market has picked up so much since that first release,” Carr adds. “Baseball was a ten-disc set—nine ‘innings,’ plus a bonus disc that included additional interviews with Ken Burns and Bob Costas, which aired on PBS’s Charlie Rose Show.”

PBS developed 12 DVDs last year; this year they intend to develop 25. “We are trying to get ahead of the process and develop materials while the documentary is being produced,” Carr adds. “Our research tells us that people are most interested in behind-the-scenes segments.”

Besides the ‘making of’ segments, commentaries and outtakes, other features normally considered for DVDs include filmographies, biographical material, games, quizzes, and photo galleries. Some filmmakers also produce DVDs with a broad range of audiences in mind. Science documentaries, for example, sometimes have two separate audio tracks, one for adults and one for children.

Documentary producers and directors feel that DVD offers them an opportunity to include many of the stories that didn’t make it into the film. “DVDs have solved a problem for us,” notes Chris Hegedus. “When making a film there is always something that you love that gets cut. Now we say, ‘save it for the DVD.’”

“Classic documentaries have a new life, thanks to DVD,” says Kent Gibson, President of Cosmos Studios, which recently re-mastered 13 hours of Carl Sagan’s 1980 landmark television series Cosmos. Gibson emphasizes that production of DVDs is different than film production. “The first thing you do is the chapter stops, which is the time code of DVD and divides all the materials. You need to make decisions on how to break-up the show, selecting a key frame that can be used as a visual for each chapter.”

“A big part of remaking Cosmos as a DVD was finding the best and most complete masters,” he adds. “We did a long series of encoding tests to determine what worked best. Some of the original segments were on film, and some were on one-inch tape. For the film section, we did frame-by-frame painting, restoring the programs the best we could. Now they look a lot better than originally. Today’s color correction is far superior to that in 1980.”

Even large-format films have found their way onto DVD. The Academy Award®- nominated Dolphins, produced by MacGillivray Freeman Films, includes additional features such as Sting’s soundtrack, which is heard on 5.1 audio, a preferred feature of the sophisticated audiophile.

The first DVD the company released was Everest, distributed as part of the Miramax Collectors series. It includes the “Making Of…,” as well as deleted scenes and extended interviews. MacGillivray Freeman has since released an additional six titles through Image Entertainment, including The Magic of Flight and The Living Sea.

“The 70mm format presents no problem for DVD,” says MacGillivray Freeman’s Vice President, Alec Lorimore. “Once we’re done with the negative cutting of the 70mm original, we pull a 35mm color-corrected interpositive. This is used for the digital and video transfer.”

“We develop ancillary teacher’s guides and educational products, which once were distributed in print on all of our films,” he adds. “Now websites and DVDs are getting much more sophisticated. Going forward, much of that information will be used to create additional segments on the DVD. When someone buys one of the films, they will have the ability to access all of the material. For example, on Dolphins, with the support of the National Science Foundation, we did a separate video on career opportunities in marine biology. And our behind-the-scenes segment has a lot of educational use.”

Producers and distributors agree that the cost of creating a DVD is much greater than that of a VHS. Costs include the design and creation of menus, translation and subtitling, while pre-mastering costs include encoding and compression, audio preparation and programming. In the case of the older documentaries, cost of restoration, re-mastering and color correction may also be required. Finally, there are testing and packaging costs. While the overall cost of producing a DVD is actually declining, it is still a barrier for some films when the sales projections are not sufficient.

Nevertheless, filmmakers acknowledge that there is a strong market for DVDs, and producing them can be beneficial financially, as long as several factors are kept in mind.

New Video’s Savage recommends keeping all material. “Keep everything that falls on the floor,” he says. “You don’t need to be organized. All the stuff that you don’t think matters can really help in future lives that the film might have.”

Because of low sales projections, however, the DVD producer often finds that it is not cost-effective to add this material. PBS’s Carr says, “The real struggle is getting money to do development—getting it onto the format, like menus, compression and authoring. The cost of development is getting lower and lower, but it’s still a barrier.”

Daniel Klocek of Four Oaks Foundation also stresses the issue of time. “Chapters, titles, graphics, color—all of these are issues, and they all take time. There is always a step between finishing the main film and distribution, so be careful of the fine print. DVD is a whole other big consideration. When you’re making your deal, you have to make sure there is enough time to complete the DVD.”

“The main thing is to get good distribution,” concludes MacGillivray Freeman’s Lorimore. “The DVD is only as good as the distribution and the marketing effort around it.”


Mary C. Schaffer is a professor of multi-media at California State University Northridge. She currently serves on the IDA Board of Directors. She can be reached at