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What Non-Aardvarks are Pondering

By Curtis C. Chen

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April 6, 2000

Drooling Fanboy Overdrive

This year's Oscar season may have ended, but the dust hasn't settled yet.

Dust bunny #1: Disney's new Secrets of The Sixth Sense web site, featuring more behind-the-scenes flotsam and marketing drivel than any consumer should ever want to see. I have been known to waste non-trivial periods of time perusing glossy, studio-backed web sites for movies-- most recently, High Fidelity (also a Disney release)-- but eventually, at some point, I just don't care that much.

My biggest gripe is with the Secrets section of the site, which contains the complete screenplay annotated with storyboards and photos from the final movie. Yes, that does sound really cool, but it's yet another good concept ruined by bad implementation. Some of the major problems:

  • It's a Macromedia Flash module. In fact, all of the content on this site is in Flash modules. That means you can't copy the text; you can't view it on your Palm VII, your wireless phone, or any web-enabled device other than a browser on your PC; and you have to wait for new graphics to download after nearly every mouse click. Plus, you need the Flash Player plug-in, which means anybody using an older browser, a text-only browser, or Unix is immediately excluded.
  • The six pages of instructions that you have to click through before you find out how to actually start reading the screenplay. The instructions aren't even necessary-- the first two pages are introductory pap, and the interface itself is basic vanilla hypertext. Why waste the user's time?
  • The screenplay text and accompanying images are in different locations on every page, forcing the reader to re-orient himself or herself repeatedly and making the content practically unreadable. Apparently the designers were told to "make it look cool" instead of paying any attention to usability. In addition, there's introductory animation for every page, adding to the load time and further distracting the reader. If Disney wanted to turn the story into a comic book, that's what they should have done. The current design adds no value, and is actually annoying.
  • The COMING SOON placeholders that pop up when you try to select any of the last 80% of the screenplay. This is particularly inexcusable when you consider that you can get the complete screenplay right now from Drew's Scripts-O-Rama -- in text format, and in a fraction of the time it takes any of Disney's Flash modules to download.

That last item probably explains why the screenplay Flash module wasn't included as a DVD-ROM feature on the DVD, which hit the streets last week. (Probably a good thing. The DVD already has its own interface problems, which have been duly noted on Usenet and don't merit discussion here.) And speaking of DVD...

Dust bunny #2: Jeffrey Wells, the anti-credentialed writer of's "Hollywood Confidential", begins this week's column by whining about the fact that the forthcoming DVD edition of American Beauty will not contain a number of scenes that were cut from the movie during editing. I realize it's his job to think about these things, but really, isn't there something more important to discuss?

I have two problems with Wells' position. The first is a practical matter. In his column, Wells says:

Deleted scenes from major movies appearing on "special edition" DVDs are fairly typical these days. It's pretty much an expected thing when a high-profile DVD is released. ... I think I'm speaking for thousands of DVD aficionados who are probably saddened by this news. I am, I can tell you.

I'm sure Wells meets and corresponds with a lot of videophiles, but I doubt he knows "thousands" of those people well enough to make a sweeping generalization like this. Okay, it's no worse than some of the things that analysts say in The Wall Street Journal. I tend to have problems with them, too.

I love DVD "special features" and "bonus materials" as much as the next guy. The special edition laserdisc box set of Aliens was the main reason I bought my first laserdisc player. But I also own plenty of movies that have not been retooled for home video. I hate to sound like an old geezer, but I think a lot of us have been spoiled. Home video technology is less than twenty years old, and already people are complaining that it's not good enough. Let's take a step back and look at the big picture.

Remember when the first Star Wars movie opened in 1977? My next-door neighbor loved it so much that after the movie was no longer in theaters, he bought a soundtrack album and listened to it over and over for years. VCRs didn't exist, and cable TV was still in its infancy, so the only way he could actually see the movie again was to wait until it aired on one of the three broadcast networks. Even then, he had to endure a pan-and-scan transfer and commercial interruptions, and he couldn't record it to watch again later. Compare that to the multitude of options available now: pay-per-view, satellite TV, DVD rentals, Personal TV servers. We've come a long way.

It's great that the studios keep pushing the envelope, adding more and more extra features to their home video releases, but in the end, the play's the thing. Lenticular cover art will not improve the quality of VHS tape; a director's commentary will not mitigate the painful horridness of an Alan Smithee film. Extras are just that: extra.

My second objection is more artistic in nature. Wells again:

The movie is the movie. No additional footage can touch it, or take away from its impact. As long as the unseen scenes aren't integrated into the film and are viewable as stand-alone extras, where's the harm? Why not let us see what you [director Sam Mendes] and [writer] Alan [Ball] and [cinematographer] Connie [Hall] had in mind before you decided against using it and going with the trimmed version? For history's sake, for the sake of our whetted appetites, put them back in the DVD.

This entire line of reasoning appears to be based on the premise that more is always better. Referring to the final cut of the movie as "the trimmed version" implies that good things were trimmed out. In my experience, albeit limited, this is not usually the case.

I can't dispute the fact that seeing footage from the cutting room floor is interesting, but I don't think it's always appropriate, especially when it's being made available to an audience of millions. The director, editor, producers, and many others have already spent months putting the movie together. If some footage was excised, there was probably a good reason.

Avid readers don't clamor for their favorite authors to release earlier drafts of their latest best-selling books. Computer game junkies don't collect beta versions of their favorite first-person shooters so they can check out the "deleted bugs". So why is unused material such a big deal when it comes to movies? Why do videophiles feel like they're missing out if they buy a DVD that's "only" the movie?

I'd guess it's mostly because of the glamor associated with Hollywood. People always want to see more of their favorite celebrities. People will fall in love with the world created in a particular movie and want to relive it again and again. People enjoy going "behind the scenes" and immersing themselves in something that feels almost magical. Humans are a race of storytellers, and motion pictures have made storytelling more powerful and effective than ever before.

To be fair, knowing that Titanic cost nearly $200 million to produce and originally ran over four hours long does make me curious to see some of that extra footage. But I can live without it. When all is said and done, it's still just a movie. It may entertain me for a few hours, even educate me or enrich my life, but it's really not all that important.

Of course, that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. (Or shamelessly plagiaristic.)


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