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running commentary

Audio commentary

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.

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:

  • Partial or scene-specific, which only covers selected scenes of the film. Sometimes these are recorded without the speaker viewing the film and thusly the commentator may make more general comments than pointing out specific details.
  • Feature-length or screen-specific, which is recorded in one session: the speakers watch the movie from beginning to end and give their thoughts directly based on what is happening on-screen. Occasionally these can include silhouettes of the speakers (to enhance the "live" aspect of the commentary) or even telestrator prompts, allowing the director or commentator to "draw" on the screen, pointing out specific details. There are also video commentaries, showing the speakers as they are recording the commentary.

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:

  • Edited, which is recorded at various sessions, often with various speakers. Multiple-person commentary tracks recorded for The Criterion Collection are noted for this technique. The audio is edited into a cohesive whole.
  • Character, which features one or more actors commenting on the movie while in character.
  • Scholarly, which is performed by a film critic, historian or scholar, taking the viewer through the significance of the film, the technique, and at times telling the story behind its making. Variations feature fans who would also have some level of expertise concerning a title.

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 movies 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.

Notable DVD audio commentaries

  • The DVD release of Ghostbusters contains a "video commentary" track with director, Ivan Reitman, writer/star Harold Ramis, and associate producer Joe Medjuck. Silhouettes of the trio were added to the picture using one of the subtitle tracks, in a manner that made it seem as if they were sitting in a theater commenting on the movie as it was screened for them. This was seen as a homage to (or imitation of) Mystery Science Theater 3000. In some scenes, arrows, lines, or circles may be drawn onto the screen to highlight things the directors are talking about. The DVD releases of Men in Black and Muppets from Space had similar features.
  • The DVD release of Fantasia features two separate commentaries: one by Roy E. Disney, James Levine, John Canemaker, and Scott MacQueen; and a second by Walt Disney, created using audio clips of interviews and a voice actor reading his production meeting notes, hosted by Canemaker. When its sequel, Fantasia 2000, was released on DVD, it also included two separate audio commentaries: One featuring Roy E. Disney, Levine, and Canemaker, and the other featuring commentary on each of the separate segments of the film by the directors and art directors of each segment. For the sections starring Mickey Mouse ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice") and Donald Duck ("Pomp and Circumstance"), voice actors Wayne Allwine and Tony Anselmo were used to make it seem as though Mickey and Donald were providing their own commentary on their appearances in the film.
  • The DVD releases for Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Special Edition), Treasure Planet and Finding Nemo contained specially-edited "video commentaries"; the feature-length audio commentaries by the directors and producers were punctuated by cues to video segments illustrating various behind-the-scenes aspects. Similarly, in several commentaries on the first season of Lost, the commentators would actually stop the episode's progress and play behind-the-scenes clips, continuing to talk over the footage.
  • The 2000 DVD of This is Spinal Tap features a commentary by the three members of the band, in character. They relate how they felt slighted by the film, and how the director (Marty di Bergi in the film) did a "hack job" with the documentary. The commentary is another added element to the fiction of the band. Actors Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer had previously recorded a commentary for a Criterion Collection DVD which had gone out of print. Similarly, the DVD of series 1 of the BBC sitcom I'm Alan Partridge features commentary from the characters of Alan and his assistant, Lynne. Like Spinal Tap, Alan is heard to be frustrated at how the show makes him appear.
  • The Ultimate Matrix Collection, a box set of the entire Matrix trilogy, has two audio commentaries on each film — one by philosophers who loved it (Dr. Cornel West and Ken Wilber), and one by critics who hated it (Todd McCarthy, John Powers and David Thomson).
  • The commentary on Trey Parker's Cannibal! The Musical (aka Alferd Packer: The Musical) is notable in that the commentators — cast and crew — start out sober at the beginning. As the movie progresses, the group drinks and gets more and more inebriated. A similar commentary, featuring many of the participants from that commentary, was recorded for Orgazmo.
  • The fourth, fifth and sixth season box sets of The Simpsons contain special "illustrated commentaries" on selected episodes, where two animation directors draw on screen while commenting on the episode. This is achieved by using subtitle data to produce the drawings overlaid on top of the video in sync with the audio commentary track.
  • The Simpsons and Futurama, both Matt Groening creations, are among the few TV series to have audio commentary tracks on every episode in their season box set DVD releases. For Futurama, the commentators point out who voiced minor characters. The actors for these characters are otherwise unlisted in the ending credits. Mr. Show, Red Dwarf, volumes 4 and onwards of Family Guy, the first season sets of Twin Peaks, The Shield and Goodnight Sweetheart and all episodes and specials of The League of Gentlemen are other examples of this.
  • The commentary for Eurotrip has the writers and director playing a drinking game to their own film, while giving a commentary.
  • When the first season of Veronica Mars was rushed to DVD so first-time viewers could catch up before the second season began airing in Fall 2005, the creator, Rob Thomas, recorded an audio commentary for the pilot which was a downloadable podcast because there wasn't time to get it on the boxed set.
  • In lieu of recording a commentary himself, Michael Moore allowed his interns and secretary to record the audio commentary for his documentary Bowling for Columbine.
  • Despite his high profile, director Steven Spielberg has yet to provide a commentary track 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.
  • On the DVD release of Shaun of the Dead, one (of the four) commentary tracks is given over entirely to a recording of the actors who played zombies in the movie. The first cast audio commentary (including Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran) also mocks audio commentaries as the cast admit that they almost never listen to them (with Simon Pegg claiming he listens to them when going to sleep), as well as Dylan Moran saying that they simply involve people saying things like "oh, we used a steadi-cam for that one because Roger had a bad knee", and that no-one was interested in hearing it.
  • There is a fake DVD commentary on the DVD of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story with Rawson Marshall Thurber, Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller arguing. 40 minutes into it, all three exit and the commentary is replaced with the audio commentary from There's Something About Mary. The real audio commentary can be found as an easter egg on the DVD.
  • On the audio commentaries for seasons of The Venture Bros., Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer have conversations that have little to do with the episodes being shown.

Prolific commentators

Alternate commentaries

Originally inspired by a column by Roger Ebert, 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, Star Trek: Enterprise, 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; 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.

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.

Parody

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

  • The Coen Brothers movie Blood Simple has a fake commentary written by the Coens and read by an actor posing as a film historian. This "historian" Kenneth Loring gives information about the production that almost everyone would recognize as being totally ludicrous. He claims for instance that one the opening scene was shot upside down with the actors saying their lines backwards and that some roles were reserved for Rosemary Clooney and Gene Kelly.
  • In an episode of The Simpsons ("The Bart Wants What It Wants" ), Bart is watching an Itchy & Scratchy DVD and decides to turn the commentary on. A small box appears at the corner of the screen, showing Scratchy ("We shot this at four in the morning, and the crew was getting a little cranky") and Itchy ("You can never get enough takes for Steven Soderbergh"); midway through Scratchy's next sentence, Itchy cuts off his head.
  • The Welsh comedian Rob Brydon wrote and starred in the ITV comedy show Director's Commentary (2004) in which he played a fictional director, Peter De Lane, and parodied the often conceited and pompous nature of directors when giving DVD commentaries by articulating his thoughts over archive footage. Although the show was well received, it did not sustain viewer interest, and as of 2006 only one six-episode season was produced.
  • The book Speak, Commentary, by Jeff Alexander and Tom Bissell, collects a series of fake audio commentaries purportedly made by well-known American cultural critics and political pundits on popular science fiction and fantasy movies. The contents include Ann Coulter on Ridley Scott's Alien, as well as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn on Peter Jackson's films of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.
  • The Adam and Joe Show parodied audio commentaries in a sketch which stated that audio commentaries often sound like "self indulgent wankers in a pub".
  • Webtoon Homestar Runner has featured the characters of the H*R universe doing commentaries for many of their cartoons. Most notably The King of Town DVD, In Search of the Yello Dello and the music video for They Might Be Giants' "Experimental Film."
  • Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy contains audio commentary where the characters end up discussing very little of the film's content.
  • Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby features a commentary in which director Adam McKay fabricates nearly every piece of information about the film, such a the production's move to Brazil, the roles of Walker and Texas Ranger being played by robots, and that the original cut of the film was 9 1/2 hours long and contained a segment of a stick of butter.
  • The Hot Fuzz 3-disc collector's edition DVD includes a commentary featuring real policemen and a commentary in which director Edgar Wright and fellow filmmaker Quentin Tarantino discuss nearly 200 films but barely make reference to Hot Fuzz.

Quotes

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."

  • Ridley Scott is an enthusiastic supporter of commentaries and the DVD format in general. In the July 2006 issue of Total Film magazine, he stated:

"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."

  • When DVD first started becoming commercially available in 1997, Kevin Smith was not a fan of the format. Smith expressed his animosity on the commentary for the Criterion Collection laserdisc of Chasing Amy. Smith began the commentary by saying, "This is a Criterion laserdisc, and at this moment, we'd just like to say, 'Fuck DVD'." Smith has since come to embrace DVD. When Chasing Amy was re-released to DVD, and the running commentary re-used, Smith filmed a special introduction in which he apologized for the comment, and attributed it to Jason Mewes.

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 most the episodic sequels to Half-Life 2 and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary, 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

Tomb Raider Anniversary
Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (PC Version)
Half-Life 2: Lost Coast
Half-Life 2: Episode One
Half-Life 2: Episode Two
Portal
Team Fortress 2

References

External links

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