I remember the very first “behind the scenes” special feature I ever watched. It was a video of Andy Serkis wearing a motion capture suit in a warehouse, acting out the part of Gollum. At the time we had a 54K dialup modem, and since each of us kids were only allowed an hour of internet per day, we would all sacrifice our internet time to wait for the whole video to download so we could watch it all the way from the beginning. I was fifteen years old, and that was the Golden Age of the special feature.
These days, special features are going the way of the Dodo. I would mourn them, but to be honest, I cannot remember the last time I bothered to watch the DVD special features. I think that this progression has been mostly organic, based on technological advances, but I also think that movie buffs are experiencing special feature fatigue.
The birth of the DVD suddenly provided extra space for producers and especially directors to show off all of the things that they do to create the amazing movies that their fans love. At first, we were incredibly grateful! Suddenly we fans felt as though we were right on set. We learned about all the things that go into making one minute of Star Wars. Then we watched as Mark Hamill got better and better at light saber choreography.
Later on, my siblings and I squirmed in anticipation as we waited for the special features from the official Lord of the Rings website to download. (One of my favorite videos was the one entitled “Bringing Gollum to Life.”)
Another movie with great special features was Pixar’s The Incredibles. We watched the voice actors talk into microphones (titillating stuff) and learned how Brad Bird, the director, became the official voice of Edna Mold. I don’t know about other fans, but we watched these short videos over and over until we had almost memorized them as much as we memorized the movie from which they came.
In the early days, few DVDs came with very many special features. A few had the music video to the credit song, and occasionally a blooper reel. Before too long, however, every DVD had a host of special features, including the ever popular actor/director commentary—the entire movie, but being talked over by cast or crew member describing funny stories or explaining the technical reasons behind certain screen decisions. DVDs were released in expensive two- and four-disc sets to have room for all the extras. Even TV series were including commentaries on the DVD releases of each season. Brian Collins of Badass Digest said it well:
“[G]uys actually had to dig out these elements and put them into the movie, not to mention create the other original content on the disc. It probably cost almost as much to put together this DVD (including the remastering, rights acquisition, man hours spent digging up the materials, etc) as it did to make the movie in the first place.”
Since then, technology and the free market system has changed a lot about the way that fans watch movies. Rental versions of DVD’s—once the full movie and all its features from a Blockbuster shelf—are now single discs in a paper sleeve. Distributors wanted to encourage movie renters to purchase DVDs, so they stopped including all the special features on rental discs. Now, many people get their movie fix by streaming videos or downloading digital versions, which come with even fewer features. As time goes on, already fatigued viewers have gotten out of the habit of watching them.
I personally do not mourn the slow death of movie special effects for the most part. Soon after The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out on DVD, I sat down to watch the actor commentary. It didn’t take long for me to be weary of the banal stories of actors in massive costumes tripping over their hooves, and of Georgie Henley’s (Lucy Pevensie) surprise on her first moment in the wintery world of Narnia. While I thought of the older Director’s Cut DVD sets as something like film school at home, I also find myself experiencing special feature fatigue.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I found a video describing exactly how Peter Jackson got the runes on the doors of Khazad-Dum to glow.