A DVD Talk Trip Report
|Phantom Menace Official Q & A | The Phantom Answers - Answers to Your Star Wars Episode 1 Questions | Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace DVD Review|
Star Wars The Beginning
There's no denying that Star Wars has had an influence on me. I was one of those young kids who did stop motion animation with my Star Wars Action Figures. My friends and I used to compete on how many times we had seen Star Wars. We waited every few years in long, long lines to see each new Star Wars chapter as it opened.
But times have changed, I have changed, and so has Star Wars. The latest installment, Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace, is considered by many Star Wars fans to be the weakest Star Wars movie so far. I consider it to be a real disappointment. I walked out at the end of my first and only time seeing Phantom Menace in the theater with a feeling of discontent.
So, I felt mixed before beginning my trip to Skywalker Ranch. On one hand I remember the Star Wars (and Indiana Jones) of years back, their influence on me, their special place in my life. But the REASON I was going to Skywalker Ranch was for Star Wars Phantom Menace, a film that by all accounts I really didn't like.
I had a lot of questions spinning around my head as I began my trip: Do films become bigger and better for us in our minds as time passes? Is it simply impossible for any Star Wars to live up to Star Wars: Episode 4 - A New Hope? Was I going to be able to conceal the fact I didn't like Phantom Menace?
As we began our tour we were reminded that we weren't allowed to discuss anything that we saw at Skywalker Ranch outside of the Star Wars Phantom Menace DVD, and we should focus our coverage on the DVD. We were also told we could not take or publish any pictures of the ranch. As I sat looking up at the magnificent domed stained glass ceiling of the Lucasfilm library, I almost asked if they sold postcards in the gift shop, it was that amazing. But the Skywalker Ranch isn't really that shrouded in mystery - you can see a great deal of it, including the screening room, in the documentary on the Phantom Menace DVD (Star Wars I - The Beginning). If you watch the documentary you'll get a sense of the amazing (and rare) hardwood paneling in the main house and some of the spectacular design work. What you won't see is a display case with memorabilia from Lucas' movies including Luke's Lightsaber, the Idol which Indiana Jones replaces with a bag of sand, and, believe it or not, a guitar signed by Howard the Duck!
As we waited for everyone to arrive, the editors and reporters introduced themselves to each other (there were about 20 in all). I finally had a chance to meet Bill Hunt from The Digital Bits, and see Pete Bracke from DVD File and Guido Hinkel from DVD Review (both of which I had met at last year's VSDA). Bill joked, "If a bomb were to go off in this building there wouldn't be anymore DVD news!", and he was right. Gathered here were all the DVD dot coms, all looking no worse for wear from the dot com roller coaster, all excited about seeing what Lucasfilm had in store.
Seeing The DVD For the First Time
As much as Episode 1 troubles me, I have to admit I LOVED the pod race. It captures the same sort of Star Wars magic and excitement of the X-Wing and Tie Fighter battles, and the Imperial Speeder Bike scenes on Endor. The Pod Racing scenes simply look and sound amazing. DVD was created for scenes like this!
After watching the Pod Races and Duel we were lead into the bigger screening room - the same room that Lucas uses to screen the various cuts of Star Wars. Plush velvety arm chairs six rows, five across sat facing a large screen with some of the best sound and picture I've seen come from a DVD. This isn't your ordinary home theater, this is the top of the top of the line. We all ooohed and ahhhed at the set up.
We sat down and were treated to an amazing tour of the Phantom Menace DVD, including the three different main menus on the main disc. Each time you insert the DVD into your player one of the three menus (Naboo, Tatooine and Coruscant) is randomly selected. All three are stunning and extremely well produced. On the main DVD we were treated to one (and only one) easter egg - the credits for the DVD intercut with a hilarious blooper reel. They didn't show us how to get to the easter egg, but I'm sure it'll be unearthed and posted to our forum in no time!
From the main disc we went on to the 2nd special features disc and got the grand tour, including some fun 'time outs' (when the music and such cycles while you wait) including a fun one in Watto's shop. Then came a moment we were waiting for - the deleted scenes! Unlike most deleted scenes, the 7 deleted scenes on the Star Wars Phantom Menace DVD were cut from the movie before they were ever fully produced (later at the Q&A Lucas would comment that things were cut in concept, it was the idea of something that had to be cut, things didn't get to be produced unless they were IN). Lucasfilm went back with the 7 scenes and completely produced them. This is really well explained in the 'Deleted Scenes Documentary' which not only covers the production of the Deleted Scenes but also discusses why scenes are deleted from a film in the first place. It's a fascinating documentary.
After a short break we were treated to the high point of the DVD - Episode 1 - The Beginning. Taken from over 600 hours of archival footage, this documentary provides a look into Lucas' creative process. It was the most compelling thing I saw my whole time at Skywalker Ranch, and it gave me a real understanding of what Lucas was trying to do with Phantom Menace and why he both succeeded and failed. In the documentary there's a scene with George Lucas, producer Rick McCallum and visual effects supervisor John Knoll. In less than five minutes of footage it becomes clear that Lucas isn't just making a movie, he's creating a new industry for Lucasfilm. As he looks over the budgets, it isn't just with an eye for the film, but with the vision of creating cutting edge effects and technology at a price which would be affordable to other film makers. An example of this is the choice to make Jar Jar an all digital character. Originally they designed a suit for Jar Jar 'actor' Ahmed Best to wear and were planning to just replace his head, but after figuring out the costs they discovered going all digital was less expensive. The money spent on the actor's suit was seen as an investment in figuring this out rather than a waste of money.
Another poignant moment in the documentary is when Frank Oz, doing the puppetry for Yoda, sees some of the completed Jar Jar footage and says to Lucas, "You don't need me any more to do this, George", a bitter sweet ode to the transition to digital film making. A point made even more clear with a scene where Lucas digitally alters an actor's performance by splitting him out of the scene, editing him and then putting him back in. Our jaws dropped at what is now commonplace technology for Lucas.
The documentary ends, and we gather our things and walk down the wooded path from the main house to the Skywalker Ranch company store. As we walk down, I compare notes with my fellow DVD editors and we all agree, the documentary is the star of the DVD. If only it were longer than an hour! After buying Skywalker Ranch shirts for my kids, I packed up my stuff and loaded back into my minivan for my long trek back to the East Bay (where I was staying).
Driving up the steep curves back up to Skywalker Ranch felt more familiar the second time around. The security guard almost remembered my name, and I was really excited as this was the day I'd be able to put questions from my DVD Talkers in front of George Lucas.
As we waited to be let in, everyone was a-buzz about an article which appeared in the Washington Post about The Phantom Edit including a quote by The Digital Bits' Bill Hunt. Each of us took a jab at Bill and wondered if this would mean he wouldn't get called on in the Q&A (he did).
I had a long talk with one of the reporters from Ain't It Cool News. His face went blank when I told him I was looking forward to getting the DVD, if for no other reason than to see Phantom Menace a second time. "One Time! You've only seen Phantom Menace one time!", he exclaimed. I felt like someone admitting they had voted for Gore at a Young Republican's meeting. As he talked about not really liking Phantom Menace the first time around, but loving it the second (and third, and fourth, and....), I was reminded of the joke:
I didn't think the joke would go over too well, so I kept it to myself.
Getting The DVD
As we waited for the Q&A session to begin, I had an opportunity to spend some time talking with Van Ling, the producer of The Star Wars Phantom Menace DVD, who is also known for his stellar work on T-2 Ultimate Edition and The Abyss: SE. "Don't ask me about Episodes 4-6 DVD, I don't know." I smiled. I'm sure that's the first question anyone asks. I complimented him on his breathtaking work on this DVD. If there's a star of this Star Wars DVD, it's Van Ling, who knows DVD better than anyone else. In addition to talking about The Phantom Menace DVD, we also talked about his work on the upcoming True Lies: Special Edition. He indicated there was an entire subplot involving Arnold Schwarzenegger's daughter that was cut. The interesting thing is that his daughter was played by Eliza Dushku, a virtual unknown back then. Van mused about just how much of the deleted stuff was going to make it on the DVD as he reiterated "sometimes scenes are cut for a reason". The only other info I could squeeze out of Van was that James Cameron was mulling over the idea of another Titanic DVD with a 3-plus-hour cut, but no firm plans yet.
The Q & A
The Q&A started off with a lot of soft pitch questions, and Van was great about answering them. Armed with the questions from DVD Talkers I fired off my first question: "Did you use anything as a source from the laser disc for the DVD?" There were some rumblings from the other press people, as many of them weren't aware of any laser disc release. Rick McCallum, who was waiting in the wings for his turn on the Q & A, said "Bootlegs?!" under his breath and then in a louder voice "I think he means the Japanese laser release." I felt a little flush - had I sand bagged any chance of getting my other questions answered? Nope, I was fine, and Van answered "Nothing was taken from the laser disc for the DVD, it's all from the Master Master".
They brought up a number of other people to talk about the DVD, including Phantom Menace Producer Rick McCallum, Richard Dean - Supervising Engineer from THX, Pablo Helman - Visual Effects Supervisor from Industrial Light & Magic and THX, and Jon Shenk - Director, "The Beginning". It was clear that the Phantom Menace DVD was a huge undertaking. Many echoed Van Ling's statement that Star Wars Phantom Menace was the biggest and most challenging DVD project they've worked on. After John Shenk there was a pause as we waited for George Lucas. During the break Jim Ward, Vice President Marketing, Lucasfilm Ltd. stalled by answering some questions.
"When will Episodes 4-6 come out on DVD?" It was the question we all wanted to ask, and it came in a faint voice from a reporter in the back of the room. The answer was one which we've heard before: "We don't have solid plans yet on when were going to release these DVDs." There was a collective relief that the question had been asked but also a collective disappointment at the answer. I looked down at my printout from the DVD Talk forum and a question caught my eye that I figured was perfect to ask. "Will Lucas's busy schedule with Episodes 2 & 3 preclude him from releasing some of his other films like Indiana Jones?". Jim replied "No, we're releasing other Lucasfilm DVDs. For example Willow is coming out soon, and there will be more to come."
(back from left to right: Guido Henkel - DVD Review, Jeff Rauter - DVD Answer Man, John Randall - DVDCC, Geoff Kleinman - DVD Talk)
(front row: Pete Bracke - DVD File, Bill Hunt - The Digital Bits)
Later Day 2
In San Francisco I had a great hamburger dinner at a greasy spoon near 3Com Park (which to this day I still think should be called Candlestick Park!). In a virtual deja vu, Chris picked up the tab and said, "If Lucasfilm isn't going to feed you lunch, then Lockergnome will!" - Thanks again, Chris!
Rather than spending a night on the town, I spent that Friday night in front of Chris' computer as we explored the Phantom Menace DVD. We looked in every nook and cranny for an Episode 2 trailer (which we didn't find). Chris was much more enthusiastic about Phantom Menace than I was, but I found his enthusiasm renewed my enthusiasm for giving it another viewing. Maybe it wasn't Chris' enthusiasm that was contagious as much as the extremely strong coffee I was downing from his new techno-gadget Bodum coffee maker! The evening ended and I made the drive back to the East Bay. The next day I made my trip to Portland, exhausted.
Complete Phantom Menace Coverage:
Phantom Menace Official Q & A
The Phantom Answers - Answers to Your Star Wars Episode 1 Questions
Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace DVD Review