Might seem hard to believe at this point, but there was a time in the late-‘90s to early-‘00s where big-screen Batman underwent something of an identity crisis. The creative folks behind the character's live-action iterations were unsure of whether to explore the character's dark, brooding elements from the comics -- something embraced by the wildly successful Batman: The Animated Series -- or return to the vibrant campiness of the ‘60s show, resulting in Schumacher's Batman & Robin and a period of silence afterwards. Sandy Collora knew what to do with the character, though, which led to his semi-independently-financed "fan film" Batman: Dead End, a moody and well-crafted ode to both the comic-book character and to creature-feature production design. How, then, could the craftsman behind such a regaled indie short full of action, reverence, and awareness of superhero filmmaking end up not becoming a larger presence in Hollywood? Behind the Mask: The Batman: Dead End Story reveals the how, and it makes perfect sense.
The front cover artwork for Behind the Mask features a silhouette of Sandy Collora's face with descriptive words flanking each side of him, accentuated with "visionary" and "myth" alongside "egomaniac" and "outcast", which sets a somewhat awkward tone. While the documentary was directed by Eric Dow, it was also produced (and Kickstarted) by Collora, which might understandably put one on guard in terms of the bias present in the documentary's storytelling. Behind the Mask cleanly separates into three general sections: the first part delves into Collora's growth in the film industry, primarily as a sculptor and production artist after he moved to LA in his late teens; the second part tackles how he transitioned from working under other people's design houses into the overarching Batman: Dead End project, with the hopes that it'd position himself as a noteworthy filmmaker; and the third part tackles both the reception to Collora's Batman short film and how he handled the attention afterwards.
Behind the Mask devotes a lot of energy to fleshing out Sandy Collora as an professional, amplified by the interview time with him and many of the industry folks he's interacted with over the years, chronicling his time at Stan Winston's design house to his mentorship relationship with Henry Alvarez. While inspiring to a point, the depiction of Collora's story also comes across as a one-dimensional, starry-eyed story of an artist who took the plunge by moving from New York to LA and worked his way into the creature design processes involved with major productions (Jurassic Park, Men in Black, etc). There's a lot of laudatory talk surrounding Collora, framing him as a sort of determined and essential visionary -- someone who views James Cameron as the pinnacle of whom he should aspire to be -- without digging deeper into his personality beyond his enthusiasm for the craft. The documentary wants to get the point across that he's exceptionally seasoned and qualified, so much that the content almost feels like it possesses ulterior motives outside of merely depicting Collora's path toward Batman.
Once the documentary arrives at Dead End, the scope of the actual conceptualization and creation covered about the short can be both satisfying and disappointing, especially considering how much effort was poured into the design and inspiration behind this mash-up of Batman and sci-fi alien villains. The content focuses quite a bit on Collora's ability to handle big properties and "what could've been" involving the casting -- a pair of high-profile names were originally attached to the Batman and Joker roles -- but it does also relish the small, jubilant successes of the production, such as witnessing the transformation of his second-choice actor, Clark Bartram, into a distillation of the shadowy, snarling versions of Batman from the comics. For a film labeled "the Batman: Dead End story", however, the extensiveness of what's covered from the actual production leaves something to be desired. Behind-the-scenes footage reveals glimpses at the stunt work and costume design, but it could've used some added verbal love and attention; the extras found on home-media discs offer more thorough insights.
Some of the issues with the wavering focus on making Batman: Dead End falls on the documentary's structure, which makes certain to disperse its efforts between the before, during, and after timeframes surrounding the origin of the short film. Thus, a good chunk of Behind the Mask focuses on catching up on what happened to Collora after the short's attention-grabbing debut at San Diego Comic Con, why he didn't make it big and what he's done afterwards. There's a degree of candidness that's easy to appreciate at this point in the doc, in which Collora gets surprised by footage of his overzealous response to the audience's reception to a screening, and how that reflected upon his overconfident perception of how his career would -- should -- play out. Alongside imagery of his indie projects, both finished and in development, and discussion about an action figure that was put into production of one of the creatures from his short, Behind the Mask does land on a sobering, exasperating, yet inspiring note about the fruits of independence and passion as well as the pains of egotism and artistic rigidity. Too much energy funnels toward Collora instead of unpacking the Batman fan-film's construction, though.
Video and Audio:
Pressed on a DVD-R and cobbling together interview footage recorded on the cheap, Behind the Mask: The Batman: Dead End Story runs the gamut of digital quality with its 1.78:1-framed, 16x9-enhanced transfer, at times displaying the necessary detail and contrast solidity and other times just making what's there work as best as they can. Many of the current shots of Collora's sculpting work and sketches are richly detailed and impressively colored, both in capturing the natural tones of his model materials and the post-painting shades, while the complicated black-level balance of the footage from Batman: Dead End stays inky and robust. Other shots, notably the behind-the-scenes stuff, are understandably of subpar quality, sporting a lot of digital garbling and jagged lines, but the digital quality still credibly captures the tactile properties of the production designed that were videotaped.
The Dolby 2.0 track does its job in preserving the interview material's clarity, though the make-it-work quality of the recordings comes through in the occasionally muffled and fluctuating pitched tenor of the dialogue. Scenes interviewing Collora sport firm midrange bass and clarity, but other interview material lack the bass response and higher-end crispness. Nothing treads on inaudible ground, though, and the documentary's intentions are thoroughly conveyed.
Here's a major disappointing factor about this disc: there are zero extras, not even a navigation menu. Yes, that means the DVD presentation of this documentary about an 8-minute short fan film doesn't include the 8-minute short fan film. That would've been an enticing way of getting folks to pick up the disc, just to have a hard copy of the short for easy access, but that's not the case. There's also another making-of pseudo-documentary floating around that includes interviews with the cast and crew, and that would've been a great inclusion. Alas, fans will have to pursue other methods to see these two.
Batman: Dead End leaves one ramped up to learn more about both the production design crammed into this wild little 8-minute wonder and the director involved with its orchestration. Behind the Mask: The Batman: Dead End Story does plenty of one, yet doesn't do enough of the other, concentrating heavily on Sandy Collora's past, present, and future without devoting the energy to fully unpacking how his talents -- and the talents of others -- factored into the synergy of creating this impossible little feat. Don't get me wrong: the documentary does spend a fair amount of time with the moving parts of the short film's creation, but its title and runtime conveyed potential in focusing on the depth of creating something on its scale for only tens of thousands of dollars, and that didn't fully manifest in this doc. Perhaps the disc would earn a mild recommendation had it included a polished, hard-copy version of the short, but since the doc's all there is to this DVD presentation, it's only worth a Rental.