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A Beginner’s Guide to DVD, Part 2

Brian Doxtader | Tuesday, November 16, 2004

This is the second in a three-part series on the basics of Digital Video Discs.

DVD has been commercially available for nearly a decade and has revolutionized the home theater market. Yet purchasing DVDs can be confusing and complicated; the back of a DVD case often contains terms like Aspect Ratio, Dolby Digital, and Regional DVD. For many, it is difficult to understand what is worth purchasing and what is not. Hopefully this guide will demystify many of the more confusing features of the video market.

Special FeaturesSpecial features have become ubiquitous on DVDs. They usually take several distinct forms: audio commentary, documentaries and/or advertisements. Audio commentaries (usually from actors, directors, writers or a combination of the three) are separate audio tracks that can be played over the film. Usually, they consist of the participant giving insight into the making of the film. Some of these running commentaries are revelatory, especially on David Fincher films (“Se7en,” “Fight Club”) or James Cameron films (“Aliens,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”) where the director gives great perspective into the filmmaking process. On older films, commentaries tend to be by film historians or critics, as in the case of Roger Ebert’s commentaries (“Casablanca,” “Citizen Kane”) or Richard Shickel’s commentaries (“Unforgiven,” “Once Upon a Time in the West”).Documentaries and making-of featurettes range in quality as well. Often, the quality of these depend on the DVD producer. In the case of well-known producers such as Van Ling (“Terminator 2,” “Star Wars” Episodes I and II) or Charles de Lauzirika (“Alien Quadrilogy,” “Gladiator”), the quality of the documentaries is always high, but often documentaries, especially featurettes, amount to little more than promotional fluff pieces.Advertisement campaigns are often added to the list of a DVD supplements. These consist of trailers (the previews shown before movies at theaters), TV spots and poster art. For older films, ad campaigns give insight into how they were originally perceived and marketed. In the best cases, all of these video supplements are presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Different Editions: Special Editions, Box Sets, SuperbitThere are often many different editions of films released in the market. Often this makes it difficult for a consumer to know which version is the best to purchase. Sometimes films are purposely released in both standard no-frills editions as well as lavish special editions (“Mystic River,” “Almost Famous”). In nearly every case it is better to go with the best possible edition. Even this is sometimes more confusing then it needs to be – “Saving Private Ryan” was available in no less than four distinct versions. Originally, there was a single-disc Dolby Digital version with a short documentary and a DTS version without the documentary. Then the D-Day 60th Anniversary Commemorative Edition was released as a two-disc version without the DTS track. There is also a four-disc World War II Collection released with the first two discs seemingly identical to the D-Day Edition, except with the DTS track.In order to obtain the best possible version of a film, research is usually required. This also helps to avoid “double-dipping,” or the re-purchase of a film in a different version. Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” for example, is expected to be released in no less than six versions, or what Miramax calls “multiple bits at the apple.” Unlike the clear strategy of New Line Cinema with the “Lord of the Rings” films (2-disc theatrical cut, then 4-disc extended edition), Miramax plans to release “Kill Bill” as the following: -current basic editions-2-disc special editions-re-edited cut as single film-Quentin Tarantino Box SetBefore purchasing a specific film, it is usually advantageous to find out if there is an inevitable better edition in the near future (“X-Men 1.5,” for example). The initial DVD release is often a stopgap for quick profit while a more elaborate special edition is planned.Superbits are a special case that further complicate the DVD market. A superbit edition usually has the same transfer as a standard edition, but run at a higher bit-rate. All superbits have a DTS track. While superbits ostensibly have better audio and visual quality, if the transfer is the same then the differences are often minute. However, superbits often drop special features such as audio commentary in order to compensate for the added DTS track.

Director’s CutsDirector’s cuts were originally a Laserdisc phenomenon that allowed directors to re-edit their films for home release. The success of some early director’s cuts (Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and James Cameron’s “Aliens”) has led to their proliferation in the market. In many cases, a film is prepared theatrically with the intent of releasing a director’s cut in the home theater market. Usually this affects the MPAA rating of the film, changing it to an R or NR rating. These days it seems like every film is getting a director’s cut (“Daredevil,” “In the Cut,” “Hellboy” and “Pitch Black” have all received one). In the best cases, a release includes both the director’s cut as well as the original theatrical cut, which has happened for films such as “Almost Famous,” “E.T.” and the Alien Quadrilogy Box Set.