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The Phantom Menace Sets New Standards for DVD

by Jesse Shanks

Lucasfilm Ltd invited the top online DVD sites and other press to the official presentation of the upcoming Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace DVD at Skywalker Ranch. VP of Marketing for Lucasfilm, Jim Ward said, "We do care about DVDs. It took a long time to put together value-added materials that people will want to watch. We did not use technology for technology's sake. we wanted the best things for fans and not wacky stuff. Just what was cool."

Ward moderated a question and answer session featuring the key technical personnel involved in producing the two-disc set that was capped off by an appearance by director George Lucas. It was obvious that from the outset, the technical achievements of the release were up front and center.

First was the DVD's producer, Van Ling, known in the DVD industry for his work on such releases as Terminator 2: Special Edition, The Abyss and Independence Day. Ling is know for dramatic and complex menu systems which create an interactive experience in navigating the DVD reflective of the style of the movie being presented. He commented on his style, "because I have had some successful releases that use a particular style, those discs have been perceived as 'Van Ling Discs.' For Phantom Menace, I wanted it not to be perceived as a 'Van Ling Disc,' I wanted to make a 'Star Wars disc.'"

Ling lauded the work of Industrial Light and Magic as "phenomenal." When asked about how sometimes effects are often inconsistent on DVD, he declared that if your special effects are good, you don't have that problem.

Noting that the DVD was not created from digital files but rather transferred from a print of the film, he said, "This is a film and we wanted to maintain that. We did not want the digital feel of a movie like A Bug's Life." The deleted scenes were not only finished digitally, but were finished to film.

When asked about supplements that did not make the disc, Ling laughed and said there were always extras that have to be left off because of storage limitations. He said, "We jam-packed the disc."

He declared this to be "the most challenging disc that I have ever done and the most satisfying."

Next up was Rick McCallum, producer and key figure in the making-of documentary, demonstrated the excitable personality seen in the documentary. When asked how he felt he came off in the documentary he declared, "I never watch myself!" Then when asked about the bleeped profanity in the documentary, he joked, "I learned everything from my kids."

Addressing the long delay in releasing the DVD, he said that making this DVD was like making another movie and they wanted specific talent to be part of it. Asked about the cost of DVD production, he would only say, "It cost a lot of effort and a lot of time."

Asked about the DVD medium, McCallum said, "Right now, nothing comes close in quality. One thing I like is the potential for more storage." There were some difficulties with storage space. Ward commented that a DTS track was not included because of bit budget issues.

McCallum addressed the issue that these days there seems to be no final cut with the fact that directors are able to add to and take away from films. He said, "I have no problem with it. I love it. The only preventing the filmmaker from doing it before was the cost. We could redo it the way it was originally meant to be done." Following was Pablo Helman, Visual effects supervisor, who lead the team from ILM that finished the deleted scenes. He said it took 100 different people working 6-8 months to complete the work. All the scenes were, at some part, part of the film and Helman had a tape of 300 possible scenes to be finished. Ultimately, the deleted scenes were selected by Lucas. Also, the decision to actually reincorporate some of the completed footage in the movie itself rested with Lucas. The added footage does not significantly alter the story as it was portrayed but they do add more color and, in one case, more solidity. There is a Complete Pod Race Grid Sequence that features introductions of many of the racers that were not shown in the original. Some of those introductions were put back into the movie. When the group arrives at Coruscant, there is additional footage of an extensive fly around the city that it lovely animation. Finally, there is a meeting between Obi-Wan and Yoda.

Helman indicated that Lucas gave him and his team a lot of freedom in how to finished the scenes. He told a story of one of the pod racer introduction in which he had the character flipping through a technical manual and then tossing it away. Helman related that at this point, Lucas stopped the tape and said, "In the Star Wars universe, there are no books." So, a laptop was substituted instead.

Next to take the dais was Rick Dean, THX sound designer, who noted that THX was involved in this development of this disc from the beginning as opposed to their usual role of quality assurance and was part of a movement on their part to becoming a full consultant to studis on sound and video quality.

Dean said there were no changes made for this release in the sound design, "We were very interested in maintaining the original sound design. Even though The Phantom Menace is Dolby 5.1 EX, you still hear the sound information, it is just not split off into a separate back speaker."

Addressing the issue of layer changes on dual layer discs where the display can distort as the layer changes, he said that it is often a difficult decision on where the layer changes and there was very detailed discussion on where to place it.

Jon Shenk, documentary filmmaker, took the stage and talked of his 600 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot to document the making of The Phantom Menace. This source material was not made for any specific purpose but would be used for various purposes including the Web Documentaries and Featurettes included on the disc. There are some plans for this material to become a sort of course for filmmakers to study the way the film was made with detailed sections on planning, costuming, makeup, set design, etc.

Shenk did not know he would be making a behind the scenes documentary when the film was shot. Remarking on lack of a narrator, he said that the material seemed to support it. He said, "When you don't use a narrator, you have to be like a sniper and shoot what you can get."

There had been rumors that Steven Spielberg, who shooting Saving Private Ryan nearby, was going to visit. He said, "I was like a detective, asking what was going on, hoping to get the shot." Ultimately, Shenk captured a charming little vignette of Lucas taking Speilberg on a tour of the London set that is a highlight of the hour-long documentary, The Beginning - Making Episode I.

Finally after a short delay, George Lucas appeared having come straight from editing work Episode II. Lucas wrote and directed the original Star Wars film (now called A New Hope) released in 1976 and followed with producing and co-writing The Empire Strikes Back from 1980 and Return of the Jedi released in 1983. Sixteen years elapsed before the release of what is the first episode in the six part saga, The Phantom Menace.

Very few films Lucas as director, writer or producer have made it to DVD, with American Graffiti the rare exception. He commented that he was not involved in the DVD release by Universal. Ward mentioned that Willow, produced and co-written by Lucas with Ron Howard handling the directing was due to be released on DVD on November 27 of this year. Lucas recorded his first audio commentary for Phantom and acknowledged that it was an interesting experience to watch the film and have his comments recorded, although they were "things that came off the top of his head at the time."

When asked about the timing of the Phantom release, Lucas described "pressure" against the original plan to release the DVDs once all six episodes of Star Wars were finished. Part of the reason The Phantom Menace was released at this time is due to the newly finished scenes. He wanted to use the people who worked on them and if he waited there was less chance of that. "We ended up putting a few things back in that we cut out. This kind of movie is 'made in theory,'" he said. Commenting on the DVD Release he said, "I am very proud of the final product. I am very glad to have the missing scenes back in. That was a lot of fun. For the DVD, I wanted to do something special and interesting added materials." Lucas indicated that the Episode II and III DVDs will follow the theatrical release of the films (Summer 2002 for Episode II) and then the original trilogy will be redone for DVD.

Addressing the final cut on a film question, Lucas asserted "The film is finished when the director is gone." He described his feelings that the director has the right to change the film as he sees fit, but there are issues when the control of the film is taken by other entities.

The target of this release was the general audience rather then the "hard-core" Star Wars fan, Lucas said, but "There's a little something in there for everybody." He laughed and said, "We put in things that we all liked." Commenting on the finished film issue, Lucas said, "It used to be called the 'director's cut,' now we call it the DVD." Lucas' thoughts on the explosion of Internet traffic related to Star Wars were the subject of one question and Lucas replied, "When I was doing Phantom Menace, I started to read some of the Internet stuff. I found it rather disturbing in its fantasy life. 'They can't say that. What are they talking about?' After I finished that movie, I quit reading the Internet and hav enot gone back. It's just not relevant to what I do. It's people expressing their opinions, I have better things to do."

When asked if he shouldn't really be pre-occupied with Episode II and not this DVD, he said, "I am, actually," and said that he had just left an editing room as they worked with a particulary thorny sequence for the movie.

Transcript of the Technical Personnel at the DVD Presentation Q&A Session - Jim Ward, Van Ling, Rick McCallum, Pablo Helman, Rick Dean and Jon Shenk meet the press at Skywalker Ranch.
Transcript of George Lucas Q&A at DVD Presentation - The filmmaker talks about making DVDS and movies.

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