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WORKING WEEKEND: Sorties With Shorties

30 May, 2002 By: Bruce Apar

In its infancy, going back nigh a century, Hollywood turned out one- and two-reelers as a matter of course. The “shorties” were economical, to be sure, and allowed studios to feed their growing public a steady, nonstop diet of diversions due to quick development and production cycles. Besides, filmmakers were just learning their craft and how to use the available technology.

The dazzling digital technology that is Star Wars: Attack of the Clones would have been more effective in smaller doses, where there'd be much less time or reason to notice the absence of a compelling story line.

But look again and you'll see Hollywood really is breaking new ground with its own style of shorts, but they are coming not from the theatrical but the home entertainment divisions. Some are found on hit movie DVDs such as Universal's recent A Beautiful Mind and Gosford Park, productions whose Oscar pedigree merits deluxe DVD treatment.

Naturally, the more popular and regarded the film, the more expectation there is from the public and the more pressure on the studio to deliver a DVD “performance” worthy of the franchise.

In fact, this type of DVD package – a Gosford Park group Q&A with the peerless Robert Altman, Ron Howard meeting with John Nash, deleted scenes with commentary, various featurettes, DVD-ROM Web links – is tantamount to an electronic magazine. DVD's obvious potential as a dynamic publishing platform ia just starting to be exploited.

Another recent favorite example of mine is the DVD feature on Fox's The Hustler – a 1960s classic notable for Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason's chemistry and George C. Scott's breakout performance – that uses picture-in-picture to explain how the film's trick billiards shots are executed. And the disc's featurette offers intriguing factoids on the history of billiards.

All of this adds up to Hollywood's growing acknowledgment that DVD consumers cannot live by feature films alone. Just the other night, I slipped Buena Vista's David Blaine Fearless DVD into a small countertop unit and my kids stood transfixed by this young magician's unassuming feats of prestidigitation.

There are three TV specials on the one disc, but essentially each of Blaine's tricks – lasting mere seconds in most cases – are self-contained shorts, which makes for highly flexible viewing options.

There's also Paramount's releases of MTV's “The Real World” and WWE's “Tough Enough” wrestling-reality series, both of which are derived from TV programs but feature unseen footage.

On film commentaries, the presence of screenwriters, such as A Beautiful Mind's Akiva Goldsman and Gosford Park's Julian Fellowes, can add texture and details to the experience that directors' comments don't always provide.

Goldsman notes that one of the first scenes in the film, showing Russell Crowe newly arrived on the Princeton campus, was shot the day after he won the Oscar for Gladiator. Since it was a cold March day and leaves were supposed to be on the trees, they were digitally painted in. Now, there's a case where digital effects definitely didn't overshadow the telling of a good story.

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