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‘Skynet’ Expands

8 May, 2009 By: John Latchem


Since the advent of DVD, the practice of double-dipping — releasing a movie again on disc with new content — has become an industry standard. But for all the consumer outcry, it’s easy to see why studios would do it. Beyond the obvious revenue benefits, technologies are changing so rapidly that new discs in the same format may be able to accommodate innovations that weren’t available just a few years before.

For its new Terminator 2: Skynet Edition Blu-ray Disc, Lionsgate tries to up the ante of what is possible with the high-def format, with features not available for the film’s first Blu-ray release in 2006. The new Skynet Edition ($29.99) includes three versions of the film, two commentaries and several interactive modes, including games viewers can play while watching the film. The Skynet Edition also is part of the new Limited Edition T2 Complete Collector’s Set ($174.99), which includes the previous DVD versions in a replica of a Terminator head, collecting every extra ever produced for the film.

The discs street May 19, just before Terminator: Salvation hits theaters. The Blu-ray Disc’s producer, Van Ling, told Home Media Magazine about some of the challenges of putting together the new Blu-ray version.

HM: Why do another Blu-ray edition of T2?

VL: The first T2 Blu-ray release in 2006 was at the dawn of the BD format and as a result was limited to the capabilities of the nascent format at the time, which is to say it pretty much could only play the movie. Now we are at the point where we can actually do some of the things I originally planned for the disc, and with the new Terminator movie coming out, it seemed like the right time.

HM: Why couldn’t you put this stuff on the disc before?

VL: We came out when there was only one actual BD player available on the market, there was no BD-Java capability, no usable AVC or VC-1 encoding (only MPEG2) and no dual-layer discs yet, so we had less than 25GB to work with, which means just in sheer content we had to jettison everything but the movie just to be able to keep the visual quality halfway decent. I had designed that first disc to include seamless branching of multiple versions of the film, detailed menus, 80 chapters, etc. but none of these features were reliably achievable. They were certainly possible, but I was literally told by the format creators to back off at the time because they were just trying to have a format that worked consistently, and were concerned that trying to push the envelope so early would “break” the format and they had enough challenges just getting the format and players just to play back a movie without crashing. You can’t make an infant drive a car … you have to let him mature a bit.

HM: Did you have to clean anything up from the previous Blu-ray transfer of the film?

VL: Lionsgate and Studio Canal both put in resources to do additional dirt cleanup to multiple versions of the film. Even with a great transfer, you can always do more dirt cleanup, and I think we were able to do some significant cleanup work to an already approved transfer without messing with the color or doing any of the, in my opinion, dubious digital filtering that sometimes gets applied.

HM: The picture quality is great, and the 1991 visual effects really hold up well. Was any extra work required to translate them to high-def?

VL: Fans have the fantastic work of director of photography Adam Greenberg, the VFX houses and the eye of Jim Cameron to thank for that, and no, there was no extra work necessary to bring it to high-def. The fact that the movie was originated and finished on film meant that it has an inherent look of film reality we’re used to, and does not have that grainless, video game look that some modern films do today. Even though it was one of the first films to use digital composites for its hero shots, it was still mostly real and in-camera. A lot of people don’t realize that there are probably less than 50 CG shots in the entire film. There are hundreds more in-camera Stan Winston Studios effects and traditional optical composites, and the CG visual effects had to match up to those, as well as to Adam Greenberg’s stellar cinematography.

HM: What stands out from this disc that should make fans who have the earlier Blu-ray rush out to buy it?

VL: What we tried to focus on for the Skynet Edition is to build features that could interact with the film itself and give the viewers some context and depth rather than just quantity. In addition to a much better visual and audio presentation due to the increased disc space and the encoding formats, we have these interactive features with a ridiculous amount of information available through text tracks, picture-in-picture, audio slideshows and so forth. There really is no comparison between this version and the previous Blu-ray. The 2006 BD has certainly served its purpose by making the film available in HD for the past three years, but this new version blows it away.

HM: One way the disc grabs you right away is the sense that Skynet is taking over your Blu-ray player. What went into simulating that experience?

VL: I had a very clear concept of what I wanted to do for the Skynet interface from the beginning, which was to embrace the idea of how much network connectivity plays a role in both our daily use of the Internet and in the idea behind Skynet. Even as you are watching the disc, the disc is watching you. Skynet knows things about you, the same way that the Internet knows about you. You can just go to some Web sites and be freaked by what info about you is out there. The idea that Skynet is reaching back into your system and keeping track of you somehow is not so far-fetched when you have all of these credit card companies and retailers mining data to find out your preferences and targeting your tastes. I just wanted to take that to an extreme conclusion, where Skynet is basically doing retroactive reconnaissance on the present day in order to gain an advantage for the future, in the guise of providing access to materials from its database. Sharp-eyed fans may also notice that the main menu design actually comes from unused production designs of Skynet locations from the film. The great thing too is that built into the Terminator mythology is the human resistance, whose guerrilla transmissions you might encounter from time to time in the BD Live space to balance out the freaky Big Brother aspect of Skynet.

HM: Is that really one of the great advantages of Blu-ray, to create a more immersive experience for the viewer?

VL: Absolutely. The real benefit of Blu-ray is that you can do much more than just store a high-def version of the movie. While this is the first and most important function of the disc — a great audio/visual presentation should be a given — it can be used for so much more, and in tandem with BD Live can go even further. I know a lot of home theater folks feel that using the entire disc capacity for the feature presentation alone is what they want, but as long as we start with a great feature presentation, I feel there’s more unique and interactive and educational things we can do with the format as well.

HM: Was there ever a plan to put all the other extras onto a Blu-ray and include it, rather than putting the older DVDs with the collector’s set?

VL: We certainly considered it, but felt it best to focus on the features that could take advantage of high-definition and Blu-ray’s unique features for this release. Remember, all of the existing extras from the DVDs were created in standard-definition video, and since the sources were all SD — some of the behind-the-scenes material was even VHS — there was no point in trying to upscale them all to HD and waste the space on an extra Blu-ray disc when it made perfect sense to just include them on a standard-def DVD. It also made things more affordable, not only for manufacturing the disc but also for the consumer. They’re not paying for an extra Blu-ray disc that just contains blown-up, standard-def material. The Collector’s Set is a great little archive of everything, and fans who already own those older discs can get the BD by itself.

HM: Are there any hidden features on this disc?

VL: There are some DTS trailers and other less obvious things, but they should not be too hard to find for a fan of the film. I’ve dialed back on doing Easter Eggs, because I used to get a lot of flak from people about it.

HM: What’s your favorite aspect of the disc?

VL:  There are a lot of things on the disc I’m proud of, not the least of which is that there are not only subtitles for all of the picture-in-picture and other special features for the hard of hearing, but also there’s a narrated feature audio track for the blind. I think that’s really neat. Watching the film using the D-Box Motion Code technology (where the film drives a motion-base chair) is really cool too. But I think that Interactive Mode is my favorite, simply because we really tried to give people many avenues in which to explore the film. But it sure was tough to program! My thanks to all of the programming knights at Blink Digital and Sofatronic for their Herculean efforts.

HM: Was there anything you wanted to do with this Blu-ray that you just couldn’t?

VL: Stereoscopic 3-D! Seriously, one of the toughest things about this particular film is that we have explored it so deeply with both the previous DVDs and all the way back to the 1993 Laserdisc special edition. We’ve covered literally every aspect of the film’s production, and maybe the only thing we haven’t done (yet) is maybe a commentary with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he seems to have another, somewhat more pressing and important job at the moment! As for anything else, well, I have a lot of ideas, but I’m saving them for next time … and you know that Terminator will be back. And if I’m lucky enough to be involved, those who know me or my work know I’ll do everything I can to make it worth the purchase again.

HM: Three studios own the rights to the four films and TV show. What kinds of problems does that create?

VL: There’s no way to make it all one big mythology because each studio is very protective about one referencing things from another. We can’t promote the new film, for example, or show any of its designs. Discs for the other movies can’t show the T-1000. We had to go through some legal hoops just to use a few still grabs from the first film in a slideshow. All we can do is try to present the best version of T2 and let it be an example to the other studios of how to honor the mythology and Jim Cameron’s creations.

HM: How has The Terminator become such a durable and reliable franchise?

VL: It’s compelling storytelling and a great ride, but more importantly it’s a fine balance of cynicism and hope. It points to the idea that even as technology can become more dehumanizing, there is still that all-important humanity that underlies everything, and that individual people can make a difference. Technology, like a Terminator, can be used in a positive or negative way, as a protector or as a killer. It’s up to us human beings as to how we utilize it.

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