You may not know Michael Pellerin’s name off the top of your head, but I would be willing to bet you own some of his work. Pellerin is the DVD producer behind such great discs as the Toy Story Toy Box, Tron, and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Extended Editions.
Pellerin started working with Jackson six years ago on the The Lord of the Rings, and after that project was over he jumped right into King Kong, producing the Production Diaries that ran on kongisking.net, offering fans an unprecedented look inside the making of the film as it was happening. Tomorrow all of that work comes to its culmination with the release of the King Kong Special Edition DVD.
Last week I had a chance to spend some time chatting with Pellerin on the phone. I knew that there aren’t a lot of opportunities to quiz DVD producers, so I definitely wanted to get his take on things like double dipping and the general poor quality of extra features these days.
And if you haven’t ordered your copy of the King Kong 2-Disc Special Edition, click here and order it through CHUD!
Q: A lot of people assumed that when we saw the Production Diaries go up on the web that they would be the main feature on the DVD. Then they were released for sale separately, so what are we going to see on the DVD?
Pellerin: The thing with the Production Diaries is that they began in September of 2004, and went through April of 2005. I think there was like over three hours of them – like three hours and forty minutes, of just the production period. But Peter decided, hey, let’s not stop when the film wraps – let’s go through post-production. So we were putting out a diary every week all the way through post all the way up to the release of the film. From April 2005 to December 2005, and that was like two hours and forty minutes of Post-Production Diaries. There were 54 Production Diaries and there were 46 Post-Production Diaries. That’s like six hours total, and it really wouldn’t fit on a DVD. It was great that Universal put out the Production Diaries DVD, because that gave them a place to live.
The Special Edition coming out gave us a slot to put all the Post-Production Diaries. Those are on there, and basically it’s a diary every week of the production. We followed one of six or seven different topics and traded off every week. The diaries cover post-production, editorial, pick-up shooting with the cast, WETA Digital’s work, the miniatures department, music with James Newton Howard. There was one that was just on Peter, where he was asked questions, and one where the original King Kong armature visited New Zealand. All of that’s on the DVD.
In addition, we wanted to create a couple of documentaries that weren’t necessarily making-of in nature, but were interesting content nonetheless. One was a documentary on Kong’s New York in 1933. During the making of the movie Peter and the design team had done tremendous amounts of research into New York in 1933 and that period to make it as authentic as possible – not just in terms of look, but in terms of cultural references as well. They put a lot of that into the movie; they don’t make a big deal out of any of it, but all of it is based on actual history of that period. We thought it would be a cool idea to create an annotated documentary about New York, where all those references are explained. So we made a documentary on New York featuring the things you see in the movie but that people might not understand the historical significance of, such as the Depression, prohibition, Vaudeville, the New York skyscraper boom, the construction of the Empire State Building. The documentary covers all those areas, looking specifically at moments in the film.
We had done that and Peter thought it would be a great idea to do a historical documentary on another location in the film, albeit a fictional one – Skull Island. Again, Skull Island, even though there wasn’t actual historical research done, they made up a tremendous backstory to this island in terms of its geographical history, its cultural history, its zoological history. Like Lord of the Rings everything had to be believable. They came up with why the island is the size it is –many people don’t realize it used to be six or seven times the landmass it was and it’s been sinking – , why there are dinosaurs there, why there is this wall, who are these people, and everything made sense. Peter and the folks at WETA Workshop believe that even though it’s fantasy, it has to be plausible, not just, ‘Oh there’s dinosaurs for fun.’
There’s all this great information, and Peter wanted to present it in a Forgotten Silver way, so that it’s almost like a Discovery Channel documentary on Skull Island. You never wink at the camera, you never say, ‘Oh this is something we made up.’ You take that rich backstory they made up and present it as if it’s a real place and it sunk in 1947 finally and in the 1930s it really was explored, and what happened to those explorers, and what did scientists find on the island.
That’s the DVD, and I don’t think I’ve done a DVD with Peter where we’re not busting the seams in terms of what we can fit on a DVD-9. I think there’s like 3 hours and 25 minutes of supplemental content, which is about as much as you can fit on a DVD.
Q: You guys have really raised the bar on DVD special features. Is there anywhere else to go with them now? Can they still get bigger?
Pellerin: I don’t know, it depends on the movie. We never set out to quote make the best discs ever. All you can try to do is make the best possible presentation of the film at hand, and if that means an hour long, great documentary – fantastic. If that means it requires three hours of great documentaries, great. I think the idea is just to make the best, coolest presentation possible for that movie.
Certainly I think there is the possibility of other kinds of content. We did the 1933 DVD earlier this year, Peter and I produced that. That took us in another area, where basically we exhumed the visual effects history of the film where no examples of behind the scenes existed. They never shot behind the scenes for King KongKing Kong, so we set about recreating the visual effects of the film as they were done in 1932. The recreation of lost scenes, etc, that was a whole different approach to extra features.
In terms of the future, it really depends on what the film is and what we want to do with it. What’s neat is with Skull Island and the New York documentary and the content on the original King Kong DVD, we’ve started to create content which isn’t just about the making of the movie. We’ve started creating associated content. There are other opportunities in terms of that, and it depends on the filmmaker. Peter is very creative when it comes to DVD and he’s very savvy about it. I think he thinks of DVD as you have your movie but then you have these other discs with which to play with.
Q: Lately special features have stopped being special and become just sort of expected on DVDs. That’s led to inclusion of stuff like crappy EPKs and cheap behind the scenes promo trash – do you think that sort of stuff can devalue the DVD experience?
Pellerin: Even if I wasn’t making DVDs I would be watching them, I love that kind of programming. I don’t enjoy it when it’s just publicity material slammed onto a DVD, it’s sort of a cop out. But who knows, maybe that’s all they could afford to put on. Does it devalue things? It could. If too much stuff that’s just recycled publicity material becomes what people expect to see on DVDs, it becomes sort of ho hum, yawn. But there will always be the standout things – there are some DVDs that you know you must own.
But if like you’ve said we’ve raised the bar, what I hope that does is for other DVD producers that are trying to do some innovative stuff in the medium, hopefully it will raise the quality of everything. Even the lower end stuff will try to be a little better. That’s the idea when you’re trying to do something exceptional, it’s not just for yourself, it’s for everybody so that hopefully all the quality will go up.
Q: I think a lot of consumers are getting cynical because they’re expecting to get double dipped on a DVD. Have you run into a situation where you’ve been told, “Why don’t we not use that bit on this DVD and save it for a year or two from now when we put out the King Kong: Goin’ Ape Edition”?
Pellerin: That’s an interesting question. The reality is this – as most people know, the release window between the theater and the DVD coming out on the street is becoming very small. It’s three months now, four months maybe. It used to be six months. It used to be a year. Now it’s three months, two months, sometimes day and date. The trick with that is that DVD features do take time to produce. They’re not something done in a week or two. Part of the trick of it is that when you’re developing features and the film is in production the key thing is the participation of the director. But even if you get someone who is incredibly participatory like Peter, he’s still making the movie, meaning you’ve only got a fraction of his time. He can’t really devote time to the DVD full-time until the movie is done. The day the movie is finished is probably the day your features are due. The movie studio’s not going to wait a year or two to put the movie on DVD just to wait for the supplemental features – that makes no economic sense. They have to put something out three or four months later to take advantage of that window. What generally happens is that there’s an initial release and what happens later on if there’s interest and if the director’s interested, the studio’s interested, there’s the time to actually create the DVD special features of the quality level that makes it worth owning. That’s the reality of what happens on DVD.
That’s exactly what happened with the Lord of the Rings DVDs – they had to get the DVDs out, and they knew it would take us months and months and months to finish the kind of work we did on the Appendices. They strategized the two release situation. If the studio has their game on, they make sure there’s no redundant material on the two releases.
Q: Also you guys announced there would be a better edition coming. Often now you’ll get a DVD and they won’t say anything and then a year and a half later a new edition comes out of nowhere. I think that’s where the cynicism comes in for the consumer.
Pellerin: I can understand that. But I see it from both sides – I see it from the studio where they have to release this DVD and if they announce we’re working on another one, how many of your consumers are going to get lost by waiting? I know that’s what goes on.
If movies came out on DVD a year after their theatrical release date – which won’t happen – this wouldn’t be an issue at all.
Q: Also with the shorter window, do you find that it’s hurting supplemental features in general? I tend to like features and commentary where people have a little bit of distance from the project.
Pellerin: I agree, because there’s no perspective at that point. For example, a long time ago we did a DVD of The Sixth Sense. We pulled the supplemental features together after the movie was released. The Sixth Sense before it was released was against Star Wars and was considered a little supernatural thriller that would do well at the box office but there wasn’t a lot of confidence in it. If we had done that DVD before the movie came out, it would have been a totally different perspective on what the movie was. After the movie came out it was a phenomenon.
In terms of does it hurt the features, fortunately in my work I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to deliver my supplemental features when a movie was delivering. I’ve always had time. For example, the Production Diaries were done over a period of fourteen or fifteen months so that by the time they’re released on DVD, there was a lot of time and work put into them.
Q: You’ve been on this Peter Jackson train for six years now. What’s next – a vacation?
Pellerin: I’m hoping to take some time off. I may be developing some other stuff with Peter, but he’s actually taking time off. Thank God. He’s getting his life back and spending time with his family. I’m sure they’re developing The Lovely Bones, though.
Q: If there was one catalog title that you could do whatever you wanted with, for which you could put out your dream edition, which would it be?
Pellerin: I’ll give you two because I can’t decide between them. It would be wonderful to do a bang-up job on the films of Stanley Kubrick. I think that would be wonderful. But probably more fascinating would be to do a really good job with the Star Wars series. They’ve done fine so far, it’s been good, commendable work, but it’s so rich and vast and there’s so much that can be done with it and they haven’t even scraped the surface potential.
The trick is with Kubrick is that so much of his stuff he didn’t document. He wasn’t into the idea of presenting his process. But Lucasfilm, oh my God, they’ve kept everything. There’s such a vast, vast, fertile archive of material that could be explored. That would be something else. We’ll see if that ever happens.
Q: Well, I’m sure George Lucas wouldn’t be against revisiting those films again and again and again and again.