On a DVD (or laserdisc), an audio commentary is a bonus track consisting of a lecture or comments by one or more speakers, who talk about the film as it progresses. Depending on the nature of the film, and upon the person providing the spoken dialogue, it can add a wealth of informative, entertaining information about a film of which most audience members would not be aware.
Audio commentaries are located on separate 'audio tracks' on the DVD. A single DVD disc can have several of these that can be selected by the viewer from the main menu of the DVD or by pressing a designated button on the remote. Each contains different content: one has the actual dialogue and sound of the movie, while others can contain different language dialogue (for translation purposes), a different type of audio encoding (Dolby Digital or DTS), music-only soundtracks, and audio commentaries. Some DVD productions include multiple commentary tracks. In general, directors are open to recording commentary tracks, as many feel it can be helpful to young filmmakers, or they simply want to explain their intention in making the film, while others (such as Steven Spielberg or David Lynch) feel commentary can de-mystify and cheapen a film.
There are several different types of commentary. The two main types simply define the length of the commentary rather than the type of content. They are:
- Partial or scene-specific, which only covers selected scenes of the film. Sometimes these are recorded without the speaker viewing the film and thusly the commentator may make more general comments than pointing out specific details.
- Feature-length or screen-specific, which is recorded in one session: the speakers watch the film from beginning to end and give their thoughts directly based on what is happening on-screen. Occasionally these can include silhouettes of the speakers (to enhance the "live" aspect of the commentary) or even telestrator prompts, allowing the director or commentator to "draw" on the screen, pointing out specific details. There are also video commentaries, showing the speakers as they are recording the commentary.
Commentaries can be done in various fashions. The majority of commentaries include one person, likely the director, but can often contain producers and occasionally cast members. Other types of commentaries include:
- Edited, which is recorded at various sessions, often with various speakers. Multiple-person commentary tracks recorded for The Criterion Collection are noted for this technique. The audio is edited into a cohesive whole.
- Character, which features one or more actors commenting on the movie while in character.
- Scholarly, which is performed by a film critic, historian or scholar, taking the viewer through the significance of the film, the technique, and at times telling the story behind its making. Variations feature fans who would also have some level of expertise concerning a title.
Sometimes, audio commentaries will also include hosts or moderators to keep the discussion flowing, and will feature either subtitling or a narrator to inform the viewer which person is speaking, if there are a considerable amount of participants. The goal of a commentary is of course to add some context to the choices made in making the film, whether that be of the actual filmmaking, or subtext in the writing or direction, although some commentaries, such as in-character commentaries or group cast commentaries tend to be more for entertainment than for educational value.
History of audio commentaries
The value of audio commentaries as a marketing tool was revealed during the heyday of laserdisc, the laser-based video format produced before the introduction of DVDs. The Criterion Collection company, for example, produced high-quality "deluxe" editions of classic films on laserdisc, using the best available prints and re-edited versions. These were often very expensive compared to today's DVDs and included bonus material such as trailers, deleted scenes, production stills, behind-the-scenes information, and audio commentaries from the directors, producers, cast, cinematographers, editors, and production designers. They were marketed to movie professionals, fans and scholars who were seen as an elite niche of consumers who could afford to pay more for definitive, quality editions. The audio commentaries on laserdiscs were typically encoded on secondary analogue tracks which had become redundant, as modern laserdiscs had stereo audio encoded digitally alongside. This is why certain older videodisc players, which predate the digital audio standard, are only able to play back analogue tracks with audio commentary.
The first ever audio commentary was featured on the Criterion Collection release of the original King Kong movie, on laserdisc in December 1984. It featured film historian Ronald Haver and his first words were: Template:"
The decline of the laserdisc format and the increasing popularity of DVD was highlighted in the fall of 1997, when simultaneous laserdisc and DVD editions of the movie Contact were released. The former contained one bonus audio commentary track by director, Robert Zemeckis, and producer Steve Starkey. However, the DVD contained two additional, separate audio commentaries (by Jodie Foster and the special effects producers), as well as other bonus features. Despite its history with laserdiscs, the idea of audio commentary was still such an uncommon notion that, in its January 1998 review of the Contact DVD, Entertainment Weekly scoffed, "Who in the universe would want to journey through more than eight hours of gassy, how-we-filmed-the-nebulae trivia included in this "Special Edition" disc? Meant to show off DVD's enormous storage capacity, it only demonstrates its capacity to accommodate mountains of filler."
Notable DVD audio commentaries
- The DVD release of Ghostbusters contains a so-called 'video commentary' track with director, Ivan Reitman, writer/star Harold Ramis, and associate producer Joe Medjuck. Silhouettes of the trio were added to the picture using one of the subtitle tracks, in a manner that made it seem as if they were sitting in a theater commenting on the movie as it was screened for them. This was seen as a homage to (or imitation of) Mystery Science Theater 3000. In some scenes, arrows, lines, or circles may be drawn onto the screen to highlight things the directors are talking about. The DVD releases of Men in Black and Muppets from Space had similar features. Unfortunately, this 'video commentary' feature is not presentable when viewed on a 16:9 display.
- The DVD release of Fantasia features two separate commentaries: one by Roy E. Disney, James Levine, and John Canemaker; and a second by Walt Disney, created using audio clips of interviews and a voice actor reading his production meeting notes, hosted by Canemaker. When its sequel, Fantasia 2000, was released on DVD, it also included two separate audio commentaries: One featuring Roy E. Disney, Levine, and Canemaker, and the other featuring commentary on each of the separate segments of the film by the directors and art directors of each segment. For the sections starring Mickey Mouse ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice") and Donald Duck ("Pomp and Circumstance"), voice actors Wayne Allwine and Tony Anselmo were used to make it seem as though Mickey and Donald were providing their own commentary on their appearances in the film.
- The DVD releases for Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Special Edition) and Finding Nemo contained specially-edited 'video commentaries'; the feature-length audio commentaries by the directors and producers were punctuated by cues to video segments illustrating various behind-the-scenes aspects. Similarly, in several commentaries on the first season of Lost, the commentators would actually stop the episode's progress and play behind-the-scenes clips, continuing to talk over the footage.
- The 2000 DVD of This is Spinal Tap features a commentary by the three members of the band, in character. They relate how they felt slighted by the film, and how the director (Marty di Bergi in the film) did a "hack job" with the documentary. The commentary is another added element to the fiction of the band. Actors Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer had previously recorded a commentary for a Criterion Collection DVD which had gone out of print. Similarly, the DVD of series 1 of the BBC sitcom I'm Alan Partridge features commentary from the characters of Alan and his assistant, Lynne. Like Spinal Tap, Alan is heard to be frustrated at how the show makes him appear.
- The Ultimate Matrix Collection, a box set of the entire Matrix trilogy, has two audio commentaries on each film — one by philosophers who loved it (Dr. Cornel West and Ken Wilber), and one by critics who hated it (Todd McCarthy, John Powers and David Thomson).
- The commentary on Trey Parker's Cannibal! The Musical (aka Alferd Packer: The Musical) is notable in that the commentators — cast and crew — start out sober at the beginning. As the movie progresses, the group drinks and gets more and more inebriated. A similar commentary, featuring many of the participants from that commentary, was recorded for Orgazmo.
- The fourth, fifth and sixth season box sets of The Simpsons contain special "illustrated commentaries" on selected episodes, where two animation directors draw on screen while commenting on the episode. This is achieved by using subtitle data to produce the drawings overlayed on top of the video in sync with the audio commentary track.
- The Simpsons and Futurama, both Matt Groening creations, are among the few TV series to have audio commentary tracks on every episode in their season box set DVD releases. For "Futurama", the commentaries are actually helpful to the viewer, as the commentators point out who voiced minor characters. The actors for these characters are otherwise unlisted in the ending credits. Twin Peaks, Mr. Show, Red Dwarf, the first season sets of The Shield and Goodnight Sweetheart and all episodes and specials of The League of Gentlemen]are other examples of this.
- The commentary for Eurotrip has the writers and director playing a drinking game to their own film, while giving a commentary.
- When the first season of Veronica Mars was rushed to DVD so first-time viewers could catch up before the second season began airing in Fall 2005, the creator, Rob Thomas, recorded an audio commentary for the pilot which was a downloadable podcast because there wasn't time to get it on the boxed set.
- In lieu of recording a commentary himself, Michael Moore allowed his interns and secretary to record the audio commentary for his documentary Bowling for Columbine.
- Despite his high profile, director Steven Spielberg has yet to provide a commentary track for any of his films. He feels that the experience of watching a film with anything other than his intended soundtrack detracts from what he has created.
- Hong Kong action cinema expert Bey Logan was a popular commentator for UK DVD distributors Hong Kong Legends and their sister label Premier Asia. He has recorded over sixty commentaries for Asian films including classics such as Fist of Fury, Project A and The Young Master as well as modern hits Iron Monkey, Musa and Ong Bak. For the majority of his commentaries Logan was a solo commentator but occasionally he was joined by notable film makers and cast including Tsui Hark, Christy Chung, Donnie Yen and Maggie Q. He left Hong Kong Legends for the The Weinstein Co. in early 2006.
- US film historian Rudy Behlmer has recorded commentaries for many classics of American cinema, most notably Gone with the Wind, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Frankenstein.
- US writer and director Peter Bogdanovich has not only recorded commentaries for his own films (The Last Picture Show, The Cat's Meow, Paper Moon) but has also recorded commentaries for important American classics including Bringing Up Baby, Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai and Strangers on a Train. He also participated in the commentary for the pilot episode of The Sopranos.
- Creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening, has recorded commentary on most episodes of the show thus far released on DVD (seasons one to eight) as well as his other creation, Futurama. He has also provided commentaries on other Simpsons/Futurama related things, such as the music videos on The Simpsons: Season Two DVD. David X. Cohen, Groening's co-developer and occasional writer on Futurama, also provided commentary on every episode, as well as several installments of The Simpsons.
- Directors Kevin Smith and David Fincher are notable fans of DVD audio commentary, and Fincher's "Platinum Series" release of Se7en was considered one of the most in-depth DVDs of its time, mainly due to the four audio commentary tracks, all of which feature Fincher, and cover the writing, the cast, the sound design and the cinematography. Another commentary for Se7en was included on the Criterion Collection laserdisc, which included cast member Gwyneth Paltrow, but this track has not been released on DVD. Smith's DVD for Clerks II features three audio commentaries, all featuring Smith, and he is known for bringing his stars, including Ben Affleck and Jason Lee onto his commentary tracks. Smith has recorded audio commentaries for all of his films, and also appeared on the Road House audio commentary after mentioning it on the 10th Anniversary DVD of Clerks. Fincher has recorded a track for all of his films except Alien³, which he disowned after controversy over the production. Directors Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg and Paul Verhoeven are also highly respected as intelligent and informative commentators, often working with Criterion to create commentaries for their films.
Originally inspired by a column by Roger Ebert, a small but active fan base of DVD commentary enthusiasts has sprung up since 2002 offering their own specially-recorded fan-made DVD commentaries. These tracks (usually made available in MP3 format) allow the fans to put forth their own opinions and expertise on a movie or TV series in much the same way as an on-disc commentary. These commentary tracks are played either by starting a DVD player and MP3 player simultaneously, or using synchronization software such as Sharecrow. Alternate commentary tracks were originally aggregated at now-defunct website dvdtracks.com, and are now collected at Commentary Central.
The idea of downloadable commentary tracks has since been co-opted by TV show creators themselves, as creators of TV shows such as the 2004 Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: Voyager, and the Doctor Who revival have recorded downloadable commentary tracks meant to be watched along with the episodes as recorded from TV.
Kevin Smith recorded a commentary track for Clerks 2 that can be downloaded to an MP3 player for viewing in the movie theater during the movie's first run; however, the commentary was not released because theater chains felt it would be distracting to viewers who were not listening to the commentary.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 head writer and on-screen host Michael J. Nelson has started his own website to sell downloadable commentaries called RiffTrax. He also regularly commentates on the public domain films that colorizing company Legend Films releases on DVD, including Night of the Living Dead and Reefer Madness.
DVD commentaries have been parodied by a number of people. Most notably:
- The Coen Brothers film Blood Simple has a fake commentary written by the Coens and read by an actor posing as a film historian. This "historian" Kenneth Loring gives information about the production that almost everyone would recognize as being totally ludicrous. He claims for instance that one the opening scene was shot upside down with the actors saying their lines backwards and that some roles were reserved for Rosemary Clooney and Gene Kelly.
- In an episode of The Simpsons (The Bart Wants What It Wants"), Bart is watching an Itchy & Scratchy DVD and decides to turn the commentary on. A small box appears at the corner of the screen, showing Scratchy ("We shot this at four in the morning, and the crew was getting a little cranky") and Itchy ("You can never get enough takes for Steven Soderbergh"); midway through Scratchy's next sentence, Itchy cuts off his head.
- The Welsh comedian Rob Brydon wrote and starred in the ITV comedy show Director's Commentary (2004) in which he played a fictional director, Peter De Lane, and parodied the often conceited and pompous nature of directors when giving DVD commentaries by articulating his thoughts over archive footage. Although the show was well received it did not sustain viewer interest and only one six-episode series was made (as of 2006).
- The book Speak, Commentary, by Jeff Alexander and Tom Bissell, collects a series of fake audio commentaries purportedly made by well-known American cultural critics and political pundits on popular science fiction and fantasy movies. The contents include Ann Coulter on Ridley Scott's Alien, as well as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn on Peter Jackson's films of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.
- As an addendum to the commentary on As Good As It Gets (1997), the film's director, James L. Brooks, and its star, Jack Nicholson, share this brief exchange during the credits:
- Brooks [on the virtues of the then new DVD format]: "It's a better mousetrap."
- Nicholson: "...What's better? What's better? You know, we're sitting here being remunerated for what is ultimately the cancer of film, which we claim to love above all else."
- Ridley Scott is an enthusiastic supporter of commentaries and the DVD format in general. In the July 2006 issue of Total Film magazine, he stated:
"After all the work we go through, to have it run in the cinema and then disappear forever is a great pity. To give the film added life is really cool for both those who missed it and those who really loved it."
- When DVD first started becoming commercially available in 1997, Kevin Smith was not a fan of the format. Smith expressed his animosity on the commentary for the Criterion Collection laserdisc of Chasing Amy. Smith began the commentary by saying, "This is a Criterion laserdisc, and at this moment, we'd just like to say, 'Fuck DVD'." Smith has since come to embrace DVD. When Chasing Amy was re-released to DVD, and the running commentary re-used, Smith filmed a special introduction in which he apologized for the comment, and attributed it to Jason Mewes.
Some film companies transfer the audio commentary of the laserdisc release of a film on to the DVD rather than creating a new one. For example, El Mariachi Special Edition, Total Recall Special Edition and Spaceballs all contain the commentary from the laserdisc release. This may be for financial reasons, depending on whether the rights to the original commentary are cheaper to use than recording a new one (a company releasing a film on DVD today may not be the same company who released it on laserdisc); or it could simply be that the original commentary does its job well without the need for an update. Contrastingly, some DVDs do not have a commentary even though the laserdisc release did (for example, Taxi Driver). This may be because the parties involved have not reached a publication agreement.
The audio commentaries of The Criterion Collection are often considered some of the finest and most informative commentaries ever made, and the Laserdisc releases of classic films can be highly prized because Criterion generally does not license their commentaries for use on later DVDs when the rights to films they have release revert to the studio, including the aforementioned Taxi Driver. Other notables include the commentary for The Silence of the Lambs (featuring stars Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, along with director Jonathan Demme) and Terry Gilliam's tracks for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King.
Maximum number of commentaries
There is no known DVD that contains six or more commentary tracks, although this is technically possible. Cabin Fever has five commentary tracks and many DVDs contain four commentary tracks, such as Hostel, The Lord of the Rings Extended Editions, Fight Club, and Se7en.
- Video Capsule Review: Contact. by Steve Daly, Entertainment Weekly. (1998-01-09).
- Ebert, Roger (February 2002). You, Too, Can Be a DVD Movie Critic. Yahoo! Internet Life. Archived from the original on 2002-10-12. Retrieved on 2007-01-11.
- Yarm, Mark (2002-09-25). Talking during the movies. Salon Magazine. Retrieved on 2007-02-21.
- Luck, Richard (2006). Clerks II (2006) - Channel 4 Film Review. Channel4.com. Retrieved on 2007-02-21.
- Lewisohn, Mark. The bbc.co.uk Guide to Comedy. BBC.co.uk.
- ratethatcommentary.com: A site that lists DVD audio commentaries and allows users to rate and review them.