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The behind-the-scenes art of developing DVD extras

Special to The Times

Thanks to its interactive capabilities and unprecedented storage space, the 6-year-old medium known as DVDs has become an increasingly sought-after canvas for some of Hollywood’s most talented artists.

And no, we’re not talking about filmmakers.

Although the feature films grab viewers’ attention and are the first thing most people watch, millions of people also want the extras. Two DVD mainstays in particular -- the menu screens that are the gateway to discs’ contents and special features like bloopers, deleted scenes and documentaries -- have spawned new art forms.

In fact, menus and special features have garnered enough prestige to warrant awards at the third annual DVD Premiere Awards, hosted by Ben Stein tonight at the Wiltern. The event will include honors for original retrospective documentary and menu design.

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“The DVD industry is creating its own high-profile artists who create very poignant documentaries that are often feature-length themselves,” says Scott Hettrick, editor in chief of DVD Premieres magazine. “And these also require writing, producing, editing,” he says, adding that some have their own musical scores.

Film studios take these DVD extras seriously too. According to Bob Chapek, president of the DVD Entertainment Group, an industry-supported trade coalition, 63% of DVD owners said in a recent study that supplemental materials are a key determinant when buying a new movie.

“When I produce DVDs, I get the best people available for the job, be it for menu design, content development, film transfer, audio transfer and compression, everything it takes to put all the material onto a DVD,” says Mark Rowen, who oversees home entertainment production at DreamWorks.

“Just as Steven Spielberg assembles the best team he can when making a picture, we take the same approach.”

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Is there a Steven Spielberg of animated menus and special features? No single person has emerged yet, but a number of artist-technicians, many with backgrounds in documentaries and trailers, are gaining recognition in the DVD industry. Tonight’s awards notwithstanding, studios nearly always prefer to focus on the stars and filmmakers, not on craftspeople who work on the DVD release. Still, two nominees for awards tonight -- Laurent Bouzereau and Van Ling -- typify the new generation of craftspeople who are bringing new attention to what was once little more than an afterthought.

Bouzereau is the go-to guy for such DreamWorks films as “Minority Report” and “Catch Me If You Can,” as well as “A.I.”

Born in a suburb of Paris, Bouzereau, 40, moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago to work in the film business. “I was so in love with American cinema, I could’ve been the guy sweeping the floor on the set. I didn’t care,” Bouzereau says.

“I wanted to direct ‘Jaws,’ ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘E.T.,’ so the closest I could get was to create retrospective documentaries for these films.”

Bouzereau got his wish, but he traveled a long road to get there.

“I struggled for many years -- painting canvases, doing production assistant work, freelance writing -- people say how lucky I am to work with Spielberg, and I am, but it wasn’t easy.”

After poring over two-decade-old archival footage of “Jaws” and “Close Encounters,” Bouzereau was asked by Spielberg to be on the set of films such as “A.I.,” “Minority Report” and “Catch Me If You Can,” to gather information and insights for the making-of documentaries.

“The first rule is to stay out of the way so they can make the movie. I try to be as thorough as possible but as invisible as possible,” says the prolific Bouzereau, who has worked on more than 60 documentaries in the last few years.

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“Sometimes cast and crew members will be open to providing assets” -- out-takes, anecdotes, screen tests -- “so it’s not unusual for someone to say, ‘Hey, we’re rehearsing this scene on Friday so you should be there,’ or, ‘Here’s over a thousand sketches for you,’ ” Bouzereau recalls.

Bouzereau says documentaries must be informative and entertaining and should make the viewer want to watch the movie again. “That’s our function.”

“Had I not been on the set for ‘Minority Report,’ it would have been a huge challenge -- if you don’t grab the moment, you’re missing out, and you know it when you watch the documentary,” explains Bouzereau.

He adds that “Minority Report” “was probably the most challenging film for him because it was such as huge, huge movie. That, and the deadlines are so intensely short between the theatrical release and the home video release these days.”

Not surprisingly, DreamWorks’ Rowen says, work typically begins on the DVD the day the studio approves making the film.

“Now that filmmakers are embracing the DVD medium more, the director, cinematographer, art departments and so forth like to share behind-the-scenes moments with the fans of the film,” says Rowen. “You often hear, ‘Oh that would be great for DVD’ when working on a film.”

Rowen says their first goal is to make sure the DVD’s extra material fits and enhances the film. For example, “Shrek” has games and activities, while the extras on the DVDs for “A.I.” and “Minority Report” are “an education in film school.”

Ling is another sought-after DVD artist-technician. The 39-year-old L.A. native and 15-year industry veteran is a DVD producer, visual effects supervisor and computer graphics designer. He’s known lately for his work on menus.

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No longer simply screens presenting viewers with options, menus have grown more creative in design and function, often featuring detailed animation, original music and various visual and audio surprises.

Some of Ling’s most notable work includes menu designs for “Star Wars” Episodes I and II, “The Ultimate T2 DVD,” and special-edition DVDs of “Independence Day,” “The Terminator” and “The Abyss.”

Ling began working as a researcher for James Cameron on “The Abyss” before designing and creating some of the visual effects on Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” He then became head of production at Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment, which included home video projects.

On his work on laser discs in the mid-'90s, and then DVD design later in the decade, Ling mirrors much of Rowen’s sentiment: “The best people to get to work on special features are the ones associated with the film, if possible.”

Menu work was a natural progression for Ling due to his strong visual-effects and production backgrounds, he says.

“Therefore, my menu work tends to be distinguished from many other menus -- I kind of overdo it,” he says with a laugh.

With both “Star Wars” DVDs, Ling said he had to create animated menus with visuals on a par with Industrial Light & Magic’s work on the film, which proved “very challenging.”

“Some [menu creators] just take shots from a movie and run it as a montage and put text upon it, but for ‘Star Wars,’ we couldn’t just use the shots from the movie because the scenes we wanted were only two to three seconds long.... For animated menus, you need about 20 seconds that will loop.”

Moreover, the “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace” DVD had the first randomly generated menu that would bring up one of three different scenes each time the DVD loaded.

“Well, it’s one way to triple your workload,” Ling says, laughing.

Though Ling’s work has made him an in-demand artisan in the realm of DVD menu design, he says he tries to shy away from the word “pioneer.”

Says Ling, “You can tell who the pioneers are by the arrows stuck in their back.”


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