Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Ape of Things to Come? (revised)

Last night I used my Claw to crack the shrink-wrap on my newly delivered copy of KING KONG - PETER JACKSON'S PRODUCTION DIARIES (Universal, $39.98). As with Jackson's four-disc LORD OF THE RINGS Expanded Director's Cuts, this two-disc release shows a unique and extraordinary understanding of the DVD marketplace and heralds the arrival of something distinctly new to video stores.

A couple of items like the documentary THE ALIEN SAGA come close, but there's really never been anything quite like the PRODUCTION DIARIES before. This isn't a documentary feature. What we have here is the clever marketing of the sort of publicity material heretofore given away free, via television or internet, to promote a new feature film -- in other words, traditional DVD supplements packaged separately to generate additional profits for a very costly picture. The contents of this set, "making of" vignettes originally offered as fodder for the website to generate interest while KONG was in production, are here collected to give the public something they can purchase while the film is still in theaters, when their interest in the picture is keenest.

The vignettes, averaging six minutes in length, cover all technical aspects of production like cinematography, set design (live and miniature), makeup, wardrobe, even set visits by the press and exhibitors -- with less attention paid to the creation of the creature effects than most buyers might think. The camera crew run out of ideas about what to document (based on what they were free to document) fairly early, and beg website visitors to make suggestions, which are entertained. There are also a few segments that indulge in self-spoofery, such as a vignette about someone calling himself Gandalf who is supposedly posting unauthorized set photos online, whom the crew spots and pursues (he's in Hobbit clothes with a long white beard and a staff), and another in which Jackson outlines his three-picture KONG franchise plan, which is played with such a straight face it still has me wondering.

The packaging is very attractive, replicating a leather "Denham Productions" briefcase whose top slips off to reveal an inner pocket containing four production art prints suitable for framing, a numbered letter of authenticity (signed by Jackson but not individually so), and cardboard housing for a kind of clamped writing tablet that holds a 52-page illustrated booklet and the two discs. Disc One runs about 113 minutes when you press "Play All," in addition to a get-acquainted intro from Jackson. (It's also possible to jump directly to specific diary entries, or those pertaining to specific parts of the film.) Disc Two runs about 124 minutes. There's very little Naomi Watts (and no Kong) on the first disc, though we do see her visit the real Empire State Building with Jackson and entourage, and she wishes us a Merry Christmas at the end -- and promises to figure more in subsequent diary entries when the film resumes production after Christmas break in early 2005. She keeps her promise by participating more fully in Disc Two, which most people will find more interesting anyway, as it shows more of the faux New York and Skull Island shooting, and green-screen work; it also includes a chunk of completed footage from the movie's Kong vs. T. rex family sequence. (It seemed to me that not all of the sound effects here were quite finalized, which may add to its collectability.) Most viewers, I think, will be surprised to discover how much of the film's scenery was computer-generated, and thus how little of the film's spectacle is evident from the on-set footage.

We may feel a bit resentful about being asked to shell out for promotional materials traditionally accessed freely on television, as we do when we're forced to watch commercials in a theater before the movie starts, but this is a hard item to resist. If you love the movie, you'll want it; if you like the movie, you'll probably want it because it's unlikely to show on television; and even if you don't think Jackson's film is comparable to the original, if you have any love for fantasy films at all, this set will still fairly scream "Collectible!" It's not the sort of item one imagines will have a long shelf life, at least not in stores, nor does one imagine it will turn up anywhere as cable programming -- at least in this form. Let's just hope that Universal doesn't try double-dipping this material when the feature itself comes to DVD.

Of course, by its very nature, PRODUCTION DIARIES has limited viewability. Entertaining and informative as it is, it's not something most people will want or need to see more than once or twice. Watching the programming straight through is a little tiring because the segments unfold in self-contained, six-minute arcs, and the serial interruptions make the discs seem longer than they really are. This isn't to say that the material itself is dull, just that it carries no ongoing narrative momentum. (There is no big pay-off at the end either, as neither Jack Black or Adrien Brody were still in harness on the day of the wrap party.) These diaries were created to be viewed in small, irregular doses and might best be viewed in half-hour installments over a series of evenings, unless you're absolutely obsessed.

What's interesting to me, as a long-time writer and journalist who has specialized in this sort of reporting, is that what was once the exclusive province of niche publications like CINEFANTASTIQUE -- detailed reportage about fantasy films in production -- has now become the entire substance of a stand-alone DVD release from a major Hollywood studio. I would imagine that the bulk of this material might be a bit too technical or boring or sound-bytey for the average filmgoer, but it does scratch an otherwise hard-to-reach itch for the people who are most excited by the movie right now, who are eager to know more about it and to own a piece of it. If you visited the KONG website regularly to see these reports as they were posted, you'll likely want this set as a memento... and, as Jackson notes upfront, the picture quality of these anamorphically-enhanced discs is much superior to the finest broadband internet reception.

Of course, not every film warrants this sort of supplemental release -- no more than Sandra Bullock or Billy Crystal movies really need audio commentaries or "making of" featurettes. But, of course, those very things have come to pass, which makes me worry a little that an idea like this might catch on and lead the DVD industry to places where most DVD collectors don't want to go. Dark harbinger or not, KING KONG - PETER JACKSON'S PRODUCTION DIARIES is an idea whose time has come, and in this particular application, it's a good idea made better.

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