Every filmmaker or fan has that one movie (or maybe a set of movies) that “got them into movies.” I tend to think you have different works of art that re-affirm love at different points in your life. However, there is a nexus at the beginning of your life that sets you on your path in cinema.
For me, my path started with one movie in particular.
I was four years old and already really into dinosaurs. I had a huge hamper of dinosaur toys filled to the brim that would measure up to my waist now, but as a kid, it was almost as big as I was. My father told me we were going to watch this movie called Jurassic Park.
I didn’t know anything about it but he told me it was about dinosaurs and that was good enough for me. As I get older, it is harder to remember the exact details, but I distinctly remember asking if a T-Rex was in the movie? Was a Triceratops in the movie? We sat down after dinner and my father popped in the DVD and I was absorbed. I loved the movie and I have never stopped watching it.
The movie was magical, everything felt real to me. The most amazing thing is I never fast forward through the beginnings where it was dialogue-heavy between the characters, I sit through the entire movie each time I watch it, never bored or growing tired of it.
Discovering Behind-the-Scenes Docs
Something else happens every time I complete watching with the movie–after the credits finished rolling, the DVD wouldn’t return to the main menu but a different, quiet one. The menu was a special features page and the first option was a documentary called The Making of Jurassic Park. My young curiosity got the best of me, how did they make Dinosaurs real?
Watching the documentary, I got to know the filmmaker who made this movie I loved, Steven Spielberg. I learned how there was a filmmaking process, story decisions, people responsible for making the film, each with different titles, like producer, special effects coordinator, and different stages of production. It was quick and mini-film school.
It referenced other movies that inspired the filmmakers. like King Kong and Jason and the Argonauts. Suddenly, I knew of an actual history to film. There were other movies I wanted to see. I wanted to go watch this black and white stop-motion driven movie called King Kong … from 1933?!
I wanted to watch this documentary every time I watched Jurassic Park. There were movies I loved before Jurassic Park but the technical achievements behind this movie made me as a kid want to know how it was actually made.
A Trek Through Time
Soon, my family started getting DVD copies of our VHS collection, which gave me more behind-the-scenes documentaries that I would quickly absorb. The Star Wars DVDs were loaded with great information on filmmaking, storytelling, and history of movies. This pattern kept going for me throughout my life. The Mummy DVDs unlocked the history of Universal Monsters movies, which made me want to go back and watch those movies and I quickly became a life-long fan.
The crown jewel of behind-the-scenes documentaries is The Lord of the Rings.
Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy details every stage of the process of filmmaking in even more detail than some of the documentaries that helped me get into movies in the first place.
They showed everything, from a small section on the biography of J.R.R. Tolkien to development process to the script to building armor and almost anything else you can imagine learning about this movie.
These docs were intimate in how they would show set life and make us feel like a fly on the wall as we watched the greatest accomplishment in blockbuster filmmaking come to life.
The documentaries are longer than the movies themselves and is full of insight and candid stories from Peter Jackson, actors, and other crew members (a trend that continued into The Hobbit movies).
Why Are These Important?
These are important because, for some, this could be the only type of film school you can afford.
As someone who went to film school, it’s not cheap and I’m going to be in debt for a very long time. For some, the cost might be enough to dissuade you from following your dream in movies. For those who don’t want to go to school, behind-the-scenes documentaries act as supplement material to a film school (which is far more affordable).
As I’ve gotten older and continued to collect Blu-rays, I’ve noticed a steady decline in the amount of special features offered. Some don’t even have commentary tracks (which is probably the cheapest and easiest feature to do). While I’m happy to own these movies on Blu-ray, I can’t help but feel I’m not getting as much out of it as I once did.
In the age of streaming, physical media is becoming more and more of an afterthought (after this coronavirus, who knows how viable physical media will still be). But as streaming services take over, I hope that we don’t see special features and filmmaking documentaries go away with it.
For many in my generation (which isn’t that old), or even those slightly older than me, these extra features were gold. I would go out of my way to buy a movie again if I knew it had more bonus material.
It used to be a sales pitch slapped right on the box. But now, studios rush the films out onto Blu-ray and digital platforms and there is almost no time to make these documentaries.
I can’t argue much for the cost of these docs. The studios don’t see much return in them and really only add other incentives to buy the movie on home video — one that slowly been stomped out for the majority of releases. I can only plead for them as a film fan because became a film fan in part because of these documentaries. If I ever hit a rut writing a screenplay, I like to throw on the Lord of the Rings special features and get inspired of why making movies is fun.
There is Still Hope
As much as I bemoan the lose of special features on most major studio released Blu-rays, there are still many collector’s Blu-rays that are still putting out high quality behind-the-scenes documentaries on their disks. Places like Scream Factory and The Criterion Collection are all putting in the effort.
These blu-rays tend to cost more but I find myself still coughing up the money to buy them rather than getting a new release to the latest blockbuster I just saw three months prior. And, even in the age of streaming, The Criterion Channel has loaded their streaming services with countless hours of filmmaker interviews and in-depth analysis of classic films.
So these aren’t extinct, yet I do hope that filmmakers and studios continue to push for them. They can inspire and inform and I wouldn’t be the same film fan without them.