When Films are Ruined by 'Special Features'

Recently I rented a DVD of the award-winning 2003 documentary Winged Migration. Famed as one of the most unique and beautiful films ever made, Winged Migration literally takes the viewer up into the sky as it follows birds on their long-distance seasonal flights around the world. Somehow, seemingly as if by magic, the cameras are right there amongst the migrating birds, and you feel as if you are flying thousands of feet in the air with your fellow avians over landscapes which range from the picturesque to the breathtaking. When the film was over, all I could say was "Wow!"

And then, I made the terrible, terrible mistake of clicking on "Special Features" in the DVD menu. Ten minutes later, I realized retroactively that I didn't like the film after all. In fact, I hated it.

Why? Because among the special features was one of those short "The Making of..." mini-documentaries which divulged the secrets of how they filmed Winged Migration. And it revealed that the film was all a lie. A beautiful lie, but a lie nonetheless.

The filmmakers had not documented any actual migrations. Not only were the birds not migrating, they weren't even wild birds! They were basically trained actors, with wings. The "making of..." documentary showed, step by step, how they had hand-raised some migratory birds from the moment they hatched and had, using the "imprinting" techniques of Konrad Lorenz, tricked the birds into thinking that the cameramen were their mommies. As explained in Wikipedia, "The filial imprinting of birds was a primary technique used to create the movie [Winged Migration], which contains a great deal of footage of migratory birds in flight. The birds imprinted on handlers, who wore yellow jackets and honked horns constantly. The birds were then trained to fly along with a variety of aircraft, primarily ultralights."

So to film the birds "migrating" somewhere, the director actually just attached a camera to a motorized hang glider (called an "ultralight"), then let the birds out of their cages and started filming as the birds followed the ultralight around on a short flight, after which they all landed and were put back in cages. To make matters worse, the birds didn't follow the ultralight from region to region on long-distance flights, as the viewer was led to believe. No, as revealed to my shock in the "making of..." documentary, the filmmakers packed the birds away in shipping containers and actually trucked them around the world (on vehicles or in jetliner cargo holds) and then unpacked them only when they were at some pre-determined spot chosen by location scouts for its natural beauty. At which point, the ultralight would again take off, and the "migrating birds" would follow it around for a few minutes, before landing and getting back in the cages.

The final straw came when the director showed how even apparently serendipitous moments of passing "local color" were in fact all carefully constructed artificial props. That water buffalo wandering by in the distance? Someone pushed it into the scene. That quaint villager? A paid extra.

Great God in heaven! What kind of monstrosity is this? The entire film was a deception. I felt like a drunken sailor waking up next to the previous night's beer-goggle conquest, only to see a cheap wig and smell the stale whiskey breath, and realize I had been tricked.

Why in the world did the filmmakers reveal their deception? It had been such a wonderful reverie. The movie was utterly ruined for me after I had already seen it.

Lars and the Real Girl

And then it began to dawn on me: Waaaaait a minute -- I've had this experience before. I had it when I watched the DVD of Lars and the Real Girl, a cute comedy about a small-town nerd who falls in love with a sex-doll. The film's brilliance revolves around the relationship between Lars, played by Ryan Gosling, and his new "girlfriend." But you as the viewer realize, of course, that the girlfriend is just a rubber doll, so that the entire film rests on Lars -- or rather, on the actor portraying Lars. Gosling pulls at our heartstrings and makes us laugh because we really do believe him as a psychologically damaged but ultimately well-intentioned loner. At the end of the film, you truly like Lars, because you have come to embrace and accept his endearing personality.

And then -- the Curse of the Special Features strikes again. In this case, one of the features shows Ryan Gosling informally goofing around between takes, and he comes off as a total jerk. A smug, self-important star overly aware of his talents. And once again, the illusion was retroactively shattered. The viewer becomes so invested in Lars' personality that we momentarily forget he's just a fictional character. Yet when we see that he's not only fictional, but that the guy portraying him actually has the opposite personality, we feel cheated. Somewhere in the back of the viewer's mind is the thought, "Lars isn't sensitive and fragile -- he's just a pompous Hollywood star pretending to be fragile!" And without a believable Lars, there is no believable Lars and the Real Girl.

I don't want to see Grace Kelly scratching her ass between takes, or John Wayne clumsily dropping his six-shooter. I want to accept the reality of their on-screen personas! That why I'm watching the movie in the first place.

The Life Before Her Eyes

And it happened again with a lesser-known film called The Life Before Her Eyes, about two girls trapped in a school bathroom, about to be shot by a deranged fellow student on a Columbine-style rampage. Or rather, it's a film about a grown-up woman's memories of the incident, which happened to her when she was young. Or rather, it's about how the universe splits into different tracks when someone with individual will makes a personal choice -- in this case to kill or not to kill the girls. Or rather ... well, that's the whole point behind the film. You don't really know what's going on until the end. The whole time, I kept thinking to myself, "I just hope this isn't a remake of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Without giving away too many spoilers, when I got to the final frame, I originally found the film's ending intriguing, but a little confusing. So, to clarify matters, I watched all the "Special Features" on the DVD -- and as always, they made things worse. In this case (a problem that has happened with several other thrillers as well), the extras revealed that the filmmakers had created various alternate endings, and the audience had only been shown one of them. The whole plot could have gone another way, if the guy in the editing room had chosen a different version. I ended up feeling jerked around, like the twist ending was chosen basically at random from a whole array of possible twist endings that could have been tacked on. It was as if the scriptwriters themselves didn't even know how the film was going to end, which made the whole experience retroactively feel...pointless.

And more, and more...

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a strange but still funny musical parody of superhero films, seemed engaging and enjoyable -- until I later viewed the special features, which showed that the film was actually created specifically as an insider joke for the cult-like fans of the film's director Joss Whedon and its star Neil Patrick Harris. And that it wasn't really a film at all, just a series of "webisodes" released online for the amusement of fanboys. So I ended up feeling -- I guess "excluded" is the right word -- since I wasn't in the film's target audience, and therefore it wasn't really made for me to view. If I had just watched the movie in all innocence, I wouldn't have felt contaminated with icky fan-cooties.

The drug-dealing comedy Pineapple Express by the Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen crew seemed hilarious enough at first viewing, with more than its fair share of the cast's patented improvisational one-liners ... until I blundered and watched the alternate takes, bloopers and deleted scenes included as extras on the DVD -- which showed just how many unfunny variants of each improvised comic zinger had to be filmed and refilmed until they finally got a take they liked. Suddenly, the humor no longer seemed natural and flowing, but was rather laboriously stitched together to appear natural. And yet again, for a completely different reason, the special features made me enjoy a film less, or at least have a worse memory of it afterward.

The more I pondered this new revelation, the more I realized that most of the special features I'd ever seen on rented DVDs have diminished my movie-going experience, not enhanced it.

Why?

What's going on here? Why does the same problem happen over and over again when films are released on DVD for home viewing? Do the directors and producers know that the special features often only serve to undermine their films?

It doesn't have to be this way. This whole technique of "breaking the third wall" by afterward showing a film's dirty laundry was popularized by Jackie Chan (in the pre-DVD era), who would always append disastrous outtakes during the closing credits of his '80s and '90s kung fu comedies. But that was part of the Jackie Chan persona: the outtakes first of all proved that he did all his own stunts, and secondly reinforced our impression of him as just a regular likable guy, not some elite superstar.

This primitive version of "Special Features" may have worked in the context of a Jackie Chan film, but it often does not work with other types of film, and can end up being counter-productive. I've lost track of the number of times I've watched a science fiction movie with amazing special effects, and then had my amazement sullied by a special feature showing how the effects were created, usually quite mundanely on a computer. Sausage-makers already know: never reveal how the sausage is made. Customer reaction will quickly go from "Yum!" to "Blech!" Similarly, I think that filmmakers need to stop this relentless confessional habit of showing every little behind-the-scenes detail of how each film is made.

Filmgoing is supposed to be a magical experience, something that carries the viewer away for a couple hours to a different time or place. Would a magician be popular if, after every trick, he shows how he fooled you? We want to be swept away, not informed of our gullibility.

Have you ever had the experience of a film subsequently being ruined by a DVD special feature? The comments section awaits your tale.

And I've made a new resolution: As soon as the movie's over, I'm immediately pressing the "eject" button. Never again will I be tempted to peek behind the stage curtain.