Let’s Get Physical, Media

For my 18th birthday I got a gift that would change my life: a DVD player. That may sound dramatic, but it’s true. Prior to that, I didn’t really buy a lot of movies. Our family had a lot of movies on VHS but they were usually things we recorded off of TV. We would rent movies more often than we would buy them. When DVDs came out though, everything changed. The picture quality was better, there were special features like commentary tracks and alternate endings, and even the packaging was cool and exciting. Suddenly you weren’t just buying the movie, you were owning a collectible as well. 

The day after my birthday I took a trip to Borders Books & Music and splurged on a stack of DVDs for my new collection. Here are some of my favorites from those early days and why they were so cool.

X-MEN – The X-Men DVD had some “Easter eggs” on it in the form of hidden special features. In the Theatrical Trailers section, if you pressed the left arrow on your remote you could highlight a rose that looked like it was just part of the menu background. If you clicked on the rose it would play an “outtake” of Spider-Man showing up on the X-Men set. Even though it was just a gag, in the days when comic book crossovers were just a fanboy fantasy this seemed cool as hell – and the fact that it was “hidden” on the DVD made it even more fun. There was also a secret feature in the Art Gallery which revealed unused designs for Blob and Beast, two characters who did not end up in the film. Add to this some sleek packaging and innovative menus and this was one of my first examples of how cool DVDs could be.

FIGHT CLUB – The packaging on Fight Club was some of the best and most unique I’ve seen to this day. It looked like something straight out of Project Mayhem, with snippets of airline safety pamphlets in the background behind the discs. It was a two disc set, with the movie on one disc and a second disc chock-full of special features. It boasted commentary tracks with David Fincher, Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter. As if that wasn’t enough content, there was a booklet included with tons of info on the making of the film and cast interviews. When you first pop the DVD in there’s a warning from Tyler Durden himself in the style of the FBI Warning, and there’s a hidden area in the advertising section of disc two that lets you browse a fake product catalog.  There was a rumor that there was an alternate ending hidden somewhere on one of the discs were Tyler lives and the narrator dies, but David Fincher denied ever having filmed such a scene. Still, this set was so wild that it sure seemed like something that could have been real. 

DIE HARD BOX SET – This set was an absolute game-changer for me. Two of the features on this box set were unprecedented. One was an eye-opening feature about the difference between widescreen and fullscreen. In that era most people thought the “black bars” on the top and bottom of a widescreen movie were bad. They assumed that having the picture fill the whole screen was the optimal viewing experience – and in a day and age when TVs were still 4:3, that meant chopping off the sides of the image and/or doing a “pan and scan” to show the viewer crucial parts of the scene. This special feature showed a scene from the first Die Hard in widescreen and then in fullscreen for comparison, and it made me an instant convert to the wonderful world of widescreen. There was also a feature called “The Cutting Room” where you could actually re-edit some scenes from the movie and use alternate takes of dialogue. As a film student at the time this was right up my alley, and I’ve never seen a feature like this on another DVD before or since. Yippee ki-yay, indeed!

UNBREAKABLE – This was one of my favorite movies at the time when it came out, and I saw it no less than five times while it was still in the theater. M. Night Shyamalan’s slow-paced deconstruction of the superhero genre was definitely not for everyone, but I absolutely loved it. The DVD release had really cool packaging, a ton of deleted scenes, a featurette about comic books hosted by Samuel L. Jackson, and even included some artwork by one of my all-time favorite comic artists, the legendary Alex Ross. It honestly felt like this DVD was made just for me.

SE7EN –Alternate endings and deleted scenes were big in this era, and most of the time you could see why they were left on the cutting room floor. In this case though we get one alternate ending that is pretty similar to the movie’s actual ending but with some subtle differences, AND storyboards for another, unfilmed ending where it’s Somerset who kills John Doe instead of Mills. The packaging on this DVD was very specific to the film as it looked like one of John Doe’s notebooks.

THE SIXTH SENSE – The packaging on this one matched the tone and atmosphere of the film itself, very ethereal and surreal looking. The special features included a “Rules and Clues” featurette that showcased the hints leading up to that famous twist ending, a bunch of deleted scenes, and even a “Between Two Worlds” documentary about the possibilities of the afterlife. This was a great example of a DVD that didn’t just give you the movie, it immersed you in its world.

SIN CITY – This set offered a truly unique viewing experience because you could watch the film multiple ways. You had the theatrical version of course, but you also had the option of watching any/all of the four storylines broken out as their own separate mini-movies. There was also the option to watch a sped-up “green screen” version of the film, which really showcased how much of the background of each scene was added digitally. Even the menus were exciting, with art from the comics morphing into scenes from the movie as an instrumental version of “Cells” by The Servant blared in the background.  As if all of this wasn’t enough, the DVD came packaged with a copy of “The Hard Goodbye” graphic novel. Take my money already!

WATCHMEN ULTIMATE CUT – The “ultimate cut” of Watchmen took Zack Snyder’s director’s cut of the movie and interwove the animated Black Freighter sequences to create an experience as close to the graphic novel as possible – and it clocked in at an insane 3 hours and 35 minutes. They obviously figured anyone who wanted to own this version was a hardcore fan, and they were not wrong. The packaging was gorgeous, and it came with not one, not two, not three, not four, but a total of FIVE discs: the movie, special features, a digital copy (back when those came on a disc instead of as a code), and two discs for a motion-comic version of the graphic novel. This was one of those sets that felt like it was rewarding you for being a fan by giving you everything they could think of.

TV SERIES SEASON SETS – It is impossible to overstate how the advent of season sets changed television. For the first time ever you could own every episode of your favorite show to watch any time you wanted. Prior to this that was not possible, unless of course you were like me and obsessively recorded every episode of your favorite shows on VHS as they aired…!  The release of legit box sets meant I could retire my VHS copies of “Lois & Clark” that I had taped off of TNT. But it also meant I could catch up on shows that I had not watched from the beginning. I started watching the show “Alias” in its third season. The show was continuity-heavy and had a lot of backstory which made it hard to jump into. However, my local Blockbuster Video had the previous seasons available to rent on DVD. So, I caught up on season one and two as season three was airing, which was an interesting and unique experience for sure.

The popularity of season sets really took off around the same time that another mythology-heavy show was becoming a cultural phenomenon… “LOST.” If you hadn’t watched it from the beginning, DVDs now gave you a way to start with episode one and get caught up. If the previous episodes had not been so easily accessible, “LOST” would not have been such a huge success, because new audiences would have had no entry point into the series. Now, in the age of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, it’s a given that you’ll start watching a show from the first episode, but prior to DVDs that wasn’t the way we watched TV. This shift in how we experience shows has changed television from being very episodic and stand-alone in terms of storytelling to having season-long storylines and plot points that play out over the course of many episodes. 

WHAT’S HAPPENED SINCE THEN?

As physical media releases have progressed from DVD to Blu-ray, they have moved forward by leaps and bounds in terms of picture and audio quality, but they have lost something as well. Most Blu-ray releases have fewer special features than their DVD predecessors. The days of commentary tracks seem to be all but over. And, in general, the packaging tends to be pretty lackluster. 

Take a look at the differences in the packaging between the DVD releases of Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies and their later Blu-ray releases. The DVD releases (above) are the theatrical movie posters. You’ve got Pierce Brosnan, you’ve got the Bond girls from each film, everything looks exciting and dynamic and is a pretty good representation of the movie, right? 

The Blu-ray cover for Goldeneye looks like something you’d find in the back room of a video store if you know what I mean. Tomorrow Never Dies is even worse… it looks like they took a screenshot from the movie, slapped it on a white background in Photoshop and just typed in the title. What a downgrade!

Let’s use Fight Club as an additional example. We saw earlier in this article how awesome the initial DVD release was. Now let’s look at its Blu-ray successor. The packaging is default, there’s no booklet included, and it just feels like something you’d come across in Wal-Mart’s $5 bin. (And you just might.) I am Jack’s sense of utter disappointment. 

Like I said though, Blu-ray is noticeably better than DVD when it comes to how good the picture looks and how clear the audio sounds. I just wish they would take the time and effort to make owning the movie feel like more of an “event” like their DVD predecessors did.

DO THE DAYS OF DIGITAL MEAN THE DEATH OF DVD?

These days most people have gone entirely digital when it comes to their movie purchases, opting to store them in the cloud rather than on their shelf. And, I get the appeal of that. Being able to have your whole collection accessible anywhere, at any time, on your TV, computer, tablet, or phone is pretty convenient. But, your ability to stream that movie in high quality is only as good as your internet connection. And the vast majority of digital releases are the film only, which means no commentary tracks, deleted scenes, or any of the other extra goodies that you would get included on a disc.

While going full digital with your collection certainly saves on storage space, there’s something special about having a physical item to hold in your hand and proudly display on your shelf. It’s not just something you have access to, it’s part of a collection. For me, at least, I don’t think that will ever change.

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