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Preview by Betsy Bozdech
"We wanted to make it special, but the thing is, that takes a real long time. It was like making another movie."
Rick McCallum, producer of The Phantom Menace
As any DVD fan worth his (or her) salt already knows, the upcoming Oct. 16 release of Lucasfilm's first DVD Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is officially a Very Big Deal. Something along the lines of the day Alan Shepherd hit that golf ball on the moon. Okay, maybe not that big. But big. Definitely big.
And the folks at Lucasfilm know it. That's why they rolled out the red carpet last week and invited a whole slew of journalists and reviewers (including yours truly) to spend two afternoons at a place that, for Star Wars fans, is roughly equivalent to Mecca Skywalker Ranch. We mingled, got a quick tour and a visit to the company store, dove into the two-disc set's special features (more on those below), and sat in on Q&A sessions with a few key folks involved in getting the special edition DVD ready for prime time: VP of Marketing Jim Ward, DVD producer Van Ling, Phantom Menace producer Rick McCallum, visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman (who supervised the disc's newly completed set of deleted scenes), THX supervising engineer Rick Dean, documentary filmmaker Jon Shenk (the man behind the SE's remarkable "making-of" documentary, The Beginning), and, yup, even George Lucas himself.
But before we get to the details of the actual DVD-related stuff, a quick travelogue. Whatever you might have heard about Skywalker Ranch, the reality blows the rumors away. Nestled in the rolling golden hills of Marin County, California, about 20 miles north of San Francisco, this carefully constructed empire looks and feels a lot more like a resort than a high-tech filmmaking complex where more than 200 people come to work every day. The unassuming wooden gate off winding Lucas Valley Road (just a coincidence, believe it or not) gives way to a quaint guardhouse and a long, redwood-shaded drive up to the main house, a large, white, graceful Victorian mansion that overlooks a well-maintained green lawn (complete with grazing deer), five acres of vineyards, and the inviting waters of Ewok Lake. Other buildings, including ILM's big red tech center, a fitness center and lap pool, stables, a baseball diamond, and an on-site fire department, are tucked away behind clusters of trees and curves of hills. Employees park underground, for the most part, and use company bicycles or their own feet to get around during the day; hiking trails rim the valley.
In other words, for those of us trapped inside cubes in windowless buildings day after day, paradise. And for DVD-philes, it gets better, because this is one Eden that caters to film buffs. Props and posters from all of Lucasfilm's movies, plus plenty of other classics, are tucked everywhere on the ranch yup, that's Luke Skywalker's lightsaber hilt in that glass case. The screening room inside the main house where we previewed the DVD's extras is filled with about 45 or 50 big, squishy red armchairs and is steep enough that no one's head is going to get in your way (see? paradise!). And the Dolby 5.1 Surround EX home theater sound system that the THX folks kindly set up in a reading room and demonstrated with the pod race and lightsaber battle scenes? Enough to make you cry with envy.
But there were a lot more grins than tears in evidence last week; everyone was pretty much flat-out delighted to be getting a peek at the ranch and the Phantom Menace DVD. You'll have to wait a few weeks for the intrepid Alexandra DuPont's review to get all the gory details, but here's a quick run-down of what to expect:
- The movie. A digitally mastered 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, with Dolby 5.1 Surround EX sound (plus English and Spanish 2.0 Surround tracks). The THX folks took the compression factor into account and have gone over the movie scene-by-scene to make sure everything is represented correctly.
- A full-length commentary track. The best remarks from Lucas, McCallum, editor Ben Burtt, ILM animation director Rob Coleman, visual effects supervisor John Knoll, senior visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren, and visual effects supervisor Scott Squires have been edited together to form the commentary, which is Lucas' first.
- Seven deleted scenes. Lucas decided that for the DVD, he'd like the ILM crew to complete seven scenes trimmed from the film fairly early on, including extended sequences from the pod race and a short Coruscant air-taxi scene. Lucas ended up liking that particular bit so much when he saw it finished that he decided to add it back into the movie proper (rumor has it there are a few other differences in the DVD version of the movie, too...but Jar Jar's still in it).
- The Beginning documentary. Culled from more than 600 hours of archival footage shot by Shenk during the production of the movie, this narratorless "making-of" documentary is one of the best of its kind. Free of talking-head interviews (and thus the typical love-fest gushing), The Beginning offers lots of honest, intimate moments.
- Loads of other extras, including storyboard-to-animatic-to-film segments, five short featurettes on topics like costumes and visual effects, starwars.com's 12-part "making-of" documentary series, composer John Williams' "Duel of the Fates" music video (but no sign of Weird Al's "The Saga Begins," unfortunately), a production photo gallery, trailers, TV spots, poster stills, and a DVD-ROM link to an exclusive area of starwars.com (little birds at Skywalker seemed to be hinting that there might be an Episode II teaser to be found there at some point...). And, of course, Easter eggs. No one at Lucasfilm would say how many, but rest assured they're there the one we got to see last week was a roster of DVD credits accompanied by some pretty good outtakes.
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