Of all the technological innovations happening around me as I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, none excited me more than the DVD director’s commentary. Yes, LaserDisc diehards, I know commentary tracks didn’t begin with the advent of DVDs, but they unquestionably came into their own as a form on that format. A promising-enough director’s commentary — one featuring a funny filmmaker, or one full of fascinating stories, or one wonky enough to get as deep into the nuts and bolts of the craft as time allowed — could by itself convince me to rent or even buy a disc, whether or not I cared for or had even heard of the movie itself.
And so I found it a bit dismaying that, as online streaming began to displace disc-watching as the home-theater technology of choice, director’s commentary tracks — or commentary tracks by anyone else, for that matter — looked like a soon-to-be thing of the past. But as we’ve learned, especially this century, technology tends to open a window when it closes a door. At the New York Times, internet video has opened another window onto the mind of the modern filmmaker with Anatomy of a Scene, a series of clips that each take just one scene from a film and have the film’s director explain in depth, DVD-commentary-style, what went into that scene.
At the top of the post, you can hear Wes Anderson, a director long known for his mastery of a certain aesthetic, explain some of the techniques that make up that aesthetic as he and his collaborators used them in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Below that, Tim Burton, who grew famous using an equally distinctive but wholly different visual vocabulary from Anderson’s, talks about a scene from Big Eyes, his film about the life of painter Margaret Keane. Keane’s paintings feature heavily in the background, which gives Burton the opportunity to talk about how they captivated him in childhood: “I found them quite disturbing, and the color schemes were quite lurid” — and so he explains how those lurid colors provided the color scheme for the movie itself.
The directors of Anatomy of a Scene tend to talk about their recent films, and in recent years we’ve seen a fair few high-profile Hollywood movies dealing with outer space and the worlds beyond Earth: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, for instance, whose scene of its astronauts hurtling into the great unknown provides the material for its Anatomy of a Scene video. Ridley Scott, always a stimulating commenter, has also done one on The Martian, his own latest space movie which came out this year. Scott talks over the scene where his film’s astronaut, marooned and seeking any tool of survival, digs NASA’s Pathfinder out of the Martian sands, about how, as “one of those primitives who can actually draw,” he storyboards everything in detail: “By the time I start the movie, I’ve kind of ‘filmed’ it on paper, and when I get there, it gives me the confidence to feel free to allow the actors and everybody else to do their thing.”
But Anatomy of a Scene doesn’t just invite household names. I used to live in Los Angeles and still keep up with movies that examine the city, and so I found fascinating indeed their video with Dan Gilroy on Nightcrawler, my favorite Los Angeles movie of this past year (maybe alongside Paul Thomas Anderson’s Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice, a scene from which also gets anatomized). The Times has put together over a hundred of these videos, all of which you can watch at their Anatomy of a Scene page or on Youtube. They’ve included scenes from the work of such auteurs as Olivier Assayas, Noah Baumbach, Richard Linklater, and Lukas Moodysson (as well as scenes from such, er, other sorts of pictures as Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel). If the commentary is dead, well, long live the commentary.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, and the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.