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Chat Transcript: DVD producer Van Ling
on Home Theater Forum

The following is a complete transcript of the on-line chat with DVD producer Van Ling, held on Tuesday, January 29th on The Home Theater Forum. Thanks to Ron Epstein, Parker Clack and the staff the HTF for all their hard work, and for providing the transcript for all to read. Enjoy!

Subject: Live Chat with Van Ling
Date: January 29th, 2002

[RonEpstein] Good Evening, everyone. It is our pleasure to introduce Van Ling, a name that I am sure is familiar to all of you. He is a renowned DVD Producer with works ranging from THE ABYSS to THE TERMINATOR, T2 and PHANTOM MENACE. Van always seems to have a busy schedule, and we are glad he has time to spend with us this evening. Welcome, Van!

[VanLing] Thanks, Ron. Hello, folks...

[RonEpstein] What have you been working on as far as DVD content these past few months?

[VanLing] Well, I just worked on a new demo DVD for THX. For Podrace fans, it includes the THEATRICAL version of the entire Podrace. Slightly different than the version on the Ep1 DVD.

[RonEpstein] Is this a new demo disc that will soon be availble for the public or industry?

[VanLing] This demo DVD is supposedly for retailers, but I'm sure it will end up in general circulation. It's kind of an update of the WOW! laserdisc.

[RonEpstein] And you are starting to do DVD authoring these days as well?

[VanLing] I'm starting to get more into learning authoring, but I don't think I'm up to trying to author one of my own produced titles yet!

[RonEpstein] I'm sure in time.

[VanLing] I am learning a healthy respect for GOOD authoring, though!

[RonEpstein] Van, I am going to open the floor for our members to ask questions

[VanLing] Go for it

[Cameron_Seaman] Can you tell us a little about your educational background and how you arrived at your current position? Also, what advice would you give to someone (grad school?) that will soon begin looking for an entry level job in something similar to your field of work?

[VanLing] I graduated from USC Film School in 1986 with a bachelor's degree in Cinema Production. I ended up working for James Cameron after getting noticed by building a Halloween costume of the Aliens PowerLoader. True story. As for advice, I think it's important to learn all aspects of the filmmaking process if you want to be involved in any part of it, be it DVD or production.

[GregY] Why does the mono soundtrack on the Terminator SE (MGM) disc sound different than the original mono (Image) DVD? Also, I was wondering who was the driving force between that audio track when the original (original) mono was just fine. Who exactly decided that it needed so many changes?

[VanLing] That's a good question. It shouldn't sound different, but there are different ways it could have been tweaked. The idea of doing a multichannel mix was bandied about for over 8 years, actually. But I recall Jim Cameron saying that it wasn't worth doing a faux stereo mix and it was only worth doing if it were done right, meaning going back in and redoing certain things. Only a few years ago was the controlling studio willing to do that. Jim was fine with the idea when MGM suggested it, and he really left it in the hands of Brad Fiedel and the folks at Skywalker. As I recall, his only caveat was to maintain the original as much as possible but take advantage of the multichannel capabilities. I really was not as involved in the remix of T1 as I had been in the others since different studios have different ways of handling things.

[PatrickMcCart] Mr. Ling, I'd first like to compliment you on your work on the fantastic DVD's of T-2: UE and The Abyss. It's great enough to have an excellent presentation of the films, but there's also lots of great extras. I especially enjoy DVD's that include supplements that reveal all the aspects of production. As for my question... if you could produce a DVD for a classic pre-1970 movie for any company (could be a first-time release or an SE), what would it be?

[VanLing] That's a really tough one. I'll have to think about that for a while. Got any suggestions? Let's come back to it. Sorry, Pat!

[HenryCarmona] OK, thanks for chattin with us. Hi Ron, Hi Parker!! 2 questions plz. 1. As a VE Coordinator, do you notice all the inconsistencies in movies? EX: Hey wasnt that house on fire in the last scene? 2. What two things do you wish could have been included in the EP1 DVD?

[VanLing] Henry, I do notice inconsistencies, but that is actually the specific job of the script supervisor to catch. Also, they keep an eye out in editorial as well. As for Ep1, I think I would like to have seen more of Jon Shenk's documentary material and more VFX before/after demos.

[GregStaten] Van, I've heard rumors that you've moderated your position on easter eggs. (Personally, I've found your eggs to be among the most fun.) Do you see a trend moving away from easter eggs?

[VanLing] Like, movies, I think the fun of Easter Eggs is half what the viewer brings to it. So while I still love doing them, I've gotten the message that some folks don't enjoy them as much. All this means of course is that I either a) do fewer of them or b) I hide them better so the folks who don't like them don't know what they're missing! ;-)

[BrettC] Can you please give us an update on the True Lies special edition dvd? The Digital Bits is reporting that the disc has been delayed because of 9/11, is this true? Also will any changes to the film be made due to political correctness? I hope the new transfer is great.

[VanLing] Man, I hope we don't change the film at all because of 9/11. While I'm still compiling materials for True Lies, we have indeed kind of pushed it back because of 9/11. I talked with Jim Cameron about it and we both felt that it was going to be tough to do (too raw) so soon. Even though the DVD itself might not come out for months, I would have still had to interview people NOW, so that was a little touchy. Personally, I want to make sure we DO address the whole issue in the documentary. I'll probably start up again in a few months or so.

[MartinW] Have you experimented with any alternatives to eliminate the pauses in DVD menus? How about the seamless branching technique?

[VanLing] Unfortunately, menus are generally done in a different authoring space than the movie itself, and there are restrictions. This is one reason why I'm personally trying to learn more about authoring, so I can try to find new ways to approach things.

[Bob_Taylor] What has happened to Banned From The Ranch (btfr) are they still in business? The web site seems to have been abandoned.

[VanLing] Bob, we actually rode off into the sunset at BFTR in 1999. Casey and I closed the company to pursue other things. We still have the site up as kind of a record of what we did, though.

[Jacob] I don't have a question.. but I just wanted to say thank you very much for making such great dvds from the abyss to T1, t2, to episode 1 and others.. Keep up the great work..and I do like easter eggs!

[VanLing] Thanks for the kind words, Jacob!

[Ron_Eastman] First thing, love your work on some of my favorite DVDs: SW:Ep1, T2, The Abyss. My question is about easter eggs. The eggs on ID4 are tough, even with instructions. Are you surprised when the public discovers them? Also, does the rumored "dog" easter egg on The Abyss really exist? :-)

[VanLing] Ron, the dog DOES exist. One thing I learned the hard way about Easter Eggs on ID4 was that different players handle number entry in different ways. The instructions I put in the actual menu ("7-4-Enter") only applied to MY player! So that's how I found out the hard way to genericize my instructions. On ID4, the trick is that you're actually entering the number "74" into your numeric keypad. So however you do that on your specific player, it should get you to the Easter Egg page.

[DerekMiner] Hello, Van, thanks for chatting with us tonight. With DVD's popularity exploding, have you seen changes in the way studios are approaching DVD releases? For instance, did you have an inkling a single-disc pan & scan edition of The Abyss would be put into the market?

[VanLing] Well, now that KMart's not taking that order anymore...

[RonEpstein] hahaha

[VanLing] The P&S version was a special request from the big Walmart-type chains to cover what they feel is a specific niche market.

[ParkerClack] P&S is now a niche market?

[VanLing] I think as the studios tend toward maintaining the LTBX or anamoprhic widescreen versions they are still trying to cover the fullscreen market while hopefully weaning them away from P&S.

[GregStaten] Macintosh fans reasonably complain that they can't access most DVD-ROM material. From what I've heard, the only program that _can_ author Mac DVD-ROM material (DVD SP) can't do PC material - making it a non-starter. I've heard Interactual (DVD Friendly) says the problem is Apple. Do you see a solution coming or is the impasse doomed to continue?

[VanLing] Believe me, no one is more frustrated than I am about the whole Mac DVD-ROM/ InterActual situation. I've talked extensively with InterActual about this whole thing and they tell me it's that Apple is not releasing the programming hooks information needed for third-party developers to economically develop it. I'm sure that Apple must be doing this because they might have something they're developing internally but they're losing DVD-ROM marketshare completely. The only way it's going to happen, I think, is when there's something so totally cool in the DVD-ROM section of a DVD movie that it suddenly is worth their while to do it. As a matter of fact, I just sent a note off to someone at Apple today, asking about this issue. So in the short run, I don't see a solution. SIGH.

[Cameron_Seaman] What do you consider to be the crowning achievement of your career? (So far) :)

[VanLing] Surviving in the business this long? ;-) I don't know about crowning achievements yet. I'd like to feel I haven't jumped the shark already.

[JeffGreiling] How hard is it to find materials for special features? What was the hardest disk to find materials for.

[VanLing] Depending upon the nature and age of the film, it's pretty hard to find stuff. I think T1 was the toughest, because there was NO behind-the-scenes video available to me, even though some was shot. Nowadays it's easier, because people are saving things. Bear in mind that in some cases, it's not that there isn't material; it's that there are legal or financial issues tied to them that make it impossible to use. For instance, on T1 there was video behind the scenes footage shot, but the guy who physically had it claimed he owned it while the studio claims it belongs to them because they ostensibly hired him to shoot it. Since this was all done over a decade and a half ago and the production company doesn';t even exist any more, who knows? The upshot is that he can't use or license the footage without MGM suing him, and MGM can't get at the material because he won't give it up. So I couldn't use it.

[Aaron_Carr] Hi Van...What are your thoughts on the over use of Edge Enhancement that plagues so many DVD transfers these days? I know many of us were displeased with the amount of horizontal/vertical EE used on the Phantom Menace transfer. Does EE affect your viewing experience at all?

[VanLing] THX maintains that there was in fact NO edge enhancement used in the trasfer of Ep1. That being said, I've had a lot of discussions with Rick Dean, the head of THX's Digital Mastering Program, and he really wants to find out what people are perceiving to be EE and he want's to do a workshop here in Los Angeles where we go through the entire process of going from film to tape with an audience and showing that there is no edge enhancement being done, and to get to what people think they are seeing. I've suggested that when this workshop happens, that folks from all over get in on it. I've suggested they invite whomever's interested from HTF (and can afford to fly themselves out to LA).

[DavidBarth] Thank you for coming! I was wondering if you'd give us your thoughts on the "state of the DVD world". How do you see format content progressing (or regressing) in the future? How do you think special editions five years from now will differ from today's discs, if at all? Are there any types of supplemental content you feel are particularly underutilized on today's releases? P.S. Please don't forget Patrick's question.

[VanLing] I'm as interested as the rest of you to see how this whole pay-per-actor thing is going to shake out. The whole Arnold $75K-for-doing-a-commentary thing scares me. I think that studios are not going to go for this kind of thing unless they really think it's going to add to the bottom line. As a result, I think the studios are trying to do more and more of their DVD Special Feature material under the guise /budget of marketing the movie which limits the kind of perspective we can give as DVD producers. Retrospectives with meaningful participants are going to be harder to do if everyone just has dollar signs in their eyes. I think in five years, special editions are going to be commonplace, but ones that are actually SPECIAL will still stand out. Just having a commentary is not a guarantee that it will be a good one. There are different types of special content being done: the stuff about making the movie (or movies in general), and the ancillary stuff AROUND the movie, be it the topic the movie covers, or ancillary games, or whatever. I think the educational possibilities of DVD are underutilized but I'm not sure how to combat that yet. The bottom line for the studios is to make money, after all, and to preserve the film. All else is currently marketing. Although there are many of us, both independent producers and studio folk, who knock ourselves out trying to make it worth the money you pay. Finally, I can't think of a pre70s film off the top of my head that I'd want to produce a disc for that hasn't already been done or is in the works.

[BrettC] Which dvds are you currently working on? Any more Cameron related projects such as the rumored rereleases of Aliens ,Titanicand Strange Days (Point Break would be cool) also I would like to see more text supplements on dvds like you did with T2 and The Abyss its like a making of book on the disc.

[VanLing] I thought Aliens and Strange Days were already out there in semi-sepcial edition form. As for Titanic, I have yet to be contacted on that one. Maybe if you start a petition at Paramount...;-) As for me, I've been currently looking at doing some discs for Fox. Nothing specific yet, other than continuing to think about True Lies. As for text supplements, most of the feedback I get is that people don't like them. They are also difficult to author, so the authoring facilities hate them! I should probably just write books.

[Ron_Eastman] In a 1994 interview, back in the laserdisc days, you mentioned that at the time you had a 26" television and hadn't gotten a "full-blown" home theater system yet. Now, 8 years later, what is the Ling-Home-Cinema like?

[VanLing] Uh, I think I have a 30" now. Seriously, I live in an apartment condo thing right now, so I don't have the ability to blow my eardrums off with a kickass system yet. I have a Sony 7000 DVD player, a Replay PVR from Panasonic, and a JVC VCR. I'm hoping that later this year, I can move to a bigger place, so I can have the kind of viewing experiences you all have!

[Steve_Simon] Van, Pleasure to speak with you again. I have a simple question... Has the Home Theater Forum or any other online community ever influenced your decisions when it comes to DVD producing?? By the way, are you out of Hard Drive Space yet??? ;)

[VanLing] I just keep buying more firewire drives...;-) And yes, HTF and all of you DO have an influence on what I produce. I'm always interested in constructive feedback, to produce better discs.

[MartinW] There has been talk (rumors mostly) about upcoming video formats optimized for HDTV using newly developed optical media, what are your thought on this? In what timeframe would you think we can expect an improved DVD format, considering the NTSC standard is over 30 years old?

[VanLing] Here we have a chicken and egg problem. Manufacturers don't want to commit resources to enabled players unless the studios have committed product, and vice versa. The great thing about DVD is that since it's a digital, computer-based technology, it may be possible to revise and augment the format and change the spec without starting from scratch. I'm not holding my breath, though. NTSC may be 30 years old, but we are stuck with certain legacies, until we can find a way to transition out of them and not just switch out of them cold turkey. I've actually been waiting for a new and revised DVD spec for a while now... ;-)

[Aaron_Carr] Van, I would definately like to attend the workshop thanks for the heads up. I just wanted to pass along this website that you and Rick Dean will find interesting that analyzes in great detail what most of us are seeing as EE on Ep1 transfer. Thanks Van.

[VanLing] Thanks for the info!

[GregStaten] Everyone has their favorite tools. What programs or tools do you consider essential in your DVD production work? (BTW - as an editor, I'd LOVE to have more editors involved in commentaries and supplementary materials...)

[VanLing] Well, for menus I use Adobe AfterEffects, Photoshop, ElectricImage, Illustrator, etc... and for editing I use the Avid Media Composer, although I know other folks who use Media 100 and Final Cut Pro as well. And I agree with you on editors.

[BrettC] How much are directors involved with dvd transfer process, for example Cameron or Lucas, do they fully supervise the transfer or sound remixes, also why was Cameron not letting some of his titles be anamorphic?

[VanLing] It depends on the director, and on the director's schedule. The whole issue of Cameron "not letting" some of his titles be anamorphic is a fallacy. The thing is that he wants them to be SUPERVISED, so if he or Lightstorm can't supervise it, he won't necessarily approve it. Thus, he or Lightstorm may look at an anamorphic transfer that some one else did, and not like the result, so he says "I'm not approving that for use". The studio then has to decide if they want to wait or pay to do another (supervised) transfer, or go with what they have and tell everyone that "well, the director didn't want to use the anamorphic"...and make it sound like the director's fault.

[BrettC] Is their a chance of an anamorphic Abyss, also will the new True Lies be anamorphic?

[VanLing] I don't know about THE ABYSS, but True Lies will definitely be anamorphic. Please note that The Abyss transfer decision was made in the last days of the old Fox regime and once Peter Staddon took over, he pretty much decreed that they were going to do it right and in anamorphic from then on. I think we all have to thank him for that stance. Especially since it costs the studio more money to do it right.

[GregStaten] Could you talk for a moment about balancing the bit budget? How do you balance the desire to pack the disc with goodies with the need to keep enough bits around for a quality image?

[VanLing] Always a tough call. I create a bit budget for the discs I produce by making a list of potential items and calculate their bitrates taking into account potential audio tracks and menus and so on, with a target/minimum average bitrate for video. It's a tough decision because different viewers like different things. So if I (and the studio) have to choose between, say, a DTS track or a commentary, it can be a hard decision. Or seamless branching versus DTS.

[PaulWu] Do you see anything on the horizon that would allow a stand alone dvd player to access DVD Rom content? And what is your opinin on having extensive DVD Rom content?

[VanLing] I think that as set-top players become more web-enabled, we will see such a player and as a matter of fact I think that I saw some prototypes at CES this year, but they were all from like India or Turkey. I feel that DVD-ROM content is a great place to transcend the current limits of the DVD-Video spec but it's currently a real niche, because your PC's DVD player is not necessarily the best way to view high-quality imagery smoothly.

================== POLL ========================

[VanLing] I've got a question for I've got a question for all of you: what do you like or dislike about disc features these days? What works and what doesn't? Give me examples of discs with good stuff, bad stuff, useless stuff and stuff that just ticks you off... I want to know, because your feedback is important to me.

[GregStaten] Good stuff - all the restoration work Criterion goes through on their titles...

[NickSo] Bad - Long inbetween menu-screen animations...

[GregStaten] Agreed - the animations can get really OLD really fast.

[VanLing] Good call on the animations. This is why I now build a "transitionless" mode into all my discs...

[Ron_Eastman] Good stuff - commentaries, original documentaries. Bad stuff - HBO first look promotional documentaries

[RonEpstein] Branching is my favorite

[PaulWu] Agreed - extensive animations can get tiresome.

[NickSo] yeah... once is enough.. umm... Cool, sounds neat.. cant wait!

[TimRH] Good - text commentaries

[GregStaten] Useless stuff - the repackaged EPKs.

[DavidBarth] Good - active, interesting commentaries. Bad - commentaries with lots of dry space or that repeat information elsewhere on the disc. Useless - EPK style "behind the scenes" 5 minute puff pieces

[VanLing] I don't see EPK stuff going away anytime soon...

[BrettC] text stuff like T2

[PaulWu] A nice animated menu that I like is the Thomas Crown Affair, (recent edition) It cycles around and it ends and begins seamlessly

[BrettC] retrospective documentaries

[NickSo] Bad - Some movies that play automatically after loading, or play automatically after setting it to a different audio track

[ParkerClack] I like the two disc sets. One with the movie. The other with the extras.

[DavidBarth] I'd much rather have a disc with one or two good special features than 10 mediocre ones

[BrettC] I don't like menus that take forever like Abyss did unless I can skip over it

[Steve_Simon] Van, Extras are just that extras, If consumers don't like extras, they can just pass over it.... Keep them comming for us die Hard Collectors

[VanLing] You know, the whole "play when inserted" issue is important for people with DVD jukeboxes, apparently.


[Ron_Eastman] So, any work yet on the original Star Wars trilogy? ;-) (I'm surprised nobody asked as you are the obvious choice to produce!) Thanks for coming Van!

[VanLing] Ron, I have actually not been approached about the trilogy. Yet, I hope. My understanding is that there are NO current plans for producing the original trilogy until Ep3 is done. But I'm lobbying hard!

[DavidBarth] What are your favorite five or so DVDs (excluding ones you've done)?

[VanLing] Hmm...Fight Club is still up there...Gladiator, MIB. There's a lot of good discs out there... Shrek...DONE, I guess.

================== POLL ========================

[VanLing] Say, I've got one last question...if you had a choice between DTS or a really good Infinifilm-type thing, what would you prefer?

[Aaron_Carr] DTS

[RonEpstein] DTS

[DavidBarth] INFINIFILM (w/subtitles plz)

[joefisher] DTS

[PaulWu] Infinifilm.

[ParkerClack] Infinifilm

[Steve_Simon] More Content!!!!!!!

[James_Garner] DTS full-rate

[DerekMiner] sorry, more features win out for me

[Cameron_Seaman] DTS

[TimRH] Infinifilm with DTS!!!

[Cameron_Seaman] more movie for me

[Matt_Birchall] DTS

[Ron_Eastman] DTS - unless the material for the Infinifilm type supplements was exceptional

[Aaron_Carr] good take on the DTS full rate that would be a HUGE plus

[Patrick_M] i agree, inifinifilm with dts....get it all

[GregStaten] DTS

[RonEpstein] DTS is a very popular format with us and we wish the studios would make more use of the format.

[Cameron_Seaman] supplements are always an after thought to a good transfer and a good soundtrack

[PaulWu] Two disc set. Extra's on disc 2. :)

[Steve_Simon] On a properly Calibrated system, DD is just fine :)

[Aaron_Carr] great question Van

[Gui_A] infinifilm extras on disc 2? (but then would it be infinifilm?)

[ParkerClack] Which do you prefer?

[VanLing] I ask because DTS only benefits those who can really use it, versus something anyone can watch. This becomes a factor.

[RonEpstein] DTS really has become standard in DVD players and receivers

[VanLing] At the same time, I think it's cool to have DTS as well

[RonEpstein] DTS is no longer an option in a hardware purchase

[James_Garner] Here's How i see it: Full rate DTS on films like "Speed," Half-rate DTS on stuff like "Josie & the Pussycats"

[Steve_Simon] It's nice to have both, but an Intact video transfer, and acurate audio is more important

[ParkerClack] DTS has never been a big factor to me. DD does an exceptional job.

[PaulWu] I agree, DTS is pretty much a standard.

[VanLing] Bear in mind that a DTS track, even at normal (half)rate, takes up 20 minutes of video space.

[ParkerClack] The best picture is what is important to me.

[Aaron_Carr] Ron: good point and note that a lot of PC DVD software now decodes DTS just like DD


[RonEpstein] At this time Parker and I would like to thank Van for taking time out to be with us tonight. Van, we love yuh -- you have been a good to friend to us and a supporter of our forum. Thank You!

[VanLing] Thanks to all of you for taking the time to read my ramblings!

Session Close: Tue Jan 29 22:55:15 2002

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