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Saving Private Ryan

Q & A with Steven Gustafson
of DreamWorks DVD


I think most of us would agree that DreamWorks has been setting a high standard for DVD quality with their titles thus far. Recently, DreamWorks DVD producer Steven Gustafson offered to answer some of our questions about their upcoming DVD release of Saving Private Ryan, and their DVD work in general. Eager to make the most of the opportunity, we submitted a long list of questions that we knew readers of The Digital Bits would like answered. Some of them, including questions pertaining to director Steven Spielberg and his position on the DVD format, he was understandably unable to answer (of course, we had to give it the old college try anyway!). But he was able to provide a number of interesting insights into the production of the upcoming Private Ryan disc, and the approach that DreamWorks takes with DVD. He also gave us a bit of a sneak peak at what they've got coming in the months ahead. We think you'll find what he has to say very interesting. Enjoy!

Bill Hunt - The Digital Bits: Steve, let's start off by having you tell our readers a little bit about yourself.

Steve Gustafson - DreamWorks: Sure. I'm part of the DreamWorks DVD producing team, and I've been working on our DVD's for a year (since our launch).

Bill Hunt: What is DreamWorks' basic DVD philosophy? When you start work on a new title, for example, do you have specific goals in mind that you want to accomplish with the disc? Or does it depend on an individual title? How do you go about deciding what to include on a disc?

Steve Gustafson: I think when you look at our releases to date, you can see a desire to treat each film according to its individual needs. Signature Selections and standard releases are given equal care, even though the standard releases are not as "program heavy" as Signature Selection titles. What's included varies/depends on what's available, and whether or not it adds value to the overall experience of the movie. In some cases (as it was with ANTZ), we actually created new segments just for the DVD, that we felt were compelling, and that offered an entertaining as well as educational look at the CGI process. It's ultimately about creating well-rounded and well-balanced bonus programming, not about putting stuff on the disc just to take up space.

Bill Hunt: Given that your previous DVD releases have been so well-rounded, in terms of quality and extras, how important do you think the overall presentation is for the success of a DVD release? I'm thinking in terms of the look and feel of the menu screens, and the ease navigation of a disc, etc...?

Steve Gustafson: With DVD being such a high quality format, we believe that it requires a high quality presentation. Menu design has become something of a signature for us, and we have strived to create interesting, entertaining and functional interfaces that viewers can enjoy watching, just as much as the features themselves. They're the first thing you see, and they should set the tone for what's to come. Navigation should allow the viewer the ability to maneuver with ease in a logical fashion.

Bill Hunt: How important are lots of extras and supplemental materials on a given DVD from DreamWorks? Do you find that there's a lot of value in putting them in?

Steve Gustafson: As I mentioned, supplemental material should have a reason for being there. As a DVD consumer myself, I look for programming that is compelling and informative. Show me something I haven't seen before, or give me an inside look into the production. Good programming should leave you with the desire to come back to the film again with a fresh perspective, and an appreciation for the effort that went into creating it.

Bill Hunt: What's been your experience working with talent on your DVD projects? Are directors and actors very interested in the DVD versions of their work, and are they willing to participate in creating the disc?

Steve Gustafson: Everyone we have worked with has been extremely enthusiastic. Most of the directors who have been involved in our releases are very supportive of the DVD format, and are more than willing to participate. Joe Dante (on Small Soldiers) was very involved in the telecine process, and Tim Johnson and Eric Darnell (ANTZ) gave us a terrific commentary, as well as supplying us with tons of visuals to create new segments with. Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells (The Prince of Egypt) gave us great insight into the animation process with their film commentary and close look at the chariot race sequence. We have even started work on American Beauty thanks to director Sam Mendes, who is a huge DVD supporter, and who has already recorded a very insightful commentary along with writer Alan Ball. Everybody has really been terrific to work with.

Bill Hunt: Now let's talk specifically about Saving Private Ryan. How long have you been working on this title, both in anticipation of, and following, the green light from Spielberg on the DVD? And when did the official green light finally come?

Steve Gustafson: We actually started work as far back as last February. Preliminary menu design and programming recommendations were considered, and tests were run to determine the best way to make it look and sound great. We pretty much got the official green light around the same time the announcement went out, and releasing along with the VHS made perfect sense. The installed player base is really climbing, so now seemed like a good time to make it available.

Bill Hunt: Given the importance of the title, both as a Spielberg film theatrically and on DVD, what were your goals going into the making of the disc?

Steve Gustafson: This film is a treasure. It's important both for its historical accounting, as well as for its cultural impact. I don't know anyone who wasn't affected on some level by this film, and who didn't walk away with a new appreciation for what the men of D-Day did for this country. It was with this in mind, that we wanted... we needed... to treat this film on DVD with the same care and respect that went into its creation. Picture and sound quality needed to be the best they could be, along with menu designs that reflected the power and emotion of the subject matter. Though it would have been tempting to try a more elaborate approach with the interfaces, this was a case of "less is more". Simple, sophisticated, and elegant are words that came to mind during the design process, and I believe that's what we ultimately achieved.

Bill Hunt: Tell us about the process of working on this disc. Describe the various stages the project went through, and how they may be different from a typical DreamWorks DVD project.

Steve Gustafson: Even though the process of working on Saving Private Ryan was the same as it had been with other titles, it was the material and what it represented that made it different this time around. We all knew the importance of this film, and what this release on DVD meant to the consumer. So great care went into its creation. It may look simple and straightforward upon viewing, but sometimes that's the hardest goal to achieve. It's easy to make things complicated. It's not so easy to keep it simple, yet give the impression of great detail. That was the hardest part of putting it all together. We spent as much time scrutinizing details with Saving Private Ryan as we did with The Prince of Egypt, and you know how involved that DVD is!

Bill Hunt: Will there be any big promotional events to support Saving Private Ryan coming to sell-through VHS and DVD? Will this be any different than what you would normally do for one of your DVD releases?

Steve Gustafson: Actually there may be something special planned, something significant, but I can't divulge what it is just yet. I'll let you know more about this "event" when we get closer to street date.

Bill Hunt: How many projects are you typically working on at a given time, and how long does a typical DVD project take, from start to finish?

Steve Gustafson: We average two titles at a time, sometimes three, and typically it takes about 3 to 4 months from the time we start working on a title, to the time we can deliver DLT's to the replication facility.

Bill Hunt: What are you working on for DVD at the moment? With such marquee titles as The Road to El Dorado and Chicken Run headed for theaters next year, can you give us a sneak peak at anything you might be planning for DVD for 2000?

Steve Gustafson: Well, we've just wrapped things up on The Haunting and The Love Letter. And as I mentioned, we've begun some preliminary work on American Beauty. El Dorado & Chicken Run won't hit theaters till next year, so it will be a while before we actually start getting down to the nitty gritty with those titles. That doesn't mean, of course, that we aren't already coming up with ideas and gathering assets. The more lead time we have, the better prepared we are when it comes time to put everything together.

Bill Hunt: Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming DVD versions of The Love Letter and The Haunting? What extras can we expect to find on those discs?

Steve Gustafson: The Haunting will be a Signature Selection, and will include a 1/2 hour "making of", 2 theatrical trailers, bios, production notes, and some way-cool menus. The Love Letter is a standard release, but has some really fun deleted and improvised scenes, the theatrical trailer, bios, production notes and again, some nifty menus.

Bill Hunt: Of all of the DreamWorks DVDs you've produced thus far, which one are you most proud of, and why?

Steve Gustafson: We're proud of all of them! I think each one stands out in the format in its own unique way. But, if I had to pick one (or two) that I feel best represent what the DVD team at DreamWorks excels at, it would have to be The Prince of Egypt and ANTZ. The very nature of Animation gives us a much more broad palette to work from, in terms of overall design, functionality and programming considerations. It also helps that we're based right here at the Animation studio, where we have constant access to materials, and even animators, if we want to do something specific for the disc. It really becomes a collaborative effort with these kinds of films.

Bill Hunt: What's you favorite non-DreamWorks DVD?

Steve Gustafson: That's a tough one. I think Blade is an excellent disc, as well as The Matrix and Dark City. What Dreams May Come is also one that comes to mind, but it's hard to make comparisons. All the studios have their own style of doing things and have, at one point or another, put out titles that they should be proud of. The format is still growing, and we are only beginning to touch on all the possibilities it has to offer. I think you're going to see some amazing stuff coming from everyone as it continues to grow.

Bill Hunt: Finally, what's the most important thing you want people to know about DreamWorks' DVD work, and your stand on the format, both now and in the future?

Steve Gustafson: I believe it's about quality. It's important to us to give our films the best presentation possible, whether it's theatrical, DVD, VHS or otherwise. The fact that we're a small studio allows us to personally manage each and every one our titles, in a way that allows that quality and attention to detail to come through. We want people to come away from watching our discs with a smile on their face, and a sense that they've been given a complete entertainment experience. DVD has a way of re-vitalizing older films, as well enhancing newer ones. And whether the overall experience is purely entertaining, or even sometimes educational, the best discs are the ones that push new ground, offer true added value, and give you a better understanding of both the films they showcase, and what it takes to produce them. We aim to hit that criteria with each and every one of our releases. To date, I think we've done that and look forward to continuing the tradition on all of our exciting upcoming titles.

--end--

Editor's Note: We'd like to thank to Steve Gustafson for taking the time to answer some of our questions. Those of you who would like to read more about the Saving Private Ryan DVD itself, should check out our recent, full-length review of the disc. We hope you all enjoyed the chat. Thanks for reading!


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