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Film school on your Couch

DVD for Film School

As an alternative to that expensive film school spend your money on some of these DVDs. Many of the extras on Special Edition DVDs tend to be fluff but some of them constitute a virtual DVD film school by themselves. Watch the movies, listen to the commentaries and view the special features of these movies and you will know more about making movies than half the people in Hollywood.

As a bonus there are no papers to write, attend classes when you want to and you'll end up with a valuable library of superb films.

There's lots and lots of choices here to suite every taste so take your time to pick a couple and start learning. To save money you don't need to own every one of these movies. Most of these are not the latest movies. DVDs are being produced with fewer special features so grab some of these while you can.

NOTE! Publishers and distributors have the maddening habit of changing the contents of DVDs from time to time and frequently issue multiple versions with different features.

Be sure you get the right versions. I've tried to indicate the right ones but I can't control the publishers and distributors so please check very carefully that you are getting the version with the features you want.

The future filmmakers best bets


Two films that offer comprehensive overviews of the entire moviemaking process are the two-disk special editions of Seven (New Line Platinum Series) and Fight Club (Two-Disc Collector's Edition) , both from David Fincher.

One of the best all around audio commentaries on what goes into making a movie is by Bill Condon on Gods and Monsters (Special Edition)

True Romance - Director's Cut (Two-Disc Special Edition) offers a Quentin Tarantino commentary track as the writer. You'll learn a lot about how this kid from a video store worked the system to become a pop culture icon. More thoughtful than his usual frantic self, Tarantino’s storytelling is as entertaining as it is illuminating on this commentary. There's also a wonderful explanation of why he does non-linear stories.

The most amazing documentary you will ever see on the making of a film is Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse [VHS] VHS only.

Two very interesting features can be found on From Dusk Till Dawn (Widescreen Edition) [VHS]. The feature documentary "Full Tilt Boogie" on the extra disc, and in one part of the "Hollywood Goes to Hell" featurette Quentin's mom and Robert Rodriguez' family talk about the early years of these amazing filmmakers.

On the Saving Private Ryan (Two-Disc Special Edition) (original DVD release), in the documentary "Into the Breach", Spielberg' and his father recount stories of his first super 8 and 16mm war movies shot when he was a teenager. You can see why Spielberg was born to direct. He was a natural filmmaker even then.

The Project Greenlight: The Complete First Season series presents a screwy artificial situation for making a film but a lot of basic truth, too.

American Movie needs to be viewed by anyone who thinks s/he has a good idea for a movie. Mark Borchardt is a tragic hero. None of us wants to end up being this guy. Mark has the passion but not the sense or grounding to pull it together. There's a thin line between genius and certifiable.

The bonus documentary "A Look Inside the Godfather Family" on the bonus disc of The Godfather Collection (The Godfather / The Godfather: Part II / The Godfather: Part III) is the exact opposite of American Movie. Here you can see how a successful filmmaker with talent, experience and passion brings his vision to the movie screen. You will understand the value of rehearsals, teamwork and a quality script, to say nothing of having fine actors like Al Pacino. Francis Ford Coppola is very candid about his feelings, including a lot of doubts, during the process. For more of the same check out The Conversation DVD where Coppola continues to share his mental processes on filmmaking.

The documentary feature on 1941 (Collector's Edition) has a very extensive history of the writing of the screenplay by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and their involvement with John Milius. It's clear that being a USC film school grad can be a way into Hollywood. When you get to be famous don't forget to help someone else who's just getting started. Francis Ford Coppola helped John Milius who helped Robert Zemeckis who helped Peter Jackson.

The feature length documentary "Within a Minute" on the Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (Widescreen Edition) supplemental disc includes producer Rick McCallum showing how many hours and people go into making a 53 second clip from the movie. A great special effect chart show how all the 900 people involved interact.

Peter Jackson issued a set of King Kong - Peter Jackson's Production Diaries during the making of King Kong. They start out a bit lame but as the pressure builds they become a fascinating insight into the complexity of making a big movie.

Storytelling in movies


Director and writer Nicholas Meyer's commentary on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - The Director's Cut (Two-Disc Special Collector's Edition) explains the essence of storytelling from the perspective of a director looking back on years of experience.

The director, Bryan Singer and writer, Christopher McQuarrie of The Usual Suspects (Special Edition) discuss the creation of the story along with insights into acting and the great cinematography of this movie.

Joss Whedon, the creator of Firefly: The Complete Series offers a commentary on the last episode on disc four where he describes the creative process of coming up with the brilliant story ideas he has become famous for. Both philosophical and humorous he also offers gratitude to those who've helped him.

The short films series BMW Films Presents, The Hire: A Series of 8 Short Films has all eight of the exciting short films that were made for the web along with commentary tracks. The insights from John Frankenheimer, War Kong Wai, Ang Lee, Tony Scott, Joe Carnahan, Guy Ritchie, and more constitute a master course on storytelling in the short form. Even if you don't have their million dollar budgets you can learn and adapt the concepts to your budget.

Dark City (Director's Cut) includes a dissection of the very unusual screenplay.

Movie acting technique

The commentary track on The Silence of the Lambs (Two-Disc Collector's Edition) DVDs (but not the "special edition" version) offers many insights into the acting process along with various trivia and anecdotes.

Low-budget filmmaking


Every independent filmmaker needs to understand how to save money.

Robert Rodriguez gives a mini master class on his El Mariachi (Special Edition) and Desperado (Special Edition) DVDs. His Ten-Minute Film School has become the mantra of a generation of filmmakers. In all fairness to beginning filmmakers they should understand that Rodriguez is a brilliant filmmaker who had made hundreds of short films starting when he was just 9-years old. He was really a master filmmaker by the time he did El Mariachi despite his modesty. Filmmaking is more complicated than he makes it sound.

Bruce Campbell's commentary on The Evil Dead (Ultimate Edition) is entertaining and enlightening as well as the cast and crew comments on Night of the Living Dead (Special Collector's Edition)

The crew commentary on the Criterion Collection DVD of Slacker (The Criterion Collection) with Rick Linklater, & Lee Daniel has cost saving tips and ideas for young filmmakers.

The Chasing Amy (The Criterion Collection) commentary track is mostly an exchange of jibes between Kevin Smith and his buddies, but there are some real gems of information on the creative process and getting a film made on a low budget.

The art of filmmaking

Steven Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs offer hilarious insight into the collaborative process in The Limey.

Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love and Tarsem Singh's The Cell cover the production design process as do the Alien and Aliens DVDs.

Commentary by Casper Tybjerg for Dryer's Passion of Joan of Arc and Marion Keane's for Hitchcock's Notorious analyze the use of images to tell a story.

Atom Egoyan is also particularly effective at describing his visual process on any of his films, such as The Sweet Hereafter.

Miracle has concise documentaries on all the aspects of moviemaking that went into this emotional and popular sports movie. Especially interesting is to see the special camera supports the filmmakers invented to film on ice.

On the 30th anniversary DVD of Jaws, in the documentary "On Location" Steven Spielberg talks about how he wanted to do the Kinter boys death scene on the beach. He wanted to do it in one take and it wasn't possible. Spielberg's solution is brilliant and every filmmaker should watch this to understand why Spielberg was already a master filmmaker at age 29.

The uncut version of Walt Disney's Fantasia in the boxed set DVD has a documentary and commentary track that illustrate just how far ahead of its time this film was. Walt Disney was, simply put, a radical genius.

On the Alien Quadrilogy Ridley Scott talks about why he deleted the "cocoon" scene in the original Alien, and about James Cameron's idea for an army of Aliens by reusing the same alien suit. These and other insights are valuable lessons in making do with what you've got and making tough choices for pacing.

Peter Jackson offers a four hour documentary on the supplemental disc to The Frighteners . Before he was world famous and could afford to make movies like The Ring and King Kong he already knew how to make brilliant movies. The entire filmmaking process is covered from conception to script, casting, rehearsals, photography, editing and marketing. Don't miss this one.

Selling your film

Kevin Smith is the patron saint of young independent filmmakers and Clerks was where he earned his wings. Clerks X: Tenth Anniversary has a fine documentary on how an ordinary guy just like us made his way to fame and fortune, to say nothing of a beautiful, sexy wife. The documentary "Snowball Effect" is a video manual on how to sell an independent film.

12 Monkeys contains excellent advice to beginning directors as well as a look into the postproduction and marketing processes.

Filmmaking technique

Film directing


Road to Perdition with director Sam Mendes, isn't a perfect movie but the commentary track by the director is probably the best video explanation of the directing process. His comments on how to direct both the actors and the camera are superb.

In The Shining (from the Kubrick Collection DVDs) Kubrick's wife Vivian shows another, and not very pretty, side of the personality of the obsessive director. He was a genius but his treatment of actors bordered on evil. Only Kubrick could get away with this unnecessary behavior.

To contrast with Stanley Kubrick, have a look at Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring fourth disc which has features showing how much fun a dedicated and talented team can have making a film. Just one of many enlightening features on Peter Jackson's masterpiece.

Special effects techniques

The 2-disc set of Terminator 2 and the remake of The Mummy have very detailed features to show how special effects and CGI are accomplished.

Peter Jackson's commentaries and the many features on all of the Lord of the Rings four disc special edition DVD sets are full of gems on all aspects of filmmaking and especially on CGI special effects. There's over 40 hours of filmmaking lessons.

The Thing, Collector's Edition has a journey into the anatomy of special effects.

Film lighting and cinematography techniques

Visions of Light is a good documentary on the history and technique of lighting and cinematography. Some of the top cinematographers offer insights into the process with examples from just about every great film from 1902 to 1993.

Editing techniques

A documentary, The Cutting Edge , illustrates the entire history and technique of film editing from the very earliest days to up 2004. Interviews with Steven Spielberg, Michael Kahn, James Cameron, George Lucas, Alexander Payne, Walter Murch, Anthony Minghella, and others bring needed insight into how the film editor fits into the creative process.

The Big Sleep comes with both the theatrical version and a recently discovered pre-release cut. The differences a little editing can make are fascinating.

John Dahl's Joy Ride comes with four alternate endings.

The 2-disc set of Hannibal has a multi-angle edit gallery for the beginning filmmaker to study what goes into making multi-angle action scene.

The English Patient (Miramax Collector's Edition) includes a master class on editing with Anthony Minghella. Excellent explanation of why deleted scenes got cut out. For some reason Walter Murch, the brilliant editor of The English Patient is not included in the feature.

Die Hard (two disc edition) has a great supplemental feature on editing 2 scenes from the raw footage to the finished film. Also a great three minute clip on "to letterbox or not to letterbox" which shows why it makes a difference.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace features a documentary where Wallter Murch, Francis Ford Coppola, and Phillip Kaufman explain why scenes get deleted. There is a priceless story of Walter Murch removing a moment from the film "Julia" and the director saying that the scene being cut from was the scene that got him started on the project to begin with. Not a great movie but excellent special features.

Movie comedy

The commentary track by Mel Brooks on Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles shows the comic genius of a man who has been funny longer than most filmmaker's parents have been alive.

Kingpin is not a great movie but is worth a watch just for the commentary on comedy writing.

Film History


A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies is an excellent BBC documentary about the movies that influenced this director. It is also an entertaining journey through film history, tracing the influence of various filmmakers on each other.

The film commentary on one of the greatest films ever made, Seven Samurai , is done by a film critic and is able to teach much from an outsider's perspective

Learn a lot of interesting film history by listening to the commentary tracks by Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich on the DVD of Citizen Kane .

Donald Richie's comments on Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon and Gene Youngblood's comments on Antonioni's L'Avventura offer excellent insights into these classics.

On the two disc set of THX1138 watch the original Lucas short, Electric Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB and compare it to the feature length version. The documentary "Legacy of Filmmakers" on the early days of American Zoetrope is of interest to filmmakers not only as an historical document but as a warning of being frivolous with money & opportunities as Francis Ford Coppola was, compared to the frugal George Lucas.

Are Top Film Schools Worth It Today? Surprising Film School Secrets!

George Lucas' interview on the Kurasawa Hidden Fortress (Criterion edition DVD) disc shows how strong is the influence Akira Kurasawa has had on all filmmaking. Hidden Fortress was the basis for the original Star Wars story.

More Commentaries

Want to find even more great commentary tracks. The following should be helpful. has a huge set of ratings of DVD commentaries including the 100 best and 100 worst lists. More than 3,000 DVDs are covered. Check this site before you start listening to the commentary to see if it is worth bothering with. Unfortunately the ratings are more about the entertainment value of the commentary, not what specific areas of filmmaking are covered.

Wikipedia has a interesting article on audio commentaries along with a list of some interesting DVD commentaries.

Here is a site with fan created DVD commentaries and another.

This short list of favorite DVD commentaries is on

Other sources of filmmaking training

There are a lot of way to learn about filmmaking without spending a ton of money. Here are more excellent options.

Product Reviews
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