Criterion Collection Commentary Tracks (sample)
Note: Since Criterion never managed to acquire the rights to publish DVD versions of many films it had released on laserdisc, there are many commentary tracks and supplementary sections which haven’t been available for 25 years. Stanford will be digitizing these materials from the laserdiscs. Samples below.

The intent of the “added features” — commentary tracks and supplementary sections — was to enable the “average intellectually curious” viewer to learn a little bit more about a film.  I think it’s important to note that in the main, consumers were much more excited about the quality of Criterion’s film-to-video transfers than they were about the commentary tracks and supplementary sections. That said, one of my favorite Criterion stories was that when we were recording the commentary track with the Hughes Brothers for Menace to Society, they said that, not having gone to film school, much of their informal education came from studying Criterion commentary tracks and that when they made Menace to Society they kept pretending to put a microphone in front of each other’s faces to “capture” tidbits for an imagined commentary.

The origin story of the film commentary track is a terrific example of how something that seems obvious in retrospect was basically an accident of a moment. 

First a bit of background. In 1984 we bought the rights from RKO  to make “CAV” laserdisc versions of Citizen Kane and King Kong. In 1984 there were three competing videodisc formats — RCA’s stylus-based Selectavision, JVC’s VHD and Pioneer’s Laserdisc. Pioneer’s format allowed for a further delineation — CLV which packed an hour onto one side of a disc and CAV which, although it only had room for 30 minutes (54,000 frames), each of the frames could be viewed individually allowing for the presentation of text and still images without having to take up precious video real estate. The movie studios eschewed the CAV format because it meant at least twice the manufacturing cost which at $7-10 per disc was a substantial consideration and frankly, they didn’t see any use-value beyond being able to view the movie in slow motion or frame-by-frame. Because they couldn’t see any value they sold us the rights for $2,500 per film. We, on the other hand were jazzed by the idea of including substantial supplementary sections which we thought would appeal to the average cinephile along with the ability to study the film in a way that was impossible with any other videodisc or videotape format.

So then we did the following:
— made a deal with Robert Carringer, one of the reigning experts on Citizen Kane to assemble the    supplementary section for Kane
— hired Ron Haver, the head of LA County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) film department to oversee      the transfer from film to video.
— and since none of us knew anything about actual video production, we hired Peter Crown and        Jennifer Scanlon to line-produce the supplementary sections for both films.
— and then we all went Ron, Peter, Jennifer and I went to NY for two weeks to make the transfer        and assemble all the parts for final disc production.

At that time, and i don’t think it’s all that different today, transferring an old film to video meant sitting in a dark room (which cost hundreds of dollars per hour) making decisions about the correct color values for each individual shot.  That was Ron’s job and somewhat coincidentally, King Kong was his favorite film and he kept us entertained by telling countless stories about the history of the film’s production. Someone, my guess is it was either Peter or Jennifer, said “hey, we’ve got extra soundtracks (laserdiscs had four audio channels, two for stereo and effectively two extras) . . . why don’t we have Ron tell these stories while the film is playing. Ron’s immediate reaction was “Are you kidding, NO WAY!”  The idea seemed too perfect to pass up though, so I asked Ron if being stoned might help. He thought for a moment and said, “Hmmm! That might work.”  And so the next day we recorded Ron telling stories while the film played. The best decision we made then, which has been part of Criterion ever since, was to leave the original audio at about 10% even when the commentary was being delivered, so that the film wouldn’t appear “flat” without any of its audio context.

Here are brief excerpts from three commentary tracks . . . Ron Haver’s on King Kong and UCLA Professor Howard Suber on High Noon and The Graduate.

King Kong, Side 4

High Noon, Side 4

The Graduate, Side 4