Audio commentary tracks for movies have been around since the 1980s on Laserdisc, and since 1997 when the DVD format was introduced. It can be a great learning tool for filmmakers and film buffs, with the director, writer, and/or producer discussing the work that went in to making their masterpiece (or disaster). Many times audio commentaries are fleetingly interesting, sometimes they’re fascinating, and occasionally they verge on pointless.
Here are some pet peeves I have with commentary tracks, and what filmmakers can do to improve on them.
1. “I really hope you’ve watched the movie before listening to me.”
This might not be the biggest of the pet peeves, but it’s definitely the most frequent problem. Audio commentary tracks more and more feature the speaker, usually toward the beginning, revealing a plot point that happens later in the film, then telling the viewer something like, “I’m assuming you’ve watched this already with the commentary off… I really don’t want to spoil anything that happens toward the end.” Who in their right mind would ever watch a movie for the first time with the commentary track playing??? That’s so ridiculous! And yet time after time the commentators bring it up as if people do it all the time.
Solution: Assume this is the second or third time we’ve watched the movie.
2. Long patches of silence.
Look no further than Rob Reiner’s commentary track for When Harry Met Sally to find an example of this misdemeanor. The director of one of the best romantic comedies of all time chimes in once every twenty minutes or so with a brief story he already told in the behind-the-scenes documentary. While it’s better to have a bit of silence here and there than non-stop inane chatter, long stretches of silence that last more than thirty seconds are a big no-no.
Solution: Be prepared to talk for two hours and have plenty of stories to tell. Assume the listener is a filmmaker or film student, and discuss the process it took to make the film, from development to the film’s release.
3. Too many commentators.
Whenever there’s more than three people on one commentary track, things get a little confusing. The Lord of the Rings DVDs have a great feature that has the name of the speaker come up on the screen every time a new commentator takes over. If all the people talking on the track are familiar to you, then this pet peeve won’t pose a problem to you. But the occasional commentary track that has five or more participants, none of which you know very well, can be too overwhelming to get any useful information out of.
Solution: Either come up with a system that make each commentator identifiable, or split the one crowded commentary into two or three commentaries.
4. Film’s volume turned up too high.
This is the most obvious one. It can be a little difficult to hear a hugely informative commentary with the film’s soundtrack is turned up too high, and you have two audio tracks competing with one another. Sometimes it’s natural to tune out the commentary and just listen to the soundtrack, since the movie’s playing anyway. This problem is most persistent in early DVDs from the late 1990s, not as much today.
Solution: Turn the film soundtrack completely off. This track is for the commentary!
5. Talking only about what’s on screen.
Now it’s all right to discuss the nature of the scene, how the scene came to be, a cool factoid about the scene, and so on, but the pet peeve here are those audio commentaries where the director just comments about what’s happening on screen as if the viewers are blind. The bad guy walks down a hallway with a look of menace on his face, and the commentator says, “Oh, and here’s the scene where the bad guy walks down a hallway… and then another hallway.” DVD commentary tracks should be filled from beginning to end with stories and useful information, not somebody taking the viewer through each scene like he or she’s a tour guide for the pot.
Solution: Refrain from stating the obvious. Some patches of silence are preferable to just discussing what’s happening on screen.