A Tribute To The Criterion Collection
of the Annotated Movie and a Brief
History of Laserdisc & DVD Special
by Chris McGowan
We take it for granted that DVDs have
language options, commentaries by directors, interviews, making-of
documentaries, photo galleries, and other extras. But all those
interactive features preceded the DVD format,
dating back to 1984, when
Criterion Collection debuted its first special-edition laserdiscs.
The following was written as an introduction for the 1994 catalog of
The Voyager Company, the parent company then for the Criterion Collection.
At that time, I had a column in Billboard
magazine called Laser Scans, devoted to video
laserdisc. The Criterion Collection revolutionized the LD format and
invented the "annotated movie" and the "special edition." The commentary
tracks and supplementary materials that are now so essential to DVD trace
their origins to special-edition laserdiscs and interactive CD-ROMs
introduced by Criterion in the 1980s and early '90s.
A Tribute To The Criterion Collection
(originally published in 1994)
A decade ago, in the Orwellian year of 1984, The Voyager Company
introduced its Criterion Collection line of special edition laserdiscs. Few of
us then could have predicted how much this event would eventually benefit film
lovers. And fewer still could have known how Voyager, in its way, would strike
a blow against the gray world of uniformity prophesied by novelist George
Why is the Criterion Collection so significant?
The cinema at its best is an eloquent and powerful expression of the human
spirit. It can inspire, astonish, provoke, and enlighten. Frequently, it runs
afoul of private interests and collective imperatives, giving us an
unflinchingly honest look at life, culture, and politics. This is never Big
Brother's cup of tea. Directors like Altman, Bergman, Bunuel, Fellini,
Kurosawa, Renoir, and Welles struggle to reveal the human condition, not to
pacify the populace or rally the support among the troops.
Criterion has taken many of the most profound and important movies from around
the world and presented them in their entirety. The director's vision is
uncensored, restored, and as complete as possible. It is presented with the
best possible film-to-video transfer, and preserved in a format-- the
laserdisc--that is fairly permanent compared to the fragile medium of
videotape. Add to that the remarkable extras included with many Criterion
editions, and the folks at Criterion have become the de facto guardians
of some of our most precious cultural works.
Criterion was also a key player in the establishment of laserdiscs as the home
video format of choice for cinephiles. The debut of the first Criterion
Collection titles--Citizen Kane and King Kong in 1984--convinced many film aficionados to invest in a laserdisc player. Both releases
featured state-of-the-art transfers and electronic enhancements of the image.
They were in the CAV (full feature) format, which allowed the viewing of
individual film frames and the inclusion of supplemental material such as text
and photographs. Voyager was the first company to use these features to
enhance a feature film presentation. Citizen Kane and King Kong
had production shots, film essays, and trailers.
And over the years, the Collection kept adding more to the discs. The
Magnificent Ambersons included storyboards, the entire original shooting
script, and the text of an earlier radio-play version. Close Encounters Of
The Third Kind enabled us to watch either of two versions of the
movie(!). Ghostbusters was a primer in special effects technology.
The Fisher King featured deleted scenes and costume tests. And
Akira had thousands of frames of original artwork and an in-depth study
of the animation process.
Criterion took the special, but previously unused, features possible only in
the laserdisc medium and utilized them in wildly imaginative ways. For
example, every laserdisc has multiple audio tracks. On King Kong,
Criterion pulled off a neat trick and took full advantage of that capability:
they included both the movie's regular soundtrack and a parallel audio
commentary by film historian Ron Haver. The latter provided a shot-by-shot,
scene-by-scene analysis as the movie played. This was an astounding
innovation, and over the past decade, Voyager has released dozens of classic
movies with film critics, screenwriters, and directors like Altman, Coppola,
Gilliam, Malle, Pollack, Schlesinger, and Scorsese supplying on-disc
Many of these directors are probably still in shock at finding their films so
lovingly treated, after years of dealing with hostile or indifferent studio
executives. The filmmakers discuss their daily decisions, mistakes, and
flashes of inspiration during the shoots. They reveal the intended meanings
and the accidental symbols contained in their films. And as they reminisce and
analyze, we see on screen exactly what they are talking about. What film
student or professor could have imagined this in his or her wildest reverie
just 15 years ago? These are the world's greatest film seminars, often led by
the directors (or other key figures) of the movies themselves!
What Criterion has done is to invent the annotated movie, replete with
subtext, missing text, and might-have-been text. Those of us who love great
films owe Voyager an incalculable debt for that, as well as for another heroic
feat: the presentation of films in their original aspect ratios.
Before the Criterion Collection existed, all Cinemascope and other widescreen
films suffered a debilitating pan-and-scan treatment that lopped off their
sides to fit them into the square-ish television screen, be it for broadcast
or home video release. "Enough!" cried Criterion, and inaugurated a policy of
releasing all films in their original aspect ratios, presenting widescreen
films without cropping them to the dimensions of a TV screen.
Skeptics (most of the home video industry) laughed, but the cineastes went
crazy. Criterion pressed on, with Blade Runner, Lawrence Of Arabia,
and other letterboxed films. Eventually, the other video labels followed suit
and began to release widescreen versions in droves, and some special editions
as well. By 1993 there were more than 700 widescreen laserdisc titles
available in North America--and it all started with Criterion. [Today there
are thousands of widescreen DVDs, not to mention widescreen TVs].
Under its line of Voyager laserdiscs, many other feats have been accomplished:
the first annotated TV episodes (I Love Lucy); the first annotated
collection of music videos (The Residents: 20 Twisted Questions); the
release of many wonderful titles in the areas of art, poetry, mythology, and
philosophy; trend setting CD-ROM multimedia productions; and electronic books.
Looking back to Voyager's beginning, it was rather presumptuous on their part
to name a laserdisc line "The Criterion Collection." Yet it has certainly
lived up to the word, in two ways. In the Chambers dictionary, "criterion" is
defined as "a means or standard of judging; a test; a rule; standard or
canon." Criterion laserdiscs have become the standard by which we judge other
laserdiscs. And they are also the standard for judging the movies they
present, by giving us the insights and intentions of those who made them.
There are many filmmakers who would agree with Terry Gilliam, who remarked
rather whimsically: "It's nice working with people for whom profit isn't the
only reason for existence. They seem to be actually interested in film."
And then there is Louis Malle, who simply states: "Voyager is spectacular!"
We eagerly await the next 10 years.
Criterion Collection Special Edition DVDs
Chris McGowan wrote the Laser Scans column for Billboard
magazine from 1989 - 1996. He pioneered the venerable trade magazine's coverage
of laserdisc, multimedia, DVD, and world music. He has also contributed to
The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, Musician, Tower Pulse!, and
Widescreen Review, and is the co-author of Entertainment in the Cyber
Zone: Exploring the Interactive Universe of Multimedia (Random House, 1995)
The Brazilian Sound:
Samba, Bossa Nova And The Popular Music Of Brazil
(Temple University Press, 1998). He has just published his first novel: