Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Watch This DVD: The Empire Strikes Back

I know what you're thinking:

"Dude, I've already watched that movie about a thousand times."

Yes, but have you listened to the audio commentary on the 2004 DVD release (Netflix, Amazon) featuring director Irvin Kershner? If you haven't, you should because there are some things to take away from Kershner's words when it comes to the importance of attention to detail and enthusiasm for your job.

Unlike the tragically bad prequel trilogy movies (which I sometimes deny were ever made) and contrary to popular belief, George Lucas didn't direct all the films in the original trilogy. In fact, he only directed one of them (A New Hope, which I first saw, gasp, at a DRIVE IN movie). For the other two films, Lucas focused on producing aspects and needed to find someone he trusted to direct the first sequel.

Enter Irvin Kershner, who was a professor of Lucas' at USC film school. ESB is generally considered to be the best film of the original trilogy, largely because of the darker plot twists and deeper character development. Lucas certainly set the stage in the screenplay for where the story went, but Kershner embellished the shadowy tone and developed the characters with subtle attention to detail. These are the things you can get out of his audio commentary that you can't capture by just watching the film.

Early on in ESB, Luke gets captured by a snow creature (which we all know is called a Wampa, right?), Kershner begins to point out elements he had the actors add that heighten the emotional depth of the characters. A slightly longer look here, a pause there, a Wookie whine someplace else. These small pieces of direction add up to a lot over the length of the film. The first time I watched the audio commentary it felt like I was watching totally different movie than the one I'd memorized since I was 10 years old in 1980. I always thought that this movie gave a better sense for what the characters care about and what motivates them to act in certain ways. After listening to the commentary, I know why.

These subtleties carry on throughout the film, but are particularly insightful during the Dagobah scenes between Luke and Yoda as well as the romantic subplot moments between Han and Leia (including the famous Harrison Ford ad lib of "I know"). What I get out of this every time I see it now is that you can take something good (the ESB screenplay) and make it great (the finished film) by adding the right details in the right places. I try to remember this when I'm working on a new design and I think I'm done. Going back over the requirements and restrictions one more time looking for details that make the difference often times do.

What also comes across besides his obvious mastery of film making, is Kershner's infectious passion. He deeply cares abut the subject of this movie and his excitement makes you want to care about it too. That's not to say that you have to burst into tears during every PowerPoint presentation you ever make, but there's something to be said about believing in what you are doing to the point that you get emotional about it when you sell your ideas to others. If you don't care, why should they? Kershner cares, a lot, even 20 years later and his delivery made me wish everybody could enjoy their jobs as much as he does.

So, yeah, you might have seen this movie a thousand times, but watch it again with the director's commentary audio track and you'll get something out of it you didn't expect.

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posted by Pete Johnson @ 7:30 PM   0 comments links to this post

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