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Van Ling on DVD

Van Ling on DVD

You may not have heard Van Ling's name before, but if you're a DVD fan, you've definitely seen his work. Van started in Hollywood as an associate of director James Cameron, having worked as his creative and technical assistant on The Abyss and Terminator 2 among other projects.

DVD Producer Van Ling He later moved from Lightstorm to Banned From the Ranch Entertainment and has since worked as a graphics and special effects supervisor on a host of film projects, including Twister, Dante's Peak and Inspector Gadget. Van has also produced a number of laserdisc and DVD special editions over the course of his career, and his most recent work includes several high-profile projects, such as Fox's The Abyss and Independence Day special editions and the forthcoming T2: Ultimate Edition from Artisan. Van's got some interesting things to say about his career and DVD, and I think you'll find our interview with him well worth reading. So enjoy!

Bill Hunt (The Digital Bits): Van, I know you've got a pretty extensive background in film, aside from DVD and laserdisc. So why don't we talk about that to start with. You got involved in this whole thing from the special effects side of the industry, is that correct?

Van Ling: Actually, I started - when I got out of USC film school - by hooking up with Jim Cameron, and working as his creative supervisor. I started as his research assistant. I did all the original research on The Abyss, for example.

Bill Hunt: That was your first project with Cameron, is that correct?

Van Ling: Yeah. Because I was a big Mac user at the time, that's how he got into computers. Strictly at first, he wanted to use computers for word processing and scriptwriting. He obviously knew of the technology, but he wanted to start writing on a computer instead of a manual typewriter, which was what he had been doing. That was back in 1986. So I turned him on to the Mac. He sort of came up and said, "Hey Van, I'm trying to do this on the computer now... what do I need?" So I set him up on a Mac.

And then, I've always been doing computer graphics and had a great interest in visual effects, so on The Abyss, I ended up with two very long titles. One of them was Creative/Technical/Research Assistant. And then on the visual effects side, I was listed as the Visual Effects Liaison to the Director. Which kind of meant that they already had a Visual Effects Coordinator, and I was kind of doing the same thing... but because I was just starting out, I couldn't get a Coordinator title yet. And I was dealing with every effects house, going out on location actually setting up shots, building and painting models - you name it.

Todd Doogan (The Digital Bits): So you got your hands on just about every aspect of it...

Van Ling: Yeah. That was the great thing about working with Jim - he really gave me the opportunity to be involved with every aspect. It's not quite like it was in the Roger Corman days, because obviously the budgets are much higher. But I think that way of operating for Jim sort of came out of that experience. That's actually just how Jim is - he's very hands on. [laughs] He started calling me his extra RAM for a while, because I handled so much for him.

Then later on T2, I was listed as Creative Supervisor in addition to Visual Effects Coordinator. I literally dealt with everything from the writing of the script to making sure that the script stayed where he wanted it to, to explaining scenes to the various production departments.

Bill Hunt: So he would make sure that you were familiar with his vision, and then he would trust you to go off and protect that vision.

Todd Doogan: Did you have any say in decision making, or did you have to go back to Jim? For example, if someone made an effects choice that didn't fit with his vision, could you say, "No... that's not right"?

Van Ling: To a certain extent I could, but obviously Jim has the final word on everything. But I think I came closer to understanding and knowing his vision than virtually anyone else on the production. Because that was my job - to be an extension of him. So for example, while they were out on location shooting a scene with one of the trucks, I could be back at the visual effects house making sure that when the miniature was shot, the left door was open because that's how it was on the set. Detail stuff like that. And that was important for the effects people, because they often don't get that kind of communication.

Bill Hunt: What a great experience. Especially coming right out of film school, that must have just been an incredible opportunity.

Van Ling: Certainly. The first big show I dove into was The Abyss, so I spent seven months out in South Carolina.

Bill Hunt: Which at the time was one of the biggest special effects projects that had ever been done.

Van Ling: It was pretty challenging. But when we were in the middle of it, none of us really were thinking about how massive a project it was. Looking back, though, we're all pretty amazed at what was accomplished.

Bill Hunt: So where did Banned From the Ranch come from?

Van Ling: Well, I worked for Jim at Lightstorm - when I left there, I was head of his production department. One of the things that I wanted to do, was that I wanted to work on maybe more than one film every two years, which is kind of the speed at which they operate at Lightstorm. And he encouraged me to get into CGI, since he knew I was into computers, and to do more of the actual effects work. Or, he suggested that I get more set experience, if I wanted to go more on the production side. So what I ended up doing was the best of both. I was working with computers on set. I joined Banned, and we started off doing computer playback - as opposed to video playback - on set, out on location. Usually - prior to about 1994, most of the computer screens you saw in films were just video monitors, dressed up to look like computer displays, playing back prerecorded videos. And the actors would have to time themselves to what happened on screen.

Bill Hunt: But what you were doing was to use actual computers, where you could cue them to display the next graphic, is that right?

Van Ling: Exactly. That gave us the ability to actually interact with the actors - they could even be triggering the graphics to change themselves. It worked out really well for a number of different shows. We started out on Congo, and went on to Twister and The Relic and Dante's Peak. The great thing about those experiences was that we really had the opportunity to dictate what exactly should be on the screens. They hired us not just for our ability to create graphics, but also my ability to be a researcher - to create graphics that made sense and were believable within story of the film.

One of the things I really pride myself on is to make these things as plausible as possible, so that the vulcanologists who watched Dante's Peak would say, "Oh hey - I wish I had that software." It looks right, it uses the right terms and so forth. So the research process on those shows was great. On The Relic, I got to research molecular biology and DNA, and on Dante's Peak I actually went to Hawaii and walked the lava flows with the U.S. Geological Survey and went over stuff with them on how it should all look. That's a lot of fun - it's more hands on. It would often times give me the ability to work on the story with the director as well.

Todd Doogan: You mean answering questions for them on these subjects?

Van Ling: Right - on questions of proper technical dialogue and things like that. Which is kind of fun. Then after doing graphics, we started thinking, "Well.. why don't we branch into visual effects?" Because when you're doing graphics work at 1280x1024, you're already halfway to film resolution. And because I do have an effects background, that was an easy move to make. It wasn't that much of a leap. So on Spawn, we ended up doing both graphics and visual effects.

Bill Hunt: So visual effects was just the next step.

Van Ling: Yeah. And the irony is that one of the reasons that Spawn was willing to take a risk on us to do the visual effects - since we hadn't done any major effects work before that - is the fact that the director was Mark Dippé, who was one of the people that our company was named after. He was one of the original guys who was banned from the ranch, and he was a friend of ours.

Bill Hunt: Tell us that story about the name of the company, because I'm sure a lot of our readers aren't familiar with it.

Van Ling: We have it on the Banned web site. Basically, it revolves around the fact that there were a couple of guys who were working at ILM, who got banned from Skywalker Ranch for a year, after trespassing into George Lucas' office one night while intoxicated. And because they were actually key artists at ILM on T2 at the time, they really couldn't be fired. There are actually two sides to the story - one version says that George wanted to fire them but couldn't because they were to important on T2 at the time. The other version is that George really liked the guys, but he had to punish them for morale and corporate reasons.

Todd Doogan: [laughing] Which is the truth?

Van Ling: Who knows? Some people think they got the worst possible punishment that George could give them, while others think they got away with the least possible punishment.

Todd Doogan: It's like Father turned his back on them - that's great.

Van Ling: Yeah. So they were banned from the ranch for a year. Which of course didn't stop them from being key people on Jurassic Park and everything else. Casey Cannon - my partner - thought it was so funny that she named her company after the whole thing. And I joined her as creative director.

Bill Hunt: Were you still working for Cameron while this was going on?

Van Ling: There was kind of an overlap. I moved from Lightstorm to BFTR full time in the fall of 1994, although I still remained a consultant for Lightstorm after that. Since then, Lightstorm hired us to help out and to do effects for Titanic, so I keep working with them.

Bill Hunt: That makes sense, especially since - as you said - Cameron sometimes takes a few years between pictures. That gives you plenty of opportunity to explore other avenues.

Van Ling: Exactly. I think I must have done two dozen shows in the same time that I would have done one or two Cameron projects. So it was a great experience, and it gave me something to bring back when I worked with them later. In the first year that we started doing visual effects at BFTR, we did over 300 effects shots for Titanic, Spawn, Starship Troopers - a whole bunch projects.

Todd Doogan: That's a pretty ambitious schedule.

Van Ling: Ultimately it kind of burned us out, which is why I'm taking it a lot easier these days. I'm free-lancing now and trying not to get into that really heavy grind.

Bill Hunt: That actually brings us to your more recent work. How did you go from that - from effects and graphics work - to producing DVD and laserdisc special editions? You started with laserdisc, is that correct?

Van Ling: It is. While I was at Lightstorm, we had done both The Abyss laserdisc and T2, and those went over pretty well. Casey was the producer on the T2: Special Edition laserdisc and I produced the Special Edition film versions of both movies, as well as wrote all of the supplemental material.

Bill Hunt: Because you had done so much of the original research on those films in the first place.

Van Ling: Exactly. And even at Banned, we did two discs. I did the Field of Dreams laserdisc, which was fairly extensive as well at the time. It was translated almost directly to DVD, so all of my stuff is pretty much intact on the new version. I think I did an hour and a half documentary and more. We also did all the graphics and editing for Joe Kane's Video Essentials - both the laserdisc and the DVD.

Todd Doogan: Did you guys do the Beethoven logo on that disc too?

Van Ling: As a matter of fact we did. That's Larry Blake's baby. Larry Blake is the guy who licenses Swelltone. You'll see that logo appear on movies here and there, sort of like the THX logo - it's a quality certification. Larry asks a certain amount of money for the license, and he donates all that to charity.

Todd Doogan: Somebody talks about that on The Limey DVD.

Van Ling: That's right. Because Larry Blake was a sound editor on that film.

Bill Hunt: Now the first DVD project you worked on was The Abyss, which was a translation of your own previous laserdisc work, is that correct?

Van Ling: It was, but it was more than just a translation. It was actually almost a complete redo. The laserdisc was to me - it was the first real laserdisc project I had done. And it turned out to be about 65% of what I wanted it to be. With the DVD, Fox and Lightstorm came to me, since I had done the laser, and I was very happy to do it. It was an opportunity to get it closer to what I originally wanted. And I think I got it to about 95% with the DVD.

Bill Hunt: And after The Abyss was a success, Fox approached you about ID4.

Van Ling: Right. I think they realized that the projects were of similar scale, and that I could obviously handle that. And only certain films really warrant that kind of massive special edition - where you have so much material used in developing the film that can be used for the DVD. And even though there's more stuff on The Abyss disc than there is on ID4 in terms of material, there's still a LOT of stuff compared to most special editions. I was able to get a lot of things that people really hadn't seen much before, or even seen at all - like all the newscast footage.

Bill Hunt: Which is actually one of the things I enjoyed most about the ID4 DVD. Did you have any contact with Devlin and Emmerich before you did the DVD?

Van Ling: No, I came into the project fresh. But I had a lot of friends who worked on the film. Including Ed Marsh, who wrote and directed the Under Pressure documentary on The Abyss - one of my oldest friends from film school. He was the guy who wrote and directed all of the simulated newscast footage for ID4.

Todd Doogan: There's a LOT of that on the disc - you managed to get a lot of it in there, either as straight supplements or as Easter eggs.

Van Ling: That was the idea. Obviously it makes up almost the first third of The ID4 Invasion - the Fox special. And then Ed gave me all the raw material he shot and we put about an hour's worth of it in the Easter egg section.

Todd Doogan: How much of that kind of footage was shot for ID4?

Van Ling: He probably did about 2 or 3 hours worth. Some of it didn't even have sound, because it was just designed for playback on monitors in the background of the action in the film. In the movie, you see this huge multi-screen display, and a lot of it was used there.

Bill Hunt: Well, some of it is really funny on its own - the "please don't shoot at the alien spacecraft" piece cracked me up. [laughing] L.A. residents have been known to do that I guess - shoot handguns at UFOs. And that footage is definitely what adds a flavor of realism to the film. A lot of people don't realize it, but all of those news people are real reporters and anchors - Jerry Dunphy, for example, is an old school newsman here in L.A..

Van Ling: And Christine Devine, who does the 10 o'clock newscast on Fox.

Bill Hunt: That's right. Now... when you approached the ID4 disc - actually when you approach a DVD project in general, what is your primary concern? What are you thinking about in terms of your goals?

Van Ling: Well... I'm thinking as a consumer. What do I want to see on the disc? As a film buff or as a science fiction fan. So I'll try to look into what would be of interest to people. Because you do see a lot of featurettes and things on DVD - and we include them because, why not? - but they're often pretty standard. They're done with this sort of marketing template in mind - you show the director saying action, you always show a slate, you show someone behind a camera. It's an EPK thing. But I like to go much deeper than that when I can. A lot of the things that we were doing seven years ago with The Abyss and T2 - and what Criterion became famous for doing - has all become kind of standard today. That's the model for special editions now. All of those things were revolutionary back then, but it's common today with DVD.

Todd Doogan: So does that present a new challenge as a producer today?

Van Ling: Certainly. Part of the thing for all the laserdisc fans, is that they can look at a DVD like The Abyss, and think, "Well... that's just the same thing we got years ago..." But to people who never had laserdisc, it's a revelation. At the same time, I personally don't like to rest on my laurels. So I try to make a DVD project, first and foremost, for the fans who want to know more about the movie. And make it so that, even if they have the laserdisc, at minimum it should have everything they expect to find... and then a lot more.

Bill Hunt: That's a debate we hear a lot from the DVD fan community - particularly from former laserdisc people. If a DVD is missing something that was on a previous laserdisc edition, they complain. And then there are people who are upset if a DVD is just a rehash of the laserdisc with nothing new. But for the vast majority of people these days, it's all new. Pleasing everyone is pretty tough, sometimes. It's a difficult line to walk.

Van Ling: It can be. It's certainly challenging. It's the same as when you make a film that grosses 200 million. People say, "Oh... it just grossed 200 million." Look at Godzilla. It made a profit, but it's widely perceived as a huge flop. Critically certainly, but financially not at all. That's the same with DVD. The way I look at it is to try to give people something more than they've gotten before, whenever possible. Sometimes it isn't possible, depending on what you can find in terms of material. And then there are time and budget constraints too. But you always shoot as high as you can going in. And a lot of filmmakers are catching on to that these days with DVD. There have been a lot of great DVDs lately, where producers have been able to take advantage of the fact that they can gather materials for the DVD while the film is still in production. People are very willing to share that material and are being a little more diligent about saving things, knowing that that market for special editions is out there.

Bill Hunt: A lot of featurettes and documentaries these days are produced right on the set for eventual DVD release.

Van Ling: Exactly. And that's what makes special editions these days so great - you can get that material and have access to the production. Older special editions start looking pretty impressive when you realize that that wasn't always the case. It was harder back then, because the material wasn't saved or whatever. Finding it involves a lot of archeology.

Bill Hunt: I know - for example United Artists. There was a period where UA didn't save anything. And so when MGM goes to produce a special edition DVD of a UA film, it's very hard to find material for the disc.

Van Ling: And that's when a good DVD producer ends up like Indiana Jones - you go out and try to find anything that's left. Or anyone who's still around that might be able to talk about the project. Fortunately on Abyss and T2, I was the guy saving all the stuff. So when I came into doing the DVDs, I not only had access to everything, but I was intimately familiar with it all. So I was able to really make these discs like film school in a can. And that's becoming more common these days. Studios are being very careful to save anything related to a film.

Todd Doogan: Going back to the film school in a can thing, laserdisc was very much more that - it was kind of like having a book on your TV. But DVD is slowly turning into a more interactive animal - some discs are almost like games, where you have to search for information. Do you think that hampers things at all?

Van Ling: I don't think it necessarily hampers things at all, but it certainly can get annoying at a point, if you're interested in just getting the information. If you want the entertainment value of the interactivity, that can work too. I do know that some people looked at The Abyss disc and said, "I don't want to have to play with all this every time I watch the film." On the other hand, most people thought the animated menus were very in keeping with the spirit of the film and added to the experience. That's what I try to do - get you in the mood to watch and let you go.

Bill Hunt: It's always got to be about what does justice to the film.

Van Ling: Exactly. And one of the things I try to do as well is to give you several ways to look at the material, based on your interest level. If you want to just look at the featurettes and the video, you can just do that. If you want to go one layer deeper, you can look at lots of text material and storyboards. And if you want to go through everything from beginning to end, you can do that too. I couldn't do that so much with ID4, because there wasn't quite as much material available. But when I can I like to do that.

Bill Hunt: Well, even ID4 is laid out intuitively. You've got the "data desk" when you can access a lot of supplements. But then what's interesting are the Easter eggs hidden within the data desk... and the Easter eggs within Easter eggs. Is that something that you brought to it?

Van Ling: Sure. A lot of it has to do with functionality more than anything else. Usually, you have undocumented features, so you can stick Easter eggs in. And you can then link from those to other things as well, so it gives you another way to access material. With ID4, the gag is that within the alien cockpit - if you get there - you have a series of things. You can randomly play one of a number of video segments. So each time you look at it, you get something different. And the Easter egg within the Easter egg then allows you to look at them all, in any order you choose.

Bill Hunt: Easter eggs are definitely something new with DVD. They give people more incentive to explore the disc.

Van Ling: That's the idea. The sad thing is that I think Easter eggs are starting to become a marketing thing. It takes away the point if you advertise them. But my feeling is that it's always good to do things like that when you can, to give the hard-core fans something extra. They're the ones who are going to be visiting every menu page anyway, and clicking on everything. So why not give them something to make that time and effort worthwhile? For the ID4 menus, for example, we actually worked with the production company and got the original digital models of the alien attacker that they used in making the film to use in the special features page. So we created all new imagery, completely 3D rendered, just for the DVD.

Bill Hunt: Well... and the nice thing about ID4 in particular, is that that's a movie people have been wanting on DVD since Day One of the format. But the reality is that, had it come out in that first year, it wouldn't be what it is now - it wouldn't be as good - because our understanding of the format and its capabilities is that much greater.

Van Ling: [laughing] It would've had to come out again. And that's certainly something you're seeing now - movies that came out early as movie-only discs are being re-released as special editions. Like T2. You know, there are people who just want to look at the movie. And the quality of the movie - the presentation of the picture and sound - always takes top priority.

Bill Hunt: This is a good time to talk about anamorphic widescreen. Because, for example, The Abyss wasn't anamorphic. Titanic wasn't anamorphic. But I know the new T2 disc is, and on the original Terminator, you're going back with MGM to do a new anamorphic transfer.

Van Ling: Yeah. There's been a lot of misinformation out there regarding Cameron's view of anamorphic widescreen. The bottom line with The Abyss was simply that, Fox's policy at the time was that if they had an anamorphic transfer and the director had approved it, they used it. But if they didn't, they would use the last director-approved transfer. There was an anamorphic transfer but it was not approved. And it would never have gotten approved - it was very bad. The color timing, the look... it was terrible. Jim is very meticulous about overseeing that process. And so the transfer that was approved wasn't anamorphic, but it was very good. A lot of people were like, "No... I won't buy it if it's not anamorphic!" And I can completely understand that sentiment. But the DVD still looks great.

Todd Doogan: Well... I think one of the things we hear, is that the fear is that The Abyss was such an ultimate special edition on DVD, that there will be very little incentive for the studio to revisit it with an anamorphic transfer.

Van Ling: Well... there's certainly that possibility. But I think that the next version is ultimately going to be HD anyway, so I'm not so concerned about that. But the point is that, these days, we certainly go anamorphic whenever we can.

Bill Hunt: I know Buena Vista is going back to A Bug's Life on the new Gold Edition disc, and releasing the anamorphic transfer that was in the 2-disc special edition. The original movie-only disc was non-anamorphic. So clearly some studios are realizing that they can go back and fix things... say in a new pressing of the disc.

Van Ling: A lot of that has to do with John Lassiter and the guys at Pixar, who are just total buffs, and it really shows. And I think Disney has the deep pockets to be able to do that. Which is not to say that Cameron isn't like that. But he's off working on his other projects, and if he's the guy who's got to approve and supervise a new transfer, it isn't going to happen as fast. If we'd had the time and the money on Titanic and Abyss, we would have gone anamorphic - especially once the studios decided to commit to anamorphic more aggressively. Fox and Paramount these days are all over anamorphic, and it really shows in terms of the quality of their discs.

Bill Hunt: Yeah, I'd have say that Fox is definitely the studio that's impressed me most lately with their DVD work. Discs like Fight Club and ID4 go a long way in my book.

Van Ling: The studio is definitely paying attention to DVD. They're very serious about doing it right.

Todd Doogan: Now you've just finished Terminator 2 for Artisan, is that right?

Van Ling: It's right in the finishing stages.

Todd Doogan: So what's next?

Van Ling: Well, as you mentioned, I'm working on the original Terminator as a special edition for MGM, which should be out next year sometime. And I'm just very pleased that ID4 is doing so well. It's selling really well, and I hope that has to do with the quality of the effort we put into it. My hope is that people feel like they got their money's worth and then some.

Bill Hunt: I think people are pretty happy with it. Thanks for talking with us, Van.

Van Ling: My pleasure.


The Digital Bits would like to thank Van Ling, Fox Home Video and Dorrit Ragosine. You can read our reviews of The Abyss, Independence Day and Terminator 2: Judgement Day - The Ultimate Edition now. Be sure also to visit the Banned From the Ranch web site for more information. As always, we welcome your comments.

Bill Hunt

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