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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
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
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.
[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
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
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
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,
Troopers - a whole bunch projects.
Todd Doogan: That's a pretty
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
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
Bill Hunt: Because you had
done so much of the original research on those films in the first
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
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
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
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
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
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.
[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
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
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
Todd Doogan: Now you've just
finished Terminator 2 for
Artisan, is that right?
Van Ling: It's right in the
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
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.