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Special editions have long left their mark in the Laserdisc segment of home video entertainment and with the dawn of DVD special editions were becoming more and more popular.  A number of companies have specialized in creating these special editions, making them more and more sophisticated and supplying information and material of certain films that many people didn’t even know existed.  One such company is Sharpline Arts, recently formed by David Fein and Michael Matessino.  Two veterans of the special edition industry, they are out to make Sharpline Arts a common household name.  Their plan is to bring you some of the most complete and comprehensive editions of films on Laserdisc and DVD, and for those of you yet unfamiliar with the name, Sharpline Arts is the company that brought you the fabulous Collector's Edition of John Carpenter's cult classic The Thing.  Further down the line however, the talents that make up this dedicated company, have been working on special editions such as Alien, The Last Starfighter, and many more. 

When you take a look at some of the special editions in the market and the awe-inspiring wealth of content they offer, you can’t help but wonder where or how they originate.  The first thought might be that film lovers actually sit down and decide to create a special edition of a film to pay tribute to the work they admire.  While this happens occasionally, more often, producers are approached by a studio to prepare the additional content for those releases.

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by Guido Henkel

“It can work both ways”, Sharpline’s Michael Matessino comments.  “Sometimes my partner David Fein and I approach a company about a specific title, and hopefully they will solicit a proposal from us.  That's how The Last Stargfighter came about.  Universal's initial reaction was that they had never considered it.  We also make general pitches to the studios every so often and present a selection of titles.  That was how The Thing happened.  I had a list of about twenty or thirty titles, we discussed all of them, and then Universal did some research into projected sales figures and so forth, and then they called and said they'd like to do The Thing.” In other instances the studios want to pitch specific products and give them the royal treatment, and that’s when Michael is approached.  “Occasionally, we do get called out of the blue and asked to do something specific, and with the way our company works, we hope this will happen more often.  Sometimes our work on a previous version of the project and our reputation for quality can have a lot to do with it.  That was the case with Fox and Alien, since the studio had been fielding consumer requests over the years that the work we did on the Laserdisc continue to be presented.  With the amount of research we'd done on it, coming to us was the most logical thing to do.”

Nevertheless, recognition for the work is usually very limited, as the creators of Special Editions are hardly credited at all, or only in fine print on some of the liner notes.  “We've often joked that some of the packages should have a sticker that says ‘magnifying glass not included’." Michael adds jokingly, and he is correct.  Since the introduction of DVD this seems to change slightly as DVD creators are more often credited in separate menu screens  although oftentimes as hidden Easter Eggs on the according discs.  So far it seems that only Universal is seeing the importance of these dedicated people by giving credit to the producer of their Collector’s Editions on the back of the packaging.  “Truth to tell, this is something of a weak area for me.  My main concerns are doing quality work and making the studios and filmmakers happy with it.  I suppose I should be more assertive in spreading my name all over the place, but that just isn't my style.  The entertainment industry, unfortunately, is very hype-oriented, but I still believe in letting the work speak for itself.  I'm uncomfortable when I see names repeated all

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over the place.  If only one producer's name is there, can't we assume that this person did the whole thing? On the flip side of the coin, I do feel that the studios are getting better about credits, and now that Sharpline is doing so much of the technical work in-house, we are going to insist on prominent credit and the inclusion of our logo.”

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Michael Matessino and Ivor Powell gather materials

To fully understand the importance of proper crediting for small companies like Sharpline Arts, one has to look behind the scenes and see how the company is operating.  “We have an office in Burbank with workstations for our various needs -- audio, graphics, editorial, viewing, etc.” Matessino explains.  “There are five regular staff including Dave and myself, plus a group of researchers, associate producers, editors, and camera crew who come and go as the work warrants.  They comprise an excellent pool of creative talent.  Many have great connections and contacts, but we also look for enthusiasm, patience, a true love of the cinema, and a good sense of humor.  The hours are definitely not 9 to 5, but we try to make the environment as fun and creatively stimulating as possible when the work reaches its busiest.”

There are obviously a large number of factors involved in creating extensive special editions, and oftentimes these versions take a long time to produce.  The Collector’s Edition of The Thing for example had been announced three full years before it finally saw the light of day.  “A number of factors contributed to the delay, not the least of which was a period where I was dealing with a serious family problem.  After that, there were problems with the scheduling of post-production, followed by a change of street date due to an unanticipated oversaturation of Signature Collection Laserdiscs.  Universal needed to back off on them for a while, and then when DVD came along, they decided that the release would be held off so that it could help promote the new format.  This became especially important when Steven Spielberg elected to withhold all of his films from the format.  I guess the strategy worked, because The Thing DVD was selling out all over the place.” This, all by itself, is quite surprising, because The Thing was a box-office bomb when it was theatrically released, and although later considered a very good film with a strong following, it never really achieved stellar sales.  Until Sharpline’s Collector’s Edition came along, that is. 

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Not every special edition takes that long to produce however, and time frames vary quite a bit.  Every project is completely different, and it is impossible to outline a generic time frame for these productions.  “So many factors are involved”, Matessino ponders, “the age of the film, the existence and location of material, the size of the project, and a hundred other things.  And then I could write a book about all the legal delays, lack of available facilities, and technical quarrels that can affect these things.” For obvious reasons it is impossible to anticipate many of these problems and according to Matessino it is sometimes even hard to believe them.  On one project he did there was a four-month wait before work actually started, and then the project was done from start to finish in three weeks.  “After that, the director's office spent five more months making minuscule changes to the still archives!” he muses.  Despite all this, Matessino

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sees improvements, not the least because things have to get better.  “The studios need the finished product very quickly now, especially on the newer titles.  If a film is going to come out on DVD six months after its theatrical release, the studio might not decide to make it a special edition until ten weeks before the street date.  That means you have 30-40 days to do the special edition content because 60 days are needed for compression and manufacturing.  If the studios would get their contract and accounting departments up to the same speed, then this would be a lot easier.” But then, gathering and researching the material that will go into the release pose yet another problem. “On some of the classics it is very difficult to find documentation for everything, so it can be a tremendous undertaking, and you hope they won't announce the title until you see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Unfortunately, the nature of the DVD beast is to get it in and out as quickly as humanly possible.” Despite these problems there is obviously some pressure from the studios who want to see their product in the market.  “The main problem comes from the fact that some of the people at the studios really have no idea how much work goes into these programs, but I'm sure we have no idea of the kind of internal pressures that they deal with on a daily basis.  They have every right to expect work to be delivered on an agreed date, but when one person is doing the whole project alone, there are many things that can slow it down.  While studios will exert some friendly pressure if it starts dragging on too long, for the most part we have had tremendous support from them in delivering a project that we are pleased with personally.”

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Along with time frames and deadlines comes another obvious problem - budgeting of the project.  The costs to produce a special edition can be substantial, ranging anywhere between the cost of an average automobile to ten times that amount.  Determining the budget of such a release obviously depends on the anticipated profitability of a title.  “The market is assessed as to the number of units that will sell, then legal, mastering, and manufacturing costs are tabulated, and then the value-added features are factored in.  The budget is then determined based on the projected increase in sales due to the extras.  I hate to burst consumers' bubbles, but the studios are not putting out special editions because they want the collectors to have outtakes and commentaries, but because there is a significant portion of the market whose buying decisions are

affected by these items.  It's not glamorous, but it's the truth. Special edition programs are designed to sell the movie that they accompany -- they are not ends unto themselves.” With that in mind there are obvious limits as to what companies like Sharpline Arts can do for any given special edition.  If the disc can’t possibly turn a profit it has defeated its entire purpose and undermines the studio’s original intentions and desire to do these projects in the future.  “Our goal with Sharpline Arts is to address these issues in the only logical way.  Consistently lower costs would mean that more special editions will be released, and the way to keep costs down is by putting every dollar on the screen instead of having them swallowed up by third parties.” Doing the work in-house allows Sharpline Arts to put all of the funding directly into the company by building staff and technical facilities.

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Actual work on a special edition project always starts with one particular procedure.  The studio asks for a proposal to determine what materials will go on the final disc.  Sharpline Arts compose such a proposal based on some preliminary research, and have so far never been rejected, although occasional revisions are required.  “On The Last Starfighter, Universal suggested that we focus on the landmark visual effects in order to take a break from long-winded all-encompassing ‘making-of’ shows.  We thought this was an excellent idea.” The next step is to get legal clearance for release for all the materials involved.  This is one of the major hurdles, but as long as that is taken care of, the studios usually allow the materials to be released, unless the director has an objection.  “We want to make sure that the studios can rely on our ability to find material quickly, to obtain the necessary clearances, and but we also want them to know that part of what they're getting is good judgment and taste in how the material is presented.

”Before the producers of the project can go to work however, one very important step needs to be taken care of.  Uncovering and finding interesting material to put on the release. While sometimes these materials are readily available, at other times it takes some effort to 

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find the whereabouts of the information wanted.  Obviously placing search ads in Variety is too costly to go about this process, but Matessino has other ways to find out about exciting material to make it part of the project.  Interfacing directly with people at the studio vaults is essential and if the project has a director attached, Sharpline Arts usually start with him or her, and then go through the people who did the film.  “We are discovering that there seems to be a little-known industry rule that there's a pack-rat on every major film that gets made  meaning someone on the crew who saves everything.  We also deal with libraries and archives regularly such as the Academy and University libraries, especially with older films.  With something like Alien, there is also a whole network of private collectors, whom we approach with discretion.  Hollywood is actually a lot smaller than most people think.  All you have to do is talk to a few people and you can get the word spread all over town in no time.” So, where does the new material for the Alien Special Edition come from? “The story of how the Alien outtakes came about is enough for an interview by itself.” Matessino laughs.  “The short version is that we did not find a "lost reel." The boxes of unprinted negative were hanging around a studio in England.  That they hadn't been destroyed was just a lucky oversight.  Working from the editor's script, we had selected bits of negative transferred, along with original sound recordings from the set, and we synchronized them as if they were dailies, and then I cut the scenes together for the original Special Edition Laserdisc.  Voila, outtakes from Alien!”

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David Fein, Ivor Powell and Michael Matessino

Another important step, especially for special editions on DVD, is the visual design of the menu screens and navigational contents.  Either by himself or with the help of other artists, David Fein is usually creating these visuals for Sharpline Arts, although the company is not always doing all the DVD menus themselves.  “We did do the ones for Rambling Rose, so they do match the new still section graphics we converted over from the old laserdisc version.” Matessino explains.  “Our basic approach with both is to try to evoke the look of the movie.  In almost all cases, we carefully examine the original design of the titles and events in the film to inspire our graphic arts.  The design of a special edition project should complement the film - as an extension of the experience - but not compete with it.  We're very proud of our results, especially in the readability of the text and the overall 'comfortable' design.”

Oftentimes the advertising used for the film is helpful and lends itself as a basis for these designs and the selection of the onscreen fonts. “Probably one of the most satisfying aspects of the re-creation of the original laserdisc work, is that it allowed us the opportunity to update and enhance the graphic design of the still frame sections. For this, our Art Director Daren Dochterman studied the film and brilliantly designed attractive and thematic screens. We're very proud of the work.”

Interestingly, Michael Matessino and David Fein have been waiting for the capabilities of DVD for a long time, stipulating that technology actually had to catch up with their ideas.  “We were wanting the programming to be presented in a non-linear way long before it ever became possible.  At one point we were even examining the CD-ROM format for these projects.  Dave was the Associate Producer of Aces Entertainment's CD-ROM Inside Independence Day.  Overall, while the results were there, consumers didn't seem as enthusiastic about sitting in front of their computer over sitting in front of their television.” With DVD conquering the living rooms, the studios also are getting increasingly aware of DVD’s additional capabilities, and the focus has started to change slightly.  Concerns about how much information can be jammed onto a disc before the quality starts suffering are starting to surface in people’s heads, and the actual programming is becoming more important, making the production of these discs increasingly difficult.

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Finally, one of the last steps is to present the product to the studio, and get it approved, which seems to be quite simple compared to all the other aspects involved.  It is the producer’s responsibility to obtain clearances from the talent and for any material for the project that is not owned by the studio.  All the elements are put together -- commentary, music tracks, documentary, still archives, trailers, etc.  -- and then turned over to the studio.  “For the documentary they get an off-line edit; for still archives they get a paper edit with thumbnails.” Matessino clarifies the procedure.  “Audio tracks are rarely a problem so we get those in as soon as they are ready.  The studio reviews the material and makes sure it is all cleared legally, and then they forward it to the director.  Occasionally, changes may be needed, but they are usually minor.”

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Once approved, the project is mastered and delivered to the studio’s quality control people to await their approval.  Once that has happened the gathered materials go back to their owners and Michael Matessino can sit back in content to see how the public’s response to his project turns out.  It is a long road to create a complete Special Edition, but Michael Matessino and David Fein are in there head over heels.  They truly enjoy movies and gladly embrace the opportunity to bring the films they like to the people who enjoy them too, and who appreciate the hard and strenuous work that goes into the creation of these extensive releases.

Rob Klein, Lance Guest, Michael Matessino and David Fein - the last starfighters...

 

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May 24, 1999

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