?The beauty of so-called “making of” documentaries is that they give the common man insight into how specific TV shows or movies are made. For those not in the entertainment industry, these peeks behind the curtain provide welcome insight into the complexities of production that ordinary folk just wouldn’t ever consider. On the opposite side of the spectrum, these docs provide people who are already deeply interested with things like how Tom Savini did the makeup effects for Dawn of the Dead or what techniques Richard Donner used to make Superman fly with much food for thought. For those of the nerdy persuasion, obsessing with these sorts of behind-the-scenes specials were just as much a part of coming of age as buying issues of Starlog and organizing their weekly comic book pull lists. With the rise of DVD (and subsequently Blu-ray) there began to be more emphasis than ever on crafting quality “making of” documentaries, usually with the involvement of such visionaries are Laurent Bouzereau and Kevin Burns. Focusing on nerdcentric franchises and directors, today’s Daily List points out 10 “making of” docs that are truly essential viewing. Or at least they are to me. But if your favorite didn’t make the cut, fret not. There’s always a chance for a sequel list…
10) Lost in La Mancha
A “making of” documentary for a film that was never actually made? That’s so crazy that it just might work! Having previously collaborated with Terry Gilliam on their acclaimed The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys doc, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were enlisted by the former Python to shoot behind the scenes footage on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in late 2000. In typical Gilliam fashion, things did not go well. Almost immediately the shoot was marred by budget and production woes, the most serious of which involved star Jean Rochefort suffering a herniated disc. The film was shut down entirely shortly thereafter. Ever the mensch, the director allowed Fulton and Pepe to fashion the footage of his on-set suffering into a feature of their own. The resulting Lost in La Mancha is an enthralling exploration of how Gilliam’s overly ambitious nature — i.e. his genius/Achilles’ heel — coupled with genuine old-fashioned bad luck has plagued him throughout his career. (A trend that was continued when Heath Ledger died during the production of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). Pre-production on a new version of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with Gilliam once again at the helm and starring a revamped cast that includes Ewan McGregor and Robert Duvall is currently underway. So expect one of them to be eaten by a dragon or something equally nasty to happen soon.
9) Space Battleship Yamato: The Making of an Anime Legend
Perhaps the most esoteric entry on this list, Voyager Entertainment’s 2005 doc is an absorbing look into the first 25 years of the Space Battleship Yamato/Star Blazers phenomenon. The film chronicles the history of the franchise, from its genesis as a project called Asteroid Ship Icarus through to the release of the Final Yamato feature — with breakdowns of the series’ various incarnations along the way. For otaku, this release is packed with nerdy tidbits, including rare test footage, a merchandising overview and an absolutely mind-blowing look at a Yamato-themed fan cruise event from the early 1980s that I will dream of being on tonight. The impressive amount of care that went into this production even included the hiring of narrator Ken Meseroll, best known as the voice of Derek Wildstar. Last year’s release of the live-action Space Battleship Yamato film in Japan has a new generation dreaming of leaving Mother Earth to save the human race. Here’s where they (and you) should go to see how it all started.
8) Jaws: The Inside Story
Until the day that The Shark Is Still Working finally swims it way to an official release, the best analysis of the production of Jaws remains this in-depth documentary that was created for the Biography Channel. By now even the most novice Jaws fan knows about how the mechanical shark refused to work and other challenges (including Robert Shaw’s larger-than-life personality and studio pressures). These familiar stories are once again dusted off, but this time complimented by new insights and interviews about the flick’s notorious production difficulties. The fact that everything came together so perfectly is still amazing all these years later. This sense of wonder is palpable throughout this documentary. We all know that Jaws went from being a best-seller to a culture phenomenon, yet learning about the underdog story that allowed this transformation to occur may be even more exhilarating.
7) The Thing: Terror Takes Shape
Created for The Thing’s 1998 DVD release, Michael Matessino’s documentary leaves viewers with two impressions. The first is that every film should be a collaboration between John Carpenter and Kurt Russell as the pair understands not only each other, but the exact type of cinema they each want to be involved in. The second thing that you’ll take away from Terror Takes Shape is how incredibly brilliant/absolutely bugfuck crazy Rob Bottin’s creations for the film are (there’s been footage of the superfluous The Thing prequel recently released online, and it’s evident that the filmmakers are wisely taking a page from Bottin’s playbook in terms of their own creature design). If nothing else, check out this doc for behind-the-scenes footage of the monsters that helps demystify them — thereby ending years of your nightmares.
6) Impressions of Dune
My personal impressions of Dune? It is a beautiful, strange and at times incomprehensible mess of a movie that I absolutely cherish. Taken from a UK DVD release, the Impressions of Dune documentary is a warts and all look at the film and its production. While David Lynch is (understandably) nowhere to be found here, insiders like Kyle McLachlan and producer Raffaella De Laurentiis are on hand to offer up their experiences and comment on the film’s dubious legacy. For fans of the film — yes, we exist — the information being presented here is invaluable. As for the rest of the population, well, it probably won’t be awakening any sleepers.
5) The Various Lord of the Rings Documentaries Found on the DVD/Blu-ray Releases
With the Star Wars releases initially MIA on DVD, the trilogy that fully utilized the format’s potential was Lord of the Rings. Yes, there have been a few releases and re-releases on the format, but unlike the current Blu-ray controversy that Lucas has unleashed, there’s no debate about how necessary these are. Each of these releases has been a gift to fans of Peter Jackson’s cinematic presentation of Tolkien’s world. The various making of documentaries, featurettes and other appendices that Jackson has issued in conjunction with the Lord of the Rings‘ DVD and Blu-ray releases have forever altered the traditional behind the scenes look at a film’s production. With these offerings, fans of the films could immerse themselves in the grandest or most minute aspect of production like never before (and it doesn’t hurt that the Costa Botes-directed docs on the reissues complimented the ones on the original releases and vice versa). All of these are worthy of getting grouped together equally because they helped redefine what making of documentaries can and should be.
4) Star Wars Begins
Documentaries about the production of the various Star Wars films could easily merit a list of their own. So when it came time to write this list I made the conscious decision to only mention Star Wars-themed docs that truly stood out. And man, does Star Wars Begins ever the fit that bill. In the tradition of his previous works, Building Empire and Returning to Jedi, director/fan editor extraordinaire Jambe Davdar has taken elements of the original films, the Special Editions, cut/rare footage, DVD commentary tracks, vintage interviews and other Star Wars-related flotsam and jetsam to produce an entirely new look at a the film that started it all (you can watch it in its entirety above, so kiss any work productivity goodbye today). With its use of on-screen text and carefully editing, Star Wars Begins is the definitive guide to the various permutations of the original film…well, at least it was until the Blu-rays were released. Davdar has pulled off a remarkable bit of cinematic archaeology here, and, given the fact that it hasn’t been pulled offline almost a year after its debut, you’ve got to wonder if it has impressed the folks at Lucasfilm too.
3) Behind the Planet of the Apes
Following the disaster that was Tim Burton’s reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes had no right being as entertaining as it turned out to be. Yet for all of the film’s accomplishments in pushing the CGI envelope there was something missing. Namely, lots and lots of people in good old-fashioned ape makeup. Sigh. So shortly after I caught the new flick I decided to return to the glory days of Apes mania by rewatching the 1998 documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes. Hosted by Roddy McDowell — who sadly isn’t wearing his Cornelius makeup the entire time — this doc details all aspects of the Planet of the Apes saga to date (from chimpan-A to chimpanzee, if you will). Plus, it gives Charlton Heston another chance to tell his “nice buns” story — a tale that will almost certainly make an appearance on my inevitable 10 Most Overtold Sci-Fi Actor Anecdotes list.
2) From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga
In the 1980s, my local PBS affiliate would show this documentary during every pledge drive. I’m not sure what the crossover between Star Wars fans and Masterpiece Theater viewers were, but it’s understandable that a cash-strapped organization like public television wouldn’t be above trying to make a buck off of a cultural phenomenon. Back then, my favorite part of the special was when the various Jabba’s Palace creatures were getting involved in antics while prepping for the trip from Lucasfilm to the Jedi set in England (Salacious Crumb musing that he hopes that Raiders of the Lost Ark is the in-flight film remains comic gold). These days, I think the best bit is when George Lucas casually mentions that “a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” I’ll leave you all to lose your shit over this in a minute, but before I do I just wanted to mention that this documentary is conspicuously absent from the Blu-rays. Hmm…
1) Of Muppets and Men: The Making of The Muppet Show
If there’s a downside to making of documentaries, it is that by revealing the secrets of film and TV production some of the inherent magic of those mediums will be destroyed. So it was with much trepidation that I initially watched Of Muppets and Men. Would seeing Jim Henson, Frank Oz and company actually operating their trademark characters dilute the wonder of the Muppets for me? I was pleased to see that viewing this documentary about The Muppet Show instead only enhanced my respect for the craft that went into the show. Narrated by Jim Henson, the roughly 50-minute special covers all aspects of the series’ production, from the writing of the scripts to a discussion of how the guest stars used the show’s anything goes format to branch out into new territory. The whole thing is currently on YouTube, but as with all Henson-related projects be warned that watching it will result in some serious bittersweet melancholy.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.