15 Awesomely Nerdy Behind-the-Scenes Documentaries You Can Watch for Free Right Now


In July 2010, YouTube increased the time limit for videos posted by the common folk from the long-standing 10 minutes to a whopping 15. By that December, they announced that they were removing the time limits altogether, without announcing what the upper cap might be. My personal favorite of the ultra-long videos is the 24 hours of the Enterprise-D’s ambient engine hum. It doesn’t work any longer – at least, YouTube breaks into tears every time I try to play it. But I’m glad that, for a while, it was a thing that worked.

And, for as much as YouTube was making a big deal about how bitchen their ContentID system was and how it would keep copyright safe ‘n secure, there are vast amounts of highly copyrighted material still up – including my favorite genre, the documentary. And they’re mostly full-length and in good high quality, too, so you don’t have to contend with huge pixels or loading a new video every 10 minutes.

Many of them are DVD special features, which are likely becoming a thing of the past as physical media is kicked out the virtual door. In the Josh Johnson’s new VHS-culture documentary Rewind This!, the owner and operator of Synapse Films (which will soon be distributing the Manos: The Hands of Fate restoration) admits that from a business standpoint, the move to streaming will be a relief to an extent because they won’t have to produce bonus features like documentaries anymore. Someone else in the documentary observes that once content became cheaper and easier to consume online, it became apparent that public doesn’t care about optimum quality and/or bonus features – only the collector’s market cares about such things.

Which makes me a collector, it should seem. Here are some of the best out there that you can watch right now. And I’m going to keep a track of just how much TOTALLY FREE ENTERTAINMENT I’m selflessly giving you. (Also, to answer the inevitable question: I’m very familiar with Red Letter Media, love the Plinkett reviews, and consider Half in the Bag to be some of the best film criticism out there. But you already know about them, and thus they don’t need to be mentioned here. So forget I mentioned them.)

1. The Beast Within: The Making of Alien

Total: 178 minutes.

A three-hour documentary, originally released in the 2005 Alien Quadrilogy, one of the very best box sets. It’s divided here into two 90-minute chunks, and part two begins with how they did the scene of the android’s head getting knocked off. I was way too young when I first saw Alien, and that scene probably traumatized me more than any other. I didn’t understand any of the sexual or biological ramifications of the monster, but that guy suddenly spurting out milk and turning out to be full of white spaghetti? Ewwwwwwwwwww. I think I’m still processing that trauma.

2. Superior Firepower: Making Aliens

Total: 363 minutes.

Another three-hour extravaganza, this time with 100% more Cameron. By the way, when Prometheus came out last year, I did a roundup of Mad Magazine’s parodies of the various Alien movies for SF Weekly. Check it out when you’re done watching all these videos.

3. American Scary

Total: 454 minutes.

Not a bonus feature, but a feature in its own right, released to DVD in 2006 and now made available to watch for free on YouTube by the filmmakers. American Scary is a documentary about horror hosts — and if you don’t know what a horror host is, or think that it all begins and ends with Elvira, then you really need to watch this. It’s an important (and fun) aspect of nerd history.

4. Master of Cinema: John Carpenter

Total: 514 minutes.

As near as I can tell, this is from a British production company called CreaTVty that made documentaries about directors such as Dario Argento and Sergio Leone, but this one appears to be unfinished; there are no subtitles identifying the talking heads, and it doesn’t appear on the director or executive producer’s IDMB pages. Even the title seems incomplete, and as such, I’m not entirely certain what it’s called. But this 2000 documentary is interesting nonetheless, focusing mostly on his seventies triumphs, using Escape From L.A. when talking about Escape from New York, and surprisingly skipping Big Trouble in Little China entirely.

5. Tales from the Mist: Inside the Fog

Total: 542 minutes.

One of the most common kinds of DVD commentaries, a mere slip of a half-hour, but still solid making-of for one of John Carpenter’s spookiest and most underrated early films movies.

6. Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight – The Legend Reborn

Total: 572 minutes.

Another half-hour, this time part of a six-part series spread out through the 2005 special editions of the first four Batman movies. This is a look back on both the actual nuts-and-bolts of the making of the first film, as well as its huge impact at the time. Also, it gives me an excuse to post this, from Rolling Stone in June of ’89, which seems newly relevant for some reason.


7. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Vision of a Future Passed: The Prophecy of 2001

Total: 593 minutes.

Further evidence that the age of the DVD extra is passing: Warner Bros. has put three excellent mini-documentaries from the official release of 2001: A Space Odyssey up on their YouTube channel, because why not at this point? “Vision of a Future Passed” considers how 2001 did and did not predict the future, and they’re open about the fact that it’s mostly in the “not” category…

8. Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Total: 614 minutes.

…while this one examines his influence on filmmaking as a whole, but particularly on directors as such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg…

9. 2001: A Space Odyssey – A Look Behind the Future

Total: 637 minutes.

…and my personal favorite of these three, a behind-the-scenes short from when the movie was actually being made. Everyone was so hopeful for the future, unaware the Space Race was going to thud to a halt less than a decade later. And Arthur C. Clarke isn’t yet bitter about the whole “Satellites were MY ideas, guys!” thing. Also, sidewall haircuts and horn-rimmed glasses, yum.

10. 2001: A Space Odyssey – The Making of a Myth

Total: 680 minutes.

This longer doc, looking back on the making of the movie rather than reporting on it at the time like the previous one, is not actually on the WarnerBrosOnline YouTube channel, but I suspect that even if it did get taken down, Warner Bros would just slap it right back up for themselves.

11. Doctor Who: Adventures in Space and Time

Total: 720 minutes.

There are quite a few classic, pre-Eccleston Doctor Who documentaries on YouTube, most of which were recorded from the BBC and aren’t of the best quality. Although the sound starts out a bit out of sync, and only gets worse as it progresses, this ’99 doc is my favorite for a couple of reasons. First, it’s narrated by Peter Jones, the voice of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Speaking of which, check out “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Daleks,” which features a quite passable Jones impersonator doing the narration.) Secondly, it features quite a lot of footage of then-modern-day Tom Baker frolicking around London, and that’s just the best.

Fair warning: certain titles within the program spell it as Dr. Who, not Doctor Who.

12. Empire of Dreams – The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy

Total: 871 minutes.

Directed by Kevin (not Ken) Burns, this two-and-a-half hour documentary was, for me, the real killer app of the 2004 Star Wars box set. To the best of my knowledge, a lot of the footage had never been seen before; at least, I’d never seen the screen tests or Kurt Russell or William Katt, nor the deleted rear-projection landspeeder footage. Of course, a lot more has been leaked in recent years, and remix culture has since gotten into full swing, resulting in…

13. Star Wars Begins

Total: 1,010 minutes.

We’ve gone off the YouTube reservation now into Vimeo territory, and for good reason: this was pulled off YouTube a couple days ago for copyright reasons. (Thanks a mill, Little Dot Studios, SME, FOX and Warner Chappell!) Actually, what was actually pulled was a nutzoid seven-hour compilation of Jamie Benning’s three Star Wars documentaries, of which Star Wars Begins is actually the third.

To quote from the press release, which describes it much better than I can: “Star Wars Begins is an unofficial look at the creation of the classic movie and features deleted scenes, alternate takes and different angles, bloopers, original on set audio recordings and a huge amount of commentary from cast and crew, culled from every corner of the galaxy.” It’s like a cubist version of the movie, watching it from every perspective, and it’s kind of brilliant. As are his previous two fan documentaries in the series…

14. Building Empire

Total: 1,146 minutes.


15. Returning to Jedi

Total: 1,293 minutes.

(He’s also done Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

So, there you go! Unless my math is completely off, that’s about 21.5 hours of documentary goodness you can watch from this very page. Call in sick to work tomorrow!

Previously by Sherilyn Connelly:

The Eight Funniest Recurring Themes in the Original Star Wars Trading Cards

The Six Coolest Things In Starlog #001: The Voyage in Retro-Nerdery Begins

Ten Amazingly Strange Celebrity Hotlines of the 1980s

The Eleven Coolest Things in Starlog #002: Gene Roddenberry Has a Big Pipe, and Bigfoot Is Just Big