The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
“I was born under unusual circumstances . . .” Thus begins The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the Academy Award–winning film starring Brad Pitt as a man who is born in his eighties and ages backward, and Cate Blanchett as the woman he is destined to love forever. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a monumental journey—as unusual as it is epic—that follows Benjamin’s remarkable adventure of romance and redemption from the end of World War I through the twenty-first century. Directed by David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a powerful testament to life and death, love and loss.
Paramount and Criterion present The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in the aspect ratio of 2.40:1 on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The transfer is in 1080p and has been enhanced for widescreen televisions. It should also be noted that the disc has been region locked for region A.
As I mentioned in my DVD review the film was shot digitally so there aren’t any source issues, except for some scratches and grain inserted into the film on purpose as a stylistic choice.
The DVD transfer was pretty good, though had some obvious problems that I attributed to the film’s length and limited space on the disc, where it could come off sort of soft and fuzzy at times. The Blu-ray looks to have fixed all of these issues. The high definition transfer found on here looks absolutely fantastic and marks a drastic improvement over the DVD. Colours look absolutely stunning, despite the darker colours used through most of the film, and blacks are nice and deep. Detail has also been greatly improved with the image being much sharper this time around, best displayed in close-ups, improving on the somewhat softer look the DVD did present at times.
It’s a sharp, crisp looking image, one of the better hi-def video transfers for a live-action film I’ve come across yet.
(Screen grabs below have been provided by DVD Beaver. Grabs have been downscaled somewhat but should provide an idea of the image quality.)
The DVD presented a perfectly adequate Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. It was fairly active and had quite a bit going on. For the Blu-ray edition Paramount includes a DTS-HD track, a first for Paramount I believe, and I think in some small way we can thank Criterion for this addition since it’s a standard for their Blu-ray releases.
It is a much sharper track, and it still amazes me sometimes when I move from a Dolby Digital track to a lossless track on a Blu-ray. There’s a drastic difference between them. While the film isn’t action packed and is more somber in nature, the supplied track is still fairly active and is incredibly sharp and clear. The surrounds are certainly more distinct and there is more clear detail present. Dialogue and music both sound quite sharp, volume levels are fantastic, and the dynamic range is impressive.
It’s not the best DTS-HD track I’ve yet come across, but it’s still impressive, and is leaps and bounds an improvement over the DVD’s Dolby Digital track.
Dolby Digital 5.1 French and Spanish tracks are also available.
Criterion and Paramount are releasing this film in both two-disc DVD and Blu-ray editions. Other than one exclusive element on the Blu-ray, the editions present the same features (though the features on the Blu-ray are in 1080p.) For this review I am going to copy a lot of it from my DVD review since the material is the same and like other Fincher releases the supplements on here are incredibly extensive and exhausting, covering every aspect of the making of the film.
(I should note this Blu-ray, like the DVD, is actually a Paramount release and has some quirks common for bigger studio releases. Unlike other Criterion titles the second disc opens with the Criterion and Paramount logos, a copyright warning, and a disclaimer about how comments made in the features do not reflect the opinions Paramount Home Entertainment. All of this is not skippable so you have to wait to get through them to get to the menu. Surprisingly the first disc actually goes right to the menu and doesn’t feature any of this.)
The supplements are quite strong on this release and actually prove (for me at least) more interesting than the film. I must also admit that they actually made me appreciate the film a little more.
Disc one presents one big feature, which is an audio commentary by director David Fincher. I like Fincher’s commentary tracks and this one is another excellent recording. It is heavy into the technical details of the film, which is usually what Fincher talks about since he’s very visual, but he also touches on some of the film’s themes and does defend it from some of the criticisms thrown at it. There’s a lot of talk about the special effects in the film, the hard task it was to age and then “de-age” (I guess you could say) the performers using computer effects, and he even points out places where effects were used and not at all obvious. He also talks a lot about how tight money was, despite the film’s rather large budget. The death of his father seems to have been a huge influence over him in the making of this film, and he mentions it every once in a while, which leads him into the film’s themes of death. There’s mention of deleted sequences, including another “lightening story” scene, but they aren’t found on this DVD (probably the only item this DVD is missing) and he talks about working with the two studios, Paramount and Warner Bros. An interesting aspect of the track, early on, is he mentions there was a real desire by the big wigs to cut what is actually my favourite part out of the film, the opening clock sequence with Elias Koteas, but Fincher managed to keep it in. By the sounds of it there was a lot that was cut and trimmed, but the sequences mentioned aren’t found anywhere. Overall it’s an excellent track, and I have to say it did actually make me appreciate the film a little more, caused me to think about it a bit more and I’ll more than likely revisit the film again sometime in the future.
Common to all of Criterion’s Blu-ray releases you will also find the Timeline on disc one. You can open it from the pop-up menu or by pressing the RED button on your remote. This is a timeline that shows your current position in the film. It lists the index chapters for the film and the commentary track, and you can also switch to the commentary track from here. You also have the ability to “bookmark” scenes by pressing the GREEN button and return to them by selecting them on the timeline. You can also delete bookmarks by pressing the BLUE button. This is pretty common on Blu-ray (also common on HD DVD) so it’s nothing new, but I’ve always liked Criterion’s presentation.
The remaining supplements are found on the second dual-layer disc.
The big feature is a 2 hour and 55 minute documentary on the making of the film called The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button, probably one of the most comprehensive documentaries I’ve ever seen on the making of a newer film. This feature covers just about everything about the film, down to every little detail. More amazing is the fact it’s even longer than the film.
You have a few options to watch the feature. When you select it from the main menu a pop-out menu appears that gives you the option to “Play All”, which plays the entire documentary. It’s also broken out into 4 sections that lead to other pop-out menus (which I’ll cover further on in the review.)
The documentary covers pre-production, production, and then post-production (and also quickly covers the film’s premiere.) It begins with how the project first came into being, way back in 1986. Since then it’s moved from studio to studio (Universal to Paramount and then as a co-production between Paramount and Warner Bros.) and from director to director (it began with Frank Oz attached and then went to Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard) and from actor to actor (believe it or not, Martin Short was first attached, then Tom Cruise.) Finally, after Spike Jonze walked away, it went to Fincher. It’s long history had to do with the technical limitations at the time. After some starts and stops after getting to Fincher, some script revisions (with Eric Roth completely redoing the original script by Robin Swicord), and issues with his two stars Pitt and Blanchett (Fincher shamelessly admits he was glad the two ended up dropping out of The Fountain, though offers apologies to Aronofsky) the film finally went into production, almost 20 years after it first started going around town.
The production section covers the actual shooting, offering plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, and also offers some footage without finished effects shots. The attention to detail in this doc is quite good. For example, one sequence early in the film presents a quick WWI battle sequence that really only lasts a few seconds. The documentary spends at least 5-minutes covering how the sequence was done, even getting down to the nitty-gritty of how the explosions were done (old school pyrotechnics.) The documentary also features interviews with members of the cast including (but not limited to) Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Jason Flemyng, Taraji P. Henson, and Jared Harris, who jokes about how his friends would ask him what it was like working with Pitt, despite the fact he did most of his acting with Pitt’s body double (Pitt’s head digitally inserted into those scenes later.) It covers location shooting in New Orleans and then Montreal, which apparently presented a less friendly work environment (and the Montreal people are described as “wonderful people who were happy to see us go.”) There’s also extensive amount of detail about the sets and their construction, and like Zodiac, there are plenty of sequences that use CGI that are not obvious at all and I was sort of surprised when the documentary points these scenes out.
the post-production section (the longest section of the documentary) heavily covers the film’s special effects. It begins with the film’s editing process, showing how Fincher would approve of the editing (using software that reminds me of bug tracking software I’ve used.) It then gets into how the aging effects were done, starting with motion capture on Pitt (and it looks like most of Pitt’s performance was actually done in a warehouse while attached to a rather uncomfortable looking device) and then goes through the rather surprising number of steps it took to insert an aging Pitt into the film. It then covers the effects that were done to make their actors look younger, which is nothing new in Hollywood apparently (one effects member comments that they do this for plenty of movies but aren’t allowed to talk about it, this being one of the few cases where they can.) I actually found this aspect interesting as they talk about the techniques and formulas used to make someone look younger (with the aid of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon of course.) There’s plenty of step-by-step sequences, before-and-after comparisons, and plenty of shots of actors being trapped in something as their heads and/or faces are scanned. The whole documentary is actually quite fascinating but this section is of course the most intriguing and the one most will jump right to.
The post-production section also covers the sound effects in the film, including Pitt’s change in voice, which was mostly him, but there were some modifications through computers. And then there is a long bit with composer Alexandre Desplat, who talks about writing the score for the film, and includes footage of him editing/writing, and then recording the score with an orchestra. The documentary then ends with its premiere in New Orleans.
Like previous Fincher releases, this is an extensive, fascinating, detail-oriented (and extremely technical) making-of, and alone is worth the extra bit of money when compared to the price of Paramount’s single-disc edition of the film. I found it completely fascinating, and much more honest and revealing than other documentaries of this nature. It’s long, but well worth it.
This documentary pretty much makes up for the supplements on this release, though there’s some other things hidden in here.
As I mentioned before the documentary is also broken out into four sections from its pop-out menu and then each item contains its own pop-out menu. These sections contain segments from the complete documentary and then also contain material not found in the documentary. I’ll go through each one.
First Trimester presents two sections from the documentary, Preface, running about 4-minutes, and Development and Pre-production, running 28-minutes. This section also includes 12-minutes worth of footage under Tech Scouts, covering some of the location scouts. It shows some discussion on how some scenes will play out and how the camera will move, and even shows locations that were ultimately not used (as noted.)
Two galleries are also found here, including a storyboard gallery and an art direction gallery. The storyboard gallery is an extensive collection of hand drawn and computer rendered boards, and I’ll be honest and state I didn’t get through it all. At first I thought the entire collection of boards were included here, though after what I think was 50-60 frames this obviously wasn’t the case. The opening sequence looks to be extensively covered, as are a lot of the moments on the tug boat. The art direction gallery is also a long one, presenting various photos of the sets and locations in the film.
The next section, Second Trimester again has two parts from the complete documentary, including Production: Part 1, running 26-minutes, and Production: Part 2, running 29-minutes. Not included in the documentary is Costume Design, which is a 7-and-a-half minute interview with Jacqueline West, who talks about her influences for the costumes, which were a mix of handmade and found pieces. There’s also sketches and photos mixed in.
You’ll also find a Costume Gallery, which is actually a very short collection of photos showcasing the film’s costumes. Unfortunately no sketches are included, which I at least would have liked.
Third Trimester doesn’t present anything exclusive and only presents sections that are shown in the complete documentary, including Visual Effects: Performance Capture (8-minutes), Visual Effects: Benjamin (17-minutes), Visual Effects: Youthenization (6-minutes), Visual Effects: The Chelsea (9-minutes), Visual Effects: The Simulated World (13-minutes), Sound Design (16-minutes), and Desplat’s Instrumentarium (15 minutes), which is the interview with the composer.
Birth presents the Premiere, a 4-minute bit also found in the documentary. You’ll also find a gallery of Production Stills, a good sized collection of photos from the set, which includes some of the effects work, sculptures and renderings, sets (in front of blue screens), stand-in actors for Pitt, group shots of various crew members, lots of shots of Fincher, and more blue screens.
Outside of the documentary section of the release, on the main menu, you’ll find Theatrical Trailers which takes you to two of them, and a Stills Gallery, which contains the same galleries found elsewhere (storyboard gallery, art direction gallery, costume gallery, and production stills gallery.)
And of course it wouldn’t be a Criterion Collection release if it didn’t contain some sort of insert. Criterion has been going ballistic with booklets lately, but this release only contains a small insert with a short three page essay by Kent Jones, which offers praise for the film and Fincher, and is actually a pretty good read.
And that’s it. Technically speaking Criterion had very little to do with putting this release together, the special edition being handled by David Prior who has produced all of Fincher’s prior DVD and hi-def releases (as I understand it.) Since the film is so new there’s very little in the way of analysis of the film, something most Criterion releases offer. Still, it’s a very thorough, complete package, almost up there with the 2-disc Zodiac release. Admirers and fans of the film will most assuredly be happy with the supplements found on here.
The Blu-ray is a fabulous release. The transfer is stunning, one of the better hi-def transfers I’ve come across, and the audio presents a distinct improvement over the DVD edition. But what makes this release even more attractive, like the DVD, is the extensive making-of documentary, The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button, which covers the exhaustive decades long process of making the film. All Blu-ray owners who are looking to own the film shouldn’t fret about the Blu-ray, it’s most certainly a stunner.
NOTE ON THIS RELEASE: There seems to be some confusion about this release and I've inserted a note here to clear up some questions. Paramount Home Entertainment handled just about every aspect of this release, including printing, manufacturing, and distribution. In essence this is a Paramount Blu-ray with Criterion Collection branding, Criterion having very little, if anything, to do with it. The packaging was handled completely by Paramount, which is why this release comes with a regular Blu-ray case (and sleeve) and not Criterion's clear Blu-ray case.