Voyager and The Criterion Collection

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: When did you form Voyager?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: 1984.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: In the beginning, were you working on CD-ROMs?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: No, CD-ROMs didn’t exist. They didn’t come out until 1989.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: So, you were preparing laserdiscs?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: When we started in 1984, laserdiscs were the one medium I thought was ready for prime time in an aesthetic sense. Part of the problem is that if you come out of the book world, you have several hundred years of book design, and there’s a certain aesthetic that goes along with that. You couldn’t have that aesthetic on an Apple II at that point. But with laserdiscs, you could do anything you wanted to in terms of graphics. It just seemed like the right place to start. The other thing was that I worked with Alan Kay at Atari for a while, and, through him, I had met a lot of people at Warner’s, which led, albeit a bit circuitously, to the founding of Criterion and Voyager.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: Can you talk a little bit about the origin of The Criterion Collection? I read an interview in which you said you weren’t a film buff. How did you get involved in film?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: I was not a film buff, but in the same way that you might say that long-form television or video games are dominant today, clearly, growing up in the 60s, film was where it was at. Anybody who wanted to make their mark in the media world wanted to go into film. So, compared to my best friend, who went to NYU film school and became a film director, I was not a film buff. But I loved movies. And, one of the first things I tried to do when I moved out to California was to put together a cable channel to show classic films. It hadn’t been done yet, and it was one of those things that was sort of impossible because of rights issues. I mean, I didn’t have the kind of power that Ted Turner had a few years later, but that was one of the first things I tried to do.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 One of the people I met through Alan Kay was Stan Cornyn, who was responsible for Warner music division’s CD-ROM strategy. Stan gave me a pile of money to generate ideas for innovative CD-ROMs. Unfortunately Atari collapsed just then and with it Warner’s appetite for risky innovation, so I started pitching the ideas to anyone who would listen. At the end of a meeting with the head of RKO Home video, I asked if he would sell me a very specific tier of videodisc rights to Citizen Kane and King Kong. He said “yes” and The Criterion Collection was born.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: Were those some of the earliest Criterion laserdiscs?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: Those were the first two, yes.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: How involved were you with the actual production of the laserdiscs?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: 100%.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: How did you decide which extra materials to add?

BS: Well, with films like Citizen Kane and King Kong, you’d add everything you could possibly get your hands on. There was only a limited number of things available. Doing a film to video transfer is an art. For Kane and Kong we recruited Ron Haver, the film curator of the LA County Museum of Art and a lovely, lovely man, to come to New York to oversee the transfer. Ron sat with us in a dark video lab and painstakingly directed a shot-by-shot color correction. There were other people in the room — Peter Crown and Jennifer Scanlon — and I think it was one of them who raised the idea of using the extra audio track on the videodisc to record some of the fantastic stories that Ron was telling about the films. King Kong was his favorite movie, so we asked Ron if he would record a second soundtrack. He didn’t particularly want to do it, but we got him very stoned, and he did it. And thus, the commentary track was born.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: Did you imagine that your audience for these discs would be film buffs? Did you think they would become popular?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: I always thought The Criterion audience was your average intelligent viewer/reader who wanted to know a little bit more about the film.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: How much were the laserdiscs sold for? And how much did laserdisc players cost then?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: The biggest problem in terms of costs was the manufacture of the actual discs. We were paying 3M or Pioneer $10 per disc at the beginning, so a 3-disc set like Kane was costing us over $35 including the box. We wholesaled the discs at $62, which meant a list price of $125 for Kane and $100 for the 2-disc Kong.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: But they sold pretty quickly?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: The Criterion Collection was a huge critical success from Day 1, but at those prices, we weren’t going to sell a lot of discs and we weren’t going to make much on what we did sell. As long as it was on laserdisc, Criterion generated lots of cash, but not much profit. Now that it has moved to DVD, my understanding is that it’s quite profitable.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: Was there any interactivity on those discs? What kind of interface did they have?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: There wasn’t much interface. I mean, there were chapters. So you’d have a chapter that would have the script and a chapter that would have outtakes; there was no layering possible. You couldn’t click on a section of the screen and have something happen.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: One of things that strikes me about the process of adding extras or adding context to the artifact itself is that in some ways, it’s reminiscent of your later work on CommentPress, which involves a kind of annotation of the main text. Do you see that kind of connection between your early work on those laserdiscs and your later work?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: Sure. There are themes and ideas that have run on a pretty straight line through my work for thirty years. You know, it was interesting — yesterday, somebody on Facebook posted something that said, “Context is everything.” To which I replied, “Geez, that’s even more than the forty IQ points Alan Kay says you get from ‘point of view.’” I’ve always assumed that real learning is a function of an interaction between the text, your brain, and your imagination. If something occurs to you while reading, you need to be able to follow the thought. If something isn’t raising questions in your head, then it’s probably not doing much. And if it’s raising questions, then you want to get answers.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 So, one question I’ve been addressing consistently is how do we take the extant analog culture with us into the digital era in such a way that it respects the original, but also employs the affordances of new media to enhance our understanding and appreciation of the work.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Back in 1981, I wrote a paper for Britannica where I tried to imagine what an encyclopedia could be like, and I called it “The Intelligent Encyclopedia.” The model was very much that you have a question, and you ask it — not unlike the way we all work with Google today. The one difference is that we’re not even close to where we were hoping we would get to, which is that the encyclopedia would actually engage you in a conversation that was appropriate to you — to your level, to the kinds of questions you had, etc. We will get there eventually. But I think we thought back in 1980 that artificial intelligence was much closer than it’s turned out to be.

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