For the last 15 years, Brian Ward has been working for Shout! Factory, an entertainment company that re-releases fan-favorite films and television series for Blu-ray and DVD. Over the course of his time there, he moved from stuffing envelopes to becoming Senior Director of Video Production and Digital Media.
His job for Shout! now runs the gamut, from being involved in the art direction of the packaging, to digging up archival bonus material and creating new material such as audio commentaries and documentaries for the company’s releases.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Ward about what his job at Shout! entails, what were some of his most memorable projects, and what advice he has for those looking to get started in their own nerdy profession.
Let’s start with your origin story. How did you get your position at Shout! Factory? How has your role changed over the years?
When I moved to L.A., I found myself needing to fall back on my retail management career from back east — at one time, I managed a Suncoast video store in Northern Virginia. After a year or two of managing a similar store in L.A., a friend suggested I apply for a position at this new company started by the founders of Rhino Records. They were right at a year old and were much more of a music label, but still produced VHS and DVD releases.
I was hired part-time at Shout! Factory to come in and stuff envelopes that would go to press or radio stations. Soon, I was "office managing," in a way. When I wasn't mailing stuff out, I was cleaning around the office, ordering supplies, restocking the fridges, etc. Within six months, I was quality controlling DVDs during my downtime. And within about six months of that, I was in the department full-time, coordinating deliveries and evaluations of masters.
No matter what, though, I was constantly inputting my experiences from working with customers. I knew what they wanted in their DVDs. I was actually a pretty avid DVD collector, myself, and I certainly knew what I wanted. I was loud about that stuff. After Shout! Factory began working with DiC — the animation studio behind Inspector Gadget, Heathcliff and The Catillac Cats, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, etc. — I was tasked with producing my first DVD set, C.O.P.S.: The Animated Series. And I've never looked back.
Once Shout! gets rights to produce an old film or TV show, how do you figure out the balance between finding old stuff and creating new content?
In many cases — especially with the films we work on — a lot of them have been out on DVD or Blu-ray before. My first task, when looking at bonus material, is looking at what already exists and has been released and deciding what should be ported over to our release.
More often than not, we want everything. After all, we're looking for the release to be "definitive," so it would behoove us to take what's already out there and make it available. But then, never content, we go out to fans. In the case of Power Rangers, for which I produced 20 seasons in a massive 98-disc set housed in a giant Red Ranger helmet, I went to the fans and asked them what they wanted to see. The response was overwhelming. While I'd certainly been familiar with the Power Rangers phenomenon growing up, I'd be a liar if I said that I really knew the show and what was available before getting started. They created a deep list for me. And because of that list, I knew what to ask for.
But while all of this archival stuff is important for collectors, fans want to see and hear from the stars and directors and screenwriters and producers and cinematographers. They want new material. So I make it a No. 1 priority to create brand-new, never-before-seen documentaries on everything I do, if I can. I bring my crew in; some fantastic shooters, Irving Ong and Joe Otanez, and my editor, Frank Mohler. I interview anyone and everyone I can, down to Michael J. Fox's basketball double in Teen Wolf.
Where/how do you curate archival bonus material?
In the very beginning, I'd do everything myself, by hand. While I was producing the animated series collections for DiC, I'd pay a visit to their offices once a month, sift through hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of original concept art, scan them and then edit them into art galleries or animated storyboards.
Now that we have a little more money allotted for bonus features, first and foremost, we hit up the studio or licensor. Oftentimes, they have access to old electronic press kit material or promos already housed in their vaults. The moment I start asking for masters, I tack on the request for bonus material. Occasionally, this material may not be approved for release on Blu-ray or DVD, so I have to attempt to license it. Sometimes, I can; sometimes, I can't.
After I hit up the studios, I go to the fans. I see what private collectors have in their stash. For our anniversary edition of The Jerk, a collector provided me the film reel for a trailer I'd never seen before and — at the time, anyway — it wasn't even on YouTube. It was a trailer made "exclusively" for theater owners where Steve Martin addresses them and talks about how he and Carl Reiner, the film's director, will be able to successfully con audiences into coming to see the movie and how they even have nefarious plans for getting the audiences to go out and buy more popcorn.
Clearly, this trailer is a joke — if you need "proof," at the end of the trailer, you can hear a disembodied voice exclaiming, "Hey, who put this reel on?! This is for theater owners only! Put the other reel on!" It's pure gold. And now, it's on the Blu-ray, thanks to a fan getting in touch and providing it.
Do you have another example of an undiscovered gem that you uncovered or a particularly difficult piece of footage you wanted to track down?
I recently produced the collector's edition Blu-ray for Dragnet, the movie starring Tom Hanks, Dan Aykroyd, and Christopher Plummer. The one thing fans really wanted was the "City of Crime" music video, which was directed and choreographed by Paula Abdul. It's iconic; Hanks and Aykroyd rapping and "dancing" in a police station set, surrounded by professional dancers. Sadly, while Universal had a copy of the master ready to go, Universal Music (a separate entity altogether, believe it or not) had the rights to the music and, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't license it in time to go onto the release. But I was able to include something I'd not even known about: a full hour-long (45 minutes, sans commercials) TV special that was hosted by Hanks and Aykroyd. That was a real score.
Could you talk about the process of restoring old footage? What do you have to do to get it into DVD/Blu-Ray shape?
We work with some great companies that take old negatives or interpositives and do new 2K or 4K scans and color correction. At this point, they'll usually provide me with a screening link to approve color or we'll physically go in and take a look. In some cases, this can be simple. In others, I may want to go through scene-by-scene. Once I approve the color, they move into restoration, where they'll use computers to remove hairs, dirt, and scratches from the image.
Without specific notes from the original color grading and mastering, a lot of this stuff is subjective. We do our best by comparing against reference copies, but many of those have been produced by masters that have been tinted by age. When we get the chance to fix that, the movie looks completely different from versions you may have seen before. It takes on a whole new life. The last thing we want is to improperly release the movie or go against the filmmaker's intent, so when we can, we make sure to run it by them and get their seal of approval.
By far the most intense restoration was the one that was done to Pee-wee's Playhouse. Paul Reubens still owns the original negatives — every frame of footage ever shot for the show — and we had every episode recreated from scratch, down to the special effects. The process was long for everyone; especially Paul, who reviewed every shot of restored footage — in some cases, multiple times. The result is undeniably gorgeous and worth every second.