2 Audio commentary - Rob Sitch & Santo Cilauro, Jane Kennedy & Tom Gleisner
Behind the scenes footage
2 TV spot
Interactive film trivia
Working Dog/Roadshow Entertainment .
R4 . COLOR . 97 mins .
M15+ . PAL
Space. It’s really big. And anything to do with exploring it has long been a fascination for those whose dreams of exploration and excitement about possibility were made crystal-clear and solid by the efforts of the US and Soviet governments in the ‘50s and ‘60s to make their way into the unknown. It’s a ridiculously romantic attitude, needless to say, to have about something that’s actually quite technical and politically competitive. But for this writer and hundreds of thousands of others, the very idea that human beings could venture to another world, land on it and come back to tell the tale is nothing less than irresistible.
When Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins took command of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission with the intention of landing a human being on the moon for the first time, I was two and a half years old. That’s not even close to being old enough to understand what such a massive undertaking really involved, yet the early memory of being sat in front of the TV to watch this remarkable event in fuzzy, ill-defined monochrome remains to this day, though of course the sheer scope of such an achievement wasn’t comprehensible at the time. Thirty-two years later, that fascination and enchantment inspired by the moon landing is kept alive by documentaries, dramas and feature films about the US space program and the Apollo 11 crew’s mission to the moon - and in fact, with space exploration now restricted largely to research in orbit, the achievements of the Apollo mission seem even larger with every passing year.
You too can have foxtel at home...
All of the above, of course, is just personal memory. But I strongly suspect that Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro, Jane Kennedy and Tom Gleisner have similar emotions and dreams about this great moment in human history. After all, they’ve made a movie that’s saturated in the emotion and dreaming of it all. But unlike other films before it, The Dish politely yet firmly relegates the actual story of the Apollo 11 astronauts - and the team that supported them - to the background. After all, this is a story that’s been told many times before, one that we all know in some way. Instead, their story focuses on an element of the Apollo 11 mission rarely written about until now - the story of the men that manned the Parkes radio telescope and were instrumental in bringing images of the moon landing to the world. But behind that story, there’s the town of Parkes, a small but proud community that suddenly finds itself playing a vital role in one of the greatest events of the 20th century.
Like this team’s debut feature The Castle, what makes The Dish so special is its focus on ordinary people surrounded by extraordinary events. There’s nothing especially unusual about an Australian scientific installation being borrowed or used by the US for its space and military projects, and Parkes was hardly the first Australian community to be drawn in to the Americans’ agenda of experiments and exploration. But Apollo 11 was a special, unique moment in history, and The Dish tells the story of a group of Australian people - not just scientists and technicians, but also ordinary people - who found themselves playing a key part in an historic moment.
A pack of Galahs
Sam Neill plays the fictional Cliff Buxton, in charge of the Parkes radio telescope and a team of laconic but dedicated staff. The facility has been seconded by NASA to become a vital part of the Apollo 11 mission, and that role becomes history-making when the news comes through that the first television pictures from the moon will be received and relayed by the Parkes station. Needless to say, the town is somewhat excited by all this, and while the technical team deal with unexpected power outages and technical problems, the rest of Parkes finds itself the subject of attention from the Prime Minister, American ambassadors and the like. And of course, the sheer honour of being such an essential part of history in the making has everyone in Parkes rather excited…
While the director credit on The Dish goes to Rob Sitch, it’s notable that the principal credit at the end of the film is for the entire four-person team. These people have been working together for many years on television, exploring sketch comedy, documentaries and, of course, their still-running casual forum The Panel. But it was The Castle that got everyone looking - and for good reason. That movie’s insightful mix of comedy and spot-on human observation clicked with huge numbers of people, simply because it was the first time in years that anyone had bothered to make a film about people that were simply ordinary who beat the system in an extraordinary way. The Dish follows a similar path, but this time the ordinary people do their ordinary jobs in extraordinary circumstances, and it’s the character drama that arises from that which gives this film its heart. Never before has a film been made about the space program that has so little, at its core, to do with the actual space program. Yet at the same time, the experiences of the characters in The Dish parallel those of everyone else - those who were there at the time, as well as those who know the story only as history. It’s a wide-eyed, affectionate story about the sheer amazingness of it all, with the funnier moments acting more as comic enhancement than comic relief.
Nervous boy meets the (other) dish
Basically, The Dish confirms what The Castle implied - the Working Dog team are remarkably skilled at crafting dramatic but knowingly funny feature films that don’t condescend to the audience or take themselves too seriously. The Dish, like its predecessor, manages to be warm, nostalgic, inspiring compelling AND funny all at the same time, and that’s so rare in modern cinema it’s impossible to sit through this film and not come out with a great big smile plastered all over your face. In other words, these relative novices are coming up with the modern-day equivalent of classic Hollywood - and all on the catering budget of a mainstream US movie. And with a cast of hugely talented and convincing actors - most of them not familiar names on the big screen - it’s an irresistibly warm and genuine story, told with gentle humour and affection.
Apparently closely supervised by the filmmakers, the video transfer of The Dish is nothing less than superlative, easily outdoing the finest cinema presentation in its richness of colour and contrast and natural warmth. The film is presented with a slightly more open matte than it was in theatres, at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and 16:9 enhanced.
Film-to-video transfers in Australia have come forward technically in leaps and bounds over the past few years, and this one’s right up there with the world’s best. It allows the scenes which make use of natural light to come across with incredible warmth and yet still display fine detail, and though the late ‘60s setting of the movie demands its fair share of garish interior design and obnoxious clothing, the telecine team have not once been tempted to go for the usual emphasis on primary colours and extreme contrasts; every minute of the feature looks perfectly cinematic and natural. Cinematographer Graeme Wood has managed to capture both the mood of the time and the character of the landscape, and it’s shown off to perfection on this DVD.
Compressionist Brian Rollason, working to fit the feature on an extras-packed disc, has done a superlative job: aside from the occasional spot of aliasing (usual for well-defined transfers on lower-resolution displays - it’s not a problem with progressive scan devices) there’s not a single objectionable compression artefact to be seen throughout the entire movie - and considering that there’s four audio tracks and around an hour and a half of extra video material on this disc, that’s quite an achievement.
Soundtrack audio is supplied in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround. Both tracks are free of any compression problems, and while the stereo track is slightly louder, the 5.1 track is notably richer and more active, even downmixed to two-track surround. In the early part of the film some of the location audio sounds curiously sharp and unnatural, but this problem disappears before long; it’s undoubtedly the fault of the original audio source, as most of the dialogue in the film appears to have been recorded on location (something almost unnerving after watching several heavily ADR-tracked Hollywood movies!).
The ‘60s songs used on the soundtrack (including a pair of wonderful Russell Morris songs) are often quite surprisingly biased towards one channel or another - but panic not, for that was how they were mixed at the time, when stereo was such a novelty and master tape tracks so limited that often entire music tracks were forced to one channel, while the vocals appeared in the other!
Edmund Choi’s large-scale orchestral score (performed beautifully by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra) is perfectly in tune with the mood of the film, and on occasions recalls the scores of other Apollo-related efforts like From The Earth To The Moon. It’s recorded and mixed with rich lows and crisp top end, and does a lot to enhance to mood of the film as a whole.
While there have been a few DVDs of Australian films that have made an effort to include some interesting and useful extra material, this DVD of The Dish breaks new ground and manages to outdo many of the finest overseas discs in the process. While the film itself is more than worth the price of the disc, the extra features included here are the best ever seen on an Australian DVD, including some unique features and material along with the expected items.
One magical view.
Incidentally, it’s well worth taking time to commend disc authoring company DVM not only for their near-flawless job on this DVD, but also for allowing us to skip past the copyright and title screens and go straight to the animated main menu - and then, if we’ve seen the animation before, to skip past that and go directly to the menu itself. This is the way it should always be done. Also important to point out is the two-screen chapter selection menu, which includes full-motion video AND synchronised soundtrack audio for every chapter as a preview, the first time we’ve ever seen this done.
The Dish On The Dish: An 11 minute featurette in the EPK style, this manages to include some concise and fascinating observations about the making of the movie and the inspirations and ideas behind it without ever seeming trite or forced. While a longer making-of would have been nice to see, what’s here is genuinely interesting and well worth watching.
Biographies: Fourteen nicely-designed and comprehensive bios and filmographies of the main actors involved in The Dish, as well as a summary of the Working Dog team’s careers to date. Hype-free and informative, these are especially welcome inclusions due to the relative unfamiliarity most will have with the cast.
Trailers: Four items here; a theatrical trailer (which doesn’t seem to quite capture the mood of the film) and two TV trailers (which do). There’s also an item named “Bonus Trailer” that leads to a very well-done summary of The Castle, due on DVD soon. Ironically, the theatrical trailers here are presented window-boxed at a 1.33:1 aspect ratio (but still 16:9 enhanced) while the TV spots are in the full 1.78:1 ratio.
Storyboards: Nineteen screens, each containing a sample from the film’s storyboards (both the artist’s rendering and the director’s sketch) along with a sample of the corresponding scene from the film itself. Not comprehensive, of course, but a nicely designed and educational inclusion.
Stills Gallery: 42 still-frame colour images, a combination of what look like official promo shots along with snapshots made on the set. These are all presented across the full width of a 16:9 screen with only the navigation buttons to disrupt them, the first time this reviewer has seen a stills gallery presented full-screen in over two years of watching DVDs. Again, this is the way it should always be done.
Commentaries: Not one, but TWO commentaries, and both of them terrific. The first commentary track features director Rob Sitch and second unit director Santo Cilauro, who talk about the directorial aspects of the film enthusiastically, constantly offering fascinating information about their motivations and approach - and they do it with humour and an obvious passion for their project. Ditto for the second commentary, which sees Jane Kennedy (who, amongst other things, handled the casting for this film, and did a superb job of it) and Tom Gleisner talking about the casting, the scoring and choice of pop music, and the use of archival footage - along with quite a few other surprising things. Both of these commentaries are terrific - they’re not patronising, they’re immensely informative, and occasionally they’re very funny. They’re worth every second of the time you take listening to them, and always directly relevant to what’s happening on the screen.
The Footage We Loved But Couldn’t Use: No, despite the title, this isn’t a reel of outtakes (something which is the only other thing we’d like to have seen on this jam-packed disc). Don’t be too disappointed about that, though. Because this is better. Way better. What you get here, over the course of a remarkable 70-odd minutes, is a collection of some of the archive footage gathered by the filmmakers during the production process, some of it partially used in the film, some not at all. But all of it’s fascinating - there’s Kennedy’s “we choose to go to the moon” speech in its entirety, there’s newsreel footage of the building of the Parkes telescope, there’s NASA footage from the Apollo missions, there’s a broadcast from the astronauts… and there’s even rare film from Sir Eric Pearce’s personal archive of the actual Channel 9 news broadcast from the day of the moon landing. This goes beyond merely being interesting. This is priceless, fascinating stuff, and worth the price of the disc on its own. But wait - there’s more! All 70 minutes of this comes with an optional audio commentary from Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch, who explain their interest in each piece of footage and its relevance to their film. A wonderful, insightful bonus.
Hidden Dish: Like the “Follow The White Rabbit” feature on the Matrix DVD, turning the Hidden Dish on leads you, via a “play” button, to the archival montage at the film’s main titles. And during the montage, a white radio telescope appears in the bottom right corner, which when selected takes you to a pair of screens containing thumbnail images that each lead to explanations of the key bits of footage used. The only thing on this disc that’s a bit too “novelty” (why not just provide this info as a menu item?), it also caused slight playback problems on the DVD-ROM based players in use here, though accessing the hidden extra screens was still easily done.
Apollo 11 Diary: Of course it’s a nice idea to include some text screens chronicling the Apollo 11 mission day by day, as the movie itself is tied so heavily to the mission’s timeline. And so here’s a concise summary, with dates and times, of the Apollo 11 mission. With a difference. Because every screen here contains one or more small audio icons, which, when selected, trigger playback of actual recordings of the radio communications between the Apollo crew and Mission Control (annoyingly, in “fake stereo”, but that’s a minor gripe). Another example of how to use the capabilities of DVD to enhance the viewer’s experience, this is a brilliant idea, well executed. The audio, of course, is fascinating.
Key Dates In Early Human Space Flight: 32 nicely designed screens of graphics and text detailing a capsule history of the entire race into space. A nice inclusion, especially for those who haven’t explored this key part of modern history before.
The Dish is a modern Australian cinema gem, created by a team of filmmakers that not only care deeply about their craft and their characters, but who also have skill and subtlety that belies their comparatively limited experience at making feature films. While it may come across as low-key to those more used to big explosions and histrionic acting, The Dish takes the uniquely unaffected cinematic style introduced in The Castle and places it into the context of Real History, making sure that the emphasis all the way is not on the events, but on the people that experience them, however far away they may be both geographically and spiritually - and it’s all done without ever taking itself too seriously.
This eagerly awaited DVD exceeds expectations in all areas, presenting the film beautifully and adding a unique and marvellous set of extra features that make it a disc against which all others can be measured.