Welcome to The Hunger Games Countdown, our resident expert's continued guide to all things Hunger Games on the way to the film's sequel, Catching Fire.
Considering I’ve already reviewed The Hunger Games twice, I’ll direct you to my non-diehard fan review over at Shockya.com and my diehard fan review right here at Movies.com so as not to give you a mile-long Hunger Games DVD Countdown. But I will say that even after watching the film a number of times since the release (a few additional theatrical screenings and a few in-flight ones), the movie still holds up incredibly well. You know there’s something special about a film when you’ve seen it so many times yet still look forward to the scenes to come. The Hunger Games has this truly addictive quality to it that makes it absolutely perfect for home viewing, and the visuals are just pitch-perfect and so incredibly immersive on Blu-ray.
Dissecting the Special Features
The second disc comes with a nice selection of material, but the shining star is definitely The World Is Watching: Making The Hunger Games. It’s a lengthy and detailed piece, so it’s appropriately chopped up into eight different sections. You’ve got the option to watch the whole thing straight through or go section by section.
It opens with Countdown, a segment that focuses on the book-to-film adaptation process. It’s primarily all talking heads and graphics of text – the book, the script, and screenshots from a certain member of the fandom, The Hob! – but there’s enough interesting pieces of information to hold your attention. Highlights include sound bites addressing the removal of Katniss’ voiceover in the film version and the effort to film the book in a manner that doesn’t celebrate the violence of the Hunger Games like the Capitol might, rather do it in a vérité style that keeps the viewer connected to Katniss.
How the Cast Came Together
Casting kicks off with a great quote from Jennifer Lawrence addressing how, other than X-Men: First Class, she’s really only made independent films because she picks her work based on scripts, not the size of the production. When, after loving the script, she said she might pass because it’s so big, her mother told her that’d make her a hypocrite. Naturally and deservedly, there’s a lot of singing Lawrence’s praises and then the piece makes an elegant transition to a similar ode to Josh Hutcherson, using a bit of Hutcherson talking about Lawrence to jump into his own casting.
Ross brings up an interesting point, remembering that when he was casting these roles, it was also the first time he was hearing his dialogue. Not only did he have to judge the performances, but his own work, too. The segment progresses to cover all of the main characters including Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Elizabeth Banks as Effie and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, bringing up a number of memories along the way including how Lawrence called Kravitz Mr. Kravitz because she’s good friends with his daughter and how, just like she did for Seabiscuit, Banks wrote Ross a letter to push for the part.
"A Movie is Like a Sausage Machine ..."
The Design section puts the focus on the visuals including shooting style, costumes, makeup and production design. Ross begins on an interesting note, likening a movie to a sausage machine because the process is designed to spit out a movie in the end no matter what. What it comes down to is whether or not that movie reflects your intentions. The video gives viewers the chance to compare the script to what we see on-screen, letting the Reaping scene play out with the text of the script scrolling over it to show how Ross goes through an intense preparation process before shooting the film.
Of course, Ross’ vision carried over to costume designer Judianna Makovsky’s work, guiding her to keep things believable more so than anything, a tough feat when the Capitol calls for such “silly” and “outrageous” costumes. Tucci leads off the discussion on makeup recalling how he ordered different noses, wigs and teeth so he could test out different looks with the makeup artist. There’s also a little treat for all you diehard Seneca Crane beard fans out there, with a little chat about how the beard stemmed from the need for Seneca to have something that would set him apart, something that other Capitol citizens would view as a trend and want to copy. Before wrapping up, this portion of the piece touches on the production design, recalling references and noting how a core concept behind the design was that it’s horizontality, open space and focal points that suggest power, not glitter, and that’s what led to the Capitol’s stately majesty.
Pulling Off the PG-13 Violence
The pace of the piece really picks up with Arena Ready. It sets the tone right from the start, playing that eerie-yet-exhilarating arena countdown before launching into a look at how they pulled off the PG-13 violence. There’s tons of behind-the-scenes training footage and we finally get some time with some of the other tributes including Isabelle Fuhrman, Alexander Ludwig, Dayo Okeniyi, Leven Rambin and more. It’s quite fun watching them all dressed down and rehearsing the big Cornucopia battle, as there’s tons of fight choreography we don’t catch in the film and, even without properly timed cuts and costumes, the action still looks brutal. The section comes to a close with the material that hit the web a few weeks ago, Lawrence dodging the fireballs and climbing trees.
Filming in Katniss' Hometown
On Location in Panem puts the focus on North Carolina. Producer Nina Jacobson notes that the filmmakers wanted to shoot the film in the region where Katniss is really from. Lawrence brings up an interesting point, noting the irony of shooting vicious material in such a beautiful place. The video highlighting Henry River, North Carolina is particularly interesting because the region was basically waiting for The Hunger Games to roll in. It’s an abandoned mill town that just so happens to come quite close to what Ross was imagining for District 12. I say quite close because the Hunger Games team actually had to fix the place up a bit so it looked livable.
Breaking Down the CGI
Effects opens up with a nifty graphic showing off the film’s CGI, layer by layer. Another particularly neat trick shows how some set dressing was added. We get a still image of Katniss running through District 12 and then, piece by piece, the visual effects team inserts set decoration that wasn’t in the actual footage. Considering one of my main visual effects criticisms of the film was the “Girl and Boy on Fire” in the opening ceremony, I was particularly interested in hearing the team discuss the thought process behind the design. It’s a little disappointing to see how much time, thought and energy went into creating something that simply doesn’t look very good, but the concept art shows that at least they weren’t too far off.
The discussion of the tracker jackers also offers up some surprising information. On-screen, the bugs look as real as any bee or wasp, but the tracker jackers are actually entirely CGI. And, of course, there’s no talking effects without discussing the mutations, the interviewees bringing up the inability to pause and explain that the mutts stem from dead tributes so instead just focusing on solidifying them as Capitol creations.
Making it Look Like a Big-Budget Production Without the Big Budget
Post Production is a nice highlight because The Hunger Games is not your average big-budget studio movie. Ross points out that he used very unconventional cutting patterns to go along with their limited budget, putting the focus on being as efficient as possible when it comes to performances. This is also directly related to the handheld shooting style. The filmmakers admit that there are a ton of jump cuts in the movie, but if you’re just sitting back and watching it, you won’t even realize. And think about it, did you?
It’s one thing to offer up a general overview of the editing process, but it’s another to put a moment of it under a microscope so you can see how truly pivotal every frame is and this section of the featurette does it twice. Ross brings up prepping the launch room scene. He insisted the room be designed a certain way in order to accommodate a certain shot and being able to have access to his thought process and see the final version of the scene simultaneously really validates the importance of such a decision. We also examine how the placement of certain shots can entirely change the meaning of a sequence, honing in on the arrangement of the shot of Rue watching Katniss in the training center, the one of Haymitch watching the little boy playing with the sword and the shot of Rue on the odds board.
And Then Came the Mall Tours
May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor opens with footage from the mall tour and asks the question, when did it start to feel like it was as big as it’s going to get? Ross pinpoints when the first full trailer came out. Apparently the hype around the movie and the fact that people were still buying the books created the perfect storm, one feeding off the other. After some more material from the mall tour we move to two weeks before the release, when The Hunger Games celebrated its big premiere. For anyone who wasn’t lucky enough to attend, there’s a great chance to see what went down inside the Nokia Theater, with the piece showing Ross’ introduction to the 3,000-person crowd.
Ross brings The World Is Watching: Making The Hunger Games to a close by crediting the success of the film to not trying to anticipate anyone’s taste; he was fortunate enough to have a very private moviemaking experience and everyone involved was just doing their thing. Lastly, as the credits role, we get this great candid moment with Lawrence as she waits for the crew to blow up the careers’ supplies. It may partially go down in slow motion in the film, but it turns out, in real life, it could pass you right by.
Overall, this is a very comprehensive look at the entire process of making the film. For the diehard fans that are eager to sort through every tiny detail, it’s endlessly fascinating, but for those of you who’d prefer a quick glance at the highlights, you might want to have your finger on the fast-forward button. Then again, if you have the time and even the slightest degree of interest, The World Is Watching: Making The Hunger Games is a very well done making-of-the-movie piece, hitting every single step of the venture and explaining each with a nice balance of general information and more specific anecdotes.
Who is Suzanne Collins?
In the Featurette section of the second disc we get Game Maker: Suzanne Collins & The Hunger Games Phenomenon. Sadly there’s no material with Suzanne Collins herself, but Part I – An Idea does touch on her relationship with Scholastic and how, after The Underland Chronicles, they trusted her to handle the violence of The Hunger Games in a respectful manner. Part II – A Reaction is easily the most engaging portion of the featurette, focusing on how The Hunger Games was chosen as the “All Read” at Jacqueline Emerson’s school. It includes interviews with teachers, students and Emerson herself during which she admits that she doesn’t normally read the “All Read.” Another highlight of Part II? It features The Hob’s Amanda and Pauline! In Part III – An Opportunity, the focus shifts to the book’s cinematic quality and Jacobson’s insistence that she be the one to produce this film. Not the liveliest of featurettes, but enough sparks to make it worth watching.
Donald Sutherland's Three-Page Letter to the Director
Letters from the Rose Garden isn’t the most exciting featurette I’ve ever seen, but the fact that I’ve never watched anything like it makes it quite special. After snagging the role of President Snow and while the film was shooting, Donald Sutherland opted to write Gary Ross a three-page letter discussing what Snow meant to the movie, the concept of power, how Snow is perceived in Katniss’ monologue in the book and more. Sutherland actually reads the letter in its entirety and then Ross explains how he responded, which was by creating the rose garden scenes.
Controlling the Games
This makes for a nice addition, as the control room is one of the prime deviations from the book. This is also the portion of the movie that involves the most interactivity between CG and live action material, and the integration really needed to be seamless. The actual control room is basically all green screen, so Ross and company had to pre-visualize all of the graphics so the actors playing the control room operators had something to work with. Then, those graphics were further enhanced to match their movements. But still, so much of the work came down to imagination and what Wes Bentley calls “your tricks.” Working with the control room material was also quite the challenge for the editors. Stephen Mirrione recalls being on set while they were shooting and having no clue what was going on. The big payoff for a featurette like this is how great the control room material turned out in the feature. Knowing that there’s a very bright light at the end of what seemed to be a very tricky tunnel makes the featurette a rewarding watch.
A Conversation with Gary Ross and Elvis Mitchell
This is definitely the most expendable featurette on the disc. It’s really just film critic Elvis Mitchell interviewing Ross, and while a few interesting points are brought up, including the idea of finding true emotion in cynicism and comparing Hunger Games heroes to Star Wars heroes, it’s really just any old sit-down interview that basically repeats all the information we got in earlier featurettes.
Preparing for the Games: A Director’s Process
A little shorter than what I was hoping, but it’s still a nice opportunity to get inside Ross’ head and understand what he needs to do in order to make the transition from screenwriter to director and have a look at the film, the script and his storyboards side-by-side.
Last up on the featurette menu is the Propaganda Film. Now this is an ideal piece of material for a DVD and Blu-ray. You think this was effective during the Reaping scene? Wait until you see it in its entirety and in full quality rather than as it appears projected on a giant screen in District 12. It’s got this wonderful eerie tone that suggests that the folks in the Capitol truly believe in this sick and twisted idea.
The second disc also has three trailers in the Marketing Gallery – the sneak peek, the theatrical trailer and the second trailer, as well as 11 posters and 74 images including a handful of brand new stills from the film and behind-the-scenes shots.
The trouble with something like The Hunger Games is that it’s just never enough. The film itself is downright fantastic and all of the special featurettes are notably well-made and very comprehensive, but I still can’t help but think about all the other items I was hoping to get from the Hunger Games DVD/Blu-ray, namely more time with the lesser-known tributes, some bloopers to lighten the mood, a little more with Suzanne Collins and maybe a look into the future. Are these missing items detrimental? Not in the least. If anything, perhaps my desperation for more highlights the magnetism of the franchise. Plus it’ll make you more inclined to splurge on that three-disc deluxe limited edition set.
‘The Hunger Games’ Countdown will return in three weeks on September 5. I’m off to make a movie of my own!
The Hunger Games Countdown runs here on Movies.com every other Wednesday. There are 463 days until the release of Catching Fire.