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A Conversation with Bill Panzer

Highlander on DVD

This is an exciting time for the DVD format, in that several TV series are finally being released on disc in complete season sets. These episodes on DVD usually feature better picture and sound quality than you've ever seen them in before, along with a host of behind-the-scenes extras. Recently, fans of the Highlander TV series were thrilled to learn that the entire first season of the show would soon be released on disc (orders are being taken now for immediate delivery). I was fortunate enough to sit down with series producer Bill Panzer and DVD producer Steve Gustafson a few days ago, at the Burbank offices of CineSite, to talk about the DVD release and what fans can look forward to in the future. Enjoy...

Bill Hunt: Bill, why don't we start by having you talk a little bit about your involvement with Highlander over the years, and what you're currently working on aside from these new DVDs.

Bill Panzer: Sure. I was the executive producer of the TV series and a producer, with my partner Peter Davis, of all of the films. I also acted as a consultant on an animated series that came out a few years ago, which was very successful around the world. Currently, we're starting development with Miramax on a fifth movie, which is tentatively called The Source, and we're in development on another TV series as well. It's a little too soon to talk much about the details of that yet. It will have the same legend and rules that Highlander did, but it's going to go in a different direction. It's also going to be a little younger.

Bill Hunt: That's true of several of the different incarnations of Highlander, isn't it? Each is based on the same idea, but they each re-envision it a little bit...

Bill Panzer: Right - that's true. We're also working on a massive, multi-player, online game, which has been in development for about eighteen months. It's probably got another ten months to go before it's ready, but I think that in future DVD sets - maybe in Season Two - we'll have some kind of an Easter egg teaser for that. I've seen a 30 second teaser for it, and it's really amazing.

Bill Hunt: And that's a huge area to move into. That online multi-player experience is really hot right now.

Bill Panzer: Very much so. We're really excited about it.

Bill Hunt: Who came up with the legend and lore of Highlander. We're you involved in that?

Bill Panzer: I was, but the original story came from Greg Widen, who was the original writer. He was a student at film school, and he wrote this as his writing class project. His story was a little different - it was darker and didn't really have a lot of special effects in it, but it was essentially the concept. He was apparently travelling through Scotland on his summer vacation and he was standing in front of a suit of armor, and he wondered, "What would it be like if that guy was alive today?" And that's where everything fell into place - the idea that there are Immortals and they were in conflict with each other, leading secret lives that the rest of us are unaware of.

Bill Hunt: Now... there were six seasons of the TV series, is that right?

Bill Panzer: There were six seasons... a hundred and nineteen hours. They were a French/Canadian co-production - Gaumont in France, Filmline International in Canada and they were distributed by Rysher here in the States. We shot half of the shows in Vancouver and the other half in Paris, which was not unpleasant. (laughs) And we did all the post production in Vancouver. Gaumont in particular was a great partner. We could never have done the show in Paris without them, because everything takes a long time there. If you want a permit to shoot on the streets of Paris, it takes ten days to get one. Period, no matter who you are. And generally the script isn't finished until ten days before shooting, so it could get a little dodgy. But having a strong French partner was very helpful. The show never would have happened without them.

Bill Hunt: When did you first get the idea to release the series to DVD here in the States? In the last couple of years, we've just started to see TV stuff finally arriving on DVD, with The X-Files and Star Trek, but the idea of bringing TV to DVD is still a little bit new yet in some respects...

Highlander: Season One on DVD

Bill Panzer: Well... we felt first of all that the nature of the added value material that we have - The Watcher Chronicles, the interviews, the scripts, etc - you couldn't really do on VHS. Plus, there's the inferior quality of VHS. Only about a half a dozen people ever really saw what Highlander really looked like - those of us who saw the production masters. We thought that people who liked the show and supported it would really respond to having it in a way that would always be perfect. It would never deteriorate. Because we had a lot of people who bought two sets of the episodes on VHS - one to watch and one to keep on the shelf in perfect condition. And we thought everyone would really get a big kick out of having them on DVD. We've spent a long time rebalancing the color, correcting the contrast. As you know, in broadcast, the quality is worse than it is on VHS, and VHS is of far less quality than the original master. The images on these DVDs are better than those original masters, because of the enhancements that you can do now with the technology. We think these episodes look as good, if not better, than any other TV show that's been released on DVD.

Bill Hunt: And I understand that you've also gone in and done new 5.1 mixes of the soundtracks for each episode...

Bill Panzer: We did. And yet we also offer the original 2.0 stereo for those who prefer it.

Bill Hunt: When you went into the DVD project, did you have a particular vision for it, or an idea of the kinds of things you wanted to include on the discs?

Bill Panzer: DVD was still pretty new for us. We had done the laserdisc and DVD versions of the films - Highlander and Highlander II - so we were aware of what some of the possibilities were technically. We knew that we could improve the quality. But it was definitely a learning process for me. I had been involved in color timing all of our features, so we had an idea of what the process would be like, but getting involved with these guys in terms of what you could do with the sound, how best to digitally compress the video and what the best rate was - that was all new. Panzer in QC with Craig Rudnick.
Panzer in QC with Craig Rudnick.

I should add, though, that when we did the Highlander IV DVD, the cut we did for that was actually our official extended director's cut. We were able to create a negative during that process and that's the version of the film that was shown theatrically in Europe. We did have some DVD experience.

Bill Hunt: So you said that you had all of this behind-the-scenes material - The Watcher Chronicles, the character bios, the timelines. DVD is really perfect for that kind of interactive material.

Bill Panzer: Yes, because The Watcher Chronicles was originally done for CD-ROM. We then decided that we would add that to the DVDs, so that when you're watching each episode, when a particular character comes on screen, you could go out and see who he is, who his Watcher was - that sort of thing. There's a woman named Donna Letto who did this stuff, who created The Watcher Chronicles. And it's absolutely so rich and complex, that in printed form, it's the size of a telephone book. Fans have really responded to that. They love getting in there and finding out what kind of sword this guy uses and who was his Watcher in 1750, who it was a hundred years later... all of which was not in the show. We created the whole mythos of the Watchers in the second season and filled it all in. It was great fun.

Bill Hunt: SciFi and TV fans really do tend to love that kind of thing - being able to go more in depth on the characters and their history...

Bill Panzer: Oh yeah. And then, for the DVDs, I went up to Vancouver and kind of wandered around some of the locations where we shot the series at. I did some on-camera talking about some of the fun things, the crazy things that happened behind-the-scenes on each episode. And we included that as well.

Bill Hunt: And then the bonus disc has all the bloopers and other things?

Steve Gustafson: The eighth disc has the final episode and then the bloopers, the gag reel...

Bill Panzer: And there's also a half-hour promotional film that was made to present the series, which ran on TV in 1990-something. I forget exactly when. So that's on there. And THEN there's a bonus disc, which is a CD-ROM that has all twenty-two scripts for the episodes. These are the final drafts of the scripts - not the "as shot" scripts which are floating around the marketplace. Those are - basically after you show the episode, someone goes and creates a new script based on the way you've actually edited the episode. These are different from that.

Bill Hunt: So there's material in these scripts that maybe didn't make the final episodes? Dialogue and different scenes...?

Bill Panzer: Exactly. We think fans will really enjoy that. And they're actually MY scripts. So hopefully there's nothing rude written in - little notations. (laughs)

Bill Hunt: When did production actually begin on this first DVD set?

Panzer and Rik Morgan in authoring.
Panzer and Rik Morgan in authoring.
Bill Panzer: Well... we started on Season One in July. Somewhere in the middle of July. And we finally finished everything up and sent the masters off to the manufacturers... what, last week?

Steve Gustafson: Yeah, that's right. They're pressing them as we speak.

Bill Panzer: So it's been about a four-and-a-half month process to get them all finished.

Bill Hunt: And when do the discs street?

Bill Panzer: Well, the discs are available right now on Highlander: The Website, and through a fan club mailing. There are currently no plans for them to be available in stores - just online. But the discs will be available in ample time for Christmas.

Bill Hunt: When do discs begin shipping out to people when they order? Is there a specific date that they begin shipping?

Bill Panzer: Basically, immediately. The first batch of them are done and should be here this week. Give or take a few days, because nothing seems to happen on time in this world. But you'll get eight discs, in keep cases, with a slipcase to hold them. The packaging isn't complicated, so it's actually pretty easy to get them done. And we have a DVD hotline that only deals with this product, so questions, ordering - it's very easy.

Bill Hunt: Now... as you alluded to earlier, you've already got plans to bring additional seasons to DVD?

Bill Panzer: Yes. Gradually. I think we'll probably do them maybe one per quarter. I'll start on the next one after the first of the year.

Bill Hunt: Do you have any plans to expand the extras, or do some different things on future discs?

Bill Panzer: What I'd like to do is... as charming and wonderful as my interviews are... I'd like to get some of the other people who worked on the series involved. David Abramowitz, who was the head writer of the show, has said that he would do some interviews. And David is particularly good at talking about this stuff, because he was responsible for creating most of these characters. I might try to get some of the actors involved as well. We could do a running commentary, but it's also fun to see some of them on camera again after all these years. And there are some funny things that happened in post-production and scoring over the years. We'll try to sprinkle that over the sets as we go.

Bill Hunt: For you Steve, was there anything that was particularly challenging about this project? This was the first TV series DVD release that you've worked on here at CineSite...

Steve Gustafson: Well, TV isn't something that's really widely being done yet. So it's a slow process. Everyone is sort of looking at each TV release to see how they sell. I think there have been other issues involved in bringing TV product to DVD as well, which have to do with revenue streams and syndication life.

Bill Hunt: I know that one of the problems people complain about is that American TV shows are being released in Europe, on Region 2 DVDs say, but they're not out yet here in the States because someone owns the domestic syndication rights and doesn't want it to happen.

Steve Gustafson: And then you have shows like The X-Files, which are doing tremendously well and are also doing well on DVD, because the fans base is so strong and those people all have DVD players. I think Highlander is right along those lines. I'm amazed how people react when they learn I'm working on the Highlander DVDs. People are just totally excited about it.

Bill Hunt: And as you said, it's really the same demographic. The people who are the most avid fans of these shows... many of them were part of the early adopter group of DVD owners.

Steve Gustafson: Sure. The adventure/SciFi crowd is what really drove DVD for its first few years. And now the format has broken out into the mainstream.

Bill Hunt: Is there anything that really stands out for you on the technical side of bringing Highlander to DVD?

Steve Gustafson: Well... every project has its own set of challenges. We worked closely with Bill and his people, who have been very helpful in terms of making suggestions and problem solving. I'm particularly happy with the decision to go to 5.1 with the audio, because I think that's really a nice added value feature for the fans, who are now accustomed to surround sound on DVD. This show really has great sound work - it adds a richness to the viewing experience. On DVD, I think fans are really going to love Highlander. And I think a whole new audience will discover it as well.

Bill Panzer: We really have great fans. I've been to many of the conventions, along with many of the other people who worked on the show, and have had a chance to meet these fans. And they're very passionate about the show - they understand it, they're smart, they're funny. They come from every different walk of like. And they probably know Highlander better than we do. It's really rewarding to stand up in front of a group of a few thousand of them and talk about what I do. You really get to see why you're doing the work - who it's all for. I want people to know that we're grateful for all the fan support we've gotten over the years. And I think these DVDs are really our way of saying thank you. This show has never looked and sounded this good... ever. We hope everybody enjoys it.

Bill Hunt: Thanks for talking with us, guys.

Bill Panzer & the staff of CineSite. (L to R Top) Panzer, Chris Espinel, John DeGroof (kneeling), Rik Morgan and Craig Rudnick. (Bottom) Steve Gustafson and Dan Agostino.
Bill Panzer & the staff of CineSite. (L to R Top) Panzer, Chris Espinel,
John DeGroof (kneeling), Rik Morgan and Craig Rudnick.
(Bottom) Steve Gustafson and Dan Agostino.

Produced at CineSite
Our thanks again to Bill Panzer, Steve Gustafson and the staff of CineSite for their time and assistance. If you're interested in ordering The Highlander: Season One on DVD, be sure to visit Highlander: The Official Site. As always, I welcome your comments.

Bill Hunt

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