The Lost Art of DVD Menu Design
…or how I learned to appreciate delightful UX before I even knew what it was
After about a year of owning a computer with a CD drive, (late ’90s), I read somewhere that movies were going to slowly transition from the hearty yet fragile VHS to a new digital format on discs that looked just like CDs, called DVDs (Digital Versatile Discs).
The idea of having a movie on a disc sounded so expensive and futuristic. When I looked at my computer’s humble CD drive, I knew someday we’d have the ability to watch movies on our computers. I thought “Boy, when I can watch movies on my computer, that means I must be really successful!”
Once DVDs took over, being a movie buff, I was lucky enough to enjoy a brief golden age of our DVD era. One of the finer, nerdier points I proudly enjoyed were the DVD menus.
I liken them to mini games, like small worlds in-and-of themselves. Yes, most DVD menus presented only simple options — Play, Set-up, and Scenes — often with no fanfare. However, let’s review some (in no particular order) which offered their own little experiences before a film. Looking back at these menus, I see one of the origins of “delight” as I now know it in Experience Design. Now that I get paid to do this, I always keep in the back of my mind these wonderful doorways into new worlds.
SPOILER ALERTS: some of my commentary about these menus may reveal key plot points. If you have not seen a movie I mention below, I recommend skipping that section.
The award for ingenious subtlety goes to The Godfather Trilogy, (2008 Coppola Restoration). This box set’s design echoes a Bible format, and is a lovely presentation. Each menu is simple, like animated GIFs, looping “quiet” moments from the stories. These moments are intriguing if you haven’t seen the movies, and gut-wrenching if you have.
A dead Sonny’s foot is covered by the Play Film text, but a bullet-ridden car door tells the story of a horrific scene, akin to the deaths of Bonnie & Clyde. Both were the definition of “overkill”, overdone to prove a point.
Vito, the orphan boy, sings alone in his room at Ellis Island quarantine, an innocent, hopeful new American. Part Two spends much of its time on Vito’s early years in New York, as a young Italian, played by Robert DeNiro. DeNiro’s performance is not just brilliant, but defines great acting. In my opinion, it’s one of the high points of his career.
Dead bodies are strewn on the floor of a swanky dining room — mass demise is the only outcome. This is validated throughout Part Three, leading up to the family’s painful tragedy at the film’s conclusion.
X-Men and X-Men 3: The Last Stand
Who doesn’t wish they could play with Cerebro? Now’s your chance. You’re greeted with an elegant entry into the stunning portal of Professor Xavier’s custom telepathic connection tool. A clever, fake FBI warning blips away to simulate a retinal scan, and you are given special permission to enter. The menu itself overlays the control panel, a metaphor through the other pages like special features with humble elegance. Looking back now, I know it’s a pretty simple design, but when I first saw it I was excited to engage with something very special. Isn’t that what delight and UX is all about?
Pick a side. Upon loading the disc, before being allowed to watch the movie, you must pledge your allegiance to either Professor X and his X-Men, or Magneto and his brotherhood. Of course, any kid is going to wonder what happens if I pick Magneto? One day, you take the plunge and pick it! It’s red and fiery, fearsome and dark. Of course the movie you ultimately see is no different than the one on the Prof. X side, but for a brief moment, you chose evil and survived.
I’d say for overall DVD experience, few are more immersive than Se7en. Not only is the menu haunting, but the packaging is evidence of a cruel and frightening mind. Again, for a brief moment, you’re closer to evil than you possibly ever have been before. Dense, tiny writing seems to endlessly loop around itself and you always want to escape it. But you can’t. You have to hit Play Movie and see for yourself just how deep the evil goes.
At the end of the first Terminator movie, a remnant of the Terminator robot is left behind in the Cyberdyne factory, to be discovered as a source of invention by Cyberdyne’s Miles Dyson (played deftly by Joe Morton) and the catalyst of devastation in Terminator 2.
This menu puts you right in the menacing robot assembly line that invites devastating terror to the Earth above. You’re invited to explore the inner depths of a complex system you don’t know. Again, it’s a simple mini-game, playing with a skeuomorphic concept to make it fun and exciting to even just load the movie. Or even turn on the subtitles. Who says switching from English to Spanish has to be boring?
The multiple menu options are seen again here. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, we are given 3 options for stunning, stylish menus with equally sexy and intriguing music. In and of themselves, these menus are simple, but if you appreciate the retro style of Frank Abagnale’s many personas, and long for the regality of 1960s flying, you’ll appreciate the deco nuance of this menu. It’s understated, yet unique — much like Frank Abagnale himself.
Ok, so I am not too embarrassed to admit I put my hands on the screen for this one. Who cares what age you are? For a split second you’ve got personal access to alien technology in your living room. How awesome is that?
No doubt with young kids in mind (and adult movie lovers who simply have no shame) this menu is sweet, fun and different from most menus of its time. Men in Black marketed itself on the fun, unattainable tech of spies; why not indulge it in the menu design as a teaser of all the cool stuff you’re going to see in the movie?
How we got here
One of the reasons I was compelled to write this piece was my disappointment in iTunes Extras. Maybe I’m a minority opinion, but I find the template design lackluster and without any character whatsoever. DVDs are well on their way out, in favor of digital purchase, so I can’t help finding the Menu design a little lame. Every movie gets the same treatment, some features don’t even load right and content is easy to miss. The content is often pretty good and no different from the classic “Special Features” sections of DVDs, but experientially, I am given no incentive to explore. For the movie buffs out there, our curiosity goes untapped.
So who can reignite the flame of movie menu experiences? Well, I see a couple star students too shy to raise their hands in the back of our Movie Menu Design 101 classroom…
I’d argue there’s a missed opportunity for entertainment houses to present special features with Netflix and other streaming sites. Have they already tried? Possibly. Has Netflix blocked the feature? I have no idea. We’ve see plenty of web sites filled with special content, why not transport that to the page on Netflix devoted to the movie or TV show? Gag reels, behind the scenes, etc. It would keep you on the streaming service, it’s evergreen advertising — what’s the hold-up?
Same goes for Apple TV. Where are the special experiences? The games? Where’s the richness of the movie experience we could recreate with this incredible device? I’ve got a remote control with an accelerometer on it. Why can’t I pretend to fly a jet after watching Top Gun?
But again, I’m more disappointed in the menu design itself, not so much the content. It’s a snooze-ville template with no experiential value. Yay, a list of links. Super fun. #sarcasm.
What great DVD menus do you remember? Leave yours in the comments.
The views expressed in this post are that of the author and may not reflect the views of the agency or company.