Do-It-Yourself Audio Commentary for Films

This could be you, recording audio commentary for your class!

Last week I saw this article about film commentary for the film Looper, made by the film’s director Rian Johnson.  Film director commentaries aren’t anything new, but Looper is still in theaters and is not available on DVD yet — Johnson created and is providing a free mp3 file with the intention that viewers bring an mp3 player and listen to the commentary while watching the film in the theater.

Johnson providing commentary for his film as an audio track reminded me of RiffTrax, a project created by former Mystery Science Theater 3000 writers/performers. While the television show MST3K had required copyright permission in order use the films they chose (usually really bad, low-budget movies that no one had ever heard of), RiffTrax makes fun of current “blockbuster” movies.  How?  They have audio file of them making fun of the movie available via paid download — interested parties buy the audio file, get a DVD copy of the movie, and cue up the RiffTrax audio file with the DVD’s audio. As far as I know, they don’t need to worry about acquiring copyright permission to make fun of the movies.

Both the idea behind Johnson’s free, downloadable commentary and RiffTrax’s cued-up mp3s got me thinking: what would this look like in an academic environment?  Could a film scholar, historian, or other academic who uses media in the classroom create commentary about a film, television show, or other visual media?  How would you go about using it in your class?

Assigning and Conceptualizing the Audio Commentary

In the classroom, such a project might offer a way of someone who uses film or other visual media in their classroom to help guide students’ viewing.  The purpose of this could be two-fold — to help students learn how to watch more critically, as well as help prepare them for a discussion (or other in-class activity) involving a film.  Providing a commentary for the film could include:

  • describing shot-by-shot changes in a scene (to help them learn how to notice those things and the vocabulary to talk about them),
  • giving background information for a particular moment in a film,
  • prompting students to watch a scene carefully, and/or look for certain things
  • raising questions that will be covered in class or that will help students understand why a film/scene is important

Overall, I think using this kind of addendum to a film has great flexibility — the above list is made up of ideas off the top of my head based in my own experiences teaching visual media, and is by no means complete.

But How to Make Your Own Audio Commentary?

Making film commentary for students would be relatively simple to execute technically, especially if you have previous experience doing sound recording (or have helpful people staffing a media center at your institution!).  Here is how I would go about making such an audio track:

  • Prep-work: Write an outline of a script of what I planned to say, including a few time markers for especially important points.  Trying to go in and just wing it might work for some people (especially if you’ve taught a particular film for many years) but I would probably feel most comfortable not going in cold.
  • I would go to a studio at W&M’s media center to ensure high-quality sound (nothing makes an mp3 more irritating to listen to than poor-quality audio)
  • While recording I would watch the DVD of the film with the timestamp displayed, listening to it with headphones so the microphone doesn’t pick up the audio.  I’d probably use Adobe Audition to record the sound, since that’s what the media studios have at W&M, but one could also easily use a free recording software like Audacity.
  • If I made a mistake, I’d use the timestamp on the DVD and the recording software to find my place again and re-record.  I’d probably have to experiment a bit with this to figure out the best method to deal with “mistakes.”  One of the things about the commentary on DVDs is that it’s just someone talking along with the film, and misspeaking, etc, probably isn’t that big of a deal.
  • Last, I’d save/export the file as an mp3 (or, more likely, an mp4) and provide it to my students over Blackboard or my course’s website along with instructions for syncing the audio.

If I were to do this, I probably also would just start out with a short chunk of a film (perhaps one important scenes) to try it with, asking students to start listening at a certain counter in the film.  That way, I could try it out without committing to doing it for an entire 120 minute film.  And, if I did it in chunks, and decided to do more audio for a particular film at a later date, it would be easy to record more audio for other scenes and edit it together with the previous audio track.

Another cool aspect of doing a project like this would be that you could ask colleagues to guest-comment along with you.  Or, if a course is team-taught (like our Introduction to Film Studies is here at W&M), some or all of the instructors could get together to talk through a particular film.  That said, you could also, after modeling this film commentary for students, you could have students create commentary on a scene themselves as an assignment.

This idea of creating “scholarly” commentary on a film also wouldn’t have to stay within the bounds of the classroom — I can imagine a lot of people being interested in learning more about a film that they’re a fan of via listening to commentary from an academic.  Providing this type of file for others outside of the institution could easily be done on a personal website or blog, as well as via, say, an online course like a MOOC.

I also think it’s probably near-impossible that I’m the first person to think of this idea, but I have not been able to find any examples on the Internet.  Does this idea sound like something you’d like to do in your classroom or for a broader audience?  Do you know of anyone creating rogue “scholarly” commentary for films via mp3 files?  If so, please share in the comments!

About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.


  1. John Drummond says:

    Great article, Kim! But what do you do when you can’t find the Sampo?

    • Thanks, John! To answer your question, I’m not sure, and, not being Finnish, I still don’t really know what one is, but maybe Joel, Crow, and Tom could tell us… 🙂