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''Director's Chair'' gives viewers the power

Steven Spielberg gets into multimedia with a new CD-ROM

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Steven Spielberg has a new movie coming out on Nov. 15, and it’s not the sequel to Jurassic Park. Known for spending months on elaborate, multimillion-dollar productions, Spielberg shot the live-action sequences for his make-your-own-movie CD-ROM game, Director’s Chair, in the breathtaking span of one week. Even more remarkably, this long-awaited multimedia opus — which features a quirky cast including Jennifer Aniston, Quentin Tarantino, Soap and Coach matriarch Katherine Helmond, and comic illusionists Penn and Teller — was filmed with just one video camera.

”It was a last-minute thing,” Aniston says of the shoot, which was completed a year and a half ago. ”I was doing something in New York, and my agent called and said Steven had requested me.” She arrived on the set, she says, just in time to improvise a ”passionate kiss” with Tarantino, whom she’d never met. Helmond, who does a slapstick turn as Tarantino’s ditzy mother, was even more surprised by the last-minute summons. ”I had no idea what the project was. I don’t have a computer of any kind.” Still, she says, compared with sitcoms, ”It turned out to be very hard work, because we had limited time. The days were longer, the lighting more complicated, and in one scene we were in an absolutely filthy old jail.”

In the three-disc Director’s Chair, would-be auteurs stitch together the script from different characters’ points of view, mix and match scenes (from 100 minutes of Spielberg-shot footage), and even create a marketing campaign for a live-action movie to which they can give an original title. The plotline, which can follow hundreds of paths, has Aniston trying to save her (possibly) wrongfully convicted boyfriend (Tarantino) from the electric chair. Along the way, Spielberg, Jurassic Park cinematographer Dean Cundey — who plays a small role in the film — and a perky production assistant, among others, offer tips on completing your first Hollywood feature on time and on budget.

Bruce Cohen, live-action producer of the movie game (and producer of The Flintstones), says the shoot was a liberating experience for Spielberg. ”Neither of us had ever worked in video before,” he says. ”A director’s creativity is slowed down by the realities of the film camera.” To be fair, the principal photography for Director’s Chair turned out to be a small part of the overall project — as evidenced by the 18 months it took the programmers at publisher Knowledge Adventure (a company co-owned by Spielberg) to massage the raw footage into an absorbing multimedia experience. ”The approach is simplistic,” Cundey admits, ”but combining the images [onto CD-ROM] is very sophisticated.”

Now that Spielberg has taken this step, directors who don’t brave the multimedium may find themselves becoming dinosaurs.