In Features, Issues




It would make sense that Beastie Boys member Adam Yauch would model his film company, Oscilloscope Laboratories, after a boutique record label. Their philosophy is that the quality of the release should reflect the quality of the film; that buying a DVD should feel special and feel worth it, just like buying a record on vinyl. Beginning with Gunnin' for That #1 Spot, a documentary directed by Yauch and distributed by the same team now running Oscilloscope Pictures, the company has or will release such films as Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, Flow, Frontrunners, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, Treeless Mountain, Burma VJ, the Oscar-nominated The Garden, and, picked up at Cannes, Michel Gondry's The Thorn in the Heart. And while some of these films were realized on tiny budgets, Oscilloscope's DVD packaging and elegant production are emerging as some of the most creative and distinctive design packages on the home-video market.

"The main goal is to go the opposite direction of your standard, studio, cheesy DVD experience," says producer and editor Neal Usatin. "Those extras [like staged cast interviews and press-ready EPKs] just feign real information. They may give the buyer the illusion that the content is meaningful, but really they are just fluff."


Usatin and Yauch approach each film's DVD individually, matching films with graphic artists and illustrators, and working closely with the filmmakers themselves. But there are some company principles: Each edition comes in an eight-panel, gatefold design, printed on the same matte textured recycled stock (from a company who powers their factories by wind, no less). No inserts, no booklets, no double discs. "No booklets," explains Yauch, "because the idea is to have enough room on the eight panels to put all the information we need to put." Their approach is not so much "less is more" — the disc for Dear Zachary, Kurt Kuenne's doc about the murder of his best friend and the resulting child custody case, has almost a dozen additional sequences — but that "right is more." Because Kuenne's film is partly a call to political action, "that's a case where the DVD can really become an extension of the film in a relevant way."

"Each DVD has the potential to be a little curated presentation of the film, to add to the film in some way," says Usatin. The extras on Kelly Reichardt's Wendy & Lucy, for instance, are four short films by four of Reichardt's filmmaker colleagues at Bard College (Les LeVeque, Peggy Ahwesh, Jacqueline Goss and Peter Hutton). "I think I was pushing [Kelly] a little, like, ‘Come on, you gotta have some bonus material on here,'" says Yauch. "I was concerned that if the film was just sitting there all by itself, it might come across like nobody cared about it. But Kelly didn't want to have anything on there about how the film was made, so she made [that choice]… I think the way it's presented now, it's clear that it's the director who wanted it to be like that, which is the way it should be."


"Dear Zachary was a really tricky one," says Yauch, "because there's not really a still image from the film that could convey what the movie is about." Kuenne had played the festival circuit with a poster he calls "Ordinary People-inspired," and has contended with the cover art of the Canadian distributor, which depicts a chalk outline of a body with a baby crawling over it. Oscilloscope hired illustrators Evan B. Harris and Ha Ly to draw a new poster — this one an evocative hand drawing of a family tree — and artwork for the inside of the gatefold, depicting a figurative road map of Kuenne's journey to tell baby Zachary the story of his father Andrew.

In a world of digital downloads and iPod viewing, Oscilloscope is approaching the DVD as both an experience and an object. "[The viewer] might be watching on their laptop on a plane, they might be in their nice new home theater with a 90-inch projection screen, or they could be in an educational situation," says Usatin. "So you have to think how they relate to it in a tactile way — are they renting it, are they picking up the package? If they rent it without packaging, the disc alone has to give them a similar experience than as if they had bought it. The menu design has to become an animated version of the package."


Releasing an average of one film a month (subscription plans are in the works), the discs were designed from the start to form a numbered library, "like a set of encyclopedias," says Yauch. For proof, just look at the background of the spine label — could that hazy white curve be a section of an "O"? You can probably guess what it's spelling, but you might as well collect them all to make sure.



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