In Praise Of Great Packaging.


I try not to get too hung up on packaging. It’s peripheral to the cause, and if a film is particularly desirable nice art is a bonus. Generally speaking I balk at the idea of actively paying more for “special” DVD or Blu-ray packaging, such as steelbooks or digi-books, or those huge box-sets you see in HMV around Christmas time, usually loaded to the gills with what’s known in the trade as “added-value content”, but usually translates as “tacky die-cast toy” or a £3 copy of the tie-in edition of a films source material.

That being said, I do think it’s only fair to sing the praises of great and effective artwork.

Eureka’s Masters Of Cinema tend to do an excellent job with their releases, with their unofficial mandate being to respect the original artwork when possible (saying that, even Masters Of Cinema are capable of some poor judgments on occasion, with the upcoming Il Bidone skirting perilously close to ill-decision territory). Their recent campaign for Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is a case-study example of how to get it right, with the company even going so far as to seek the employ of Cliff Spohn, the original artist behind the ultimate vision of the Atari age of video game packaging to design the core artwork for the multi-platform theatrical and home video release. Arrow Video, the UK’s other great boutique Blu-ray production house are making amends for some problematic work in the past with some fantastic artwork, and always include the option of reversible covers with their releases, leaving the option of original artwork or new interpretation up to the viewer. The BFI, Artificial Eye and Second Run have too proven aesthetically capable in the past, thanks to their reliance on a catalogue system approach, ensuring that collections look neat and tidy on bookcases and the like.

The grandmasters of tasteful artwork have to be the Criterion Collection, the leading force in home video, and true pioneers of the form, having essentially invented the home video package as it exists today (extra material, thoughtful design etc). While major players in the laserdisc age, with their list of special editions reading like a greatest films of all time countdown (studios were apprehensive to produce their own laserdisc editions, due to the niche nature of the format, instead choosing to license to Criterion) it was with their DVDs, and lavish box-sets of titles like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai that the company really came to the fore. Placing a specific emphasis not only on the content of the disc, but on the packaging too, the term “Criterion” became shorthand for a standard of quality for others to aim. Their David Cronenberg discs, for example, are creative, and works of art in their own right. They’re extensions of the films contained within (Videodrome is designed to look like a videotape). Here’s a slideshow of some of the very best Blu-ray and DVD covers of recent times.

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Which leads us on to the curious case of Frances Ha, and the incident which inspired this article. Earlier today I Tweeted a photo of the hot-off-the-press artwork for the upcoming UK home video release of Noah Baumbach’s latest film, placed next to the packaging for the earlier Criterion package. A glittery mess, loaded with star ratings and empty quotes from gossip and fashion magazines, the UK artwork is a staggeringly ill-judged bit of design. Worst of all perhaps, is the fact that they’ve colorised the eponymous Frances! (which brings to mind Orson Welles’ famous quote; “Keep Ted Turner and his goddamn Crayolas away from my movies”). It’s an ugly and poorly representational interpretation of one of the best rated films of the year. In short it didn’t need dressing up like a clichéd romcom (“it looks like a stand-up comedy DVD” remarked one Twitter user earlier today upon seeing the comparison). It’s just dreadful.

The US disc is on the left, the UK on the right.
The US disc is on the left, the UK on the right.

It’s a similar state of affairs with the cover for the upcoming release of Upstream Color (coincidentally from the same distributor). While the film was handled independently by director Shane Carruth in the US, and sold on Blu-ray and DVD via the director’s own website alongside the film’s theatrical run, the film released a traditional release pattern here in the UK. As such, Carruth has negated some of the responsibility for the selling and promotion of the film, which has resulted in a very suspect piece of cover art. Take a look.

The US disc is on the left, the UK on the right.
Again, the US disc is on the left, the UK on the right.

Thankfully the above piece of artwork is reversible, leaving the customer the option to replace it with something quite similar to what housed the disc in the US. That said, the US release is a very nicely designed cardboard contraption, that perfectly reflects the film contained therein, and, like the aforementioned Criterion Cronenberg discs, acts as an extension of the overt act of watching a film on disc.

We’re repeatedly being fed the line that physical home video is a dying species. While impressive artwork isn’t a make or break issue, appealing artwork in to which genuine effort has gone might do some good. In the fight to ensure that physical media remains an appealing option for as long as possible the studios need to be seen to be making an effort, be it in the extras department, or in the overall presentation of a film.

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