Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Generation of Pixels and VHS Static

I had one of those weekends where plans just fizzle away, because your friends have conspired to cancel appointments jointly and consecutively, all in an effort to make you appreciate the joys of staying home. And with my newfound free time, I accomplished two things: I watched the bulk of Stranger Things on Netflix and I learned how to use After Effects. These two things are actually related.


Nearly every review of Stranger Things has noted that it plays out like some Steven Spielberg fairytale we might have watched in the ’80s, only with a dark twist that in my mind is exemplified by the John Carpenter jolt of how the title arrives at the end of the series trailer. (I can’t explain why the appearance of the series title gives me goosebumps, but it does—every time I’ve watched the trailer. Maybe that font is haunted?)

As for After Effects, I used it take crisp, clean footage and fuck it up in the style of footage from a damaged VHS tape. That may seem like a pointless skill to acquire, VHS having long gone the way of the typewriter, but I assure you it’s not, because VHS has gone the way of the typewriter. I was doing it for a larger project, but in damaging my first chunk of footage, I was surprised by my emotional reaction to seeing something rendered in the flickers and saturation bleeds of an old medium. I miss them, it turns out. Those errors became hallmarks of movie-watching back in the day—and, along with pixels, hallmarks of childhood escapism as well—to the point that on some level I will always associate them with how a movie should look.

This is not my theory. In A Year With Swollen Appendices, Brian Eno lays it out very clearly: “Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit—all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: So much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart.” This has implications way beyond the pop culture I grew up with, but I think it does help explain why I continue to noodle around with pixel art from the 8- and 16-bit generations, as well as why it felt so satisfying to introduce all that distortion to a perfectly good chunk of video. It felt right.

It helps that the footage in question came from Inferno, the sequel to Suspiria. My introduction to Dario Argento came from my hometown video store—no, not Blockbuster, but still long-shuttered all the same—and while I never actually saw Inferno until the age of DVD-quality video, it seems like I should have.

Here is the scene in question in its original, clean form. (Fair warning—there is a corpse that appears in this clip, just after the 3:30 mark, but I feel like it’s a PG-13 corpse at worst. It also features Irene Miracle, whom I feel is a strong PG in and of herself.) I believe it comes from a DVD rip.



And here is the same scene again—improved by virtue of being made worse.



That staticky mess? That sloppy color? It looks beautiful to me in a way I’m not sure someone else would understand if they didn’t have the mid-’80s-to-early-’90s frame of reference that I do. Who knows? Maybe you’re pining for Ted Turner-mandated colorization or the shaky monochrome of a midcentury TV set with rabbit ears. But this brings me back to Stranger Things. It truly is a lot like something we might have watched twenty-five years ago, except for the darker elements and the fact that it looks like a million bucks. Were there a way to watch it with a filter that emulated a VHS tape that had been left in a hot attic for too long, I would. Again, it would feel right. In fact, someone with more technological savvy than I have should invent that app right now—Instagram filters for your TV, so you can recall the pixels and noise and V-hold blips from whatever era most suits you.

Someone born in 2000 might never have watched anything on VHS. I wonder what they’ll pine for. Crisp but slightly less than high-definition video? Polygons? Maybe they haven’t figured out what they’ll miss yet. But I know. Give me VHS static and pixels, please.


And if there were a way to layer TV static onto this, I think I’d die happy.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous3:44 PM

    What is this movie? Why is there a flooded house that you can only reach through a tiny hole in the floor?

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    Replies
    1. The movie doesn't necessarily make the most sense, but yeah—that's about right.

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