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Time Machine: Concatenations in Time Travel, VHS a cc: to the Future


I am remembering our old purchase order form, a multi copy (ten copies press firmly) missive to Ruth, our beloved curmudgeon in Purchasing (her voicemail began with a sigh). Each copy was fainter and less readable than its predecessor. I am thinking about VHS, a format that succeeded by virtue of its worst quality, the ability to record at a slower speed (up to six hours on a T-120 cassette). What better way for balletomanes to compile every dance performance ever broadcast on two continents?

Since 1977 VHS has been making carbon copies of our history. Each generation is fainter than the last, each copy another layer down. I begin these captures with a sigh—there are times that I worry that by default our visual history will be viewed through the soft scrim of a VHS raster. But then I cannot disparage the format for long because VHS is the catalyst in our past that created the climate for today's media.

The invention of video was revolutionary, but the revolution did not begin until VHS became commonplace in the home and changed our relationship with television and the film industry. This was not simply a segue from 8mm home movies to video home movies. VHS made possible the concept of media ownership and today’s commonplace and personal relationship to moving image media. The documentary film Rewind This (2013), pays tribute to the B-movie culture that was revived by VHS and the need for home video product, Be Kind Rewind (trailer) (2008), is a film in which employees remake video titles that they have accidentally erased. Trips to the local independent video rental store were once weekend rituals. The independent stores were soon replaced by Blockbuster, a national chain. And now, Blockbuster is gone and with its passing the concept of owning physical media is becoming obsolete. Our relationship to media is always evolving.

It was Sony, the inventor and manufacturer of Betamax, the other, senior by one year, 1/2 inch home recording format, now famous as a casualty in the home recording wars, that fought for your right to record and hold onto media. In 1976 members of the film industry sued Sony for copyright infringement. The case was resolved in 1984, four years before the demise of Betamax, when the Supreme Court ruled that time shifting was fair use. In 1988, Sony began manufacturing VHS recorders. Betamax disappeared, but has lived on in numerous iterations of professional broadcast 1/2 inch formats including: Betacam, Betacam SP, Digital Betacam, SX, IMX, HDCAM, and HDCAM SR. VHS briefly sputtered with a broadcast component version called MII (M2). This format was developed and championed by Panasonic. It is rare now; the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Division's moving image preservation labs have MII playback capability. For more on MII be sure to visit Rhony Dostaly’s upcoming blog post, Preserving the Visual Past. There is also a VHS shelled digital format designated D9, but it is rare in this country.

A moving image archive is a triage center and home for these aging revolutionaries. Archives must sort through multiple copies for the best copy. They may keep an obvious off air recording as a placeholder until they can locate a more original or higher quality source from its producers. Occasionally, there are questions as to what is "bit-worthy." What formats are deserving of either our full attention or perhaps less, as we work to save our past? A format may be technically compromised but that does not lessen its value or uniqueness. In an analog workflow entropy and degradation are unavoidable. Because these tapes are so vulnerable and to avoid the random generation of noise and the concatenation of the content, which after all is our past, it is necessary to either capture with mathematically lossless compression or to capture uncompressed. The still images and clip above are from the Dance Division recording *MGZIC 4-6012 JRC [Jerome Robbins rehearsing in the studio], courtesy of the Robbins Rights Trust, recorded by Mr. Robbins on VHS in 1992. I believe that this illustrates the point that items can have dubious technical merit, but still have priceless content. We will explore other moving image formats in future posts. It seems that as media becomes less tangible we find ways to relate to it more intimately.


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Informative and Thought Provoking

I remember when VHS was the only format in which I could view dance footage...and the numerous amount of hours spent reviewing choreography during a rehearsal. Oddly, DVDs are actually hard to scrub through and therefore very inconvenient for restaging a work. I feel very grateful for the existence of NYPL's moving image preservation labs.

What a fantastic post. It's a

What a fantastic post. It's a brilliantly written essay about the VHS format and an insightful view of the format's historic importance and value.

Love it

Dr. Time, your posts just keep getting better and better. It's like VHS copies, but in reverse! Keep 'em coming.

VHS vs. Communism

An Op-Doc, VHS vs. Communism, has been published by the New York Times.

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