Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Love Letter to VHS

Hello. I’d like to talk about something close to my heart.

I suppose you’re reading this post on a laptop or smartphone, and I’m willing to bet you haven’t owned this equipment for 10 years. It’s widely understood that, for a few reasons, our digital devices are throwaway tools. Incompatibility, expensive repair, and new technology are a few of many things that lead to machine obsolescence. Someone just yesterday explained to me why a 2006 computer wasn’t working, saying, ‘it’s old’. And I’d like to give a shout-out to my already passé 1-year-old mini-DV HD camcorder: I love you, but none of the three cords you came with are compatible with my new computer.

The concept of ‘throwaway’ technology didn’t always indicate that some more useful technology came along as a replacement, and didn’t imply a cash investment. It also didn’t mean that you were engaged in an arms race with your friends for the more pristine piece of machinery (although your dream in 1982 may have been to own a Sony Betacam camera).

At one point I imagine someone said, “Lets make a video medium for the people. Cameras will be cheap, and so will tapes, players, and dubbers. It will be practical, accessible and universal, with low maintenance costs, a substantial recording capacity, and the quality will be horrible but at least it’ll be unique in its simplicity.” Not to mention, this analogue video medium sustained its inexpensiveness and (above all) universal operability for over 30 years. Let’s talk about VHS.

What other medium has a more 'throwaway' reputation? Ryan and I were archiving camera-original elements of a film we had never heard of, labelled "Art Beat". Thinking we had found a lost Kartemquin film (and excited to talk about it here), Ryan went searching for an edited master or commercial copy of the film, only to find one VHS with the same label, containing 4 episodes of 'Friends' and 2 episodes of 'Frasier'.

Was this VHS at one point Kartemquin's only edited master? I doubt it- but for the time being it was my only chance at seeing the film, and more useful to someone as a home recording of primetime television.

I opened a box of 40+  VHS tapes the other day while archiving and my brain flipped like a pancake. It’s a pain to see so many VHS tapes in one box… the feeling is unlike opening a box of Beta-SP tapes, which are expensive and signify movie elements of importance. A pile of VHS tapes in an archive is probably going to be a bunch of tests and dubs to help editors with sound synching and timing.

But what I love about VHS is its contradictory “cheapness” and usability. While archivist Lyra sat in her corner, arm-deep in rotting work print trims, and a folder of mysterious zip drives with little labeling awaited my attention, I looked through that box of nice clean VHS tapes, confident they’d play in our machines even though they were 20 years old. What a nice medium, I thought. Perhaps VHS is misunderstood. Perhaps it is the last form of recordable media that will hold its data and maintain its universal playability and quality over the generations. Perhaps VHS is that holy grail of film storage filmmakers all dream of...

And then, vindication!:

Here at Kartemquin, the editors were digitizing some Hi8 footage as part of an ongoing 20-year old project. They discovered that they didn’t have a machine that could also digitize the audio signal from those Hi8 tapes, but! Those VHS dubs used for synching in editing (like I mentioned earlier) were still intact, and so was the audio. Project saved!

Since then, I've bought a VHS camera and have started a label to distribute my friends' films on VHS. So far supplies have been cheap, and I bet you a dollar people'll be watching those same tapes 20 years from now, and falling in love with VHS like I have.

(Magnifying glass + my VHS camera = cool depth of focus!)

Post by Jenna Caravello

The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

It's been awfully quiet on the blog lately but we have a good reason....we've been so busy counting tapes and films that we're hitting our target early! Our initial goal was to reach 9,000 newly inventoried items by the end of January 2013. But it looks like we're going to reach that next week. Just in time for a much needed Thanksgiving break. 

As satisfying as that is, we're still not done. We found that even though our initial estimate of 9,000 sounded like a lot, it was actually low. When estimating the number of individual things (tapes, films, drives) stored across 4 rooms, in hundreds of boxes -  some with 5 things in them some with 100 – you run the risk of being a little off. 

Plus, we have found a number of previously unaccounted for boxes tucked away in closets, offices, The Hall...you get the idea.

So, for the numbers geeks out there - what does that mean? By the end of the inventory we expect to have recorded information for about 15,000 items. Currently, our database now holds over 12,000 records. 9,000 newly created records and over 3,000 imported from existing documents. More than 2,000 film elements (negs, workprints, prints, mag track, etc), 5,500 videotapes, and 1,000 audio tapes have been inventoried.
We're aiming for completion in April.  Stay tuned...more progress and much more interesting posts to follow!

 The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by: