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:


  1. Jenna--I'm with you. Two of the almost never seen before film clips we have of Nelson Algren exist only on VHS! VHS is warm and fuzzy and doesn't lose its signal--much.

  2. Nelson Algren. Impressive. Jenna Fenell used to do some Art Beat for WTTW, and she finished the Teen Street project about the Free Street Theater for WTTW and I think it ran on Art Beat. Hopefully we have the master for that. Gordon

  3. http://www.themiragemall.com/dvd/ All the latest releases and favourite box sets available to order.

  4. Know anyone who fixes VHS players? I'm one of those people who has saved a number of VHS tapes, but my player now can't move the tape from feed to take-up reel without pulling on the tape and damaging it. The media isn't the problem; playing it is.