What makes this new format so distinctive, so thrilling
July 13, 2020 3:27 PM   Subscribe

What are some aesthetic qualities that make shooting on VHS different from other formats?

I just got a VHS app and I’m trying to find a way to make it look distinctive without just leaning into nostalgia. I know about the things that made it a frustrating format (snow, vertical hold), but what were some good visual qualities it had? FWIW I will mostly be shooting in available light.
posted by pxe2000 to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Good compared to what? Modern digital video cameras? Contemporary video cameras? Film cameras?

Also, just saying VHS isn't the whole story - VHS could record NTSC, PAL, or SECAM encoded video, each of which has their own advantages vs each other. AFAIK none of them has any significant advantages against modern digital video technology.
posted by aubilenon at 3:50 PM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

It didn’t have any good visual qualities compared to today’s technology, or to film. Its quality was that consumers could record and overwrite their own tapes, and then see them right now (without developing), which was profoundly new, with a break in understanding about how many images we could have. It’s really hard to imagine now the preceding world that wasn’t so saturated in moving images. It was cheap, fast, but mostly cheap.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:19 PM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

VHS is very immediate, liquid, almost uncomfortably, uncannily present in the moment. That's not to say it's more hi fidelity or 'real' than film or digital; if anything, it's the opposite. But I always found it kind of spooky that way. Not sure a digital app will really capture that aspect...
posted by Text TK at 5:05 PM on July 13, 2020 [5 favorites]

VHS was a delivery medium and for a short period a home video medium. Films in in VHS were a down conversion from either actual film or often in news or tv from a Betamax master. It had a constrained 'feel' as it was aimed towards broadcast TV that had strict constraints on the color ranges so the image did not 'blow out' or crush beyond the limits of crt televisions. It also degraded pretty quick from over playing, heat or stored flat where the edge of the tape crimpled. The home cameras did not have great lenses so the look of home recorded was not saturated or if tweaked badly over saturated. Also a much squarer aspect ratio than most contemporary video.
posted by sammyo at 5:12 PM on July 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

One distinctive feature of VHS and other video formats over film is higher frame rates - 50 or 60 interlaced fields per second (on preview - that's a lot of the "liquid" feeling Text TK is talking about). And there aren't any compression artefacts like you'd see in low-bitrate digital video - VHS is noisy and the horizontal resolution is awful (particularly for colour), but you don't see low-detail areas dissolving into blocks, or discrete steps in colour gradients.
posted by offog at 5:12 PM on July 13, 2020 [10 favorites]

A couple of contemporary advantages of VHS over competing formats, besides cheapness: it allowed for very long recordings (particularly once long-play/extended-play VCRs became available), and the audio quality on later machines was excellent. So you could do things like recording an evening's worth of live music on a single tape, or making a long tape to play as part of an art installation.
posted by offog at 5:22 PM on July 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

The "Compact VHS" (VHS-C) format made for home-video cameras that didn't weigh a half-ton. (Won't lie, though, they were still pretty cumbersome.) If you haven't seen one of these, it's the same tape in a smaller cassette. You can still buy adapters to pop a VHS-C cassette into so that it plays in an ordinary VHS VCR.
posted by humbug at 6:35 PM on July 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think that the best thing about VHS, looking back, was the random juxtaposition of images that happened inadvertently when you recorded over something else, like this video from 1985, which may or may not feature 5 seconds of my sister's figure skating practice before launching into my lip- and moog-synching of Talking Heads' Burning Down the House while wearing my dad's wedding jacket.
posted by umbú at 8:42 PM on July 13, 2020 [7 favorites]

Seconding umbú that other-video artifacts accidentally bleeding through was a hallmark of home videos that make them feel more real and immediate.

The other thing that lingers with me is the sense that wide shots and things at a distance never really looked clear with a home video camera, plus most people didn't use tripods. So you'd see a lot more closeups of people who only rarely stayed 100% in frame, and a lot less situational context.
posted by Mchelly at 9:28 PM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Frame rate has a huge impact on the feel. So, nthing offog
posted by christiehawk at 10:49 PM on July 13, 2020

Video artifacts and frame rate definitely set it apart, but another that rarely gets considered is that VHS recording was usually done on one-piece video cameras with crappy wide-angle lenses that rarely produced any depth of field. So the whole image is usually in focus (not to say clear given the limitations of the format), giving it a less cinematic and more realistic vibe because it doesn't direct your attention.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:05 AM on July 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

It's a little tangential, but shooting on video allowed for in-camera video effects that are very...of that era. I'm talking about those recursive elements like at 3:52 in Bohemian Rhapsody.

VHS also allowed a generation of outsiders some degree of control over television that used to be a one-way-street. Pausing the VHS recorder to eliminate commercials is the beginning of a dialog over how mass media is presented.
posted by Dmenet at 8:32 AM on July 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Adding to Dmenet's comment about video effects, my other favorite thing was to hook up the camera to the tv, point the camera toward the tv, and create titles that fade off into infinity, like in a fitting room with mirrors in front of and behind you.
posted by umbú at 8:47 AM on July 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

VHS image has certain "characteristics"...

- Black is not really black, it's a fuzzy speckled grey
- Red objects/shapes smear sideways
- murky focus/general smearing in low light
- bright, contrast, & hue sometimes drift away from proper settings
- scrolling, ripping, & rainbow artifacts on start-up image

All of the above effects are exaggerated A-Lot when it's duplicated.
If VHS is dubbed more than one generation, it can look pretty weird.
(Which is cool if you're going for something weird.)
Analog videotape in general is very unforgiving in low light.
Shapes and contrast gets swallowed into a sparkly grey muck.

All of the above comments are really conditional on the quality of the App you're using.
The App is essentially a digital re-creation of the technical flaws/limitations in analog video.
The recreation might not be perfect, but thats okay as long as it's useful to you.

Have fun with video.
posted by ovvl at 12:28 PM on July 14, 2020

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