Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Joys of Corrupt Digital Video

Back in my art school days I was absolutely fascinated by the strange artifacts caused by imperfections in digital video. While old fashioned celluloid has the advantage of existing as 24 discreet frames a second, the digital world has to be much more frugal. 30 full resolution stills take up far more space than one second of video, so in order to fit all the delicious content into your DVD and YouTube sandwiches, the programmers have to get creative.

Rather than diving into the technical end of things, lets just say that the various video compression algorithms out there have lots of very complicated ways of extrapolating your favorite hardcore porns and Sesame Street episodes from as little video information as possible.

In this way, digital video is more like human memory than an actual recording. The skeleton of the video is there, but the rest is being filled in by the codec as you play back. When something goes wrong, the error can cascade throughout the rest of the image like Sunny-Delight dumped into a river.

Back in 2006, I discovered this amazing use of intentional video corruption by a German multimedia artist.



Facinated, I eventually tracked the guy down and, via a series of poorly translated e-mails, talked him into revealing his secrets. Unfortunately, while the effect was easily duplicatable, Quicktime was unwilling to export the final product, rendering it ephemeral. The solution ended up being a complicated and unwieldy series of scripts dedicated to taking screen captures of the corruption in progress.

So for the last couple of years, the project has basically been shelved. Cue 2009, and it looks like everyone has beaten me to the punch. (That'll show me.)

One caveat of this effect is that much of the detail is lost when changing resolutions or recompressing for the web, so rather than embedding the next videos, I'll let you check out their HD versions on YouTube.

Here is a music video for "Evident Utensil" by Chairlift. This is the basic effect that I had been going for, only in an art film context rather than a music video. Check the YT uploader's page for instructions on how to do this yourself. His process is infinitely simpler and shorter than mine, but with somewhat less control. (Not that you have much to begin with. My experience with the effect was mostly "This shot/movement/transition might look cool. Let's see what happens.") Also, he calls it Datamoshing, which sounds really stupid.

Like a trend vampire waiting to pounce, here is Kanye West with a more subdued take. On the funny side, there are now legions of confused YouTube comments wondering why the video is "messed up."

Ultimately I am extremely torn by this turn of events. On one hand, the new corruption technique could save me a lot of time if I wanted to start the project back up. Also, I could watch the Evident Utensil video over and over and over, despite the aggravating male vocal that periodically rears its goofy head. On the other hand, why bother making an art film now that the effect has made it into rap videos -- isn't that a universal sign of something being played out?

More Corrupting Mashups!


An unintentional, unguided glitch.


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