Friday, November 27, 2020

Haunted Houses, Home Video and more of The Ring.


The above text is an unused opening to a version of Ehren Kruger's script for The Ring (2002)¹

The inclusion of the record icon may suggest the scene functions as a foreshadowing or allusion to the film's final scene where Aiden creates a copy of the cursed videotape with the help of his mother, Rachel. What it certainly does is introduce the audience the antagonist (and in certain contexts victim) of the text – the VCR. But we are not only seeing this familiar device from a new perspective, it's interior or a fictional imagining of it's interior - we are being prompted to recognise this as a place of deeper, meta textual purpose.

In the final paragraph and it's follow up line the scene description appears to posit the VCR's interior architecture as an urban landscape surrounded by dark woodlands. The presentation of this strange world, illuminated by a record icon sun – serves as an establishing shot of what could easily be understood to be the epitome of small town America. A place so often the site for disruption and fear in the horror genre and surrounded by the dimly lit American wilderness; a place within the horror genre, that has never been entirely tamed.

A new day is dawning on this place, a town or city whose relationship to electronic media is, we feel, somehow not as it should be.

This inverted micro to macro visual scenario, where an establishing aerial shot of the wider location is positioned within the cramped interior of the films key prop and 'player' may further prompt our genre expectations. Surely, somewhere along the dimly lit streets of this town there must exist the another component in a supernatural horror – the haunted house.

But that house is never located, not along the streets nor at the edge of the tangled wood and the reason for that is that we are already within it. That is to say that the depicted VCR itself is serves as the Haunted House.²

The VCR, as depicted above and elsewhere within The Ring operates as Haunted House on several levels.

Haunted Media. In Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film³,  Barry Curtis asserts the haunted house functions as a 'a trans-dimensional archetype' that it's varying material shape often incorporates elements of the 'feudal castle, the ruined monastery, and the remote cottage' locations stained by 'memories, by the history of their sites, by their owners fantasies and projections'.

'The idea that objects and places can retain memories of traumatic events is an old one.' states Curtis. By these standards we could assert that the VCR relates to the haunted house via concepts of Haunted Media. This idea, best illuminated in Jeffery Sconce's Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television⁴ observes a tradition of crossover between the technologies and beliefs of sound and image media and the supernatural. The ability of location and often specifically a house to be supernaturally encoded with paleomagnetic traces of the past is best exemplified by Stone Tape theory, named after the much discussed TV play by Nigel Kneale.

Like Sconce's many examples the VCR is a site where transient disembodied entities pass through. They materialise ephemerally, before vanishing back into their place of confinement, the black shiny ribbon tape as described in the screenplay. The medium's conspicuous lack of the material indexicality, so prominent in analogue film where each frame will reveal itself by merely being held up to the light might further suggests video a likely candidate to be charged with such ideas. The tapes surface is, until treated to the rigidly specific protocol of the VCR drum head, as impenetrable and abstruse as the rock walls in Kneale's play. If recorded images are burnt onto and embodied by the film frame then the same images might be said more to 'haunt' videotape. They are both there and not there. They are charged into their medium, existing only as magnetic disturbances.

The spectral, illusory nature of the analogue video image, as experienced on the CRTs of The Ring, is enhanced when we consider that it never truly existed as a complete image in anyplace other than our own cognition. The electron beam that draws the image, line by line, across the screen, would illuminate a portion of line on an ordinary family sized CRT television no wider than a few centimetres at any given moment. That is to say the images, though viewed, are never truly present.

The Ring, Videodrome (1983) Lost Highway (1997) and of course The Stone Tape (1972) are all charged with the uncanniness of the electronic recording media. Dealing with both anxieties of hidden or subliminal content and content that has been recorded by means that defy quotidian comprehension. 

In The Ring where a ghost materialises via a videotape we could say that she not only haunts the tape but that her ghostly ontology is reliant on the structure  which it occupies.

The Fun Fair or Carnival Haunted House. The description of the VCR's interior is reminiscent of another haunted house experience that has less to do with the supernatural, at least authentically. It's evocation of trapdoors and moving parts within a pitch black environment conjure more the fun fair or carnival haunted house.

My experience of these attractions was in 1970s and early 80s British traveling fun fairs. The promise was an encounter with the supernatural but these were  places where technology, took the place of supernatural forces to thrill, disorientate and shock the visitor.

In the absence of the means to furnish these houses with startling apparitions or any other type of spectacular effects (these places lacked the budget of Disney's Haunted Mansion) they relied instead on the generation of other sensations and anxieties to create the state of unease needed to keep the punters and rubes coming back for more or at the very least not demanding their money back.

The fun fair or carnival haunted house would disorientate in near total darkness with sliding walls, conveyor belt floors, trapdoors and automata that swing to and fro in the dark. The architecture was one of legerdemain, concealed mechanics of pulleys and hinges – a place that seeks to literally pull the wool over your eyes and rug out from underneath the feet. The skeletons were clearly plastic and far from convincing but the closets in which they resided were numerous and always where you least expected them.

To enter into such a place was to mix the fear of the supernatural unknown with that of the technological in a corporeal experience where the only certainty was that the house, it's mechanical haunting, was running rings about you. Darkness was it's ally, as was the scent of axle grease, ozone from over clocked starter motors repurposed as servos and flashing incandescent bulbs sprayed with orange cellulose car paint. The tremors around you were beyond comprehension. Among the sounds of repurposed army surplus klaxons and clips from the BBC's Sounds of Death and Horror were the sounds of the house working. Perhaps these unknown creaks, rumbles and judders were as disconcerting as the screaming skulls and siren blasts because the house did not give away it's secrets. The mystery of origin of these devices, their designers and builders were as beguiling as any of the horrors and thrills they had on offer at 30 pence for four minutes.

These effects contain a sort of technological uncanny themselves. Like the SFX and genre techniques employed in horror film, those technologically complex depictions of the fantastic, abject and grotesque whose spectacular attractions are compounded and amplified by a lack of understanding of how such artifacts are generated. In both cases the process of production itself is an asset of the unknown.

Again there is a parallel to the VCR here, a media device quickly came to represent an odd combination of the alien and the mundane. The inner workings of these machines that resided in our homes for so many years were rarely observed and even more rarely understood. The VCR's cassette snatching trap doors, darkened interiors, strange mechanical clicking and whirring were in certain senses as mysterious and perplexing and any of the content played and presented on screen.

The Gothic. The Haunted House is a place charged with Gothic familial anxieties, framed by architraves skewed by structural decay, uncanny disconnects, troubling ruptures in the classification of interior and exterior, deathly silent rooms where faces of the long since passed stare down from the walls. 

In a haunted house, according to Barry Curtis, 'what haunts is the symptom of loss -something excessive and unresolved in the past that requires an intervention in the present'

The actions and the offenses of the past reoccur and play out in the present here, a location discovered through and driven by fate. A place of vengeance that refuses to forget or be forgotten.

Just as Rachael and Noah's problematic parenting is reflected in the heightened stakes of Samara's familial catastrophe, the mistakes are repeated, echoed. Despite their presence becoming residual, disturbances caused by invoked guilt and panic become ever stronger with each generation.

The guilt with which the Gothic edifice of the VCR is charged is that borne by it's adopters, users who later and at the time of the making of The Ring it's betrayers and deserters. For this is a place troubled by the collective anxiety of millions of VCR owners aiming their machines and tapes at the rubbish bin. A not quite dead media but certainly an abandoned media.

Samara, suggests Jessica Belanzategul, is a proxy for the VCR .

Samara, 'embodies both the vengeance and rapid disintegration of a long dominant audio-visual format.'

Samara was cast away, abandoned, left for dead – she came back. Her wrongdoings included projecting imagery in the minds of her family and neighbours.

...the things she'd show you... solemnly recalls her father (before becoming horse in his bathtub)

VCRs take the fall for DVD... abject soon to be obsolete. ⁹

In Retrotechnophobia, Caetlin Benson-Allott posits the VHS within The Ring as a patsy, a stand in for an emergent DVD in an anti piracy narrative. A parallel reading (that the author does not ignore) locates a masked anxiety regarding imminent abandonment of the VCR - the dumping of a once prized item and with it shared associations and memories, the (at the time) scarcely addressed environmental impact, the unknowns of the accelerated move towards the digital as the driving forces of The Ring. 

As every haunted house movie confirms, ghosts and their domains can be abandoned but they rarely go away. Instead they become further embittered and locked into the walls and floors of the haunted edifice. 

In The Ring this Gothic architecture is located in the dark chambers of the VCR itself, before and after it was erased from our collective cultural behaviors if not our memories.¹

'the House of Usher is no more – the place whereon it stood is as if - it had never been' ¹¹


(2) The released version opens with a shot of a more conventional spooky looking house. This isn't the only use of location and architecture to elicit unease in The Ring. The images of the face at the window within the montage, the Morgan house itself, the motel site - even the cold industrialism of the lift and stairwell in Noah's bachelor pad studio, these elements of mise en scene all play an active part within the texts genre objectives. But there is no haunted house in the conventional sense. That is, a site that both central to and an active antagonistic force within the narrative. Only the VCR might be said to fulfill these criteria.

(3) Curtis, Barry, Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film,
REAKTION BOOKS; Illustrated edition (1 Sept. 2008)

(4)Sconce, Jeffrey, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television,
Duke University Press, 2000.

(5) Kneale, Nigel, The Stone Tape, BBC 2, 1972.

 (6)  Sound Effects No. 13 – Death & Horror, BBC Radiophonic Workshop, 1977.

(7) Curtis, ibid.

 (8) Balanzategui, J. (2016), ‘Haunted nostalgia and the aesthetics of technological decay: Hauntology and Super 8 in Sinister ’,Horror Studies, 7: 2, pp. 235–51, doi: 10.1386/host.7.2.235_1

(9) Retrotechnophobia: Putting an End to Analog Abjection with The Ring, published in Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, 2013, Caetlin Benson-Allott, University of California Press. p113

(10)The videocassette might, with it's own curious magnetically charged, mechanical, sealed ontology, be said to function as the VCR's uncanny reduced familiar, itself invoking a sense of the haunted house.

(11)Got this off the cover of a videotape! E. A. Poe via Corman via 1989 Video Collection International VHS release cover tagline. Fall of the House of Usher, AIP, 1960. 

Friday, November 6, 2020

Macrovision 5 - time Code, fingerprints and the unacceptable copy.

 When visualising the absence of timecode depicted on the LCD counter of Noah's video editor as an abstract jumble of non characters and glitches, The Ring signifies a crisis of language and a disruption of understanding. Within horror genre, this is another step away from any safe, quotidian, perception of reality. It evokes the supernaturally charged archaic runic symbols of M. R. James' Casting the Runes, the technological defiance of The Golem and the horror of the unutterable as described by Lovecraft.

This imagery is fortified by Noah's erroneous and anthropomorphic description of video timecode as being akin to a human finger print and the glitchy symbols denoting their absence. This posits the tape's contents not only as uncanny other but as a lying beyond the realm of identification or any normal sense of ontology, perhaps their lack of sybollic function locating them as glimpses of the Real. .

Similarly, the Macrovision signal, referred to in it's patent application as consisting of a random, pseudo-random and predetermined pattern distribution of pseudo-sync pulses, is a disruptive non-signal and as such cannot be read. Like the anomaly identified by Noah it is merely, error generating, a recording from a unknowable source and of a technological ontology shrouded in no small amount of intrinsically intentional and commercially necessary mystery.

The task of these pseudo signals is to negatively effect and disrupt any copy made of the recording within which they are concealed; to corrupt and smear it to the point that it has become useless, abject or to use the intention stated in the patent application, the become unacceptable. This smearing is also present in the trope on Noah's timecode display. These broken decimal numerical signifiers whose integrity is so taken for granted, almost a priori, as to make them seem invulnerable has been dragged from their quotidian stability, they too have become unacceptable.

Noah later experiences distortion and becoming unacceptable when his own image is smeared on the screen of a grocery store's CCTV system. Like the corrupted timecode this highly economical special effect succeeds in evoking a sense of horror very well. The image on the screen, almost a mirror, presenting an opto-electric facsimile of Noah, suggests he has not copied well. Like sensitives, pets and spooky kids as employed in a multitude of horror movie tropes, technology serves to look beneath the surface and show the, occasionally horrible, truth. When mechanical reproducibility asserts it's own eerie aura it leaves little doubt that something has not worked out.¹

Despite Noah's authoritative AV credibility (Noah functions as a low emotion, logicist, expert. If Noah thinks something is awry, our genre savvy tells us we should take heed,) not all video recordings contain timecode ² but when they do they can be located in the same area as Macrovision. The Vertical Blanking Interval's versatility as a payload provides a secure and hidden storage space for Vertical Interval Time Code (VITC) just as it does for for anti-copy protection. Despite Noah's misrepresentation genuine versions of 'Video Fingerprinting', which has nothing to do with timecode but concerns the assignment a unique hidden signature to a video recording for anti-piracy purposes, appear to have also utilised blanking intervals – albeit the Horizontal Blanking Interval further ³.

 Also, VITC allocates a space for 32 bits 'User Bits' of user defined information or annotation, which can comprise of digits or letters. So in theory Noah's description of time code is not impossible, adding to what Nicholas Rombes refers to as 'uncanny associations'; here specifically between the anti-copy objectives of The Ring, as described by Caetlin Benson-Allott and the technology and UX qualities of the genuine anti-copy system, Macrovision.

The proposal of video possessing a fingerprint, or in this case lacking one, suggests a video anthropomorphism or animism considered elsewhere by Caetlin Benson-Allott and Ina Blom⁵. It also brings to mind the fingerprint as one of the go-to models for the semiotic index if only to remind us that VHS may have been analogue but it's indexicality was and remains more theoretical than observable. A single field of VHS video, that is a screen filled with odd or even lines providing half of a full screen image, is recorded on to tape in a track around 9cm long and 0.049mm wide. Two of these tracks interlace to provide a full frame. As each frame will comprise of 250 lines we can see that any individual line occupies a piece of tape far smaller than a pin head. Analogue video is not indexical in the same sense that can be said of analogue photography, moving image film or even most sound recording media. When stored on tape, the video signal, which is of course invisible to the eye, has been further encoded and obfuscated by Frequency Modulation for purposes achieving higher quality images. A VHS videotape recording, then, is thrice removed from a true and appreciable  indexical relationship to it's subject; in it's dimensions, encoding and loss of visibility as magnetic recording on entirely uniform tape. The magnetic video tracks are so insubstantial, that dusting of the tape surface with powdered iron filings, a method for viewing magnetic recordings, reveals nothing. Only the relatively heavy percussion of the control track on the tapes edge is visible.

This could also be said of the CRT TVs and monitors seen in The Ring. Analogue screens of this type never truly depicted and image. If analogue film creates an illusion of moving images, analogue video took the subterfuge a stage further with an illusion of a the single images that an illusory moving image are then formed of. If analogue video is truly indexical of anything, it would be a single dot or beam of light. Just as mechanical television economically (if ultimately impractically) made use of a single light sensor tucked behind a spinning disc, the video tube camera and it's corresponding dipslay media, the CRT, collected and displayed images with a single fast moving electron beam moving in parallel lines. The entire moving image technology, therefore only views or displays, and is only indexical to, a single point of light at any given time.

So in this sense Noah's observation on the ontology of Samaras tape serves as meta critique of a moribund format, it's lack or indexicality but moreover it's elusive status with semiotic classification – even when declared spent and obsolete.

Noah's proposition that every video recording contains a signature, a record of it's own origin may have it's own origins in a technology that was emerging in consumer markets at the time of The Ring's production. In the early 2000s digital still photography was fast becoming a desirable and affordable alternative to film photography and with came new takes on the technological uncanny. EXIF metadata is encoded into every image file by the camera contains information on the device itself as well as when and how it was used. VITC time code was a digital signal inserted into an analogue media and as The Ring was produced at a time of widespread A to D conversion, might Noah's fingerprint/signature also have betrayed anxiety about some of the, yet to be comprehended, emergent successors to analogue media? Moments of transition illicit anxiety and the The Ring's scene with the glitchy time code may have stuck in the memory and provoked comment from a number of commentators not least for representing the digital lurking unseen within the analogue which, in horror genre code, would usually suggest imminent attack.

(1) Retrotechnophobia: Putting an End to Analog Abjection with The Ring, published in Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, 2013, Caetlin Benson-Allott, University of California Press p125

(2) ibid, p116 All analogue videotape recordings do contain a control track which is read by a separate head to regulate the speed of the tape as suggested by Caetlin Benson-Allot , though this does not effect the 'scan' rate as such – rather the rate at which the tape is passed across revolving/scanning drum head. The control track is not, as suggested, timecode. Though there was a system that embedded an SMPTE time code into the control track (CTL) this method was rarely employed.

(3) I was given information on this technology, seemingly something of an in-shop self build at a 90s VHS duplication facility, via an online forum. It's unverified and I haven't cleared permission to share with the provider/poster yet. More info on request!

(4)Nicholas Rombes, Cinema in the Digital Age, 2009 Columbia University Press, and Caetlin Benson-Allott, ibid.

(5) CBA, VCR Autopsy, journal of visual culture, 2007 and Ina Blom, Introduction to The Autobiography of Video. The Life and Times of a Memory Technology (2016), Sternberg Press, p19

(6) grooves on an LP, an undulating wave on an optical film track which match the Cymatic movements of speaker diaphragm or other physical bodies effected by sound

(7) As contemporary high speed imaging demonstrates clearer than ever before – visual demonstration here - The Slo Mo Guys - How a TV works in Slow Motion -

Friday, October 16, 2020

Macrovision 4 - like Samara, Macrovision lives in a deep well.


The area where the disruptive Macrovision signal is concealed, the Vertical Blanking Interval (VBI), is a place of absolute darkness. Once a CRT's scanning beam has completed a field and arrived the bottom of the screen it is this interval that, when recognised by the tubes circuitry, causes the beam to trip back up to the upper left hand corner to begin it's descent again.

Viewed as a waveform on an oscilloscope the VBI appears deeper than the surrounding signal as if a trough - or deep dark well. If you had ever wondered when watching a horror movie on videotape, why a black night sky or the corners of a creepy cellar, appear not as black as they ought to be but rather something reminiscent of slightly fuzzy eigengrau, it might be because high levels of contrast were hard to obtain with analogue video media because absolute video black was  hard to achieve within a fluctuating scanline. Perhaps because of this, within the limited agency of analogue video signal's interaction with the hardware, this position of total video black was a domain reserved for the VBI's band of hidden lines.

'she lives in a dark place now'

The 'old dark well' is employed in The Ring as a murder site that conveniently doubles as a location to conceal the body. Chosen for it's obscurity and isolation it is from this location the film's murdered antagonist rises, in a number of ways, to seek revenge in the sun lit world above. 

It is in the depths of the VBI, a place that can be viewed as a sort of video dead time, a negative space, a place of absence, that Macrovision resides - though too it is given to randomly rising up into the light.

Viewed on an oscilloscope the VBI looks like this:

With Macrovision present and ascending:


These unseen areas, beyond image and signal, explored and imagined in The Ring and utilised by the inventors of Macrovision are in themselves already a location of anxiety in that they are experienced as hidden from view. Such spaces are mirrored in the material as sites deemed off limits, undesirable, abject, yet at some level always present. Elements of architectural unconscious that exists within every structure. As an annexe within a media, an adjunct storage resource - like a space created by a false bottom in a chest, you won't know it's there until you find it. 

The VBI was utilised as a location for other content such as teletext, closed captioning and a variety of other data and test signals – even something called a Ghost-Canceling Reference (maybe that's what Rachel was searching for, at the screen's edge?). If you ever sat on the remote while replaying an old off-air video recording and inadvertently activated Teletext you have seen that the text, though often corrupted, has also been preserved within the VBI of the recorded video signal.

One of the key vehicles for unease in The Ring is the idea that a VHS tape contains something other than it's visible recording. It is never clearly asserted how Samara's curse is transferred from the recording on the magnetically sensitive tape to the receiver. It occurs during viewing the tape and it's bizarre imagery, so is the curse an effect of the images on the viewer, a sort of Lovecraftian horror that once seen madness and terror ensue? Does the curse exist as a sort of demonic incantation as in The Evil Dead (1981) or the spoken word summoning ritual in Candyman (1992)? Or is the curse a sub-signal as in Videodrome (1983)? Something that exists beneath the visible imagery (whose only real task is to keep you viewing as closely as possible and perhaps emotionally priming the viewer for the absorption of additional para-media) This additional concealed media takes the form of brain altering signal in Videodrome, In the case of The Ring it would be a curse from beyond the grave. Both imagined media would require a depository location. Locations exploited by anti-copy technologies and others might provide such space.

When Rachel and Noah examine the tape by attempting to physically manipulate the video head drum, the video apparatus is visually employed as a site in which the search for clues continues. When Rachel visits a VT archive facility to search even deeper into the recording – even further towards the 'edge of the tape' and the image this interrogation continues.

In both instances the sound effects chosen for the apparatuses reaction to this forced scanning, as the mechanics and electronics reflect the anxiety of the search for the hidden material, include a high pitched whirring as the tracking desperately strives to remain locked onto the tapes signal and to maintain playback.

Some later VCRs with more dynamic, digital tracking circuitry will become so confused by a Macrovision tape that the automatic tracking will emit very similar sounds as they attempt to cope with a signal that has been designed just to throw the AGC and tracking into disarray.¹

In the latter intervention, a VT lab technician guides Rachel to an older machine that she suggests may help her in her quest.

The big box here's a warhorse – totally analog, she'll read to the very edge of your tape. (just don't force her or she'll get pissy with you)

The machine, only visible for a moment, does indeed has the look of a far earlier vintage than the early 2000s. The suggestion that an older iteration of a media technology offers greater control, more agency over the apparatus would fit in with Retrotechnophobia's focus on The Ring's response to the perceived threat of the 'Analog Hole'. The fact that media can be accessed, copied or in the case of The Ring, viewed in entirety without limitations with on older equipment, reveals that the developers and producers of media hardware are not always steered by the desire to provide the user as much control as possible.²

As stated by Brian Winston, 'The apparatus is not neutral'³

In fact some of the older VCRs were not supplied with onboard AGC circuitry and as such were seemingly 'immune' to Macrovision. Like the 'Big Box', the more 'analogue' the equipment was, and early VCRs were packed full of multiple boards populated with discreet analogue components that would be replaced with chips and Ics on later variants, the more control over certain specific functions were occasionally available to the user. Not that this agency was ever declared by the manufacturers let alone the tape distributors. These quirks were shared between users, becoming the site of myth, misunderstanding and distortion.

(1) see Macrovision: The Copy Protection in VHS by Technology Connections at 8m 22s for a demo:

(2) Retrotechnophobia: Putting an End to Analog Abjection with The Ring, published in Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, 2013, Caetlin Benson-Allott, University of California Press. p114

(2) Technologies of seeing : photography, cinematography and television, Brian Winston, British Film Institute, 1996. p41


Friday, August 21, 2020

Macrovision 3 - something is hidden at the screens edge.

The limits of the TV frame become of interest to Rachael, the protagonist in The Ring (2002). While watching ex-boyfriend Noah physically intervene with a VCRs mechanism she begins to suspect there is more to see beyond the screens edge than meets the eye. In a later attempt, upping the assault on the tapes reluctance to give up it's secrets, Rachael uses a more advanced machine to pan across and beyond what is visible to the very edge of the recording.

Both attempts result in a type of overload and failure of the playback media, employing a common cinematic visual trope suggesting the very limits the device or medium have been reached. The build up to the climax of the first attempt, a sort of generic 'she cannae take any more captain' moment is visually represented by the, technically erroneous, manipulation of the tape's transit across the drum head attempted by Noah (which could surely work only in an imagined AV studio. Physically manipulating a video drum head is very unlikely to reveal any surplus image - just a loss of picture) and crescendoed by with the receipt of an electric shock. In the second instance at the higher spec facility, an analogue VU meter, itself a somewhat retro but oft used device, displays overload to the point of failure. 

These markers define the crossing into another space, both for our protagonists journey along a dangerous and uncharted road and more specifically into an area less visited – the fringes and back rooms of the videocassette and VCR technology.

What Rachael finds there is a clue, a pointer towards locating the origin of the tape. Did Samara want to leave a trail that might lead a certain kind of viewer to her location? Had she merely figured out how to squeeze an ultra-widescreen image onto regular tape? We never find out. Instead the discovery adds to the already considerable enigma of the tape, displays Rachael's resourcefulness as an investigator and moves the story on to the next beat. 

Caetlin Benson-Allott describes this space discovered beyond the frame in Lacanian terms via Zisek to suggest a sense of paranoia. This revealed position within an image is where the viewer herself is being viewed from by the Other. 'you can never see me from the point from which I gaze at you' ¹

This might might be a fair description the Macrovision experience, the sensation of realising your VCR knows what you have been up to. Punishing you immediately with a weird, spoilt copy and suggesting that you may be in big trouble for breaking the rules. For just as the gaze hides at the side of the screen, so does Macrovision. The Macrovision signal is hidden out of view at the very top of the screen in roughly 45 unused lines. As stated in the 1985 Patent 'Since most television sets are overscanned by 5% to 10%, these pulses would still be invisible.' ² Though normally out of view the signal can be seen as a row of bright undulating bars within black when the image is pulled down on a television or a monitor with manual Vertical Hold adjustment.

Lost Highway's mystery Man, no stranger to dupes, evokes the technological uncanny by occupying two spaces at once. Here he shares the vertically adjusted screen with a Macrovision signal. Lost Highway (1997)

It can also be seen when, during an attempted recording of a protected tape, the image folds, flags and flickers downwards, momentarily revealing the signals presence. Like Samara's recording, the Macrovision signal was not assigned to tape with conventional means. It would be inserted during commercial duplication by sealed electronic units leased from the anti-copy service provider.

Portions of Samaras images and Macrovision exist in areas of a videocassette recording usually hidden from view. (Macrovision can be quite easily located and even analysed on an Oscilloscope, though it appears reluctant to give up all it's secrets³ and most internet based analysis involve some degree of interpretation and assumption. Samara used 'projected thermography' to place her montage on the tape – how and where she located or embedded her curse is never established)

AndrĂ© Bazin stated 'there are no wings to the screen'⁴ and yet it seems within a videorecording there are. Bazin also attributed the painted canvas with centripetal force drawing the world inwards in direct contrast to the cinematic screen which asserted a centrifugal force, casting the 'cinematographic image into infinity'⁵ Perhaps he didn't watch much television because CRT technology always biased what needed to be seen inwards creating a safe area where inconsistencies in CRT performance would not result in a loss of information or image in the non visible overscan regions. In the transference of cinema to homevideo this was exacerbated by the pan and scan telecine process. This biasing inwards suggests but does not reveal an other, a zone beyond what is visible.

'VHS always contained (made visual reference to) more than could meet the eye.'
The sense that something is present, perhaps watching us from a position just out of sight, seems a much valued trope within horror movies, anti-copy systems and horror movies that appear to share the objectives of such systems.

(1) Retrotechnophobia: Putting an End to Analog Abjection with The Ring, published in Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, 2013, Caetlin Benson-Allott, University of California Press p119

(2)  Method and apparatus for processing a video signal so as to prohibit the making of acceptable video tape recordings thereof  Apr 17, 1985 -

(3)  The technical specifications of Macrovision anti-copy system were naturally confidential. Online analysis of the signal, such as in the link provided, get very close to a full understanding but there are usually certain artifacts or functions that seem to evade the inquirer.

 (4)What is Cinema, Theatre and Cinema part 2, 1967, AndrĂ© Bazin, p105. 

(5) ibid. Painting and Cinema, p166.

(6)Ibid. Retrotechnophobia: Putting an End to Analog Abjection with The Ring, Caetlin Benson-Allott, p120


Friday, August 14, 2020

Macrovision 2 - the strangest sensation of being watched...

Like the tape in The Ring, Macrovision knows whether you are watching or copying a videocassette.

If the horror genre, it's familiar tropes and their ability to evoke anxiety, can convey an anti-piracy message from within the medium perceived to be at risk of illicit duplication – as in the FACT Public information short and, more pertinently, as per Retrotechnophobia, in The Ring (2002) -  couldn't the medium contain a anti-piracy technology that included and demonstrated some of the same tropes? How uncanny and capable of evoking anxiety can video technology be – when things start to go wrong?

In The Ring, the protagonist, Rachel figures out the cursed tape offers different outcomes for those who copy it from those it merely watch it – effectively, it knows which you are doing - and so did a system called Macrovision.

Macrovision was an anti-copy technology developed in the 1980s during the home video boom. A rented or purchased pre-recorded tape with Macrovision installed could be watched on a television or monitor without issue but any attempts to copy the recording on a second VCR would be 'rendered unacceptable' ¹

As a device installed by video distributors, Macrovision naturally wants you to watch the tape but doesn't want you to copy it. Macrovision expects that the viewer will ignore the FBI or similar warning at the start of the tape because no matter how threatening, it was believed to have no further agency or knowledge of whether it's warning was being observed within the privacy of the video users home.

Macrovision enters said home concealed within the tapes interstitial spaces where it sits in wait until activated by a deviance from guidelines. It may be watched a dozen times without incident or error but any attempt to copy it will reveal the presence of the signal.

VCRs contain Automatic Gain Control circuits (AGC) that monitor an incoming external video signal and adjust aspects of it to a suitable, stable level for recording. Macrovision contains pseudo pulses ² that sweep across a range of amplitudes that confuse the VCRs AGC forcing it to attempt correction and to struggle to maintain a commensurate recording level. This results in distorted images, undulating brightness and colour, flickering, and image tearing

In effect, the Macrovision signal tricks the VCR's AGC into reacting as if the incoming video was wildly unstable thus causing a circuit originally intended to maintain a stable recording, into creating an chaotic, unstable one. A television or monitor has no such circuitry and the Macrovision signal is ignored, the protected recording is displayed without distortion.

As stand alone, non interactive playback media, VHS tapes were never considered to be aware of what we were doing with them. The unease generated by discovering a mysterious agent within a inanimate object may evoke the shades of the eerie as described by Mark Fisher. Something is present that should not be there.

This is the first stage of a tape copiers encounter with a tape containing Macrovision.

Unlike contemporary platform based technologies, Home video (read for our purposes VHS) quickly peaked in it's ability to diversify, emerge, and 'wow' the user with new innovations located within the pre-existing medium.

VideoPlus, 4 heads, 6 heads, stereo sound, for many these developments may have appeared more gimmicks and the stuff of salesman's patter than any generational evolution or development. There were some improvements and additions but there was certainly no Moore's law for VHS.

The tapes played and recorded more or less the same. For twenty years the capabilities of the format barely changed and the greatest development would appear to have been the race to lower the price per unit – perhaps further degrading ownership status, removing the glamour of the luxury item and upon achieving market saturation and ubiquity, consigning it to the ranks most mundane of household consumer items.

Home Video's potential to amaze wore off quickly as it was soon taken for granted, perceived to be an inferior conduit to other media, cinema, television, etc. Video's ability to inspire or drive utopian strategies and rhetoric, just as the internet would in the 90s, peaked early in video utopianist spaces such as Radical Software and by the time consumers were watching sell-through copies of Videodrome or The Ring, the medium's chances of asserting real change had often appear to have become all but forgotten.

Perhaps for this reason, suddenly discovering that a tape knows what you are doing with it must have provoked a frisson of anxiety. Having mysteriously transgressed from inanimate container to intelligent observer how would the copier have known where the tapes knew found agency would end? Not only does Macrovision, like Caetlin Benson Allott's description of the character Noah's frustration with the tape's timecode, 'reduce the viewer's agency within the video apparatus' it, on it's production of an abnormal copy, informs us, we are moving towards the previously unknown, that 'something has not worked out'

As a medium on which to view movies, videotape may have lacked in resolution but it performed very well in terms of privacy and isolation within systems of distribution. The material had to be acquired - rented, purchased or traded but once obtained it could be viewed, usually in the comfort of the home with anonymity pretty much guaranteed. Before even considering ISP logs or malicious internet trackers, we could contrast the fact that all our Youtube and Netflix user interfaces regularly remind us that they know exactly what we watched and when. With this in mind, one could argue that never before or since has viewing audio visual material, in certain regards, been as discreet as it was with VHS.

Although a tape copier might not immediately know it, Macrovision's capabilities were limited, and stopped far short of, for example, reporting back to Warner Home Video that Blade Runner was being duped, including such information as where and by whom (we'd have to wait for the digital revolution for that)

But what it could do, as well as achieving it's primary objective of ensuring that any illicit copy of a Macrovision protected tape was rendered unacceptable by generating unacceptable pictures, was to elicit, just as Samara's tape did initially for Rachael, confusion and unease and demand the question – where the hell is this coming from and how can it know what I am doing?

(1) Method and apparatus for processing a video signal so as to prohibit the making of acceptable video tape recordings thereof
Apr 17, 1985 -
(2) ibid.
(3) a video error that sees the top of image appear to distort and fold downwards
(4) Mark Fisher, The Weird and The Eerie (Repeater, 2017)
(5) Radical Software was a magazine concerned with the work and aspirations of videos first experimenters, artists and activists.
(6) Retrotechnophobia: Putting an End to Analog Abjection with The Ring, published in Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, 2013, Caetlin Benson-Allott, University of California Press p116
(7)    ibid p125
(8) clearly watching the flow of analogue television would be hard to beat here – for much of the VCR era, in the UK and Europe anyway, television channels were very limited (just four in the UK until the late nineties) and so when one viewed TV the was always a least one in four chance of guessing what was being watched.