Tuesday, December 30, 2008

VHS joins 8-Track, Beta, Cassette Tapes and LP's in the Media Graveyard

We all knew it was coming. If you didn't already think that nobody made VHS equipment anymore, that is. VHS is officially an expired format.

The huge video rental chains have long switched to DVD. Even DVD is now being replaced with Blue-Ray, which is being replaced by downloaded media streamed to your through set-top boxes or directly to your laptop. The last major Hollywood release to be distributed to VHS format was (the excellent Viggo Mortenson flick) "A History of Violence" in 2006. Now the last manufacturer of the format has finally thrown in the towel, and there is officially nobody on earth manufacturing new VHS tapes.

My father had a 16mm camera from around the time I was born. I have seen several dozen hours of old, early-70's sound-free footage of people bobbing around in not-quite synchronized to the correct speed films he took in those days. Much of it me walking around as a toddler, drinking coke and wearing a camouflaged Boonie hat. Seeing a young Marine father in Okinawa, filming himself playing Tennis to send to his young wife, interspersed with various other shots of his buddies horsing around and an SR-71 taking off to go spy on the badguy of the month from on high.

Of course I've seen these all within the past 5 years also, as we had the reels all transferred to VHS, since there were no working projectors to be found any longer.

We always seemed to have the latest and greatest tech growing up. We had the Atari 2600 (dad still has it, along with probably 100+ games), Intellivision, Colecovision, the Atari computers (400, 800 on up through 5200, if memory serves). We've pretty much stopped with PS2 at this point, as far as gaming consoles go, but we always had proper computers as well. Whether the TRS80, Compaq sewing machine "portable", computers with punchcards, reel-to-reel, cassette storage, etc. I remember how awesome 5.25" floppies were. A buddy had an Apple II running a BBS system on it with only 2 floppy drives. And you could still DOWNLOAD stuff!!

Oh how times change.

When VHS came out, it was the dawn of a new era. Before that, all there really was to do with your TV was watch whatever programming you had. Cable channels were the hot ticket with channels like HBO showing movies, though there were no such thing as theme channels yet, like an all sports channel. HBO replayed a lot of the same movies over and over. They did this for several reasons, but one being that you could only watch it when it was being aired. If you got home late, the power went out, you had to get up and go to the restroom, had a sneezing fit, whatever: you couldn't rewind and playback. You could only watch it again the next time it aired.

When VHS came out, we could now record anything off the tv set, just like we'd been doing with audio cassette tapes off the radio for a while. It was an amazing change of technology, despite how limiting it seems in today's era of instant track-selection DVD.

I don't recall whether Laser disk came out before or after, as it never really gained popularity. If you're not familiar with them, picture a DVD 12" in diameter, just like an old LP Record (if you even remember those), and 3 times as thick as a DVD. They were hyper-sensitive to dust and scratches, expensive, and never gained popularity with studios or consumers, so there was little selection. The quality was quite good for the time, though the relatively cheap VHS format was far more popular. Betamax was Sony's version of VHS, but they lost the popularity war, despite being a better picture quality than VHS. Think HD-DVD vs. Blue-Ray, except Sony now has won that format battle with their Blue-Ray.

Being one of the few people in our small town to have a VHS player (as well as the other electronic toys), all the local kids loved hanging out at my house watching movies and playing video games. We thought turning over the score on Activision's Laser Blast made us amazing, gawd-like creatures, and we must have watched "Porky's" a hundred times. That may still hold the record for the movie I've seen the most times. I don't know if I necessarily learned anyting from it, though as a 12-year-old boy, I'm sure it was somehow enlightening.

We had a lot of great times there and were fascinated by this ability to go back and rewatch things we might have missed. Playing back fight scenes frame by frame, slowing down the punches to see which ones were obviously misses, when it looked so real at speed. Deconstructing special effects by attempting to pause on certain frames where they switched to the dummy head from the actor before it blew up. Of course we only had a handful of films at the time, so I really can't see how we got so much enjoyment out of Porky's, Footloose, Flashdance and Stayin' Alive. I don't even recall watching the last 2 more than once, but I could just be trying hard to forget.

We were fortunate enough that one of my friends had a dad in the Hollywood business. We had a copy of Empire Strikes Back on VHS. I don't know if it was still out in theaters, or it was just that it wasn't supposed to be out on VHS anywhere at the time, but I remember he and I being concerned that George Lucas would have us all killed if he discovered our watching it. It was not a final production copy, and it even had the frame counter countdown thingie across the bottom of the screen. Some of the scenes did not have all of the final sound tracks on them, so it was definitely not a theatrical experience, even on our largish set and stereo speakers. Being able to replay scenes over and over, seeing every explosion and detail made up for the ticker thingie, which we learned to tune out, anyway. I am not naming names here, because that friend is someone whose name you'd recognize now, having "gone to Hollywood" himself, and I'm pretty sure Lucas would still have him killed.

Though I was never as much of a music fan as I was into movies, I had long resisted going to both CD for music and DVD for my video collection. I think the first time I ever bought a CD player was because it came with the new car I bought. I never had much of a music collection, and most of my old cassette tapes were worn to the point of being useless by the time I bought my first of only a few CD's. My DVD collection started slowly, then grew to be fairly large before a series of life changes occurred, and I had to start that collection anew.

I haven't bothered to restock the DVD collection much, with yet another change underway to newer technology. Even NetFlix's outstanding service has gotten old with new streaming services they offer. I've been fortunate enough to see several dramatic changes in formats and methods of media use over the years. Everything keeps getting smaller and smaller. Which is fine by me, being a lazy person who despises moving boxes of stuff I rarely use or watch, but can't bear to toss, as
I invariably want it at some point. I have begun condensing old media collections to newer formats, and hopefully won't be losing any this time. I've done this both because I dislike moving boxes of heavy crap every time I need to move, dusting piles of things I rarely use, and paying rent/mortgage to store said boxes and shelves worth of stuff. I'll write up some details on that in a bit.

I'm not sure how far it will go in my lifetime, but it doesn't look like the technology will ever stop developing. While it irritates me to know that all the VHS tapes I still have are going to be worthless if my VHS player dies, it makes me feel like that 12-year-old kid pressing play on that VHS player for the first time all over again.

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