Friday, December 21, 2007

Pixelated Videos

I have written before about how the transition to digital technology is changing the notion and perception of 'static', whether new generations would recognize the references to static in pre-digital media, now that a transmission or playback error no longer takes the form of visual or audio 'noise' but pixelization or silence. Yet recently I saw a Verizon commercial where the daughter tried to get away from her curfew by having her friends imitate traditional static and her mother on the other end of the line pointing out that that was simply impossible on Verizon's network, after which the daughter switched to claiming the sounds were ambient noise.

I was thinking about this recently in the context of YouTube and the art form of the music video. It seems like a natural match, short video and a medium for showing short video, but it is actually a really bad fit in my opinion. Pop-music videos, like pop-music, rely on a lot of dynamic changes, like beats, to stay interesting, often punctuated by dramatic moments. In other words, something's gotta happen often, and have a big wow from time to time, or we get bored. Thing is, digital video is really bad at both, the encoding algorithms rely on there being very little difference between one image and the next to be able to pack video in what little bandwidth we actually have. Beats, visual or audio, going bam bam bam bam are about a full change between one image and the next. People moving over a static background means very little difference between one image and the next, so there is a lot of room for information to be pushed down the pipe. Have a the background moving as well, or changing color or brightness rapidly, and there is so much difference between one image and the next that the channel cannot keep up.

Somewhere in the early nineties, as music videos grew up from their infancy of just recording performances with camera tricks and their adolescence of trying to be a movie, the Brits started shooting videos with an insane amount of cuts and movement, foreground and background, to keep visual interest. I was recently thinking about the prime example of that style and wondering how it would survive on YouTube, and by coincidence it got posted on my flist today.

Bros -- "I Owe You Nothing"

Total YouTube failure. There isn't a single frame where there isn't pixelisation, where every face isn't some form of a blur -- and those boys were so airbrushed already -- and the backgrounds are just a mess. Look, this video isn't art and never was meant to be, but it was a prime example of its time, and it basically cannot be seen properly in this new medium. Contrast that with a video of which the director explicitly tried to make something that would work as well on a TV screen as YouTube. It had to be dynamic and exciting on the 60" screen, but not become a blur on the 2" one. It was done with very static backgrounds. Static camera shots. If there is movement, it is controlled. Close-ups are always still. The going in and out of focus on the face is so managed that the pixelisation works with it as a cute effect.

Rhianna -- "Umbrella"

Incidentally, I do not believe for a moment that was Rhianna herself dancing en pointe. I never got a full shot of her doing it. I am ready to be told wrong. I am also now wondering whether sets and editing rooms for video shoots will have rudimentary YouTube encoding equipment on hand to see directly how well a shot or cut will show up.

Not all of the early and mid-nineties videos are completely lost, of course, but often do not fare so well. Take the following one, one of my absolute favorite videos, which uses dance as its main visual hook. It stalls on my underpowered laptop from time to time, takes out fluidity or power in the movements, and chances are very visual dramatic moment at 3:52 simply gets dropped on the digital floor never to be seen because it uses one of the most awkward objects for digital video to try to encode: smoke, and lots of it. The result is an approximation of the performance: you kinda know what everyone intended, but you just can't really sink into it because your brain constantly has to fill in the blanks YouTube drops.

New Order -- "True Faith"

I can't wait for a better medium than YouTube for music videos. I consider it a bad fit. Music videos weren't made for YouTube, and YouTube obliterates them, makes them absolutely irritating. All the subtelty of lighting and motion becomes a stuttering mess. A medium that makes Mark Romanek's work look anything but sleek and crafted doesn't deserve it.

David Bowie -- "Jump They Say"

No, YouTube should be used for its own art and entertainment that was specifically made for it. Not to broadcast media that was made for a different form of transmission, but for people who start fresh, whose work does not rely on what YouTube is bad at, but use YouTube for what it is good at: the conversation YouTube is embedded in, to layer idea upon idea upon idea. Make it have its own stars, like Tim recently showed me.

kevjumba & Happy Slip -- "Put It In Purse"