CLOSE
SXSW/Rewind This!
SXSW/Rewind This!

Q&A: Josh Johnson, Rewind This!

SXSW/Rewind This!
SXSW/Rewind This!

For people of a certain age, there’s a lot of nostalgia around VHS tapes. And though it might seem like a dead format thanks to DVD, Blu-ray, and digitally streaming media, VHS isn't dead yet: Many people have hung on to old tapes, or continue to build collections that they watch with their VHS player. Many of those enthusiasts appear in Josh Johnson’s documentary, Rewind This!, which debuts this week at SXSW Film. The documentary's a fun and fascinating look at the history and impact of videotapes. mental_floss spoke with the director about VHS-related myths, the influence of VHS, and why those tapes were so darn expensive.

mental_floss: What inspired you to make a documentary about VHS?

Josh Johnson: The idea came out of the realization that I had a lot of friends who were still purchasing and acquiring VHS tapes, even though it had been a dead format for a number of years. And the reason that they were doing that is because there were thousands of films that weren’t available any other way—they had yet to be released on newer formats. So if you’re passionate about film, it was the only way to watch certain things. And that was something that struck me as being sort of interesting and not necessarily broad public knowledge. So there was that contemporary relevance of videotape that I hadn’t really thought about very much before.

And then, in thinking about that and starting to work on this as a documentary concept with my partners, we thought about the fact that the home video revolution was something that really changed the world and how people consumed media, but it had never been documented or put on film before, so the idea of being able to trace its history and also show the contemporary relevance of videotape seemed like it had the potential to be a satisfying feature.

m_f: You interviewed a number of people who have pretty incredible VHS collections. How did you find them?

JJ: The first thing that we did was ask people we knew in the local community. The film started in Austin, Texas, and we knew a lot of people who were already involved in this world. And what we found is that every person we talked to had four or five other recommendations of people we should talk to. There was this community of people that were still really passionate about collecting and acquiring this content, so it kind of took care of itself after a certain point. You know, once people were aware of the film, it became very easy to contact them and in a lot of cases they would contact us directly.

m_f: How much did you know about the history of VHS, and the early format war between Sony’s format, Betamax, and JVC’s format, VHS, before you started?

JJ: I knew a lot about it just as a film obsessive and somebody who had read about all aspects of film history throughout my life. The thing that I discovered was certain things that were sort of urban legends or things that were widely reported as facts that weren’t necessarily facts. So there are certain details about the influence of pornography on video and some things like that that turned out to not necessarily line up with the popular accepted story.

For example: A lot of people have argued over the years, or it’s just an accepted fact—quotes around the word “fact”—that Sony refused to license pornographers, and that was one of the determining factors in why VHS won out over Betamax. But there’s actually no historical record to indicate that Sony refused to do that. And there’s evidence that some adult films may have been released on Betamax. So it looks like [what made VHS the winner] was the amount of time that you record on VHS tapes and the affordability of VHS tapes, not that breakdown between who was willing to allow pornography to be accessible.

m_f: You have a ton of clips from old VHS tapes in the movie. What was the process of converting those into digital like?

JJ: We used a device that is essentially a VCR, but it’s also a capture device, so we were able to put in a tape, play it, and then record, via a PC, the moments that we wanted to capture. So the process of actually getting that footage into contemporary technology is fairly easy. The most difficult thing was actually when we wanted to do things like show examples of tape wear or degradation, because we didn’t necessarily have examples that exactly fit what we were looking for—so we had to make them ourselves. And we really wanted everything to be authentic. So what we did is actually find tapes with moments that we wanted to utilize this example and we would actually take the tape out of the cassette and physically manipulate it—I would open the front part of the tape and pull out the tape between two fingers and then I would sort of twist it back and forth between my thumb and forefinger—which would recreate what might happen if you rewound a tape in a certain section over and over again. There was definitely some trial and error [in figuring out the process of warping a tape]. It wasn’t an exact science, but it actually turned out to be fairly easy once you got the hang of doing it.

It's so different from now—if you scratch a DVD, that section just won't play. But video could degrade and degrade and degrade, you could do so much damage to it, but it would still play.  Over time it would slowly decay, and get worse and worse, but it wasn't instant. It was this very slow, organic process.

m_f: What's the average lifespan of a VHS tape?

JJ: The statistics on that seem wildly different, so it's hard to say for sure. When we talked to archivists, they said that tapes that were mass-produced in the '80s are already going to start showing signs of wear, and [would be damaged by] not housing the material the way they're supposed to. But then there are some people that argue that it has a greater lifespan than a lot of digital formats—that there will be some decay, but that these tapes will still be playable years from now. So there's a lot of conflicting information, but they're certainly sturdy enough that they should last 30 years.

m_f: We did a story recently about Nixon meeting Robocop, which was part of an event for the VHS release of the movie. What got the most response from people was not that Nixon met Robocop, but that the price of the Robocop VHS was $99. In the process of making Rewind This! what did you find out about why videotapes were so expensive, especially when they were relatively cheap to produce?

JJ: When home video first started, the idea that you could own a movie and watch it whenever you wanted was revolutionary. So, since for a few dollars people could see it at the theater one time, to own it was such a privilege I think they just placed a higher premium on it. They thought, you know, this is allowing someone to permanently own something that ordinarily we’ve had control over, so it had that higher price tag. That continued for quite a while. What really changed it was this sell-through concept that started in the porn world, but then carried over into the more legitimate film business. The idea was that if you marked the price lower, you could move more units and it would still become more profitable for you.

m_f: When Betamax first came out, and later VHS, people at movie-making studios in Hollywood were not happy. In fact, at congressional hearings about the technology in 1982, Jack Valenti—who was the head of the MPAA at the time—said "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." That seems a little extreme. Why did Hollywood flip out so much?

JJ: There was this intense fear on the part of major motion picture studios that home video was going to devalue their product. They had this entire industry that was based on publically exhibiting motion pictures and then returning them to a vault, and they maintained ownership every step of the way. So the fear was, that by allowing people to have access to [technology], they would stop going to the movie theater or it would no longer be something that was as prized. And their fear was that it would destroy the theatrical market. But what ended up happening is it created a whole new market—there was new money being put into it, and box office continued to grow and thrive. So far from being something worthy of demonizing, it actually doubled their profits once they committed to it. But the fear was that their entire industry was built on an infrastructure that might get completely destroyed by the new technology.

And I think for a lot of major studios, one of the appealing things about living in a space where we’re returning to streaming from a corporate source, is that they now have ownership again. They can distribute it to you into your home, but ownership is still theirs—you don’t have anything physical that you can keep. They can give and take away at will. It’s interesting to see how, with all of this new technology, it’s kind of going back to the exact same way that the film industry worked in the '30s.

m_f: This technology has been around for so long that a lot of us probably forget what it was like before you could just pop a tape in the VCR at home. Can you paint a picture of what life was like before VHS?

JJ: Prior to the advent of home video, the only way that you could see films would be in a theater or on television, and you were really at the mercy of the schedule that was determined by the television networks and the motion picture studios. So a film would play, often for a very long time, at a theater, and then it would be gone. Unless the film had been so successful that it would warrant bringing it back out and rereleasing it years later to capitalize on that interest, it was entirely possible that you might never see it again. Your best option would be to hope that it would play on television, and that it would be at a time that was convenient enough for you that you could be home to sit and watch it.

Once home video came out and made movies so accessible to us and gave us ownership over them, that immediately changed the way that we perceive movies. Now there’s a sense of entitlement in regards to our media: We want to have ownership, we want to be able to watch things whenever we want. But as recently as the late 70s, that entire concept was inconceivable. Nobody had even fathomed the idea that you could have a film in your house or watch it whenever you wanted. Home video really is as major a revolution in film as sound or color or any of these things—potentially, it’s even more significant than that, because those were just technological developments that alter the way that the films are created. But home video revolutionized the way that films are absorbed and distributed, and the way that audiences see and perceive them. I would argue that it’s probably the most significant revolution in the entire history of film from its starting point.

m_f: What do you think is the lasting impact or legacy of VHS?

JJ: The legacy of VHS is that it made film domestic for the first time. It allowed people to consume things on their own schedule the way they wanted to. That’s something we’ll never be able to go back to again. There will never a time again, I believe, where we don’t feel a sense of entitlement and ownership over how we consume our media. So I think that’s the lasting impact, more than anything else. But I think the other impact of home video is that it’s made people so much more knowledgeable about the totality of film, because it made film accessible to people who otherwise would never have been able to see certain things. If you didn't live in a major metropolitan area, you weren’t going to have repertory cinemas or art houses or access to foreign films. Now you can really live almost anywhere in the world, and home video has made that accessible.

m_f: And the fact that people could actually make movies with a camcorder and a VHS tape—even my friends and I made a series of really bad music videos. It was fun!

JJ: That’s how I started as well—it was just making things on a camcorder when I was 7 years old. There was a whole movement of shot-on-video filmmaking that got launched in the early '80s that continued for a long time. Now, with digital video, it’s not really quite the same thing—it’s more and more getting closer to professional cinematography. More and more films are shooting digitally, but in those early days, video had such a limited look, and it was immediately a stigma, because it looked so inferior, but it did allow really ambitious people to make work that they never would have been able to afford to otherwise, and that’s a huge part of the legacy—the way it leveled the playing field. It was a great equalizer in filmmaking.

m_f: What kind of creative solutions or DIY filmmaking did you have to use to make this film happen?

JJ: The entire production was entirely DIY. We started shooting without any funding, several years ago, just because we were passionate and wanted to do it. And when it got to the point where we needed to start traveling outside of our immediate area, we needed to start finding creative ways to finance those trips. The first thing we did was an art show here in Austin, where we had local artists produce home video-inspired artwork, and the sales from that art show funded the first leg of our travel, which was mostly to the East Coast, to New York, and then partly to the West Coast. And then we hosted a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse that funded the rest of our West Coast travel. And that brought us back, and we were able to edit together a teaser trailer based on what we had shot, and launch a Kickstarter campaign for the remainder of our travel, which was to Canada and Japan. So the whole project has been three people working in isolation, figuring out various ways to fund different portions of the production.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Columbia Pictures
arrow
entertainment
15 Things You May Not Know About Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

We are not alone. Here are a few facts about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, on its 40th anniversary.

1. IT WAS INITIALLY A VERY DIFFERENT FILM.

Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.

2. IT’S NAMED AFTER LEGITIMATE UFO RESEARCH.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg partly based his idea on the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book who eventually admitted that 11 percent of the study’s findings about unidentified flying objects could not be explained using science.

The title (which is never specifically explained in the movie) is actually derived from Hynek’s own alien close encounter classification system: A close encounter of the first kind is sighting of a UFO; the second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien; and the third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

3. THERE’S A CAMEO FROM THE GODFATHER OF UFO RESEARCH.

Hynek, who also served as a technical advisor on the movie, makes an uncredited cameo in the final scene of the movie. You can spot him pretty easily—he’s the goateed man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens.

4. NOBODY WANTED THE STARRING ROLE.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Columbia Pictures

The director first offered the part of Roy Neary to actor Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he said he couldn’t cry on cue, something he saw as essential to the character. Spielberg then went to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan who all turned him down as well before asking his friend Richard Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Spielberg on Jaws, to take the part.

5. BUT IT WASN'T THE MOST DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.

Spielberg approached French actors like Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Claude Lacombe—who was based on famous UFO researcher Jacques Vallée—before settling on director and sometimes-actor François Truffaut. The initially skeptical Truffaut, who was nervous about appearing in a big budget Hollywood movie, accepted the role because he wanted to compile research for a book about acting (he never did write the book).

6. MERYL STREEP COULD HAVE PLAYED ROY'S WIFE.

Many actresses—including a then-unknown Yale Drama School grad named Meryl Streep—auditioned for the part of Roy’s wife Ronnie, but he ultimately cast actress Teri Garr because he saw her in a coffee commercial and loved the way she was able to convey a wide range of emotions in a 30-second clip.

7. THEY SHOT IN A DISUSED AIR FORCE HANGAR.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg wanted to shoot in real suburban locations rather than studio backlots, but the production had trouble finding locations. The biggest question: Where could Spielberg shoot the climactic canyon sequence with the mothership?

The production looked for huge indoor enclosures that would allow for the massive scale of the scene, though they only found ones with center support dividers that spoiled the openness Spielberg wanted for the UFO runway. The only location producers found without center dividers was a 300 foot by 300 foot disused hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama.

8. THE TEAM BOUGHT A HOUSE FOR THE PRODUCTION—AND SOLD IT FOR A PROFIT.

The Nearys' house, which is located at 1613 Carlisle Drive East in Mobile, was actually purchased by the production for $35,000 so they could do whatever they wanted with the interiors. It was later sold for $50,000 after production wrapped, netting a $15,000 surplus that went back into the film’s budget.

9. THE MEMORABLE 5-NOTE TONES TOOK A LONG TIME TO FIGURE OUT

Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.

10. SPIELBERG USED TRICKS TO GET THE PERFORMANCE OUT OF HIS CHILD ACTOR.


Columbia Pictures

Cary Guffey, who plays little Barry Guiler, had never acted before, so Spielberg set up ways to coax a performance out of the 3-year-old. To get a shot of Guffey reacting to the aliens first approaching the Guiler house, Spielberg slowly unwrapped a present for the young actor just off camera, making him smile. Guffey even exclaims “Toys! Toys!” in the final take.

To get the boy to react to the aliens offscreen, Spielberg had Guffey walk up to his mark where—unbeknownst to the little actor—two crewmembers were dressed as a gorilla and a clown standing behind cardboard blinds. When Guffey entered the kitchen, Spielberg dropped the first blind revealing the clown to scare him, and then dropped the other blind to reveal the gorilla, which scared him even more. The gorilla then took off his mask, revealing the film’s makeup man, Bob Westmoreland, who Guffey recognized, causing him to laugh and smile in the final take.

11. THE MOVIE NEARLY FEATURED VERY EARLY CGI.

Spielberg originally toyed with the idea of using computer generated images to create the aliens and their ships, even going so far as to have animator Colin Cantwell create a CGI test of three UFOs floating over a stadium. The single-shot test, which took three weeks to complete and was one of the first computer generated images ever created for a film, proved to be unfeasible for the whole movie—so the idea was dropped.

12. THERE WERE SOME UNORTHODOX IDEAS FOR CREATING THE ALIENS.

Spielberg wanted the aliens to be non-human beings that glided instead of walked, and he had a weird idea to pull it off: An orangutan dressed in a specially-made suit. For a screen test, the production team outfitted an orangutan in grey spandex and strapped it into roller skates. The orangutan immediately took off the skates and crawled to its owner, so a full test couldn’t be completed, and the team scrapped the idea. The majority of the small aliens in the final movie were played by local elementary school girls from Mobile in specially made grey suits and masks who were heavily backlit to create the final alien silhouette effect.

13. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FEATURES A PRECURSOR TO E.T.


Columbia Pictures

To create the alien who bids farewell using the musical hand signals at the end of the film, Spielberg enlisted the help of Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who designed a fully articulated steel, aluminum, and fiberglass animatronic puppet that Spielberg nicknamed “Puck.” Puck’s expressions were based on photos of Guffey. The puppet was operated by a crew of seven puppeteers, with Spielberg himself controlling the final articulation before the alien leaves to go to the mothership.

Puck would help inspire E.T. after Spielberg asked himself, “What if this little guy didn’t get back on the mothership?” Rambaldi would also go on to design the character of E.T.

14. SPIELBERG BET AGAINST HIS OWN MOVIE—AND REALLY CASHED IN.

Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas both had new movies coming out in 1977; Lucas’s was a little movie called Star Wars. Lucas thought his ramshackle space movie wouldn’t make back its budget, and he knew his friend’s new movie would break box office records just like Jaws had done, so he offered Spielberg a friendly wager. Both agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of the profits of their respective films. Lucas grossly underestimated his movie, which went on to become the second highest grossing movie of all time if adjusted for inflation (in comparison, Close Encounters is #71). The difference ended up being $40 million.

15. SPIELBERG DIDN'T LIKE THE VERSION THAT WAS INITIALLY RELEASED.

Spielberg wanted to release Close Encounters in the summer of 1978, which would have given him ample time to edit the film and finish its special effects—but Columbia Pictures, which was going through major financial troubles, insisted he have it ready for a November 1977 release, leaving the director with a final cut on a movie he didn’t feel was completely ready. 

Three years later, the company allowed Spielberg to “finish” the movie under one condition: That he show the inside of the mothership, which would give the studio’s marketing department an angle to sell this new version. The director capitulated, adding new scenes and cutting others to create a “Special Edition.” The director was unhappy with the scene, though, and later cut it for the Collector's Edition home video release.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:Blu-ray special features; Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic FilmClose Encounters of the Third Kind Diary.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
entertainment
What Happens to Films Selected for Preservation by the Library of Congress?
iStock
iStock

On Wednesday morning, the Library of Congress announced its latest slate of movies selected for permanent safekeeping in the National Film Registry. As always, the picks varied widely. The National Film Registry’s class of 2017 includes Dumbo (1941), The Goonies (1985), Die Hard (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), and Titanic (1997), plus the home movies of a Mexican-American family of life in Corpus Christi, Texas in the 1920s.

Originally established in 1988, the National Film Preservation Act tasks the board with selecting American films that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically" significant. They can pick up to 25 per year, and the movies must be at least 10 years old. The National Film Preservation Board is made up of representatives from a number of industry organizations, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Directors Guild of America, and the National Society of Film Critics. With the new selections, there are 725 films in the registry.

Selection for the registry is an honor, of course, but what does it mean beyond that? How does the Library of Congress, the U.S. legislature’s storage agency for documents and media, go about preserving movies?

According to Steve Leggett, program coordinator for the National Film Preservation Board, selection implores the Library of Congress to get the best possible copy of the film in its original format and store it in their vaults at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. This ensures the film will be available to future generations.

For Hollywood movies, the process is usually pretty easy. “We simply ask the studio to donate a copy,” Leggett told Mental Floss in 2015. In some cases, that isn’t even necessary. The Library of Congress has more than 1 million films on file, many of them sent by studios or filmmakers for the sake of copyright registry. When the original Star Wars was selected in 1989, Leggett says, congressional librarians simply checked that the 35 millimeter print submitted with Lucasfilm’s copyright application was in good shape. It was, so no further action was needed.

For older and more esoteric selections like newsreels, silent films, documentaries, and early technical achievements in filmmaking, Leggett says the library often seeks out a copy from the community of preservationists. Universities, private foundations, and hobbyists that preserve old films might get a call from the Library of Congress if they have a good copy of a National Film Registry selection. In rare cases, the library will barter for the film, using redundant materials on its shelves. Other times, it will make a copy or pay the archivist to make a new 35 millimeter copy for them. The Culpeper facility stores nitrate prints, the original film stock for many early movies, in specialty lockers because the material is highly volatile and flammable.

Silent films can be tricky because studios often released, revised, and then re-released versions of the film. When one is selected, Library of Congress archivists collect as many aspects and versions of the film as they can, which might mean contacting several studios and archivists.

Of particular challenge in 2015 was the induction of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, William Greaves’s quasi-documentary of his 1968 theatrical project staged in Central Park. The film was screened often through the years, as Greaves gained a cult following. It was released on DVD in 2006, but the National Film Preservation Act specified that the library should seek a copy in the original format, which it didn’t have. Leggett said Greaves’s 1968 original cut was “lost,” but the library worked with the late filmmaker's estate to create a new 35 millimeter version that resembled it.

The Audio-Visual Conservation Center itself, buried on a mountainside, has storage space controlled to stay cool and dry. “A film could survive for hundreds of years there,” Leggett says. He admits the audiovisual center wouldn’t survive a nuclear strike—in the event of World War III, the world might lose its best copy of Buster Keaton’s The General—“but it did survive an earthquake with all materials intact.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios