Past Lives


The last three seconds of the tape, without audio, became an unexpected silent film.

My father, the son of an actor who was born three years before the invention of the talkie.

My sister, the daughter of a teacher who was born three years before the opening of the magic kingdom.

Each time I watch their turn, I think more deeply that she — born three years before our father first taught at our school — must be acting out a tender past life. She can’t possibly have ever been so young and yet look so intently and talk so observantly, whatever it was she was saying, lost but to our imaginary archive.



After I wrote my list for the afternoon of projects and tasks I was then distracted for a time by testing out my VHS digitization, which was not even a line item on the daily list. I dove into it because my hope was I could let the whole thing run uninterrupted and in parallel with the other tasks, only having to attend to it during breaks in writing and editing to change out a tape and occasionally futz with the tracking at the beginning.

I started with my personal, well-worn and memorized copy of Ghostbusters taped off of television probably sometime between 1989 and 1992. I was especially interested in the commercials.

Unfortunately, I discovered a potential problem with the setup. Well, no, not potential. There is a problem with the current equipment that I now need to suss out. On the computer screen, some level of video cassette glitchiness (well past invoking nostalgia) causes the import feed to empty into black, for a few seconds at a time. Consistently, but not predictably. That this is perhaps just a potential problem is subject to whether or not I’m willing to accept a few moments of black screen at random. Wasn’t something preserved to 95 or 98% better than no preservation at all? But my perfectionism wasn’t going to let that be the standard for this project, even if it was going to run in the background. I’d just end up converting everything over again at some other point. I also just liked fixing problems, especially when it fed into my own procrastination — also because in the end, I might better understand what I was doing and how everything worked.

After a few minutes of cursing and then meditating on the machines and their wires and how the software worked (or didn’t), and sampling other tapes with similar results, I counted at least three sources of the potential problem, somewhere along the chain. That it was one of these three things was pretty obvious, but deciding which variable might be the only one to test was the whole game and pursuit of troubleshooting.

  1. The old VCR. Which was perhaps breaking down, and that it didn’t handle this particular tracking problem very well. So one line of testing will be to replace the VCR and see if that improves things. But — I don’t have another VCR.  I’ve already fiddled with the tracking adjustment — that moves the static at the top and the bottom and the quality of the audio, without a remote I adjust this by pressing the channel direction buttons of the front of the machine — and no placement seems to change the duration of the blackout, or seem to have an impact it. There’s nothing specific to test here other than a direct replacement, or plugging it into a TV (if we even have one that accepts these old cables). And given that it does generally play most of the tapes well, and I don’t remember VCR’s ever going black like that, this is the least likely culprit.
  2. The JVC Deck, which acts as an intermediary between the VCR and the computer, taking the yellow red and white cables and converting the signal into a Firewire output that I’m to taking into the computer (after that Firewire cable is then transformed via dongle into a Thunderbolt cable). All other things being equal, I assume the JVC deck is likely the source of the problem. Not the cables, which seem fine otherwise, not the tape deck, not the tape (you expected this occasional type of VHS hiccup with tapes), but something inside of the deck itself, whatever it magically did before it sent the signal out via Firewire. It may not like the quality of the video coming from the VCR whenever it gets scattered just so, and so decides to send no signal at all, as if in some form of a failsafe.
  3. The computer itself. Which I could potentially split this into two subcategories of problems – the hardware and the software. and the software may be the culprit. Premiere’s capture window, that you pull up from the File menu, doesn’t seem to have really any options about the how or the specific settings of how you’d like it to handle things. Just “Record” and “Stop Recording.” When the black screen problem crops up there’s still audio playing through, creating one of those situations that begs the question of which of the two dimensions of the process is more important and forgivable in its degradation or full absence.

So to find whatever was haunting, I’d just have to plug everything into other things. More often than not that was how I started any kind of troublebusting.