Star Wars famously begins in medias res. From the start, we read and hear references to characters and conflicts about which we know nothing, and no narrator comes to our aid. This well-worn convention, in concert with the use of the neologism (an invented word that is spoken, comprehended by the characters but never defined for the audience) has come to play a central role in science fiction, and indeed in most dramatic representations of technology in popular cinema. From Douglas Adams to Battlestar Galactica, fans seem to derive pleasure in unexplained technologies, bewildering acronyms and opaque policy debates.
The same does not hold true in the classroom, where students also enter a story already in progress. Even the most seasoned fans of consumer technologies, when introduced to a technical task, are likely to prefer that the story begin where they enter—not where the instructor entered, or where the technology began. Refer to a technology by its proper name—say, by describing Radio Corporation of America or component video cables when referring to those red, white and yellow plugs on the back of a DVD player—and you are likely to be met with confusion, and perhaps even a retreat from the learning process. For many, to experience technology as a story in process is to lose one’s footing in an already unsteady space.
Those who teach with technologies know that understanding the story of a tool, at least its precedent if not its origins, is key to successful use. Marshall McLuhan and others pointed to how each new technology borrows from, and mediates, its predecessor. For some, a photograph was first a kind of drawing, just as for others a webcam is a kind of phone. Instructors who teach with digital media rely on their knowledge of past technologies to teach the current tools. I have found that making a technology’s history explicit and experiential for students, even at the expense of time and convenience, improves their understanding and prepares them for inevitable future change.
For students of cinema production or criticism, acquiring clips of mainstream films in digital form for use in presentations or remixes has long been a difficult chore. One can teach about fair use and copyright in the abstract without much difficulty. But students and instructors face persistent challenges in the legal maze created by changing copyright laws and their consequent effects on consumer technologies. Adept instructors know that this is no mere annoyance, however, but a crystallization of the experience of all technologies, subject as they are to changes in manufacture and policy. The ongoing story of how producers and consumers wrestle over control of media formats offers an excellent opportunity for embedding skill acquisition in an orientation to the dynamics of public space and media.
Students today enter the story at a period of apparent calm. In the summer of 2010, the Library of Congress copyright office granted exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act for artists, educators and students who circumvent the anti-copyright protection measures included on DVDs and other media delivery formats. For those inclined to take advantage of this new legal freedom, there is at least one easy, open-source software package to aid in this process: a program called Handbrake.
Handbrake presents, for a variety of operating systems, a friendly interface for converting most DVDs, in whole or in part, to digital video formats that can be edited or included in lecture presentations or websites. Other open-source programs such as Mac-the-Ripper or MPEG Streamclip perform as well or better, but Handbrake presents the experience of ripping DVD video and audio as a smooth, user-friendly and non-transgressive process. For those students fortunate enough to find Handbrake installed on their school’s computers (a rare thing, given how fearful many Information Technology departments are of incurring lawsuits), there seems to be no story at all to the acquisition of copyrighted video for educational or artistic use.
Now in version 0.9.4, Handbrake debuted in 2003, and ranks as the most downloaded video conversion tool on the media news site CNET. The software was originally developed as an application for the BeOS operating system, an early competitor to Macintosh and Windows. Handbrake’s designer, Eric Petit, would go on to help develop two other highly popular open source applications—the VLC media player and Transmission, a popular torrent-sharing program. Petit developed Handbrake within the three years following the release of the DeCSS program, a published hack that first cracked the anti-piracy measures with which video and audio are encoded on most commercial DVDs. Handbrake languished after an initial push, revived by a new group with Petit’s blessing in early 2006 (many of whom were likely aiming for easy ways to get material transferred from DVDs to the new video iPod.)
Today—for a short while, anyway—any student who is looking to extract a scene from a Hollywood-produced DVD for use in presentations or remixes can rely on Handbrake to do the job. Before tools like Handbrake were available, acquiring copyrighted material for Fair Use adoption was quite the moving target. To survey this story—which I do in the classroom when teaching media acquisition—is to tour the complicated interweaving of infrastructure, media, policy, government and private industry interests that produce most mass media forms. Some key concepts in this story include: differences between analog and digital signals; definitions of Fair Use and Public Domain; scrambling and encryption; format evolution, resolution and data compression.
Before the advent of the DVD, those with access to analog-to-digital conversion hardware could, with mixed success, convert a VHS copy (analog tape) of a film to digital form. As early as 1995, Apple offered such possibilities to a consumer-level market through the inclusion of analog video inputs—those familiar red, white and yellow ports—on some Power Mac computers. With the aid of video capture software, one could digitally sample portions of incoming analog video and audio signals, producing digital video files for use in editing or presentation.
As digital video cameras entered the consumer market, one could accomplish the same task using the analog-to-digital conversion chips included in some camera hardware. As in those early Power Mac computers, many of the first digital video cameras featured those familiar RCA ports, inviting an exploratory pairing with a VHS deck or even an early DVD player. The resulting digital video information, stored on a mini-DV tape, could then be easily imported to computer without re-digitizing. Standalone conversion boxes even entered the market, little “crossroads” devices that converted analog signals to digital information, or vice versa.
A few challenges already littered this landscape of apparent cross-platform compatibility. First, most Hollywood-produced VHS tapes featured a hidden signal designed to thwart dubbing. If one were to dub an original VHS tape using two VCR decks, this hidden signal would confuse the recording deck through the presence of extraneous pulses in the magnetically-recorded video signal. The recording deck, attempting to compensate for the extra information, would adjust the image to near-darkness or near-white, rendering the film unwatchable. Some analog-to-digital conversion chips detected this signal, some did not, so digitizing VHS tapes became a matter of trial-and-error with different computers. Likewise, some digital video cameras and conversion boxes would detect the signal and shut down during the digitization process. The only way around this roadblock, the product of a single company called Macrovision (or, more recently, Rovi Corporation), short of trying a new combination of equipment, was to build a filter circuit from electronic components.
No solution to this problem seemed foolproof, as the producers of computers, video display cards and cameras seemed to be changing their hardware in response to industry pressure to prevent such processes. Composite video (RCA) inputs would come and go on Macintosh computers; eventually only professional grade digital video cameras would include analog-to-digital conversion from outside sources, and Sony even ceased production of their highly popular standalone conversion box, the DVMC-DA2.
At first, the emergence of DVDs offered a seeming solution to this dynamic problem because the information included would already be digitized. Instead, consumers soon discovered new obstacles. A DVD may have looked enough like a Compact Disc to promise a plethora of data for acquisition and adoption, but those who eagerly inserted a commercial DVD into their new DVD-ready computer were likely met with an unpleasant surprise. The video files were hidden or encrypted on these discs, tucked away where no casual browser could find them. Apple even built in software measures to prevent screen-capture of DVDs; attempts to record even a still image from Apple’s DVD Player program as a digital file would produce only a black screen where the monitor displayed a paused film. Creative consumers were forced to send the DVD information as an analog signal back through analog-to-digital conversion boxes, re-digitizing a signal which had already been encoded once from its original film source. As the necessary hardware for that process was also growing scarce, this was no easy prospect.
In October 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act into law, including as a major and radical requirement that all hardware designed to accept analog video signals be equipped with technology sold by the Macrovision corporation to detect its anti-piracy signal. Any variation found among different products’ adherence to such practices was soon quashed, rendering all gear produced before the Act both illegal and desirable.
When “DVD Jon” Lech Johansen released his DeCSS program designed to unscramble commercial DVDs in 1999, tech-savvy students and educators gained a new, if illegal, way around the problem of acquiring material for use in the classroom. It took some time for this technology to find its way into the hands of students and instructors who weren’t used to installing software, let alone searching for obscure hacks. In the first years following Johansen’s release of DeCSS, various decryption tools would come and go in relation to developer interests, countermeasures in hardware and software development, and legal threats. Handbrake is the latest of these, the most enduring and most user-friendly. Though it hasn’t included the DeCSS program for descrambling DVDs for several versions now (it relies instead on users installing DeCSS elsewhere on the computer), use of Handbrake for classroom purposes was, for the most part, illegal until summer of 2010. Only now can a student or instructor use such means of circumvention in support of Fair Use or education without fear of legal recrimination.
I have yet to teach in a facility where the computer lab includes Handbrake or an equivalent, or which allows students to install downloaded software. Yet since 2000, I have taught a variety of courses wherein acquisition of commercially-produced video plays a part. In the interest of learning about sound in film, I require students to acquire a clip and then produce alternate soundtracks for it, using microphones and found material. Long before the rise of fake movie trailers as viral videos, my students were creating new teasers for movies that didn’t exist, using footage acquired from commercial VHS and DVD sources. We’ve even used scenes from commercial cinema to create video prototypes for new interactive products or scenarios. Further, my own presentations on depictions of technology in cinema regularly rely on imported footage.
Each time I teach a subject that requires such work, I introduce the technical task at hand by leading students through a series of exercises that reflect the story of media’s “protection” and “liberation” through debates and policies around copyright law. Our first session on the subject starts with a stack of VHS decks and tapes, which in some cases we must hook up ourselves to any camera or conversion boxes that might still be around. We have a first try at digitizing footage using these decks. Some students are immediately successful (depending on the make and models of the deck and tape, which does or doesn’t pick up a Macrovision signal). Others, after encountering a problem, try a different deck, or even switch to using a DVD player. At that stage, even a transfer from a DVD player via analog signal is blocked by some of the cameras or conversion boxes; students will have to trade around different boxes and cameras to get the right combination. A film recorded from television broadcast behaves differently than a purchased DVD; new cameras behave differently than old cameras; fidelity varies across each format and hardware pairing.
As a last resort, some students will even switch to videotaping a television screen while playing back the desired DVD passage, producing a low-quality version that might still serve the purpose of the projects, potentially even adding an interesting new layer of mediation to the image.
Once we’ve walked through these different methods in the classroom, I’ll point students to Handbrake online, showing them where and how to download the program on a computer for which they have administrative privileges. The last choice I typically leave them with is this: if they would rather not use copyrighted material, they are welcome to use unencrypted video from the public domain, imported through similar methods from videos or DVDs in our institution’s library. There exists a danger, in light of consumerism’s penchant for equating transgression with personal expression, to present appropriation or circumvention as not merely a right, but as a moral imperative. In the end I want each student to make her own choice about how to navigate these boundaries.
Digitization is but one of many ways to create a signal, just as encryption is but one of many ways to disrupt reception of that signal. To inhabit these differences is to experience information technologies as truly medial, contested and produced. To physically attempt multiple methods of recording at various levels of fidelity to the original is to connect resolution and image quality to debates in which more than faithful transmission is at stake.
By turning an apparently settled story into a much longer and fragmentary process, I hope to increase comprehension of present technologies and to prepare students for future changes. Comprehension in this case requires performing the task. Capturing footage from a VHS tape using video editing software may seem or even be inferior to downloading a YouTube clip using Vixy or KeepVid, but the two processes follow very different technical and legal arcs, and thus require distinctly different kinds of participation in the production of public media spaces. I hope to see students making choices in these spaces that reflect thoughtful deliberation about their roles as consumers and citizens.
The DVD is of course fading from the consumer sphere, to be replaced by digital video recorders, on-demand streaming, and files purchased or leased from online entertainment brokers. Tomorrow’s student faces still newer challenges in acquiring clips for use in learning and creative production. In the future I may start with Handbrake and the DVD as the beginning of my story in the classroom, reaching back to obsolete media to provide analogies and metaphors for understanding newer processes of decryption and re-encryption. However this story develops, I plan to always place students a little farther back in the narrative than they might be used to.
The stories they know of predetermined access modes and smoothly progressing standards of fidelity are all too familiar and seamless. By re-introducing some seams into the process, I hope to call attention to how our present media surfaces came into their present shape, to invite students to play an active role in the next steps of their development as citizens, consumers and producers. Such active knowledge requires thinking through doing. We need to occasionally rehearse or revisit the bodily motions of previous routines; in this way, we incorporate the memory of old ways into our intelligent use and adoption of new tools.
 See <http://www.handbrake.com/>.
 See <http://www.cnet.com/>.
 See <http://www.videolan.org/>.