In which this humble author, with tongue sometimes planted in cheek:
1. Shares a how-to video on datamoshing.
2. Forbids the use of the word datamoshing in future.
3. Challenges obscenely-gifted motion artist David O’Reilly to a rumble.

Here’s the story so far: there’s a compression artefact created when videos are compressed improperly, which causes frames to melt into one another like wax. And so, among others, we recently saw on CDM the music video Evident Utensil, a video that intentionally (ironically?) overused that effect until you started seeing missing p-frames and i-frames in real life and/or threw something at your computer in disgust. The most interesting part of that story wound up being a guy with a few dozen YouTube views who posted videos with this effect like they were home movies, and he seemed to actually speak in a language made up of compression artefacts, and he showed up in comments and said, insightfully I thought:

drul pixel the. teh pix pi pi aph afgh. $$$342agph. fafpht. πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ !!!! teh. teh teh!!!!1 fteh ftehapple.>>>>VLC<<<< wmv &&&scrub vidcodec. mma ek πŸ˜€ S:D sence video. πŸ˜€ ghsg πŸ™‚ VLC VCKL πŸ™ wmv wmv ##raghg drool pixels<<>>_>baby. πŸ˜€ crazy like a fox. πŸ˜› πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ !!!! $$# ragha arugh pi pii pi squeez VLC%%%charflit, flarhfit. ckharlift. πŸ™ πŸ™ bad babyb, bad band. teh teh teh!!!! the

This is, of course, what baby boomlet parents fear will become the lingua franca of their children, as kids text nonsense to one another rather than paying attention to Pre-Algebra class. I think that probably doesn’t matter, because by the time those kids are grown up they’ll be jacked into the Matrix anyway, and to save money, the Matrix will be full of compression artefacts.

You probably think I post everything without remorse. You probably think I’m a hipster, lounging on a bed of PBR cans and spouting nonsense words for occasional blips of Boing Boing fame, that tomorrow I’ll have my own brand of steampunk datamosh. But believe it or not, thoughts do flash through my brain as I’m writing – well, at least some of the time. On those occasions, conflicting sentiments blink like so many p-frames in the frontal lobe of my brain:

1. (*&$#! With this video out, now Timbaland is probably going to rip off this effect.
2. Once you know how to do it, it’s not that interesting any more.
3. Wait, but if everyone knows how to do it, maybe people will be forced to figure out something creative and artistic, because other visualists will totally laugh at them otherwise, like when they go to some uber-hip VJ festival in Austria and some demoscene guys with beards say “har, har, these Americans don’t know how to program. I have a whole glitched-out virtual reality I programmed in one byte of code.”
4. David O’Reilly is totally going to beat me up and take my lunch money because I used the term datamosh. And I kinda deserve it.
5. I love ffmpeg. This is an excuse to talk about ffmpeg. I’m going to talk about this so I can mention ffmpeg.

But then I remember, you’re reading this.

So, let the record state:

1. When in doubt, assume nothing I or other contributors on CDM say is meant to be taken entirely seriously.
2. Datamosh is a silly term, and we will use it no more.
3. This how-to video is awesome and beautiful because it doesn’t take itself at all seriously. It is, as a result, immune to certain forms of critical analysis.
4. David O’Reilly is more talented than anyone mentioned in that earlier post.
5. I’m kind of peeved at David O’Reilly.

Let’s skip to point 5.

Novelty, and Why Go for Baroque

David O’Reilly makes some of the best motion work I’ve ever seen – not exaggerating. Apparently, some of his fans saw the more recent, primitive compression effects on YouTube as a rip of his work. I sure didn’t see it that way, not because O’Reilly’s use of the effect came first, but because it was infinitely subtler and still looks fresher today.

Unfortunately, David decided to post a rebuttal to all of this:

Datamoshing is so over!

“First of all, datamoshing is an extremely lame title for the effect”

I agree.

Okay, I did put it in a headline. But I never claimed my headlines were “edgy” and not just, some of the time, “lame.”

I think David is ascribing a greater degree of intent to all of this than maybe it deserves, but fine, I’ll accept that naming something is an attempt to make it novel.

“While I did what was probably the first intentional transition using compression back in early 2005…”

I’m curious about this. Was David really the first to use an intentional compression transition as late as 2005? That strikes me as both unlikely and in conflict with the whole point of his post.

The video to which he’s referring is utterly amazing. Claiming it was the first at anything – even casually – undercuts David’s (rightful) argument, that it’s how expressive something is that matters, not how “new” it is. And once you bring up the issue of novelty, I’d be stunned if someone hadn’t tried this earlier than 2005. There’s just no way. I could be wrong; if anyone can come up with an example earlier than 2005, let me know. (2005, wow, that was … okay, only four years ago.)

“I never structured my identity around it or overused it.”

Actually, David’s video on Vimeo is entitled a “compression reel,” has countless views, and he sells compression t-shirts. To the extent that he never overused the effect, that I can get behind. But why the need for protest? And, for that matter, is there anything wrong with marketing the effect, as David did? Ultimately, people will have to decide who does it best, and I think David has a real edge there. I even think his t-shirt is cool. But now, if I take his argument literally, I’m going to have to buy 1000 t-shirts from him.

Compression: the t-shirt.

For that matter, I’m not even sure I agree with David’s fundamental argument. What’s wrong with structuring (some of your) work around a particular effect? The criticism here is that it’s not done artfully — which is a more than reasonable criticism. But it’s not necessarily better to use more techniques than fewer. Sometimes, something can be more expressive by focusing on a single technique and exploring it – not as a way of getting more YouTube views because it’s novel, but as a personal experience as an artist.

Ironically, he singles out Kai’s Power Tools, which I think is the exception that proves the rule. Kai’s effects got overused, it’s true. But Kai Krause had, second only to the early Xerox and Mac teams, an enormous impact on user interfaces today. In fact, the “drop shadow” effect David claims is embarrassing is probably on your Mac, Windows, or Linux computer screen right now, making it clear which two-dimensional window is in the foreground. It wasn’t a matter of whether the effect was overused, but whether it was used with a purpose. With a purpose, you could actually use only glow effects but make them interesting, a bit like you can make a piece of music with a single rhythmic motive.

More telling:
“It’s not a big deal that it’s now mainstream.”

Absolutely. Ah, but that’s the rub. The line between “underground” and “mainstream” has been nearly obliterated by the Web. “Underground” may still exist, but it’s entirely unpredictable when a video will blow up and go mainstream. The mainstream is also able to mine the underground with terrifying new efficiency because they have access to what everyone is doing.

That could be destructive. Or it could prevent people from marketing novelty, which could be a good thing. If you want to do nothing but work with compression, go for it – you’ll just have to make it personally distinctive rather than relying on the effect itself. David does that brilliantly, so I don’t know what he’s complaining about.

And, indeed, you’re free to do something badly and share it with the world. Such is the democratic nature of the Web. Certainly, not everything I do is brilliant, but there’s something lovely about the power to share it anyway.

Then, oddly, David decides to finish by quoting Tarkovsky. I’m actually just as interested in what David thinks as Tarkovsky, but here it is:

β€œWhen exaggeration is not inherent in the imagery, but is merely an exaggerated attempt to desire and please, it’s a sign of provincialism, of the wish to be noticed as an artist”

Tarkovsky is making a specific aesthetic argument. No matter how much you respect his work, there’s no reason to take what he’s saying as law, just by virtue of him being Tarkovsky. (Composers used to follow Wagner. Yikes.) In fact, I think it’s a natural response to the availability of lots of digital effects that some artists will go rococo with their tools and exaggerate well beyond what’s inherent in imagery. And YouTube allows a kind of hyper-provincialism, all of which could be really interesting.

We are, naturally, in a kind of Neo-Rococo age in which effects are exaggerated and celebrated for their own life. At the same time, we have the ability to create a concurrent counter-movement that does just the opposite. Future art historians will have their work cut out for themselves by the Web – or maybe art history as we now know it will cease to exist. (Because of the impermanence of media, the art, too, may cease to be – but speaking as a person who values live performance, that may or may not turn out to be a tragedy.)

As an artist, I have to choose what to do about all of this. But as a writer, I have a wonderful luxury: I can stand back and watch what happens.

And I do appreciate Mr. O’Reilly protesting, honestly. Someone had to say something, rather than just accept all of this as given. I think this stuff is worth debating. Too often, the Web is just people posting stories that say “hey, look at this,” and it’s one-dimensional – no one bothers saying that one thing is better than another thing, even when it obviously is. But since he did bring up the matter of debate or opinion, well, I have some opinions of my own.

Overusing effects? Sometimes, it’s just a sign of the times. Photo: Jose Maria Cuellar.

I think closing with quotes is also a terrible idea, so I’ll respond by closing with some Yogi Berra.

“You can observe a lot just by watching.”

“If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”

“This is like deja vu all over again.”


Oh, yeah, I forgot – I was looking forward to talking about ffmpeg.

So…. ffmpeg. Go download it. Make something we haven’t seen before. You won’t be able to invent a new effect, because even if you do, it’ll be mainstream-appropriated by tomorrow. So you’ll just have to go make something that’s distinctively you.

Just don’t listen to me.

Or Tarkovsky. Or David O’Reilly. Or this datamosh guy.

But definitely not to me.