Making The VHS Time Capsule

What is the VHS Time Capsule?

Like many of my peers, my childhood was defined by the VCR. I was born just as units were beginning to come down in price, and television recordings made up a significant portion of my family’s entertainment choices. Regular UHF matinee movies were perfect targets for this technology, and films that I watched in regular rotation–such as Back To The Future, The Blues Brothers, and Dirty Harry–still seem strange when viewed without commercial breaks or requisite safe-for-television edits.

Some years ago, I began a long process of digitizing these VHS tapes (always recorded in SLP with 2-3 movies on each tape for maximum value) to preserve the arguably rare historical ephemera contained on them. Most of the films I had already upgraded to digital copies, but there were still some rarities that had not been made available in newer formats. Even more interesting, perhaps, are the commercials that punctuated these features. By recording entire timeslots, my family had inadvertently archived slices of local and national advertising campaigns over a nearly 20-year period! I began posting these “retrocommericals” to a dedicated YouTube channel in order to easily catalog and share them with other interested people.

Since beginning my website redesign during the COVID-19 Pandemic, I wanted to focus more on interesting and interactive ways to present these historical nuggets, and I wanted to create an appliance that serves them to a casual visitor–someone who isn’t looking for anything specific, but wants to be served a sampling of artifacts to pick and choose from. With this section being dedicated to VHS-based artifacts, I wanted to use a design aesthetic that evoked a very specific production technique that was popularized through the VHS era: the “flying window”. The flying window became a staple of educational or informational videos produced during the VHS era as a way to tease upcoming features, often to the tune of some upbeat light jazz. The trope was so popular that VHS collectors have dedicated catalogs to the different techniques used to create the effect. The flying window was also used on many popular television shows of the era, often to tease scenes or introduce characters. Notable among these uses is the opening sequence to the CBS drama Knots Landing, which employed the technique in various forms over its 15-year run (also notable is the fact that Knots Landing was a spinoff of Dallas, which also popularized the technique in the late 1970s).

Flying windows
If you’re of a certain age, you can hear this GIF.

The Concept

For this web application, I wanted to pay homage to such a prolific production technique by creating my own endless “flying windows” sequence that featured randomized videos from the VHS Time Capsule archive sailing across the screen at various locations and speeds. Each of these thumbnails is clickable and will open a viewer that plays the entire video. The whole sequence is overlaid on an aesthetically-appropriate video background and accompanied by a fitting soundtrack (in MIDI format, as is most appropriate for the greater Old Web aesthetic that the new site is employing).

So, to put it in more technical terms, I want to have the application create div containers, color them randomly, position them at random X and Y positions off screen, then translate each of them across the screen at a randomly set speed. Each div container will be populated with the thumbnail of a video from the archive collection (a video would be nice, but I would need to dedicate more storage space on my server to the project than I’m willing). I’m using the MIDIjs library to control MIDI playback, and I’ll have a couple of buttons: one for navigation (back to the home page) and one to toggle sound.

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