The Visual Poetry of Corrupt Video


In this five-minute video, we see portions of a Mad Men episode (episode 408, "The Summer Man") as it appears when incompletely downloaded via BitTorrent. The video is extraordinarily corrupt, showing strange artifacts like missing blocks of the picture, "melting" video, repeated actions, and other such glitches. Taken together, and with a surprisingly nice soundtrack, this actually does feel like art, though it's a sort of found art -- the found art of online video piracy and computer algorithms for storing and playing back video. I was surprised by how emotionally powerful this clip was, despite it being basically a series of visual artifacts from a broken video file. Of course, that's probably because I'm familiar with the series, and I remember this episode (it's -- very mild spoiler alert -- the one where Don starts keeping a journal and tries to become a bit healthier by swimming at the New York Athletic Club). There is something truly poetic about seeing the show like this: it's what might happen if a painter were to deconstruct each scene, focusing only on the areas of movement, and then animate the result.

My favorite part starts around 2:25, as Don takes a drink, the camera pushes in on him, then a shot of Betty morphs into a repeating clip of Bethany talking, as the screen around the women melts into riotous colors. To me, that's a visual metaphor for the most important emotional content of this episode. The action is most apparent when you watch the video fullscreen.

MADMEN Bittorrent Edition from Stunned on Vimeo.

Also very interesting (particularly for geeks) is a technical explanation of what's going on here. I'll summarize: BitTorrent breaks up the file into tiny chunks, which is why the scenes are incomplete (plus the person who put this together did edit together the scenes that were at least downloaded enough to play back, but didn't add any "effects"); the video encoder breaks up each image into blocks, which is why we see missing blocks, "melting" blocks, and so on; and in the absence of a complete data file, the video playback engine does the best it can, which accounts for the odd repetition, fast/slow motion, and other strange kinds of video effects.

The song used is "The Grass Harp" by Silje Nes (aka "The Glass Harp" on iTunes) from the album "Opticks," which is definitely worth a look.

(Via Waxy.)