Destroying VHS Tapes for Mr. Robot

The 2 VHS tapes I destroyed for MR. Robot.

The 2 VHS tapes I destroyed for MR. Robot.


_It’s no secret that VHS tape deteriorates over time or with repeated use. Those tapes from 30 years ago are memories slowly fading. But that’s your problem. What if you want that VHS look now on a digital project? That’s what happened to me while working at Mr. Robot.

_I was obsessed with VHS growing up. I had 2 VCRs, I learned to put scotch tape over that little square, and my tape collection was massive. I spent hours taping tv shows and pausing the recording during commercials. I had 13 tapes of SImpsons episodes, at least 12 episodes on each. I had a job at Blockbuster Video in high school. My love of VHS allowed me to study movies and tv shows and watch them over and over before Hulu existed.

_Then slowly not only did the technology become obsolete, so did my obsession and care for the collection. I think you know why, time and technology, and who cares.

_In the early 2000’s I used to VJ, or mix live video in clubs for DJs and laptop musicians. VHS always just looked cool, like retro MTV. Then I started damaging it on purpose to create glitchy, f-ed up images and it just worked great with electronic music. Then I became a feature editor and occasionally looked for excuses to work in those VJ skills.

_In season 2 of Mr. Robot, Elliott and Darlene watch their favorite movie from growing up called “The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie.” In the show we see Elliott download a VHSrip from Pirate Bay that says the movie was from 1984. Producers Adam Penn and Sean Schuyler wanted it to look like an authentic old VHS that got ripped . They were looking at digital filters that mimicked VHS but they were all pretty obviously bad. Either you could see then same bits of damage repeating or just something about it didn’t look totally right. Because it wasn’t. I said, “let’s do it for real.” And they let me.

_Adam and Sean made the movie then gave it to me. I brought in my old VCR and found a bodega in Brooklyn that sold VHS tapes still, crazy that. I plugged my Avid into the VCR, laid the movie out to VHS a couple of times to give myself a few tries at damaging it. First I re-digitized the clean VHS output so we had just the pure look before damaging it.

_Then I took the VHS tape apart. It’s easy, just a few small screws. I slowly unspooled one side crinkling the tape a little bit and re-spooling it on the other side. At one point our PA Samer Esmail and I were standing at either end of a long hallway slowly walking towards each other while I pinched the tape slightly. I did this a few times, re-digitizing it between each damage session so we had options of degrees of damage.

The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie

_That is the “PLAY” and “SP” generated by my VCR. We got an FBI Warning from somewhere. The graphics department made the 80’s E Corp logo.

_It doesn’t take much to totally destroy the tape and make it unrecognizable. Little pinches work the best. To make gaps you can use magnets too but again, it’s very easy to go too far and completely erase the tape.

_For the end of The Careful Massacre… we wanted it to look like the tape basically broke or was so worn out and disintegrated that it was just over. It’s sort of like the owner of this tape had a rewind point after a nude scene that he kept pausing on or rewinding from, some of you who owned a VHS of Wild Things know what I mean. So for the end I grabbed the tape in my fist and rolled it in a ball. I may have cut it and taped it back together too.

_I did the same thing for an F_Society tape that Darlene’s tape deck eats while she’s taping a mask video in the smart house. I took that shot, put it on VHS, and destroyed it a few times until I got one timed perfectly. Sam dug it so that’s the one in the show.

_I’ve since done it for credit sequences, or in the movie Goldie for a flashback look. The only limitation I’ve found is that VCR’s are 4:3 aspect ratio everything since the late 90’s is 16:9 so you have to enlarge the VHS image which degrades it further.

James LeSageVHS, Mr. Robot