Dot matrix printers have already been used to play music, but now a Canadian indie rock band has used them to produce an entire music video. After two years of fastidious trial and error, Young Rival have released a video for the song "Elevator," in which every frame of a digital video was reproduced on Oki Data Turboline 320 dot matrix printers before being scanned back into a computer to create an epic moving image.
Young Rival bassist and music video director John Smith tells The Creators Project how the idea for the video came about: “One day a few years ago, I was reminiscing about the technology that I grew up with and specifically a memory I had of printing images on my family's old dot matrix printer. It might seem funny now in 2017, but at the time printing an image in your own home felt revolutionary.” Smith says that he came up with lots of potential ways to turn dot matrix prints into moving images right away. “Since the paper used with these printers came on 'ribbon feed,' that is, one long tearable stretch of paper with removable sides, I automatically likened it to a strip film.”
After musing over numerous methods of making the video, Smith eventually determined that the unique character of the prints would stand on their own as a distinct visual effect. “I decided to do a quick print and scan test, using the dot matrix, and after aligning a dozen frames, I realized it was nice to have the quality of the printer made obvious and visible. After all, that was the magic and the aesthetic behind using this particular printer.” In the end, the process that worked best was to edit a digital video that could be printed out and then scanned back into the computer frame by frame. But this process offered its own set of challenges, which is how the video for a song released in 2015 was not finished until 2017.
The video opens on four dot matrix printers sitting on a table, however only one of the four printers is actually shown printing, and there’s a reason for that. “We bought our first printer on ebay, and abused it with so much printing that it stopped working beyond repair. Then we bought another one on ebay, and the same thing happened. Since we are fools, we thought we'd try one more used ebay printer. Same result. We finally caved and bought a brand new one, and that is the one that held out until the bitter end.”
Even using a brand new printer had its pitfalls. Smith says it could only handle about 30 images at a time, and they printed so slowly that he often had to let them print overnight. When left unsupervised it would sometimes jam, and when it did manage to print without jamming, the resulting images often featured glitches. But Smith ultimately chose to use those glitches to his advantage. “Sometimes a bit of machine language would print across a half-printed image. It looked beautiful to me. I saved all the 'outtakes' and used them throughout the final piece.”
In addition to nostalgia for dot matrix printing, Smith pays homage to a pioneering Canadian filmmaker in the "Elevator" video. “Norman McLaren has been an inspiration to me for years, even before I started experimenting with film and video myself. I was always drawn to his films and the more I researched his technical innovations, the deeper my respects grew. He was a man ahead of his time. He was able to come up with these wild new technical ideas and execute them with such a beautiful end result.” Specifically, Smith references McLaren’s 1968 work Pas de Deux. “It's a work that showcases the movement of dancers against a black background. Their movements become echoed across time.”
Despite the time and effort it took Smith to make the "Elevator" video, the project did produce helpful information about dot matrix printers. “Perhaps the most shocking thing I learned in this entire process is that they are in fact still manufactured and sold new, and they aren't exactly cheap.” But, like the time and effort that went into making the video, Smith says that buying one of these printers may actually pay off in the long run. “One huge benefit of dot matrix printers is that they use very little ink. I think we only spent about $40-50 on 6-7 ink ribbons throughout the entire project. I don't think I can buy a single cartridge for that amount for my inkjet printer at home.”
Find out more about Young Rival and their innovative music videos on their website.