(dis)connect Glitch Tutorial

(dis)connect is based on a glitch I found in the media player VLC. In this tutorial I gladly share how to turn this glitch into a tool.

VLC is my preferred media player for pretty much everything. While using it I discovered some buggy behaviour when seeking in an MKV-file. An example of this can be seen in the short clip below where you can see an MKV of the movie Tron freak out.

How does the glitch work (or fail to work)?

When a video file is compressed, the compression saves some frames completely, and other frames are saved as a reference to these frames. That means that only the difference between this frame and the completely saved frame is stored. This saves a lot of data and keeps files small. Older versions of VLC (older than version 2.0, as far as I know) do not handle these frames properly when seeking in an MKV-file. Frames get mixed in ways they should not, and strangely appealing patterns appear. These patterns have their roots in the blocks of 8 by 8 pixels in which JPG-files and video-files are stored.

Playing around with this and taking screenshots is fun already. I have a whole folder on my computer filled with these glitched screenshots from Fight Club, Tron, Kill Bill and many others. Taking it a step further is even more fun though.

Even the Mona Lisa is falling apart - Glitching Fight Club

The tools for taking control

In my project I wanted to apply this glitchy esthetic to a photograph, a static image. A photo can be turned in to a movie file quite easily but without actual movement, all the frames will be the same. The challenge is to create enough variation between the frame to make sure VLC will choke on it, but still have enough control to shape the image the way we want.

My solution was to use Adobe After Effects. It would take many blogs to explain the entire program but I can share the general work flow easily. The first thing is to import the photograph you want to apply the effect to, and create a new composition with this. Import additional images that you want to glitch into this photograph and create layers in the composition with these. Arrange them any way you like and you should end up with something like this.

At this point your composition is still completely static. In theory, you could animate all these little images by hand. In practice, wiggle() does everything I have ever wanted within this project. You can play with the values a bit but I have used a wiggle(5,200) for the position. To make sure the images blend into each other, I have used a wiggle(5,50) on the opacity. And for the last bit of randomness I added a “Brightness & Contrast”-effect with wiggle(5,100) on the brightness.

The result is a video with lots of dancing little images ready to be misinterpreted.

At this point I ran into a small problem. After Effects can export to MKV but it is restrictive in the sizes you can use. My 29 Megapixel images did not fit inside these restrictions. My solution was to use Adobe Media Encoder to render the move as an uncompressed QuickTime movie, which has no restrictions. In certain cases I also had AME cut the movie in 4 or 6 pieces with a lower resolution instead of 1 movie with a high resolution. VLC is unable to take screenshots when the resolution is too high. So I took lower resolution screenshots and put them back together in Adobe Photoshop afterwards.

HandBrake was used to convert the QuickTime movie to an MKV-file. In the Advanced Settings I had Reference Frames set to 10 and Maximum B-frames set to 0. This seemed to work the best for me. The codec has to be set to H264, which is the default.

Time to glitch!

The last step is to load the MKV-file into VLC and have fun. Just pause the file and skip back and forth. Sometimes it takes a while before it starts to glitch and you can take screenshots. At other times the program just crashes. But that is all part of the charm of glitching.

In the end you could end up with something like this, which was created for and published in the Volkskrant.

Glitch illustration made for the Volkskrant

If you have enjoyed this tutorial and have discovered your own techniques, please drop me a comment and share it with somebody!

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