The hazy images of Kyle Cassidys Toy Soldiers (1996) evoke faint childhood memories. This short film expresses the hopes and anxieties of a small boy as he awaits the next news from his father who is serving in Vietnam. Adult concerns shape his everyday rituals as he plays in the backyard with his green plastic army guys and reflects on the fate of those who have been run over by the lawnmower, as he watches the flickering television newscast with his mother, and as he awaits the next letter. Toy Soldiers has the intimacy of a home movie, even though it is re-created decades later from the directors own memories.
Cassidy made the critically acclaimed film with his Pixelvision 2000 camera, which has a plastic case and plastic lens, runs on six AA batteries, and records its images on a regular audiocassette tape. The Pixelvision camera was marketed from 1987 to 1989 by the toy company Fisher-Price. At $100, it was the cheapest self-contained camcorder ever made.
The Pixelvision camera has a fixed focus lens which, like a pinhole camera, theoretically has absolute focus from zero to infinity, but in practice, does best when what is being filmed remains a few feet from the camera. The camera can film well in very low light but almost everything it shoots has a shadowy and washed out look. It was originally intended for children, but kids never really were wild about it. They tended to be disappointed that their movies didnt look anything like what they were seeing on television: the Pixelvision image has 2,000 black-and-white dots, making it far coarser than a standard TV image, with its 200,000 pixels.
But the Pixelvision camera has found its way into the hearts and hands of a growing number of amateur and avant garde filmmakers who like it for many of the reasons it disappointed its target market. The Pixelvisions murky, grainy, and unstable image has become the marker of alternative media authenticity. Pixelvision enthusiasts love the “point and shoot” quality of the camera, which they say allows neophytes to start doing creative work right away. Budding artists can put their energies into communicating ideas rather than learning to control the technology. A once expensive toy has become an incredibly cheap tool.
The Pixelvision movement is the artistic equivalent of a cargo cult: a junked technology took root here and we can now see two decades of elaboration as its worshippers have managed to turn its bugs into desirable features and have developed a new mode of expression around its unique properties. Pixelvision fans have created their own websites, spawned their own criticism, and developed their own film festivals (such as PXL THIS), all in the face of total neglect, and at times open disdain, from Fisher-Price. As filmmaker Eric Saks writes, Pixelvision is an aberrant art form, underscored by the fact that since the cameras wear out quickly, and are no longer being manufactured, it holds within itself authorized obsolescence. Each time an artist uses a PXL 2000, the whole form edges closer to extinction.