Back to the future: making new content from old aesthetics
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Back to the future: making new content from old aesthetics

Author: James Cresswell | Posted on: 7 February 2019

A recent report published by Shutterstock highlights the visual and design trends that they predict will dominate 2019. Interestingly, their top three predictions bear the strong influence of past aesthetics: there’s a ramshackle photomontage style reminiscent of independent ’zines published throughout the ’80s and ’90s; a celebration of extravagant 1980s kitsch; and a hazy retrofuturistic style that juxtaposes today’s anxieties about technology with the optimism of the Internet’s early days.

It’s no secret that audiences have a taste for content from the past (just look at how much popular cinema consists of sequels and reboots of well-loved old properties), but what should content creators know about why this is, and how can drawing from the past be about more than just comfortable nostalgia?


How does nostalgia tend to work?

There’s a line from Arrested Development that offers a pretty good summation of how nostalgia tends to work in cycles — Lindsay Bluth’s remark that “we’re dressed like we’re in the ’60s. It’s the 21st Century: we should be dressing like it’s the ’80s.”

It’s generally agreed upon that a generation’s prevailing nostalgic reference points will be those from roughly thirty years prior. For example: in the 1990s, bands like Oasis and Blur drew extensively on the “British Invasion” music of the 1960s; throughout the 2010s, we’ve seen sequels and reboots for properties like Ghostbusters and Blade Runner; and, as the current decade is drawing to a close, there are audiences eagerly awaiting remakes of 1990s Disney movies like The Lion King and Aladdin.

In his article for The Patterning, Patrick Metzger looks at the fairly simple reasoning behind this idea of the “thirty-year cycle”:

…the driving factor seems to be that it takes about 30 years for a critical mass of people who were consumers of culture when they were young to become the creators of culture in their adulthood. The art and culture of their childhood … helped them achieve comfort and clarity in their world, and so they make art that references that culture and may even exist wholly within that universe…

Later on in the piece, Metzger analyses the Netflix series Stranger Things — which has been as widely acclaimed for its almost encyclopaedic referencing of 1980s pop culture as for its sci-fi / adventure thrills. Most interestingly, he raises the idea that a key to the series’ success could have been in Netflix’s access to reams of data on its massive user base; and therefore their ability to pinpoint which references would resonate most strongly and nostalgically with Stranger Things’ audience.

Whether there’s truth in this or not, it’s undeniable that the Internet has revolutionised how content creators engage with the past.


"Post-Internet": everything all of the time

The idea of the “thirty-year cycle” is a fairly linear and simple one - a generation’s childhood favourites influence what that generation produces in adulthood - but the way that culture is produced and consumed nowadays is anything but linear and simple.

With the internet, we now have easy access to almost every recorded artefact ever produced (as well as to content being produced and released even as I type this sentence); and so the influences of artists and creators who grew up with internet access are not necessarily as easily predictable as the influences of those who grew up with TV and the radio. Take the musician Grimes, for example, who, speaking to Pitchfork, described her work as “post-internet,” adding, “the music of my childhood was really diverse because I had access to everything, so the music I make is sort of schizophrenic.”

In this landscape of eclecticism, there are brands who have plundered the past and garnered audience attention not through appealing to nostalgia, but by unearthing the obscure. One particularly amusing example is the Museum of English Rural Life, which became an unlikely social media sensation last year when it posted an almost 60-year-old photograph of a hefty-looking ram from its archives, which went on to receive over 25000 retweets.


A growing wider cultural taste for the obscure and overlooked can be identified in a number of areas. For example: speaking to The Guardian, music supervisor Matt Biffa noted how the general public’s more eclectic tastes have had an impact on how he sources tracks for TV.

You cannot have anything that has been previously used. And you can’t use the really great old songs either, because they would be too resonant. Audiences are so well-versed in music, they like to feel they are making a discovery.

"Remix culture"

The same technological advances that have given us access to a more expansive range of content have also presented us with easy access to countless ways of drawing creatively on, or even literally reshaping, this same library of content.

One trend I’ve found particularly interesting is the use of digital tools to try and replicate the imperfections and idiosyncrasies of the technologies (VHS, Super-8 film, vinyl, etc.) that were superseded by the clean-ness of digital. In his brilliant video essay ‘Scanlines: The Power of VHS’, Harry Brewis explores, amongst other things, how the things that were most annoying about VHS during its heyday are the things that have become most fascinating about it in retrospect.

Content that exaggerates and plays with the antiquated peculiarities of analogue mediums can be seen in a wide range of places: from Instagram filters that replicate the hazy look of 8mm film, to far more niche zones such as ‘vapourwave’ — a subgenre of electronic music that draws as much on the sound of 1980s music as it does on the experience of listening to that music on a crummy, warped old cassette tape.

The BFI used this kind of aesthetic choice particularly effectively in a video promoting their ‘Film is Fragile’ campaign in 2015. The campaign, which calls for donations to help the BFI to preserve their huge archive of old film cleverly reworks classic film scenes to show characters running away from the effects of natural film degradation.

With Shutterstock’s prediction that the aesthetics of the past will be a dominant trend this year, it’s good to take notice of the range of ways that there are to engage with an audience’s feelings towards these aesthetics and the popular culture associated with them. Whether you play on the comfortable familiarity of nostalgia, delve deep to direct your audience towards discovering a hidden gem, or digitally twist and reshape the past; there are countless ways that you can produce engaging and forward-thinking content by casting your eyes back to the past.

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Author: James Cresswell

James Cresswell gravatar avitar
James is our copywriter and social media manager here at Ember Television. He joined us after studying an MA programme in Film and Television: Research and Production at the University of Birmingham.
Back to the future: making new content from old aesthetics



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