The Warner Bros. logo, in pink, opens on the screen. It wasn’t quite the same special edition of the iconic image seen in theaters during Barbie, but instead, random sequences of letters and symbols that flashed quickly in a little box.
For 24 hours from Tuesday to Wednesday afternoon this week, Barbie played in the ASCII Theater. Horror film Hereditary was shown between Wednesday and Thursday, and Citizen Kane was on the marquee, slated to play next.
The theater, first spotted by The Verge, is a play on basic ASCII technology. It’s the work of offbeat art collective MSCHF, known for pushing the boundaries of copyright. MSCHF isn’t the first to use the character encoding system for films: A version of Star Wars has been around since 1997. But its theater can play a new, full-length film each day, moving much more quickly.
The program then measures which character will match the corresponding place on the frame best, based on the background and foreground color, as well as shape. To watch the movies, people must open Terminal, a basic and rarely accessed app on Macs. When they paste a short code, the movie fires up in the app. For Windows, the films run on Command Prompt. When someone connects to watch, they see a new frame every tenth of a second, creating movement of the film’s scenes.
Rayfield says he built his own tool to have more control over the movie visuals than other ASCII-made videos, like the inclusion of more colors. “I had an idea about how to make it look good,” Rayfield says. “And it needed to run on a few hours of a movie.” It also needed to do that quickly.
ASCII Barbie is fun, but unlikely to rival the blockbuster movie’s stint in theaters or on Max. But the project does raise concerns about copyright infringement. The tool makes versions of the movies that are “highly transformative” versions of the copyrighted films visually, says Kevin Wiesner, another MSCHF member. If someone were to copy and paste the characters outside of the Terminal app, they would just get strings of nonsense. “There’s a long internet history of creative—but janky—workarounds for pirate broadcasting,” Wiesner adds.
MSCHF has a history of tangling with big companies and copyright and trademarks. The collective has been sued by Nike, Vans, and a streetwear company in recent years. It also made a Museum of Forgeries, making 999 exact replicas of an Andy Warhol print valued at $20,000, then selling all, including the original, without noting which copy was real.
A court might not agree that the work of the ASCII Theater is “transformative,” says Mark Bartholomew, a professor of law at the University at Buffalo School of Law. In copyright cases, courts consider whether a derivative work is commenting on the original, or whether it serves a different purpose. Bartholomew says neither argument seems like a clear win here, and he’s “skeptical that any court would see it as transformative.”
A representative for Warner Bros. did not return an email seeking comment on Barbie’s run in the ASCII Theater, nor did one for A24, the studio behind Hereditary. As of this writing, the theater remains open.