the day very clearly. The rep from Sony dropped by the shop in early
November 1995. "I have a new toy for you," he said, pulling a tiny
camcorder out of his briefcase. "It’s all digital, they call it DV."
This was my introduction to a revolutionary new way of making moving pictures.
For over 30 years I have worked as a television photojournalist— beginning in 1968 as a stringer for a station in Wilkes-Barre with a spring-wind 16mm Bolex. Two years later, I bought a sound-on-film camera, a well-used Auricon chop-top Cinevoice. When Cinema Products introduced the CP-16 Reflex in 1974 I thought it was truly the ultimate in newsreel cameras. And it was, for in 1977 the television news world began the switch to video and the trusty CP was quickly, and sadly left by the wayside.
My sound recordist (wife, Martha) and I were among the first handful of crews on the East Coast to go video. Our first camera was a big, blue RCA TK-76. In those days video cameras used tubes—three Plumbicons that required constantly tweaking, and cost over $10,000 to replace when they wore out. We recorded on 3/4" U-matic VCRs—Martha carried the 30-pound "portable" over her shoulder, camcorders were still nearly a decade away.
Higher quality and greater portability arrived around 1983 in the guise of Sony’s Betacam 1/2" format. We embraced it two years later when a portable deck was finally introduced. And in 1987 Sony introduced Betacam SP—an even finer variant, heads and shoulders above the U-matic.
Sony’s concept for Betacam, from the very beginning, was to develop a workable, reliable one-piece camcorder. The first units—a camera head and a separate recorder—were docked together into a heavy, awkward apparatus. The first truly integrated one-piece machine, the BVW-200, was a sight to behold. In a package smaller and lighter than my trusty TK-76, Sony had crammed a far better camera and a high-quality recorder. Today’s CP-16 Reflex is the Sony BVW-D600— a remarkable technical achievement.
So, when the Sony rep stopped by with his DV format VX-1000, it was quite a revelation. Here was a camcorder one-sixth the size of my D600, but capable of recording a picture five-sixths as good. I took his prototype (it was that, for all the characters on the camera, and the instructions provided, were in Japanese) to shoot some tests. My favorite site for this sort of thing is Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market—lots of color and action under rather harsh lighting conditions. The Terminal also has the freshest fish and the best veggies in town. The results with the Sony were spectacular. I was sold on DV. But how best to use it?
A few months later, one of our clients, Banyan Productions, approached Videosmith about developing a DV rig with the capabilities of a Beta SP camcorder. This was a tall order. But, in a matter of days we were able to devise a lightweight shoulder-pod that would support a Sony VX-1000 DV camcorder, a Sennheiser ME-66 short shotgun microphone, and a pair of Lectrosonics radio receivers. We dubbed the conglomeration the "Mightywondercam." For it was all that and more.
The Mightywondercam (MWC for short) received its baptism under the rigorous demands of shooting Banyan’s Travelers series for The Discovery Channel. In two years the rig was sent to 50 different countries and performed flawlessly (except the time in the Amazon, when the pod caught on a log, and ripped the bottom out of the camera; and the time in Calgary when the VX-1000 took a fire hose at full pressure and decided to call it quits).
Always a fan of DV, the Travelers shoots made me a firm believer.
I felt free again, unobtrusive, unencumbered—as though I were a street photographer with a Leica. It was a wonderfully liberating experience.
Three years on the DV format has matured. The choice of cameras has increased from three to over thirty, including some that are equally adept at shooting still and motion images (notably the Canon Optura and Elura). A whole cottage industry, providing myriad accessories to improve audio, video, optics and handling of DV gear, has sprung up. Editing the little digital tapes, early on the weakest link in the chain, is simple today. Tiny clamshell VCRs with built-in LCD monitors are now available, which can be hooked together with a basic edit controller and used anywhere—quite literally anywhere. It’s the perfect editing solution for digital journalists on the run. For more sedate applications, non-linear systems have begun to appear. I recently bought a $2499 Sony VAIO desktop that comes with an IEEE 1394 "Firewire" port that enables me to capture DV frames directly into the computer, edit them on Adobe Premiere and spit them back out to tape with surprisingly little loss in image quality. With a FAST video board and a couple of extra hard drives, any computer can be turned into a powerful post production system for just a few thousand dollars.
Where is all this leading? The immediate benefits of DV are numerous: high-quality, portability, low cost. These properties open up amazing possibilities for independent producers—both documentary and feature filmmakers alike. In our part of the world, this new digital video technology gives us the capability to meet the fast changing requirements of photojournalism today. Indeed, it paves the way for the growing convergence of television and print on the Internet. These are fascinating times we live in.
In the coming months I’ll try to keep you
updated on DV developments, and provide some hands-on reports about various
products— cameras, decks, accessories.
Steven T Smith has been a television photojournalist for three decades. Currently based in Philadelphia, he works with his sound recordist/wife Martha for clients like "60 Minutes" and the Discovery Channel. In 1980 Smith created Videosmith as a full-service video production and post-production company. In 1996 he sold off the editing and graphics units to concentrate upon equipment rentals and retail sales. Smith is the developer of the Mightywondercam line of support products for small camcorders. An unusual assignment was to play himself in James L Brook's 1988 hit film, "Broadcast News." Future columns will look at trends in digital video technology and review new products, especially accessories that extend the capabilities of digital camcorders.
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