My Early Times ( not the drink, but the reason for needing it) with Video

by Brian Baer

    My love affair with video began in 1981 when I purchased a used huge Sony Betamax videocassette recorder and a Sony fixed-lens video camera. The Betamax was a beautiful thing to behold. This machine had a wood case and a built-in TV tuner and weighed in the neighborhood of forty pounds. It could record as well as play back! (Consider that in 1981 many machines were just players.) There was no internal timer so the owner included an external device. This was essentially a clock that would be hooked into the wall socket and then the power cord to the recorder would plug into that. At the selected hour, the timer would allow the power to flow to the recorder, which had its power switch and channel selector button preset to the proper positions. You had to hope that the clock was somewhat near the time used by the particular station that you wanted. There was no “off” setting in the timer, so the unit merely ran until the tape ran out unless you were there to physically turn it off.

    The camera required an incredible amount of light to record a scene. It was a squat, beige thing that ran a audio/video cable to the back of the Betamax. The 1/2” tape was in the beta format. The blank tapes cost around $25 to $30 each at that point in time, so you really had to think about what you were going to shoot. The machine, itself, with the camera had run the original owner $2500. He sold them to me for around $500, a real bargain!

    This was at a time when the beta versus VHS wars were just starting. VHS was the new-kid on the block. (By the way, VHS stood for “Vertical Helical Scan” in those days, not “Video Home System” as the marketing people later claimed, but I digress.) Some months later, I bought a VHS portable recorder and new camera. I was going to be the next (insert famous film-maker here), so I went about shooting all the half-baked ideas I could think of. Incidentally, I compared the beta machine and VHS machines head-to-head and when you recorded on both at their best speeds, the visual quality of the beta machine was clearly much better but, somehow, VHS won the battle over the years. One of the reasons was that VHS could record for 2 full hours! Beta could only reach this incredible length if you recorded at the number two speed, and this made the quality drop off pretty rapidly.

    Now, in those days, editing was a thing of dreams only, restricted to the lucky few who had access to a true production facility. It was much too expensive for the casual dilettante like myself. If I wanted to make a story, it had to be shot in sequence. Even though this required much more planning than I had ever done before, I actually managed to put a few short stories together. This is where the technical problems of the day would occur. For instance...

      1. When one turned on a machine to start recording, it had to achieve a certain speed (spin rate) before the image would stabilize. This problem also presented itself when you were in standby, and was obvious in the colored noise lines that would randomly appear in these first sections of tape.

      2. Analog video (which is what we are talking about here) is interlaced. This was a method of recording in which the odd and even scan lines are put down separately within each video frame. Because of this quirk, you could often find yourself some portion of a frame off during a start or stop. This would cause a video glitch (such as a roll or flash) whenever such a break point occurred. Can you imagine, in this era of lightning-quick cuts, how awful it would be to see the image roll or flash every time it changed?

      3. Typical of the video recorders of this time, you could only leave them in pause for about 5 minutes before they would shut down. This was to prevent the tape from shedding all of its oxides in the paused spot. The shedding was partially due to the rotary heads, which wouldn't stop spinning while pause was on. Also, the tape guides and springs and other mechanisms involved in the tape path would stretch the polyester-based tapes if they were held in position too long. This, too, would create a glitch.

      4. Again, it took a lot of light to make things look right. These were tube cameras! They burnt in an image if they reflected something too bright, leaving the camera with some doubt as to recovery; objects in shadows simply disappeared. I have personally experienced more than one smoldering chair from the heat of a back-light being placed a little too close. And you had to watch the over-lit spots as compared to the shadows, for the contrast ratio on these video tapes was approximately 30:1. Typical film at this time was 350:1! That meant that the lightest object in a scene couldn't be more than 30 times brighter than the darkest object. A daylight scene with trees and shadows to sunlight did not mix well.

    There were other problems, but these were of the most concern. Lighting was a somewhat straight forward fix-- just balance it. What kind of lights, you ask? Expensive little sets that had the proper degrees kelvin ratings for their specialized bulbs. Even when the light problems were licked, the true shortcomings of this technology were evident in a mix of timing issues. These were dark days, indeed...

    Timing, or synchronization, of multiple cameras became something of an art. A master genlocking signal was required. This was a type of pulse that made each camera switch at the same starting position for each frame. No rolls, no glitches of any sort when it worked. Of course, more sophisticated equipment was required. Typical consumer cameras did not possess the genlocking capability, so one had to at least go to the semi-pro market to get such a feature. Then, multi-camera switchers were very expensive, but quickly became a necessity. Sometimes the switchers had a built-in genlock signal, but often another piece of external equipment was required to produce the locking pulse. Each camera then required a power connection, a genlocking cable, and a video output cable; sound was usually recorded separately, but could come through a camera microphone in which case yet another cable was required. To be fair, if you had a remote camera controller, all of the afore-mentioned cables would be combined into one massive cable, but the remote camera units were still another expense. The wiring got to be quite a mess when working with three cameras, which was (and still is) a typical studio set-up. Assuming one got all of this going, you still had to worry about what was going to happen when you edited tapes shot at different times and often on different devices. This is where the hugely expensive time-base correctors came in.

    The time-base corrector, or TBC, was a device which tried to live up to its name. With it, one could mix various taped sources. You could stabilize erratic video frames, correct for color and contrast and just generally improve the steady flow of the conjoined videos. Reasonably priced units were around the $10,000 mark. (I will delve into VHS video editing more at a later time.) If you still chance to work with old video sources, computers now take care of all of the the timing problems with special software, much of it available for free. It is a wonderful world...correction, it is a wonderful digital world.

    After going through many years of steadily improving VHS technology, I finally entered the digital age with a Panasonic digital video camcorder. Like its VHS predecessors, it used a videocassette, but this time it recorded scenes encoded in a binary format. This instantly improved the quality of the recordings. If you used the proper tricks, you could hook a camcorder into one of the camera switcher's input ports and sync to its video signal to genlock the studio cameras. Unfortunately, the camcorders were able to handle a much wider latitude of color, contrast and lighting conditions, so getting the proper balance with old cameras was a frustrating proposition at best. Indeed, the light levels required for basic shooting on the camcorders were incredibly forgiving (although color saturation was much better if additional lighting was used for indoor scenes). The finished digital videotapes were then logged and the appropriate scenes fed into computers for editing. It took a few generations of changing standards (i.e. increased number of scan lines; change of format 3 by 4 to 9 by 16) to wear me down. When tapes were being slowly replaced by CD's in the video recorders, I switched over. Each unit I got was cheaper than the previous generation of digital video, and the quality became higher at the same time. Meanwhile, the computers became faster and cheaper and fully capable of handling any video task. Finally, tape and CD's had run their course.

    As I write now, everything video is recorded straight to a hard drive or computer memory chip. Some cell phones offer better quality recording than any of the camcorders which I have ever owned, and their cost was much less than the approximately $30,000-plus that I have spent on the now, still-working, yet, obsolete equipment.. I envy the next generation of video makers...

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Copyright 2013 by Brian R. Baer