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The Coming of Video and its Influence on Home Movies

By Alan D. Kattelle

The first impact of "video" on the home movie industry was not from the video cassette recorder, nor the camcorder, but from network television, and the first segment of the industry affected was the film rental business. The September 1951 issue of Photographic Trade News reported on a survey of photographic retailers which had film rental departments. For the purposes of the study the stores were divided into two sections, those in areas with TV reception, and those without. Information was sought on film rentals and sales of home projection equipment. While there was wide disparity in the amount of gain or loss reported in each section, three out of four stores in areas with TV competition reported losses in film rental business ranging from "slight" to "90%", while three out of four stores in areas without TV showed gains. This of course was years before the first video rental became available.

The spread of television receivers throughout the country was dramatic: one source reported that there were 4 million receivers in U. S. homes in 1949, 81 million by 1969, and 150 million by 1979. In contrast, shipments of 8mm projectors declined by 34% between 1968 and 1979.

The intrusion of the TV set into the American living room inevitably pushed the movie projector further back in the closet, or even the attic. Screening home movies was almost unavoidably an evening activity, given the need to darken the room. Except for afternoon programs for the children, television viewing was an evening activity also. And it had to be a pretty unusual evening for someone to say "Let's watch our movies tonight!"

Furthermore, while the image quality of even a standard 8mm family movie was superior to that of the early TV, the entertainment quotient was decidedly inferior. It became increasingly difficult to lure the neighbors over to watch "Our Trip to Niagara Falls", if they were planning to watch Milton Berle, or Edward R. Murrow.

The video tape recorder was the child of television. The essence of television is the conversion by the television camera of the viewed image into a series of electronic signals which are then transmitted through the ether to the customer's television set, where the signals are re-converted to a visual image. In the beginning, all of this happened in "real time", every television show in the early days was "live".

Various schemes for recording the TV signal were devised, including those using film, as in the Eastman "Television Recording Camera" introduced in 1947, however the difference in frame rate between the television camera and the film camera, plus optical losses made film recording systems less than satisfactory. The first major advance in television recording came in 1951 when the Electronics Division of Bing Crosby Enterprises gave its first demonstration of a video tape recorder, in black and white. In 1956, Ampex marketed its Ampex VR-1000 recorder for television stations, recording picture and sound on 2" tape. It was approximately the size of a large kitchen range, and carried a price of $45,000.

Tape had many advantages, eliminating all of the quality problems of film systems, plus being substantially cheaper; kinescope film and processing cost up to $120 per hour, whereas video tape cost $8 or $9 per hour.

The first video tape recorder which could possibly be considered as suitable for amateur use was announced by Sony in March, 1965. The Videocorder 2000 for recording a video transmission used 1/2" tape running at 7 1/2 inches per second, weighed 30 pounds, and was priced at $500. An optional camera was available to record live action, price not given. The following year Sony showed the first color home videotape recorder.

From then on the course got crowded. Within a year of Sony's announcement, Ampex, Concord, Panasonic, Roberts Electronics, and Shibaden announced video tape recorders, at varying prices. In November of 1966, Sony announced that in a few months it would market a three-piece video outfit consisting of camera, recorder, and battery pack. On top of the camera was mounted a 1" cathode ray tube monitor The total weight was to be 21 1/2 pounds, and the price $1,000.

In 1971, Sony again led the field by being the first to break away from reel-to-reel handling of the tape, with the announcement of a video cassette system. The cassette, slightly larger than the familiar audio cassette, held one hour of color TV, with two audio tracks for stereo or bilingual programs, and could play through any color TV. The price for one cassette was a hefty $30.

By 1973, a 5-page article appeared in a national magazine, comparing tape and film for the amateur, authored by an experienced film maker. His conclusion was that film was still superior to tape in every respect except cost of the medium. Otherwise, for tape the initial investment was much higher, the equipment was heavier to carry around, more susceptible to downtime, more difficult to edit, and the results were in black and white to boot.

Such particulars did not deter everyone, to be sure. One award-winning amateur filmmaker whose career began in 1928 with a hand-cranked 16mm camera, moved to 8mm for 17 years, and culminated with a Bach-Auricon Cine-Voice camera, took the video plunge in 1975. Mr. J. Joseph deCourcelle, Hon. PSA, FPSA, bought a Sony Model AVC-3400 camera, a Sony AV-3400 video recorder, and a monitor. His first attempts were shot in a dimly-lit basement game room, and when the resulting tape turned out to be perfectly exposed, he never looked back, it was tape from then on.

Of course Mr. deCourcelle was not your typical amateur, but he was typical of a small segment of the amateur market. He was a typical "technology junkie", one of those intrepid and generally well-heeled amateurs who had to have the latest innovation, who happily paid $200 for the first hand-held electronic calculator, only to see them selling for one tenth of that a few years later. Market analysts who happened to query the deCourcelles of the world tended to be off on their estimates of market demand for new technology.

For the next several years there appeared a confusion of incompatible systems which fought for leadership, but by 1978 these had been reduced to four 1/2" tape formats. These were: Betamax, pioneered by Sony; VHS advanced by Japan’s Victor Company and parent Matsushita; Quasar also by Matsushita; and V-Cord II backed by Sanyo and Toshiba. The latter two were soon to go to VHS and Beta, respectively, leaving just two dominant formats, Beta and VHS. The latter two have survived to the present day, albeit still incompatible.

There was another recording system which was first seen several years previously, but had not received a great deal of attention up to this point, the video disk. A video disk is produced in a manner quite similar to that by which a phonograph record is produced. The television signal modulates a laser beam focused on the surface of a spinning disk of metal, creating a series of "pits or "no pits", analogous to the TV signal. As with the audio record process, a master disk is first made, from which thousands of plastic disks can be pressed very inexpensively.

The video disk had the great advantage of economy, and it could be "random accessed", was less susceptible to damage, but of course could not be created at home, leaving it just the pre-recorded market. After some years in the doldrums, RCA in 1981 launched a $20 million promotional campaign for its new $500 disk player. Magnavox had introduced Magnavision two years earlier, and a joint venture of GE/Matsushita/JVC would introduce another disk system in 1982. The technology would of course evolve into the fabulously successful compact disc systems of today.

What the home movie maker had been eagerly awaiting seemed to be at hand in the fall of 1981 when rumors surfaced that Sony and Eastman Kodak were planning to team up to produce a combined videocassette recorder and camera. The proposed joint venture did not materialize, nor did the combined camera/recorder, but the threatened entrance of the Rochester giant may have resonated in other board rooms. In 1982, several major photographic companies entered the lists, including Canon, Minolta, Olympus and Pentax, with new camera and recorder designs. Many cameras featured zoom lenses, auto exposure, color balance, and electronic viewfinders. Prices for a color camera ranged from $860 to $2,150; for a VCR, $875 to $1,295.

By May 1983, there were no less than eighteen manufacturers, offering forty-two models of video cameras. Prices ranged from $559 for the model QC-50 from Sharp, to $1,995 for Hitachi's VK-C2000. Weights ranged from just under three pounds to seven pounds, with most running about five pounds.

At last came a breakthrough; at an historic news conference in New York City on January 4, 1984, Eastman Kodak Company announced and demonstrated the KODAVISION system, becoming the first company to commit to the long-awaited 8mm tape format. Two camera models were shown, the Kodavision 2200 and the auto-focus model, the Kodavision 2400. Both cameras weighed about 5 pounds, and accepted either 60- or 90-minute 8mm video cassettes, which were slightly smaller than a standard audio cassette.

The cameras had a 7 - 42mm f/1.2 power zoom lens focusing to four feet, with "macro" option at wide angle setting. The image tube was a newly-developed 1 1/3" Newvicon. The model 2200 was priced at $1,599, the 2400 at $1,899. The cameras were manufactured by Matsushita, and the tapes by TDK.

The major video manufacturers had met in January of 1982, and issued a statement that agreement had been reached on a standard for one-piece camera/recorders: 1 hour tape, 8mm wide. And the word "camcorder" had more-or-less officially entered the English language.

Following Kodak's announcement, RCA showed a prototype camcorder manufactured by Hitachi, Polaroid demonstrated a camcorder, and General Electric announced that it would soon market an 8mm machine.

A major entry into the 8mm race came at the 1985 Consumer Electronics Show, when Sony unveiled its Mini-8 camcorder, formally the CCD-M8U. The initials CCD stood for "charge coupled device", the invention that replaced the cathode ray tube as a receptor or reader of images. CCDs were more rugged, could not be "burned out" by overexposure, eliminated smeared images, gave better resolution, took up less space, and consumed less power.

Almost exactly three years from Eastman Kodak's entry into the 8mm video camera field, rumors began to surface that the Rochester company was about to withdraw from this $300 million-a-year market. Observers noted that Kodak had not introduced a new 8mm model since September 1985, nor had the company done much advertising of the line in the past year. A Kodak spokesman denied that the company was planning to discontinue the 8mm camera, but admitted that the product was "coming slowly".

The rumors proved to be true, however; the KODAVISION camera, which even Kodak insiders described as "clunky" and outclassed by its Japanese rivals, had been quietly discontinued in 1986. Thus, except for the manufacture of 8mm and Super 8 film, Eastman Kodak ignominiously withdrew from the amateur film and video market, where it had been a prime innovator for sixty-three years.

Excerpted from a book in progress on the history of the American amateur motion picture industry by Alan Kattelle.

Alan is Founder and President of the Movie Machine Society, whose members include collectors of classic cameras, projectors, retired cameramen, projectionists, historians and professors. Alan will present some very historic film hardware, including one of the nine first professional Bell & Howell 35mm movie cameras made in 1909, at our June 20 meeting. He can be reached at (508) 562-9184.

(c) Copyright 1996 by Alan Kattelle.

Posted: June 1996
Bob Lamm, SMPTE/New England Newsletter/Web Page Editor