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8mm Video Goes to War

By Gregory Solman

'Maria's Story' co-director Monona Wali (right) screens Video 8 footage for Maria (second from left) and her group of FMLN guerrillas. They all smile while working with the camera.

For professional videographers who have followed the rapid evolution of the 8mm format from its humble home-cam­corder beginnings, it came as no surprise co hear that High-Band 8mm (or Hi8) recorders and decks were part of the gear packed by network news crews to furtively gather images of "naked aggression" in the Persian Gulf. There is now little doubt about the practicality or popularity of the 8mm format in the professional market, though manufacturers have repeatedly expressed legitimate worries about the proliferation of the Hi8 format and its possible cannibalization of professional equipment, which typically costs 30 times as much or more.

Many documentary makers have enjoyed success with the regular 8mm format, but the introduction of Hi8 has improved image quality by leaps and bounds, due in large part to advances in metallic 8mm tape. Hi8 offers an improvement from 5 to 7Mhz in the luminance carrier, and frequency deviation almost a full Mhz better, at 2Mhz. The Hi8 format is also capable of a horizontal resolution of more than 400 lines, comparable co 3/4-inch U-matic systems costing (and weighing) much more.

The important dividing line in Hi8 cameras is between one-piece, camcorder­ style units, intended to be hand-held and dockable units, similar in appearance to professional ENG rigs, which connect a far more sophisticated imaging system to a Hi8 deck. These professional Hi8 systems are not toys, either in performance or price. The top of the line Sony Hi8 cameras, the DXC-325 and DXC-327, can cost $11,000 or more. These have much of the sophistication of very high-end equipment, including the use of frame interline transfer (FIT) chips and Hyper HAD (Hole Accumulated Diode) technology. Their performance would have been unthinkable just five years ago: the DXC-325, 530 lines with a 58dB signal-to-noise ratio; the DXC- 327, 700 lines, 60 dBs and f5.6 sensitivity.

John Knoop, documentary filmmaker and cameraman, is a reminder that 8mm has a significant and legitimate history of field testing already. Knoop, who has also shot 16mm and 35mm film, used early 8mm equipment on Maria's Story, a documentary shot in an FMLN-controlled area of El Salvador, co-directed by Pam Cohen and Monona Wali. Originally, Knoop wished to shoot 16mm, and in fact had prepared the two-month shoot with this in mind, but this proved to be logistically impossible. "We took two Sony Model 220 8mm cameras, which were previous to the Hi8 format introduction. Our lighting gear alone for film would have been hundreds of pounds, severely prohibiting our mobility," says Knoop. The comparison of tape and film stock is itself instructive: In two months on patrol with FMLN guerrillas, the team shot 70 hours of footage, which on 8mm meant 35 cassettes slightly larger than a standard audio cassette. In contrast, at five rolls per hour of 16mm film, only 35 hours would weigh approximately 350 pounds, a minimum two-person load. Knoop found the Sony 220 to be an adequate tool for the project, and praised its light sensitivity, colorimetry and shadow detail. Like the larger 5000 series, it could be adequately steadied on a knee or shoulder; all shooting for Maria's Story was hand-held. The camera performed admirably at light levels as low as 4 LUX, capturing the sights of a torch-lit march and rally.

In post production, since no 8mm editing equipment was then available, the footage for Maria's Story was bumped up to Betacam SP format and to VHS window dubs for off-line editing. Later, at Image Transform, a Los Angeles facility that specializes in such operations, the edited master was transferred to 16mm film for distribution in that format. "In considering how to pull this off, we had to decide what would convey the content. That overrode all other issues—gathering the material, portability, flexibility, and relatively favorable performance," says Knoop. "We actually have no real reason to regret it. In seeing it for the first time projected onto a large screen, the fact that it had been generated on 8mm video was simply not an issue. You could watch it without being distracted. I can clearly see the difference, but the important point is that it was a remark­ ably good image that didn't reduce the impact of the material." Evidently not; Maria's Story has been widely shown in festivals worldwide, winning first prize in San Antonio and Cuba.

David Drewry, of Trinity Productions, Marin County California, completed a documentary called Crossing Boundaries, which will air on PBS in the fall. It was completely imaged on the Sony DXC-325 dockable Hi8 camera system, bumped to Beta SP for editing, then finally broadcast via one-inch tape by KQED, San Francisco. Crossing Boundaries documented the expedition of over 40 Bay Area artists who traveled to Moscow to interact creatively and politically with the Soviet avant garde. "The project could not have happened if I was using a three-person crew and Beta SP," says Drewry. "I couldn't have got­ ten in and out of the situations I managed to capture, which included smuggling the camera into a 500-year-old steam bath, under a towel, to film Russian poets, until the lens steamed up." Drewry reports that the camera's low light capability is excellent; not crisp, clear and hard, but providing a more filmic look. He did tests on editing Hi8 to Hi8 but wasn't pleased with the picture degradation after going down more than one generation. Frame accurate online Hi8 decks with SMPTE timecode are coming, however.

There are other legitimate reasons one might prefer Hi8 to Betacam, image quality notwithstanding. In February, U.S. news organizations made extensive use of Hi-Band 8mm cameras during the Persian Gulf war. CBS, which had previously used Hi8 for its Letters Home series and for spot news, shipped DXC- 325 cameras and EVV-9000 recorders to Saudi Arabia, principally due to their light weight. ABC acknowledged draft­ ing two to the field in Saudi Arabia. NBC, which normally would use Panasonic MII equipment, said that low weight was one advantage considered in choosing Hi8 cameras, but that "asset risk" was also an issue. The network spokesman touched on an important cost advantage in insuring equipment and in replacing gear when stolen or damaged in hostile territory or inclement weather.

And, for the documentarian who wants that Kubrickian Full Metal Jacket sheen on his next project, there is the Cinema Products' Steadicam JR, a scaled­ down version of the professional system used extensively in high-budget motion picture productions, and designed by the same wizard, Garrett Brown. The Steadicam J R is a hand-held mount that so precisely counterbalances movement, the shakiness associated with cameras as light camcorders is replaced with a nearly dolly-and-crane quality glide. One watches the image not through the camera's eyepiece, but through a high resolution 3 1/2-inch monochrome monitor. The use of a transflective coating keeps the LCD from washing out in bright sunlight. Both the monitor and built-in Obie light are powered by an ingeniously designed power supply, which serves as part of the unit 's counter­ balance weight.

Gregory Solman is a freelance film critic and the West Coast Editor of Millimeter magazine.