Video – the early years

My piece yesterday reminiscing on where it all started for me also rekindled the grey matter for our long time contributor, Dr David Smith. Here are his recollections!


David Hague’s reminiscences about his early experiences in video editing brought back many memories for me as I recall moving from the exacting and expensive world of 16mm film to video.

My learning curve had two overlapping technologies. I bought two high-end domestic Panasonic S-Video tape decks and an edit controller connecting them via a LANC port. Initially I would rent an S-Video camera from Lemac, which was far cheaper than the Betacams I had previously used, then edit the tapes on the Panasonic rig. The results were pretty good, with S-VHS having a resolution of 400 lines, up from about 240 for standard VHS. The edit controller was accurate to ± 3 frames and simple sound mixing was achieved by taking advantage of the two helical audio tracks plus the linear mono track. Typically I would record music and voiceovers onto a multi-track TEAC reel-to-reel tape deck, then dub that across to the linear track on my master video tape. It was all pretty fiddly but with care, time and patience it produced good results.

Planning was crucial because of the dreaded generation loss: every time you dubbed to a new tape the video quality declined significantly. After three generations the first thing to go was colour and clients didn’t appreciate black and white videos. But how could I include titles and graphics?

The best thing I bought back in the late 1980s was an Amiga 2000 computer. This wonder box allowed me to produce real titles and graphics at what was then very high resolution, and to output the results to video tape via a genlock. This was a game-changer and I spent many dollars buying add-on boards to produce even higher quality video. This little revelation will surely bring a smile: I paid just on $1,000 to get access to the biggest hard drive yet imported into Australia, a monster with 109 megabytes of memory. Yes, MEGAbytes. How times have changed. Normally the Amiga relied on floppy disks with about 1.4MB capacity. It doesn’t sound like much but the text for my two Penguin paperback thrillers fitted onto one single floppy disk. The hard drive revolutionised the Amiga, and I used it for creating numerous video and music projects, with a Korg M1 keyboard linked via a Phantom MIDI controller running Dr T’s music software.

Eventually PCs and Macs relegated Amigas to the bin of history and I succumbed to the world of MS-DOS, in all its finickity precision. Around the same time I bit the digital bullet and bought a Canopus capture card which came with Premiere Pro 5.0. The system was extremely complex to set up and Premiere was a dog – it crashed frequently and hours of work could very easily be lost to the ether which was infuriating. I tried a Ulead package called Media Studio Pro which was very fully featured and much more stable and I also experimented with a radically different package called SCALA Multimedia which was very powerful although conceptually a far cry from the other editing programs available at the time. Even so, the resolution was now up to the DV standard of 720 x 576 pixels and would before long increase to 1920 x 1080 for HD video and 3840 x 2160 for 4K or Ultra HD video. The cost of each increase in resolution inevitably came in terms of file size and processing power required to playback, edit and render these massive files. That 109 MB hard drive I bought for the Amiga is today dwarfed by multi-terabyte drives that are small, cheap and very reliable. I can buy a 4TB drive at Officeworks for around $100 which is unbelievably cheap.

Typically, non-linear edit programs were effectively mirrored on the videotape editing paradigm in which you have a source tape from which clips are selected and then added to the program you’re building. This worked fine, especially for editors with tape-based experience but I still found them a little klunky, partly because each company’s NLE had its own proprietary user interface. You had to re-learn the steps for each NLE you tried to master.

The revolution for me came with the discovery of another non-typical NLE, called Video Factory, produced by Sonic Foundry, which was released in 2000. A year later this was released as Vegas Video and the long and intriguing story of what is now Vegas Pro 19 had begun.

Vegas used the familiar Windows architecture which made it simple and intuitive to use. It was also extremely powerful and flexible. Having its origins as a multi-track music workstation, Vegas had excellent audio capabilities and was also ‘format agnostic’, meaning you could could throw almost any video format onto the timeline and it would work smoothly, with no pre-rendering.

Like David Hague, I learned a great deal about digital video and audio from Douglas Spotted Eagle, who Denby and I met when he was presenting a workshop in Melbourne.

Douglas Spotted Eagle Interview http://vimeo.com/13384075

While chatting with Spot, we agreed that Vegas was, quite simple, the fastest way to get from idea to finished video. I’m still using Vegas Pro today for precisely that reason.  

It is difficult to explain to people how lucky they are to have access to such amazing technology as digital video, smartphones, gimbals, Go Pros and drones.

Today, all of your video clips live in a folder or folders on your hard drive. You simply choose the clip you want to import and drop it onto the timeline. In the days of film all of your shots would be arrayed as strips of work print film pinned on a frame above a linen bag. You would choose a strip, add it into the program being edited on a Steenbeck film editor, and see if it worked. If it didn’t you’d pin it back onto the rack and choose another. All in all, a very demanding, expensive and time consuming exercise compared to the digital equivalent. And with 16mm film costing around $400 for a 400-foot roll – 11 minutes –  to buy, more to process, that rack of film clips could be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

On the computer, to dissolve from one shot to another you simply slide one clip over the other on the timeline until you have what you want. In film days you had to mark the dissolve on a work print with a Chinagraph pencil, send that to the lab and pay $50.00 to see if it worked as expected. Make a change? $50.00 please! And with my S-VHS editing system dissolves were simply impossible.

Underwater shooting involved a huge housing for your film camera which had a maximum of 11 minutes of silent film. Changing the film meant coming ashore or onto a boat, rinsing and drying the housing, removing the film magazine into a black bag to change the film, then  going back over the side to get the next 11 minutes. Today numerous Go pro-style cameras can record 4K video for maybe two hours, with optical stabilisation and sound. No black bag required.

To get aerial shots you had to rent a helicopter or hot air balloon. Think at least $1,000 per hour, plus the cost of film stock and processing – and once again, just 11 minutes of film per magazine. My Mavic Pro drone shoots incredibly stable 4K footage for up to 30 minutes per flight, even in a strong wind. No black bag, no film to buy and process.

Steady tracking or craning shots required either a miniature railway track or an actual crane, or both. Now a drone can achieve the same or better results and a gimbal-mounted camera can get beautiful, smooth movement without the expense or physical exertion of a Steadicam.


Dr David Smith set up his production company, imaginACTION, in 1987 and since then has produced films and videos in various formats including 16mm film, S-VHS and Betacam analogue video, as well as DV, HDV, Full HD and Ultra HD video.

You can see examples on David’s Facebook page at DSimaginACTION and on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/user/imaginaction100/videos

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