History of Camcorders - From Portapaks to HandyCams

26.08.2014 19:57

The History of Camcorders
by Mark Shapiro

August 26, 2014

 Today’s camcorders are very compact and can easily fit in the palm of your hand. You can stick them in your pocket or purse. No matter where you are, on a plane, on a beach, in your house or on a mountaintop, it is easy to create your own high quality video productions. 

 Modern camcorders provide outstanding visual and audio capture qualities, are small enough to travel anywhere, and have impressive lens and zoom ratios.  Most provide a wide range of automatic and manual imaging modes, as well as a variety of input and output selections. Editing is easy. You can edit from camcorder to camcorder, you can use a dedicated editing box, or you can dump your video into your computer and edit using nonlinear technology. Soon you will be able to send your videos from your camcorder directly to the Internet.

 But it wasn’t always like that. When I, and many other “old” videographers started shooting video, there really was no such thing as mobile video. Television show producers used large quad decks (about the size of refrigerator lying on its back) to record video onto 2-inch wide videotape. Then, as the seventies rolled around, these monster machines evolved into smaller suitcase sized machines that used one inch or ¾ inch videotape to record video. When you wanted to do a location shoot, you drove a truck full of the equipment, or lugged the decks, cameras, switching devices, tripods, and cables to the location and set it up.

 Even worse, in those days, the cameras were using electronic tubes to convert the light to electrical impulses, not solid state CCDs.  Not only did the tubes burnt out from use, they needed to be constantly adjusted, calibrated and babied. Even during a shoot, the cameras needed constant attention.  As the tubes warmed up during a show, the colors would constantly shift and the tubes would wiggle out of alignment and would require re-configuring every hour or so. In addition, the tubes were not as light sensitive as today’s camcorders and chip cameras. You had to pour LOTS of light onto the subjects to get a picture. It got hot very fast.

 According to Rik Albury who was doing video back in the early sixties at the University of Florida, “Mobile for us was dolly-trucking large cameras around the studio as far as our cables could reach.”  Albury adds that there were no such things as editing decks or nonlinear editing systems. He had to edit the two-inch wide videotapes by using razor blades and scotch tape. The editor had to manually roll the tape back and forth across the video heads to find the right spot, make a crayon mark, and then physically cut the tape into sections and scotch tape it back together. If he was lucky, the editor was able to get the slice between the electronic frames. If not, he got bad glitches and image rolling and had to do it again. There was a special solution that could be applied to the tape that would let the editors sort of see where the magnetic particles were so that they could cut between them.

 Another early mobile video innovators was Walt Rauffer who is now with the Sesame Street Workshop. Back in 1962, Walt cut a 3” tube B&W Pye orthicon camera into two pieces to make it a bit mobile. According to Walt, “We used it to shoot beer commercials for the networks and edited on 2 inch wide quad tape using a razor blade.”

 According to Rick Diehl of LabGuysWorld, an online museum of old video gear, the first home video system was offered by Ampex in 1963. Advertised in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, this system included a big camera, TV monitor, special furniture and  was based around a 100-pound Ampex VR-1500 video recorder. Available for just $30,000, an Ampex engineer would come out to your home and set it up for you. 

 Handheld Video?

 Prior to the introduction of the Portapak, there was no such thing as handheld video cameras. Most professional mobile and location work was shot on 16mm film. Home users who wanted to document their parties and special events had to use 8mm or Super8 film.

 Loading a 8mm film camera required opening it up and threading in the film and not exposing it by mistake. When you were done shooting the brief 3 minutes of film, without any sound, you had to rewind it inside the camera, carefully take it out and put it in a special light proof canister, and then send it off to be developed. When you got it back in a week or so, you had to pull out your 8mm film projector and set it up in front of a big blank white wall or set up a projection screen. Then after threading the film onto the reels through the projector’s series of gears and pulleys, you could finally watch it back. Hopefully your projector was in good shape or you might rip or melt your precious film.

 Some engineers and producers were experimenting with mobile video, creating their own camera and videotape recorder packs. Perry Mitchell, reports that he created his own portable kit by slicing apart the camera head and camera control unit (CCU) into two separate pieces, attaching the CCU to a backpack and lugging that around. SEE PICTURE. The fifty-pound videotape recorder unit was then mounted on another backpack and was connected to the CCU backpack by a thick cable.

 Things began to Get Better

 In 1967, Sony introduced the first PortaPak, the Sony DV-2400 Video Rover. The first ”portable” video system, this two-piece set consisted of a large B&W camera and a separate record-only helical ½” VCR unit. It required a Sony CV series VTR to play back the video. Even thought it was clunky and heavy, it was light enough for a single person to carry it around.  However, it was usually operated by a crew of two -  One shot the camera and one carried and operated the VCR part.  

 Unlike today’s camcorders and video-recorders that use videocassettes and cartridges, helical is like an old reel-to-reel tape recorder but a bit more complicated. The tape spun off of one reel, carefully threaded it around the erase, video and audio heads, and then onto the pick-up reel. It was easy to make a mistake or not get the tape tight enough.

 The camera was a bit funky too. It had a single tube B&W vidicon camera that had a few problems. If you moved the camera too fast, the images would smear. You couldn’t point the camera at the sun or bright lights or you would burn a permanent hole in the tube.

 Soon after, other manufacturers like Panasonic and JVC began making and selling their own portapaks as well.  As time went on, the cameras got better and better, smaller and smaller. The tubes got more durable and soon added color capabilities.


  Even more importantly, editing improved. No longer did the helical tape have to be physically cut and taped back together. New insert and assembly editing technologies  allowed editors to record electronically from deck to deck. At first, this was manual.

 You had to learn how long it took your decks to come up to speed and then manually backwind them the correct distance, hit play and then, at the right moment, hit record to make an edit. Sometimes you would get a good edit, sometimes you wouldn’t.   I remember going back and forth on a single edit five times or more to get a stable edit that would fall between the video frames and would be stable, without any flagging, wiggling or jiggle.

 In the early seventies, time code began appearing on professional editing decks and this greatly improved ease of editing. Not only could you lock in the frame number, you could also accurately do the required pre-rolls.

 By the way, even with the improvements in the cameras, recorders and editing techniques, they were still capturing component analog video. This meant that every time you made a dub or copy for editing, you lost image quality and resolution. In addition, these were two piece units – a camera with tube inside and separate recorder unit.




The Impact of Mobile Video and Personal Video

 The Sony Portapak, and other portable video gear from JVC and Panasonic that followed it, revolutionized the video business and opened up video to the masses, making it a medium that anyone could use. No longer was video and television limited to major networks or to those with big budgets.


 This created an explosion of what became known as “guerilla video” and video art. In the late sixties and early seventies, the streets were exploding with counter culture and politics. Many people used these portable camcorders to document the times around them.  Video artists like Nam June Paik used portapaks to create “artistic” programs that didn’t have to have a story, just images and emotion and sound. As a side note, Nam June Paik is often credited with purchasing the very first portapak, from the very first Sony shipment. 

 These new portapaks were also grabbed up by businesses of all sizes and types, athletic departments at schools and universities, and government agencies, including the military. Even psychologists were quick to pick up on the implications of videotaping sessions that could be played back later for review.

 In the early seventies, I purchased my first Portapak, a Panasonic 3085.  Aside from a few goofy video art exercises, I was soon heavily immersed in the counterculture and politics, documenting street art, guerilla theater and traveling to various protests and events. During the time of protests against nuclear plants, I recall marching up the beach, taping the protesters, and as they swarmed closer to the reactors, climbing over a 8 foot high chain link fence, lugging the 30 pound Portapak and camera.

 In addition to Portapaks being big and unwieldy, the batteries were primitive and didn't last as long as they do now. Tobe Carey, a documentary producer living and working in Woodstock, NY, lugged his heavy Sony AV-3400 Portapak down to the Yucatan area of Mexico to shoot a video documenting the process of giving birth in a hammock. As part of the shoot, he had to climb up on top of a hut to document the making of a traditional thatched roof. 

 Not only did he have to precariously balance on the roof, he had to drape the VCR unit with a white cloth to keep the hot Mayan sun from depleting the batteries.  The documentary was shot in 1971, edited over the next two-years and finally played at the First Global Village Video Festival in NY City in 1974.  Cablecasting the tape was not easy either. Instead of just giving the finished tape to the local cable company to play, he had to lug his Sony Portapak to the cable station’s head end located in a small concrete block building at the end of a mountain dirt road. There he had to physically connect the portapak's video outputs to the cable company's channel-3 modulator. Then he hit play and reels began to revolve.

 Various groups used these Portapaks to create their own counter-cultural TV programs. Groups like the Ant Farm, Videofreex and Top Value Television produced hundreds of hours of productions. Some of these were documentaries of the times; others were bitter satires and comments on society.  Ken Shapiro (no relation) used portapaks to produce a show called Channel One.  It consisted of short video segments that were then played back to an audience in a theatre setting. This series of vicious comedy sketches parodying TV evolved to become the hit movie, “The Groove Tube” that starred Chevy Chase, Richard Belzer, Paul Bartel and Carrie Fisher.  

 Broadcasters also embraced these mobile technologies. Prior to the introduction of portapaks, most TV news was shot on 16mm film. After developing and editing, it was run through a video projector device called a telecine that broadcast it over the air. By using these mobile video cameras and recorders, broadcast news organizations were able to go into the field and get news as it happened. As the technology improved, TV news mostly abandoned film and moved to video.

 In 1971, Sony introduced their new U-Matic concept to the world. A single cassette, with ¾ inch wide tape, it made loading the tape much easier. Just stick the tape cartridge in and the machine did the rest. Most of the time.  The first units were large table sized machines, but they got smaller, and eventually become portable enough to be carried by a production crew.

 At the same time, Sony and JVC were working on smaller ½” formats for home users. Sony’s product was called Betamax. JVC’s was called VHS.  Both used videocassettes similar to the larger U-Matic. These units used 2 hour length VHS cassettes that were much easier to quickly insert and remove than the older helical VTRs with their 20 and 30 minute tape reels.  In 1976, JVC finally introduced color VHS to the world. 

 As soon as I could, I jettisoned my old B&W Sony Portapak for the new VHS color format. Even though they were lot easier to use and not as bulky, these were still two-piece units, with a color camera with a built-in microphone and a separate VCR unit, connected via a cable. I remember, dragging mine around to concerts and events, documenting the politics of the time and early stirrings of the punk rock movement.

 According to the Consumer Electronics Association,  in 1982, both JVC and Sony announced the “CAMera/recorder”, or camcorder, combinations. On June 1, 1982, JVC’s camcorder used its new mini-VHS format, VHS-C. In Japan five months later, Sony announced its Betamovie Beta camcorder, which was promoted with the slogan "Inside This Camera Is A VCR." The first Betamovie camcorder hit stores in May 1983. It was a record only machine without anelectronic viewfinder.

In February 1984, photo giant Kodak introduced a new camcorder format, 8mm, in its first 8mm camcorder, the KodaVision 2000. In 1985, Sony introduced the first chip-based camcorders. Called Video 8, it was also Sony’s first8mm camcorder. The same year, JVC introduced VHS-C, a compact version of VHS cassettes. The next year, 1989, JVC introduced S-VHS. Still analog video, it provided it separated the video signal into two distinct channels. This provided better color and higher resolution, about 400 lines compared to VHS at 220 lines.  This higher resolution enables users to actually edit and copy their videos without worrying that their second and third generation tapes would be fuzzy. About the same time, Sony also joined the s-video movement and introduced their first Hi8 camcorder, the venerable CCD-V99 camcorder.

In 1992, Sharp became the first company to build in a color LCD screen to replace the conventional viewfinder. In fact, their LCD screen was basically the entire camera with the lens assembly hanging off of it.   No longer did users have to squint through a tiny eyepiece.  This has become a standard feature of almost every consumer camcorder. Finally, today’s digital video technology first arrived in late 1995. Panasonic and Sony brought out the first Digital Video camcorders, soon followed by Sharp and JVC.

 Today’s new camcorders incorporate the best of the evolution. Small and compact, large LCD viewfinders and high quality Digital Video recording. Go anywhere, shoot anywhere.  What’s next? Maybe batteries that last for days? No more videotape and the ability to record directly to flash memory? Wireless video recording directly to the Internet? Camcorders built into your head and biologically connected to your optic nerves? Who knows?  One thing can be guaranteed though, in another 20 years, your cool and hip digital camcorder, will be looked at as nothing more than a quaint and cute heirloom of primitive times.

 In this article, I just hit the high spots. There are a lot of innovators, companies, cameras and technologies that I didn’t have room to include.

 If you are further interested in old video equipment and cameras, the best place I have found iswww.labguysworld.com. This web site is maintained by Richard Diehl and is a loving tribute to the history of video cameras and videotape recorders before Betamax, VCRs and camcorders.