Minidv“The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan famously declared back in 1964. What did he mean by this? To my mind, he meant that the nature of the technology at the disposal of a creative artist will inevitably and sometimes dramatically influence the content of his creation. Sometimes whole movements of creative outpouring – YouTube, Instagram, and Reality TV all spring to mind – are the direct result of a prevailing technological medium.

Nowhere is this truer than in the movie industry, which has been revolutionized many times over, most recently by the invention of digital cameras. Smaller, lighter, and easier to use, these cameras are also significantly cheaper to buy than their older, analogue cousins, allowing low-budget productions to accomplish a high level of visual quality. The advent of this technology therefore opened the playing-field to projects that did not enjoy the massive funding of the Hollywood oligarchy. It also ushered in a whole generation of directors like Steven Soderbergh – the creator of box-office hits like Ocean’s Eleven, as well as more quirky and artistic works such as The Limey – who have crossed the old demarcation lines, and are proud to be credited as their own chief cameraman.

Significantly, Soderbergh was one of the first directors to produce a feature film, Full Frontal, using a low-end digital camera known as a Mini-DV (DV standing for Digital Video). These cameras look a lot like home camcorders, and have many of the same advantages: they’re light (often less than 3lbs), easy to use, carry enough tape to film up to 2 hours, and are sturdy enough to take a few knocks. Camcorders, of course, always had one major disadvantage that disqualified their use by even semi-professionals: the tape they use is simply not made for editing. As anyone knows who attempted, back in the day, to copy from one VHS or audiotape to another, the quality diminishes drastically, and plummets further with every successive edit or copy. The advent of digital changed all that.

Reversible Digits

Those of us who still secretly mourn our LP-collection might recall the moment we first laid eyes on those new interlopers, CDs; and indeed, that is where the digital revolution began, not so very long ago: with music. The recording engineers who first figured out how to use the binary language of computers to encode sound must have danced the funky chicken into the wee small hours, for they had unearthed the Holy Grail of their industry. With this new technology, a producer could re-record, edit, over-dub and otherwise mess around to their heart’s content with the encoded information that once was music; but when those streams of digital information were reversed and translated back into sounds, there was not one iota of quality degradation, because there was no original ‘perfect’ copy to corrupt: just those chains of ones and zeroes that constitute the mysterious binary language of the virtual domain.

Once these flood-gates of digital possibility had been opened, it was inevitable that such technology would have to be applied to the visual world. Where there’s a will there’s a way, they say, and after a number of years, and huge injections of industry cash, digital came to video.

The first wave arrived in the form of digital imaging systems such as AVID, which allow editors to store vast reservoirs of images in digital form on RAM disks, and then to access their material at any chosen point, without having to scroll through everything that precedes it. A few years later, the industry succeeded in miniaturizing the electronic components of these systems to the extent that they could be installed into digi-Beta cameras: portable “Electronic Newsgathering” (ENG) equipment that was the same size as the analogue models invented in the late 1960’s. At the same time, the evolution of film tape that began with the shift from 2-inch recording tape in the 1950s to two styles of 1-inch tape in the 1960s and 1970s now culminated in the Beta recording systems of the 1980s, but with one important added bonus. As with music, you could now put your tape through endless variations without losing any picture quality.

A High-Five to Hi-8

Inevitably – and we’ve all witnessed the progression, especially in our phones – the next step was to keep on miniaturizing, building the new technology into smaller and smaller cameras. There were many engineers in the broadcast industry who doubted that a compact high-end video camera could ever be constructed. The sheer quantity and dimensions of electronic components contained within such cameras, even the portable ones, would surely always make for a bulky instrument. If it could be done, of course, two things would happen: cameras would become cheaper, opening the film industry to lower-budget players; and it would be a lot easier to move them around, a fact guaranteed to revolutionize the quality of many film genres, but particularly documentaries.

With the will of money, power and progress came a way, and the nay-sayers were silenced by the invention of the Hi-8 video camera and tape, which enjoyed the spotlight in the early 1990s as the most promising new kid on the block, meeting the amateur consumer’s increasing demands for higher visual quality, and the dreams of journeyman film-makers who needed more bang for their limited buck. Part of the success of the new Hi-8 cameras, beyond their digital promise of zero-degradation copying, was the fact that they were designed with three color chips instead of the usual one, which made for purer color. Some TV producers even found these cameras good enough to capture on-location footage.

Low-end Pro’s and High-end cons

Technology is a fickle mistress, however, and the Hi-8’s proverbial fifteen minutes of fame was soon curtailed by the invention of the Mini-DV. Those indefatigable engineers had done it again, this time discovering a way to adapt the kind of digital recording techniques developed for larger ENG equipment, whose cost started at $50,000, for use in small camcorders with 3 color chips, priced at around $4000.

As a whole, the broadcasting industry was in no hurry to embrace these little cameras, choosing instead to emphasize their limitations: the images were less sharp, the colors less pure, the lenses were not interchangeable, and so on. The manufacturers, who for the most part also produced the high-end cameras, did not disagree. These cameras were never intended to be broadcast quality, they argued: they were made to fill a niche, to satisfy high-end amateurs and low-end professionals; and in that capacity (and given what they cost) they were pretty astounding.

For those high-end amateurs and low-end professionals, and for those directors who are tempted to man their own cameras, the Mini-DVs have proven to boast an added bonus feature: the ease with which film can be edited digitally on a home computer, using software programs such as Final Cuts Pro. In order to use such a program, you’ll need a top-end Apple Mac with enough memory to hold images ready for editing and store different versions of your film/tape. You’ll also need a product called Firewire, which enables digital information to flow between your Mini-DV and your home computer via a single cable. Still, with a relatively modest investment of $6,000 or so, the results that can be achieved are impressive, opening up a once prohibitively expensive industry still further to the bold and daring newcomer.

Waiving the Broadcast Standard

Predictably enough, and perhaps for that very reason, Hollywood and the old-guard network establishment continue to turn their backs on Mini-DV equipment because it is “below broadcast standards.” But there are those within the industry who challenge their motives, and accuse certain executives of being narrow-minded, conservative and even out-of-touch. Many professionals believe that the Mini-DVs, and their mid-range professional off-shoots, represent extremely valuable tools that will continue to fill niches traditionally reserved for bigger cameras. Others even celebrate the slightly ‘degraded’ look of images shot on a Mini-DV, which can cast romantic allusions back to the nostalgic era of pre-digital film.

To return to that prophetic Marshall McLuhan quote, Mini-DVs represent just another medium in search of its own set of messages. In this respect, a brief look at some of the most significant films shot with Mini-DV cameras is deeply revealing. The list includes the horror film 28 Days Later by British director Danny Boyle; Spike Lee’s Bamboozled; the popular Buena Vista Social Club by celebrated German director Wim Wenders; and the highly experimental Time Code by Mike Figgis, which was filmed as a single, continuous take by 4 Mini-DV cameras shooting simultaneously. What is immediately striking about this list is that all of these directors are, like Steven Soderbergh, exceptionally innovative: they are risk-takers, renegades, rebels and revolutionaries. And their successes surely reveal that the weaknesses of a camera – or any other medium – can be turned into strengths in the hands of a master craftsman who knows how to consummate the marriage of medium and message.

Devices such as the Mini-DV could be seen as a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, they potentially open the market to any hack with a vision, an ego and $10,000 or so to gamble. But they also dare and inspire true artists to find ways to make the medium work, just as The Blair Witch Project shocked us all, not because it was so scary, but because it made shaky, low-tech, hand-held camera-work an integral, indispensable ingredient of the movie’s overall impact. The message is that talent, not the value of your camera, still carries the day.