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Long Live DV Tapes

Our (H)DV tape rack

Not sure if it's the camera reviewers on YouTube or popular TV shows but suddenly, older cameras are the big thing. After talking about the possibility of going backwards tech-wise in various articles and blog posts, such as this one about physical media and this one about the rise of "dumbphones," this back-tracking has caught up with video/film enthusiasts. There's no shame in considering because the costs with these cameras are much lower, and computers today can process and render footage from these cameras so quickly you can edit and produce new projects in no time. With the continuation of 4K, 8K, and man, even 12K cameras, I knew there was a point when editors realize that a new camera means a new, or upgraded, computer system to handle such high-quality video. As is often discussed among video gamers, does a high-resolution video make your project worth watching? Even big budget shows and movies projected in theaters and streamed online don't even get enough viewers to compensate their alloted expenses (this depends on the show and the film, of course). Nevertheless, where do you draw the line? Watching someone's video blog in 4K on YouTube, for me, is overkill. Video blogs are usually a talking-head type of video, and I'm often interested in what the person has to say, share or teach us about. These kinds of projects can be done with a cell phone because, again, I just want to know what they have to say and getting straight to the point, otherwise, there's no reason for me to watch. Save 4K for movies, special effects and/or presentations that require extreme detail and accurate colors (i.e. tech reviews, food, low-light scenes).

As I searched reviews for a tape-based camera I have, a Canon HV30 if you're wondering, I noticed there are some folks on YouTube that gave it a run. Heck, there was a vlogger who shot with a Canon XH-A1, and the result looked a lot like 16mm film. More-so, I've seen modern day tests and reviews for the Canon XL2 and the Panasonic DVX100. Shooting Standard Definition (SD) nowadays will get you mocked and laughed at especially in online forums discussing the latest camera gear. I don't understand why moderators feel it's okay to slander those who love older cameras—yeah, they are experts in camera specs, but certainly not experts in customer service and respect. Anyway, with cameras that use tape, it yields an image that is hard to replicate with today's cameras. "But Kris, why not use LUTs? LOL" You can hire the best colorist in the industry today, and I assure you it won't hold the same feel and mystique as the original source, and in our case, DV tape.

Tape deck from a Canon HV30(H)DV tapes
(Screenshots taken from "Tribute to HDV Tapes.")

Okay, yeah, logging and capturing tape, having to rewind and fast forward, is a hassle. However, almost no one complains about such thing when shooting on actual film, so why whine about it? I think it's worth the patience when capturing video from DV tape. In the end, DV tapes can easily be archived and stored without worrying about plugging in and activating an external hard drive, creating folders for each tape log, file naming clips properly, making sure the drives are treated with care, hoping the drives mount especially when Microsoft, Apple and/or Linux releases updates on the latest operating systems...man, it adds up. While digital storage has a longer shelf life compared to tape themselves, it's also a money-saving choice knowing that in the sudden moment your hard drive fails, you can still capture a fresh copy from your original tapes. On the other hand, yeah, tapes can get chewed up, tape cameras have more moving parts and the camera's tape heads can get dirty from excessive use, but honestly, this is a minor responsibility that doesn't cause a panic attack. I've had only one tape—yes, one (1)—that chewed up out of, what, 60+ tapes? As for the hard drives I've owned, I've had as much as 3 fail on me because the USB couldn't keep up with the video file transfers and the drives weren't solid nor fast enough to process (back then, the "best" drives were only exclusive to Mac—a system I didn't own until much later).

I get it: Digital is easier and better, but unless you think about the costs that add up in terms of archiving, you may want to save your rebuttals/critiques for later if and when you experience what it means to save your videos for a later project. Earlier, I talked about not recommending shooting in 4K for video blogs: Do you know how much hard drive space you need to archive, say, a 15-minute video in 4K? Asking again: Does it have to be in 4K? Oh sure, it wouldn't matter if you've got thousands of YouTube subscribers or thousands/millions of views, but if you're trying to grow your own audience, it's best to start small. Some established video creators have garnered enough that they have no need to upgrade their equipment. Nevertheless, I don't blame those who still shoot video on cameras like the Sony Z7u, Canon XL-H1, or even the JVC HD100. As old as those cameras are, it's still being loved and respected by fans and collectors alike because of the image quality. Yeah, I know, (H)DV has a lower bitrate than today's cameras, but does video need to be "life-like?" Sounds like an argument in terms of aesthetics, but as long as I can see the talent(s) on the video, and can hear the sound coming from it, I'm good. For those who are fans of public television: Ever wonder why Huell Howser still reigns today, despite his show shot and aired in standard definition? If resolution matters, I'd have to ask why networks like MeTV and classics like Perry Mason still attract a solid audience. Maybe because the content is appealing without any regard that it's in black & white and in 4:3 standard definition? It's like people who swear by resolution don't appreciate nor learn from the past, like that one YouTube vlogger who said both ARRI Alexa and "laughable" in the same sentence because the Alexa shoots in 2K. I'm telling you, folks, some people don't deserve nice things...or anything for that matter. "LOL resolution matters, Kris, you're just being a hater." Okay, so you're saying a filmmaker from a low economic/under-developed country posting all his twenty movies on Vimeo in 180p resolution doesn't deserve attention compared to another American bore-fest ranting about why he refuses the buy cameras from Blackmagic shot in 8K video? I'll say it again: Just because your video is in 4K, 8K or 128K(!) doesn't make it more interesting to watch. Try asking video gamers who still love retro, 8-bit graphics or companies still using .asx/.asf formats for low-budget live streams.

It's becoming like there's not much point upgrading to the latest and greatest cameras, given that reviewers on YouTube critique cameras so hard they've lulled viewers into thinking that if they don't purchase the new releases, their projects won't look as good as theirs. Video is subjective, and even though I've seen beautiful shots from cell phones, VHS tapes, Hi-8 and DV tapes, quality and resolution cancel out. The reason these camera reviewers get so antsy about features, while some rave constantly about it, is to "court" camera/tech companies into giving them a sponsorship deal. In addition, they encourage their viewers to click their affiliate links to earn a small commission to go with their video reviews. All in all, they come off as sales people who can memorize specs better than reciting all fifty US states and their capitals. For those wondering about all this: Don't be swayed by these camera reviewers. YOU SHOOT MOVIES USING WHAT YOU WANT TO WORK WITH. Even if you have $8,000 to spend, the biggest challenge, at least from our perspective, is telling the best stories. Telling a good story is more important than resolution. I may be an older millennial, but from personal experience, I can attest to this fact. Now do you understand why Marvel films are nothing but a "fashion show" per special effects? I've seen videos in 240p of people cleaning rugs more interesting, and visually relaxing, than a multi-million dollar film which we all know how it will turn out in the end.

Canon XH-A1 HDV cameraFootage playing from a Canon HV30(H)DV tapes on our Bryco tape rack
(Screenshots taken from "Tribute to HDV Tapes.")

For those happy to go back shooting on DV tape, I'm automatically a fan of yours. Without you knowing, shooting on tape means you're tired of this overbearing, yet self-centered, entitled monotony expressed by these filmmakers thinking gear makes them reputable in the content creation department. Even though production of DV tapes has rather slowed down due to underwhelming demand, I feel it's the rebellion to kick away the self-absorbed attitudes these modern camera owners portray, as if they assume that purchasing a $60,000 gives them a one-way ticket to being bigger than a lottery winner. Speaking of tapes, as someone who used to work at a video archive/duplication house, I can assure you that high-end HD tapes are still being used to archive production companies' commercials, full-length films, trailers and the like. In our case, consumer-, or even professional-grade, DV tapes are always available despite costs increasing, and is ready to shoot. Yeah, SD cards are inexpensive nowadays, but the costs to repair and recover footage from an HDD/SSD exceeds that compared to a broken, chewed-up tape (you literally have to destroy a tape on purpose to render it unusable). What do I think about this? I love the rebellion. Keep it up. Even with limited features and functionality encourages the filmmaker to flex their creative juices enabling them to think on their feet. Yeah, "you can fix it in post," but how much time and money would you save if you pulled the shots on the first try or two? That tactic will save you tape too.

It's time to give tape its respect and popularity back—a chance to revel in a format that pops an image quality so unique in comparison to today's videos that it'll make the modern-day YouTuber green with envy. From my personal experience, I've had more flexibility and forgiveness with tape than I had with today's tapeless/digital formats (must I spend another $100-$200 on hard drives just to back up raw ProRes videos?). I can capture and digitize old HDV footage back in 2010 as if I shot the video three hours ago. Archival of tape is so convenient, companies like Bryco created tape shelves for a much neater presentation; No need to stack irregularly-sized hard drives, worrying about fresh USB/Thunderbolt cables making sure it's able to mount on the latest operating system(s). As a current owner of the Canon HV30 and even the Sony Z1U, I feel like I can have fun shooting video again like the good ol' days. It makes me feel both nostalgic and rebellious at the same time. Those who swear by standard defintion cameras, I'm sure, feel the same way. I love that. Go out and make great projects, and with DV tapes, lost footage is the least of your worries. Hey, physical media is and will be here to stay, why not integrate your projects and memories on tape?

Long live DV tapes.

UPDATE: December 15, 2023 at 2:12PM - Edited and fixed misspellings, grammatical typos and URLs.


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