Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Owed to Digital Video (DV)/miniDV

Basically, everyone is familiar with VHS (Video Home System). Even young people know that at one point, before the "digital age," the ubiquitous means of watching movies at home was on these hunks of plastic containing magnetic tape. Likewise, most people recorded home movies on VHS cameras. Some even took to making feature films on the consumer-grade format. 

One of my favorite group-setting movies, Zombie '90: Extreme Pestilence, was shot on VHS. 

Eventually, though, VHS fizzled out. DVD took its place and digital cameras that recorded on memory cards became the dominant format for home video and independent film. 

I want to focus, though, on the era between VHS and SD Card cameras. Before iPhones and Red Digital Cinema was a mostly-forgotten format called Digital Video (DV), or miniDV. 

Brief History

DV tapes were sort of transitional. They took means of video-recording that consumers were accustomed to (i.e. recording onto a plastic cassette tape), yet the information created by recording was entirely new. In other words, it acted like typical analog recording, yet created a new digital format. 

miniDV tapes have their roots way back in 1984 when the International Telecommunications Union created the first digital video image. It took about 10 years, though, for researchers to learn how to properly encode and compress digital videos images. Eventually, H.626, or Standard Definition, was born.

In 1995, Sony and Panasonic introduced the DV tape.  Unlike VHS, which recorded video information using a magnetic strip, DV tapes recorded digital information. They could store up to 13GB (60 minutes standard, 90 minutes extended) of information. 

There are multiple variants of DV tapes. There's DVCPRO, DVCAM, Digital8, and the aforementioned miniDV. I will focus primarily on miniDV since it was the most pervasive of the DV formats. miniDV was used by consumers and professionals alike during its dominance in the video-making market. 

The reason miniDV beat out VHS in the consumer market was, essentially, their compact size. A miniDV tape measured about 6.5cm by 4.8cm. For comparison, a compact VHS tape (VHS-C) was 9.2cm by 5.8cm. Likewise, miniDV tapes could record three times color information compared to VHS, making for a more "full" image. 

Much like today's hard drive and SSD cameras, there were professional, prosumer, and consumer miniDV cameras. 

The professional miniDV consisted of models like the Canon XL1, the Sony DCR-VX1000, the JVC GY-DV500E, and the Panasonic AG-DVX100, which happens to be my all-time favorite camera. These cameras were a lot of money. Each cost around $3000 while they were new. Now, you can find them on eBay for around $200-$600.

Consumers, likewise, had a wide array of lower-priced and more accessible cameras to chose from. JVC, for example, released several small camcorders with easy-to-use menu functions, like the JVC GR-D290U. This particular camera happens to be what I shot all my childhood movies on. 

In 2003, HDV tapes were created. They were essentially the same as a typical miniDV camera, except they could shoot high definition (1080i and 720p) footage. 

Like VHS before it, though, miniDV as a format faded away because superior formats took its place. 

By the early 2010s, miniDV became mostly obsolete. For professionals/prosumers, there were High Definition cameras that shot on memory cards. For consumers, there were smartphones and internal-memory cameras. Essentially, there was no longer a need for a physical tape. 

Recently, I went to Hunt's Photo & Video in South Portland, ME to see if they had/could order any miniDV tapes. According to the store's owner, though, the company that manufactured the miniDV tapes they sold had closed in 2020. The only place to find miniDV tapes these days are on eBay or Amazon.


During their fifteen-year lifespan, DV tapes were used in several low-budget/independent movies. The most famous of which is the 2002 horror movie 28 Days Later. The first act of 28 Days Later depicts empty London Streets. Rather than close down huge parts of London, the filmmakers opted to shoot early in the morning before the traffic started. To cut down on time, they used a Canon XL1 because it was easier to set up than film. Likewise, the filmmakers could see exactly how their shot looked in real-time. Not to mention, they didn't have to spend extra money on expensive 35mm film.

Another famous example is The Puffy Chair (2005), a mumblecore movie shot on a shoe-string budget. The Duplass brothers opted to use a Panasonic AG-DVX100 for ease of use and to cut down on the budget.

Several documentaries during the early 2000s were also shot on miniDV cameras. The most famous of which is Super Size Me (2004), a movie that kids are still forced to watch in health class.  

Some of my favorite lesser-known shot-on-DV movies include:
MPD Psycho (2000), Marebito (2004), Chuck and Buck (2000), 24 Hour Party PeopleMy Little Eye (2002), and The Scenesters (2009).

I have made a long list on Letterboxd of every movie shot on a DV/miniDV camera. The list is always expanding because I tend to stumble across movies that were shot on the now-obsolete format.

In addition to films, both fictional and documentary alike, many of the old popular web series were shot on miniDV cameras. James Rolfe shot the first six seasons of The Angry Video Game Nerd on a Panasonic AG-DVX100, as did Red Letter Media on the first two seasons of their show Half in the Bag. Likewise, the popular show It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia shot its first five seasons on my favorite camera. 

Like 16mm back in the 1960s, DV made independent filmmaking easier than ever. The quality was noticeably higher than analog video, meaning that independent filmmakers could shoot a high-quality feature while saving money on film stock. It was the first financially-accessible format that rivaled film in image quality. 

These days, though, an iPhone can produce a higher-quality image than miniDV tapes ever could. Likewise, there are low-cost cameras that shoot on HD and in 4K-8K. So, why bring any attention to this obsolete format at all? 

Nostalgia & Aesthetics

I've personally seen a huge VHS revival in recent years. Indie bands (like Spiral XP above), filmmakers, and artists all around turn to eBay to find a working VHS camera. There are also several zines and full-on stores dedicated to selling old VHS tapes. In Portland, ME, there's a store downtown called Abraxas, which sells horror movie VHS tapes and zines about shot-on-video movies. 

The reason for the VHS revival is because, I think, of two things: nostalgia and aesthetics. Nostalgia is simple - people my age remember VHS and they want to preserve that aesthetic. As for aesthetics, VHS creates a very "real" and grungey-looking image. VHS, simply, oozes DIY aesthetics. It's a callback to the movies we made as kids. 

The same can be said of miniDV, although it's a bit different. With VHS, the image and sound are... poor. One can't really make a feature film on a VHS camera without it being either found footage or a call back to movies like Zombie 90. By contrast, the look of a professional miniDV camera is just that - professional. However, unlike modern HD/4K-8K cameras, miniDV cameras produce a unique grain. 

I personally love the look of digital video. It's the perfect middle ground between the difficult-to-use film camera and the too-easy-too-clean iPhone. Its grain is not distracting like on a VHS camera, yet it still produces a DIY/grungey aesthetic. Unlike hyper-high-definition cameras we use today, the miniDV camera makes the image look real. There's a sort of earnest charm that simply isn't present in newer cameras. 

I could never afford to shoot an independent movie on 16mm film, let alone 35mm. I also don't want to use an HD camera. So, I always go with miniDV. I always use my trusty Panasonic AG-DVX100. 

As for nostalgia, miniDV is what I remember shooting on as a kid. As I said above, I always used a JVC GR-D290U. When that camera eventually broke, I always lamented the lack-of tapes in future cameras. So, I chose to use my 2002 Panasonic camera, rather than the newer Canon T6i for creative endeavors. 

Just like the VHS revival now, I believe there will be a renewed interest in miniDV cameras. I think we'll see independent arts once again turning to eBay to find functioning DV tape cameras. 

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