Video production stories


The Triumph of Technology

A quarter of a century ago I worked in an edit suite in west London.  It was my first job as an editor having been trained on the job.  Like many people I started out making tea and coffee but I was determined to learn so I borrowed camera gear at the weekends and shot pop promos for my band.  Many week nights were spent getting to grips with the edit controller.  It was a Sony 3000 and could control three VTRs at once which meant that you could mix between two different sources and record the result onto the third machine.

We’d play in Betacam or BVU tapes and record onto 1″C format through a Grass Valley vision mixer.  After eleven months of late night self-learning and daytime observing of the staff editors Mark and Spencer, the boss realised I could use the equipment quite well and promptly promoted me to editor.  My first edit was a broadcast piece about Macau for BBC’s Newsnight.  Shortly after that we totally revamped the edit suite, replacing the older equipment with a Sony BVE9000 edit controller, a Grass Valley 200 and a dual channel Questech Charisma digital effects unit that could wrap pictures into spheres and make cubes and other totally useless geometric shapes, that being the fashion of the day.

The new edit suite cost around half a million pounds with the installation and all the ancillary equipment.  From routers to scopes to racking and VTRs the new suite looked amazing.  Clients often remarked how it was like the bridge of the Enterprise with its rows of preview monitors set in the ceiling.  Now, I recount all this not just for nostalgia’s sake but to illustrate the difference with the kit I use today.  My current edit suite consists of a fast pc running Windows 7 64-bit with Avid Media Composer 6, After Effect CS5.5 and various other programs and utilities.  I have a SPL2381 monitor controller (which my brother insists is just a very expensive volume control), some Canford PPM meters, an SE2200A large diaphragm mic for voice overs that goes through a Presonus mic preamp and some lovely PMC TB2A audio monitors.  Now, you’ll notice that most of what I’ve listed here is audio gear but other than a Matrox MX02 and a Sony 40″ flat screen it is.  All the video stuff happens in the pc.  I built the computer myself and it cost around £2000 (Asus mobo, i7 quadcore chip, 24GB ram and a Nvidia Quadro FX3800 graphics card) with around two terabytes of internal raid storage.  With the extra external drives and the software I still had change from £5000.  A Mac would have done just as well but would have cost about twice as much.  And the thing is, that old edit suite I learned my trade in could do the most amazing things; I once had eleven VTRs running at once to produce one complex special effect with multiple matte keys and transitions going on – the sort of thing I can do in seconds in Avid or After Effects.

Yes, work flow has changed; things were much more immediate then, now you tend to render things out instead but results are far, far superior.  And that’s why I can make a living from my edit suite on the side of the Malvern Hills instead of having to work in London.  A real case of technology improving life.  I am also really good at making coffee.


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Baker man . . .

. . . baking tapes

You may have heard about the so-called Sticky Tape Syndrome.  From the late seventies to the early nineties some tape manufacturers used a compound in their reel-to-reel tapes to bind the magnetic particles to the plastic base of the tape.  The compound contained moisture-hungry polyurethane elements which, over time, sucked water molecules into the tape.  I have around twenty old demo tapes and recordings from as long ago as 1981 that needed to be transferred to a digital format for posterity’s sake.  Some may think it cruel to inflict dodgy, out-of-tune, poorly played eighties pop on my unborn grand children but how else are they going to really appreciate what a great time they happen to live in?  I was lucky enough to pick up a working Revox PR99 on Ebay for a measly £50 (worth it just as an ornament) and set about digitising my old tunes.    

It didn’t go well.  Within a few minutes the spools ground to a halt, impeded by the sticky black mess that was accumulating on the guide rollers and the heads.  My first experience of Sticky Tape Syndrome, trouble was, I didn’t know it.  I assumed that the Ebay-sourced Revox had a dodgy reel motor and forgot about it for nearly five years.  Eventually, after being badgered by old band members, I went searching for another quarter-inch machine to play the tapes on.  It happens that Paul White, editor of Sound on Sound magazine lives down the road so I gave him call and he agreed to loan me his vintage Tascam.  He also told me all about Sticky Tape Syndrome and the remedy; four hours in an electric oven at 50°C.  There are lots of explanations out there on the web about how to do this but basically, you wrap your NAB spools in aluminium foil, heat up the oven (it’s recommended to use an oven thermometer to be certain of the temperature), pop the tapes in for four hours, then let them cool for a further four hours.  And that’s it.  Every baked tape has played without issue although copious quantities of vodka and cotton buds have been used to keep the heads clean of the inevitable dry-shedding that is to be expected from thirty year old tape stock. The newly digital audio files have since been re-mastered and maximised with the help of iZotope Ozone 5 and they sound great, better than I remember actually.  My grandchildren may yet be a little bit proud.

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Any day now . . .

It’s been more than a month since I ordered my Canon EOS C300 and I’ve been assured it will arrive this week.  For definite!  It seems that it’s been rather a popular choice and supplies have failed to meet the demand for this large format 50MB/s HD camera.


The kit I’ve ordered includes a set of three lenses; an 85mm, a 50mm and a 16-35 zoom.  The two primes are nice and fast at F1.8 while the zoom is a respectable F2.8.  Pondering now whether I’ll need a longer lens too.  Possibly the 70-200mm F2.8 but will reserve judgement on that until I get the kit.  I already own a Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 so maybe, with an appropriate adaptor I can use that.  Also looking forward to getting a Samurai disk recorder which will record 185MB/s with the Avid DNxHD codec.  Perfect for my workflow.