Last night I finally got back on the Reclaim Today train. The show has been on hiatus during September given the new semester was in full swing, but Reclaim Hosting is starting to come up for air and we all know the show must go on!
I’m pretty excited about this episode cause it connects a couple of things we’ve done over the last few years, with this blog being a touchstone. Back in May I got the following email from John Grahame:
Dear Professor Groom,
On your bavatuesdays “Total Recall” blog from Feb 28, 2015 <https://bavatuesdays.com/total-recall-panasonic-omnivision-vcr/> you post a jpeg of a 1981 Montgomery Ward ad for Panasonic VCRs. The bottom VCR separates the tuner and the VCR to enable the user to “Tape action outside!” I bought one of those (for about $1,050!) in 1981. I still have it and it still works. Looks nice, too. Do you have any idea if there is anyone out there who would be interested in preserving items like these? I guess I’m thinking in terms of a museum of technology of something like that. I’m 70 years old now and am feeling the need to find ways for certain things I own to have a future.
Do I have any idea of someone who would be interested? You bet! The post from this here old blog, THE BAVA, was from 2015 and was part of my documentation of the UMW Console exhibit we created at UMW. It highlighted my purchase of an early 80s Panasonic Omnivision VHS player—which was the player my family had while I was growing up. It was (and still is) an awesome learning machine. In many ways it was an anchor of the 80s exhibit in my mind because it brought me back to the video 80s that were so formative. So, John’s email had me right away, and the image he is referring to with the dual unit from a Montgomery Ward catalogue was part of that post:
This was mobile video in 1981! Turns out this machine is a 1980s Panasonic Omnivision with Tuner and Recorder—and the tagline “Tape Action Outside!” provides a sense of the arrival of mass consumer portable video from the early 80s. When John shared the original manual and receipt it felt that much more real, technology with a very personal history.
$1300 in 1982 for this technology
I immediately responded to John with interest and we soon after got on a call wherein I explained Reclaim Video as an extension of the idea we started with the UMW Console in 2015. He was thrilled to contribute, and at this very moment the Panasonic Omnivision PV-4510 is en route to Fredericksburg to discover its new home in Reclaim Video. It’s due to arrive today, so hopefully pictures will follow.
But even better than the machine were John’s stories of exploring video in the early 70s throughout the 1980s. He started exploring video while a student at UMass in 1970 with Sony’s Portapak. I was not familiar with the Portapak and I looked it up after talking with John back in Spring, and it was a relatively inexpensive setup at $1500 in 1967 for this kind of technology (I was way off in the episode thinking I saw the price point at $120 or so, but it sounded as wrong as it was—so never trust me).
Sony’s portable video unit “Portapak” from 1967
The Portapak is interesting because as John noted, UMass had ten of them lying around, and given no one was using them he was able to hold onto it for two years and basically turn his mass communication papers into video papers. What’s more, from the Wikipedia article, the advent of this tecchnology during the political turmoil fo the late 60s meant it was being used by artists and activists alike to capture that moment:
The introduction of the Portapak had a great influence on the development of video art, guerrilla television, and activism. Video collectives such as TVTV and the Videofreex utilized Portapak technology to document countercultural movements apart from the Big Three television networks. The Portapak was also a crucial technology for the Raindance Foundation, a collective consisting of artists, academics, and scientists, motivated by the potential of the Portapak and video to develop alternative forms of communication. Because of its relative affordability and immediate playback capability, the Portapak provided artists, experimenters, and social commentators the ability to make and distribute videos apart from well-funded production companies.
It’s interesting to think that the introduction of video to a mass market was as far back as the 1960s, and John’s career as a video producer ranges from the 70s through the 80s when he got to work with Francis Ford Coppola on One From the Heart (1982). While often remembered as the film that sunk Zoetrope Studios financially, it is also remembered as a pioneering exploration of using video to create a film. Here’s a bit of context from the Previsualization Wikipedia article:
The most comprehensive and revolutionary use of new technology to plan movie sequences came from Francis Ford Coppola, who in making his 1982 musical feature One From the Heart, developed the process he called “electronic cinema”. Through electronic cinema Coppola sought to provide the filmmaker with on-set composing tools that would function as an extension of his thought processes. For the first time, an animatic would be the basis for an entire feature film. The process began with actors performing a dramatic “radio-style” voice recording of the entire script. Storyboard artists then drew more than 1800 individual storyboard frames. These drawings were then recorded onto analog videodisks and edited according to the voice recordings. Once production began, video taken from the video tap of the 35 mm camera(s) shooting the actual movie was used to gradually replace storyboarded stills to give the director a more complete vision of the film’s progress.
Instead of working with the actors on set, Coppola directed while viewing video monitors in the “Silverfish” (nickname) Airstream trailer, outfitted with then state-of-the-art video editing equipment. Video feeds from the five stages at the Hollywood General Studios were fed into the trailer, which also included an off-line editing system, switcher, disk-based still store, and Ultimatte keyers. The setup allowed live and/or taped scenes to be composited with both full size and miniature sets.
John relates his experience filming Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski on the streets of Las Vegas without permits on the streets of Las Vegas in video. How cool is that, and here is an image of John (the man with the camera) and Coppola during the shoot:
John Grahame with Francis Ford Coppola while shooting One from the Heart in video
These connections blew my mind, and I knew I wanted to have John on an episode of Reclaim Today once we started it cause this kind of insight to the long history of video during the 60s, 70s, and 80s was a big part of why I was so excited about Reclaim Video, and here is that history being recounted by one who worked intimately within it. What’s more, it provided another moment to reflect on that bit at the end of the documentary Heart of Darkness wherein Coppola has a pretty brilliant of vision of what the advent of cheap, ubiquitous access to video could do for movies as an art form.
The long history of video just became that much more interesting to me, thanks John!