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We all know how the Hi8 handheld camcorder changed the way we saved memories. But, how has it changed the landscape and theory around professional filmmaking?

The release of 8mm camcorders in the 1980’s paved way for a new era of home filmmaking in which everything could be recorded in the palm of your hand. The alteration in size began a new fashion of filming “anywhere, anytime” with the best part being the easiness of watching 8mm transfer onto a television without the added need of a video player.

Within 10 years, everyone seemed to be documenting their lives with the help of their nifty handheld camcorder. The novelty of having a smaller camera formed a new style of taping. Videos consisted of long, continuous takes which jittered through time documenting the normal, unseen moments of our lives. Without realising it, the camera owners were changing the sphere of documenting history. Each special moment became a filmed documentation of our culture and the way we lived in the late 20th century.

As the Hi8 camcorder developed from 8mm video to digital, amateur film recording of grainy pictures, shaky framing and raw content became instantly recognisable. It was looked down upon by professional filmmakers who had skilled the art of developing beautiful pieces of film and used a repertoire of semiotic language to tell their story. The main criticisms of home camcorders being the low quality footage compared to photographic film recording, and the constant reminder of the camera’s presence due to the hand of the person filming causing the frame to shake.

Little did they know they were knocking a new type of collective auteur generated by our society’s culture and shaped by the flaws of a handheld camcorder. Each video held an awkward intimacy that could not be captured through professional filming. Moreover, the rawness and unplanned nature of the filming made the videos feel authentic in their documentation of events. Professional filming no longer held the same authenticity as these recreational videos. And thus, began a new style of directing to construct an ‘authentic’ reality through the lens of a shaky camera.

In 1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez effectively exploited, fetishized and commodified reality through the marketing and release of their film The Blair Witch Project. It broke so many conventions in filmmaking as the film mimicked a group of students documenting their findings on the Blair Witch. The film was captured on an Hi8 camera held by the actors themselves and was edited to look like the audience was watching evidence of the Hi8 transfer found by the police. It consisted of trembling shots which pulled the audience through the story by limiting their perspective with extreme close-ups and grainy, dark shots of the woods.

Yet, it was their marketing strategy which brought the success of this film. The producers divulged themselves in falsely creating the appearance of a true documentary by using the newly formed online chatrooms to spread rumours of missing students and myths of the Blair Witch. On IMDb, the actors even had the dates they died written on them to leave the public wondering whether the film was genuine. By obscuring the truth from reality, the film made a killing in the box office (248.60 million USD) and altered the conventions of mimicking reality to sell a film.

The distance between conventional filmmaking formed by semiotic codes, expensive cameras and perfect shot-takes was broken by filmmakers trying to replicate amateur, handheld camera recording. Throughout the next twenty years, there became a novelty to creating horror and sci-fi films through a character’s documentation of the events. The camera became part of the film and the audience would not forget its presence.

By having a person behind the camera, directors could use it to obscure what is happening on screen and limit the amount of information given to the viewer. In 2008, Cloverfield a film about a monster attacking New York City, was released. The marketing campaign followed in the same pursuit as Blair Witch by using the internet to release snippets of information on the film. However, Cloverfield did not pretend to be real documented footage. It gleamed of a Hollywood marketing team and captured the nation’s attention by withholding key information on the film – including its’ name.

What we do know is that the film was recorded through a handheld camcorder and it is set in New York (drawing similarities to 9/11). The shaky-cam filming created the characters to feel authentic as they reacted to the events. The long takes and sharp cuts mixed with the shaking, raw footage of characters running away from the threat is a constant reminder of the camera’s presence and limited perspective given to the audience. Mix this with the character’s ignorance on the monstrosity unfolding in front of them, it replicated the grainy videos seen online of the twin towers covered in smoke when 9/11 struck. The film’s footage mimicked exactly how the digital era would have witnessed a monster’s attack.

Ironically, whilst promoting the film Paramount capitalised on fan’s amateur filming by asking them to film their own version of events. The mimicry of shaky-cam filming had turned full circle as fans attempted to show how “authentic” filming should be done.  And this convention of filming has continued: it is seen in films like District 9 (a film which documents aliens held in an immigration camp), Chronicle (teen boys filming their newfound superpowers) and continues with the development of the mobile phone’s camera.

Essentially, the origin of the shaky-cam proves that all types of recording can be used professionally if marketed well. The conventions of filmmaking are constantly changing, and it is not limited to big budget production companies to change it. As consumer camera’s change from the classic Hi8 so does the filming industry. Watch how social media has already changed the conventions of reality in films or television shows.

Do you want to relive your own shaky-cam work?

At Digital Converters, we transfer all 8mm tapes (Hi8, Video 8 and Digital 8) to digital formats. You can choose to have your tapes converted to DVD, USB, or a cloud download to watch on your television, phone, or computer. Our technicians can repair your tapes and ensure that you receive the best quality version of your videos.

Follow this link to get started!