The Hi8 footage Ron gathered on his video shoot looked great when
he viewed it in New York, but was ruined when he played it back
at home in San Francisco. Tom’s once-in-a-lifetime Hi8 120s from
Africa jammed and tore in the edit deck, which destroyed 50% of
the footage. Kelly’s video was fine when she logged it, but full
of dropouts when she tried to edit. What went wrong?
"Hi8 is a consumer format," says independent film and
video producer Paul Lundahl, owner of Practical Productions in
San Francisco and self-described Hi8 fanatic evangelist. "There’s
a reason why Hi8 camcorders cost $2,000 and professional equipment
costs $30,000-$40,000. You have to find workarounds for the limitations."
For years, Lundahl has been finding those workarounds. His Hi8
documentary "Anatomy of a Spring Roll" was broadcast
nationally on PBS–no small achievement since PBS has a technical-specifications
manual the size of the Columbus, Ohio phone book.
"[With Hi8,] we’re dealing with technical tolerances so
precise, it borders on the realm of spiritual," Lundahl says.
As a teacher at a Bay Area video organization, he offers spiritual
guidance for those seeking the elusive "broadcast quality"
in the form of ten rules for the preparation, use and storage
of Hi8 tape and equipment.
- Avoid 120-minute Tape
Many Hi8 users solve their problems of excessive dropouts and
tapes jamming in professional machines by following this advice
alone. Most 120s are nine microns thick, while many 90 minute
tapes are 12 microns thick. Some professional machines don’t compensate
well for the thinner tape and different-sized reels, and they
may jam or cause tearing with thinner tape stock.
Lundahl also advises against using metal evaporated (ME) tape
while editing. While it does provide improved image quality, it
is more fragile, and like 120s, more prone to dropouts and problems
- Pack your Tape Before Shooting
Hi8 tape has a coating of metal-oxide particles which may become
brittle and loose during storage. "Packing" the tape
(fast forwarding to the end and then rewinding) causes loose particles
to fall off. Without packing, it’s likely that you’ll record images
over loose plates of oxide. During playback, the loose plates
may fall off, leaving painful-looking dropouts. With a packed
tape, you’re still recording images over the area of missing oxide,
but the dropout is minor and a time-base corrector (TBC) will
usually compensate for it.
- Test Equipment and Tape Stock
Before you shoot, record five minutes of black and play it back,
preferably in another machine. This will assure that the head
alignment on your camera is correct and that you are not experiencing
When viewing the five minutes of black, you should also be watching
for dropouts, which will appear as breaks in the flow of black.
The first two minutes of a tape are the weakest. While some dropouts
are inevitable, you may wish to reconsider using a tape or batch
of tapes if you are experiencing more than two dropouts per minute
Shoot some establishing shots when you first get out in
the field, and then use the footage to check dropouts, white balance,
and to monitor audio.
Finally, if you have access to such equipment, have your video
signal tested on a waveform monitor and vectorscope. The waveform
monitor, which provides a graphic depiction of the video signal,
helps you find the optimal contrast range. The vectorscope is
a test instrument for adjusting color. Contact a production facility
or the place from which you purchased your gear to learn who can
perform these tests.
Lundahl likes to have 10 tapes packed, tested, striped with color
bars, and ready to go. "It doesn’t take much time and it’s
worthwhile, especially in situations you’ll never be able to shoot
again–which is the case nearly every time you shoot."
- Always Transport Tapes in Your Carry-on Luggage
When you check a bag at the airport, it goes into the aircraft’s
cargo hold, where temperatures can plummet below zero during flight.
If you put your videotapes into such a bag, you’re potentially
subjecting them to extreme changes in temperature. During such
temperature changes, the oxide and tape backing contract and expand,
but by different amounts. This difference in contraction and expansion
is significant enough to actually flake off whole sheets of oxide.
When Lundahl and his associates returned from Vietnam with the
footage for "Anatomy of a Spring Roll," they carried
50 tapes in their carry-on bags and on their bodies.
"That’s another advantage to Hi8," he says. "All
of your equipment can be packed in a small, very portable package."
- Put Black or Color Bars on the First Two Minutes of Tape
If you plan to broadcast your tape or simply are concerned about
color accuracy during the transfer, stripe the first two minutes
with color bars before going out into the field, where time or
equipment may not be available.
The first and last two minutes are where most tape stretching,
and therefore most dropouts occur. Recording black or bars on
the first two minutes and watching the tape-remaining indicator
will prevent you from recording anything of vital importance in
these vulnerable sections.
- Check Playback on Other Machines
The tracking signal on Hi8 tape occupies the same tape area as
the video signal, and the tracking mechanism is small and precise.
For these two reasons, the tracking sometimes slips.
The videographer may be unaware of the problem, as the footage
will play back properly on the camera that recorded it. But, when
played on any other machine, the dubbed or edited video signal
might appear shredded, distorted, or accompanied by warped-sounding
audio. If this is the case with your camcorder, then you’ll either
have to use the camcorder as your source deck, or copy the footage
to another format for editing.
- Use Desiccants
When transporting your gear from an air-conditioned hotel room
to a hot, tropical environment, or from a warm house to the ski
slope, pack your camera in a sealed plastic bag with desiccant.
Let it change temperature gradually before removing it to shoot.
Generally the wait is no longer than 30 minutes.
"I know filmmakers who abandoned video because of dew problems,"
Lundahl says. "It’s the condensation-on-a-glass-of-iced-tea
factor. Desiccant is cheap and a great security blanket."
- Use Work Dubs
You should treat your raw footage like precious stock. To maintain
the technical integrity and image quality of your original tape,
your goal should be to play it as few times as possible. The first
pass after shooting should be to create a work dub. Your work
dub can handle the abuse as you log and make edit decisions, leaving
your original pure for the edit master.
If you’re editing at a post-production facility, you can save
time and money by transferring to the editing format (bumping)
only those shots that you’re going to use to make the edit master.
Lundahl shoots on Hi8, post-stripes the footage with time code,
and then makes a window dub of all the original footage with time
code burned in.
After creating an edit-decision list, he bumps up the selected
shots to the editing format (Betacam) through a transcoding TBC.
This process costs $110 an hour and up at most reputable facilities.
If your shooting ratio is a carefully planned 10:1–10 hours of
footage for a one-hour finished piece–you can save a significant
amount of money.
- Use the Y/C Connectors and a TBC
Hi8 machines have Y/C connectors for transferring the brightness
and color portions of the video signal separately from one machine
to another. You should use these connectors instead of the standard
composite connectors. If you don’t, you lose the improved quality
of Y/C that keeps color information separate from black and white.
"You’re taking the beautiful, clean, separated signal, squashing
it all together, and expanding it again," says Lundahl.
When editing, you should also run the signal through a TBC–especially
if you’re bumping up to a better editing format. "If you
bump all of your source material through a transcoding TBC and
edit in a true component format, you don’t appear to go down a
generation. Your edit master and finished dubs are almost identical
to the original footage. Color or luminance problems also will
So what if you don’t plan on using a post-production facility?
A good TBC will still help, as it will get rid of most of the
dreaded dropouts that Hi8 users often find themselves stuck with.
- Store Your Tapes Safely
In the 60s, video artists knew that storing big reels of 1"
tape flat on a shelf led, in time, to creases on the edges. While
the problem is less severe with smaller, lighter 8mm tape, the
rule still applies: store upright in a vertical position, fully
rewound, with the full reel on the bottom.
While few videographers would store tapes in glaring sunlight,
some do not take into consideration the movement of the sun during
the day and the changing position of the sun throughout the year.
"It happens all the time," Lundahl says. "You
put your tape on a table one beautiful morning and over the course
of the day, the sun goes by burning holes in your tape. It can
get up to 110 degrees inside that little case."
He also recommends repacking videos every six months to maintain
Rules to Live By
Following the ten rules of Hi8 guarantees that high-quality productions
are the norm instead of the occasional miracle.
"The thing that most excites me about Hi8, besides its image
quality, is the fact that the low price changes the economic dynamics
of a project. If you’re shooting in Betacam or a traditional broadcast
format, you need a serious amount of money up front. With Hi8,
that curve is changed."
"Most great ideas never meet their audience," Lundahl
says. "If you have a good idea, that idea deserves the widest
distribution possible. Utilize the capabilities of Hi8 to work
out your ideas and you can achieve a high-quality final piece."