A Short-Short Film: “The Magic Beta Case”

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The production of this short-short film was purely spontaneous: I wanted some extra tie-in between my reviews of the 2013 doc Rewind This!  about VHS collecting and the history of home video, and my watching a Betamax tape of the 1987 film No Man’s Land – not the critically acclaimed 2001 Bosnian war film, but the 1987 Charlie Sheen-D.B. Sweeney suspense flick about Porsche stealers.

The idea also stemmed from me preferring to make a demo video done in the antiquated style of a lo-fi 1980s promo video than a few stills to demonstrate how a standard VHS tape case could be adapted for Betamax tapes.

The final product – which you should’ve seen before reading this blog – is a tongue-in-cheek poke at the banality of most industrial videos of that time, and the general need to make a product seem exciting even though The Magic Beta Case is really about a piece of cardboard.

I’d shot footage a few days earlier but hated it, so I tried a different lighting & display scheme, shooting footage with Panasonic’s WV-6000 S1 – a 1985 industrial camera with 3 Newvicon video tubes.

Sticking to the Rewind This! theme of consumer grade videotape and its cultural relevance in an era where physical media is supposedly going the way of the Dodo, I chose to record the footage straight to VHS, after which it was dumped to the hard drive after a pass-thru Sony’s GV-D1000.

Besides dissolves, no special effects or colour correction was done in Adobe Premiere because I thought it would be interesting to show what a final edit sourced from first generation VHS SP (standard play) masters would look like. The wisest industrial filmmakers in the early 80s used at least higher-res 3/4″ U-matic in those pre-S-VHS times, but there were several who used VHS because it was cheaper, and the recorders were less monstrous than the U-matic machines.

What I find interesting is the realm of compatibility among the cameras and recorders: a pro-line / prosumer / industrial camera would work fine with either format, so manufacturers like Sony and Panasonic and JVC certainly knew by making their cameras compatible with other manufacturer’s recorders, it enabled a broader customer base. Many cameras not only had ‘compatibility switches’ that enabled the cameras of one manufacturer to work with the recorder of another, in terms of being to make use of the start / stop / pause features at the very least, but cable adapters (the Sony 10-pin versus their 14pin), or multiple plugs on the camera for different recorder and power connections.

Panasonic’s S1 is a really nice camera – the 10.5 – 126mm TV zoom lens is a beauty and captures nice details – but being a Newvicon camera, you’ll notice some slight green issues when there’s a clean white object in my short-short (like the cardboard insert). I assume when new, and when the tubes were properly aligned, green issues were less prominent, but maybe the Newvicon’s flaws were accepted because these tubes were apparently capable of capturing more detail in low light situations than Saticon tube cameras.

In fact, if you look at the James Ferman interview segments in David Gregory’s excellent doc on Britain’s Video Nasties era, Ban the Sadist Videos! (reissued by Severin Films), you’ll see a green hue running down the side of his face. My bet’s that’s a Newvicon tube camera (and maybe one with a misaligned tube).

Moving to further making-of stuff.

The credits that bookend the film were done in-camera, which is a fancy way of saying they come from the camera’s own built-in character generator which superimposes text over whatever background the lens is trained.

The Canon VC-50 Pro I used for BSV 1172 has a pop-out QWERTY keyboard and can hold up to 8 or 9 pages of text, whereas the S1 – a bigger and more pricey pro machine – allows for two lines of text running no more than 10 characters, in one side, and in one blocky font. Often the consumer cameras had better character generators (offering different colours and sizes), as did separate add-on generators; even the pro-line Panasonic’s WV-3240 has a bit more variety – but just a bit.

I won’t get into the tedious minutia, but the way you use these primordial CG features is to count the letters of your intended words, and if they’ll fit, position them accordingly. To select the letters, you use buttons on the camera that control the cable-connected VCR. The S1’s buttons allow you to advance / recede, move forward, save, and delete text in that one allowed page. (In the Sylvania camera I used for the soon-to-be-completed short Liquid Puppetry, you can at least move the cursor backwards.) You’ll also notice that when the text pops up, the background grows a little dim, which is Panasonic’s forced aesthetic.

My intentions to record the narration straight to VHS were foiled because the Panasonic VCR had a compressor which cranked up the background noise so severely when there was no voice. Manual volume level knobs only seemed to appear on higher-end recorders, like Panasonic’s S-VHS unit. After wasting more than an hour, I opted to recorded the mono narration with a Zoom, editing the takes in Sound Forge before matching sections to specific visuals.

Hopefully the cheesy period stock music – a sort of / maybe / half-assed soundalike version of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” – gives the narration track a little ‘grit.’

I’ve uploaded The Magic Beta Case to the usual sites where you can watch it in 720p:

 

On Vimeo:

The Magic Beta Case (2014) from Mark R. Hasan on Vimeo.

 

And on YouTube:

 

Lastly, here are some behind-the-scenes stills which show the highly sophisticated setup used to film this technologically advanced short film.

Ahem:

 

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Behold the Panasonic WV-6000 S1. Its highly angular design and Army green colour makes it look like a camera the crew of the Nostromo would’ve used in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).
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The generous sized viewfinder of the Panasonic WV-6000 S1.
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Front view of the Panasonic WV-6000 S1.
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Video Out, Genlock Out, 14-pin out and power switch with green / red blinky-blinky light at the rear of the Panasonic WV-6000 S1.
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The Panasonic AG-2400 pro-line VCR… with a stupid audio compressor that cannot be bypassed.
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The Panasonic WV-6000 S1’s impressive zoom lens trained on Charlie Sheen’s narrow noggin’.
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The small LCD colour monitor used to make sure the colours captured by the Panasonic WV-6000 S1 look decent.

 

Cheers,

 

 

 

Mark R. Hasan, Editor
Big Head Amusements

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