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Ever sat through a movie and thought I could do that? So what’s stopping you? Cine cameras have been around since forever – well, 1932 anyway, when the first 8 and 16mm movie cameras appeared. Camcorders are nothing new either but until now movie making involved a lot of faffing around with projectors, film or tape and editing equipment. The latest twist, that might tempt you to have a go, is a new generation of high performance digital camcorders from Hitachi that record direct to a mini 8cm DVD disc (lasting around 30 minutes) that you can – in theory -- pop straight into your home DVD player.


Recordable DVD decks first appeared a couple of years ago, starting a format battle that has yet to be resolved, meanwhile Hitachi launched a DVD camcorder last year but discs could only be played back on a PCs. So what’s new? The latest DVD camcorders use the DVD-R format and that should be compatible with the majority of home decks. As an added bonus there’s less to wear out on a DVD cam, editing is a whole lot quicker and easier – especially if you’ve got a PC – and discs last upwards of 30 years but we’ll have to take that one on trust…




Hitachi has developed three machines designed with a broad appeal, from complete novices to serious and semi-pro users. The cheapest model in the range is the DZ-MV200, it’s an easy to use point-and-shoot model and the price – around £800 -- and performance compares well with other types of digital camcorder. The model we’ve been looking at is the mid-range DZ-MV230 costing around £1000, which adds a 1-megapixel image sensor (for better quality still pictures) and variable bit-rate recording for improved picture quality. At the top of the range is the DZ-MV270 for £1300. The most important extra is a DVD ‘burner’ facility, to make discs from an external source, such as another camcorder, VCR or PC, the MV270 also has a larger colour monitor screen, colour viewfinder and improved PC connectivity.


The MV230, like all pretty well all camcorders these days is virtually idiot-proof, and everything you need to get started is included in the box. Just charge the battery, load a disc, switch it on and it’s good to go.  Frame the shot in the black and white viewfinder or fold-out LCD colour screen, press the go button and you’re in the movie business!


Complicated or fiddly things like setting focus, exposure and colour balance are taken care of by electronic minions, all you’ve got to do is work the zoom lever (12x optical, up to 240x electronic) and decide when to start and stop recording, or flip the mode switch to ‘photo’ and use it like a still camera. It’s got an image stabiliser, to iron out camera shake and some simple manual controls, if you want to get creative.


Discs last 30 minutes in ‘Fine’ recording mode or up to an hour in ‘Std’ mode; on models with variable bit rate there’s an ‘Xtra’ mode; discs last between 18 and 60 minutes as the camcorder changes the data rate automatically according to the amount of detail and movement in the picture.


So far it’s all fairly familiar territory and as far as basic operation is concerned a DVD camcorder is little different to any other type, so you should get a watchable recording in all but the most adverse lighting conditions. You can replay recordings on the spot, through the viewfinder or on the 2.5-inch viewing screen – with sound, it has a tiny built-in speaker -- or you can hook it up to your TV and watch it on that using the supplied AV lead. Incidentally, if you’ve got a widescreen TV you can opt to shoot your movies in 16:9 format.


However, DVD recording has extra benefits, you can watch what you’ve recorded more or less instantly, there’s no delay whilst the tape rewinds, and you can skip to any part of the recording in less than a second. Another bonus of disc recording is that you can’t accidentally record over earlier recordings, and like tape, you can re-use discs almost indefinitely. Well, that’s not strictly true, there are actually two types of disc and this is where it starts to get a bit complicated. Type one is called DVD-RAM, these you can re-use but recordings can only played through the camcorder or on a PC with a DVD-RAM drive. Type two is DVD-R, these can be read in most DVD players but only after the disc has been ‘finalised’, after which no more recordings can be added, moreover discs are single-use only, so they cannot be erased and recycled. Both types of discs are held in plastic protective ‘caddies’ but they’re easily removed and virtually all DVD players and drives have an 8cm disc recess moulded into the loading tray.


It sounds simple enough, so what’s the catch? There isn’t one, if you’ve used a camcorder all of the controls will be immediately familiar. Even if you never picked one up before you can learn how to use it in about two minutes. However it’s worth knowing that what you end up with is determined to a large extent by the type of disc you use. If you record on a DVD-R then you get a simple sequence of shots that the camera and DVD player (once the disc has been finalised) treat as ‘chapters’ so you can play the recording all the way through, or skip to a particular scene. DVD-RAM discs on the other hand are much more flexible. You can use the camcorder’s built-in editing facilities – accessed via a ‘Navigation screen (a visual menu of thumbnail images from the start of each scene) to re-order, split or change the length of scenes and add wipes and fades so you can end up with a very polished looking production, that you can then copy to tape on a VCR.


It gets even better if you have a computer, with the optional PC transfer kit and software (provided as standard with the MV270) movies and stills can be downloaded to the hard drive using a standard USB interface. Once there they can be edited using the supplied software and copied to tape (or re-re-recorded back to disc on the MV270). Picture quality on both types of disc is excellent in Fine mode, close to broadcast quality in fact and comparable with other digital machines on the market.


The only thing to watch out for is disc compatibility. Not all homedeck DVD players can handle DVD-R recordings. We routinely test all new models and upwards of 25% of machines won’t recognise DVD-Rs and the proportion is even higher on older decks. It’s a good idea to check before you buy; ask the dealer for a demo or trial disc that you can try in your player at home, before you part with the plastic.


The MV230 may not be the smallest, lightest or cheapest ‘digital’ machine on the market but DVD recording is a welcome alternative to tape and it does have a number of genuine benefits, not least ease of use and the facility to play back on your home DVD player and if you’ve got a reasonably up to date PC you can put together some really slick looking productions.




Think of the MV230 as a DVD player in reverse. It takes the video image coming from the camera, converts it into digital data, which is then ‘compressed’ by removing or ignoring redundant information, (static backgrounds, for example, which change little from one frame to the next). The data is then used to control the output of a laser, focused onto the surface of the disc. The laser beam causes a change in the transparency of a chemical film covering the disc’s shiny reflective layer. This produces the characteristic spiral of microscopic reflective ‘pits’ that a normal DVD player can read.


The camera compresses the data using the same MPEG2 (Motion Picture Experts Group) system used to encode regular pre-recorded DVDs. Incidentally, this is also the reason why it possible to ‘download’ movies shot on the camcorder into a PC for editing, using an ordinary USB connection. Because the data is highly compressed the files are relatively small and easy to handle, so there’s no need for a fancy PC or high-speed FireWire port, which you will need if you want to edit footage shot on a ‘DV’ or Digital 8 camcorders.





1 (pix 1, 2 & 3)

Getting in close to the action, as well as helping you to frame the shot the powerful 240x zoom – used judiciously – can add a touch of drama to your production. Slowly pulling back from a distant object is also a great way of establishing location.


2 (pic 4)

The camera’s auto exposure systems are fairly basic and this is the kind of shot – with a strongly lit centre ground -- where you might want to take control, and adjust the exposure manually, though the dark and moody effect can be also be quite evocative.


3 (pic 5)

Another difficult shot involving poor light from an artificial source – in this case a fluorescent tube – yet the camera’s auto white balance system manages to compensate and the colours still manage to look reasonably natural


4 (pic 6)

Colour accuracy in natural daylight is excellent, those Y-fronts and that T-shirt really are deep purple and blue but it’s equally good at capturing subtle shades, like flesh tones and natural colours, like the grassy background


5 (pic 7)

Indoor shots are always difficult but again the MV230 does a good job in awkward conditions and compares well with other mid-range digital camcorders





The first ‘domestic’ camcorder was the Sony Betamovie, launched in 1983, a great lump of a thing that used Betamax tapes. It had no replay facility and cost £1200 (around £2500 at today’s prices).


The first sensible camcorder that could play back as well as record was the JVC GRC-1 in 1984. It used compact VHS-C tapes and would have set you back around £1000 when it first appeared.


Camcorders finally started to get interesting (small, cute and relatively affordable) in 1989 with the launch of the Sony TR55.


Picture quality took a big leap forward after 1990 with the introduction of the Hi8 and Super VHS-C ‘high-band’ formats with classic machines like the Canon A1 and JVC GR-S70.


The next big thing was digital camcorders delivering near broadcast quality. Hefty handheld models from Sony and Panasonic appeared in late 1995 but it was the ultra-chic and highly covetable pocket-sized Sony DCR-PC7 from 1996 that really got things moving.




Ó R. Maybury 2002, 2105



Pix coming:


Sony Betamovie


Sony TR55

Canon A1




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