Instamatic DV-style

Reflective Observer
7 min readAug 16, 2022

This is the JVC GR-DVL9000 camcorder. It records standard definition video on MiniDV cassettes. Its CCD sensor has global shutter, just like on a film camera, and it can capture a whole frame at once, just like a film camera. There is no combing and no interline twitter, characteristic to interlaced video. There is no jitter, characteristic to analog video. There is no skew, jello or flash-banding that plagues modern CMOS-based video cameras.

This camcorder gets as close to a film camera as possible. Look at them, they are like brothers, although born thirty years apart.

JVC GR-DVL9000 (left), Kodak Instamatic M20 (right)

The Instamatic Movie Camera, first released in 1965, was the first truly accessible movie camera with an easy to load Super 8 film cartridge.

In mid-1980s Kodak turned away from Super 8, switching to 8-mm video format. Super 8 went into oblivion for thirty years until Jeff Clarke, Kodak CEO, announced “the first consumer product from Kodak in many years” at Consumer Electronic Show in 2016:

We are announcing … the first camera for motion picture since 1982. And it is a new Super 8 camera. It will be available later this year. It is a symbol of what Kodak cares about in out commitment to film. — Jeff Clarke, Kodak CEO

It is 2022, the new Super 8 Kodak camera has never materialized, I guess this is a symbol of Kodak’s commitment to film. But you can substitute the JVC camcorder for the Kodak’s hybrid film/digital camera:

  • It has 10x F1.2 lens. A complete cinematographer’s tool at your hands.
  • The MiniDV cassette that it uses, contains 70 meters of magnetic tape.
  • It has 4’’ LCD viewfinder, composing shots is easier than ever.
  • It can do 16:9 (widescreen) shooting.
  • It has on-board sound recorder.
  • It offers two frame rates: 30 fps interlaced and 30 fps progressive.
  • And of course, digital connectivity combined with digital capture helps you create like never before.
Kodak 2016 promo adapted to the JVC MiniDV camcorder

Now this looks like a true progeny of the original Instamatic. Similar styling, similar size, similar features, and the same purpose. The price is not exactly similar, the JVC GR-DVL9000 was sold for $1300 in 1999. But I got it used for the price of the Instamatic, and the best of all, it works!

The unassuming brick-like design hides a formidable movie machine with a fast lens, 1/3-inch CCD sensor and progressive-scan recording capability.

Progressive-scan recording was a fairly new and advanced feature in the 1990s, so JVC had to clarify how it worked in the operating manual. The instructions explain that video shot in progressive mode looks less natural, and more jerky than regular interlaced video. Now we would say, it looks more film-like.

Portion of the JVC GR-DVL9000 user manual

By the way, the Kodak video announcement exhibits combing, how come? This is because Kodak shot its piece with an interlaced video camera and did not care or did not know how to deinterlace. You won’t see anything like this from the JVC if you use progressive mode.

Jeff Clarke presenting new Super 8 camera at CES (2016)

If 30 fps is not jerky enough, you can throw away every other frame in an editing app, reducing frame rate to 15 fps, very close to native Super 8 frame rate of 18 fps, and even closer to 16 fps rate of standard 8-mm film cameras. If you want the footage to look even more like an amateur film, just turn off image stabilization and let your inner Paul Greengrass shine through.

A frame grab from the JVC GR-DVL9000 footage

A MiniDV cassette holds 1 hour of video, this is like 20 rolls of film. You can shoot long segments and then bear the brunt of sorting out hours of footage, or you can shoot in Straight 8 fashion, editing in camera, which means no editing at all: you make only the shots you need in the order you want them, and after you finished shooting you are done. And unlike file-based digital camcorders, you can get your video as one continuous reel… I mean, as a single file. Some people just hate handling individual files that modern camcorders create for each shot.

A frame grab from the JVC GR-DVL9000 footage

Over the last two years MiniDV cassettes became hard to come by because, apparently, their production has stopped. In the late 2020 I saw the remaining stock being sold online for about $3 per cassette. Today you would be lucky to find them for $5 apiece on eBay. But this is still dirt cheap compared to Super 8 film: a roll of reversible Ektachrome with processing will cost you about $100.

Pro8 Super 8 package that includes film, processing and scanning

The camcorder offers stereo audio with higher than CD quality, and if you drop sampling rate from 48 KHz to 32 KHz, you can have four audio channels instead of two. This is, actually, standard for DV.

Focusing — it can be automatic or manual, controlled with a tiny wheel.

Exposure is somewhat tricky. The camcorder does not allow setting up aperture and shutter speed manually, and has no built-in ND filter. Still, exposure can be adjusted it several ways.

First, there is automatic gain control, which boosts the video signal in low light situations. This helps keeping the picture bright, but introduces noise. Auto Gain can be turned off.

Next is exposure compensation. The exposure will still be adjusted automatically, but you can instruct the camcorder to consistently expose a little darker or a little brighter.

Another option is exposure lock, which on this camcorder is called “Iris lock”. You press and hold the control wheel while in the manual exposure mode until “L” is shown. In this mode the camcorder will not adjust exposure no matter whether you point it to a brighter or darker scene.

Shutter speed can be adjusted from Program Auto Exposure menu. You can select SLOW SHUTTER, which means shutter speed of 1/30 of a second, also 1/60, 1/100, 1/250 and 1/500. Together with the Iris Lock, you can achieve constant exposure at a chosen shutter speed.

Shutter speed selections on the JVC GR-DVL9000

Besides 4:3 mode, the camcorder can shoot in 16:9 widescreen mode, although it is fake — it is just a regular 4:3 frame matted on top and bottom. In the squeeze mode the active area takes the whole frame, but the angle of view is not increased.

Now, look at this screen! At 4 inches, it is larger than on the professional DVX-100. It must have been expensive to make in 1999. The resolution is not very high, only 112 thousand pixels, it is not very bright even at the highest brightness, and there are no focusing aids.

JVC GR-DVL9000 features 4-inch flip-out LCD screen

The camcorder has a socket for external microphone, but the sound level cannot be adjusted manually. It is possible to control the audio through the headphone output. There is no shoe on the top, but there is a tripod socket on the bottom. The battery is inserted on the bottom as well. I got a replacement Kastar battery together with a charger. The locking cutout is on the wrong side, so I had to cut one myself, and I cut it through, but it works.

The camcorder has a standard 4-pin DV connector, and this is how you are supposed to capture video off it. In case you do not have a FireWire port in your computer, there are composite and S-Video outputs as well. I must say, I was not able to make my Windows 7 machine recognize this camcorder, so I had to use another DV camcorder to capture the video.

DV out a.k.a. Firewire, A/V out, S-Video out

All in all, this is a very nice videomaking machine that can hold its own even today, and it was nothing less than a revelation in the late 1990s. Digital camcorders like this revolutionized low budget videomaking, allowing amateurs and independent filmmakers produce content not only for family and travel usage, but also for broadcast TV and even for theatrical releases.

The corresponding video review contains sample footage shot in different modes.

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