Shooting movies at 24p HD in the 1970s
In 2002 George Lucas made history, shooting the first major Hollywood blockbuster on video. It is less known that thirty years earlier, the Hollywood was already making feature movies using 24p HD.
In 1971, Image Transform, Inc was formed in the North Hollywood, California to “electronically produce motion picture film from video tape recordings”.
According to John Lowry, then-president of Image Transform, the company had been “successfully converting videotapes to professional quality motion picture film on a day-to-day basis in Super 8mm, 16mm and 35mm.”
Lowry claimed that for the first time, electronically originated film prints were directly comparable to prints from original motion picture film, and that film cameramen and assistants could make the switch to electronic equipment with no problem, because creative elements involved were identical in the two media.
In 1972, Image Transform applied for “Image 655” trademark, which would identify a particular way of “recording motion picture film from videotape”.
“655” reflected the number of lines that Image Transform was using for its videos. It came from an astute assessment of existing video production and transmission capabilities.
Image Transform figured that by reducing image rate of conventional NTSC television from 30 interlaced frames per second, each having 525 lines, to 24 frames per second they could fit as many as 655 lines into each frame using the same bandwidth. Incidentally, 625-line video at 25 interlaced frames per second used the same bandwidth, which afforded program exchange between different television systems and countries. Even if 45 or so lines were used for signaling, it still was a format having 27% more lines than DVD movie and only 15% fewer lines than 720p HD.
Image Transform intended this format for shooting and editing movies, as well as an electronic intermediate that could accommodate film-to-tape and tape-to-film transfers. Movies in this format could be transmitted over existing satellite links.
The 1976 movie “Norman… Is that you?” may be notable to some for exploring the topic of homosexuality. It was far more radical on the technical side, combining outdoor scenes shot on 35-mm film with indoor scenes shot on video using Image 655 system.
British magazine New Scientist noted that the results, “although still below the quality of original film material”, were sufficiently impressive for the audience. This praise should be taken with a grain of salt, because British viewers were used to television shows produced in a similar manner, interiors shot on video, outdoors scenes shot on film, although it would be a cheaper 16-mm film.
In the end of the 1970s Image Transform was acquired by Compact Video, another California-based film-processing company. Compact Video made another push for the Image 655 system, re-christened ImageVision, and offered post-production services in New York.
ImageVision was used to shoot “Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl”. The project began to take shape when the Pythons booked a concert date for late summer 1980. They wanted some sort of record of the event, but there was no firm commitment to produce a theatrical-release motion picture, so videotape was settled on for reasons of economy. At the same time, no one wanted to eliminate any options, either. Thus, ImageVision came as a natural choice to shoot the concert.
The camera of choice was Bosch Fernseh KCK-40, which had an additional advantage over other high resolution cameras it that it was a four-tube camera with a separate tube for the luminance signal.
Each of the five video cameras was recording to its own Ampex AVR-2 videotape recorder, modified for double the normal bandwidth to increase the horizontal resolution.
Compact Video claimed that its process did not require special editing machines, and that its engineers needed about an hour to convert standard NTSC on-line two-inch editing setup to ImageVision format, and another hour to return it to NTSC configuration.
Over time, ImageVision used 2-inch AVR-1 and AVR-2 quad machines as well as 1-inch Type B Bosch Fernseh machine, the only 1-inch VTR format that could be easily modified for increased tape speed.
In the early 1980s the Japanese 1125-line HDTV format became everybody’s darling. It provided almost twice the vertical resolution compared to ImageVision, rivaling 35-mm film, albeit with decidedly non-cinematic interlaced scanning.
In 1982 Sony presented its HDTV system to European audience. The analog HD signal required bandwidth of more than 30 MHz. The VTR recorded video in component form, the same approach Sony used for Betacam, introduced the same year. To record all this information on tape, Sony modified 1-inch Type-C VTR, doubling tape speed, adding more heads on the video drum, and increasing the drum rotation speed.
In its early form, the Japanese HD format could not be broadcast over the air and was too demanding for existing satellite links. ImageVision, on another hand, used existing equipment that produced content that could be sent to another part of the planet over satellite.
In 1993 Compact Video was sold to a New York investment firm. John Lowry left, and five years later founded Lowry Digital Images, a movie restoration company in Burbank. In a way, he returned to his roots: in 1971, while being president of Image Transform, he developed a system used by NASA for cleaning up the live images being transmitted from the moon during the Apollo missions.
It took another decade for the idea of shooting a movie on a video camera at 24 frames per second to materialize in Sony Cinealta.