I imagine most people who owned tape-based camcorders during their heyday filmed things like family get-togethers, live music, home movies, class projects, and documentaries.
I used mine to record demos, and almost nothing else.
Until I got my MacBook in late 2013 and thought to give GarageBand a try, I didn’t record “normal” demos of anything. I either recorded for keeps or I didn’t record at all. The little Sony Handycam I had — and later, the two Flip Mino cameras that would usurp it — became a useful way to get down ideas when they were fresh so I wouldn’t forget them.
We got this camera in 2003. It felt like it was time. I was frustrated that there was a good amount of video different people had shot of me over the years, sometimes playing music, sometimes acting in plays, sometimes just being a goofball, and it was almost all inaccessible to me.
A shopping list, on the off chance some filmmaker discovers my music after I die and wants to make a documentary about me in which people who never knew me pretend they understand me since I’m no longer around to speak for myself or shut them down:
- A few grade school plays were filmed, and I’m pretty sure the tapes still exist
- My not-aunt’s wedding tape features me singing a half-improvised a cappella song about love in 1997
- Andrew Deane shot what I guess you could call “test footage” of me walking around in 1999 for a music video he never ended up making for the REM song “Strange Currencies”, documenting some of the best hair days of my life when I was just starting to grow it out
- Unused B-roll from the 1999 student documentary Fish out of Water, including some silliness with me doing my best impression of a canine rapper while Libby Salonen looks on
- Papa Ghostface playing “Pacing the Cage” and “The Ballad of Bob and Marie” at the Air Jam in March of 2000
- Gord and I playing “Bob and Marie” in the hall during lunch recess a few months before the Air Jam
- A few bits of random footage Evan Hansen and Tyson Taylor shot of me at Walkerville in 2001 (I popped up in one video where Tyson was filming a fight as it broke out, playing the role of “sleep-deprived non-observer”, wearing a short-sleeved black shirt I always liked)
- Papa Ghostface playing “Be Sorry” as a full band at the Air Jam in the summer of 2001 (I think Amy Mifsud filmed this…I saw the tape once when she let Tyson borrow it)
- A lot of footage Tyson shot of GWD recording and hanging out in 2001 and 2002, which may or may not still exist
- One or two piano recitals I was told were filmed in the mid/late 1990s
I have the video of my first birthday party (at least I think I still do), I recorded the appearance my grade twelve drama class made on The New WI on my VCR, and I’ve got the tape of the two live GWD songs from 2002 that were posted here long ago. That’s about it for things that were filmed before 2003. Whatever else survives, I don’t have it.
We probably should have picked up a video camera a little sooner than we did. If I had access to one even a year or two earlier, I would have been the one to film all that teenage band footage myself, and I’d be able to incorporate the best bits here, instead of wondering if I’ll ever get to see those tapes again (I’m pretty sure I won’t, because there’s a good chance they’ve all been lost or recorded over). I think I remember any kind of decent video camera being prohibitively expensive for amateur home use for quite a while. These were the days before you could shoot video on your cell phone, and before the advent of cheap digital video recorders small enough to fit in your pocket.
By the time we went looking for something, the prices had come down a bit, and we were able to buy a Sony DCR-TRV19 without having to rob a bank. I didn’t know anything about cameras. We just grabbed one that looked nice and was affordable.
Turns out 2003 was the last year Sony made MiniDV camcorders with a 1/4-inch image sensor. This is one of the last models they produced with such good low light sensitivity, headphone and external microphone connections, and a hotshoe adapter for a light or mic, before they started cheaping out.
Talk about having good timing.
I’d like to say once I had a camera of my own I made it count. I did have ideas. I thought about making a DIY documentary following the making of an album, filming myself recording different elements of songs, talking to the camera about the music, breaking things up with random puppet shows and stuffed animal interludes.
I talked myself out of it before I got started. I told myself I wouldn’t be able to make it visually interesting enough to appeal to anyone. Watching one guy do everything on his own would get boring after a while. And how was I going to edit the raw footage — by dumping it onto VHS?
After filming a few random things I leant out the camera in 2005 and didn’t think to ask for it back until the summer of 2007. By then I had a different idea: I would start making a video diary. The crackheads had established themselves in the other half of the duplex we were living in, I couldn’t record any music or sleep in my own home thanks to their twenty-four-hour wall-shaking parties, and I was bitter about romance and the almost violent indifference I was coming up against while trying to get gigs and get my music heard.
I had a bit to say. Talking to the camera seemed as viable a form of self-expression as anything else. It was therapeutic for a while. And it wasn’t just an excuse for me to vomit up a nonstop litany of complaints. I talked about Orson Welles and Keith Urban and the Rocky movies too.
Then we moved, and my motivation went missing. Moving into a new house when it’s something you want to do and you’ve found the perfect place can be exciting — even energizing. Doing it out of necessity, when calling the police nineteen times and documenting more than forty pages of noise complaints and drug buys won’t get anyone to do anything because it isn’t happening next door to any of the cops or politicians or people working at Crime Stoppers or “writers” for the Windsor Star, so they don’t care, and finding out your box spring won’t fit up the stairs at the new place, and the landlord neglected to tell you the central air only works on the bottom two floors, and the furnace is dead…that’s demoralizing.
I kept using the camera, but I stopped talking to it. Now it became my idea-capturing device.
When the first little Flip camera came along and transferring videos onto the computer became as easy as flipping out a built-in USB connector and plugging it in, my old camcorder friend and all the tapes I’d filmed with it got shoved into a dresser drawer and more or less forgotten about. Aside from picking up some slack at the first Mackenzie Hall show I played in 2010 when the Flip camera ran out of recording time, it wasn’t used again.
I dug it out of the dresser a year or two later to have another listen to some of those old musical ideas I recorded. There were lines through the image when I tried to play a tape and the sound was distorted. I tried again some months down the road and didn’t even get the distorted sound. There was no sound at all, and the screen showed nothing but an impenetrable blue square.
I tried different tapes. It wasn’t a tape issue. I tried slamming the camera on a tabletop repeatedly to intimidate it into working (I never claimed to make good decisions all the time). No joy.
I assumed the camera was dead, tossed it back in the dresser drawer of lost souls, and got on with recording my not-quite-demos with the Flip fellas.
Lately I’ve been thinking it would be kind of nice to have access to those ideas again. Maybe I could figure out a way to get all the tapes onto the computer. Worst case scenario, if the camera really was toast, I could buy another DCR-TRV19 for a hundred bucks or less on eBay.
I did some research and learned iMovie has a spotty record when it comes to importing camcorder footage. I’ve never been a big fan of that program. I almost never use it for anything. It gobbles up resources on my MacBook, turns it into an oven, and either freezes up for ten minutes at a time or is so sluggish it’s impossible to get much done. Reading about some of the problems people have had with audio and video coming out unsynchronized was all I needed to dissuade me from trying to tame the savage beast.
I’m pretty sure the old Acer laptop I use for video editing has FireWire ports, but even though it’s been a lot friendlier to me since a nice dude at PC Outfitters blew an ocean of dust out of its cooling fans, I’d rather not push my luck with that aging computer. It’s still slower than mud. At this point, asking it to do anything more strenuous than running Sony Vegas and a few other programs is probably a nightmare waiting to happen.
My online travels led me to a program called LifeFlix. It was created with the sole purpose of transferring MiniDV tapes onto a computer or an external hard drive. The more I read about it, the more it seemed like the smart way to go. I bought it, bought a FireWire cable and a FireWire-to-Thunderbolt adapter, bought a cleaning tape for my camcorder, and hoped for the best.
The cleaning tape worked brilliantly. I let it play for all of ten seconds and went from the blue screen of death to being able to play all my old tapes again. No artifacts, no lines through the screen, nothing. I was almost expecting at least a bit of that to stick around, because this camera is fourteen years old now. Nope.
Best twenty five bucks I’ve spent in recent memory.
The FireWire-to-Thunderbolt connector Apple makes is stupidly expensive, and there are no real alternatives, but it works. LifeFlix recognized the camera right away and went to work importing video. It works in realtime, so an hour-long tape will take an hour to digitize (at least in theory…more on this in a minute).
The program does a great job of breaking up video into scenes based on where the recording originally stopped and started, saving you the hassle of separating things into individual clips later. The user interface is simple but intuitive. Getting files onto your computer after they’ve finished importing is as easy as two clicks of the mouse or trackpad. If you want to trim a little dead space out of the beginning or end of any given clip, you can do that too.
The video compression LifeFlix uses is all but invisible. I can’t detect any loss of visual or audio quality compared to the uncompressed video. Not that this footage was pristine or pro-shot to begin with, but I’m pretty picky when it comes to these things. Being able to keep the file sizes reasonable is a nice bonus when you’re dealing with a lot of footage.
That’s all the good stuff. Now for the things that are a little irritating.
I don’t know if it’s just me and my computer, but the “combine clips” function has been hit-or-miss. It works about half the time. The rest of the time the progress bar will stop moving around the halfway point, assuming it starts moving in the first place, and then it’ll hang there forever, not frozen but with all functions locked up. The only option when that happens is to force the program to quit.
The good news is I haven’t lost anything doing this. LifeFlix saves all the work you’ve done no matter how it shuts down. Clips don’t disappear unless you delete them yourself. But when a certain group of clips decide they don’t want to be combined, you’ll never be able to join them together. Doesn’t matter how many times you try. Doesn’t matter how many mean names you call the computer. And these are not long clips I’ve been working with. In most cases I’m trying to combine two or three snippets that are each a minute long or less.
Another thing I’ve noticed: I can’t set the program up to import a tape and leave it to do its business. I need to stay at the computer the whole time, because the best I’ve been able to get is five or ten minutes of uninterrupted importing. At some point a clip will freeze up within the program, or there will be a glitch, and while the camera itself will be playing just fine, when that happens I have to stop the importing process, rewind the tape to the beginning of the last clip, and start again. Otherwise I’ll get flawed video on the computer.
Sometimes I can get another five or ten minutes before I have to do it all again. Sometimes I need to keep going back to the same spot a few times before it manages to import without any issues, and I’m lucky to get one or two clips at a time. With the tape I’m working on right now, it’s taken me more than forty tries just to get eleven short clips totalling about fifteen minutes of footage to import glitch-free.
These are minor complaints. This is taking a little longer than it would if there were no glitches, and there have been a few frustrating moments, but all things considered it’s been pretty easy and pain-free. In the space of a few days I’ve managed to get the full contents of almost half of those tapes onto the computer. Who knows how long I’d be waiting and how much I’d have to pay if I got someone else to transfer the tapes for me.
With my luck, they’d all get lost, or some freak accident would send them off to MiniDV tape heaven.
Now for the part that made me swear so much I had to start wearing a parental advisory sticker on my face.
I’ve been using Sony Vegas as my video editing program for years now. The learning curve was a little weird at first, but once I got past the initial feelings of bewilderment after Windows Movie Maker spoiled me a little with its insane simplicity, I grew to really enjoy using it.
Vegas has been fine with MOV files over the years, until now. It doesn’t like the ones LifeFlix makes. Whether they’re compressed or not, all that shows up when I import one of these clips is the audio. There’s no video. Any media player on the planet will play them no problem, so the issue isn’t with the clips themselves. it’s Vegas being a douchebag.
If I wanted to have any control over assembling individual clips into something more meaningful, I was going to have to find a way to convert the MOV files into something Vegas was less prejudiced against without the quality taking too much of a hit in the process.
Rewrapping them as MP4 files would be the ideal thing. But no way was I spending more money on yet another program to do that.
I tried downloading a few free programs that claimed to offer video rewrapping, only to find all the relevant functions were disabled and if I wanted to do more than open and close files I was going to have to pay for the privilege. I found something called FFmpeg that was supposed to make rewrapping easy, but I’m not all that tech-savvy, I don’t know anything about UNIX or Linux, and I haven’t for the life of me been able to figure out how to use the program. It doesn’t help that every online tutorial seems to assume you already know what you’re doing. I tried using the VLC media player to save the videos in a different container. That worked, but Vegas still wouldn’t budge.
This is the workaround I’ve come up with:
First I go back and import the specific clips I want to edit again, this time with the compression turned off. Then I use a free program called MPEG Streamclip to rebrand the uncompressed MOV files as MP4s. There has to be some re-encoding happening, because the conversion takes a lot longer than straight rewrapping does, but if the quality is taking a hit it’s so subtle my eyes and ears can’t tell.
Any given MP4 file is about ten times the size of the MOV file it started out as. I save as many of these as I can fit onto a flash drive. From there, I transfer them onto the external hard drive I use with the laptop that has Vegas on it (my Mac external hard drive isn’t recognized by that computer, while the external hard drive I use for that one becomes read-only once it’s plugged into the MacBook). Then I go back and do it all again, and again, and again, until I’ve got all the files I need on the external hard drive. Then I import them into Vegas, and at last I can start editing.
It’s a pain in the ass, but it works.
It’s been an interesting, schizophrenic emotional experience sifting through all this old footage.
There’s regret. I wish I could say I’ve been sitting on a treasure trove of footage from the time of BRAND NEW SHINY LIE. I had my chance to film elements of those songs being recorded and to talk to the camera about the thought process behind trying to short-circuit my own musical language and writing impulses in an effort to get somewhere I’d never been before, and I let it blow by. Even past that, I went to the trouble of testing out different camera angles in the studio when I was recording CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, and then did nothing with what I learned from it. I didn’t start to think it was worthwhile to document some of these things in the process of happening until much later.
Hard not to feel like there were some missed opportunities.
There’s the strangeness of seeing in black and white just how much was here the whole time. There were twenty MiniDV tapes in that dresser drawer. I found another two in a different dresser drawer after I took the picture at the top of this post. They’re all full to the brim, recorded in one-hour SP mode for the best quality. Take away everything that isn’t music-related, and that’s at least twenty hours of ideas, almost all of them recorded between 2007 and 2009, many of them things I have no memory of ever coming up with. So many sketches that never turned into finished songs. So many finished songs that were left unrecorded. So many unused alternate sections for songs that did show up on official albums.
If there’s anyone out there who still thinks I throw every idea I ever come up with on my albums, I’d kind of like to sit them down with these tapes for a day. I knew I was going through something of a creative purple patch at the time, but I don’t think it ever hit me just how much I threw away. It’s going to be fun to dig back into these ideas and work out which ones deserve a fresh look.
And there have been some surprises along the way. There’s an acoustic version of “Last of the Two-Finger Typists” filmed in 2003, minutes after I finished writing it. I recorded a song called “Electric Teeth” three times in 2007, from three different angles, almost like I was anticipating someday being able to edit the best bits together. There are some brainstorming sessions where I took the time to make sure my face and my hands were both visible, when framing was usually an afterthought. And those video diaries are surreal to experience now. It’s me talking, but I’m not the same person.
I might not have been able to stick the landing, but I wasn’t without ambition. The plan with the short-lived video diary was to break up the rants with songs and song ideas. I started throwing in an absurd comedy sketch called Grandpa the Russian Jew. An old man who sounded half-Russian, half-Jewish (you weren’t expecting that, were you?), played by me, would go on a short tirade about something ridiculous. He would always begin by saying, “You know, when I was your age…” and he would always end with, “…and that is the story of my life,” before passing out snoring. Only instead of talking about technological advances or respecting your elders, he’d insult Julia Roberts in some nonsensical way or muse about having sexual intercourse with a ceiling fan.
In a way, I’ve made good on a lot of what I was trying to do there with the video progress reports, and now on a deeper level with the semi-documentary-thing I’m piecing together about the last few years of musical insanity. I’m still talking to the camera about what’s on my mind, and if it’s a little less personal than the video diaries of yore, well…there is such a thing as over-sharing. The talking is broken up with musical segments and absurd bits featuring stuffed animals and re-contextualized public domain films. And when I started filming entire songs being recorded piece by piece, I discovered it wasn’t so difficult to stitch all the elements together after all, with a little help from some video editing software I didn’t have access to in the beginning.
So maybe I didn’t fail at it after all. I was just a slow starter. And there are things on these tapes I’m realizing I can slip into the larger video I’m making.
Though I might not have any actual recording footage from the house before this one, I have some good shots of my studio space in that house before I dismantled it. I have footage of my current studio space in complete chaos after moving in, and footage of it slowly starting to come together. I filmed myself recording the banjo part for “Blue Cheese Necklace” and then for some reason I’ll never understand didn’t film any other elements of the song being recorded (I want to kick myself now). I can take footage of a song being played at its inception to get the music and vocal melodies down, and segue into a piece of the finished recording. I can even slip in some video diary moments where they make sense, breaking up footage of myself with older footage of myself.
Which brings me to this.
In January of 2008, at exactly the halfway point of the Papa Ghostface hiatus that lasted twelve years, Gord came over and we recorded a song that’s never seen any release outside of an MP3 that’s long since sunk deep into the archives. This was one of the few times I went to the trouble of filming a recording session during the Handycam days. I didn’t have any way to get the raw footage on the computer back then. Now, nine years later, I’m able to do that and edit it into something a little more concise.
The song lives in its own little space, separate from the work we did before and the work we would go on to do later. At the time it felt like a potential first step toward making a new album. It was really a one-off, and it would be another six years before we started working toward a shared goal again with some real commitment.
It’s more a mood in search of a song, though there are moments I’ve always liked. I think “Speed the Truth”, the first track on STEW, is a good measuring stick. Both are dreamy things grounded in the key of A minor, but “Speed the Truth” is a layered soundscape that’s very sure of its identity. This one’s more half-baked. For every interesting turn of phrase (“You’re looking through one bloodshot tier” is one — sounds like “tear”, but it’s not) there are two that either make no sense or are little more than random nothingness (“Anomanomahee…hatred, smoke and…” won’t be showing up in a discussion of my best moments as a lyricist anytime soon).
Such is the danger of improvised lyrics. Sometimes you hit. Sometimes you miss.
Of course, I didn’t think to film myself recording the vocal and guitar tracks. I went through a rough mix on-camera instead. And because I only had the one camera, without even a tripod to screw it into, it was tough to get good shots of the two of us together. There’s a bit where I’m playing chords on the Arp-Omni 2 with one hand and synth drums on the Yamaha W-5 with the other, and because of the crummy framing, you’ve got Gord in the foreground and you can’t see a thing my hands are doing.
I gotta be honest about my 2008 mix, too. It’s not very good. The vocals are way too upfront, everything is swimming in about 600% more reverb than necessary, and I was going through that lame “clipping is okay because it means I can make things louder” stage when it came to the mastering process.
What I’m playing on the monitors is an unmastered rough mix, so the occasional moments of distortion in the video have nothing to do with mastering. They’re present in the original soundtrack, burned into the video, impossible to repair now. The Sony camcorder’s built-in mic is really good for what it is, but I found out the hard way it wasn’t built to handle volume past a certain point.
The instrumental fragment that ends the video, meanwhile, is a mix I did just the other day, stripping away the vocals, dialling down the reverb, and tightening everything up a little. It’s got me thinking about remixing the whole thing just for fun.
This segment will get trimmed down quite a bit when it appears in the epic video of stuff. Here I let it run a little longer. And I still left some things out. I filmed about twenty minutes of us jamming on acoustic guitars, playing pieces of old songs and riffing on new ideas during a break in recording. The first half of the jam felt pretty aimless, so I recorded over it a week or two later.
A funny thing happened there. A few snippets survived between the song ideas I replaced the bulk of the footage with, all of them about three seconds long. It felt like they worked well as random little bits thrown in without warning between the “On Your Life” footage, so I chucked a few of them into the mix.
The last ten minutes of the acoustic jam are still on tape. None of that made much sense in the context of this video, but I’m sure I’ll find a place for it one of these days.
Completely unrelated: Zara just released her new album. If you liked UNCERTAIN ASSERTIONS, there’s a good chance you’ll like this one too.