By Greg Pak
The Sony VX-1000 is a great three chip MiniDV camcorder which I’ve used to shoot “Asian Pride Porn,” “The Informed Consent Zone,” and Keiko Ibi’s Oscar-winning documentary, “The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years.”
I recommend the VX-1000 highly for low-budget productions. But no piece of equipment is perfect. Read on for a few of the VX-1000’s features and foibles.
Great image quality
The VX-1000 is a three chip MiniDV camcorder. Many cheaper MiniDV camcorders are one chip — resulting in less-vibrant images, particularly in lower light situations.
Compared to Hi8, which used to be the standard for no-budget documentary filmmakers, the VX-1000 is incredible. When footage is viewed side by side, BetaSP looks better than MiniDV. But when material is well-lit and well-shot, most people can’t distinguish MiniDV footage shot with the VX-1000 from BetaSP footage.
However, it’s worth noting that although it’s much better than Hi8 cameras, the VX-1000 by no means can handle high contrast images and blown-out backgrounds as well as DVCAM or BetaSP cameras. Careful lighting, as always, is the key to success here.
Some video pros hate color viewfinders, but I like ’em a lot, particularly when shooting documentary. First, I know immediately if my color balance is off. Second, color affects framing — for example, if I’m looking through a black and white viewfinder, I might not notice a flourescent yellow sticker in the background of a shot. That sticker might end up being extremely distracting. With a color viewfinder, I notice distracting things immediately and frame accordingly.
In addition, I prefer the VX-1000’s color monitor to that of its chief competitor, the Canon XL-1. The Canon monitor has a slight orange or rose tinge to it, which is distracting to me.
Manual control of focus, sound and exposure
The VX-1000 has fairly easy-to-manipulate manual controls for focus, exposure and sound. This is critical for quality shooting. But see below for the foibles of the VX-1000’s controls…
Easy to find filters
The lens of the VX-1000 accomodates 52mm filters, which are easily found at photographic stores. For “Asian Pride Porn,” I used a ProMist 3 filter to give that cheesy soft glow to the fake porn scenes. Cheap and effective. Other camcorders with smaller lens rings are more difficult to equip with cheap filters.
Fragile mini audio input socket
Like most consumer camcorders, the VX-1000 has a much-too-fragile mini socket for audio input. With frequent use, this socket can get damaged, resulting in sound cutting in and out. Two solutions:
1. Buy a little black box with two XLR inputs to screw into the bottom of the VX-1000. The box has a little mini audio plug which fits into the input socket of the camera. Any tugging on cords thus pulls on the box itself, not the mini plug on the camera. The box isn’t cheap — around $200. It’s available at B&H Photo.
2. Use a piece of tape or hair tie to attach your mini-to-XLR cord to the handle on the top of the camera. Then any tugging on the cords pulls at the handle to the camera, not the fragile mini plug.
Dropout problems as camera ages
After three years or so, the VX-1000 seems subsceptible to misalignment of the recording head which results in discontinuity of timecode and possible digital distortion of images. This happened a few months ago to the camera we used to shoot “The Personals.” When I played footage shot with the camera back on a different deck, the image would break into scattered squares along the right hand side of the screen. When played back with the VX-1000 itself, the images looked fine. Different technicians had different explanations — the most plausible was that the record head was out of alignment. The solution was to dub all of the affected material from the camera to a MiniDV deck.
I’ve seen the problem in one other VX-1000 of a similar age and seen postings on message boards from people with the same problem. My advice? Don’t buy an old camera. And test any camera you rent or borrow before you do any serious shooting.
You have to keep your eye pressed to the viewfinder to see the whole frame
Many cameras have a switch which shifts the optics of the viewfinder so that the operator can hold his or her head a few feet back but still see the whole frame in the viewfinder. The VX-1000, alas, does not have this feature. Most of the time, it’s not an issue. But if you’re stuck shooting a long speech or lecture, for example, it’s nice to be able to sit back from time to time.
Problems with exposure controls
It’s fairly easy to adjust exposure while shooting with the VX-1000, which is good. But the dial works in clicks, which is bad. The result is that instead of an imperceptible, smooth transition from F2 to F5.6, for example, you click through a half dozen levels of brightness. Most viewers don’t notice, but it’s ugly.
Problems with sound controls
The VX-1000 has a button which allows you to set a sound recording level. But it’s not an easy thing to manipulate when you’re actually shooting. So when shooting documentary, I usually use the auto-level setting, which works fairly well. When shooting fiction, I usually preset the audio level and don’t mess with it during takes. The more expensive and effective solution would be to rent a mixer which the sound recordist would use to control sound levels more precisely. But thus far I’ve managed to get away with using the strategies above.
One warning — if you’re using the auto-level setting for sound recording, you’ll notice annoying increases in room tone sound when your subject fall silent. This is because the machine is doing its job, raising the level of its recording to record whatever sound is in the room. The solution is to preset the audio level before the take.