CMX 600 Belongs to History

By Weiland, Larry | American Cinematographer, November 1986 | Go to article overview

CMX 600 Belongs to History


Weiland, Larry, American Cinematographer


A little over three decades ago, a small California company astounded the television industry by introducing the world's first commercially successful videotape recorder. Broadcasters beat a path to Ampex's door and the company's stock soared.

But, even as the company geared up to meet the demands of anxious TV studios all over the country, an ominous sign loomed on the horizon, suggesting that Ampex's meteoric rise might have a commensurate short term drop. A perceptive reporter for Life magazine projected a very limited market for a VTB that could only be used to delay network programs to accommodate the time zones across the country.

He wrote that as far as he could see there would be no way ever to edit videotape. And he proved his point by describing the quad tape video format as invisible magnetic tracks of mimscule proportions, only ten onethousands of an inch wide, with guard bands between the tracks of only half that dimension. He reasoned that no one in his right mind could imagine a way to edit these tapes for original program production. As a result, Ampex would soon saturate the time zone market, then run out of customers for its revolutionary device.

Nothing triggers corporate reaction quite so quickly as the likelihood of a slide in stock prices. A crash program was launched to solve the dilemma of how to edit videotape, and thus expand the potential use of this technological marvel that Ampex had so recently created. Less than six months after CBS' Douglas Edwards Nightly News became the first program to be videotaped regularly (November 1956), Ampex had developed a basic method of editing videotape, and demonstrated it to the press at the company's plant in Redwood City. The videotape recorder's position in history was assured, and it went on to eventually dominate television program production.

By today's methods that early electro-mechanical editing technique was primitive. It involved the use of magnetic marks on the edge of the 2'' tape called "edit pulses" which were made visible by a solution of Freon TF and carbonyl iron (Edivue). These edit pulses served as guides for a human editor, equipped with a single edged razor blade, to cut the tape precisely at a frame line, while it was held in a mechanical jig. It was a meticulous and time consuming task, sometimes involving several hundred splices, that led some editors to distraction.

In time, the process got better with more sophisticated splicers involving Hall effect heads to detect the pulses, and optical systems to position the tapes in precision cutters, and even applied the splicing tape and trimmed the ends accurately. A decade later (circa 1968), the Summer Olympics in Mexico and the fast-paced NBC comedy show, "Laugh In" were still using razor blades to edit programs.

From 1961 through 1971 a series of electronic editors was developed, both by Ampex and other companies, that eventually displaced the blade, and provided frame-by-frame capabilities even to do animation on videotape. The growth of videotape program production also led to a proliferation of incompatible time codes from different manufacturers of electronic editors. Fortunately, the SMPTE got involved in 1970, and a standards committee charged with this task came up with a universal time and address code which has become the television industry standard for all forms of electronic editing, including those using computer assistance.

Even while Ampex was developing its electro-mechanical splicing system, CBS engineers were experimenting with tape editing by shooting program segments with fades at each end, and splicing the tape in the "black," hoping the VTR would re-synchronize during the fade up for the next scene. The first show, a drama called "The Red Mill," was edited and recorded on two separate reels, one with splices in black, the other in picture. The two VR1000's were run back-toback. If the splice in picture went through the VTR without a serious image breakup, it stayed on the air. …

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