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CAMCORDSKI

Geoff Stafford tells the real story behind the Russian camcorder - launched on April Fool's Day 1990

The Camcordski

From the late 1980's until the end of the '90's, I was a contributor to several film and video magazines. One of my best-known articles during this time was an April Fool's spoof in 1990. A review of the first Russian consumer video camera: the 'Camcordski'.

Not only did I write the review but, in best Blue Peter tradition, I built the video camera itself from plastic bits and pieces that I found in the kitchen.

How it happened
I always supplied photographs to go with my features and had a reputation for coming up with quirky ideas that no-one had done before. The Soviet Union was much in the news and, in early 1990, I suggested the Camcordski idea to Bob Tomalski, who was the Editor of Video Camera magazine.

Believe it or not, Bob had experienced some abuse from a handful readers due to his Polish-sounding surname. He had a good sense of humour, liked the story, and we agreed that it would be a subtle way to poke fun back at those who had insulted him. So I set about building the fake camera...

The body was a four-pint plastic milk bottle, the viewfinder was a shampoo bottle and some of the buttons were made from toothpaste tube tops. The lens was a washing-up liquid bottle.

I added a microphone, lens hood and the winding handle from a bulk-film loader. I painted the whole thing matt black and added some lettering with rub-down Letraset sheets.

I photographed the Camcordski, along with an old 2 inch Quadruplex video cartridge (originally from ITN) that Bob had sent me and he wrote a box to accompany my review.

A number of readers wrote in to ask where they could buy the Camcordski, despite its rather unappealing specification, and the Product Manager of a well-known consumer electronics company was worried enough to call Video Maker when he read the article!

In fact, it seems the whole story has become something of a legend among consumer electronics people.

A couple of years later I invented a Peruvian hovering camcorder for Camcorder User. Strangely, it also appeared at the beginning of April. But that's another story...

Here's my original article about the Camcordski.

STOP PRESS: RUSSIAN CAMCORDER EXCLUSIVE

by Geoff Stafford

Russian photographic equipment has proved popular in Britain for many years, thanks to its budget price, robust construction and reliability. Now it looks as though the USSR may be about to claim a chunk of the video market for herself.

Early April sees the European press launch of the first Russian camcorder - it should be in British shops by July. The 'Camcordski' - as their baby will rather endearingly be known in Britain - looks certain to make the Japanese sit up and take notice.

No wonder; would you believe a near broadcast quality picture, hifi stereo sound with a built-in wireless microphone and, wait for it, colour viewfinder? And all for less than half the price of a Super VHS or Hi8 model.

The day before this issue of VIDEO MAKER went to print, Bob Tomalski and I visited the headquarters of the importers: RGS Consumer Electronics of Higher Blackley, Manchester, where we got an exclusive pre-launch try-out of the Camcordski and the pictures which you see here. Although Bob will be giving the Camcordski a thorough bench test at the earliest opportunity, this feature is in the way of a brief preview.

How the article looked in the magazine

ANOTHER NEW FORMAT: QUAD-C

Although the Camcordski is bang up to date in some respects - for example, its colour viewfinder and variable speed 7-140mm 20x power zoom - the recording system is actually based around old technology. The Russians have adapted the professional Quadruplex system (which used to be the broadcast standard) and have come up with their own compact version - QUAD-C - which uses 2 inch wide tape travelling at 15 inches per second.

Although QUAD-C gives superb quality - over 575 lines of resolution (better than either Super VHS or Hi8) - the running costs are relatively high. Each cassette runs for 3 1/2 minutes and is expected to retail at approximately 6.50.

As far as editing is concerned, a bonus is that the larger tape format makes physically cutting the tape a possibility, although it's a slow process and requires a microscope.

APPEARANCE AND CONSTRUCTION

The Camcordski weighs in at about 3 kg without battery and has a rather chubby look to it. The fibreglass body has an attractive matt black finish with grey and yellow circular buttons.

Unusually, the tape transport controls are positioned on the right side. While power, full auto, fade, counter, review, (manual) iris and white balance are on the left, along with the Camcordski's distinctive wind-up lever. The whole of the rear of the camcorder swings open to take the QUAD-C cassette.

The viewfinder is the so-called 'chicken-leg' type and features a 0.7in (17.8mm) colour LCD display. Thanks to the f1.0 Unidair lens and a minimum illumination requirement of just 1 lux, you can even shoot in moonlight.

STEREO SOUND

The Camcordski features not FM, but AM sound and includes a radio receiver. This means you can detach the built-in wireless microphone, place it anywhere within 150 feet of the camcorder (concealing it if you wish) and still pick up crystal clear stereo audio.

This, together with the powerful zoom, makes the Camcordski ideal for all kinds of surveillance work. And, if you get bored with the sound from the mike, or fancy a break from shooting, you can always tune the receiver into any radio station on either medium or long wave, monitoring the sound through the stereo headphone socket.

DIGITAL TITLES

Although it isn't possible to record your own titles in the Camcordski's digital title memory, it does come with 25 preset phrases. Unfortunately, these are all in Russian and there are no plans to change this. RGS Electronics say they will be supplying a Russian to English phrase book which you can pass round during the showing of your movie. Titles are superimposed in red.

When it comes to powering the Camcordski, it must surely be one of the most versatile camcorders on the market. Usually, you'll want to carry the supplied lead-acid battery over your shoulder. However, measuring 12x9x5 inches approximately and weighing about 2.5kg, this is no lightweight. It powers the camcorder for up to an hour.

The recharging process consumes a lot of power, so you must be careful not to plug in an electric fire, kettle or iron on the same circuit, or you may overload it, blowing the fuses. Fortunately, as recharging takes overnight, you'll probably be in bed anyway.

For those occasions when you're away from the mains supply, there's an optional petrol-driven generator available.

WIND UP

Finally, in an amazing hark-back to the old days of 8mm and 16mm cine, the Camcordski includes a built-in clockwork motor. Simply wind up the spring, press run and you can shoot for ten to fifteen seconds, before winding up again.