Camcorder Kids

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With all this time in this pandemic lockdown, I’ve had time to reflect back on my home movie days back in the 1980s.  It seems like so long ago in a galaxy far, far away …

As a teenager, I was one of those “Kid Spielbergs” who made home movies in my backyard using using the “high tech” of the era – the home video camcorder. I’ve made up the moniker because Steven Spielberg’s 1984 movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, sent kids like me into movie making madness.

Though Star Wars was also a big source of inspiration, the technical effects seemed out of reach for home video makers like me. Ideas from Raiders of the Lost Ark could be more easily copied in our backyards. 

So much of Spielberg’s craftsmanship isn’t readily obvious until you sit-and-think about each-and-every shot, but when you do your mind explodes because of the ingenuity. I picked up that Spielberg often does his staging/action/camera/lighting sequences in parts of three – watch it and you’ll see. As a rambling side note, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has an excellent breakdown of Raiders of The Lost Ark, which he converted to black-and-white to emphasize Spielberg’s visual mastery.

Anyhoo, inspired by Raiders, along with friends, I made dozens of home movie shorts with my friends and family members, inspired by whatever we felt like that day, mostly whatever genre movies we saw in the movie theater or rented on VHS at the local video store – like Cannon action movies with Chuck Norris, Revenge of the Ninja, Miami Vice, all of which were easiest to emulate in our backyards.

I was always the director and also sometimes appeared as a bad guy on screen, while my best friend, Mike Rothe, was the good guy lead, or the guy that gets tortured or lights stuff on fire.  You know, the cool stuff.

We did crazy things  – like using gasoline and fire, lit fireworks and used real guns as props sometimes – which today would get any parent thrown into jail. Back then, it was like “Well, just be careful. Have fun!”  Luckily, none of us got hurt. Most of the time, it was just us kids play acting as adults, riffing on dialogue that we heard on movies.

Monte Mike video shoot high school

The new 8mm video camcorders were somewhat of a luxury item, about $1,000 dollars, which was a grand sum in that era.  My parents had like no money, but my parents somehow bought me the first video camcorder, the Sony CCD-V8, which featured 400 lines of resolution, a bit higher than VHS which was about 300 lines.  The 8mm (aka Hi8) video analog tapes were roughly about the size of a cassette tape, making the camera lightweight and very portable.

Compared to the VHS, 8mm video cassettes allowed precise and seamless in camera editing which was the key to its popularity – traditional VHS had jarring cuts and was inferior. I could immediately see what I shot in playback mode, edit in camera, and then after shooting easily transfer the video to VHS and make further edits and exhibit it all nearly instantaneously, on the same day.  

For me, the shoulder mounted Sony 8mm camcorder unleashed creativity – to be clear, what I’m talking about here are not home videos of families sitting around the dinner table or birthday party celebrations.  There is plenty of that stuff on YouTube from the 1980s.

I’m referring to actual make-believe fictional play acting by kids containing scenes and dialogue and storylines, no matter how unintelligible or bizarre.  From what I can tell, after extensive Vimeo and YouTube searching, many of these video “movies” from the 1980s era have been apparently lost to the sands of time.  There isn’t much that I could find online, but maybe they’re out there somewhere.

Here’s some of our “home movie” work, starting with our magnum opus, Ace Private Eye.

Ace Private Eye (1988)

There was also this one. It involves our good friend Tom running around our house in a gorilla mask.

Mike & Tom Gorilla Man

Here’s some random clips from the dozens of home movies we made:

Some Notable Finds of Other ‘Kid Spielbergs’
A few years ago, there was a documentary, “Raiders of the Lost Art: The Adaptation” which was about some kids like us that made a shot-for-shot recreation of Raiders of The Lost Ark, but it took them seven (7) years to complete starting in 1982.  Decades later, they reunited to film one more sequence to finally complete it.  It’s an incredible story of friendship.

Some other stuff I found on YouTube which qualifies as “movies” made by kids in the 1980s: Weird Paul and Len Anders posted up some of their horror inspired home movie work.  Gregg Cerenzio posted up “Wharon Thriller!” and Mechanical Bull Media has “White Trash Boardinghouse” – also, Smashism and Sam Monahan.

The feature length movie, Son of Rambo (2007) was also a bit like my experience. There was also Sing Street (2016) about a kid who made music videos in high school, which I also did, too.  Here’s my post on my experiences making music videos.

More than the “what” we were making, it was a way for kids like us to spend time together.  Making movies allowed us to escape or otherwise humdrum latchkey childhood lives, which wasn’t yet infiltrated by social media and video game systems like it is today.

Today, these kinds of videos are being uploaded by the millions every day on YouTube, TikTok and other platforms. Kids today have it all today – shooting & editing & special effects – on their mobile phones, which just blows my mind.

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