The Pixelvision 2000 was the antithesis to all camcorders. A revolutionary camera that subverted every development in camera technology to stay low budget. A god to hipster filmmakers looking for ground-breaking ways to create art and yet, a complete failure in every other aspect.
But what made the camera so controversial?
It begins with creating a camcorder that uses audio cassettes instead of videotape. A mission that quite frankly sounds impossible...yet it kind of makes sense. Both video tapes and audio cassettes use magnetic tape to record media, so logically, cassettes should record video.
However, the magnetic tape inside an audio cassette is narrower than camcorder tape - a significant flaw for capturing the high amount of data needed to play a video.
How did the Pixelvision 2000 capture video on a cassette?
Videotapes wide film gave the higher bandwidth necessary for the large amount of data needed to record video. But no one designed audio cassettes with filming in mind. So, there needed to be a different solution to capture the vast data in a video onto a cassette…
Amazingly, you can record video onto tape by moving the cassette tape at nine times the standard recording speed. The increased speed meant you could record more data per second because it provides the higher bandwidth needed.
But, the increased speed does have its downfall. The Pixelvision only records 11 minutes of footage on a 90-minute cassette tape. Moreover, the footage it captures is extremely low-resolution as information recorded had to be filtered and compressed to fit onto the tape's narrow bandwidth.
The result is a colourless and pixelated image squished into a thick black frame to preserve the low pixel display resolution.
Who was the Pixelvision for?
Surprisingly, the Pixelvision 2000 was not a Frankenstein monster designed in a sweaty boy's basement to spite the videotape industry. Rather, the PXL-2000 was a children's toy.
James Wickstead invented the camera, and Fisher-Price, the pre-school toy company, produced it in 1987. Wickstead designed the camera to be low budget during a time when camcorders were extremely expensive. I'm talking around a grand to buy a VHS camcorder (and that's not including the number of tapes needed to record all your happy memories).
The PXL-2000 is a camera stripped to its core. The camera had: four control buttons, a fixed focus lens, a highly sensitive microphone, and a tiny 14.5-inch black and white television to playback the video. Not forgetting the cheaper plastic cassettes used to record the eleven-minute videos.
The lengths Wickstead and his team went to produce the Pixelvision would make you think this camera was accessible for all parents to buy their children. Yet, this is the 1980's, and this was the first low-budget camera on the market. So, even though Fisher-Price released the Pixelvision 2000 at a tenth of the price, it was still £125 (£374.13 today) and way over any parent's budget for a children's toy.
PXL-2000's marketing failure
For such an innovative camera, it is a shame that the marketing of the toy was a failure. Within a year, Fisher-Price took the camera off the market. The problem was that a pre-school toy company was selling a highly technical device for children ages eight and over. A target market older than the company's usual audience and a machine much too complicated for younger children to use.
Then, there was the issue with the camera itself. Every aspect of the camera screamed it was a bad idea: the blurred focus that transformed anything in the distance into a smudge; the video quality deteriorating every time you watched a film back; the thick border to compress the screen size; or even the fact it would take 72 AA batteries to film 2 hours of footage.
There were a hundred and one things wrong with the Pixelvision. Yet it defied all odds.
It's as if the camera hit rock bottom so hard it ricocheted off and suddenly became a hipster icon. What seemed like a low-quality, high-costing toy to parents was a liberating, accessible camera for low-budget filmmakers.
The Pixelvision War
The PXL-2000 brought a cultural revolution between consumers and professional filmmakers. It was the first affordable camera for budding artists to experiment with their muse. Filmmakers perceived the distorted, colourless, and flattened images as art.
But the film industry thought different. Film festivals did not accept the low-resolution camera because you could not watch the videos on a big screen. As a result, the camera's pixelated videos laid bare the widening gap between professional and amateur. Most notably, the growing disparity between what Hollywood classified as a "good" film and the poor-quality equipment available to budding filmmakers.
Yet (and ironically) Hollywood's deterrence of the toy camera only made it more successful. Filmmakers came to love how the cassette tape camera subverted the ordinary conventions of a blockbuster film.
PXL THIS Film Festival
Now, PXL-2000 has inspired one of California's longest-running film festivals. For over twenty years, fans have met annually to watch films made by the subversive camera. Sadie Benning, the child of filmmaker James Benning, created one of the most influential pieces idealised by Pixelvision fans.
Sadie was one of the few gifted with the Pixelvision 2000 as a child. A camera they initially stated was "sh*t" became an outlet to document video diaries on being a teenager. The short films are full of quick cuts blurring one image with another with only the camera's whizzing noise, signalling a change in shot. Sadie records mundane snippets of news stories, television and objects around their house whilst regaling short anecdotes about their life.
Then there was the added vulnerability of using cassette tapes. The low bandwidth of the cassette meant the quality dropped every time you played the video back. As a result, the footage became distorted and eventually lost due to the drop in quality. The Pixelvision was the perfect instrument for documenting personal diaries. Especially because sometimes a cassette that played well in one camera would not play on another.
For the PXL THIS film festival, the cassette's vulnerability only draws more attention to the camera rebelling against mainstream art. The non-permanence of each film adds to the camera's failed technology and feeds into hipsters' love for the device. Each year, the camera becomes more obsolete and rarer.
Ironically, many of the camera's films are now preserved thanks to cassette to digital services. Once a deteriorating art form, now documented online and celebrated at indie film festivals. You can even watch Sadie's diary entries online.
If you have any proper camcorder tapes lying around that you can't watch, convert your camcorder tapes to digital by sending them to us.