It all started in a 5,000 watt radio station in Fresno, California.
– Ted Baxter (News Anchor, WJM-TV)
IN THE BEGINNING
Videosmith got its start on the second floor of a trinity on Panama Street in Philadelphia. In November 1977 Steve and Martha Smith took a break from working as a network freelance crew to set up a small editing suite using the revolutionary new ¾” U-matic cassette format—in the parlance of the times, “Broadcast-Quality Portable Color Video.”
The Smiths actively marketed their post services to potential Delaware Valley clients, and quickly got a bunch of hits. Among the first was producer/director Alan Baker, who had a contract with Sears to make monthly local sales spots. The talent was the beloved, gracious, ex-anchor of WCAU-TV (and “Voice of God” for NFL Films) John Facenda. So that others might use this new capability, Videosmith got into the rental business, hiring out cameras and recorders—starting with the much-maligned (for good reasons) RCA TK-76. From this pioneering effort grew our reputation for providing world-class service to our clients—a commitment that remains steadfast today.
When we opened that little shop the industry standard recording medium was 2” wide magnetic tape wound on to heavy, cumbersome 15” reels. Today we get 20x or more better quality, recording on a chip of silicon the size of a thumbnail. The changes over the past four decades have been nothing short of astonishing.
Videosmith’s post and rental business expanded rapidly and we soon outgrew the trinity. In 1980 we opened a facility at 2400 Chestnut Street, featuring the new 1” Type-C format. Still tape. Still cumbersome reels. But the quality was great and the machines were versatile and inexpensive (that is, about $50,000 per, and you needed three to do proper video editing). Our staff included general manager Ron Smiley, production associate Chris Mottola, and in sales, Thom Goertel—familiar names even today among the local production community.
Videosmith grew even more. In 1982 we moved into a century-old converted carriage house a block off Rittenhouse Square. We had space for two edit rooms, and our Edit One was the best equipped facility in the city. We hired Matt Mussari to head our Rental Department, adding the splendid Ikegami HL-79E to the inventory as soon as it became available.
The following year Videosmith pioneered two spanking-new technologies: video graphics and video effects.
The graphics system was based around the Quantel Paintbox—a $140,000 black box that allowed our artists to do primitive versions of what we now create in 4K with Adobe Illustrator.
Images from the Paintbox were stored on a massive 330MB hard drive—massive in the sense that the thing was 19” wide, 12” high, and 30” deep. Oh, and it cost $17,000. Compare that with today’s 2TB drives costing less than $100. Yikers.
In those early days, video effects were limited to simple wipes, dissolves, and keys. But in 1984 Videosmith installed the first of four Ampex ADOs. These digital effects devices would let an editor resize or distort a video channel, and move it around the screen. Two ADOs combined made for a very powerful effects system, and clients were willing to pay $300-400 an hour to use it. The price of an ADO started at $100,000 per channel. Here in 2016 we use Adobe After Effects to create vastly more sophisticated Ultra High Definition elements using an app that costs less than $1000. Steve O’Driscoll came on board as VP/General Manager, and did wonders with expanding the company’s marketing efforts.
Videosmith Rentals moved across the street, and veteran clients well remember the hatchway in the wall that opened onto the street so equipment packages could be hydraulically lifted up from the basement. The lighting and sound departments were expanded, and we added Chapman Pee Wee and Hybrid dollies, another first for the Delaware Valley.
In 1985 the company began a program of offering pro bono services to local non-profit organizations. The first project, a :30 PSA spot, focused on the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s “Man and His Animals” exhibit, and featured a young Abyssinian cat named Abby wandering around the displays, ending up face to face with a 3,000 year-old statue of an Egyptian cat. Abby at the Museum won four Emmys and more than a dozen more national awards.
Videosmith Rentals undertook a great leap in 1986 with the acquisition of 35mm film equipment: Arri BL3 and 35-3 cameras, with an extensive selection of prime and zoom lenses. The gear was popular among the region’s commercial producers. At the same time, Videosmith was the first to introduce ½” Betacam production, which offered significant improvements over the aging ¾” format.
In 1988 Videosmith Rentals pioneered the move from tube cameras to CCDs—Sony’s BVP-70IS. Clients loved the fact that the ISs gave them two extra stops of sensitivity and an overall crisper image.
Yet again, space and accessibility was becoming a serious problem, so Videosmith picked up lock, stock, and barrel and moved across town to 520 Delaware Avenue. Rentals got its own place at 100 Spring Garden.
In 1992 we were the first Philadelphia facility to add digital post production, in the form of Sony D-2 mastering VCRs. This was still a world of 4:3 aspect ratio and 525-line standards. Sixteen-by-nine and 1080 high def was years away (though the Japanese had been broadcasting experimental analog widescreen HD programming since the early 1980s). Videosmith fully embraced the digital revolution in 1995 with the addition of a complete digital edit suite based on Sony Digital Betacam decks and an Ampex all-digital switcher. It was so advanced that we thought of ourselves as being “on the bleeding edge of technology.”
We also made a return to film camera rentals, with the acquisition of the fabulous Aaton 16mm XTR Prod. The outfit was sent as far afield as China, Brazil, Hungary, France, and Italy.
Wanting to concentrate on the rental side of the business, in 1996 we sold our postproduction facility to E.J. Stewart, which renamed it Telenium. Videosmith Rentals, now under the able leadership of Chris Cerasoli, increased the size of our inventory. We jumped wholeheartedly into the new miniDV digital recording format. Overnight this system put low-cost, high-quality filmmaking into the hands of everyone. DV democratized video production, and its effects are still being felt today.
An outgrowth of DV was Videosmith’s foray into equipment manufacturing. We realized that stock Sony and Panasonic cameras had no place to attach things like external and wireless microphones, or large capacity batteries. So we invented the Mightywondercam, a lightweight shoulder pod that could be loaded up with stuff and still give the camera operator lots of room to maneuver. Over the next decade we sold several thousand rigs for use around the world, most of them through our major dealers, B&H Photo Video and Adorama.
THE NEW MILLENNIUM
High definition became a practical reality in 2001. Camera and decks had been available for a couple of years, but it wasn’t until then that all the kinks had been worked out for editing, graphics, and distribution. Videosmith Rentals leapt in again with the purchase of Sony’s HDW-700A, a half-inch format 1080i recording system. We also added an HD edit deck and 42” plasma monitor.
By the end of the decade high definition production and post production had matured to the point where everyone could affordably make HD videos.
In 2005 we moved yet again to . . . you guessed it . . . larger quarters just down the street at 200 Spring Garden.
At the close of the “Naughts,” a whole new concept in image sensors began to come on the market. Instead of the standard trio of 2/3” CCDs, there was a single chip, but oh, what a chip! It was Super 35mm size, which meant increased sensitivity and resolution, and gave cinematographers the ability to finitely control depth of field with the longer focal length lenses used for the format.
In 2010 Videosmith was the first in the Delaware Valley market to offer the Sony PMW-F3 camera. Today Videosmith rents ten different large sensor cameras, with resolutions up to 4096 x 2160 pixels—4K.
The Summer of 2016 saw Videosmith usher in a whole new world—360° Spherical production and post production (also called Virtual Reality). Our 360Heros 10 x GoPro 4 Black camera rig shoots high definition video of everything, everywhere: up, down, sideways, all around. It’s pretty impressive in action. Our Hillary Hanak went up to Abel Cine for a workshop on how to stitch all ten images together using Kolor Autopano (a GoPro company). Some processing in Adobe Premiere, After Effects, and Audition results in an amazing immersive 360 experience.
Through forty years Videosmith’s commitment to customer service has never wavered. We take immense pride in assisting clients to achieve their video production goals, whatever it takes.
Stay tuned for the next pioneering technological breakthrough by Philadelphia’s pioneering video rental company: Videosmith.