Unsung icons: Camcorders

Comedian David Smiedt takes an irreverent, but appreciative, look at the classic things that define you-beaut Aussie life
Matt Cosgrove

AS UNFATHOMABLE AS it may seem for a generation that has grown up with a device in their pocket that functions as a video camera, stills camera and contains all human knowledge but is mainly used to view clips of funny cats, the idea you and your family could be in a movie was once a really big deal. Sure, handheld movie cameras were around in the ’50s, but they were rare, had no sound and featured the jerky frenetic movement that suggested everyone on screen had decided to swap their breakfast cereal for Ritalin.



When camcorders came along in the ’80s and grew in sophistication the following decade, it was a dream come true for suburban Spielbergs and Scorseses. The original versions were only slightly smaller than those used by professional camera folk. Weighing a little less and costing the same as a second-hand Datsun, they were a significant investment. And like all significant investments of the era featured a combination of matt black metal and the ever-elegant grey plastic. They were items worthy of display next to the hi-fi speakers in timber veneer and beside the VCR. Camcorders spoke of a desire to create your own reality rather than passively absorb the entertainment offered by Aussie TV – even if it was through a bluish-black and white viewfinder the size of a postage stamp, later enlarged to that of a postcard. (Millennials, feel free to ask Siri what a postage stamp and postcard are.)


As is the pattern with technology, the more they miniaturised – you could eventually hold and shoot with one hand – the more popular they became. Hooked up directly to the TV, you could see your own family on the same screen where the Olsen twins or the Baywatch cast had been just seconds before. It didn’t matter that almost every family’s movies looked the same – Grandad asleep in his chair, Mum waving the camera away while wrangling both children at a buffet lunch and Dad proving he still had the moves on the dance floor. What mattered was that it was your family. And if you were diligent enough, you may even capture an elderly relo slipping while carrying a cake, a niece blowing a snot bubble or a neighbour stacking his bike – footage that would then be shown on Australia’s Funniest Home Videos, a show, let us remind you, out-rated all competitors for years and exemplified both our love of the camcorder and the addition of ‘boing’ sound effects to vision of someone injuring themselves, but not too seriously.

But it wasn’t all pratfalls and slightly tipsy 21st speeches. That family member who practically had the camcorder grafted to his or her hand probably didn’t end up going to film school or creating an Australian Gone With The Wind. More likely, they were seen as a bit of a pest – just look through the old footage and the irritations of many of the subjects becomes clear even if the autofocus wasn’t. In 2017, there is an entire generation for whom being on screen is as natural as breathing and using the phrase ‘hashtag awkward’, but for those who came beforehand, the work of these ‘pests’ has gone from irritation to inspiration. Look back at it now, and for most, the images will show the faces and foibles of those we miss, those children grown and a time when being on screen made you feel a bit a like a star. Even if it was just at your place.

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