Resurrecting Old Footage

Hi-8 was actually a fairly popular analog videotape format in the early to mid-1990s.

I’ve been on eBay, looking for the right playback device. What kind of playback device? Hi-8, of course. What, might you ask, is/was Hi-8? If you’ve been in professional video for more than probably 10 years, you may have encountered the Hi-8 format in the wild, or in the machine room of a duplication house, post house or school. Hi-8 was an analog videotape format from Sony that used 8mm cassettes with metal evaporated (ME) or metal particle (MP) tape. Introduced in the early 1990s with 400 lines of resolution, Hi8 was an improvement over the original 270-line Video8 format as well as VHS tape. Hi8 also supported a digital audio track. Digital8 superseded the format.

It’s funny, even in the early 1990s, when I first got into professional video, Hi-8 was clearly a consumer format that had aspirations of becoming a prosumer format, used by lower-end professionals. Hi-8 was never that format for me; it was simply a way to shoot home video with a small Handicam form factor. At the time Hi-8 came around, I was shooting professionally with a big, heavy, expensive Sony Betacam and an Arri Super 16 film camera mostly, neither very conducive to carrying around Disneyland or to the park for the kids’ soccer game. I bought the Sony Hi-8 camera and began using it to shoot essentially home movies of family events. Most of the footage I eventually transferred to other formats that I ended up using professionally, formats like ¾” SP, then DVCAM. I recently came across a stash of old Mini DV, DVCAM and Hi-8 Camera Masters in storage.

In Search of Playback

Resurrecting Old Footage
Luckily, I kept our Sony DSR-40 DVCAM deck as well as a pile of different material sored on dozens of Mini DV and DVCAM tapes.

I realized that I still owned our DVCAM deck, the Sony DSR-40, so that would take care of playing back the Mini DV and DVCAM tapes. But what about the pile of Hi-8 tapes? Many of them aren’t labeled either, so I have no idea of what’s on the tapes in some cases. Unfortunately, the Sony Hi-8 camcorder that I used to shoot these Hi-8 videos on broke down in the early 2000s. I kept it around for a few years and it became more and more difficult to even find a repair facility that could find the parts needed to do repairs. I eventually threw the camera into the recycling bin; it’s tough to give away or donate an older video camera that doesn’t work any longer. 

Formats And Yet More Formats

Resurrecting Old Footage
Yes, I actually used to edit footage feeding off of a 1” Type C composite video reel to reel recorder the size of a small refrigerator. That was state of the art in its day.

Unfortunately, the transition from analog to digital has only accelerated the pace at which new formats become the state of the art and yesterday’s format becomes passé’, then outdated, then an antique. I think of all of the various formats I’ve worked with, shot, edited with and used as dubbing tape masters over the years and it boggles the mind. 1” D1, D2, D5, MII, ¾”, ¾” SP, Betacam, Betacam SP, Betacam SX, MPEG IMX, Digital Betacam, HDCAM, HDCAM SR, DVCPRO, P2, P2 Express, Mini DV, DVCAM, the list goes on and on.  


Back To Ebay

The Sony EVO-9850 was a pretty nice Hi-8 professional deck.

I thought about sending these Hi-8 tapes to a transfer service. They transfer them for you to the digital format of your choice and you can then view, copy and edit all of your old precious memories. It gets expensive though, especially when you aren’t sure of what’s on at least a good chunk of these tapes. I’ve now gone down the rabbit hole on eBay of searching for the best deal on a used Hi-8 deck or camera that I can use to transfer the Hi-8 master to a more modern format. There are quite a few different Hi-8 decks but amazingly, many of these decks, while they’re obviously outdated antiques, are still selling for $400 all of the way up to $1,000, sometimes even more for the nicer prosumer models with all of the bells and whistles. Some of these decks have S-VHS and even a few have component analog video outputs, which would result in a better quality video than merely using the composite video output.

My aim, though, is to merely play back the Hi-8 tapes, viewing them as they copy to either a better, more modern tape format like DVCAM or to simply ingest them into my editing system so that I can cut down all of these undoubtedly too long and boring camera masters. Hi-8 was never a great format to begin with. It looked okay for its era, but I recall being constantly plagued with analog tape dropouts. It used to drive me crazy, especially when editing to a more robust professional format like Betacam SP. At this point, I’m not even sure if all or any of these Hi-8 tapes will playback.

Camera Land

Hi-8 camcorders are fortunately still around on eBay.
Hi-8 camcorders are fortunately still around on eBay.

Fortunately, for me, there’s a large surplus of Hi-8 camcorders on eBay, many in pretty good condition around or even under $100. It’s confusing, though, many of the models, the owners have posted on eBay that they were Hi-8 playback and not just Video 8, the previous iteration and not Digital 8, the successor to Hi-8. Got all that? So I have to look up the old Sony owner’s manuals online and cross-reference if the camera model number the seller has listed can “actually” play back Hi-8. Sony, not to mention Samsung and a few other camcorder brands made dozens of the different models, some of which could shoot and playback Hi-8, many of which couldn’t play back the Hi-8 but are listed on eBay as being Hi-8 compatible. It’s mind-numbing, trying to figure out what is what.

Lessons Learned

A Sony EV-S3000 Prosumer Hi-8 Deck. I wish that I had transferred all of my Hi-8 masters to a better digital format earlier. To do it now, so many years later, is kind of a pain.

What my Hi-8 experience has taught me is that no matter which video file, codec or media type you’re shooting today, if the material is to last and be accessible in 20 years, you need to think ahead. Transfer your digital files to different, new and alternative formats, if possible. If the card reader, drive reader, etc., is inexpensive, buy a few of them. Unlike analog Hi-8, which if I can find a camera to play them back on, the tape and image quality will likely be degraded, digital signals, if you clone them digitally are lossless. So keep on cloning those digital files to new digital formats if possible. Most of the work I was shooting 20 years ago isn’t very precious to me; I don’t care if I ever see it again. But special events in the life of your family are irreplaceable. Fingers crossed that I can find the right Hi-8 camera to rescue this footage.