manual of the Sony AVC 3260, Sony Corporation

Andrew has told me about William Egglestone’s video project “Stranded in Canton”, which the photographer shot in the seventies with black and white and infrared sensitive video cameras. Andrew was fascinated of the quality of that footage and wanted to achieve a similar look for “Computer Chess”, which is set at a computer chess competition around 1980. These cameras would probably have been used for the coverage of an event like this.

It has been very difficult to find working black and white tube cameras in the year 2011 but we managed to acquire three Sony AVC 3260 cameras, which were the best option within that sort for giving us a more or less stable signal to record. The Sony AVC 3260 camera’s heart is a 2/3 inch black and white Vidicon video tube.


with the Sony AVC 3260 on set of “Computer Chess”
photo: Carlyn Hudson

One of the tube cameras was sent to me in Los Angeles a couple of months before the shoot for first tests. It came in its original case with all the original accessories and it was like traveling back in time. When I first turned the camera on I felt excitement and fear at the same time. I was excited as an adventurer on a quest with this piece of machinery from another time with all its technical limitations and artifacts, which felt exactly right for what we were trying to do. And on the other hand I was worried as a cinematographer, who is responsible for the image produced on this unstable camera, which was not built for shooting features in the first place, has its own life, but on whose performance we had to rely on for 12 hours every day.


Patrick Riester in “Computer Chess”

The artifacts of these old tube cameras are manifold and we embraced them all. Because of the tube’s nature, bright parts of the image, especially highlights, burn into the tube, meaning that when the framing changes, the shapes of these bright objects stay as shadows on the screen, sometimes making objects and people look transparent. Highlights leave a trail behind them when they move through the shot. The camera can’t handle much contrast and in extreme situations, like shooting against a light source, interesting electronic patterns like wandering black waves appear. These tubes also have a very specific soft character, which would not be easy to recreate in post. The cameras had electronic issues and sometimes would generate electronic noise when touching the camera body or the lens. All these artifacts combined add a transcendental character to the image and help express the sometimes unexplainable things that happen between man and computer in our story.


photo: Carlyn Hudson

Of course there were risks that we had to keep minimal and technical problems we had to solve. There are not many spare parts for these cameras left but we got some replacement tubes for emergencies and had an electric engineer on standby. He also modified our cameras. Fortunately repairs did not become necessary during the shoot but we had some scary moments. Our pre tests showed that the camera’s signal would not run stable enough by itself and we had to run it through a time base corrector before sending it to an analog to digital SDI converter and finally to our AJA Ki Pro Mini which recorded in the Apple ProRes format. In the end we had a whole cart full of noisy electronic gear, which E.J., my assistant, controlled. The camera was connected via a thick cord to this “EJtron”, as Andrew called it. It also functioned as Andrew’s private video village, which was a premiere for him since we never had a video assist on any of our other movies.


Gordon Kindlmann and Patrick Riester in “Computer Chess”

Each of the three cameras offered it’s own challenges and characterisitcs, which we mostly loved. However, we had to shoot a movie and could not spend too much time waiting for camera problems. After a couple of days I found the body that was most reliable and, besides some glitches, it luckily did not give up on us until the last day of shooting. I removed the camera’s bulky original viewfinder and replaced it with an onboard LCD monitor with built in waveform monitor . These cameras always needed some time to warm up before they ran more or less stable. Before every take I had to adjust the video levels with a screwdriver into a healthy spot with the help of the waveform monitor. We also had to be really careful to avoid bright objects within the frame in between takes and when setting up to avoid unwanted burn ins on the tube, which could take a long time to fade away. Besides the original Sony zoom I used Canon and Nikon lenses with adapters for the camera’s c-mount. I also bought a cheap surveillance camera type 6mm lens, which produced a big vignette on our 2/3 inch tube, which we used in this shot.

Matthias Grunsky

For more details about the workflow and some of the gadgets used you can go to this article on the AJA website: