I have always had an interest in early television. Whenever an old kinescope or early black and white videotape program comes on, I am there to see it. Innovators in early television like Ernie Kovacs, fascinate me. Imagine what Ernie could have done with todays technology.
Unfortunately, you don't get to see much of these pioneers work on the air anymore. Occasionally something will pop up on one of the more obscure cable networks. You can catch one every so often on a PBS retrospective. I recently saw a few old kinescopes of the Jack Benny program on one of the new digital sub-channels like Retro TV or This TV.
Recently, I was watching an episode of The Honeymooners on DVD here in the shack. Every time I playback one of these classic episodes, at the tail of the credits is "Filmed on the DuMont Electronicam System". Just what was Electronicam?
The Electronicam system was developed by engineers at DuMont. The DuMont Laboratories were founded in 1931 by Dr. Allen B. DuMont. He and his staff were responsible for many early technical innovations including the first consumer all electronic television set in 1938. Electronicam was the brainchild of DuMont engineer James Caddigan.
Electronicam was a recording system that shot an image on film and video simultaneously through a common lens. It was developed in the 1950's before Ampex came out with the first videotape recorders. Since the system shot directly to film, the quality was much higher than that of the commonly used kinescopes at the time.
Electronicam is actually fairly simple. An image is shot through the lens. A beam splitter behind the lens then sends one half of the image to the film camera mounted on the side of the television camera. The other beam split off to the side onto another mirror at a 45 degree angle to the image tube of the video camera. In the control room, an engineer threw switches to mark the film footage electronically, identifying the directors different camera "takes". Electronicam had a 1.3:1 aspect ratio and a relatively small parallax error.
Here, camera operators man three of the Electronicam "pickup units," each of which consisted of a TV camera and a Mitchell 35mm film camera. Mounted together side by side, the twin cameras allowed for simultaneous electronic and emulsion capture. The video material was transmitted live to a control room where the director selected edits and camera angles, much in the same manner employed today on three camera newscasts.
The director's video editing choices were later fed into kinescope equipment to create a "teletranscription", a blueprint of how the program appeared during broadcast. The teletranscription was then synchronized to the 35mm film reels that were sent off for editing.
Electronicam supported either 16mm or 35mm film. These editing guide kinescopes are the only surviving material from the "lost" Honeymooners episodes.
The archival film used on the Electronicam system was Kodak's Tri-X black and white stock.
The Electronicam TV/Film system permitted the actors to perform with the spontaneity of a live performance, while perserving the program on high-quality film. The audio was either magnetic fullcoat or an optical soundtrack negative.
The Honeymooners marked the first time that a prominent television program was photographed with the Du Mont Electronicam TV/film system. I Love Lucy, Captain Video and His Video Rangers, among others, used the Electronicam system.
Here is a studio photo of the Electronicam system in use during the shooting of a program at WABD Television.
If this system was developed earlier, perhaps many more of the classic DuMont programs would have been preserved.
I hope with the move to all digital television, the new sub-channels will make room for some of televisions history.