Electronovision was a process used by producer/entrepreneur H. William "Bill" Sargent, Jr. to produce a handful of motion pictures, theatrical plays, and specials in the 1960s and early 1970s using a high-resolution videotape process for production, later transferred to film via kinescope for theatrical release.
Releases in Electronovision
More than half a dozen films were produced in this fashion, including the production of Richard Burton in Hamlet (1964), the concert film The TAMI Show (1964), and the Magna Film production of Harlow (1965), starring actress Carol Lynley as the 1930s sex symbol.
Electronovision was a forerunner of digital cinema, now used in the 2000s to project digital images through projectors onto cinema screens. Bill Sargent, creator of over 400 electronic patents, is best known for pioneering Pay-Per-View in 1962 in a boxing match between Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) and George Logan.
Electronovision was an entirely separate and more advanced process from the earlier Electronicam, used by the DuMont Television Network in the 1950s to telecast live TV shows with electronic cameras, while simultaneously filming the production with a film camera attached to the side of the video camera. That process had been used on TV series broadcast by DuMont as well as the "Classic 39" half-hour version of The Honeymooners that aired on CBS in the 1955-56 television season, allowing the producers to archive a high-quality film negative for reruns.
While the press releases on Electronovision were deliberately vague, perhaps to add more mystique to the process, it used conventional analog Image Orthicon video camera tube units, shooting in the B&W 819-line interlaced 25fps French SECAM video standard, using modified high-band quadruplex VTRs to record the signal.
The promoters of Electronovision gave the impression that this was a new system created from scratch, using a high-tech name (and avoiding the word kinescope) to distinguish the process from conventional film photography. Nonetheless the advances in tape-to-reel time were, at the time, a major step ahead. By capturing more than 800 lines of resolution at 25 frame/s, raw tape could be converted to film via kinescope recording with sufficient enhanced resolution to allow big-screen enlargement. The 1960s productions used RCA TK-60 image orthicon video cameras, which have a characteristic white "glow" around black objects (and a corresponding black glow around white objects), which was an inherent flaw of image orthicon video camera tubes called "blooming". Later vidicon and plumbicon tubes produced much cleaner, more accurate pictures, as well as a higher resolution of 1400 lines. 
Videotape editing of the period was very primitive, which forced Electronovision producers to approach their productions essentially as if they were live TV broadcasts. Whole scenes were shot in long blocks, typically at least 5 or 10 minutes, and segments were physically cut together using mechanical 2" videotape splicing blocks. A special chemical solution and magnetic powder, applied to the videotape and viewed under a microscope, allowed the editor to see the video pulses and precisely align them for glitch-free editing. However, the technique was hit-and-miss and made it difficult to make accurate, fast edits.
Despite the success of these productions in the mid-1960s, Sargent's original Electronovision empire went out of business around 1966, following the release of "Stop the World – I Want to Get Off". The producer revived the idea in 1975 with newer, color video equipment, and was able to mount a critically acclaimed independent release of James Whitmore's one-man show "Give 'em Hell, Harry!", an biographical based on the life of U.S. President Harry S. Truman. Two years later, Sargent had his most successful production, Richard Pryor's early 1979 live stand-up comedy performance "Richard Pryor: Live in Concert", the first stand-up comedy film by any comic, which received wide distribution in theaters as well as cable TV and, later, home video.
Health and business problems forced Sargent to retire in the 1980s. The process became a footnote in history, though several other attempts were made to revive the essential concept—a higher-res videotape system, using modified video cameras, recording to videotape and then making a kinescope for theatrical release. Decades later, the process was perfected with the introduction of high definition television equipment in the late 1990s, resulting in digital cinema, digital intermediates, and was the beginning of the end of traditional photochemical filmmaking, ushering in an entirely digital era of motion picture production.
Avant-garde musician Frank Zappa co-directed and co-wrote 200 Motels (1971), which was shot on PAL color videotape at Pinewood Studios in England. The production featured dazzling graphics, video feedback, and chromakey visual effects, and is considered a precursor to the music videos of the 1980s. The production was electronically edited using early Ampex equipment, then transferred to 35mm film for theatrical release.
In 1973, Hollywood actor/producer Ed Platt, made famous by his role as "The Chief" in the NBC-TV series Get Smart, raised the money to produce one of the very first independent color motion pictures shot entirely on videotape: Santee, starring Glenn Ford. Platt saw the advantages of using videotape over film, and used the facilities of Burbank's Compact Video Systems to shoot the western on location in the California and Nevada deserts. The motion picture was shot with Norelco PCP-70 portable plumbicon NTSC cameras and portable Ampex VR-3000 2" VTRs, then transferred to film at Consolidated Film Industries in Hollywood. Unfortunately, the film was not commercially successful. Platt died about six months after the film was released.
In 1976, TV producer George Schlatter, known for his successful NBC-TV series Laugh-In and many TV comedy specials, wrote and directed the motion picture Norman, Is That You?, based on the controversial Broadway play. Also shot on NTSC videotape, the film starred comedian Redd Foxx and Pearl Bailey. The film enjoyed some critical success, but was Schlatter's only foray into feature films.
Los Angeles video post-production company Image Transform specialized in creating very high-quality kinescope recording during the 1970s and 1980s. Their Image Vision process used modified PAL color video cameras, upping the resolution from 625 lines to 655 lines for slightly improved resolution. This process - very similar to Sargent's Electronovision - recorded the signal on ultra-wideband IVC 9000 analog VTRs, but allowed easy electronic editing, titling, and effects, similar to a traditional 1980s videotape TV show. The Image Vision process was used on several minor shorts and theatrical releases, including Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982). Image Vision was superseded by the analog NHK Hi-Vision high definition system of the early 1990s.
- Digital cinema
- Digital Cinema Initiatives
- Digital cinematography
- Digital film post-production
- Digital intermediate
- Digital projector
- Display resolution
- Quadruplex videotape
- Video tape recorder
- "TAMI Show"
- Eagan, Daniel (March 19, 2010). "The Rock Concert That Captured an Era". smithsonianmag.com. Retrieved 10 February 2014. "Sargent developed Electronovision, which promised high-quality video-to-film transfers of live performances. His cameras could capture 800 lines of registration, more than double the limit for home television reception. (In later years the cameras approached 1,400 lines of registration, the equivalent to today’s high-definition capabilities.)"
- The T.A.M.I. Show at the Internet Movie Database
- The T.A.M.I. Show at AllMovie
- Bill Sargent film credits http://pro.imdb.com/name/nm0765090/
- Bill Sargent NY Times obituary http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/31/arts/31SARG.html
- TAMI Show and Bill Sargent bio http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/The-Rock-Concert-That-Captured-an-Era.html
- Chuck Pharis video camera web page
- Santee at the Internet Movie Database
- Norman, Is That You at the Internet Movie Database
- Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl at the Internet Movie Database