You've done everything to avoid this moment. You've made excuses about being too busy. You've fibbed about your weekend plans and pretended not to be home when the phone rang. But now you've run out of alibis and you're powerless to escape.
You're doomed to watch your neighbor's home movies.
Well, they're really videotapes of his vacation in Benkelman, Neb., but home movies are home movies whether they're on tape or film -- unless, of course, they're your home movies, in which case Kurosawa should eat his heart out. And more people than ever are making home videos: Camcorders are currently the hottest selling consumer electronic goodie -- 1.6 million sold last year, three times the number sold in 1984.
A camcorder, in case you haven't kept up with technology's explosive pace, is a combination video camera and videocassette recorder that lets you shoot video movies and instantly play them back on your TV set. With the old Super-8 camera, you waited a week for the film to be developed, but with camcorders you shoot in sound and color and see your masterpiece instantly. Doing this doesn't come easy or cheap. Camcorders start around $1,000 and come in four formats -- VHS, VHS-C, Beta and 8mm, with Super VHS in the wings -- each incompatible with the others.
There are also video accessories -- lights, mikes, tripods -- all of which dramatically add to the not inconsiderable start-up costs. So before you plunk down the dollars, ask yourself some hard camcorder questions. First, what are you really going to do with the thing? I know, I know. You're going to record family life in all its glory: Mom making apple pie. Your new car. Baby's first meal, baby's first steps, baby's first and second and third and fourth baths and so on into adolescence until the immortalization of teen-baby's first date. Which brings us to the second question: Who's going to watch all this?
By "all this" I mean hours of footage. Time, after all, is both the camcorder's blessing and its curse. With Super-8 you can shoot only 3 minutes and 20 seconds of film before reloading. And when the film is developed, you can screen one 3:20 reel at a time or splice film onto a larger reel holding about 30 minutes. Super-8's built-in time restrictions are annoying, but they (and the expense) have kept most home-movie makers from shooting brain-frying epics. Having only minutes to shoot also teaches you to keep your shots brief.
Video has changed all this, killing off Super-8 in the process. With a VHS T-120 cassette, you can shoot two hours for less than $5. (An equivalent amount of Super-8 would cost more than $200.) You can buy 30-minute videocassettes, but the two-hour ones are more economical. Which is good news or bad news, depending on how you use the camera.
Most professional films are less than two hours long and, unless they're very, very good, we squirm in our seats when they're longer. So what do you plan to film that's worth watching for two hours? Will you really shoot endless scenes of a wedding, graduation or your voyage to Pago Pago and expect anyone -- including you -- to sit through it more than once?
What you're trying to do is capture the joy and excitement of special moments. But the singularity of an event is something you hold in your heart. The original feeling it creates can't be chronicled merely by recording everything exactly as it happens. That's why the best professional films are treasures, fitting bits of images and sound together, creating the illusion of reality.
Which brings up the next point: Most people aren't very good cinematographers. And why should they be? Knowing how to make reasonably good movies is a skill demanding training and practice. That's why the average home movie is a collection of self-conscious clowning, jump cuts, blurs, jiggles and -- more than anything else -- interminably long scenes. Most home-movie makers don't understand the distinction between real time and reel time. Thirty seconds of reality passes in a flash, but a half-minute of banality on the screen makes viewers feel as if they're trapped in an elevator for the weekend.
There's an obvious solution to this. If you're going to pay thousands for video equipment, why not spend a few bucks more and learn to use it properly? Take a cinematography course, or at least buy a videography book, one that discusses the basic principles of good movie-making. (I'd suggest Thomas I. Ford's Pro Techniques of Making Home Video Movies, HP Books, $12.95.)
And take the Home Vidiot's Oath, promising never to shoot a) more than two sunsets in a 30-day period; b) more than one wading-pool scene in a calendar year; and c) anyone blinking into the camera saying, "Am I on?" You won't win an Oscar, but neither will you bore your viewers to death. ::