Owning the means of production

6th May 2013

Yesterday was Karl Marx’s birthday and today is a holiday that more or less coincides with one on 1 May that in some eighty countries celebrates International Workers’ Day. On Friday last Illuminations said farewell, after more than a decade’s service, to its Sony DSR-500WS camera, a part of which you can see above (the whole is below). Significant as this event was for us, it is perhaps not obviously connected with celebrations of socialism around the world. But let me tell you a story that brings the two together.

At the end of the twentieth century Illuminations was an independent television production company that – like pretty much every other small to medium-sized independent – did not own the means of television production. In the 1990s cameras that could record broadcast-quality images cost something short of £50,000. Broadcasters owned these cameras, as did facility companies and a few rich directors of photography, and we hired them for several hundred pounds a day. We also hired online editing suites – which were needed to complete programmes at broadcast quality – for several hundred pounds an hour.

Such had been our way of working since the start of the company alongside the start of Channel 4 back in 1982. We shot our first programmes on 1″ videotape and on 16mm film, always working with cameras hired on short-term contracts. We edited on Steenbeck flat-bed editing tables and on basic non-linear offline VHS systems. Then we took our film fine cuts and our offline logs to, respectively, laboratories and online facility companies for completion. And we were happy, as were the broadcasters for whom these were the approved processes of production.

Time marches on, however, as does the speed of change in production technologies, and pretty soon we were shooting with BetaSP tapes and then DVCAM and, best of all, with Digi-beta (most notably for Macbeth, 2000) as well as, rarely but gloriously, on Super 16mm film (notably for Gloriana, A Film, 1999). The images changed but not our way of financing their creation, which still depended on us securing money from broadcasters to hire expensive equipment owned by others.

Around this time we and many others started to work with the first generation of semi-pro camcorders recording to mini-DV tapes. But these did not produce images that would pass muster in the increasingly rigorous “quality review” processes adopted by broadcasters before they accepted a finished programme.

Then in what my increasingly fallible memory recalls as 2000 Sony released their DSR-500WS professional camcorder which shot full-height anamorphic 16:9 images and recorded to DVCAM tape (the link takes you to lots more techie stuff). This produced broadcast-quality widescreen images and finally, for us, the price was right. Again, as I recall it, we paid around £12,000 for the camera that you see here in all its glory (thanks for the photo, Todd).

Illuminations' DSR500, photo by Todd MacDonald

At last, in the terms analysed so rigorously by Marx and Friedrich Engels, Illuminations owned the means of production. And this important change for us was reinforced when quite soon afterwards the first desk-top editing systems became available, initially from Avid and then in the form of the now more widely-known Final Cut Pro. For the first time, we could shoot a production with our own camera and edit it with our own desktop kit and play out a broadcast-ready master. This was – and still seems as I write this – revolutionary.

Sometime in 2000 we began to think that we might make programmes which no broadcaster had commissioned. We could commit our own resources, in the shape of this camera and our editing system, and our own time, which we were prepared to invest, and we could try to make productions. Crucially, we did not need someone else’s cash to hire kit. We might, indeed, begin to work as a true independent producer.

One morning my colleague Henry Johnson and I got into a cab with our DSR-500 and a tripod and drove down to the studio, just off Brick Lane, of the artist Mona Hatoum. We were doing this not because a broadcaster had paid us to do so, but simply because we wanted to – and because we could.

Henry and I that morning recorded a fascinating interview with Mona which we soon supplemented with images that we shot on our DSR-500 of her remarkable show at Tate Britain. I had a sense that from this material we could make a very simple half-hour film about Mona’s work that might find an audience, especially since at that time the BBC and Channel 4 had all-but given up making films with contemporary artists.

That film, made possible because we now owned the means of production, became the first of the series that we called theEYE and that eventually numbered 37 productions. theEYE: Mona Hatoum was released initially on VHS and then later on DVD, and is still available for just £13.99 from the publishing arm that we established.

We sold the film to Channel 5 (weird, that) when they began to take an interest in arts documentaries and it has been shown on specialist arts channels in the USA, Australia and elsewhere. It has been screened in schools and colleges all over the world, and in museums and galleries alongside Mona’s work.

Alongside theEYE we started to produce films in the series The Art of…, again always shooting on the DSR-500WS. Our regular DoP Ian Serfontein and I took that camera all over Britain, on not a few Easyjet flights around Europe, and even to the States. We shot many more productions for ourselves, but we also used it for our broadcast work in the early 2000s and on films for Tate and a host of other musuems, for The Open University, and for others.

Five or six years ago,and starting with Sky Arts, broadcasters wanted us to shoot and deliver on HD, and gradually the DSR-500WS was less central to what we did. HD CAM is now the standard, and last week we were discussing whether within two or three years broadcasters will expect us to deliver 4K masters.

The images of today and tomorrow are far beyond the technical capability of the DSR-500. But for a while that camera was our warhorse. It allowed us for the first time to own the means of production and it made possible the fundamental change in the way in which we worked – which in turn has allowed us to remain as a small, arts-focussed independent producer. We have much to be grateful for to that camera, and I hope that this note can act as a tiny tribute as it finally leaves us.


  1. Ian Hylands says:

    I couldn’t agree more, John. The power to get up and produce something totally independently is something that cannot be undervalued.

  2. Louise Machin says:

    This is especially poignant for me as I came to work at Illuminations almost at the same time as the DSR-500 arrived. I’ll never forget the pure excitement of getting that first sale at Tate Britain for ten units of the Mona VHS, right at the start of our publishing journey.

    John, there are actually 45 titles in theEYE series! It’s a fabulous achievement thanks in part to that wonderful camera and our collective belief in a different, but still viable means of production.

  3. I was gutted when I heard the 500 (as we always called it) was up for sale. In my 14 years working as a cameraman that Sony DSR-500WS was the camera that’s been on my shoulder the most.

    There were hundreds of shoots I did with that camera but the one I guess I’ll always remember was in 2005 when John handed me a list with the names and locations of 100 sculptures scattered all over England and asked me to take the 500, get in the car and just go and see what you can get. I was on the road for quite a few weeks, traveling up and down the country, with only a stack of printed out AA directions (the days before TomTom) and the trusty old 500 on the back seat to keep me company. Seeing all of England while shooting some of the best (and some of the worst neglected) public works was just amazing. I knew it would be long before I’ll get asked to do something like that again. The result was Sculpture 100, which is still available for only £17.99 from this site.

    I guess with technology moving so fast today; new cameras being launched on an almost monthly basis, it’s hard to believe that the shooter has any sort of real relationship with their camera as they used to in the past.

  4. John Wyver says:

    Thanks so much, Louise and Ian.

    The DVD of the film that Ian mentions, The Sculpture 100, is available here:


  5. Channel 5 did go through that remarkable period when they ran very old fashioned and so instantly compulsive arts coverage, notably in the morning which literally amounted to an expert being interviewed on a topic in a studio accompanied by slides. Everything you needed to know about Mondrian in half an hour — and that half an hour really was the moment when I finally understood what Mondrian was trying to achieve. Then they changed the logo, sprouted a couple of extra channels and became the home of CSI and Big Brother. Oh well.

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