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A video camera to serve the community


Because it could meet the portability and communications requirements of socially engaged artists with messages to convey, the Portapak became THE reference in cameras. It offered great freedom to filmmakers, communities and camera operators who wished to share their stories and opinions with a wide audience.

Refer to the “Additional resources” section to see a glossary of technical terms.

A video camera in the service of the community

As its name suggests, the Portapak was designed to be portable and easy for solo filmmakers to operate alone. Its name could hardly be more appropriate, could it?

The Portapak Sony Video Rover II (AVC-3400) was launched in 1970. The result of advances in 1960s VCR technology, this lightweight, easy-to-handle device was made up of two components: a camera and a portable recorder. The camera was equipped with a microphone that transmitted audiovisual signals to the portable recorder, which was linked to the camera by a cable. The portable recorder used videotape, which could be rewound and viewed right after a scene was recorded. This was not possible with film cameras. The Portapak produced a low-definition black and white image that could be viewed on televisions. 

This new camera was frequently used by community video production workshops, such Vidéographe in Montréal, and feminist video collectives, such as Vidéo Femmes in Quebec City, to create socially engaged works.

Examples of videos


Philosophie de boudoir, directed by Helen Doyle and Nicole Giguère, 1975
Cinémathèque québécoise collection. Helen Doyle and Nicole Giguère (CC BY-SA-ND).
Satire of the Women’s Show in Quebec City in April 1975. To believe in it, must one be naive, utopian or simply of a philosophical nature? (Cinémathèque québécoise program)


Le Magra directed by Pierre Falardeau and Julien Poulin in 1975
© Films Pea Soup inc.
The training of future police officers at the Nicolet Police Institute is shown in its various stages, as it promotes conformist attitudes and conditioned behaviours. With various camera perspectives, the film emphasizes the moral and physical rigidity of this indoctrination process, which embodies both alienation and loss of individuality (Cinémathèque québécoise program).

Police cadets practice marching in line in a large drill hall. The film director, holding the camera and the recorder, is on the right.

Photograph from the filming of Le Magra, 1975. Cinémathèque québécoise 1995.1754. PH

Police cadets are lined up in a large room, facing the windows. They take up the entire room. On the bottom left, the director stands holding the camera and the recorder.

Photograph from the filming of Le Magra, 1975. Cinémathèque québécoise 1995.1754. PH

Origins of a video camera

To better understand the Portapak and the idea behind its creation, it must be looked at from a post-war point of view. The creation of video cameras in the 1950s was influenced by several factors, including ideas about communication and a need for compatibility with the burgeoning medium of television.

SONY was created in 1946. A team of about twenty engineers focused on developing and producing communications equipment. They quickly met with success in Japan, and international success soon followed.


A man in a suit looks straight into the camera.

Photograph of Nobutoshi Kihara, engineer at SONY. ETHW.

The Portapak was one of the first portable video systems to be made available to individuals, amateurs, artists and independent producers in the 1970s. 

The creation of the video camera was influenced by the principle of feedback—a major innovation born of video technology and later popularized by video art. 

In 1965, SONY launched the Portapak, which was sold with a tripod and a microphone. It was the first in a long series!

Video became a tool for the people, notably through the creation of community media, radio and television. It hit the market in the era of women’s liberation and the social movements of the 1960s and 70s. It was born of a desire to break free from the codes and structures of traditional cinema and get closer to “real people.” This new ability to leave the studios behind, record subjects’ stories and share them on alternative community networks became a tool for participating in the social debates of the day. The cameras could record and broadcast political events and actions. Video very quickly became an instrument of subversion and protest for those on the fringes of society.

Portapak AV-3400 and AVC-3400 technical data sheet


Measurements (camera only)
38 cm x 7 cm x 13 cm
Measurements (recorder)
27,7 cm x 7,1 cm x 26,6 cm
Weight (camera and recorder)
11 kg
Plastique, métal

Components and accessories

The camera and microphone send signals to the recorder via the cable.
Portable recorder
The recorder receives signals from the camera and the microphone, as well as the signal to rewind so the recorded footage can be viewed. This is not possible with a film camera..
1/2-inch black and white magnetic tape
Unlike film, magnetic tape can be erased and reused several times. It can record about thirty minutes of low-definition images.
7-56 mm lens
The zoom lens allows the camera operator to quickly adjust the frame during the shoot.
Electronic viewfinder
The electronic viewfinder makes it possible to see exactly what is being filmed. It can also be used to view the recorded video.
Batteries with a run time of 45 minutes
The recorder can be powered by batteries, giving the operator greater freedom during the shoot. It can also be plugged into an electrical outlet or a car.
Integrated mono microphone
The camera is equipped with an integrated microphone, making it very silent. The sound quality can be adjusted during the shoot through the use of headphones. An external microphone can also be connected to the device.
The tripod is often used when filming interviews. To mount the camera onto the tripod, the camera’s handle must be removed.
Shoulder bag or backpack for the recorder
The bag frees up operators’ hands during shoots, allowing them to focus their attention on the camera. The camera and the recorder can be operated by the same person.


The Portapak is an alternative to the very heavy professional television cameras used in studios. It can be operated by a single person working on location. However, it weighs 11 kg.
Automatic functions
The camera features automatic functions that simplify its operation, rendering it accessible to amateur users.

Operation and handling

The Portapak made it easier than ever for solo filmmakers to film on-location television reports. Its portability and automatic functions made it relatively easy to use.

The basic steps for operating the camera consisted in connecting it to the recorder, pressing the shutter button, letting the camera warm up and adjusting the settings, just like with film cameras. The battery, headphones and preloaded recorder could be transported in the satchel.

In practice, however, several steps had to be completed before shooting could begin. It wasn’t completely instantaneous!


Première page du manuel du Portapak, aussi appelé Videocorder AV-3400. La page est blanche à l’exception d’un dessin de l’enregistreur à gauche et d’une personne portant l’équipement (caméra et enregistreur) à droite. View

Anon. n.d. SONY Videocorder AV-3400 Owner’s Instruction Manual. From the collections of Richard Diehl. 9 pages.

pdf (8.78 MB)
Première page du manuel du Portapak. La page est blanche à l’exception d’un titre manuscrit The Accessible Portapak Manual 1974-1984 View

Goldberg, Michael. 1974. The Accessible Portapak Manual 1974-1984. Cinémathèque québécoise collection. 2017.0001.01.0054.FD

pdf (2.68 MB)

The videographer was relatively free to move around and had the option of using the viewfinder to frame the shot, although this was not necessary. Unlike film cameras, in which the recorded images could be ruined if light entered the viewfinder, this device provided much more mobility. In this sense, it was much less restrictive.

Videographers could operate the camera and recorder on their own, but together these two pieces of equipment weighed almost four times more than the Bolex! It was therefore common to see teams of two operate this device: One person held the camera while the other handled the recorder and/or the microphone.

Video allowed more projects to be completed because shoots took less time and required smaller crews with less rigid hierarchies. These cameras ultimately provided videographers with great freedom and independence.

With video, I’m in constant direct contact with the image, which is not the case with film. In fact, given the daily cost of a shoot, I have to put the image in the hands of specialists (director of photography, camera operator, focus puller, colour timer) who will use their expertise to get the best possible results (hence the “glossy-looking” lighting and sets of “standard” films). With video, it’s okay if I make mistakes (and what’s more, I can control the image on the spot, find solutions, start over and experiment). So, I get to handle the camera, frame the shots and control the lighting however I want. Video is my image studio, the place where I can do my research and stretch the limits of my creative freedom [Translation]

(Danielle Jaeggi in Minne 2016, 20)

Nicole is holding the camera without using a tripod. Her eye is glued to the viewfinder, her right hand is supporting the underside of the camera and her left hand is on the zoom lens. The recorder is resting on a car beside her.

Photograph of Nicole Giguère in Paris, 1977. Personal collection of Nicole Giguère.
© Nicole Giguère

A woman is looking through the Portapak viewfinder. Her left hand is on the handle of the tripod, to guide the camera. Her right hand is adjusting the focus.

Photograph of Hélène Bourgault on the set of Chaperons rouges. The Portapak has been mounted on a large tripod (not the original one designed by SONY). Cinémathèque Québécoise collection: Fonds Helen Doyle. 1995.0736.PH.
© Helen Doyle

Two women watch a take through the camera. The woman on the right wears headphones to listen while she watches.

Photograph from the set of Sois belle et tais-toi, 1975. On the right, Delphine Seyrig watches and listens to a recording directly through the camera’s raised viewfinder. Photo from the book Defiant Muses: Delphine Seyrig and the Feminist Video Collectives in France in the 1970s and 1980s, p. 32-33.

Three women are seated. The one on the left is being interviewed. To the right of her, another woman holds out a microphone to record her words. She is supporting her right arm with her left hand. The woman on the right of the photo is filming them. Her backed is rounded and she appears to be distancing herself from her subjects.

Photograph from the set of Sois belle et tais-toi, 1975. On the right, Delphine Seyrig watches and listens to a recording directly through the camera’s raised viewfinder. Photo from the book Defiant Muses: Delphine Seyrig and the Feminist Video Collectives in France in the 1970s and 1980s, p. 22-23.

A man holds a Portapak camera on his left arm. The recorder is in a leather bag slung across his chest. He is posing with a smile.

Photograph of Bernard Émond with a Portapak. Cinémathèque québécoise collection 2004.0059.PH.
©Gabor Szilasi

Who used the Portapak?

The Sony VideoRover II... small, but oh my! View

Advertisement from Business Screen Magazine, 1971, p. 430.
Public domain

pdf (379.25 KB)

Users of this camera included private individuals, amateur filmmakers, community activists (feminists, racialized persons, First Nations, LGBTQ+) and visual artists of all types. Professional filmmakers and journalists, as well as cooperatives and schools, also used it. Despite the equipment’s relatively high cost (approx. $1,500 US in 1970, equivalent to $14,000 Canadian dollars today), it was a commercial success, and thousands of units were sold throughout the world.

This equipment could be borrowed from co-ops, making it a great tool for producing works of community engagement. An example of this type of co-op in Montréal is Vidéographe, the distributor of Le Magra. As well as offering rentals, it is a space for creating and distributing socially engaged works.

In Quebec and in France, video was widely used by women in an effort to raise issues about gender equality. These videographers wished to make a change and push society to evolve by revealing its flaws. For example, Vidéo Femmes, a collective founded by Helen Doyle and Nicole Giguère, was dedicated to producing and distributing videos made for women by women.

The videos I produced at Vidéo Femmes allowed me to shoot, experiment, learn and pursue my life with great happiness over the past few years. Working with female crews in a respectful and trust-based environment, that’s what video gave me. [Translation]

Lise Bonenfant in Copie Zéro, 1985, n. 26 (online, French only).

The Portapak also served the community by making it possible to broadcast content to larger audiences via television. It was used to create content for Télévisions Communautaires Autonomes (TCA)—a federation of approximately 40 community television stations incorporated as non-profit organizations working in local/regional production—that was broadcast on their local community channels. These TCAs adhere to and promote their guiding values and principles. They are also citizen-led.1

In Quebec, citizen groups chose to implement this type of community media because they believed in its ability to rally the community around important issues. Speaking up was seen as a way to contribute to social change. Television became an accessible and instructive tool for activists who wished to get involved in their communities.

Similarly, artists from many other fields adopted video as a new mode of expression that served as an extension of cinema. It was a growing medium that opened the door to new ways of experimenting.

In addition to being a socially engaged mode of communication, video therefore also became an experimental art form.


Additional resources

This motion picture glossary will help you better understand some of the terminology used.

Are you the inquisitive type? Would you like to learn more about Portapak and the filmmakers who used it? The following websites will provide you with additional information.

  • Opération boule de neige, directed by Bonnie Sherr Klein in 1969, demonstrates how the residents of a Montréal neighbourhood took collective action and how video helped them to do so. (French only)
  • Trailer for Insoumuses, directed by Callisto McNulty in 2018, featuring images of the Portapak being used by Carole Roussopoulos and Delphine Seyrig. (French with English subtitles)
  • Here Come the Videofreex, directed by Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin in 2015
  • Wikimedia conference organized by the Cinémathèque québécoise: “Vidéo Femmes : une histoire.” (French only)
  • Explanation of video art in Canada.
  • Copie Zéro no.6, April 1980 devoted a page to Vidéo Femmes. (French only).
  • Bensinger, Charles. 1981. The Video Guide. Santa Barbara: Video-Info Publications. Online book.


Anon. n.d. 1974. SONY Videocorder AV-3400 Owner’s Instruction Manual. From the collections of Richard Diehl. 9 pages.

Bourdeau, Roger. 2015. Helen Doyle cinéaste : la liberté de voir. Montréal: Vidéo femmes. Les Éditions du remue-ménage.

Goldberg, Michael. 1974. The Accessible Portapak Manual 1974-1984. Cinémathèque québécoise. 18 pages.

Minne, Julia. 2016. “Collecter, conserver et valoriser la vidéo légère en France (1968-1981) et au Québec (1967-1989).” Master’s dissertation. Paris : Université Paris 8.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. 2019. Defiant Muses: Delphine Seyrig and the Feminist Video Collectives in France in the 1970s and 1980s. Exhibition catalogue 2019-2020. Internet archive.

Copie Zéro, no. 26, October 1985

SONY website


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