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Real World Adventures with the Panasonic AG-HVX200

COW Library : Panasonic Cameras : Gary Adcock : Real World Adventures with the Panasonic AG-HVX200
Camera Review from The Creative COW Magazine


Creative COW Magazine presents Real World Adventures with the Panasonic AG-HVX200



Gary AdcockGary Adcock
Chicago Illinois, USA

©2006 Gary Adcock and CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.

Article Focus:
In this prosumer hd dv camcorder review from The Creative COW Magazine, Gary Adcock reveals what it's like to work in the world of Panasonic's new P2 technology? The Panasonic AG-HVX200 is multi-format, capable of SD and HD in 720 and 1080.



The Panasonic AG-HVX200 has bought a new tapeless workflow to HD acquisition and because of this, a lot of debate. After all, this is a camera with a combination of 81 possible shooting modes that is built around a technology that few understand before a thorough examination. So let's explore some of the myths and the facts that users are finding when working with this camera in the real world.

I learned of Panasonic's P2 plans three years ago following a session on the Future of Tapeless Acquisition that I taught at NAB. Coming from the "real" HD world, I was very skeptical. The idea of P2 tapeless capture seemed interesting three years ago when I was first introduced, but writing HD content in any usable form to a disc-based array was daunting enough - writing video to a piece of hardware as simple as a PCMCIA card seemed nearly impossible.

I am glad to report that I was wrong about the HVX200 and what it is capable of. It really does live up to almost all of the hype. And while it isn't in any way, shape or form a Varicam, it is a new species in digital acquisition evolution. With it, you can shoot HD and SD to the flash-memory P2 cards across a wide range of formats. With so many formats available, some users can easily get overwhelmed.

Most people I talk to about the HVX200 think they need to know and use every format available to them. The reality is they do not. None of the projects that I've worked on with this camera needed all 81 of the HVX200's shooting modes. I think most people will use no more than about two or three across a single project - and they shouldn't.

From a post production perspective, pick one, maybe two formats to work in. Understand that while a few stringers/freelance camera ops in LA or NYC might really find the multiplicity of shooting modes useful, the vast majority of people won't benefit. Build your experience around the camera in the areas and formats that make the most sense to your workflow.

Panasonic AG-HVX200
The Panasonic AG-HVX200 is multi-format, capable of SD and HD in 720 and 1080.


AG-HVX200 IN MY WORKFLOW:

My work with the prototype camera I used over a period of six weeks started with what I know, which is 720p. I prefer the 720p format for acquisition and editing and if you want to know why, visit Creative Cow's Panasonic P2 forum and do a search on 720p and then click on the posts where you see my name. The reasons are too lengthy to address here.

Even in 720p, this camera came with a couple of new twists. I now have three shooting modes when working in 720p: two react in the manner I am accustomed to with the Varicam; the other does not.

For the record, the 720p format always has to be played back at 60fps all the time, and that means when I shoot in the 24p mode of the HVX200, the camera "flags" the 24 frame content so that they can be extracted from the 60 frames via standard tools - those tools include FCP's software Frame Rate Converter and CinemaTools. However, the camera also allows for capture in the 24PN mode, HVX200 parlance for "Progressive Native," which captures only the flagged frames, making it by far the most economic to use.

It is amazing that when shooting in the 720p24PN mode you actually get about 15% more recording time on the P2 Cards than you do shooting Standard Def NTSC at DV50. This is especially apparent when working with the off-speed settings, as they no longer need to be post processed in the Frame Rate Converter in the same manner as Varicam content does. This is a major advantage to the whole variable speed workflow derived from the VariCam side. The Hardware FRC is not needed and as of this writing, FCP currently supports a softwarebased tool to handle its content for post processing. Avid supports the VFR capture over FireWire in the latest versions of Avid Adrenaline and Avid Xpress Pro.


CONSIDERING TAPELESS?

Any foray into a tapeless production workflow requires a new way of thinking and working. Sloppy file management, improperly named files and other shoddy work habits are dangerous when working in a tapeless workflow. The speed, power and ease of production we are seeking comes at the price of due diligence in tracking, backup, naming procedures, file transfer and the need to successfully manage your media.

For the well initiated, the HVX200 will bring with it a new reality that can be liberating. But I suspect there will be a flood of people who lose their content and/or trash their backups without realizing it.


CAMERA HITS & MISSES

I am not a DVX100 user and because of this, I do not like some of the menu settings and button configurations on the HVX200. This is a personal thing, not a design deficiency. Additionally, there are so many menus that even after a couple of months on the camera, I still get lost when I am demonstrating it to people that want to see some of the SD functions. To me, there are little annoyances such as "Why is the Setup menu for setting IRE black levels the second menu item in and not buried in the bowels of the ‘Other Settings' menu?"

I love the scene mode buttons on the back of the unit; however, I feel the component-out connection is a tad on the weak side. I use a piece of Velcro to hold the cord to the handle so it does not tear out during my demos. Sometimes I connect it to my AJA HD10a converter so that I can convert the analog component signal to HD-SDI for a longer cable run than allowed using the component cable. I wish that Panasonic had used the longer cable which the Canon H1 uses - the good news is, they are interchangeable.

I also agree with some of the rental houses regarding the door that covers the P2 card slots being a potential problem waiting to happen. Then again, I treat rental equipment as if I own it, so for me it is not a problem.

I cannot help but be in awe of the engineering of the unit, I have met a couple of the designers and I cannot believe that they crammed as many things into the camera as they did: three video outs, one analog video in, Firewire, USB, SD card and the P2 functionally; even with all this, the thing weighs less than 5.5 lb (a bit over two kilos).

Some HVX200 Gotchas...

User Scene files must be saved or any changes will not be retained when the camera is powered down.

While you cannot do speed ramps with the HVX200 you can change the frame rates without going into the menus by using scene files. But you cannot do it in mid-capture.

News Gamma is only available at 60P or 60i Rec Formats.

In Video Cam mode, Synchro Scan is disabled at shutter speeds longer than the record frame rate. Slow Shutter options are still available.

"18 dB Gain" is disabled in interlace modes.

"0 dB Gain" is forced when frame rates are below 22 fps or when in "Slow Shutter" mode.

Knee is disabled when in either "Cinelike" gamma mode.

There are several switches in the "3. SW Mode" menu, which can be selected to change the operation of the camera and some of these can surprise you.

Examples are:

Automatic Tracking White (ATW) for any of the color balance positions (INCLUDING PRST!)

Handle zoom control speeds

Up or down rotation to open for the Iris Dial control.


The lens is the usual quality that I expect from Leitz (Leica). I have a half dozen Leica lenses for my M6 still camera and they are easily the sharpest glass I have ever used. The non-interchangeable lens mounted on the HVX200 is no different, I have tested both a prototype and the shipping version of the HVX200 and I can assure you that the prototypes were not the same camera that shipped. Shipping units have as much as a 10-15% increase in "apparent" resolution based on my own tests. The shipping units also have less compression noise and better color. The handling and "feel" between the two cameras that I tested - the prototype and the final shipping unit - were also vastly different.


81 SHOOTING MODES

The real problem with a tool such as this, is the shear power that it puts in the user's hands. In my opinion, the HVX200 may be the single most powerful tool for the majority of independent filmmakers out there. The number of settings and configurations possible can be mind-blowing and overwhelming for the uninitiated.

Let me say that in spite of all of the safeguards put into this unit, I know that someone is going to blow the thing up, write over all their data on a card - which is nearly impossible. Some will mistakenly overwrite critical data - which is very easy once your footage files are in the computer.

As warned earlier, anyone using this camera is going to have to rethink their entire workflow from the ground up; this, as many of the old tools and habits can cause you far more grief than comfort here.

Seemingly simple things like importing content from the cards needs a thoughtful and trusted worker. In the old days, we had filmloaders to make sure the mags were constantly full. Now, that assistant's job will be to make sure the data has been copied off the P2 cards and the card is returned to the Camera Op empty - this, as something as simple as failing to delete the contents of a card renders it useless if the Operator cannot record to it. The card must be unlocked and have available space to be able to record to.


THE POST WORKFLOW

Before I dig into the post production workflow, if you only remember one thing, remember this: Editing video on your computer is the hardest thing you can do to it, short of dragging it behind your car. Yet, dragging it may prove easier on your psyche than changing the way you have learned to work.

The HVX200 will not playback your footage if the settings are not set to the exact format as the media you are trying to playback. That said, the camera is smarter than we are and it knows the data it can and cannot play. We might forget but the thumbnail screen tells you what you need to set the camera to so that you can play back your footage. It even identifies the difference between the PN and plain old P modes while in the thumbnail display.

Like the tumblers in a lock, if all of the pins are not in place, it will not work. All of the pieces need to be in the correct order and placement as HD is considerably less forgiving than DV content. It is especially so with the power of the HVX200, there is much that can go wrong if all of the i's are not dotted and the t's are not crossed.

Welcome to working in HD! There are so many more possibilities and variables that can trip you up - especially if you are not consciously mindful of how to handle the content.


WORKING WITH P2 CARDS

When you record in the camera to the P2 cards you will need to get the content off of the card into your edit system. Even when using a Mac or Windows laptop, it's fairly straightforward. You need a machine with a PCMCIA (or PC) card slot, along with the correct versions of the software you edit with. As this is always changing and there are so many tools in use today, I would recommend a visit to the Creative Cow Panasonic P2 forum for feedback on the best solution for use with your editing software.

For those with the new MacBook Pro, while it does not have the appropriate type of slot for direct insertion of the cards, I was able to use the Panasonic AJ-PCD10 P2 Card reader via USB to transfer the content into FCP using the newest Intel version of the Mac laptop. I however, prefer the simplicity of a G4 Powerbook or PC laptop - both of which allow me to just insert a P2 card into the PCA card slot and wait for the card to mount like any other hard disk.

I use FCP as my editor and bringing the content into FCP could not be easier, as long as you are using the correct easy setup for the type of content that you are trying to import.

Using OSX 10.4.3 and QT 7.03 (or later) and FCP Version 5.04, you only need to go to the File Menu > Import > Panasonic P2. Then the previously mounted card is automatically recognized in Final Cut. It is also this easy with Avid, Canopus, and Premiere Pro 2 software on the PC. The dialog box allows you to select multiple clips on the card or to import all of the clips on the card, it's your choice.


A MXF "GOTCHA" ON THE MAC

On the Mac, this import strips off all of the MXF metadata formatting and imports the DVCProHD, DVCPRO or DV content from the P2 into the capture scratch location you have specified in Final Cut. Remember that this is where the video will be playing back from, so I do not recommend using the internal drive on your laptop. Editing from the DV tape is the same as it is on the DVX100 series cameras.

One of the caveats with this camera lies in Apple's defined DV over Firewire workflow. Apple has told everyone that using your DV camera as a transcoder for video monitoring is just fine and dandy.

Many people are used to using their camera as a passthrough device via 1394 for monitoring video on a monitor - this is not recommended by most manufacturers and even Apple does not recommended it anymore. With the HVX200 the process is not possible and using the Component Out for monitoring is convoluted, at best. I do not recommend this workflow at all. I use AJA's Kona boards in my edit suites to support the DVCProHD workflow Apple has envisioned. The Konas add usability and functionality because their hardware takes over the scaling of the DVCProHD codec that robs my CPU of extra RT when some other capture solutions are used.

I have to admit I love cutting HD footage in the DVCProHD codec. When I am cutting in 720p 24 the data rate for the video content is only 5.5mgs a sec compared to the 3.75 megs per second for ordinary DV25 content. Not a big jump when you realize that HD was developed to be a replacement for 35mm film acquisition. I am not the only one that thinks this way: Apple and others are focused on the DVCProHD workflow as the single most efficient way to handle the rigors of editing HD, regardless of how it was captured.

Long-form content is a different issue, the 8gig cards only hold 20 minutes of shooting time. Many people need to record longer times than can be handled efficiently with the two slots on this camera. While I have been able to continuously record a 90 minute interview using three 4gig cards, it does show one of the weakness and strengths of the new acquisition format.

Focus Enhancements will be shipping the FS100 1394-based capture device somewhere around the time you are reading this. With about 90 minutes of recording time on the FS100, the 100 gig device shows that long-form recording solutions are coming. CinePorter and others are rushing to the field with all sorts of solutions for this issue.


ARCHIVING

All of this content needs to be handled, edited and archived. Archiving is the magic word here, because without an archive your content is not much more than smoke in the wind, passing by nearly as fast as the light that created it.

A P2 card is, for all intents and purposes, a hard disk. It's not a videotape type of thing. You don't "capture" video from the P2 card, it's already captured and digitized. The data stored on a P2 card is what you'd expect to have after capturing videotape isn't it?

So at that point, it's all data on a disk. How do you back up hard disks? Most users are backing up with data tape. DLT, or LTO, or SAIT are all currently being used. Data tape is the mainstay of archiving mass quantities of data worldwide. Data tape archiving is used to archive bank records, DMV records and everything else you can think of. So you can back all that up to data tape or a hard drive, DVD or anything else, just like you would any other computer data.


Gary AdcockGary Adcock travels the world serving a broad range of clients whom he serves with his wide-ranging knowledge and experience.



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