On Stage with the Sony XDCAM HD
COW Library : Sony Cameras : Rick Bronks : On Stage with the Sony XDCAM HD
A camera should be an extension of your body. Big cameras can become that for you in ways that small cameras simply can't.
It begins with the fact that stance is every bit as important to getting the shots as the settings on the camera. Whether you carry the camera underarm or on your shoulder, your whole torso is used to create the movement and the stability.
If I buy a camera, I don't want to also buy more kit to stabilize it. I don't want to wear a harness to mount the camera where it should be 90% of the time - on my shoulder.
Shoulders are for carrying things. If you're a cameraman, your shoulders are there to carry a camera. When you're training to be a cameraman, your shoulders are there to carry other people's cameras...and whatever else needs carrying!
This is why, with major manufacturers pushing new, small HD cameras, we were so stoked to discover the full-sized Sony F355 XDCAM HD.
When a friend from uni and I formed Forcefed Media, we were determined not to go the Handycam route. We're still not sure how, but we've only worked for large clients like HP, Hilton, Maxell, Coca Cola and the like.
They dictate a simple formula for our camera choices that is simple: we can't walk into a multi-billion dollar company with the same kit that they saw at their daughter's wedding.
To tell the truth, I almost think sometimes that we could put a smaller camera inside a hollow plastic shell and have what we need. It's not true of course, but...
DVCAM was the next reasonable step up from DV - affordable, higher quality, but not out of reach for a small shop. After a couple of decent jobs, we bought a Sony DSR-570, alongside a PDX10 and a 3 head lighting kit.
We shot on the 570 for a good year, and found that we were getting a feeling from the large camera's image that we just couldn't get out of a smaller camera - but we'd gone as far as we could with the OEM lens. It was just fine for starters. But you will not get the best out of any camera until you shell out some dollars for some decent lensware.
After much deliberation and testing, we settled on the super-wide Canon J11, about $30,000 at the time. It made the DV footage look absolutely phenomenal. It changed everything we shot.
Then we hit the HD era. Inevitably the first question that we were asked was "Is this HD?" We mumbled away to change the subject. So yes, our DVCAM looked wonderful, miraculous, but SD wasn't cutting it anymore.
What next? We already had a Sony HVR-A1 HDV for sneaking into places where it's helpful to look like a tourist, but HDV isn't really our bag.
HDV left us feeling that we wouldn't be sticking with Sony. We told ourselves, "There has to be another way."
ENTER XDCAM HD
For all our determination to look elsewhere, we found XDCAM HD by chance. I knew the SD version of XDCAM had been around for a while, but when we saw it in HD, it was amazing.
The heart of the system is the XDCAM disk. It uses the Sony Professional Disk format, an encased disk similar to Blu-ray that is tough as old boots. There are YouTube clips of people freezing one in a block of ice, thawing it out in a pan, drying it with a hair dryer and putting it back into a camera.
The price is fantastic. We get an hour of 35 Mb/s HD on a 25GB disk, basically a pound per gig -about the same as we were paying for SD tape, in a far more durable format.
What really sold it that completely solves the archive issue: stand it on its end in shelves, just like tape. It's a proper piece of tapeless tape! We can reuse the cartridges if we want to, but we're no more inclined to do that than we were to reuse tape.
Compared to this, P2 cards or SxS sticks are just too expensive. More important than the expense was the way we work. We couldn't see ourselves going tapeless if the only way to do it was to use a small capacity stick or card.
Say, I'm on a shoot, I need more space on the cards to keep shooting. I'll take my MacBook, slot in the card and dump the footage to my laptop. Or maybe have an assistant load cards into a reader just to shuffle media off the cards so I can keep shooting. Then transfer to my RAID back in the office.
It's not exactly advantageous to go tapeless if you have to spend hours with the media after you shoot with it.
Archive XDCAM HD? We have a physical disk with the same amount of footage we would have stored on tape. It costs the same as tape so no need to reuse. The disk stands on a shelf. End of archive issues.
The XDCAM editing workflow can also be a great timesaver. The browsing software shows the thumbnails for lo-res proxies. You can play back clips, mark in and out, yes/no, label each clip – then import those clips with logging and metadata intact.
If you want to, you can also export the proxy files for the client to review, or send them to the office over broadband and start working on the edit before the full-res files arrive. The full-res media automatically replaces the proxy footage as it's available during copying.
For us though, even when editing onsite, we tend to work with the full-res files from the start.
The camera choice was easy, but the lens choice was far from settled.
Our first question was whether we wanted to shell out big money on an HD lens when we'd had such a good experience with our J11 SD lens. Here was the additional pain as we started looking at lenses: the XDCAM HD F355 has a 1/2-inch mount, instead of the 2/3-inch mounts on the DSR-570 and so many other cameras.
With a significant investment in the 2/3-inch Canon J11, we found this alienating to say the least. We could have used an adapter, but that would have reduced the wide-angle-ness. It would have come out to the same focal length as the OEM lens.
After going back and forth for 3 weeks ("Nobody will be able to tell that we shot HD with an SD lens." "Don't be stupid. Of COURSE we need a new lens"), everything always pointed back to what we knew and what we were familiar with.
We settled on the 1/2-inch, HD version of the J11, the KH10. It was another $25,000 or so, and worth it: Canon all the way and the nice wide to boot.
The KH10 is physically a 1/2-inch longer than J11. Together with the 355 and battery pack,the rig is HEAVY, but it feels balanced. And we deliver something that looks good. Actually it looks better than good. It looks amazing.
WHY CORPORATE IS MORE CREATIVE (OR CAN BE!)
The corporate video stereotype: fat guy, cigar, leather chair, says, "Our company is brilliant."
The reality is that we are often given free reign to come up with ideas, a narrative and a structure for the films. The values we put into these films are no less that what would go into a broadcast piece. Our clientčle is savvy. We cannot get away with shoddy work.
Our most recent client is Wembley National Stadium, home to the England national football team, as well as the venue for major pop concerts including two sold-out shows by the Foo Fighters this summer.
The "new" Wembley was completed in 2007 for roughly 798 million pounds (just under $2 billion at the time) and at 90,000 seats, the world's largest stadium with every seat under cover.
On an event day, there can be up to 5000 people working at the stadium. At the moment, they're inducted with a PowerPoint presentation and some photography to show how things are done. We were called in to revolutionize the way this happens, starting with an introductory video.
We're treating it as a documentary, shooting over several months to create a single "day in the life" of the whole machine. From the catering staff to the stewards to the groundsmen who mow the pitch (we have real turf!), everyone needs to be shown procedures for health and safety.
In addition to Wembley Arena, Forcefed's corporate clients include MySpace, for whom they interviewed Mick Jagger, using both the F355 (top) and the EX1.
More important, they need to realize that whether they are flipping burgers or working in the medical center they are all part of one big team.
This is the first major job that we're using our EX1 XDCAM EX alongside the F355. We used this approach on a smaller scale when MySpace hired us to interview Mick Jagger for MySpace TV, a new "channel" oriented approach they're taking on the web. The F355 was the main camera, locked down, shooting color. The EX1 was handheld, shooting black and white.
Yes, we shoot XDCAM HD for the web. It looks fantastic. Search "Mick Jagger: Two Minutes on MySpace" to see for yourself. And in case you're wondering, Mick was extremely pleasant to work with. Couldn't have been nicer.
As part of our Wembley documentary, we're using the EX1 for time-lapse, a feature built in to the camera. We've stuck it on a magic arm and left it running for the crowd filing in, the stadium roof retracting, etc., and gotten fine results.
A big problem: the two cameras have different HQ frame sizes! The data rate for both is 35 Mb/s, but the frame size of the F355 is 1440, compared to 1920 for the EX1. This makes multicam editing using footage from both cameras in Final Cut Pro impossible. One workaround is to drop the EX1 to SQ mode: the frame size is 1440, but the data rate drops to 25 Mb/s.
The lesser evil is to shoot the EX1 in HQ, and downscale in Compressor. But surely the reason why you use the EX1 with the 355 is because you expect basic compatibility!
It's worth remembering that frame size doesn't equal image quality. The EX1 might come near to the 355 in good light, with the wind behind you, but it never surpasses the 355. Certainly not with the kind of glass we have on it.
The EX1 image is still wonderful in its own right, and its portability has its place in our productions -- always in the service of the larger camera.
Shooting with the EX1 is truly tapeless, but the SxS cards don't hold enough. Each 16GB card holds just under an hour. We often come back from a decent shoot with 4 hours of footage. For four 16GB cards you'll be paying almost half the cost of the camera!
Here's the good thing about all of this. The good folk at Sony will soon open up the architecture on the XDCAM HD disks to allow anything to be written to them.
A standalone app for both Mac and PC allows clip review, setting in and out points, and managing metadata. All changes carry through to the full res clips.
At the moment, there's 500MB of space to store "things" - files, scripts, edit logs etc.. But in a few months we've been promised that the whole 23 or 50 gigs will be available. Then we'll finally be able to write back the EX footage from the SxS cards to the XDCAM disks in the field, using the updated PDW-U1 drive.
WHERE WE ARE NOW
Life was so much simpler in the good old days of PAL or NTSC. A few issues came up with 16:9, but other than that, everything was easy. Now, just look at how many "easy" setups there are in FCP to see what "easy" means today.
We're currently shooting 1080/50i at 35 Mb/s, but XDCAM HD422 is on its way: 50 Mb/s, along with dual-layer disks for twice the capacity. But who knows how many more frame sizes and rates are ahead of us? It seems like we're still a few years from settling down.
In the meantime, our heavy investment in state of the art HD kit will keep us in the top league of media agencies in London, and keep us around for many years to come.
The F355 is a fantastic camera. XDCAM offers us extremely durable HD media with the capacities we need, dead easy archiving, and the same cost as the SD tape we were using before – with the full extent of benefits that tapeless production provides.
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