A very popular story in American business circles involves a college student majoring in business who did a term paper on a new type of business that would deliver letters and packages overnight for a price significantly higher than current mail or parcel services. His professor, thinking that this service upgrade (along with it's associated costs) had all the utility, cost-effectiveness, and probability of satin toilet paper, and accordingly, issued him the near-failing grade of 'D'. Of course, these days Fred Smith doesn't let his grades in college bother him much -- running FedEx has really dominated his attentions since he started his company (as well as a whole new industry).
Just what IS this thing?
I have to admit that my first thoughts upon hearing about the Focus Enhancements Firestore were more similar to the myopia of the professor in the story than the forward-looking vision of the student. When Ron Lindeboom first gave me this assignment to review FireStore for CreativeCow.net, I had to call him a couple of times to ask what this was all about and to get some reassurance that this tool was really necessary in my shop. Sometimes technology can create solutions before we know we have a problem. The Firestore was created to eliminate the time-consuming process of digitizing (or, with DV, real-time 'transfer' of) footage from video cassette to computer harddrive, even as the industry seems to have only recently gotten used to the newfound speed of non-linear post production.
Focus Enhancements calls the Firestore a "DV Direct-to-Disk Interface", which seems to be basically a variation on a device our industry already uses in sporadic concentrations -- a digital disk recorder. It's designed to record DV video direct to a firewire harddrive -- and play it back. When it gets back to the office, a flip of the switch changes your impostor "VTR" into a harddrive and gives you access from your desktop to the clips you've recorded as data. The unique advantages of using a harddrive for acquisition are recording length limited only by your attached harddrive capacity, and raw footage capture (into your NLE) that can be done as a disk>disk transfer, saving considerable time versus capturing from tape.
The unit I used was outfitted with the FS-1 Case for field work. This would be one area where the Firestore has an edge in versatility over almost all of it's DDR predecessors -- it travels. Other than the Avid/Ikegami dockable system and the proposed JVC DV hard disk-based camcorder, and a recent product offering from Sony, the Firestore is a member of a pretty small group. When you add affordability to the equation, the group gets even smaller.
The Field Pack
The Field Pack is reasonably well thought-out. The exterior is cordura or something very similar, and seems quite durable, although the plastic clasps which attach the shoulder strap to the bag probably won't last long in a hard-core field-production operation. A small item: no pockets on the early version of the bag that I used for testing. An extra cable or battery or package of Juicy Fruit will need to go into the old photog vest (which isn't a big thing, although mine pulled down the little hanger clip in my van the other day from the sheer tonnage of permanently assigned junk in the pockets). Matt McEwen of Focus Enhancements told they were way ahead of me when I brought it up: the bag is already redesigned and improved -- with pockets.
The interior is an aluminum inner shell that does double duty as a frame that holds all the components in place as well as serving as a rigid, protective casing inside the cloth bag. The frame has slots for the Firestore unit, one small footprint firewire harddrive (the unit will work with as many as eight drives attached at one time -- just not in the field case), an NP-1 battery and it even ends up providing a small slot for rolling and stowing excess cable. All units slide into the case, which provides top access to the back of The Firestore and drive for configuring interconnecting cables, etc.
The cable area might be a little difficult to configure for someone with large hands, and a hinged door in the metal shell that allowed the user to look directly at the back of the units might be preferable to the current system. The user has to read the labels on the jacks from the top at a 90 degree angle while their hand with the cable almost certainly blocks 90% of their view.
The entire metal case has to be removed from the cordura bag to configure the cabling as the bag does not provide a zipper to access the cable area. This only becomes an inconvenience if you must change harddrives in the field, or to remove a full drive and insert an empty one for the next shoot. I noted that the firewire cables seem to make a very short turn to accomodate the short depth of the cabling cavity behind the Firestore unit. During our conversation, Matt McEwen mentioned that I had a prototype and they were solving the problem with a different cable end. I suspect the issue will be addressed by the time you read this.
A very nice point is that battery drain is very, very dainty. This box draws nothing even close to the load of a pro camera in my experience -- and less batteries makes packing easier. The internal slot for NP-1 batteries is one of several power options for the Firestore which also includes a four-pin XLR DC-in connector in the frame itself and an AC adapter. What I realized as I was about to use the unit for the first time, is that this four-pin DC jack, which seemed so standard, is actually the wrong gender to work with most video industry XLR 12 volt power supplies you might have for cameras or even old porta-packs. Most of the time, these jacks on equipment are male, as a female jack is preferable on the power supply side to eliminate the possiblity that the "prongs" would be live and could be shorted out.
Focus Enhancements told me that this was designed for safety as the external power jack is hot when there is an NP-1 in the slot. They didn't want to have the exposed "prongs" in a traditional arrangement cause a risk of a short. I'm all in favor of safety, and it didn't take me long to create a male-male 4-pin XLR gender changer so I could use it with other 12 volt power options I have. I was also told that the jack is indeed a male on newer versions of the case with a switch to prevent both the XLR and the NP1 slot to be live at the same time. There is also a latch-down mechanism for the NP1 slot to maintain the contact of the battery during the inevitable bumps and bounces that fieldwork tends to present.
The harddrive I used for the test was a LaCie 60 Gig "Pocket Drive". The unit is very small with a type of spongy plastic bumper around it which provides shock protection. It fit very well into the provided drive compartment and at 5 minutes per Gigabyte, this drive has the capacity for 5 hours of DV footage. It doesn't matter what size DV cassette your camcorder holds, that kind of continuous recording capacity just doesn't exist on any video cassette. I was a bit concerned about how well it may function in beyond the field-recording environment to a post-production environment where the demands can get pretty brutal on a 5400rpm drive, but LaCie assured me that I would be suprised by how capable their little drive was. Using Premiere, I tested the drive by constructing a dissolve between two clips, both on the LaCie drive, and watching the real-time preview function. The LaCie drive was as fast via the Firestore's firewire interface, as the my internal harddrive in my laptop.
Setting up a new, unformatted drive can be handled with the Firestore unit itself without any computer assistance. The manual is easy to understand and the display and button arrangement is straightforward and rather easy to get used to, just hook up the drive and click through the menus and the Firestore handles the disk format for you.
The file formats available are extensive. On the PC side, AVI-1 or AVI-2 are available with compatibility with Adobe, Canopus, Pinnacle, Ulead or Matrox systems. On the Mac side, Raw DV and Quicktime are available.
Very recently, Focus Enhancements announced Avid OMF support as well. (Formats are most likely being added all the time, check the Focus Enhancements website at www.FOCUSinfo.com for the latest list).
Putting the Firestore to work
A particularly handy feature in the field is the ability to slave the Firestore's record/pause function to your camera. The website has a list of compatibile cameras that will run the Firestore simultaneously with tape roll, eliminating the extra work and attention that starting and stopping the device manually would require. I decided to take it out and use it a bit with our JVC GY-500 DV camcorder, rolling tape in the camera even as I was outputting firewire video to the Firestore. Redundancy is one aspect of this product that Focus Enhancements mentions in their literature, but many prospective users may overlook. Harddrive and tape video recording doesn't necessarily present an either/or proposition. A videographer can roll video to the Firestore for quick access back at the shop, but also roll tape for backup and archival purposes.
After returning to the shop with your footage, you have several options for utilizing it:
- The Firestore can act as a harddrive or as a digital disk recorder/player. When fully configured, both a 6 pin firewire (for harddrive use) and 4 pin firewire (for IEEE-1394 video input from a camera or output for dubbing) are available. Ideally, you would gain the most speed by hooking the 6 pin cable to your computer and utilize the device in "harddrive" mode. You can either drag your files onto a local drive or work with them where they are.
- Another option is to use the 4 pin firewire cable for VTR emulation for dubbing copies or perhaps even using the unit as a DV "VTR." While the "VTR" method is not as time-effective, it could be the answer to using DV media recorded in one format or "wrapper" on a different type of NLE in a pinch. I found the unit to be responsive when I used it with my laptop in this way. It's also handy when you only need a very small bit of what might be a very large clip that you wouldn't be able to trim when taking it in as a file, where you are stuck with all or nothing.
- The manual seems to suggest the removal of the harddrive from the Firestore housing for footage transfer. Unless you really need to send the Firestore out on the next shoot with a fresh new harddrive inside of it, you may find it quicker to transfer small amounts of data via firewire off the Firestore's drive as opposed to changing the drive in the frame.
The unit comes with a very beefy 6 pin> 6 pin Firewire cable to couple the harddrive to the Firestore and it's necessary to have the metal frame outside the bag to help "feed" the cable out from the back to liberate the harddrive without significant stress and possibly damage to the very sturdy, but very stiff cable.
There isn't a lot of downside to this unit. If using it in the field, you have to have audio meters of whatever you are using to feed the unit, there are no level indicators on the machine. It would be a beautiful thing to someday see analog outputs including accommodation for audio headsets and a place to plug in a video monitor for confidence in the field. There also might be merit to someday having a field pack frame that accommodates more drives.
I'm actually anxious to see some of these find their way into small market news gathering. Panasonic and Sony both have "laptop" editors, but you could probably buy a half-dozen standard firewire-capable laptops and Firestore combinations for the price of just one of those units. This doesn't even take into account that with a laptop computer as opposed to a dedicated laptop video editor, the reporter can now write the story and edit the video on the same machine. In markets that are geographically very large and sparsely populated, the reporter could get back to the station after a several-hour drive to return from the story location with a finished piece that they edited in the car. All this for less than $5,000 US for Laptop, Firestore, Harddrive and Field Pack -- quite a bit less.
Overall, I found the unit to behave as expected. Even with an NP-1 battery, the unit is lightweight. The menus are easy to navigate and the operation of the unit is not something that will require another person, or even much distraction in the field.
I see a real peripheral market for these units in AV presentation work which already a niche where DDRs are taking over more and more of the traditional "tape cue" duties of traditional VTRs because of quick cueing and ultra-fast roll-response. The Firestore itself has several playback options that will definitely bolster it's appeal for this type of use. Looping, and variable speed playback in forward or reverse at frame rates of 15fps, 10 fps, 6fps, 5fps, 3fps, 2fps, and 1fps are available to the user from the front panel on the fly. Indexing through video tracks is as fast as the track skip button on your CD player.
As this unit was sitting in the office, I couldn't help but think how incredibly useful this device becomes when I couple it with my Canopus ADVC-100 and give it analog I/O -- suddenly we have a real-life DDR that could be very handy for studio use. Apparently the folks at Focus Enhancements were thinking similar thoughts as I was able to gaze upon the Firestore FS-2 at NAB, which will soon be available as a rackmount unit with capacity for 16 firewire drives, RS-422 edit control, SDI I/O and analog component I/O as well -- I am definitely looking forward to seeing that unit when it is introduced.
I suspect this is one of those devices that will change our workflow and make us wonder how we ever lived without it in a very short time... After all: who in the world will ever pay a premium just to get a package somewhere overnight???
For more about Firestore, please visit Focus Enhancements.
Want to know more about Tim? Click here for his bio. You can also find Tim as a leader in the following CreativeCOW.net forums: Adobe Premiere, Art and Craft of the Edit, Business Practices & Procedures, Canopus, Cinematography & Video Pros, Corporate Video, JVC DV, and Media 100.