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P2 Tapeless Workflow Helps Rewrite History

COW Library : Panasonic Cameras : Shane Ross : P2 Tapeless Workflow Helps Rewrite History
From The Creative COW Magazine


Creative COW Magazine presents P2 Tapeless Workflow Helps Rewrite History



Shane RossShane Ross
Los Angeles California, USA

©2006 Shane Ross and CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.

Article Focus:

In this real world camcorder review from The Creative COW Magazine, editor Shane Ross uses his work for The History Channel to illustrate end-to-end workflow using P2 media and the Panasonic HVX-200.


It has been almost a year since the Panasonic HVX-200 was released. There have been many questions since then, starting with how to get the footage off of the solid state P2 cards (as well as from the Firestore hard drives) and into your edit system. From there, the questions are about the workflow of shooting and archiving the footage in the long term. I am going to lay out the workflow we used in our production of "The Mexican- American War" for the History Channel to help answer some of those question.

In its finished form, the special was about half interviews, and half historical re-creations. We started the project using the Panasonic AJHDC27 Varicam, which we used to film all the interviews and Mexico Broll. But when it came to shoot the re-creations, we knew we needed more than one camera, and our budget was too tight to include another Varicam package, much less the two more that we knew we'd require.

At NAB 2005 in Las Vegas, the Producer and Director of Photography saw the HVX-200. It appeared to be the camera that would solve all of our problems. It shot in the same format as the Varicam (DVCPRO HD 720p), also features VFR (Variable Frame Rate) and cost substantially less. We also like the fact that DVCPRO HD has a better color space - 4:2:2 as opposed to HDV's 4:2:0

P2 media and the Panasonic HVX-200

After a long wait - it was finally released that November - we were able to test it alongside the Varicam. We sent the footage off to the History Channel for QC and the camera passed with flying colors.

Now, at the time I am writing this, both The History Channel and Discovery Channel - whom I also work with - do not accept HDV cameras as "B" cameras. The footage from the camera looks fine, and many people can make it look great. But it shoots MPEG-2 to tape and there are some production issues associated with that format. These networks set their lower limit on the HVX-200 and its 100MB/s data rate.

Still, even with the HVX-200 as an acceptable B-camera, both Discovery and The History Channel put limits on the percentage of footage from it that can be used in the final project - no more that 25%. We pushed that limit pretty hard.


BEFORE THE SHOOT

Before we started shooting, we had to work out the logistics of shooting with this format. We received our two cameras two days before principal photography, so we didn't have much time. Well, to tell the truth we had been working out a workflow before we even touched the camera. We spoke with various Panasonic representatives about how this camera worked, and developed what we believed would be the best way to ensure that the shoot went smoothly. We just had two days to verify our ideas.

We already had the shooting format chosen, 720p24 at 23.98, which both the Varicam and HVX shoot. We also planned to shoot a few scenes at 59.94fps so that we could extract smooth slow-motion shots. And I made sure that I could still use the 59.94 fps footage in a 23.98 timeline. After a short render, the footage matched the 24p material just fine.

Plus the HVX-200 offers the ability to shoot 24PN…that is 24 native frames per second. Unlike the Varicam that records 24 frame footage in a 60 frame format - the extra frames discarded when you capture - the HVX records only 24fps. So this is how you can get such small file sizes when recording in high-quality HD.


WEEK ONE: P2 & LaCIE

We figured out that shooting 720p24 at 23.98 saved us lots of space, and gave us more shooting time on each card. That frame rate uses around 22GB/hour, so we could get about 8min on each 4GB card. We had five 4GB cards, since that was the only size initially available. With five cards, we were sure to have enough to cover continuous shooting with the cameras.

But, would we store this footage on? We needed to re-use the cards. So, for the first week of production we purchased a couple LaCie® 60GB Porsche bus-powered Firewire drives.

How were we going to get the footage from the cards to the drives? We didn't want to use the cameras for this because then we'd lose valuable shooting time. At the time my producer had a 12" Powerbook and I had an iBook - neither machine had a PCMCIA slot.

So we opted for a cheap PC with a PCMCIA slot that accepted and read the P2 cards just fine. Since the P2 camera was designed around a PC - the viewing software is PC based - this worked out to be the perfect solution.

We tested this workflow, as well as the settings on the camera, for two full days prior to the shoot. By the time we got into the field, we had it down pat.

Because the P2 cards were going to be used again and again - with footage being copied off the card and the card then being erased - we wanted to make sure that we didn't erase anything before it was backed up. Losing footage can be very costly. So my producer came up with a brilliant idea...

Shane Ross at work
Shane Ross at work on a project for The History Channel


LABELING P2 CARDS IN THE FIELD

Each card has a rubber cap to protect it from damage, and so you can clearly tell which side of the card is up. So using a white permanent marker he wrote "full" on one side of the cover, and "empty" on the other side. When a card was full, it was ejected and the cap was put on with the full side face up. Also the copy protection tab was flipped to protect against accidental erasure.

Then the cards were brought to the download station where a tech would slide the P2 card into the PCMCIA slot of the Dell® laptop and copy the footage from it to one of the four 60 GB LaCie Porsche drives.

We pre-labeled folders on the drives so that we could just drag the "Contents" folder and "Lastclip.txt" file into them - this is critical, you need both. Since it was the Mexican American War, the folders were MAW B1, MAW B2, etc., (B-Camera) and MAW C1, MAW C2 (C-Camera) and so on. Once we copied files into a folder, we labeled it in red.

It takes about a minute a gig - 4 minutes for 4GB - to copy the footage over. Plenty of time seeing that each card recorded 8 min. This helped as we needed time to get the cards from the camera to the download station.

After the contents of the card were copied over, the card was then erased. We put the rubber cap back on with the "empty" side up, and returned it to the camera to be reused.

By the end of the two day shoot, there were three full 60GB drives with all the footage on them. At the end of the day, back at the hotel, my producer consolidated the data from the smaller drives to a one terabyte array.


WEEK TWO: THE P2 STORE READER/DRIVE

We used another option for field archiving for the next week of shooting, the P2 Store (AJ-PCS060G). It's a combination card reader and hard drive rugged enough for the field. It's also small and light - about 4 inches wide, approx. 2 inches high and 7.5 inches long, weighing about a pound and a half - and works fine with both PC and Mac. It's very easy to use.

It's just one button to load the contents of the cards onto the hard drives, one button to erase the card, and - once you've copied the footage off it - one button to erase the P2 Store itself. The P2 Store creates a separate partition on its internal hard drive, which also makes it easy to keep your P2 "master tapes" straight. Because the hard drive in the P2 Store is 60 gigs, it holds the equivalent of 15 four gig cards.

Again, at the end of the day we'd back up the footage. This time we'd back up the footage from the P2 Store onto the LaCies, and onto Acomdata® bus-powered Ondago firewire drives.

HVX-200 shoot
The HVX-200 captures a reenactment of a battle scene from the Mexican American War for broadcast on The History Channel.


ALTERNATIVE FIELD RECORDING

Some people express concern over the low recording times available when you record your footage onto the P2 cards.

Because my producer, DP and I all come from a film background, the P2 workflow is very familiar to us. In film, your 400-foot load of 16mm film would get you 11 minutes. And when the roll ran out, you'd detach the magazine from the camera, snap on another and run to the film loading table and in a dark bag, remove the exposed film and load another magazine. Well, the 2nd assistant would do this. So we were used to the slightly interrupted workflow and short record times.

However, if you come from a tape background where you get 30 to 60 minute loads, this workflow won't work for you. In fact, it can be downright annoying.

So, in this case, a Firestore® FS-100 hard drive capture device by Focus Enhancements® would be a good option. You can get longer recording times with this device, approximately 100 min, but there are some drawbacks. You can't record any of the HVX-200's native modes (24PN). The drive is formatted Fat32, so it has a 2GB file size limit. But, it's an elegant solution for those looking for longer record times.

There are also the CitiDisk HD by Shining Technology and the forthcoming Cineporter by Specialized Communications.


POST PRODUCTION & DELIVERY

When editing is completed we need to deliver an edited master to the network. Currently the specs require an HDCAM or D5 master at 1080p24 (23.98fps). Even though our editing format was 720p24 at 23.98, we were able to up-convert on the fly via the Kona 3 card from AJA. And even though the History Channel isn't airing shows in HD yet, they are requiring this format for future use. So we also deliver DigiBeta downconverts of the D5 HD masters.


LONGTERM ARCHIVING

But what about the source footage? Until now you would have a box of source tapes. The merit of tape is that it's a physical thing you can put on the shelf. People know what it is. If something happens to your project or your drive, the tape is there waiting for you. Tape feels hardier than almost anything else you can work with.

But say I have a bunch of older 3/4" tapes. They're durable, but I'd be hard pressed to find a functional deck. So I have to take those 3/4" show masters and dub them to DV or Digibeta or something else current. Then they might have to be dubbed again to some newer format in five to 10 years if I want to keep having access to them, because the technology keeps changing.


DELIVERING MASTERS

Many networks require that the shooting masters be turned over to them when the show delivers. Up until now the masters have always been on film or tape. But now there is the issue about how to deliver the MXF files that the P2 records.

The issue that cropped up was that the P2 footage only existed on our hard drives. Sure, they are physical things that you can put on a shelf, but they aren't what you'd call "durable." HD DVD and Blu-Ray DVDs have a larger amount of storage that makes them a viable option, but until they become more prevalent they aren't a solution that I can explore.

To make things even more complicated, The Discovery Networks flat out will not take data files. They require tapes and tapes only. So the workflow I developed for a company using these cameras as B-roll on a Discovery Channel series meant taking all the P2 footage, stringing it out on a timeline and outputting to tape. Then those tapes are the masters, and could be captured as you would any tape.

In the specific case of this company, they were using older Avids that don't read the MXF data that the P2 records, so I brought the footage into Final Cut Pro. Recent Avids read the MXF natively.

In my talks with the engineers at the History Channel, they decided that they would accept data files as masters. So this meant figuring out how to archive the MXF files and how to deliver them to the network.

My initial thought was DVDs, since the 4GB cards were separated into folders that would easily fit onto a DVD-R. But I'd need to burn 88 DVDs!

The Blu-Ray and HD-DVD formats would reduce the number of disks, but don't solve the bigger problem: DVDs aren't the sturdiest format. They are prone to scratches and cracking, and no one knows how long the recordable surface will last.

No, I opted for a larger format of storage that was also rather inexpensive as well: internal SATA hard drives. As I write this, you can get a 250GB drive for about $80. For the terabyte of storage that I needed, I bought four drives for $320. Then I purchased an empty Firewire case in order to attach these drives to the computer without having to install them internally and swap them out. You can also buy USB 2>SATA Adaptors for under $20 and do the same thing. So I copied over all the ‘Contents' folders to these drives, wrapped them in the plastic they were shipped in, and sent them off to the network.

But many people question the validity of this archival format. Drive technology is always in flux and a drive format that is popular today is old within 5 years. Look at SCSI and IDE technology. They were each THE format in their day, and now they are on the rare side.

So what do you do in cases like this? Well, you make sure that you will always have an adaptor to connect those drives to current technology, or you transfer to the newer drive format when adaptors become unavailable.


WEIGHING THE WORKFLOW

Because we shot in the winter, we had limited daylight and we had a lot of scenes to shoot. So while the Varicam was busy at the main location, the two HVXs were off on two separate remote locations shooting other scenes. We knew that the footage from all the cameras was shot in the same format and the quality would match nearly perfectly. So we were able to cover a lot of ground and get a lot of scenes shot in a limited amount of time, and reduce production costs.

Still, one of the drawbacks of P2 shooting, and one that people are quick to point out, is that the cards are expensive. They say, "A 4GB card costs $600 dollars, and 8GBs over $1000." As an independent producer, that's a lot of money up front. A small handful of P2s is the same cost as a fully loaded computer. Even with prices coming down fast, you can easily equal the cost of the camera itself with what you spend on the necessary P2 cards.

The positive side for us is that you spend that much money up front, but the costs go down fast from there. The DVCPRO HD tapes we use in the Varicam are $40 each, so by the time you shoot your 20 or 30 or even 70 half-hour tapes for a single show, you're talking about a lot of money.

That money is gone, as tape stock is referred to as an "expendable." And you can't re-use a tape for broadcast production because they're much more prone to dropouts after each use - and you might not have them if you've turned it in to the network as a master.

Between the fixed cost of the P2 media, and how cheap the SATA drives you back them up to are, we've found that using P2 cards is actually cheaper over time. Again, over time.

There are also production advantages that the HVX-200s with P2 cards offer us. The film-style workflow fits the way we work. You don't need to stop the camera during interviews as you can pull a card out as soon as it is full. Or, if you want to make sure to avoid the camera jitter that might occur as you pull out the card, you pause the subject as you extract the card - just as you would when you change tapes. With two 4GB cards you get 22 min, and with two 8GB cards you get about 45 min, so you have plenty of time.

Shooting re-enactments is exactly like film production. You have actors, locations, horses, effects. You know exactly where the cameras are going to be and about how long each shoot will last. If the card fills up, you swap it out and head to the download station.

On the set
On the set of the Mexican-American War for The History Channel

This might not be as viable for run-and-gun shooting, cinema verite, or nature documentaries where you wait all day for the rabbit to come out of the hole or lion to yawn impressively. In that situation, the Firestore and Citidisk products are available to get you longer recording times.

On the other hand, we prefer the solid-state media. At one point during the historical recreations that were part of our Mexican-American War documentary, a cameraman was in the thick of it. One of the reenactors spun around and nailed him. The camera and everything was fine - and I used the shot because it was great. But if that camera was equipped with a hard drive, all that footage might well be toast. Hard drives can't take a pounding like that, but the P2, with no moving parts, could and did.

In the end, we don't find the challenges of working with P2 to be much different than shooting with anything else, and the combination of P2 with the HVX-200 gives us advantages we can't get any other way. The P2's solid state media is durable and economical over the long haul for the amount of footage we shoot. The card can record the 24PN format which is a huge space saver. We love the quality, including the deeper color space. We love the VFR shooting and how well the HVX200 footage inter-cuts with our Varicam footage.

It might not work as well for everyone as it has for us, but we find the solution a very elegant one.


Shane Ross is a Los Angeles-based broadcast editor whose work is regularly seen on cable networks like The History Channel and Discovery. He is a popular host in Creative COW and you will find him hosting in the Panasonic P2 and Apple Final Cut Pro forums.



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