AVC-Intra and the Panasonic AJ-HPX2000
COW Library : Panasonic Cameras : Jeremy Garchow : AVC-Intra and the Panasonic AJ-HPX2000
We were in search of a new camera here at Maday Productions, so we asked ourselves the new age-old question. Considering all the possibilities, which camera should we buy?
Terry Maday (Director, DP, Editor Extraordinaire), Richard Sims (smart gear-savvy producer we work with a lot), and I (Editor, Post Production Supervisor, Sometime DIT-ish type) all sat down over lunch one day to discuss it.
The shop already owned a Panasonic SDX900, their full-sized DVCPRO 50 camera. We decided when we bought it to get everything we needed to own and operate an HD production business: a $25,000 Fuji HD lens, nice sticks, Anton/Bauer HyTRON Batteries, an HD field monitor, the whole nine yards. When it came time to purchase a "big body" HD camera, we'd be ready to simply swap out the camera body.
We agreed on a few things right away. We'd had a great time renting the Panasonic Varicam over the past 5 years, but since we didn't own it, we couldn't keep playing with and tweaking it just like we wanted.
We also had an HVX200 with three 8GB P2 cards and one 16GB P2 card. We had become comfortable with P2 workflow using the 200 mainly as a second camera, and depending on the job, sometimes as the primary camera. We were just looking for a big-body camera with interchangeable lenses and a little more in-camera image control.
Our first question, was - as I'm sure it is for a good portion of you when deciding to throw down serious dough on a nice camera - what's up with Red? Were we ready? Was Red ready? What's the real deal? Could we afford it? Would it fit our production lifestyle?
That last question pretty much made the decision for us: it came down to workflow. Since we do so much of our shooting on location, Red couldn't give us a fast enough turnaround time from shoot to full-quality editable material.
The digital content management process for any new camera had to be simple and accessible enough to begin editing in the field on a laptop pretty much instantly, or given to a production assistant to transfer and understand what needs to happen once you hand them a P2 card on a laptop. The Red does not meet that requirement for us, at least not very conveniently.
There are many other reasons, but, after talking it through, it was clear that the Red was not the most practical camera for us now.
AVC-INTRA IS NOT AVCHD
Our collective attention then turned to Panasonic, as we had been fans of their cameras for a long while. I had heard about their new HD compression scheme called AVC-Intra, so I tracked down all the info I could. On a personal note, DVCPRO HD had launched my HD career, so if Panasonic had a new and improved codec, I was all ears.
I started by taking a closer look at the name. AVC: Advanced Video Compression, the basis of MPEG- 4/H.264. Could be cool. Check. Intra, as in all compression being done inside each frame. No long GOP messiness? Cool. I like that. Check.
It turned out AVC-Intra is an in-camera I-frame, 10-bit, full raster 4:2:2 codec, recorded to P2 solid state media. Tapeless. Check.
AVC-Intra comes in 2 data rates: 50mbps compares to DVCPRO HD quality, and 100mbps is touted as being "Master Quality."
Recording at 10 bits really jumped out at us. Why do we care? Since we aren't going out to film, HDCAM SR, D5 or anything of the sort, why go through the trouble of extra hardware, bigger files and longer renders?
Terry Maday on the road with the Panasonic AJ-HPX2000 in Jilin Province, China
Our productions involve a lot of motion graphic integration, a little bit of green screen work and lots and lots of running around and shooting in all sorts of environments, from inside to outside, sunrise to sunset, desert to rainy equator, interviews to beauty shots, domestic studios to foreign countries.
Ten-bit codecs capture more of that detail without creating banding and allow us to maintain optimal quality throughout the rigors of editing. Every graphic, gradient and key that I pull works out for the better in a 10-bit pipeline.
A shortcoming of tapeless workflows is that you can't recapture 8-bit footage into a 10-bit codec like you can from tape. This doesn't add any information, but preserves the video information as it makes its way through post. Software-only 8-bit to 10-bit conversions can be less than reliable.
The use of a 10-bit camera codec resolves this: images stay 10-bit from beginning to end. The higher the quality of the master, the higher the quality that will translate down to whatever format you're mastering on, be it HD or SD tape, or any digital, web or file based delivery.
Terry in Kibera, outside Nairobi Kenya
Working 10-bit also allows us to create very nice images with color correction and motion graphics, which to some of our clients is just as important as the content. When the production leaves my hands, I know I've been able to push every pixel as far as I can.
Since we primarily shoot and edit all of our own material, a tapeless environment also has some huge workflow advantages for us. When we are on the road shooting, we can start to review and organize our footage right away.
We have a visual log of everything that we've shot, and can figure out if there are any shots we still need. This has brought a new level of freedom to our productions, as well as speed. We can get interviews out to transcription and window burns made (if need be) of exactly the shots we need in extremely short order.
Sometimes, especially if we are working with a new client, we put together a rough assembly of the piece with scratch music, and upload it to an iPhone for the client to review the next morning.
This process brings a new level of confidence to the shoot as the client can relax, knowing that the work we're doing is good. It can also bring out new and creative ideas, as the process really helps the client visualize the piece more clearly.
We used to try this with tape, but it was much more difficult. In order to edit together something from 40 minutes of tape, for example, you have to first log and capture 40 minutes of tape before editing. With P2, you take 8-16 minutes to transfer the card, and then you edit using the clips you choose at a glance. If you've flagged your best takes as you shoot, you've got even less to transfer.
Now multiply that out to a day's worth of shooting, and you can imagine how much faster it is to work with P2 than tape.
Terry with Danny Ho directing local farmers in Jilin Province, China
It was also important to us that, like DVCPRO HD, AVC-Intra is a "portable" format. We can edit and entirely finish pieces with even higher quality 10-bit AVC-Intra in full, mastering resolution on a laptop in the field.
(Even though Red is tapeless, you have to convert the footage to some sort of editable codec/resolution, as there's no way you're editing full-scale 4K RAW, 2K RAW, or 4:4:4 HD on a laptop.)
So tapeless and Panasonic it was, but was 10-bit AVC-Intra the way to go? My curiosity was piqued and I was jonesing to get my hands on a camera that could shoot this new format just to see what it looked like.
As we kept the new camera discussion going, we were hired to produce, shoot and edit a national spot for Wilson Staff. I called the local rental house to see what they had in stock to make a recommendation to Terry and Rich as to what camera we should kick the tires on. They had the AJ-HPX2000, and it had the AVC-Intra option installed. Perfect.
While the HPX2000 can shoot 1080 with pixel shifting, its native format is 720p, a format that I am very comfortable with. Working with true progressive images makes post life easier, and shooting at 24p also allows for easy creation of virtually any other format, be it PAL or NTSC, HD or SD, interlaced or progressive.
For this particular shoot, we needed a 720p HD master, an SD NTSC master and a PAL SD master. 720p24 was a very obvious choice, and we were ready to see what AVC-Intra and the HPX2000 could do.
Terry and Danny, riding with farmers in Jilin Province, China
To me and my eyes, AVC-Intra definitely proved itself on this shoot. The images were very clean, with a higher quality and less compression noise than DVCPRO HD (especially in the dark areas of images) with similar file sizes. We had a P+S Technik Pro35 adapter on the 2000 to give us lens flexibility as the shoot required not only great quality, but also varying depth of field. Zeiss standard speed primes, and a Cooke 18-100mm zoom, allowed us to capture the client's vision in the optimal quality.
Since this was a studio shoot, we used the AJA Io HD to record the HD-SDI stream out of the camera, captured directly to beautiful 10-bit ProRes 422 HQ images that allowed us to immediately start cutting and when I say immediately, I mean we were assembling rough cuts right there on the set, as this particular job had an extremely tight turn around.
The Io HD also allowed for easy review and playback to monitors strung around the studio. It was a totally fantastic piece of machinery and I was able to do it all from the ease and comfort of my laptop. Awesome.
While we were capturing with the Io HD, I also managed to simultaneously record to P2 in the AVCIntra 100 mode. Later, I compared the 100 megabit AVC-I footage to the 220mbit ProRes HQ files captured over HD-SDI through the Io HD - they were identical! I was very, very pleased, especially as this was coming off in-camera compression. I had never seen anything look quite like it.
AVC-INTRA IN POST
Working with AVC-Intra in Final Cut Pro is a fairly easy process, but it can be time consuming if you have a lot of footage. The log and transfer process for AVC-Intra from the P2 card is exactly the same as it is for DVCPRO HD on P2, except that the Quicktime files that are created are ProRes or ProRes (HQ) files. Transcoding to ProRes can take a long time, especially when working with laptops in the field.
Recording to P2 cards results in MXF files generated by the camera, organized in folders as shown below.
MXF programs (such as MXF4mac, Raylight and others) allow the passing of the P2 metadata, whether that is metadata you set up while shooting, or metadata that has been added after the shoot. This completely skips the log and transfer transcoding process and allows FCP to use the actual MXF media from P2 cards. With this, the power and ease of tapeless editing can really start to be fully realized.
These workaround applications certainly aren't problem-free. For example, using MXF4mac, I can send all of my AVC-Intra P2 CONTENTS folders to FCP, but FCP interprets the footage as 8-bit and knocks the video levels down to SMPTE range. This significantly reduces quality and negates the strengths of the AVCIntra codec.
While other NLEs handle AVC-Intra (and DVCPRO HD for that matter) natively right off of the bat, complete with metadata, Final Cut Pro doesn't. That means FCP can't fully exploit the convenience and speed of tapeless production, archiving, and compatibility with broadcast infrastructures.
Right now, this is my only gripe with AVC-Intra and, again, it has nothing to do with the format itself. It only has to do with the NLE I choose to use.
If you work with AVC-Intra in FCP, I encourage you to ask Apple to enable real time AVC-Intra editing, encoding and decoding. Panasonic has built a very stable and solid I-frame environment, so the foundation is there. Native support would make our tapeless lives so much easier.
THE BOTTOM LINE
After that shoot and post process was complete, we knew that we had our new codec. Now we just had to decide on the camera.
The new Varicam 2700 is among the cameras that records AVC-Intra. I suspect that we would have thought long and hard about it if it had been an option when we were making the choice last summer, but it was months away from being released, and we had too many shoot days booked to keep renting.
We obviously went with the HPX2000, and using it over these past six months, we have been loving every minute of it. Weve dragged it around to both Africa and Asia within a single month, in both rainy and extremely dusty and dry conditions. The camera has held up flawlessly.
No stranger to loads of gear, Jeremy prepares to head home
The in-camera colorimetry is very pleasing and the 2000 has the controls to let you get in there and really tweak the matrix to your liking. If you have a high contrast scene that you can't control, such as a camera being positioned inside with a sunny window in the background, the Dynamic Range Stretch is also a very cool feature.
The low light performance has also been great, and 10-bit recording has really allowed us to keep our creative vision intact.
Among the few things that ended up in the "Con" column for the HPX2000 is that there are no variable frame rates. It's not a huge deal, but we do use them on occasion. Since we mostly post in 720p24, we overcrank by shooting 720p60. Conforming down to 24p results in silky smooth slow motion.
The downside is that we can't get true offspeed frame rates like 36 or 48 fps. We have an HVX200 if we really need a specific frame rate, but so far we've been doing well with overcranking to 60 fps as we need it.
Along with the camera body ($27,000 SRP), we also got two 32GB cards to complement our assorted 40GB of P2 cards, Panasonic's five card P2 reader (AJPCD20, in my opinion an absolute essential if you're shooting P2 all the time), a new Sanken onboard stereo mic, and a 2" 1080i capable viewfinder. We also decided to upgrade our Anton/Bauer charger to a four bank charger.
Add in the optional AVC-I board (standard with the HPX3000 and the new Varicams) for another $3000, and when it was all said and done, we paid around $39,000 (not counting our previous purchases of sticks, monitors, lens and batteries). Since the purchase, we have been extremely happy with the results, and so have our clients.
With the advent of the new Varicams that are now shipping (the 2700 and 3700), I am sure that the AVC-Intra format will quickly become more and more popular. I'm also sure that people will have more and more questions about this high quality, highly practical format, as well as the cameras that support it. I recommend renting an AVC-Intra-capable camera and checking out the results for yourself.
And if you have any more questions, you can always find me in Creative COW forums including Panasonic HVX-HPX (P2), Apple Final Cut Pro, and AJA Io.
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