First Look: Panasonic AG-HVX200 DVCPro HD Camcorder
Written by David Tames | Posted by: Anonymous
In Part 1 of this article we covered the HVX200 DVCPRO HD camcorder, which departs radically from other cameras in its class. For their prosumer HD cameras, JVC, Canon, and Sony decided to use the HDV videotape format. This format accomplishes HD recording on miniDV tape using low bit-rate MPEG-2 compression. In contrast, the AG-HVX200 uses Panasonic’s high bit-rate DVCPRO HD codec recorded onto P2 solid-state memory cards. For standard definition DV recording the camera includes a legacy miniDV tape transport. The camera is also capable of recording to a third-party hard disk recorder, however, in this article we’ll focus on the P2 cards and how they change the production and post-production workflow.
What’s in a Card?
P2 are small solid-state memory cards designed for professional video recording. The form-factor and interface are based on the Type II Cardbus standard, a high-performance variation of the PCMCIA card standard developed for laptop computers. Internally, P2 cards consist of four SD Memory Cards ganged in a RAID array. This results in each P2 card delivering four times the capacity and four times the transfer speed of a single SD Memory card, ideal for recording a high bit-rate codec like DVCPRO HD, which at 100 Mbit/sec is four times the bit rate of DV or HDV. The AJ-P2C004HG 4G P2 Card has a list price of $760.00, while the AJ-P2C008HG 8G P2 Card lists for $1,640.00.
P2 cards are media transport devices in which video, audio, and metadata are stored using the SMPTE MXF (material exchange format) OP-Atom standard. Because P2 cards simply store data files, your video can be used immediately off the card by a nonlinear editing system. Currently Avid, Final Cut Pro, and several other editing systems support P2. Alternatively, the media can be copied to a hard drive or transferred over a network. Panasonic provides P2 device drivers for Macintosh OS X, Windows XP, and Windows 2000. The drivers allow you to mount P2 cards on the desktop like any removable media volume.
The AG-HVX200 with P2 cards can record standard definition video using the DVCPRO50, DVCPRO or DV codecs in a range of formats (480i/24p, 480i/30p, 480i/60i, etc) as well as high definition video using the DVCPRO HD codec in a range of formats (e.g. 720/24p, 720/60p, 1080/60i). This offers the simplicity of using a single transport medium that in turn can be used to record just about any video format you might want to use. There’s been talk that Panasonic may add the highly efficient H.264 video codec to the mix in order to double the capacity of the cards. P2-based cameras can record many different formats since P2 cards are simply a data storage device.
An 8 GB card can hold up to 32 minutes of 480/60i DV video (with 2 channels of 48 kHz/16-bit audio and Proxy AV) or 20 minutes of 720/24p DVCPRO HD video (with 4 channels of 48 kHz/16-bit audio and Proxy AV) or 8 minutes of 1080/60i DVCPRO HD media (with 4 channels of 48 kHz/16-bit audio and Proxy AV). We can expect storage capacities to continue increasing over time. Last year Panasonic was selling 4 GB cards, in late 2005 they started shipping 8 GB cards, and 16 GB cards are expected to enter the marketplace by the end of 2006.
The P2 card weighs about 1.5 ounces (43 grams) and slips easily into a shirt pocket. The cards are rugged and have been designed for use in demanding applications like news gathering and professional filmmaking. According to Panasonic, P2 cards can withstand shock up to 1,500 G and vibration up to 15 G, and can operate in temperatures from freezing cold up to 140°F (60°C) and in humidity ranging from 5% to 90% (no condensation). Unlike videotape, with P2 you’ll never wait for the condensation indicator on the camera to go off so you can continue shooting after having moved the camera between dramatically different environmental conditions.
Play it Again, Sam
While P2 cards represent an expensive initial purchase compared to videotape cassettes, unlike videotape they are designed for repeated use. P2 is part of a workflow that involves transferring media files from the P2 card to a hard disk drive for nonlinear editing and archiving. Once the card is copied it can be reformatted quickly and the card is ready to be used again. Panasonic claims the cards can survive 30,000 insertion/removal cycles and can be rewritten more than 100,000 times. Cards are equipped with a write-protect switch that prevents accidental erasure and each card has a unique serial number that aids in media management. P2 cards records only into blank spaces, so you can’t accidentally write over previously recorded media (unless you deliberately delete clips or format the card).
Quick as a Wabbit
For work that requires quick turn-around, such as news reporting, you can pop the P2 card out of the camera, slide it into a nonlinear editing system, and edit directly from the P2 card. Using Panasonic’s P2 Drive (a USB 2.0 device), your editing system can work with up to five P2 cards simultaneously. There is no longer a need to spend time digitizing or ingesting media from videotape.
With P2 the AG-HVX200 can start recording and play back without the mechanical delay of videotape or optical disk mechanisms. You can set the camera to continuously capture, and subsequently record, up to 7 seconds of picture and audio in (3 in DVCPRO HD). In effect, this lets you start recording footage of events that occur before you press the record button, reducing the chances of missing critical shots.
Continuous recording without tape changes is also possible. The AG-HVX200 sports two P2 card slots. While recording, the camera will switch over from a card that’s full to a card with available space. The card that’s full can be removed and replaced with an empty card, and the process repeats. Given ingest time is faster than recording time, with two (or three cards for a safety margin) you can record continuously and ingest media into a laptop on the set as you shoot.
Clips With a View
Gone are the days of rewinding and cuing the tape to review a take. Since P2 media is file based, the AG-HVX200 automatically generates a thumbnail image for each clip. Every time the camera stops and starts, a new clip is created. Any clips can be accessed instantly on the camera from the cards. This also makes it easier to make post production decisions right on the set, as clips can be accessed instantly.
For viewing P2 media on a computer prior to ingest into an editing system, Panasonic bundles the P2 Viewer application that runs on Windows XP and Windows 2000 PCs. For Macintosh users, HDLog from Imagine Products supports P2 viewing P2 viewer along with excellent logging and metadata editing capabilities.
In contrast to the videotape-based workflow we’re all familiar and comfortable with, P2 workflow is best suited to electronic news gathering (ENG) and filmmaking environments. Given the cost and storage capacity of P2 cards, they are not really practical for event videography and long form documentary where lots of media, often with multiple cameras, is recorded. P2 requires a conceptual leap, a whole new way of thinking about media. You can’t think of P2 cards the same way you think about videotapes, they represent an entirely new approach to capturing, transporting, processing, and archiving media.
It’s best to think of P2 as a transport mechanism you use to move your media from the camera to your nonlinear editing system. Furthermore, since you’re no longer in the videotape paradigm, you can no longer place your videotapes on a shelf and say, "there’s my archive." With P2 you have to think proactively about how you’re going to archive your media to prevent data loss. Unlike videotape, you’ve got to think through your workflow carefully and design a system that meets your specific needs. With P2 there really is no "one size fits all workflow solution," and herein lies both the risk and opportunity.
You can create archive copies in a number of ways, depending on the specific characteristics of your project. If ease of access is important, you might choose to store your media while the project is active on a set of hard drives in a mirrored RAID configuration for added data integrity. You should still maintain a second archive copy in a safe and secure location. A RAID (with redundancy) offers data integrity, but it does not protect you from accidental erasure of media by a human agent, program gone wild, or supernatural acts.
One option for your archive would be to burn DVD disks (either single or dual layered). For archiving large amounts of media there are high-capacity tape systems (e.g. DLT or LTO) available, with an average media cost of $0.25 per GB. The challenge is you’re now taking on media management issues, which involves an additional level of workflow design for your project. It could be as simple as burning archive disks and placing them in a vault, or as complicated as managing a SAN (storage area network). The complexity of any tapeless solution comes from the multitudes of choices.
The Long and Winding Road
No media format will last forever. Videotapes on a shelf do not an archive make. In addition to access issues, videotapes do not have a long shelf life, with consumer tapes measured in years and professional tapes remaining stable for a decade or so. The dyes used in recordable DVDs are subject to fading. Proper storage conditions following the media manufacturers recommendations should be followed to assure longevity of your archive media. Long term archiving and storage presents serious challenges, with 35mm film in cold storage being the only medium guaranteed to outlast the filmmakers.
Standard File Format
The media files stored on the P2 card comply with the SMPTE MXF (Material eXchange Format) OP-Atom standard. MXF is an open file format standard developed by SMPTE for the interchange of audio-visual media and metadata. It was designed with the goal of improving file-based interoperability between cameras, editing workstations, media servers, and other content creation devices. MXF enables a data workflow that promises to be more efficient than today’s mix of proprietary file and videotape formats and enabling seamless exchanged between a wide range of systems and devices from a variety of vendors.
Getting from There to Here
Panasonic offers several options for moving media files from the camera to your editing system:
1. using the camera as a disk (FireWire disk mode) to transfer media from P2 to your editing system,
2. using the camera as a host with an external FireWire hard drive to move media from P2 to the hard drive,
3. transferring files from P2 cards to the AJ-PCS060G P2 Store (described below),
4. transferring files from P2 cards to a PC or Mac with the AJ-PCD10 P2 Drive (described below), and
5. using a third party hard disk recorders (e.g. FireStore) instead of P2. Ingesting media from P2 cards into your editing system is faster than real time.
I clocked the time to ingest 10 minutes of 720p/24fps footage (on a 4 GB card) at five minutes, seven seconds using the P2 Store connected to a PowerMac G5 as a card reader. Reading directly from a CardBus slot might be faster.
The AJ-PCD10 P2 drive ($2,500) is a 5-slot CardBus compliant device that connects to a PC or Macintosh via a USB 2.0 interface. The 5-7/8" wide device can be used as an internal drive mounted in a 5-inch bay on a desktop PC or used as a stand-alone drive with an AC adaptor and USB cable. With five slots you can mount several P2 cards at a time, handy for editing long video clips that span multiple cards.
The AJ-PCS060G P2 Store ($1,800) is a rugged, portable hard drive media storage device with a P2 card slot that can be used to transfers the contents of P2 cards to its internal hard drive. Via its USB 2.0 interface the contents of the P2 card and/or the media stored on the drive can be transferred to the PC or Macintosh. The entire contents of a 4 GB P2 card can be transferred to the hard drive in about four minutes in non-verify mode or about six and a half minutes in verify mode. In the field the P2 Store serves as a media storage device and minimizes the number of P2 cards needed. The internal 60 GB hard drive can hold the entire contents of fifteen 4 GB P2 cards or seven 8 GB P2 cards, or a total of 140 minutes of 720/24p DVCPRO HD video. The P2 Store can operate using the same batteries used by the HVX200 (very convenient) or with an AC adapter, and can be used with either PC or Macintosh computers.
To P2 or not P2, That is the Question…
Some detractors are concerned that P2 workflow is more expensive than videotape especially since additional personnel may be required to manage media in production. In today’s lean-budget environments, videotape provides a well-understood and reliable workflow. But for some productions, P2 might save money through increasing the reliability and efficiency of the post-production workflow. It depends on the specifics of your particular production. The robustness and reusability of the P2 card makes them financially attractive over time as they get reused again and again.
It really depends on the specifics your individual project whether a workflow based on P2 media makes sense or not. The advantages of P2 in quick turn-around situations like news gathering are very clear. Barry Braverman, a cinematographer and digital media expert, suggests that P2 "works much better in its present state for commercials and music videos rather than events where the camera needs to be running all of the time." "The thing to remember, if you’re rehearsing and doing specified length scenes, then the P2 camera works very well, because then you can anticipate if you have enough room on the card for this shot, but if you’re doing a documentary thing, you don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s a whole different deal," Braverman says.
Cinematographer Bob Scott recently covered the Olympics in Torino using the AG-HVX200 and P2 media. He suggests that the workflow for the camera is "still to be written" and working with the camera calls for a "different mentality about managing stock." He used the HVX200 as a B camera behind the scenes and was able to "burrow into places that the Varicam could not go," and as a result was able to capture several "historic moments" when Japan’s Shizuka Arakawa won the gold medal in the women’s figure skating. When asked how the camera performed in cold weather, he replied, "We went from cold to hot, never stopping to climatize."
The only way to completely understand the profound difference between P2 and videotape is to jump in and try it. In the Boston area, Boston Camera, Rule Broadcast, and Talamas, all have the AG-HVX200, P2 cards, and the P2 Store in their rental inventory. Boston Camera also has the P2 Drive available at this time. Take a system out for a spin and let me know what you think.