Changing Workflow Ideal with AVCHD File Format

Canon EOS 7D on location shooting full HD 30p
Canon EOS 7D on location shooting full HD 30p

One of the things our team spent considerable time evaluating was video formats. What I am referring to is the format used for compression when shooting full HD video. While our team has years of experience with HD production, eliminating tape has been the important migration for us. Tape is not dead, but for the types of product we create, we can be far more competitive if we produce our shows without tape.

So, learning about the various options has been extremely important to us. And, as many other producers and creatives read this blog, it makes sense to share our experience. And, the most important initial obstacle has been the variety of claims made by manufacturers regarding the compression formats chosen, and how those formats interact with the other capabilities of the various HD cameras under consideration.

Brand loyalty stepped up right from the start. We’ve had some wonderful experiences with Panasonic cameras in the past – in our standard definition days. That “panny mojo” image is hard to beat in terms of warmth and contrast. But, in spite of that, we’ve been very loyal to Sony. We’ve had Sony cameras and other gear in use in the harshest of conditions, and in every case, the gear has worked, and we’ve been comfortable not only with the results, but the production process (usability) as well.

I was fairly interested in the Sony EX (XD-CAM) format, but had some reservations. CMOS sensors in the EX1 and EX3 meant possible problems when shooting in certain conditions or with strobe lights – and as we work with the Los Angeles Fire Department, that worried us. A test shoot revealed all kinds of shutter issues, even when the shutter was shut off. Oops. I was also concerned about MPEG-2 Long GOP (group of pictures) as a recording format generally, even though the images were lovely when viewed on a large HD monitor. Finally, the SxS memory cards are not cheap – the 32GB cards we’d use were on average $800 (street price). So, for six cards, that would require an outlay of $4,800. That was almost the cost of the EX1 itself (street price). And, for the first time in a long time, the ergonomics of the EX1 did not sit well with our camera operators.

Still… We are Sony fankids.

D. Barrett directs Lakers star Pau Gasol while shooting with the Sony EX3.
Directing Lakers star Pau Gasol while shooting with the EX3.

To further test the format, we produced a public safety announcement with the Laker’s Pau Gasol using the Sony EX-3 camera. Nice. But a bit of a pain to ingest the media, and in my mind, some limitations on use. The real difficulty is that we love Sony products. They are so well thought-out, produced and supported. That almost made us opt for the XD-CAM environment, even with the limitations we were aware of.

The market helped us. In addition to video, our still photography needs were increasing. The arrival of the Canon 7D DSLR really impacted us. Still and HD video capture in a single device. That, and the ability to use motion picture-style lenses, camera rigs, etc. was extremely attractive. The Canon 7D uses AVCHD as a compression format. Would it hold up?

Philip Bloom, a British DP, helped us in that regard. His videos using the Canon 7D are the best sales pitch anyone could imagine. It sold us. And in so doing, opened a new door – the option of AVCHD (MPEG4/H.264). Oh, and the 7D, with its 18-megapixel imager and other capabilities helped us execute quality still shoots, too. Thanks, Phil!

I began to evaluate all of the pro cameras that used AVCHD. Many were consumer, but a few were emerging that caught my eye, including from Panasonic. In internal discussions, however, our lament continued: “Why no Sony pro camera with AVCHD. That’s not good!” Our impression was that if Sony didn’t do it, there was an important reason.

Our need for gear had us tilting towards several camera options, none of which we were thrilled with, except for our Canon 7D. And regardless of the picture quality, the shape and format of the gear made it a tough choice when shooting news or POV documentary material.

Cameron uses the NX-5u on location
Cameron uses the NX-5u on location

And then, without warning, Sony reappeared. It locked in everything we were considering. The Sony NX5U camera was introduced and everything just fit into place. The new NXCAM solution from Sony utilized AVCHD. We spent some time with the prosumer version of the camera at CES. That really settled it. Now, we have three cameras, all using AVCHD (variations) and all ideal for import into Final Cut Pro, Premiere, or Avid workstations.

The Canon 7D is our portrait interview camera. It’s a film producer’s wet dream: the images are so lovely and really convey a film-look. But, not so easy to hang from a helicopter with one, even with the cool Zacuto, RedRock, and other camera rig options out there.

The Sony NX5u becomes the primary workhorse. Remarkable lens, combined with typical Sony quality means we’re able to shoot in nearly any environment easily and with top quality results. The NX5u continues to impress me every time I pick it up or review material captured with it. Just having separate rings for iris, zoom, and focus make this a wonder to use.

And finally, the Panasonic HMC-40 is our ideal B-camera. It’s small, so we can shoot in any number of places where we don’t want to be obvious about our use of a pro camera. It isn’t CMOS, but rather 3MOS CCDs, so we can shoot strobe lights all night long. It has long-lasting batteries, and delivers really fantastic images. They have that “panny magic” warmth to them. I hate the viewfinder and find it a huge pain in the ass to use, but for specific types of shoots, it is a great asset. And, frankly, at $2,000, if we get melted in a structure fire, nearly  drowned in a swift water rescue, or dusted up while shooting a documentary in Australia (as we do every few years), it’s not too tough to replace.

But wait, there’s more! All three cameras have HDMI out. So, connecting our Marshall field monitor to any of the three is a plug and play exercise. The Sony and Panasonic use the same HDSC memory cards, and at roughly $80 for a 16GB card and $200 for a 32GB card, the data is affordable. Use a proper card storage device and you’ll not have to worry about damaged cards, either.

Finally, they all easily transcode to ProRes or ProRes 422 for post production work. The net result is a full production suite of camera kit that is ideal for nearly any situation. If there’s an irony, it’s that AVCHD is owned (trademarks, etc.) by BOTH Sony and Panasonic. And, as customers, we’re using both together.

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