Sony's XDCAM HD - TvTechnology

Sony's XDCAM HD

BHP Sport selected the Professional Disc system for its coverage of the Land Rover G4 Challenge.
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The XDCAM HD system provided crisp, clear pictures despite dealing with sand, dust, wet conditions and extreme temperatures.

The 2006 Land Rover G4 Challenge is the biggest communications exercise in the car company's history. Meticulously planned for more than three years, the month-long challenge consists of 18 competitors navigating their way through more than 2400mi in Bolivia, Brazil, Laos and Thailand. The event builds on the success of 2003's G4, itself an indirect successor to the Camel Trophy, which ended in 2000.

BHP Sport specializes in corporate productions for motor sports clients.Our company has been involved in every Camel Trophy since 1990, and we covered the previous G4 for Land Rover. Sony also has been a long-standing partner in our business, at least since 1990, when I was shooting in Beta SP.

For this year's challenge, we produced six 30-minute internationally sold series. We also produced several pre- and post-event promos; four-hour competitor-specific versions for each of the 18 competing nations; and five 10-minute satellite-fed weekly video news releases. This enabled broadcasters to stitch together their own news reports or feed into magazine programs.

Going tapeless

To cover the challenge, we selected the Sony XDCAM HD system. We used three PDW-F350s and two PDW-F330s with five PDW-F70 playback decks.

We'd already decided we were going down the HD route because of the clear business and creative advantages. But it was only after talking with Sony and understanding the way the technology was headed that discs suddenly came onto our radar. Land Rover was also keen to use HD for archive and corporate presentations and to entice broadcasters to take the series.

Nevertheless, apart from a December test with a demo unit, we didn't get our hands on the equipment until April, two days before flying out to shoot the first stage in Bangkok, Thailand. Our camera-ops, Nick Guy and Daryl Kibblewhite, spent a day setting up the units for consistency of look and tested a range of HD lenses. We were trying to enhance the look we'd achieved with Digibeta in 2003. When working in these environments, it's important to adjust the color temperature so the tones slightly exaggerate the warmth and richness or the crisp, cold daylight of what you're shooting.

The second day's shoot in a stunning forest location in Laos proved one of the production's most satisfying. The pictures were fantastic. More important, it was a relief that the system worked in 113°F heat. Then the competition traveled in vehicle convoys over rugged terrain and into extreme climates of humidity and high-altitudes, where temperatures dropped below -4°F at night.

The heat and billowing dust clouds were also major concerns for us with what — at that point — was untried camcorder equipment. Of course, instinctively camera-ops will protect their equipment as much as possible, but you do still need to trust that the equipment isn't going to develop a physical fault on a shoot. The camera system did its job well despite the dust, high humidity and temperatures.

There were occasions when we took the environmental conditions to extremes at BHP, too. My crew has just about forgiven me for forcing them to endure hotel rooms and vehicles without air-conditioning to maintain a constant camera temperature. If you land in a country and open the flight case, the humidity is usually extraordinary. The last thing you want to have to do with any camera is start playing around with temperature controls. We acclimatize the cameras once and keep them that way.

From a shooting schedule point of view, we would select one location from the six daily competition venues as most suitable for television coverage. With a GPS and map, we marked coordinates for camera positions, split the five camera crews among them and recording travel times between venues. We knew before we set off exactly how we were going to cover the story.

Benefits

When it comes to playback in the field, I've gone from heretic to believer. I used to worry that someone would hit the record button or that moving backward and forward would scuff the tape. With discs, you can go into record mode automatically without any risk of recording over existing footage.

While some might see disc-based camcorders as suitable only for ENG applications, we've been impressed with the quality and speed at which images have been captured. The XDCAM HD images are of exceptional clarity. And, with all the extra fiddling required with tape, there's no way we'd be able to get as much work shot, finished and delivered. The system's chief benefits include easy access to thumbnail and footage information, as well as high-quality production.

Post-production is established at the end point for each stage. This meant the crews were often in a city hundreds of miles from the action. For a multicamera shoot, we'd normally have an OB and a line of monitors, and I'd be calling the shots. Instead, rushes were couriered to post-production each evening with information about the day's shoot, relayed by sat-phone.

We knew at the outset we were going to benefit from the option of accessing clips instantly from the disc. We could open up and play thumbnails in-camera, discuss specific stories with each other and begin to see how the shots matched-up.

Random access to the footage allowed us to tell the post team where to build the stories and enabled the editors to open up recordings and immediately understand what to do. This proved a huge advantage over tape. Reviewing footage in thumbnail form makes the entire editing process in Apple Final Cut Pro much more streamlined and instantly rewarding.

There were also a couple of unexpected fringe benefits of going tapeless that revealed themselves during our constant jigsaw-packing of 112 flight cases into three Land Rovers together with crew, driver, and camping and personal gear. In 2003, we had a trunk full of tapes. This year, the discs proved a vital space saver and gave us room for two additional camera bodies. Using discs also reduced our freight costs by a considerable margin.

Simon Fitzgerald is co-owner of BHP Sport.