Panasonic's AG-HVX200: A smart camcorder

The P2-based AG-HVX200 is shown here with the Chrosziel 16x9 matte box and follow-focus for EFP applications.

It's a heck of a lot of technology crammed into one pint-size box: MXF-native P2, true adjustable frame-rate capability and 1080p 60fps 4:2:2 initial sampling at an astounding 19 bits! No wonder you may be feeling particularly out of sync these days in the face of such dizzying advances in camcorder and imaging technology. Who can possibly keep up?

I recently revisited Panasonic's AG-HVX200 after experimenting with an early prototype model for several weeks last fall. Now outfitted with a regular production model, I recaptured several of the same scenes: a day interior inside a BMW sedan, a walking night exterior along Hollywood Boulevard, a typical soap opera set replete with emoting talent and a Studio City Laundromat illuminated by ugly overhead fluorescents. The production version proved to be considerably quieter in the shadows — this conclusion drawn primarily from the low-light scenes exhibiting large areas of unfilled shadows.

Advanced heat sinks in the AG-HVX200 dissipate the heat away from the processor and thereby help reduce noise in underlit shadow areas.

As I previously observed, one thing continues to be evident: The AG-HVX200 represents the most significant progress in small-format video in more than a decade, since the introduction of the first consumer DV camcorder (the Sony DCR-VX1000) in 1995. Any way you parse it — and we're talking 81 different possible shooting modes here — the camcorder is one remarkable image-capture machine.

Toward a tapeless workflow

The 5.3lb basic AG-HVX200 is a 1/3in native 16:9 camcorder. Marrying the functionality of the Varicam and the company's P2-based SPX800 and popular DVX100A/B models, the unit captures DVCPRO HD (not HDV!) at 1080i and 720p in the forgiving 4:2:2 color space.

That means no long-15 frame MPEG GOP structure to sabotage fast pans, no fill high-motion scenes with ugly macroblocks and no protracted 44-hour HDV re-conform sessions from the NLE. There are no convoluted shenanigans when attempting to cut DVCPRO HD picture and sound natively on the timeline. Intra-frame compression (as opposed to HDV's inter-frame MPEG-2 type) facilitates workflow along the lines we're used to in a professional post-production environment.

Are you shooting film or video? The AG-HVX200 offers different capabilities, depending on which way you go. ENG shooters in Video Camcorder mode can access the pre-record, loop record and slow shutter functions.

The Panasonic challenge

The question of native chip resolution in the HVX200 has been the subject of much speculation, as Panasonic has not (yet) specified the native pixel density of the camcorder's CCD. This has understandably aroused the suspicions of some shooters and engineers who automatically deduce a sinister motive and raise fears of black helicopters amassing on the horizon.

In addressing the issue, let me say first that the AG-HVX200 is a very smart camcorder, designed for a similarly smart and well-informed user. Panasonic faced a major challenge in designing this camcorder's 1/3in 16×9 HD CCD. Adequate low-light performance was paramount in the company's mind as it is (rightfully so) a major concern for most small-format shooters. Happily, the camcorder exhibits exceptional low-light sensitivity for a 1/3in HD camcorder — about 1.5 stops better than the popular HDV camcorders.

Most shooters, of course, will readily acknowledge the value of good low-light performance but do not understand the trade-offs inherent to achieving this goal. Just as fine-grain film is associated with slower, less-sensitive emulsions, cramming smaller and similar pixels onto a nominal 1/3in surface (actually ¼in) will have exactly the same effect. Indeed, a higher resolution imager may not always be desirable in small-format video due to because of this kind of performance trade-off; a 2 million-pixel imager, for example, would almost certainly be perceived as too dark by nearly everyone.

The frame rate of the camcorder cannot be changed while running. As a result, in-camcorder ramping effects are not possible.

Marketers, of course, love to focus on numbers, such as the clock speed of PCs and the pointless but impressive sounding “700X digital zoom” emblazoned on the side of some consumer camcorders. Broadcast professionals know better, so manufacturers usually don't try such skullduggery on us. However, the tendency of shooters, especially novice-types, to judge camcorders (and everything else) on the basis of numbers alone, such as the “native resolution” of a CCD, is a real and ongoing danger.

Suffice it to say that the CCD is a quintessential analog device, the silicon crystals embedded in it outputting a stream of electrons in direct proportion to the amount of light striking its surface. It is this analog stream that is amplified and digitally sampled, raising the real issue of how precisely these operations are performed in a given camcorder system.

The analog signal from the imager is sampled at 1080p60 4:2:2 at 19-bits. With 524,288 possible values assignable to each sample during initial processing, the camcorder's DSP is bound to find one that accurately reflects the original analog value out of the imager. It also means that regardless of video format — and there are 81 available options — the camcorder cache is crunching a huge amount of data, which is then parsed for the desired scanning mode, resolution and frame rate.

As would be expected, the unit exhibits increased noise at gain levels above +6dB or when shooting scenes containing large unfilled shadow areas. Reducing overall camcorder detail to -3 or -4 combined with increasing detail coring to +3 or +4 should be considered to help suppress this noise, which appears to be present in all three color channels.

Two camcorders in one

The AG-HVX200 operates as a superb standard-definition DVX camcorder, recording consumer DV 4:1:1 (not HD!) to tape. The 16:9 HD imager contributes an enormous amount of fineness to the SD image — a valuable consideration for ultimate output to standard-definition DVD.

The AG-HVX200 is really two camcorders in one. As a video camcorder, it applies the Varicam model to output 60p video. Thus, when shooting 1080i24p, the unit outputs 60fps by applying a 2:3 pull-down. In terms of storage, the maximum recording time on a P2 card is the same for 1080i and 720p — the benefit of the Video Camcorder mode being a valid DVCPRO HD stream output via FireWire to an external VCR, laptop or hard drive such as the Firestore FS-100, CitiDISK HD or Specialized Communications' CinePorter.

The Advanced 24pA mode popularized in the DVX100 works in the same way here using a 2:3:3:2 conversion of 60fps 1080i and 480i video streams. The NLE removes the invalid frames during capture to restore the original 24p frame rate with little or no loss of quality in the process.

Some functions such as time-lapse, pre-record (up to seven seconds in SD and three seconds in HD), loop record and slow shutter are available only in the Video Camcorder mode.

The AG-HVX200 accommodates two P2 cards of 4GB or 8GB each for up to 40 minutes runtime at 720p24pn (native mode). The card not being recorded to can be off-loaded to a laptop, dedicated Panasonic 60GB P2 store, or generic Firewire or USB 2.0 hard drive.

Going native in film camcorder mode

The film camcorder enables 720p recordings at adjustable frame rates from 12fps to 60fps. The camcorder's native mode is highly efficient because only unique frames are delivered to the recording medium. So while a 4GB P2 card can capture only four minutes of video in non-native modes over 60p, the card's total runtime may be increased 2.5 times to 10 minutes at 720p24 in native mode.

The unit permits ready playback of off-speed clips by switching the camcorder to VCR/MCR mode and viewing the desired scene on the the built-in LCD screen, electronic viewfinder or external HD monitor. Unlike the Varicam, no external frame converter is required to view slow-motion or accelerated effects.

Recordings in native mode cannot (currently) be output to an external drive (even to the Firestore). The target computer must be fitted with the appropriate P2-enabled log and capture software. All popular NLEs now support P2 capture, including Apple's Final Cut Pro, Canopus Edius and Avid Xpress Pro HD.

The P2 card may be inserted directly into a laptop, permitting immediate access to footage without capturing. The P2 PCMCIA card mounted on the desktop enables file transfers at speeds theoretically up to 640Mb/s!

Issues to fathom

The top-mounted menu selection buttons are non-tactile and difficult to see in low light. I would also like to see the button array rotated 90 degrees to reflect the operator's perspective from behind the camcorder.

A fiber-optic system similar to the Apple Powerbook should be implemented to help illuminate the menu selection keys in low light. I found the camcorder setup much easier to perform using the (included) remote control. Unfortunately, the button arrangement on the remote is not consistent with the camcorder; the Set button usurps the spot where the right navigational arrow should be.

Of particular interest to non-NTSC producers, the camcorder currently lacks 50p capability for down-conversion of DVCPRO HD files to PAL. This could be significant to larger rental facilities and broadcasters trying to maintain support across multiple television standards.

Camcorder operators also should be aware that the camcorder is utterly silent when recording to the P2 card or laptop, coming up to speed instantly without the usual servo convulsions. While one would think this is a positive point, the innocuous red REC light in the viewfinder may not be sufficient in some cases to get operator attention. I would prefer a more obvious crawling “RECORD” message in the viewfinder or at the bottom of the side LCD screen. Ideally, this message could be enabled or disabled as a menu option. Given the short runtime of the P2 card, it is especially critical to know when the camcorder is running and when it is not.

The relatively short runtime of the P2 media continues to be the major issue for shooters and producers, especially in documentary and ENG applications. While producers of narrative fare, commercials and music videos may not object to four- and eight-minute P2 loads (at 1080i over 60), ENG shooters will almost certainly balk at the abbreviated runtimes. For these shooters, recording to tape in SD remains a viable option, as does the use of an external drive like the Firestore, with a continuous runtime of 90 minutes or more.

Final thoughts

With the introduction of the Panasonic AG-HVX200, the industry trend toward a tapeless IT-based workflow has taken a major leap forward. The P2 MXF-based system, introduced more than a year ago in the AJ-SPX800, has been rapidly gaining ground in the rough-and-tumble world of TV news. One reason is the retention of valuable metadata recorded in-camcorder, including GPS settings and voice notes. While the HVX does not record either metadata type in its present form, one would expect this to change in a future revision.

For ENG and broadcast applications today, whether one uses the actual card media or not, the camcorder obviates the need for capture sessions and expensive VCRs, thus potentially realizing savings of tens of thousands of dollars in heavy iron outlays and more than offsetting the current (temporary) high cost of the P2 media. Many folks will still cite the economy of videotape for backup and archiving. But even here, however, the necessity of using videotape at all is becoming increasing doubtful, as lower-cost, higher-capacity P2 cards have recently entered the market.

For storage and backup, large capacity optical discs also are looming. In late spring, Panasonic is expected to ship the first Blu-ray burners with 50GB capacities. HVD (Halographic Versatile Discs) also may be imminent; the first iteration of 5in discs with a 330GB capacity are due for shipping mid-year, according to the HVD Alliance.

For shooters of every stripe, including EFP and ENG camcorder operators everywhere, the AG-HVX200 represents a major achievement in HD resolution imaging and workflow. For broadcasters, the promise of P2 in combination with a low-cost HD camcorder is a dream come true.

Barry Braverman is a veteran cinematographer with more than 20 years experience in feature films, documentaries and music videos. He is currently serving as a digital media expert and consultant to major studios. His latest book, “Video Shooter,” is available from CMP Books