Iditarod race pushes P2 technology to the limit

At the outset, Greg Heister was skeptical about using solid-state recording technology to capture the harsh conditions of the 2007 Iditarod dog sled race. Having been involved with the world-famous 1150mi endurance race on and off for more than 10 years, he’d seen videotape freeze to rotating recording heads, plastic cassettes crack, moving metal parts become brittle and break off, and all sorts of other problems with equipment he was familiar with. In his mind, the Iditarod trail was not the place to test video production gear and new formats.

When the Iditarod committee agreed to use Panasonic’s P2 DVCPRO gear, Heister was charged with hiring the crews and making it work. As the production supervisor, his goal was to coordinate and produce coverage during the race and later use it to create a compilation DVD that would be sold and distributed to broadcast outlets around the world. In addition, this year’s race was the first time the production crew used HD equipment.

Improved production logistics

The logistics of putting people in place was massive to say the least. The production team consisted of five two-man crews that had all worked on previous outdoor races and were familiar with the cold conditions and with shooting sporting events.

During the 10-day race, three crews traveled along the race trail in small airplanes, two on snowmobiles and a fifth in a helicopter with a Wescam mount. Each crew was given a Panasonic HPX2000 shoulder-mounted camcorder as its main camera and an HVX200 handheld P2 HD camcorder for incidental shots.

The HVX200’s were initially purchased to use as a backup cameras, but they were never used in that capacity. Instead, they captured close-up interviews and footage at the indoor and outdoor checkpoints. Panasonic’s new HPX500 was also used sparingly.

The entire crew had access to 150 P2 8GB memory cards. The helicopter crew received 50 cards, while each crew on the ground got 20, which was more than enough to match the crews’ need.

The crews shot about five hours each day, then downloaded clips to an Apple MacBook Pro laptop running Final Cut Pro editing software. Some of the footage shot during the day was uploaded to the Internet for public viewing in as little as 20 minutes after it was shot.

Pulling its weight

Solid-state memory aside, the biggest difference for the crews this year was the size and weight of the equipment. Last year, the crews carried large CPU towers for ingesting tape footage, Betacam SP decks and other heavy gear. This year, they used the much lighter P2 cameras, a P2 Mobile portable recorder/player, a MacBook Pro laptop and a GTECH 1TB portable hard drive. The reduced weight made traveling around much easier, so the crews could cover more ground. It also made working in a cramped airplane, helicopter or snowmobile much more manageable.

Along the Iditarod racecourse there were 20 checkpoints set up for production teams and those participating in the race. Most of the checkpoints had some type of Internet connection. Last year, the crews transported a C-band uplink dish to get footage from remote locations back to the base stations. This year, they were able to use a DSL line, which made things much quicker. They uploaded 20 to 30 clips per day, showing worldwide viewers where the racers were on the course and who was in the lead.

The crew never lost a clip on the P2 cards. They learned to “right-protect” the cards by moving the little tab to the right to protect the data and avoid overwriting. As soon as an operator removed a card from the camera (each camera holds five cards), the card was right-protected.

Protecting the gear

Due to the harsh conditions, the cameras were protected with thermal vests made especially for the race by Porta Brace. These were used sparingly to transport the cameras into and out of the elements. The camera operators sometimes found it hard to work with the vests in the field because many of the camera buttons and controls were covered up.

Anton Bauer provided HyTron 140 Li-Ion batteries that enabled up to four hours of run time in the cold weather. Carrying two batteries each, this allowed the shooters to work continuously without having to change batteries during the course of a day. The company’s ELIPZ batteries, which mount under the camera, were used with the HVX200 camcorders.

At one point, the cameras were exposed to the elements for five days straight, at –35 degrees and below, and they performed flawlessly. It got so cold that one of the lenses broke off a camera at the lens-mount, because the screws became metal fatigued and simply crumbled as the camera was being picked up. (And it wasn’t a heavy lens.) Yet, the cameras, the cards and the images stored on the P2 cards and were not affected by the cold.

In another incident, a producer was juggling P2 cards in and out of a camera. To prevent dropping a card in the snow, she stuck one in her mouth for a second, and it froze to her tongue. The images on the card remained intact.

Despite the -40 degree temperatures, 50mph wind gusts and a frozen play/record switch on one of the cameras, overall the equipment performed flawlessly. The crew captured 110 hours of stunning footage in 720p HD at 24fps and turned around short segments in less than 20 minutes for viewing on the Internet. This had never been possible with the tape-based workflow used in previous years.

Training the crew

To ensure that things went smoothly, Panasonic sent five consultants to Anchorage and Nome, Alaska, prior to the start of the race. The consultants included Art Aldrich, C.R. Caillouet, Michael Caporale, Barry Green and Bernie Mitchell. For two days, they helped train the camera crews on using the P2 cameras and developing a workflow with the P2 Mobile deck to get clips off the cards and into a computer for editing on Final Cut Pro. Files were stored in the QuickTime format, so the system could immediately recognize the clips and editors could begin working.

Aldrich, who helped set up the Apple/Panasonic workflow, set up systems for his own production (for Panasonic’s internal use) with a single 1TB GTECH RAID unit and a Quantum SDLT600A for tape archive. The Iditarod teams used two GTECH units (1TB each) raided together on the Mac laptops for redundancy.

Proper management and planning were important to carefully log footage, as was keeping track of individual solid-state cards.

Home free

Heister is now working on a 90-minute HD program, which will be released on DVD later this year. Panasonic is also producing a behind-the-scenes documentary. Heister is cutting on a Mac G5 workstation running Final Cut Pro. The P2 system records video as digital files, so he anticipates his time in post to be about one-third lees than in previous years when he worked from videotape.

The 2007 Iditarod race started in Anchorage on March 4 and the winner, Lance Mackey, crossed the finish line in Nome nine days, five hours, eight minutes and 41 seconds later. Images of the race can be viewed at

Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industries.