Releasing a major new turnkey digital editing system during this time of turmoil in our industry takes some guts. And that perhaps is what brought attendees of NAB2001 to the Sony exhibit as the company demonstrated its new XPRI nonlinear editing system.
Although admiring and curious crowds are nice, the proof of any system’s value is how it performs under real-world conditions. So while Sony is giving us a look at the system’s latest version 3.0 software at IBC this month, we’re also going to learn from free-lance editor Vance Piccin how this new NLE performed in the field. From Aug. 3 through Aug. 12, Piccin cut teases, bumpers and interviews for ABC Sports and ESPN on-location at the World Track and Field Championships that were sponsored by the IAAF (International Association of Athletic Foundations) in Edmonton, Canada.
FROM THE GROUND UP
XPRI is based on Windows 2000, but according to André Floyd, marketing manager for Editing Systems at Sony Electronics Inc., its operational ergonomics were intentionally based on significant pre-design input from editors across the country. "Over the past few years, we brought mock-ups of various configurations of the XPRI system to several demonstrations in many different markets to see what editors were looking for," he explained. "We wanted to make sure we included features in XPRI that don’t exist in other nonlinear edit systems."
One reason for soliciting this extensive input from working postproduction pros is that XPRI’s user interface is intended to be the foundation for future products across the Sony line, from newsroom editors to DVD authoring systems. In fact, XPRI has already replaced the company’s previous EditStation family of editors. Sony will continue to support existing EditStation systems.
Anyone familiar with the most popular mainstream NLEs will immediately recognize XPRI’s data monitor layout and timeline structure. But Sony heeded the ongoing call from editors for outboard modules to provide hands-on tactile control over key functions. That’s why, in addition to its keyboard and mouse, XPRI comes with an ancillary audio panel sporting eight flying faders (and a master fader), a track ball with Z-ring for manipulating effects, a jog/shuttle knob surrounded by basic user assignable edit and input control keys, and a media bar containing eight rotary pots for context-sensitive functions such as video color correction and audio equalization.
While XPRI can be upgraded to handle Sony’s HDCAM format, free-lancer Piccin used the system to edit standard-definition digital video in a portable office trailer in Edmonton. Equipment provider Bexel set up the trailer for ABC Sports next to the BVE-9100 online linear suite in National Mobile Television’s DX 5 mobile production truck, which ABC Sports used to cover the games.
"We beat the system up pretty well to augment the over 20 hours of production from the World Track and Field Championships," Piccin said. "Associate Producers Kimberly Baurer and Jason Lewis were feeding me material 18 hours a day, and XPRI kept cooking along during that long march. I had demo’d XPRI for Sony at NAB2001 and been involved with using it to cut a 1080/24p project for the Newport Film Festival last May, but this was the first time we had actually battle-tested the system during a major national broadcast. It lived up to all our expectations."
Piccin cut show opens, bumpers and roll-in packages for the two weekends that ABC Sports covered the event live, as well as for the daily evening tape-delayed coverage on ESPN. Although he loved the features of the system – especially the outboard modules – he did experience a few "blue screen of death" Windows’ crashes. None of them, however, lost him an edit. "I may have to sue someone for lung cancer," he laughed, " because it takes just about one cigarette break to wait for the system to come back online."
The decision to use the XPRI system at the Edmonton games was made by Bob Toms, director of production for ABC Sports. "Rather than set up a full blown linear online suite just for the bumpers and promos, we decided to field-test XPRI under these time pressures," he told us. "It seemed more user-friendly than other systems I had looked at, and XPRI’s ability to handle HDCAM with just the addition of the appropriate board intrigued me for future applications. Using it in standard definition at Edmonton, we decided to go with the two 180 GB disk storage configuration, which could handle four hours of uncompressed SD material, but occasionally we had to dump some material to tape to free up the system. At the end of the day, trying to accommodate 11 days of track and field events, we probably could have used twice that much disk space."
Toms found that the XPRI NLE was as fast as he expected, and the system’s operational displays let the APs follow the progress of the edit sessions easily. "Vance Piccin brought a world of help to the project, but Kimberly and Jason were responsible for the conceptual creative content," he said. "Throughout the production, the system met our high expectations for a robust NLE that had all the tools we knew we would need. It had a few minor bugs, but we are confident future software upgrades will deal with them."
Graphic materials for the promos were prerecorded at ABC in New York, although the overall animation packages that molded the look of the show were created at Big Studios in Toronto, Canada. But XPRI’s capabilities let Toms’ team put it all together under the deadlines of a live sports production. And ABC intends to keep an eye on the system to see when the network can use it again. "The marketplace is not great right now for us to invest heavily in a new nonlinear editor, " Toms admitted, "but we want to stay current with the cutting edge of what is out there."
So why is Sony taking a gamble on introducing this new high-end digital editor during these days when capital is tighter than a BNC connector?
After all, in its standard-definition version, the XPRI goes for $90,000 with four hours of storage, and the HDCAM version lists at $150,000 with the minimal two JPOD (Just Plain Old Disk) disk modules totaling 360 GB (to hold 5.7 hours of HDCAM video). Of course, HDCAM is a compressed format, but the XPRI system can also be used in the same configuration to hold 48 minutes of pure uncompressed high-definition video. Or, if needed, the two can be mixed in the same project. Still, that is a large chunk of money.
Sony’s Marketing Manager Floyd says three reasons are behind the company’s decision. "First, Sony continues to be dedicated to providing a full systemized product line and XPRI rounds that out," he began. "Also, since we are strong proponents of 24p HD production, we wanted to provide a finishing system that is more economical that the linear tape-based alternatives without major quality tradeoffs. And finally, even in this down economy we are seeing a ‘flight to quality,’ where companies that intend to be around for a while are looking for products that will still be worth their investment when things turn around. This makes XPRI a reasonably good risk even in today’s market."
Although Sony won’t reveal actual sales figures, Floyd does allow they are "ahead of expectations." With new version 3.0 software being previewed at IBC this month, XPRI is a system that will be well worth watching.
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