The AC Is Running

I’m crouched in one of the oldest hallways in Philadelphia. Located around the corner from Independence Hall, you don’t need carbon dating to establish the age… the hand-forged hardware, worn floorboards and high ceilings tell the tale. And the smell—that unique old-building smell.

And, of course, if I’m sitting on a road case in a hallway, it must be a shoot. A two-camera high-def shoot, to be exact. Although that may soon come screeching to a halt, and for the worst of reasons: All the memory cards are full.


I’m stuck with riding herd on the cards today, because I’m “playing engineer,” standing by to shade cameras whose automatics run so precisely that I’m pretty much obsolete. But with the setup tasks behind us, my next job is to wrangle the storage media—and I’m failing, falling behind.

It’s a sucker’s game, mostly, a question with no right answer. With a 16 GB card and a 32 GB card for each camera, which do you load first?

The big ones? That only guarantees a doubly-long offload period, and for this panel discussion we’re shooting, they may never be able to hand off the filled-up cards until the 16s are half full.

Load the smaller cards first? That pretty much guarantees that you’ll be stuck on the big cards when you don’t want to be.

Ultimately, a compromise is struck, or rather forced—a few minutes longer at the lunch break, and we may be able to finish dumping. Another doughnut, dear client?


Our brothers and sisters in the so-called film industry were, in truth, better equipped to handle this transition than we oxide-mongers were. Saddled with a truly inconvenient recording medium—film—they had developed workflow processes and techniques to accommodate the timely loading and unloading of film magazines. And they created a crew position, too: the AC, or assistant cameraman. Today, the AC on a tapeless HD shoot is responsible for trafficking the memory cards, keeping them organized, safely dumping them and re-loading the camera.

And they’ve got their hands full, sprinting from the laptop and card reader to the camera, all the while remembering which cards are full and which are empty, lest disaster strike.

I’ve heard a wealth of practical suggestions from ACs, some as simple as keeping blank cards in your left pants pocket, and full cards in your right. (Or was it the other way around?) And they’ll be the first to tell you that they’re still searching for better techniques.

Down at our level of production, we can’t often justify a single-tasked position like the AC; but we need to perform all the same functions, and with the same set of goals: production never delayed, and not a single frame lost or misplaced.

The introduction of progressively larger storage cards has helped relieve a bit of the stress, but at a cost measured both in dollars and in minutes of offload time; again, no magic bullets, no universally correct answers.

I’ve used this space in the past to sing the praises of the new, much-ballyhooed “tapeless workflow,” and I’m not backing down. Storing digital video on format-agnostic memory cards is not just a forward-looking idea—it’s the only idea.

More than ever, I’m convinced that when, in your dotage, you’re the guest speaker at the community college video production class, you’ll be holding up oxide-loaded cassette shells much the same way I trot out 2-inch quad reels and quarter-inch audiotape for our occasional high school visitors. And then, as now, they’ll look at you like you just dismounted your dinosaur.


But one thing required by the new workflow can’t be bought from the video dealer: organization. Your dealer prepared you for the backend organizational tasks by talking about archiving strategies, LTO drives and BD-R burners, but the critical skill—front-end management—has no catalog number or price, and absent a commission, you won’t likely be tutored by the sales staff.

Change is seldom easy, and there’s no question that we’re in generation 1.3 of a technology that may not run completely smoothly until about generation 4. Take courage. Persevere. And be generous. Write down all those little tips, workarounds and shortcuts, and post them online; share them at a user’s group meeting; evangelize!

Think of it as a practical, reality-based form of karma—what goes around comes around. In the end, the data you save may be your own.

Walter Schoenknecht is a partner at Midnight Media Group Inc., a New York-area digital production facility. You can reach him via e-mail