EX1R SD Workflow – tales from the front line

I shoot with Sony’s PMW-EX1 (and now an EX1R). Brilliant cameras, they shoot onto solid state ‘memory cards’ rather than tape. They shoot ‘files’ rather than ‘footage’, and the benefit is that it’s quicker to copy an hour’s worth of video from a card than it is from a tape. A half, a third, even a quarter of the time. With expensive hardware, even a fifth of the time. If you have lots of rushes or short deadlines, it’s great.

Okay, now lets say you’re a producer and you hire a cameraman to shoot something for you. Usually, you just take away the tapes and hand them to your editor (or even ingest it yourself). That’s easy. So what if you hire a cameraman with one of these new-fangled EX1s then?

The polite answer is that the cameraman goes behind a metaphorical curtain and does a little bit of alchemy, then hands you a hard drive with all your rushes, ready to edit.

Except it’s not actually like that.

There’s physical formats and there’s metaphysical formats for video. You can get a tape that’s a physical format – a DVCAM cassette isn’t going to be a snug fit in a BetaCam SP player. We understand that. So there’s P2, SxS, SDHC, XDCAM disks, and so on – you need the right shaped hole to receive its bounty. Then into the metaphysical – there will be video clips that are basically computer files, and each file will have its container format – QuickTime, AVI, MXF and so on. Then inside each is the ‘flavour’ of video – is it H.264, is it MPEG2, is it DVCPro-HD, is it DV?

This is way beyond the point at which most sane, intelligent humans cease to care about such minutiae and simply nod in empathy whilst trying to sneak a view at their watch.

Because all you want to know is ‘it just works’.

So I do a shoot for you, and everything goes great. We huddle round my laptop to quickly view the rushes after the wrap so you can go home with that eager rosy glow of great footage to cut. But before you leave, you get this speech:

“Right, I’ve put Sony Clip Browser on there, so after you install it, you can view the shots on each of the cards and transfer them over to your NLE.”

Huh? Wait, what software? I have to install something? How do I use the software? What am I doing or achieving here? Will my computer run it? Can I do any damage to anything? Is there something I might do wrong that will cause unknown hell to break loose later on when you’re no longer within reach?

Can I have a tape please? I like tapes. But I’m in the edit suite tomorrow, so just send them round tonight when you’re back home.

So the cameraman with his shiny new edit-ready footage goes home and either transcodes everything to DV (one long process) then plops them onto DVCAM (assuming deck or device, not wishing to even comment on TimeCode here). Or maybe does the nice thing and uses XDCAM Transfer to make beautifully named and equisitely perfect QuickTime movies and copies them onto a MacOS formatted disk. The producer uses a Mac.

Now, just like Sliding Doors, we enter a world of Duality:

The DVCAM Producer gets the tapes the next day as the cameraman was up all night nursing the four hours of footage through, trying to get TimeCode working. The tapes go in, the editor asks what it was shot on, and the producer says it was supposed to be one of those edit ready things, but tape’s so much easier. The cameraman, having watched the dawn, retires to bed.

The DVCAM Producer gets a little USB disk that is Mac formatted, so it appears on his MacBook Air, just as promised. Except the movies don’t work. He can hear them, but no picture. So he calls the cameraman that evening. Ah, yes – because the Producer doesn’t have Final Cut Pro installed, he doesn’t have the codec, so can’t see the video. The cameraman asks him to go to the Sony site and download Clip Browser or XDCAM Transfer. Which is a big download and the hotel broadband is as broad as a drinking straw, and do we really need to download stuff to view it? Why did it work earlier? Why doesn’t it work now? Will the editor have to do this? Then another phone call to the cameraman – the Producer is in the edit suite with the editor, who says he can’t read the disk because he’s on a PC, and the Avid doesn’t do QuickTime, and can we have the rushes on tape please…

So, this imaginary episode of Stressed Eric was brought to you by the Sony EX1-R.

The EX1-R shoots Standard Definition video to SxS, SDHC (in appropriate adaptor) and Memory Stick Pro Duo in the MEAD (MEmorystick ADaptor) as AVI files.

If you purchase something like ‘NTFS For Mac’

http://www.paragon-software.com/home/ntfs-mac/

you can attach PC disks to your Mac and write to them. Not just those piddly little naff files handled by ‘FAT32’, no, you can use NTFS which is the PC equivalent of Mac OS disks.

The practical upshot is that:

– You spend the day shooting AVI files onto your cards
– You copy the AVI files from the cards to a hard disk
— Bought from PC World if necessary
– You hand the hard disk to the client
– Client can read them on Mac or PC.
– Editor can use them in any editing software

Now… THAT is a workflow.

I still think the best SD quality comes from 720p, and that I prefer a folder full of exquisitely named QuickTime movies with embedded information like Speaker, Title, Location and Good Take markers, but I have Editor DNA and I am lucky enough to eat from my own dog bowl (associates ‘Drink their own champagne’ apparently). But there you go.

To all you Producers out there who want a simple, easy workflow from one of those funny new-fangled cameras with the nice pictures and the cheap price tag, just ask for the EX1-R.

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So Long SD

I’ve spent the best part of today trawling through the raw footage that I and my colleagues have shot of a particular event over the last five years, and found myself musing at the astonishing jump in quality we’ve witnessed.

So I’m looking at DSR570 footage – this is standard definition, 16:9 DVCAM done right. Putting Z1 footage next to DSR570 was like putting a vesta meal next to a proper curry. A DSR570 in good hands will capture great things and whilst not quite DigiBeta, the cameraman will make sure the images pop.

Now lets roll in an EX1 shooting at 720p. It’s a third of the cost of a DSR570 with good SD lens. It’s a little cocktail sausage of a camera – a big pointy stick through the middle of it would be a pleasing image to many people. It has a fixed factory lens on the front of it, and if you want to go wider or longer, you have to screw bits of bottle-bottom glass to it.

But the difference in picture quality – gawd, even though we have to scale it down to SD, it just kicks the DSR570 and 450’s butt. Okay, so most of the DSR footage is interlaced – because that’s what we did in the last century. Sigh. Interlace brings with it such a heavy payload to web video that I never wish to deal with it again. As for the Z1? How did we let this camera get away with its soft lens, oversharpened image, poor light sensitivity and dull image?

Yes, I did say web video. We’re now in a position where web video is at full SD quality (approximately 960×540, which is quarter 1080p) on YouTube, and full-on 1280×720 over at Vimeo. We can make beautiful and iridescent video at these resolutions that make the old school DVCAM 2/3″ cameras look like pin-hole cameras. Because most cameras were never set up to capture the full exposure range they might have been capable of, and stuck slavishly to broadcast video specifications from several decades ago, their images have to be pulled through post like an A&E victim.

Okay, so I am hamming things up a little. De-interlacing, scaling up and applying some colour correction to add a little zip to the images is hardly open-heart surgery. It’s more like tipping a spoonful of Calpol in its gob and sending it back to PE. But SD is so ‘done’, so ‘over’, so ‘finished’. An EX1 makes images that a DSR570 was never designed to do.

So now I need to cajole all my cameraman and DoP friends to pick up a Sausage-On-Stick EX1(R) and treat it like the decent tool it is, not that horrible little box-brownie called the Z1. But that’s unfair. I have spent too long in 720p to take SD seriously any more. I’m about to launch into a proper grown-up film-ou 1080 project too. After a couple of years in these lofty formats, Standard Definition – even PAL – seems just so… Lame?