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Fast and Cheap

When President Bush headed into Madison Square Garden to rehearse his acceptance speech, NY1 News Noticias reporter Juan Manuel Benitez and cameraman/editor Joe Medina were ready. They'd be the ones to get the key shot—Bush entering the arena.

And even if Medina failed, his equipment wouldn't.

For one of the first cameramen in the country armed with Panasonic's P2 disk-based camera, victory came at the flip of a switch. A built-in buffer stored the previous five seconds of whatever the camera was recording. If Medina's trigger finger wasn't quick, the camera was.

"The loop stores up to 15 seconds of video, which is great when you're waiting for something to happen," he says.

Welcome to the world of tapeless electronic newsgathering. NY1 News is the first news organization to officially use the P2 format. The P2 system is based on solid-state flash-memory cards with 2GB of memory on each (4GB cards are on the way). It can store eight minutes of broadcast-quality video. Slap a card into one or all of the five slots on the camera or record deck, and tapes are history.

The move to tapeless has several advantages.

For openers, it increases production flexibility and speed. Tape-based systems require material to be dubbed in during the editing process. The best footage is identified by the time code of the clip, and editors have to shuttle back and forth to find it. But NY1 News used convention coverage to test the new tapeless workflow. Content can be dubbed from the P2 cards into the Pinnacle Liquid editing system two times faster than real time. And the camera operator can mark in and out points for clips by simply pressing a button.

"It's very fast compared to tape," says NY1 News cameraman and editor Michael Chow. "You can place the clips in any order and drag-and-drop the ones you want from the card into the editing system."

The camera also lets the operator and reporter see the first frame of video for each clip on the viewfinder. (They can view up to nine thumbnails at once.) That gives the reporter the chance to make some editing decisions while the crew is heading back to the station, rendering the video transfer that much faster.

Benitez enjoys working with the new format. "One thing I would like is more storage space on the cards because I don't want to delete clips," he says. "But I like being able to mark the clips and choose the sequence they play back in."

The new format does introduce one challenge: keeping track of the cards. Each is about the size of a credit card and roughly a quarter-inch thick. But the small size comes with a big price tag, about $2,000, making it far less disposable than videotape. Also, the cards can easily be lost.

"Steve Paulus, our general manager, likes to joke that it's 10 cards, 10 fingers and you lose a finger for each card lost," says NY1 News Chief Engineer Joe Truncale.

Identifying the cards is also tricky. With the exception of a small serial number etched on one of the edges, they all look the same. If five cards are out of the camera and lying on a table, it can be difficult to find the right one. That has NY1 considering color-coding so users can easily keep track of which cards are theirs.

If station management has faith in its staff, Paulus says, the P2 investment is worth it. Because the cards are reusable, tape budgets can be slashed—even if some cards are lost over a two- or three-year period. "You don't have to buy tape, which is a huge chunk [about $60,000 yearly] of every station's budget," he points out.

NY1 News expects to complement the cameras and cards by giving reporters 40GB hard drives. That way, they can dump footage from the cards on the hard drive and get the cards back into the camera to shoot more footage. Another storage option will be recording clips to DVD. The P2 decks have space for a rewritable DVD drive that has yet to be delivered. Once those drives are in place, a new archiving solution may emerge.

The NY1 News team also sees ways to improve tapeless workflow. The big concern is time.

At present, it takes four minutes to ingest eight minutes of footage. Pinnacle is working on improving that rate, and Truncale is hopeful that transfer speed will be a quarter or even an eighth of real-time ingest.

A second issue is finding an easy way for camera personnel to mark clips. In a perfect world, the solution is to allow the reporter to mark them by pushing a button on a remote control. Paulus says the station is providing Panasonic with such feedback.

For now, NY1 is adjusting to the current P2 reality. In the second week of September, it begins e-training for camera operators and reporters. With 22 cameras already on hand, the conversion will be swift, culminating in the addition of another six units next year. By then, the editing systems should be faster, the cameras lighter, the cards better. And tape, at least at NY1, will be old news.