New Formats Take National Stage

Panasonic’s P2 tapeless format and Sony’s high-definition HDV camera will make their national programming debuts in the next two weeks, as show producers and directors further embrace next-generation products for longer-form content.

First up is the PBS documentary Secrets of the Dead: Gangland Graveyard, which airs Nov. 16 and was shot entirely on the P2 format. It’s the first long-form program to use the camera, which records on solid-state memory cards instead of tape. And on Nov. 24, HBO will air House Arrest, a reality show that’s the first nationally shown program to be recorded entirely with Sony HDV gear.

The formats exemplify the different trends in camera gear: the P2, solid-state recording that lets editors more quickly assemble material; the HDV, lighter, cheaper HD gear that is easier to operate.

Once they use the new gear, operators say it’s hard to go back. “It’s sad when I actually have to take my standard-definition cameras back out in the field,” says Jon Alpert, Emmy Award-winning documentarian and co-director of House Arrest.


Panasonic’s P2—along with Sony’s XDCAM, Grass Valley’s Infinity and Ikegami’s Editcam—is attracting those who want to speed up the standard-definition production process. Larry Engle, who wrote, directed and produced the Secrets of the Dead episode, says the format made it easier to distribute dailies and handle post-production. “It was a little scary not working with tape,” he says. “But this is like when the industry moved from film to videotape: They weren’t used to not having a negative.”

The documentary follows the rise and fall of gangster Joe Massino, and Engle says the material was perfectly suited for the new format because it involved a mix of interviews and reenactments. With three sets of 4-gigabyte (GB) cards, the crew was able to rotate the cards and shoot up to three hours of material a day. P2 recently made 8-GB cards available.

The new media did require some extra attention out in the field, Engle adds, including a dedicated person to transfer material as it was shot from the cards to either an external hard drive or a laptop. Once the material is moved, the cards can be used to record more new material.

“There were a couple of issues related to importing files that caused us to lose a couple of files,” Engle says. “But overall, working with P2 was terrific.”

The crew used the AJ-SPX800 2/3-inch DVCPRO P2 camcorder. Video was shot at 24 frames per second and at 50 megabits per second (Mbps), providing ample resolution. Material was dumped to the hard drive of a computer outfitted with Apple’s low-cost Final Cut Pro version 5 nonlinear editing system, which Engle says presented challenges. “There were a couple things about the editing system we didn’t like, like how it manages media in a big project. But there were other things, like real-time effects, that we loved.”

Those things also include the system’s low-resolution proxy. While recording the high-resolution material onto the P2 cards, the camera also records a low-resolution version on a separate SD memory card with 512 megabytes (MB) of storage. Instead of dubbing videotapes and overnighting the dailies to principals who aren’t on site, Engle took the low-res files, burned them onto a CD and dropped the whole thing onto a server. Then, producers from all over could tap into the server and see the material. Clips were also e-mailed to England so that execs based there could see the progress.

The low-res proxies also came in handy for promotional purposes, says Engle. “I was able to cut together five or 10 minutes of material and send it over so the promo department could write a script,” he says. “Then we linked the low-resolution material to the high-resolution material and assembled the promo.”


Although some have derided HDV gear as lacking in quality compared with its bulkier counterparts, Alpert says he will work with the gear on his next project. He just finished shooting a still-unnamed HBO documentary, which follows medical personnel throughout Iraq and will air next spring. The HDV HVR-Z1U camera was literally battle-tested, he says: “It survived 140-degree weather, sandstorms, and was on the battlefield. I had a chance to watch [the documentary] the other day, and it was beyond the cliché of making you feel like you were there.”

Alpert considers anyone who doubts HDV’s capability misguided. “When I see news crews carrying around the big cameras, I feel sorry for them,” he says. “While they’re struggling to race down the street, I can be three or four blocks ahead of them.”