P2 Hits Its Stride in 2009

You can identify a Panasonic P2 E series card by its metallic-silver styling.

You can identify a Panasonic P2 E series card by its metallic-silver styling.

"Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is." — Wayne Gretzky

I've always liked that quote, even though a little internet research shows there are a dozen versions of it, and whichever version is the right one actually came from Gretzky's dad, instead of The Great One himself. Whatever. The point is, the quote came to mind as I started writing this article, because it describes Panasonic's approach to its popular P2 format.

P2 was the first tapeless format to take the tired, old workflow that shooters and producers have used for 30 years and drag it into the 21st century. P2 has been around since 2004, and it's made its way into Panasonic's top cameras and been embraced by productions large and small. However, there were always technology and cost issues that made P2 a tough sell for some projects—for instance, some documentaries and reality TV shows.

But 2009 saw Panasonic's bet on where the technological puck is going pay off. New hardware, new software and inevitable price reductions have wiped away P2's earlier limitations and boosted the quality, convenience, and dollar savings that a solid-state format delivers. If you're looking to squeeze more efficiency out of your own workflow—be it tape-based or otherwise—here are five big changes in 2009 that help make P2 so compelling.

P2 cards: big and cheap(er)

One of P2's earliest problems was the cost of the P2 cards themselves. When Panasonic introduced the first P2 HD camcorder, the AG-HVX200, the 8GB P2 cards available stored 20 minutes of 720p24 footage and cost a whopping $1,200.

How things have changed. In mid 2009, Panasonic started shipping a new kind of P2 card, called the E series. E series cards can do everything that older P2 cards can but with two big improvements. First, E series cards come in huge capacities, up to 64GB per card. That's enough to carry 2.5 hours of 720p24 footage or 1.5 hours of 1080. Second, E series prices no longer induce cardiac arrest. The 64GB card costs $998, 32GB is $625, and 16GB is $420.

P2's new price and capacity mean great things for shooters and producers. You can now fill up a five-slot pro camera, such as the Panasonic Varicam AJ-HPX2700 or AJ-HPX3700, and shoot 13 hours at 720p24 each day (6.5 hours at 1080) without interrupting things to load or label a new tape, cart around dozens of blank tapes, or do a data transfer in the middle of the shoot. These shooting times can easily take most productions through an entire day (or days). At the end of the day, it's easy to bring the cards back to the office or a hotel to do a quick offload to editing or backup hard drives. If you're in the field and don't want to bother with a laptop, consider the handheld Nexto NVS2500 appliance, which automatically backs up P2 cards.

P2's leaner prices mean you can have this massive shooting capacity for less than $5,000 (five 64GB cards at $998 each). That may sound like a big upfront cost, but you'll potentially never have to pay for camera media again. When you consider that a 2-hour TV documentary can easily rack up 30 hours of footage—about $1,500 in tape stock—then you can see the magic of never paying for media year after year.

The Panasonic AJ-PCD35 makes no noise and fits on a crowded desk.

The Panasonic AJ-PCD35 makes no noise and fits on a crowded desk.

Speaking of years, E series cards have two other interesting features. The first is that, unlike older P2 cards, these cards eventually wear out after you've loaded them up and erased them a number of times. That sounds like it could be an issue until you realize that Panasonic gives an E series card a five-year lifetime, assuming you fill and erase it every single day during those five years. Since no one shoots every single day, year after year, the cards are likely to last closer to 10 years or more. You can monitor a card's life expectancy, and when it finally does give up the ghost, it becomes read-only so you don't lose footage.

The second feature of E series cards is that they're considerably faster than older P2 cards. They can transfer data up to 1.2Gbps versus the 600Mbps and 800Mbps of older cards, so you can offload them to a hard drive quicker than ever. That brings us to the next change in the P2 universe.

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Offload cards at blazing speeds

In early 2009, Panasonic shipped a new P2 card reader called the AJ-PCD35 ($2,190), which lets you simultaneously offload up to five P2 cards to your editing computer.

A five-card reader isn't a new thing; before the PCD35, Panasonic shipped two earlier models, but they connected to your computer via a glacially-slow USB 2.0 connection or a slightly-faster-but-still-dog-slow FireWire 800 port. That meant it could take several hours to offload multiple high-capacity P2 cards.

The PCD35 changes all that. It connects to your editing computer via a tiny PCIe card, and transfers footage about five times faster than older Panasonic readers (transfer to a RAID for best results; a RAID can keep up with the PCD35's speed, but a single hard drive can't). In other words, the PCD35 can offload five 64GB E series cards (filled with 13 hours of 720p24 footage or 6.5 hours at 1080p24) in less than an hour. The PCD35 also works with laptops through Magma Systems' $199 EX34 ExpressCard adapter. Transfer times will be slower on a laptop for a variety of reasons, but the PCD35 still gives you impressive transfer speeds in the field.

Let that sink in. You can have 13 hours of footage in the hands of producers, transcribers and editors in less than 60 minutes. That's greased lightning as far as footage transfers go. If you tried to digitize that footage from tape, you'd have to pay some poor soul to feed dozens of tapes into an expensive, proprietary deck, which would merely capture the footage in real-time. Even if you shot on Sony XDCAM disks—another tapeless format that competes with P2—the spinning disk couldn't match the transfer speeds of P2's solid-state chips, and someone would still have to nurse each disk's transfer, one at a time.

At $2,190, the PCD35 isn't cheap, and I have to think Panasonic could drop a few hundred from the price. On the other hand, the drive is far cheaper than any professional media deck I can think of, and its fast offloads save massive amounts of time and money in postproduction.

Apple Final Cut Pro's Log and Transfer window reads native AVC-Intra footage and rewrites it as QuickTime files.

Apple Final Cut Pro's Log and Transfer window reads native AVC-Intra footage and rewrites it as QuickTime files.

AVC-Intra goes mainstream

P2 cameras have always shot using Panasonic's DVCPRO HD codec, but newer, higher-end models such as the P2 Varicams and AG-HPX300 also shoot Panasonic's next-generation codec, called AVC-Intra (or AVC-I, for short).

AVC-Intra is impressive. It's an intraframe codec, so it records every frame completely instead of recording just a few full frames per second and interpolating the rest, which is what long-GOP codecs such as HDV and XDCAM do. AVC-Intra also records at full raster resolution, so it doesn't cheat sharpness by using rectangular pixels—DVCPRO HD is guilty of that one. Plus, it runs at a data rate up to 100Mbps with 10-bit color and 4:2:2 chroma subsampling. That is the technical mumbo-jumbo. In the real world, it means you get a D-5-quality codec on your shoulder with a noticeably sharper and cleaner picture than DVCPRO HD and better flexibility for color correction.

But while you've been able to shoot AVC-Intra since 2008, you couldn't always import it into major editing software. Even when you could, it was by way of some half-baked solution. For instance, Apple Final Cut Pro 6 painstakingly transcoded AVC-I into Apple's ProRes codec, which could take forever and double the size of your media.
By the end of 2009, AVC-I's compatibility is in far better shape. Avid Media Composer and NewsCutter systems import and export the footage natively, without an ounce of transcoding or other conversion voodoo. Same thing goes for Adobe's Premiere Pro CS4 and Grass Valley's Edius. Apple's new Final Cut Pro 7 also imports AVC-I, but it wraps the native footage files in the QuickTime format. It adds a couple minutes to your import time but otherwise works well. (A handy third-party utility called MXF Import QT lets you bring AVC-Intra files directly into Final Cut without the QuickTime wrapper).

So now you can shoot and edit with a world-class codec. You may still run into a few obstacles using AVC-Intra in postproduction, though. Adobe's After Effects CS4 doesn't work with it yet and neither does Apple's Color 1.5 (you need to export your timeline to ProRes before going to Color). Hopefully those problems will be addressed in 2010.

The HP Ultrium 1840 is a fantastic single-workstation LTO-4 deck.

The HP Ultrium 1840 is a fantastic single-workstation LTO-4 deck.

Cheap, efficient archiving

Shooting on P2 cards, like almost any tapeless format, means addressing one issue that never existed with tape: How do you archive your footage that's recorded on media that's designed to be constantly reused?

For years, this question scared some producers and shooters away from P2. Why bother answering the question when you can shoot on tape or optical disk and store that physical media on a shelf?

But here's another question: Is the 30-year habit of collecting, organizing, and storing dozens, hundreds, or maybe thousands of conventional tapes (or disks) really the best way to archive your footage in the 21st century? That's a better question to ponder, especially when 2009 saw a modern archival format like LTO-4 tape, a natural fit for preserving P2 footage, become mainstream.

Select a clip or clips from the left and then change their metadata with a click or two using MXF4mac P2 Flow.

Select a clip or clips from the left and then change their metadata with a click or two using MXF4mac P2 Flow.

In case you're new to LTO-4 tape, it's a $50 tape cartridge that stores 800GB of data (more than 30 hours of 720p24 footage), lasts for 30 years, and reads/writes data up to 120MBps, which is faster than any hard drive you have. LTO-4 has been around since 2007, but 2009 saw tape prices and drive selection hit a sweet spot. For instance, in 2009, you can find an LTO-4 drive for all budgets and workflows. There's the HP Ultrium 1760, which is a no-frills drive that sells as low as $2,600 and attaches to a single computer (throw in some backup software such as TOLIS Group's BRU Producer's Edition). Or there's the $7,995 Cache-A Prime-Cache appliance, which serves multiple computers over Ethernet.

But whichever LTO-4 drive you use, the same benefits apply: You can quickly archive your footage directly from P2 your cards or editing drives. For instance, my own LTO-4 system can back up 10 hours of footage per hour, all in the background. Also, you no longer have to label, organize, and store vast amounts conventional tapes or disks—one LTO-4 cartridge stores data from more than 50 DVCPRO HD tapes. Finally, when you restore your archived P2 video, you can slip a single tape into an LTO-4 drive, click a few buttons, and automatically load an entire show's footage in a few hours. Consider that convenience to the hassle of restoring footage spread over dozens of tapes or disks.

There've been LTO-1, -2, and -3 iterations, with each one doubling tape capacity, boosting transfer speed, and maintaining backwards compatibility with the last two versions. In 2010, we'll start seeing LTO-5 tapes and drives, but LTO-4 still feels "just right" for video producers. Combine it with your P2 footage, and you can finally bring your archiving workflow into the modern era.

Metadata gets easier

One of the benefits of shooting P2 is that you can bake extensive metadata into your video clips, including custom clip names, program title, crew names, shooting location (with GPS coordinates), scene and take numbers, camera model used, and so on. Having all this data in your clips lets video editors skip a lot of time-consuming logging work and lets companies quickly build searchable databases of their footage.

The problem with P2 metadata is that a lot of shooters don't take the 5 minutes needed to set it up before a shoot, probably because many producers aren't in the habit of using it. There haven't been good tools to add metadata once the footage is shot, so it largely goes untapped.

But the summer of 2009 brought a fantastic Mac-based app called MXF4mac P2 Flow ($729), which lets you easily add metadata after you shoot but before editing and archiving. P2 Flow can open any footage from a card or hard drive. Then, it lets you manually edit the metadata fields of a single clip, but it can also make batch changes to multiple clips. For instance, it takes about 2 seconds to give all loaded clips the same Program Title. Likewise, it takes about 5 seconds to select a group of clips, assign them the same Location field (e.g. San Francisco), then select a different group and give them a different Location (e.g. Oakland). My favorite feature is in beta testing right now; it lets you give a group of clips a custom clip name (e.g. "Interview_TigerWoods") and automatically add an incremental value to each clip in the selection (1, 2, 3, etc.).

Once you've made your edits, P2 Flow saves them back to the P2 clips, so they're recognized by any application that reads P2 metadata. Avid and Premiere Pro both import metadata without a hitch, as does Apple's Final Cut Server. Strangely and frustratingly, Apple's Final Cut Pro doesn't read native P2 metadata yet, but P2 Flow can map much of the metadata to Final Cut's various logging fields.

In the end, P2 Flow makes it easy for anyone—cameraman, producer, editor—to quickly add useful metadata that should've been there in the first place. It's a great way to take advantage of metadata today or to future-proof your footage for down the road.

The whole package

Thanks to the inevitable march of technology, the P2 format now lets you:

  • Make a one-time investment in P2 cards, and then shoot all day long (or longer), without interruption, year after year.
  • Offload more than a dozen hours of footage in less than an hour, with no labor other than a button click or two.
  • Natively edit a world-class, next-generation codec in the pro video editor of your choice.
  • Quickly bake extensive metadata into your clips, saving your editors significant time in editorial and laying the foundation for companywide footage databases.
  • Archive an entire show's raw footage on a $50 tape cartridge and restore segments in minutes or the whole thing in a few hours.

What other format—tape or otherwise—gives you this kind of convenience, speed and efficiency? I'll leave that answer to you (tell us what you think in the Crosstalk forums), but it's clear that P2 has hit its stride in 2009, and I'm looking forward to a strong 2010.

Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based cameraman and producer, and the author of several books in the Final Cut Pro for Dummies series. He also writes The P2 Blog.