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XDCAM on High Seas

To discuss one of the most grueling early field applications of Sony''s XDCAM HD PDW-F350 system, HD Focus recently sat down with digital filmmaker Robin D. Berg, president of Berg Entertainment International (BEI), to discuss his team''s workflow using the camera to capture adventure sequences for the Outdoor Channel series, Speargun Hunter, which is slated to premiere on Christmas Day. Berg and BEI had previously provided complete HD production and post services for more than 140 episodes of the Outdoor Channel shows Shooting Gallery and Cowboys, primarily relying on Panasonic''s AJ-HDC27 Varicam system. However, for topside sequences captured in small boats for Speargun Hunter, Berg felt he needed a different kind of functionality, and in hearing about disc-based recording, he began investigating the XDCAM system.

Berg developed the concept for the 13-episode series and sold it to the Outdoor Channel. The show documents the expeditions of prominent, world-record-setting, free-diving spear fishermen Sherri Daye, Chad Palan, and Dr. Terry Maas. The project''s acquisition needs had to satisfy the needs of a small crew shooting in 20ft. to 35ft. boats 40 miles offshore Puerta Vallarta, Mexico; Cortez Bank, Calif.; and in the Atlantic jet stream in pitching seas with 5ft. to 7ft. swells and constant sea spray. Former Outdoor Channel CEO Andy Dale pointed Berg toward the rugged PDW-F350 after seeing it at NAB this past April. Upon seeing the camera, Berg decided to give it a try.

“I took the camera the first day, threw a [Sony 23.3GB Professional] disc in it, and swung the camera over my head while recording,” Berg says. “I shook it around to see if it would actually record anything like it claims. On the shoot, it''s tough to steady yourself, whacking into rails, ladders, and boat super-structure. But, the camera really is rock solid.”

Despite rough conditions, Berg says the camera produced consistent, clear images due to three 1/2in. CCD 1.5 megapixel imaging chips burning onto the XDCAM''s optical disc recording system—a laser light tracking system based upon Blu-Ray technology that doesn''t allow for a buffer, optimizing recording space. XDCAM''s Professional Disc recording approach works like any similar media from acquisition to archive, except that it can hold more than 60 minutes of recording time at 35MBs and at a lower cost than using tape-based HD cameras suited for this type of application. On top of that, Sony designed the XDCAM professional disc to record and re-record more than 1,000 times, and to read written data more than one million times per disc. But Berg currently uses them just like any other source footage media, logging footage onto a workstation and archiving the disc in his library.

Another advantage for Berg''s team shooting with the XDCAM system in hard-to-reach offshore locations was the capability of the PDW-F350 to provide quick, nonlinear reviewing of imagery. Berg and his crew were able to instantly review footage without fast-forward or rewind, instead relying on the system''s ability to show them instant thumbnail stills on the camera''s 3.5in. widescreen LCD display.

“When you''re in the field, the ability to scroll through and expand thumbnails, and look through clips allowed me to use a camera like never before,” Berg says. “Plus, if you look at a clip you just shot and decide you want to erase it, then action happens—you can immediately throw it back on your shoulder and start shooting, without recording over anything. The camera just starts recording in the free space.”

The other big advantage from Berg''s point of view, of course, was the fact that, for the first time, a Sony HD system offered him selectable frame rates, from 4fps to 60fps in increments of 1fps at a time. In addition, the system can record in true 24p, 24p, 30p, 50i, or 60i. Berg says he recorded all topside footage using the PDW-F350 at 1080i/59.94, giving the footage a fluid look at 1080 lines of resolution.

One of the concerns about using the PDW-F350 for broadcast applications, however, has been the fact that it uses the MPEG2 MP@HL compression scheme—about one-third the bandwidth of other multi frame-rate HD systems. Berg, who was using the system to capture footage not only for the Speargun Hunter TV show on Outdoor Channel''s HD network, but also for an award-winning documentary he recently showed at the Temecula International Film Festival, was also concerned about this issue going into the project.

“I was skeptical until seeing the image quality,” Berg says. “Once you see it on the movie screen, it was breathtaking. I''ve shown the video to a number of editors mixed in with different camera footage and they''re stunned at how good the 35MBs footage looks, with a 1/2in. chip versus a 2/3in. chip, and using interframe compression. Each generation of MPEG compression, this being the latest, the band rates go down and the quality goes up, which is what we''re seeing here.”

Capturing decent audio on the boats was another of Berg''s concerns. He ended up pleased with the quality of the PDW-F350''s 4-channel onboard mic.

“On 25ft. boats and below, space is so limited that even bringing an audio guy is crazy,” Berg says. “You''ve got two engines, a marine radio, and a lot of safety gear. Pair that with the fact you can''t lav a guy in a wetsuit. I would get 3ft. away from the subject with the camera mic, and even in really aggressive winds, with a Rycote wind screen, I got extremely clean, stereo audio.”

Still, the production also needed to acquire significant underwater footage, and at the time of the production, a satisfactory underwater housing for the XDCAM system was not available. Thus, underwater footage for Speargun Hunter, such as Daye spearing a women''s world-record 179lb. yellowfin tuna in waters off Puerta Vallarta, was acquired using Sony''s lightweight 1080i HVR-Z1U HDV camcorder encased in a Light & Motion Bluefin Underwater Video Housing. After shooting that material, Berg ran the signal through a Miranda HD-Bridge Dec+ at his facility, ingesting the HDV longdrop format material and outputting it as full bandwidth HD 1080i, then converting it over to XDCAM 35MBs, combining all footage in the same format heading into postproduction.

Post work was done back at BEI in Temecula, Calif., where Berg built an edit bay specifically for the PDW-F350 footage, fitted with a 2GHz MacPro quad workstation, and edited in Final Cut Pro HD.

The entire approach worked well enough to earn Speargun Hunter a second season. Berg and his team will be using the same basic workflow for season two when they head into the coastal waters off Australia, Portugal, and possibly Lebanon.

“Nothing like adding another element of danger,” Berg says.