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Bandito Films Shoots MTV ‘True Life’ Episode with Panasonic AG-HPX500

New York City-based production company Bandito Films is currently shooting an hour-long episode the long-running MTV documentary series True Life with Panasonic’s AG-HPX500 2/3-inch P2 HD shoulder-mount camcorder.

Bandito executive producer Josh Haygood on a

New York City shoot. Photo by Michael Karsh
Click for Large Image

Bandito executive producer Josh Haygood, who previously shot several True Life episodes with Panasonic AG-DVX100 series Mini DV camcorders, says he had upgraded to an HD, solid-state workflow to increase production efficiencies and create an HD master of the show.

“After our shoot began, I learned that I’m officially the first producer to be shooting a True Life episode in HD during the series’ entire 10-year run,” Haygood notes. “It’s great to know that we’re leading a distinguished pack of professionals in breaking through the resolution barrier. The style of shooting and technological workflow I’m designing now may also be used as a working model for the rest of the TrueLife producing team as they make the move to HD. This makes Panasonic a foundational element of not just of my workflow but likely that of other of the series’ producers going forward.”

The episode in production, “True Life: I’m Stuck At Home,” profiles people in their 20s who, for a variety of reasons, are forced to live at home with their parents. “It’s a trend we’re seeing all across the country and one we feel is uniquely relevant to our audience, especially in these hard economic times,” Haygood says.

Since its initial episode in 1998, MTV’s True Life documentary series has told remarkable real-life stories of young people and the unusual subcultures they inhabit. Whether documenting the lives of gay marriage activists, individuals dealing with obesity, or teens in high school, the True Life series tells its stories solely from the varied voices and points of view of its characters, putting the series in the unique position of reflecting the state of youth culture at any given moment.

Bandito purchased the HPX500 from All Mobile Video expressly for the True Life shoot, which commenced in November and will continue through early spring 2009. The episode is expected to enter into the True Life broadcast rotation this summer.

Bandito executive producer Josh Haygood on a
New York City shoot. Photo by Michael Karsh
Click for Large Image

Haygood, who is serving as producer/director (and sometime camera operator) for the episode, explains the transition to tapeless HD production: “We had two overriding concerns. First, all networks are making decisions to go HD, and even though MTV presently airs True Life in standard-def, we wanted to walk away with an HD master for future broadcasts. Secondly, as a veteran of several True Life shoots, I saw an opportunity for the P2 format to dramatically streamline our day-to-day production practices.”

Haygood, who describes the True Life style as “gritty, unscripted and spontaneous,” says that achieving this style is particularly well-served by the P2 format. “We’re shooting 720/24pN with the camera fully loaded with four 32GB cards, giving us more than five hours of uninterrupted shooting, where previously we were working with 58-minute tapes. That five-hour capacity represents an entire day of work with very little downtime other than an occasional battery change. We’re able to preserve the all-important vérité moment and avoid any mental break between us and our subjects. Tape always seemed to run out at a critical moment, and not having that worry is amazing.”

Haygood says he was customarily shooting with one HPX500, with additional cameras rented if necessary. “Less is more with a series like this, when we’re following individuals in their homes, vehicles and places of business. The ideal is for the camera operator to seem like a spontaneous observer as our subjects’ real lives unfold. The operator needs to be highly adaptable and flexible, which the HPX500 has facilitated. If need be, a single operator can go on location with everything required. He carries the camera and hard drives with him, and everything else—batteries, chargers, mics—is stored in two Pelican cases.”

Haygood says that early in the shoot he had realized the benefits of solid-state production. “We’re shooting across the country, and our location conditions have ranged from oppressive heat in Florida to bone-chilling temperatures in Syracuse, NY. The HPX500 has been rock-solid in real extremes of weather.”

“The camera handles audio brilliantly,” Haygood continues. “We needed the HPX500’s four channels of audio, as we work with a minimum of two lavalieres and one boom microphone. I’ve never before had enough confidence to allow a camera to mix down the sound levels, but with the HPX500, we set audio to auto and the results have been absolutely amazing.

“I have been constantly impressed with the camera’s overall image quality,” Haygood adds. “The dynamic range is stunning, particularly with interiors, when we’re often moving from one poorly-lit corner of a room to another, with only mixed available light sources. Outdoors, we’ve been notably successful shooting against the sun. We have no problem with hard sun mixed with the reflecting value of our subjects, whether they’re in cars or walking outside.”

Haygood has equipped the HPX500 with a Fujinon 10×4.8 BEVM ENG lens. He is shooting handheld, with the exception of time-lapse shots. After a day’s shoot, footage is downloaded through an Apple MacBook Pro onto two mirrored 500GB LaCie drives, with a pair of 250GB drives available for any overflow. “I handle a rough string-out of the best material, which I then send on a LaCie drive to our off-site editor. The edit is done on an Avid Media Composer; the first time the episode sees tape will be the deliverable to MTV. The fact that a single original is no longer exposed to loss or damage, but resides on a low-cost, easily-replaced drive is a huge benefit.”

“Moving into P2 production has represented a sea change in how we produce a show for True Life,” Haygood says. “Things I’m trained to worry about don’t concern me anymore; wwwwe’re able to spend more time thinking about the story. P2 is a genius system and I can’t imagine going back to tape-based cameras.”