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Maxell iVDR Xtreme In the Field

Philip Marcus shoots Tribal Journeys 2009 from the deck of a support boat. Marcus used Maxell’s iVDR Xtreme as his recording medium based on its rugged design.

Digital storage of video images on tiny hard drives is bringing improvements to the world of cinematography much as it has to portable consumer products. However, when a hard drive fails, “catastrophic” is not too extravagant a word for describing the results. That’s especially true for cinematographers who shoot capture-it-or-lose-it activities such as concerts and sporting events. Cinematographer/director/producer Philip Marcus, founder and owner of Put On Productions, experienced that first hand.

Marcus, whose long list of credits includes music videos and feature films, began to notice that when shooting concerts, the internal hard drive in his HD camcorder would skip as he approached the stage, forcing a reboot. While he managed to recover relatively gracefully from these potentially disastrous situations, the problem had to be rectified. To come up with a solution, Marcus benefitted from the technical acumen he amassed as an avionics specialist with the U.S. Army 116th Aviation Company, with whom he flew and serviced helicopters during the Vietnam War. His instincts led him to think that the ear-splitting sound pressure levels near the stage caused the drive to fail. To verify this, he put the camera near the loudspeakers in his Hummer H2 and cranked up the volume on its thunderous sound system. The drive promptly failed. That identified the problem but didn’t solve it. After speaking at length with the camera manufacturer, it became obvious there was no quick fix.

Marcus adapted his preproduction Maxell iVDR Xtreme for use with his Sony PMW-EX3 camcorders.

A serendipitous surprise

At the 2009 National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention in Las Vegas, a conversation with a Maxell sales engineer turned to Marcus’ unusual problem. The engineer told him Maxell might just have the answer, a new 250GB hard drive called iVDR Xtreme, and offered to send him one to try. The iVDR family of hard-disk storage cartridges comes in several form factors; the iVDR Xtreme is designed for exceptionally rugged use, which makes it unique among portable data storage devices.

According to Maxell, the iVDR Xtreme cartridge can withstand a nonoperating shock of more than 2000G and an operating shock of at least 350G, so it can repeatedly survive drops of more than 4ft. onto a tile floor without damage. It can also operate over a temperature range of -40 degrees Celsius to 70 degrees Celsius and at altitudes as high as 10,000ft. Maxell’s two-piece iVDR Xtreme architecture isolates the drive from other parts of the cartridge, and the two pieces can be reconnected 10,000 times without degradation or failure. The drive itself is suspended inside the cartridge shell, which accounts for its high resistance to shock and vibration.

When he received what was then a preproduction version, the iVDR Xtreme was configured for Panasonic HVX series camcorders. Marcus put his electronics skills to work again to modify the USB connection and power supply to match those required by his Sony PMW-EX3 camcorders. Working with Maxell’s engineering department, he built a 6V lithium battery pack to power the unit and modified a USB extension cable with a compatible connector so he could mount the drive on his belt and set out to work.

“The drive just worked phenomenally,” Marcus says. “Not a skip, a blip, nothing. It simply worked perfectly. I can put 6 or 7 hours of HD video on the drive, which makes it excellent for concerts, and I no longer have to worry at all about whether I’m going to lose anything I shoot. In production shows, I have only one chance to capture footage, and the drive puts me in a confident position because I know I’m going to get the shot. I can assure you that’s a big relief.”

People from the coast of British Columbia and Washington participate in Tribal Journeys, which consists of a sequence of excursions in which families, nations, and groups travel in oceangoing, mostly dug-out cedar canoes (some more than 200 years old). The iVDR Xtreme was subjected to humidity, large temperature fluctuations, rain, fog, and salt spray, but it never faltered.

iVDR in the wild

Marcus has shot, produced, or directed (and sometimes all three) hundreds of concerts, music videos, commercials, and feature films, and his broad experience in the field makes him a go-to guy for documentaries. For that, he owes his earliest credentials to the master of underwater adventures, Jacques Cousteau. Working as a team coordinator and underwater cameraman, Marcus spent two years with the Cousteau research team, which culminated in his production and direction of a scuba diving film featuring Cousteau’s son Jean Michel, who continues to expand the Cousteau legacy.

So it wasn’t all that surprising when Marcus decided to document Tribal Journeys, an annual event that pits men and women against nature to trace the journey their ancestors made nearly 1,000 years ago. Tribal Journeys is a celebrated event conducted every year for the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast. People from the coast of British Columbia and Washington participate in the event, which consists of a sequence of excursions in which families, nations, and groups travel in oceangoing, mostly dug-out cedar canoes (some more than 200 years old). The event has taken place every year since 1993, with its first journey to Bella Bella, British Columbia. The History Channel has expressed interest in airing the work.

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Tribal Journeys 2009 began in early July on the shores of villages in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and British Columbia, and participants completed final landings at the Port Madison Indian Reservation in Washington, home of the Suquamish tribe. This year, more than 90 canoes representing more than 30 tribes and nations commemorated the first historic journey.

This latest project in extreme filmmaking would expose Marcus and his equipment to a variety of hostile conditions: humidity, large temperature fluctuations, rain, fog, and salt spray. In addition, the crew spent almost every day on a boat, and the camera was often rigged to the canoes themselves as their crews fought through rough water. This was a defining capture-it-or-lose-it event, and Marcus had one external storage device: the iVDR Xtreme.

To gain greater assurance that the iVDR Xtreme would survive the journey, Marcus banged on it, dropped it, immersed it in ice cubes, and even put it in his freezer before he departed to the Pacific Northwest. After performing these tests, he says, it still worked flawlessly. He used the drive to shoot his work throughout Tribal Journey, transferred his day’s work from the iVDR drive to his Apple MacBook Pro, and was ready for the next day’s encounters.

“The drive performed without a flinch,” Marcus says. “Even under these really nasty conditions, I never had a problem, nor have I since. It’s shockproof, waterproof, and built tough, and gives me a level of confidence I did not have before.”

The boats in Tribal Journeys received blessings before starting their voyages.

What’s next?

Having proven itself in Tribal Journeys, the iVDR Xtreme will accompany Marcus into the heat and humidity of Cambodia. There, Marcus will be shooting a documentary illustrating the work of the Aloha Medical Mission, an organization of physicians and surgeons who volunteer to travel to Third World Pacific Rim nations to operate on children born with facial disfigurements. After that, he’ll be shooting a documentary in South Africa.

He will also use the iVDR drive when filming commercials, which lets Marcus transfer the content to his notebook computer, edit it, transfer it back to the iVDR drive, and take it to a television station where it is downloaded to the station’s computer. He previously made the transfer via DVD or Blu-ray optical disc, which was slower and incurred some loss of quality, something that does not occur with the iVDR Xtreme. Marcus says he is looking forward to adding another iVDR Xtreme. “It’s my puppy now, and I swear by it,” he says. “I would never go on a project without it.”