Rough and Ready

Sony's XDCAM is fast, efficient, and reliable

Reality-TV producer Michael Bryant likes tough equipment. That's why he's using Sony's new XDCAM disc-based format for his upcoming The 5th Dragon series, which follows the AMA Chevy Trucks Outdoor Motocross National Championships over the course of 12 races. Shooting began in May.

The show's name is a reference to Japan's four major motorcycle manufacturers—Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha—which are called the four dragons. Each episode gets behind the scenes and on the bikes of the top racers in the country. "I can't say I've thrown the cameras off a moving truck as they were recording, but we have bumped them and run with them," says Bryant. "They're rock solid."

Bryant's work with the camera is key to Sony, since one criticism of disc-based recording is that it isn't suitable for harsh environments. Because the camera uses laser technology to record images on the discs, some thought, shaking or jostling the camera would cause the laser and the disc to skip, much like a needle on a record.

Bryant's experience dispels that notion.

"I can't ever see shooting on tape again," he says. He is currently using five XDCAM cameras and a complement of XDCAM field and studio decks. Unlike with videotape, he can review a previous shot on the camera's LCD screen, then resume shooting at the press of a button. And with a disc-based system, the camera immediately jumps forward to record on a blank part of the disc. The result? A shot is never missed nor accidentally recorded over.

While he's happy with the cameras in the field, it's in the editing suite that Bryant sees real benefits. He and his staff examine 17 hours of material for each episode. One plus to XDCAM technology is that each time a recording scene is started, a thumbnail is automatically stamped on the disc. When the disc is being edited, all the thumbnails are available for viewing onscreen at once.

"We can scan through the thumbnails and look for shots we might not have logged," he says. "It makes the post-production process really streamlined."

Bryant may be the first reality producer to use Sony's XDCAM, but others are following suit.

KEPR Pasco, Wash., a Fisher Broadcast station, also has five of the XDCAM cameras. According to Chief Engineer John McDaniel, they passed a series of tests and experiments. "We have Sony DSR500 cameras, and these are better," he says. "They do a better job of recording in low-light situations."

Like Bryant, he applauds the benefits of disc-based recording.

"It's very low-hassle, and the random access makes it easy to use," McDaniel says. The station works with Avid editing systems, and the station ingests material into the editing system with the help of the PDWD1 studio deck. "The coolest thing is," he says, "we don't have to wait for tapes to rewind."

The station did look at Panasonic's P2 solid-state–memory camera system, McDaniel says. It records on flash memory cards that hold 4 GB of data and cost $2,000 apiece.

The cost of the media was enough to push KEPR into the XDCAM camp. "With XDCAM," he says, "the disc is $30, and the news crew can shoot all day on one disc." The station plans to archive with the XDCAM, using DVD burning for storage, as well.

For both Bryant and McDaniel, the key benefit is the ability to work faster.

"Editing will be quicker, and lots of reporters are coming out of school today already trained on Avid or Final Cut Pro nonlinear editing systems," says McDaniel. "Now we don't have problems with tape machines, which can run well for a while but then start causing trouble."

The real efficiencies are about to begin for Bryant. He just installed the system's proxy software, which will allow him to download low-resolution copies, or proxies, of the clips into the system at 50 times real speed. He can then edit with the proxies, then have the system automatically reassemble the edited content into a package in the original high-resolution.

"We'll be able to scan clips on the system as opposed to thumbnailing the deck," he says. "Right now, we need two people to go through the clips manually. With this, we'll only need one pair of hands."