Since we hailed the beginning of the Tapeless Revolution, countless broadcasters, manufacturers and video pros have taken to the streets in support of the new regime. But if you’re yet to take up an NXCAM and charge the barricades, never fear: it’s not too late to catch up. Just take a look at our whistlestop guide to tapeless recording.
What’s all the fuss about?
Most post-production work nowadays is file-based, and done with non-linear editors (NLEs) like Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro or Media Composer, or in effects programmes like After Effects. If you shoot on tape, you have to spend hours capturing every single shot in realtime; if you shoot onto solid state or disc-based media, you can just transfer the footage straight to your edit suite and crack on. It makes your post-production workflow about 30% more efficient. It also makes your footage much easier to cart about – you can transfer your dailies to your laptop and review them on the go. Most clients will want a file copy of your footage anyway, as your work will probably end up on computers, smartphones, Blu-rays or the web – none of them tape-based.
So I can just drag and drop files and get to work?
Well, nearly. And things are definitely better now than they were in the early days of file-based workflows. Tapeless cameras record in different formats and use different compression algorithms (codecs), not all of which are natively supported by every NLE. Depending on which platform you choose, you might have to transcode your footage into a different format for editing. There are dozens of formats about at the moment, so we’ve put together this guide to the most common.
Figuring out the formats
Who makes it? Panasonic
What is it? P2 (short for “Professional Plug-In”) is a type of memory card geared toward ENG (electronic news-gathering) applications. It records DVCPRO, DVCPRO50, DVCPRO-HD, or AVC-Intra streams, and stores them in a MXF wrapper format that’s compatible with most professional NLEs.
Why is it good? Most codecs use Long GOP compression, which makes files smaller by grouping frames together and discarding any data that’s duplicated. The various codecs recorded on P2 use intra-frame compression, in which each frame of footage is compressed individually. Intra-frame files are easier for your computer to decompress and process, meaning you can transcode and transfer them more easily.
Who uses it? It’s mostly found favour with indie filmmakers and ENG (electronic news-gathering) crews – Reuters use P2 cameras at over 100 of their sites worldwide.
We recommend: The Panasonic AG-HPX171e.
Who makes it? A 720p version was originally developed by JVC, but Sony have since developed a 1080i version that’s also supported by Canon.
What is it? Though they were originally tape-based, the latest HDV cameras will let you r ecord to tape and 3 00x CompactFlash cards simultaneously, at 1080i resolution. They use MPEG-2 compression (and a slight horizontal crop to 1440×1080) to squeeze high resolution images onto MiniDV tape without degrading the image.
Why is it good? If you’re not quite ready to give up your tape recording setup, or serve many masters and need to be able to provide tape and digital copies of your work, HDV cameras are ideal. They deliver high quality images at an accessible price, and most NLEs will support HDV footage natively.
Who uses it? HDV is an entry level HD format, and is used widely by independent videographers, freelance journalists and small production companies. Some broadcasters will also accept a small percentage of HDV content.
We recommend: The Sony HVR-Z7E.
Who makes it? JVC
What is it? ProHD is the tapeless evolution of HDV 720p. Like their HDV counterparts, ProHD cameras use MPEG-2 compression to record to solid state media such as SD and SDHC cards.
Why is it good? The great thing about ProHD cameras is that they can record QuickTime (.MOV) files, so your footage will work with your Final Cut workflow, and be fairly easy to move between devices – you don’t need to convert or rewrap files before editing. Like XDCAM EX, it can also shoot in .mp4 (although these files will need wrapping before they’ll work in Final Cut), but unlike XDCAM EX, it doesn’t need expensive SxS cards.
Who uses it? The speedy post-production workflow and compact form factor have made these cameras popular in journalistic circles.
We recommend: The GY-HM100.
Who makes it? AVC is a video compression standard developed by the Video Coding Experts Group (VCEG) and Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG). It was designed to be applicable to many areas of digital video.
What is it? There are two primary AVC formats. The first, AVCHD, was developed by Sony and Panasonic, and uses H.264 encoding to provide very small but high quality files for their consumer and prosumer solid-state HD camera ranges. There are two ‘brands’ of AVCHD known as AVCCAM (Panasonic) and NXCAM (Sony) that are used in their professional cameras. The other, AVCINTRA, is an I-Frame codec developed by Panasonic for the broadcast market. It has three classes known as Intra50 (50Mbit), Intra100 (100Mbit) and Ultra (Up to 200Mbit, with support for 3D).
Why is it good? While AVCHD sometimes gets an undeservedly bad press, it’s actually reliable, efficient and easy to use. AVCHD will either be supported natively by your NLE, or automatically transcode your footage for you, saving you time and effort. The high compression rate means that the picture quality isn’t as good as you’d expect from an XDCAM setup, though it can produce professional-looking footage if you shoot at 24Mbps. AVCINTRA is a broadcast specification standard that is used throughout the industry, and is being picked up by more third-party companies as an acquisition codec in other products.
Who uses it? The long shooting time makes AVCHD great for users who prioritise efficiency and compatibility – if you need cameras for education, events, IPTV or the like, go with AVCHD. AVCINTRA is used by most broadcasters and production companies for the 50Mb-200Mb quality range. Shooting on this format will guarantee your content’s technical qualification for broadcast.
We recommend: The Panasonic AG-HMC15.
Who makes it? Sony
What is it? NXCAM is Sony’s more professional variant of AVCHD. It compresses footage far more efficiently and gives a more professional picture quality.
Why is it good? NXCAM shares AVCHD’s compatibility: it’s supported by NLEs including Sony Vegas, Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro and EDIUS. You can store footage on Memory Stick Duo, SDHC card or – if you don’t mind forking out a bit extra – a slot-in flash memory unit. You can record to a card and the drive at the same time, giving you an instant backup copy of your work. It also ups your recording time to an impressive 11 hours at 24Mbps.
Who uses it? That 11-hour recording time has made NXCAM a big hit with corporate and event videographers, but we think the fact that it offers both fully automated and fully manual control makes it perfect for educational settings.
We recommend: The Sony HXR-NX5e.
Who makes it? Sony initially developed the XDCAM codec for their SD-only shoulder mount cameras, but have since developed multiple HD-capable versions, and also license their EX codecs to JVC.
What is it? There are a few different flavours of XDCAM available, but this is one of our favourites (not least because there’s 0% finance on all Sony XDCAM EX models at the moment). XDCAM EX uses an MPEG-2 compression system and records full HD at 35Mbps onto SxS express cards. Developed by Sony and SanDisk specifically for tapeless filming, SxS cards are capable of data transfer rates of up to 800Mbps. It’s supported natively in Premiere Pro and in Media Composer via Avid Media Access. You will need to transcode your footage if you want to use it in a Final Cut workflow but, given the transfer speeds, that’s not a problem. (In fact, if your deadline’s really tight, the cards are fast enough that you can edit straight off them).
Why is it good? XDCAM EX delivers consistently high quality footage at different resolutions and frame rates and lets you over or undercrank the frame rate to shoot in slow or fast motion. With space for two SxS cards of up to 32GB in the PMW-EX3 you’re looking at up to 200 minutes of HD shooting time and, as they’re hot swappable, you’re only limited by the number of blank cards you can get your hands on. It has the added advantage of fitting seamlessly into the XDCAM non-linear workflow so, if you’ve used XDCAM or XDCAM HD before, introducing EX cameras shouldn’t be a struggle.
Who uses it? Another professional format: the BBC and the Discovery Channel both use EX cameras (read the BBC’s white paper).
We recommend: The PMW-EX3.
Who makes it? Canon.
What is it? The baby of the bunch, XF cameras only hit our shelves in July. There are currently two: the XF300 and the XF305, with the XF100 due to arrive in the new year. The XF format uses MPEG-2 compression, shoots at full 1920×1080 resolution and, most impressively, can record 4:2:2 footage at 50Mbps.
Why is it good? Well, it records high resolution 4:2:2 footage at 50Mbps, which gives you superior image quality, is compatible with the industry-standard .MXF file type and uses Compact Flash cards, which are relatively inexpensive.
Who uses it? Freelance camera operators, broadcast pros, ENGs… XF is proving pretty popular, not least because the cameras that use it have excellent connectivity and customisation options.
We recommend: The Canon XF305.
Freelance camera operators, broadcast professionals, filmmakers, electronic news gatherers, high-end enthusiasts and creative industry professionals who will appreciate an affordable, forward thinking solutions will appreciate the potent combination of outstanding image quality, connectivity options, user customisation, straightforward workflow and wide-ranging editing compatibility.
…but there is one slight problem.
Regardless of which format you choose to work with, you’ll inevitably come up against the final anti-tapeless barricade: the storage issue. And to find our more about that aforementioned issue, watch this space for part two of our guide.