Panasonic's new high-def camcorder, the
is a cool but peculiar beast to work with sometimes. For starters, it uses Panasonic's semi-proprietary
P2 memory cards
to store video. They're essentially a bank of compact flash memory cards running RAID 1 inside a standard
PCMCIA card shell. Cute idea, but pretty pricey at the moment, and you can only record a few minutes of
video at a time before the card fills up and you have to swap it with another blank card or stop to copy the
video files off onto a computer.
So far, I think I'm less horrified by this detail than anyone else. Most people are used to shooting on videotapes
that pack an hour or thereabouts onto a single, inexpensive tape cartridge, so being able to shoot for eight minutes
at a stretch before changing cards seems like an absurd step backwards.
And if you're doing event videography, shooting a sporting event, conducting an interview, or taping a
conference, I can see how that would be a major limitation.
But I'm coming at it from the standpoint of making feature films, and you don't shoot those that way. Normally
you set up a shot, do a few takes in a couple of minutes, and then you have to stop and set up a new shot
regardless of the needs of the camera. Coming from a making-films-with-actual-film background, being able to
shoot eight minutes at a stretch (more-or-less; it depends on the camera settings and, especially, how much you
were willing to spend on P2 cards) isn't much different than being limited to the length of a film reel (often eleven
minutes, but sometimes even shorter than that). The truth is that eight minutes is a *long* time, especially when
you're shooting action movies. Besides, with straight-to-digital cinematography, you don't have to stop and wait
nervously after each set-up for the camera operator to check the gate and possibly make the dreaded announcement,
"Hair in the gate!" that lets you know you all have to start over again.
Now the HVX-200 does actually have a tape drive. However, it only records standard definition video
to the tape, so there's not really much point in it having said tape drive. I would rather have left out the tape mechanism
in favor of producing a cheaper and lighter high-definition camera. I already have plenty of standard-definition cameras.
But having to empty the memory cards every few minutes of shooting does present one obvious problem: the cards
have to be emptied onto *something*, and it needs to be something nearby. And that's where Larry comes in.
What I needed was a transportable computer system capable of storing huge quantities of data reliably, able to copy the
high-definition video files off the P2 cards or the camcorder, and capable of converting the raw high-definition video into
a format that the director, cinematographer, producer, etc., could take home and review at the end of the day. That's
actually a taller order than it sounds.
For luggability, I picked the
Coolermaster Ammo 533 case
which is a strong contender for the coolest-looking computer case currently available. Of particular importance, it features a sturdy
and comfortable carrying handle on the top. I like this case a lot and recommend it highly.
For the storage issue, I got a
Supermicro 5-drive hot-swap SATA array
which fits five drives nicely in three standard drive bays, after I spent a little bit of quality time "adjusting" the case
with a small crowbar and a particularly large screwdriver. No biggie. Though computer cases are actually astoundingly
better designed than they were only a few years ago, I'm still pretty happy with any case that doesn't require the use of a cutting torch
or violating the laws of physics to install components into.
The array is populated with 500 gig hard drives running RAID 5 (so that if a drive fails, the production company doesn't lose the
entire movie). I would have liked to fill it with 750 giggers, but at the time I priced and bought all the parts (a few weeks ago
now), those would have cost me more than twice what I could get the 500s in for. I grabbed an extra to have on hand, and with
the hot-swap drive array, if there's a failure on the set, there'll be an absolute minimum of disruption of the shooting
while the spare gets popped in.
Because this system will often be set up in dark or poorly-lit areas, I selected the
Saitek Eclipse Keyboard, which
features blue backlighting that illuminates the letters on the keycaps. Kind of the opposite design philosophy of the one that inspires
Das Keyboard (which would probably make a fine gift for someone even uber-geekier
than I, if you can imagine such a thing, but don't get me one, or you'd wind up getting subjected to even more typos than I make already).
In keeping with being able to find things in the dark, I got a
Microsoft Optical Trackball
that lights up red around the trackball ball. While that might be a fine feature on a dark movie set, I also found this particular trackball
annoying and awkward enough to use under both bright and dark conditions that I personally wouldn't recommend it. If you just need
to be able to locate your pointing device in the dark and don't actually need to use it, then this might be just the ticket for you, however.
...yeah, really. When you're making a zombie movie, some percentage of your cast may have already had their hands
fall off and, as such, won't be big on actually using the trackball. They probably will be quite happy enough just standing there,
swaying slowly back and forth, moaning, "ooohhh...pretty!" at the sight of this state-of-the-art red-glowing USB trackball. I think
it's important to design a system like this to appeal to both the living computer power-user and the dead (or undead)
The guts of the beast feature a dual-core Athlon X2 64 CPU cooled by this
Thermaltake Blue Orb II
cooling fan. One advantage of this CPU cooler for this application is that the great majority of the weight is next to the
mainboard. With a system that's being lugged hither and yon, tacking on one of the really tall heatpipe coolers that put most
of the weight much further from the board might throw a bit more stress on the board. How big an issue that really would
be in practice, I don't know, but I figured that anything that lessens the probability of the processor bursting into flames just
after you drove into the outskirts of Yon was a fine idea.
Abit AN8 32X board, Supermicro SATA hot-swap array, and some other stuff
Apart from the big pile-o-hard drives, the priciest component was the
ATI Radeon X1900GT.
That's a little more serious than absolutely necessary for high-definition video capture, transfer, and editing, but my hope is
to take advantage of ATI's hardware-assisted AVIVO format conversion software to take the dailies and transcode them into
something the director, etc., can take home in a reasonable amount of time. Granted, that's not quite a mature technology
right at the moment, but I decided to give it a try anyway. When you're transcoding high-definition video, you need all the
help you can get. I know I've had my share of marathon sessions surrounded by an array of computers all chugging away
on different video segments to get the dailies transcoded and ready for review and/or editing in time.
The question remains how well it's going to work in the field. I'll keep you updated as the testing progresses.