Working with the P2 Varicam, AJ-HPX2700

P2 in the Desert...

I am currently working on a film in the Middles East for AquaVita films for the BBC Natural History Unit.  We have just completed the second of three trips, the first being a shooting Recce, the one we have just completed the first part of the mai shoot.

On the Recce trip we were shooting on a tape based Varicam 2 and we shot some magnificent stuff, but, because of where we were (and I’m not saying where, just at the moment), and because of severe constarints on the location and amount of time we could actually shoot, we decided after that Recce that the P2 camera was the way to go.  Basically we are shooting a documentary about life in the Middle East, with a reasonable amount of wildlife footage to boot.  One of the requirements was to shoot high speed images of flying birds.

The drag with Varicam 2 is that, although you can mix and match high speed footage on the same tape, it is very expensive to deal with two different frame rates in post production.  On P2, you can just go quickly into the menus and switch to 50FPS, and because each clip is recorded onto solid state P2 cards, it is possible to change the frame rate on the same card and you get around any of the hassles.

I was apprehensive about going the P2 route as I have been shooting tape for the past god knows how many years.  But having shot some stuff using the EX1 Sony camera, and also the Z7 using the solid state recorder as well, ans well as vast numbers of stills images, I finally convinced myself that it was worth a try.  We were shooting using the DVCPRO-HD codec (so that it would sit comfortably with the Varicam2 footage from the recce, when in the edit.  Had we started the project on the P2 camera we would undoubtedly have shot using the AVC-I 100 codec.  The camera came from Visual Impact in Bristol, with 5 32gb P2 cards, each capable of storing about 69 minutes of material at 25fps, half that at 50fps.  We also took the Panasonic rapid-writer with us to make Raid 1 mirror copies of the shot material onto 500gb Sata drives.  Again we opted for the rapid writer because its fast, and downloads material at about 4 times speed; and since we were shooting around 2.5 hours of material a day, that made the transfer at the end of each day considerably faster.  Whatever happens, transferring data at the end of each day is a chore which you simply do not have with tape.  The upside though, is that you can review and spot check clips easily, and you can even watch the high speed stuff back in slo-mo – an enormous advantage!

Operating the P2 was simple, not having to change tapes a bonus.  I also just let the time code run continuously from card to card.  I did make a point of locking all the cards except for the one I was writing to, to avoid the data being crossed across cards in the same shot.  The viewfinder was impressive, although still in black and white, I found the images easy to check for sharpness, and since we were using the Canon HJ18x28 lens (which gives 1000mm on the end of the doubler), this was very important. The HJ18 is a truly awesome piece of glass, and takes you into the realms of  Hubble telescope kind of images.  Shooting flocks of flamingos from 3/4 mile away was just astonishing, conversley having a frog or dragon-fly filling the frame from 50 feet was equally remarkable.

The were no problems with the P2 at all, it was undaunted by the 35 degree heat!  Although I did have a slight wobbly when one clip got slightly corrupted and wouldn’t transfer, but again, the camera understands these kind off problems, and obligingly, within its menu system, it allows you to re-build the clip.  Once re-built the files transferred as if nothing had gone wrong.  I did miss a heartbeat when it happened though.

I will write further about this trip after the third and final part of the adventure at the end of May.


~ by Stephen Foote on April 8, 2010.

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