Shooting Postales on P2 and on Location - in the Andes

When you’re deciding what format to shoot, sometimes important concerns about your location take on even greater weight than the traditional questions about the convenience, speed, and cost implications of any given workflow. For instance, if you’re shooting in the Andes, you can’t lean on your dealer for the kind of help you might get on a shoot in LA or New York. You’re going to want to bring along technology that helps you function as a lean, mean and completely self-sufficient filmmaking machine.
That’s one of the reasons director Josh Hyde and cinematographer Dan Fischer shot the new film Postales, about a 12-year-old Peruvian street kid selling postcards to tourists in Cuzco, in DVCPRO HD with Panasonic’s AG-HPX500 P2 camcorder. The P2 workflow made it easy for them to documentary style on the 24-day shoot, with editor Evan Smith assembling rough cuts out of each day’s footage. And the solid-state construction of the camera meant it would work like a champ in some seriously grimy environments.

Postales has just locked picture, with the audio mix, color-timing, and graphic elements coming together now. The film has been accepted to next month’s Independent Filmmaker Project “rough cut” lab for indies, which the filmmakers hope will set it on the right road to a successful festival run. We talked to Fischer about Postales, his HPX500, and the P2 workflow.

How did you decide on the AG-HPX500?

I actually own it. I was in the market for a camera and I was turned on by the P2 stuff. I tried it out at Abel Cine Tech in New York and really liked it. It has great saturation, it’s shoulder-mounted, and the quality of lenses you can get for it is beautiful. [Director] Josh [Hyde] and I tend to work documentary-style as much as we can. Allowing me to shoot longer takes without having to deal with tapes was really conducive to that. I wasn’t held back by the camera.

What kind of shooting did you do?

The Peruvian family lives in a mud brick adobe house, so that was extremely dirty and dusty. That was one location where I would be terrified if I was shooting film. Not having moving parts in the camera was phenomenal. Every day in that place you just blow out so much black stuff from your noise. And we also had elegant hotel interiors. We brought a Steadicam down and worked with that in confined spaces and big, open areas.

Any night-time or low-light stuff?

Definitely. That was one place the camera wowed me. I rated it at about a 500 ISO. Cuzco had all these beautiful ball sodium vapors lining the streets. I could almost just turn the camera on and shoot some doc moments while we were setting up scenes. I could get enough exposure that way, and it didn’t look dirty or overly gritty. The saturation was all there. We threw a couple of China balls up and mixed with that light, and it was gorgeous.

The camera really held up. With the lens quality I was never worried about being at a certain focal length. If you’re using the HPX200 or something like that, you really worry about some of your wides holding up. I had an HD ENG Fujinon zoom lens, but I didn’t want to do any racks with that guy, so we had a set of Canon 2/3-inch HD primes. I wanted the Zeiss, but I couldn’t afford it. I did tests between the Zeiss and the Canon, and there wasn’t an extreme difference. I think you could even intercut them pretty easily. I was pretty satisfied. The Canons are beautiful.

How much footage did you get on your P2 cards?

We had four 16 GB cards, so basically about 70 minutes if we shot 1080 24pA. We planned to do dumps every day at lunch. Depending on how close we were to our production office, my second AC and my editor would either take the cards to the production office or bring a laptop and hard drive to the location. We would dump all the MXFs right to a drive, and then we’d copy them from that drive to another drive, so we’d always have a back-up. Evan would import them into Final Cut from that new working drive, and once he had seen all the timecode and compared the footage to notes from the script so he knew he had every shot and every take, he called our AC. As long as we had our backups, we could clear. We dumped twice every day, once at lunch and once at wrap.

So you only had the one set of four cards?

We had one set of four cards, and our EPK guy had one 32 GB card. There were a few times we bummed that from him, but we tried not to. Usually we never really filled up 70 minutes in a day, so I was never really waiting on cards. I’d say within an hour at least one card, if not two, was cleared and ready to go. Within three hours, it was all cleared. Our second AC would safeguard all those cards. He was in charge of talking with the editor and making sure we were cleared.

Were the cards as robust as shooting to tape? I know some people still worry about data corruption on flash cards.

We never had any data corruption. We were paranoid, so we’d always travel with them in cases, hold them with two hands instead of one, whatever it is. But we never ran into issues. As long as you have your backups and you’re comfortable with your workflow, it’s really easy.

And your editor is able to work with the files in Final Cut right away.

Yes, he’d import everything from the working drives and then get our sound stuff synced up. He was editor and also “workflow operator guy.” I think that job is still being defined, but he was amazing at it. We would look at shots from the day on the same night. The next day, he’d have rough edits. We had a rough string-out assembly when we finished shooting, which was key for us. We were going doc-style and doing some rewrites, and we were in a foreign country in the middle of nowhere. Cuzco doesn’t have production offices around. You could find a few people with home-built dollies, but there wasn’t much support for us outside of what we brought. So P2 was great for us. We had our own lab!