Shooting in the Field With XDCAM HD

When it came time to put the new XDCAM HD in the field and have it put through its paces by a pro shooter, Sony approached freelance cameraman Mark Falstad. Falstad had some XDCAM experience from his work on Dateline NBC’s farewell special for departing NBC anchor Tom Brokaw (he shot the new footage in 16:9 24p to differentiate it from the 60i archival material making up the rest of the show) and had been intrigued by the XDCAM’s capabilities, like thumbnail access to clips. Building on previous experience shooting in Alaska, Falstad decided to head back up north to shoot documentary footage of the Iditarod with the new PDW-F350, the more expensive of two XD/HD options. We asked him how it worked.
How does the XDCAM workflow affect you as a shooter?
I’m not an editor, so in some ways that’s outside of my expertise. The networks were really interested in the workflow, but I was really curious about shooting. The disks were cool for very practical kinds of things – you put a bunch of disks in your run bag to cover yourself for the day. If you think about a comparable amount of Beta SP tapes or even DVCAM tapes, things like that become important.
So how did the F350 perform as a camera?
In addition to the workflow capability, it had undercrank and overcrank – and it also had frame accumulation. You don’t go up to Alaska without thinking about trying to shoot the Northern Lights, and with video you can’t do that – with the exception of this camera.
What exactly is frame accumulation?
It’s a variable setting on the camera that lets you decide how many frames’ worth of light you can accumulate before you lay down to the disk. In my case, it worked as a light amplifier. I had 60 frames of light making up one frame, so I was multiplying the light that was there times 60. One of the Sony support engineers volunteered to babysit the camera overnight while we were doing the Northern Lights, so I set it up on 9 dB wide open, set up 60-frame accumulation, and added time lapse to it. That night the Northern Lights were fairly faint. It wasn’t a spectacular show by any means, and this camera was able to capture that.
I used it in one other place – Squentin, a checkpoint, and there’s no light there but the Teklights that you wear on your head, the little LED lights, and the mushers have slightly bigger headlamps that they wear, but there’s no other light at the checkpoint. With frame accumulation, the checkpoint was clearly lit up by these little lights. To compose the frame, there was a tree 20 or 30 feet from me, and I turned my tek light on it and illuminated the tree. We shot some other buildings at night, set at 9 dB or 12 dB wide open, and you don’t see them at all. But you turn frame accumulation on and, boom, they’re there. Obviously it’s a tool that has specific uses.
How many frames were you shooting in each case?
We were shooting one frame every five seconds at the checkpoint, and one frame every 10 seconds for the Northern Lights.
What other ways does this camera change your job?
To go look at [our frame-accumulated shots], you look at a thumbnail and see the shot instantly, and that’s wonderful. As a person who shot tape for a gazillion years, I appreciated other little things. On every tape, you have to lay down 30 seconds of bars and tones to give the editor a reference, and also to burn 30 or 40 seconds off the top of the tape to get past the damage the tape could have at the beg of any load. with this system you don't screw around with any of that. there's no bad or potentially damaged tpae at the beginnning. you roll and lay down bars and tone anytime you want. the editor can go to the thumbail and punch it up.
We talk to two different kinds of people who use the XDCAM ‘ people who see MPEG artifacts in the image, and people who don’t. Which category are you in?
I didn’t see anything that looked anything besides wonderful. I didn’t see artifacts. Obviously, it’s variable-bit-rate compression depending on what’s going on in the frame. But we were doing an awful lot of action photography and nothing stood out to me. I was really happy about the way the pictures came out – especially when you compare all of this against the price point. That’s what everything comes back to. Is this a CineAlta, a $70,000 or $80,000 camera body? No, it’s not. But that’s not what it’s meant to be. I wasn’t seeing anything that I would call objectionable in the frame.
How about optics?
We had two of the early production models, using a Fujinon wide-angle lens and a Canon wide-angle lens, and I thought everything held together really well.
And how does it feel ergonomically?
It’s fine. The networks are still Beta SP, so to me anything feels great compared to that. It feels good on the shoulder, really well balanced.
Did you discover any other useful features?
You can manually set the white balance. This was a multi-camera shoot, and I don’t know how many times you hit a white card with multiple cameras and just have to hope you’re hitting it at the same angle [to get matched white-balance settings]. Here, we were shooting in places like the ceremonial start on Saturday, where we had deep, heavy cloud cover all day. The sun breaks out, and I just get on my radio and say, “I’m going to 7000,” and, OK, the other camera operators just dial in 7000 degrees – and you’ve got three cameras three blocks away from each other that are suddenly all matched again.
At a night-time check point, the volunteer vets and volunteer workers are walking around with LED lights that are at 6800 to 7000 degrees, or something like that. You can balance to that, but it will still give you that sickly white kind of look. Blue light didn’t look good and white light didn’t look good. Instead of tricking my camera into white-balancing, I just dialed in 15,000 degrees and got an orangey, flashlight kind of look with a warmth to everything – like your eye would normally see something like this. I can set that up on my B channel, set another one up manually on my A channel, and easily go back and forth. And you’ve got the auto-white on top of that. I didn’t know how cool it could be.