Getting Stylish Looks for PBS Revival With the AJ-HPX3000 P2 Camcorder

DP Bill Berner, who started building up his HD series chops back in 2003, when he shot Whoopi, a four-camera 24p sitcom for CBS, is currently shooting the first 35-episode season of The Electric Company, a 2009 PBS series from nonprofit educational organization Sesame Workshop that will re-envision the 1970s TV show for a new young audience. Shooting mainly on locations in and around New York City, the production is using two AJ-HPX3000 1080p P2 camcorders, each loaded with two 32 GB and one 16 GB P2 cards, with a few AG-HPX500 camcorders picking up certain shots. The DIT on the shoot is Dave Satin, who handles the P2 workflow among his on-set duties. HD Studio asked Berner to talk about the project, the factors in his camera selection, and the joys of shooting 16×9 without worrying about a 4×3 extraction.

What kind of shooting do you do for The Electric Company?

We’re shooting it two-camera film style in and around New York City on a combination of exterior and interior locations. We shoot on dollies, on jibs, on Steadicam – all flavors of camera mounting. We have a small stage that we have put together out of a reclaimed building in Newark, where we have one standing set and where we do some green-screen work. We have some other small sets there as well.

How did you select the P2 format, and specifically the AJ-HPX3000?

About 15 or so months ago, the show shot a proof-of-concept where they tried a P2 workflow using HVX200s, and they became very committed to the P2 workflow – not dealing with videotape, and the easy ingest. For the series, we decided the HVX200’s image quality wasn’t quite up to snuff for the level of production we wanted to achieve. We looked at the HPX2000 and the HPX3000 and decided the 3000 was the camera to use, shooting the AVC Intra 100 codec. I was sold on it, largely, for the 10-bit recording. The smoother grayscale meant I didn’t have to worry so much when shooting skies. I knew we would be outside a lot, and I knew we would be fairly limited in our ability to light outside, so I needed to shoot with a pretty wide contrast ratio. Between the 10-bit recording and the dynamic-range stretching built into the camera [which automatically adjusts gamma correction to match the image’s contrast], I can get 10 stops from black to white – which is pretty darned good for HD video. There’s no other camera I know of, short of a Sony F35 or Panavision Genesis, that would be able to record that kind of extreme contrast. And those cameras were outside our price range.

The other huge advantage over the HVX200 was the 2/3-inch chip. Even outside, I try to work at a pretty open f-stop – around f2.8 – and at long focal lengths to minimize depth of field to help direct viewer attention, and to get the stuff to look as 35mm-film-like as I possibly can. Another big benefit is that we are shooting 24p native and adding pulldown in post. That affords us longer record times on our cards. A 32 GB card gives us 44-minute record time, which is pretty impressive. Our 16 GB cards give us 22 minutes. So I’m recording with a higher-quality codec and I’m getting about a 30 percent longer record time than I would be shooting in DVCPRO HD. It becomes a pretty attractive package.

I was so impressed by the quality of the images of the camera and the whole P2 workflow that I decided to buy one of our two cameras, and I’m providing it to the production. I have faith that this is going to be a viable camera body for the next two to three years before something else at that same price point comes along.

What’s the P2 workflow like on set?

Our DIT, Dave Satin, takes care of our media flow in addition to the rest of his duties. As we record, we pull cards from the cameras and Dave uploads to a [G-Technology] G-RAID drive. At the end of the day, that drive goes down to post. We have enough loads to carry us through a typical day’s shooting for both cameras, so we avoid recycling or reusing the same card twice in a day. The cards get backed up to a hard drive that goes to post, they load the footage overnight, and then we get a text message in the morning saying the footage is all good. At that point we reformat our cards and start over the next day. There are a couple of cases where we’ve run short of media and we have had to re-use cards, but it’s something that we avoid, just out of superstition. I don’t think we’ve ever had to go back to a card to reclaim anything, and we haven’t had any data errors during the show. But we’re working on the theory that the day we start recycling our cards during the day will be the day something doesn’t stick to a hard drive.

Is there anything especially challenging about the show?

There’s a fair amount of VFX, which was another attractive aspect of this camera. Because of its 4:2:2 color resolution, and because AVC-Intra is an intraframe codec, we’re able to deliver good-quality stuff to the visual-effects department. Along with green-screen work on stage, we’re doing green-screen work on location with some frequency, and of course we’re also having to work with things that don’t exist in real space. Another big challenge is that two of our cast members are minors, so we’re in a constant time crunch to try and shoot them out every day under work rules for kids. The biggest challenge is delivering an extremely high quality product with a not-particularly-huge budget. We have a pretty stylish visual aesthetic. It’s not just planting a camera at eye level. We do a fair number of complex shots, and at times some fairly elegant camera choreography.

I heard that the standard-def version is going to be letterboxed at 16×9.

Yes. It’s a delight. We’re shooting 16×9 delivery for both HD and SD, so we do not have to compromise any of our framing anywhere. It’s the first time I’ve ever had that luxury, in fact. I was pretty much stunned by it ‘ I asked production two or three times to make sure they knew what they were asking for. I think the way was paved a little bit a year or two ago by Sesame Street. When they went over to HD, because of the issues of shooting puppets, having consistent frame edges was very important to them. That show was done at 60i, but we’re shooting 24p because we wanted more of a film look.