Flash Media and the Demise of the Deck
Even though professional and prosumer camcorder prices haven’t substantially changed over the years, the quality of the footage, and the features you have at your fingertips, have increased dramatically since the era of plumbicon tubes and 3/4″ tape. One the most revolutionary changes is the most recent one: the arrival of compact flash storage in mainstream HD video acquisition.
To understand just how flash storage will revolutionize our business, let’s step back a few years. I cut my teeth on a 3/4 SP edit system with A/B roll. Later, I began working with Betacam SP and an Abekas switcher that could freeze a frame, perform multiple DVEs, and handle any source we threw at it.
Looking back at the equipment that used to be state-of-the-art, I find the capabilities of today’s simplest nonlinear editing software downright amazing. Back in 1995, I was cutting the Wilderness Adventures Off The Beaten Path outdoor adventure series. In a compromise of many facets, it was shot on Hi8 camcorders—the most affordable broadcast models available at the time. The Hi8 deck we used to digitize the footage cost more than the camcorders. The EVO-9850 Hi8 editor carried an MSRP of $7,900, which seems outrageous today, but at the time, there was little alternative.
We mastered finished episodes to 3/4 Umatic SP using a rented BVU-950 ($15,000). Soon, we began to redo the master tapes on Betacam SP using a $12,000 UVW-1800. The 3/4″ deck was broadcast-level, but Betacam was the new standard for distribution and duplication. The Betacam was considered industrial-level, which was below the professional-grade PVW series (the PVW-2800 listed for $25,000), which was, in turn, below the broadcast-level BVW series (the BVW-70 cost $43,000).
Then everything went digital. We returned from our 3-month production in Alaska in September 1995, the same month Sony released the DCR-VX1000 MiniDV camcorder. Coming home to find a smaller, lighter, cheaper camera with longer run time, as well as digital image quality that surpassed what we could do with the Hi8 cameras, it was clearly one of those “if only…” moments.
There were also brief glimmers of new, advanced capabilities, such as faster than real time editing. Sony’s Edit Station was a proprietary hardware system that used certain DVCAM decks with QSDI (quad-SDI) to import 60 minutes of footage in 15 minutes. Panasonic’s NewsByte (originally $65,000) could also import DVCPRO-25 at 4x real time.
However, neither of those systems really garnered much of a foothold in the industry. So anything dealing with tape was stuck playing in real time. Sony’s QSDI-capable DSR-2000 deck ($14,000) could read the tape at 4x speed and spit out 100Mbps of data. It could be equipped with FireWire 400 that could easily handle 14 times the 25Mbps data rate of DV. Despite all this, an hour of tape still took an hour to digitize over FireWire.
Now we come to flash media, and a whole host of new capabilities. AVCHD has finally maximized its bitrates to where it might give better image quality than HDV. Recording that video onto widely available SD cards is the key to the format’s overall affordability. Couple this with Sony’s new HDV camcorders that record plain-vanilla HDV to any compact flash card that’s fast enough. Suddenly, a huge hurdle vanishes. There’s no need for prosumers, or even professionals, to buy an expensive deck to get the footage into the computer. The prices I mentioned earlier for all those video decks are no longer part of the equation.
You can even master your program back out to flash media, or save it to optical disc. If you were still shooting DV, Betacam SP, or (heaven forbid) SVHS, the need to spend all that money on the “deck” portion of the “upgrade equation” simply vanishes. You can buy an HD camcorder for the same price you’d have paid 2 years ago, but now the compact flash reader built into the front panel of your computer entirely replaces your deck.
It also makes your portable package much lighter. A little $30 USB 2.0 card reader is your deck. You can edit on location. You can swap cards out and transfer data faster than real time. They said P2 would revolutionize production, but it didn’t, because you still needed expensive proprietary cards that were too low-capacity to be viable for event work. Now that we can use consumer flash media such as SD cards and compact flash, the revolution has truly begun.
A last hurdle, however, still exists. If you’re producing for broadcast, you’ll need an approved format for distribution. Currently, for the networks, this is still a tape-based format. We can hope that they will soon see the advantages of a $300 Blu-ray drive versus spending around $15,000 for an XDCAM deck. Since nearly all broadcast media plays off a server these days, it seems inane to require a real-time format such as tape to deliver formatted data from one computer system to another.
For consumer distribution on optical disc, the only time we have to sit through real-time capture is when the event happens. After that, it’s just data. That said, I do recommend a sit-down viewing of the whole thing to ensure that the final product the viewer receives is indeed what you intended. Even in revolutionary times, some things don’t change.
This article originally appeared in the EventDV Magazine