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Brave New World: filming without film or videotape

One of the most worrisome things about our shoot for The Court of Last Resort (working title) ICC film in The Hague and especially Uganda last November/December was going out with the Panasonic HVX-200 camera for the first time, using P2 memory cards instead of videotape. But the HVX-200 was the only affordable way to shoot in High-Definition (HD), and we had already committed to going the HD route for this film — in our first 2 shoots for the project we had rented the much more robust Panasonic Varicam HD camera, but soon realized that on a production schedule as long as ours (at least 1 year), the Varicam was beyond our means. Everyone told us we were crazy to go out to the middle of Africa with a recording system we weren’t familiar with, but we decided to take the plunge!

skyligh Pictures image

Nevertheless, it was nerve-wracking going to a place as remote as northern Uganda with no videotape or film, only P2 memory cards that must be downloaded in the field to a portable drive so that you can in turn erase the cards and use them again, in a process that’s come to be known as the “mediaflow.” We kept wondering, “what if the drives crash?” and “what if there are unexpected software glitches that need to be solved in the field?” and so forth. I became the designated mediaflow guy, and my set up consisted of a Panasonic Toughbook laptop where I would plug in the memory cards, a portable 100G drive velcroed to the bottom of it to receive the downloads, and a RAID 2 hard drive with 2 250G drives at the hotel room to which I would download everything accumulated during the day, with RAID automatic backup. I had a total of 10 250G drives with me (5 with a backup for each one), and by the end of a 4-week shoot had filled 4 of them, 1 Terabyte.

It was hard for everyone to adjust at first to the idea of all our media being just data files flowing from one drive to the next, but all went well and in a few days the whole crew got used to this new system. The little Toughbook even lived up to its name when it fell on its face in an IDP camp, smack on its LCD screen just a few minutes after the photo at left was taken, and didn’t even interrupt the download!

It was worth all the risk though, because when we returned to NY and watched the footage on a proper HD monitor, it really looked spectacular — its really great that HD has finally become affordable — we’re already looking forward to our next shoot.

Paco de Onís

Paco is the Executive Director and Executive Producer of Skylight, a human rights media organization dedicated to advancing social justice through storytelling by creating documentary films and media tools that can applied in long-term strategies for positive social change.

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