Tilting towards tapeless

Two years ago at NAB 2006, the mammoth electronic media event, I tried to buy some hdv and Mini DV tapes on the immense show floor. But while I'd bought cases of them there two or three years before, this time I couldn't find a single hdv, Mini DV tape or any videocassette whatsoever for sale. I ended up having to buy some tapes at a local Radio Shack.
August 1, 2008

Two years ago at NAB 2006, the mammoth electronic media event, I tried to buy some HDV and Mini DV tapes on the immense show floor. But while I’d bought cases of them there two or three years before, this time I couldn’t find a single HDV, Mini DV tape or any videocassette whatsoever for sale. I ended up having to buy some tapes at a local Radio Shack.

I suspected the absurdity of not being able to find videotape at a gathering amongst the world’s largest camera manufacturers signaled something big: a paradigm shift away from tape-based and towards tapeless media for acquisition. For me it was a sign that tapeless cameras like Ikegami’s Editcam and Panasonic’s growing line of P2 cameras were beginning to tilt the momentum towards new media like optical discs, portable hard drives and solid state, flash media. By-the-numbers tape acquisition was still clearly predominant at that time. However, with digital storage capacity increasing as price decreased, non-linear media were on the ascendancy.

Fast forward two years to NAB 2008, which took place in Las Vegas in April. After scouring the new cameras on display, a number of things struck me. Not only did most of them capture multiple flavors of HD and SD formats, they were also recording on an increasing range of media – often more than one. Perhaps the most startling realization, though, was that (except at the very high end) I didn’t see any manufacturers introduce a new tape-based camera without offering at least one tapeless recording media which could be used in lieu of or in addition to tape. I got the message: if you need file-based capture, it’s now available with most of the new cameras; if you want to continue recording onto videotape, there may only be an option or two for you – at least for now. The manufacturers are clearly moving towards file-based capture of multiple HD and SD formats – what’s unclear is how long they’ll continue to support videotape capture.

Since I have my own extensive archive of projects and stock footage on tape and am also in the market for a new HD camera, I recently approached several manufacturers about the future of tape-based acquisition. I started with Ikegami, reputed for bringing the first disk-based camcorders into the market. According to Bob Molczan, product specialist engineer for Editcam, post is playing a deciding role. ‘The industry is moving to file-based capture because most editing is now done on NLEs. Our customers want to download faster than real time. To stay in business, we have to give them the speed and efficiency of file-based capture.’ Last year the company announced its GFCam, which stores up to 128 minutes of full-bandwidth HD to a 64 GB flash pack. ‘We partnered with Toshiba and used open architecture so that it would be compatible with most NLEs,’ he adds.

Panasonic also came early to the tapeless media dance with its P2 cameras, such as the HVX200 and the HPX2000. At first the P2 flash media was expensive: roughly us$900 for a 4 GB card that only stored four minutes of DVCPRO HD, recorded at 720p 60. But today, with 16 GB cards selling for less, it’s becoming competitive with tape. As Cincinnati-based dp Mike Caporale, an early P2 adopter, says, ‘I think 16 GB cards were the turning point, price-wise and capacity-wise. With five 16 GB cards in an HPX2000, you can capture 80 minutes of 720p 60 or nearly 200 minutes of 720p 24. Now you can double that using the new 32 GB cards and record several times as much as with the longest field tapes.’

Advancements in the capacity of flash media like P2 have greatly improved workflow for other early adopters, like DP Jim Kinsey of Hamilton, Montana-based Shoshone Wilderness Productions. ‘At first, I only had one 4 GB P2 card for my HVX200. Shooting 720p 24, I got around 10 minutes of DVCPRO HD, so I had to download it to my laptop in the field whenever the card was full.’ Now, with a pair of 16 GB cards, Kinsey can record more minutes of DVCPRO HD at 720p 24 than on the longest tape so he can download at day’s end instead of spending time and battery power in the field.

The biggest payoff for him, though, is editing speed. ‘Recently I had to rush to the hospital for a family emergency right after shooting a big TV spot,’ he says. ‘It was a long drive, but I downloaded all the footage on the way and managed to edit it in the waiting room. I FTP’d it to the client overnight and had client approval the next morning. That’s why I love P2.’

Nevertheless, Panasonic insists it will keep making pro cameras with tape drives. As Panasonic product line manager Jan Crittenden says, ‘Our HDX900 HD [tape] camera is doing well and we’re still selling the [original] VariCam, our popular DVX100 and other SD cameras with tape drives. But we can’t offer the five-year warranty with them that now comes with all P2 cameras. Solid state requires minimal maintenance. It also costs thousands less per camera to manufacture, hence our P2 cameras are selling well.’ I have to concede that I don’t know any shooters who’d miss spending a few grand to replace tape heads on a camera that’s resale value had probably fallen 50% to 60%.

Despite the hefty resources invested in its XDCAM HD and SD camera line, and more recently on flash media, Sony insists it’s not abandoning videotape acquisition anytime soon. ‘We introduced several cameras with tape drives at NAB 2008,’ says Alec Shapiro, SVP of sales and marketing at Sony Electronics’ Broadcast and Production Systems Group. ‘In fact, we’ll bring another high-end tape camcorder to market this fall.’ Based on Sony’s reputation for dependable tape drives in its camcorders, I’ll wait to have a look at its newest addition before buying a camera with file-based recording.

Sony is taking an incremental approach by packaging a dockable compact flash recorder with two of its new tape-based HDV cameras: the HVRZ7 and HVRS270. Other manufacturers are taking a similar approach. This year, JVC announced the MR-HD200U, which can record on non-proprietary (SDHC) solid state memory and docks to the GY-HD200 series camcorders. ‘We’re evaluating various tapeless media for the future, but tape is still the most cost-effective for now,’ says Craig Yanagi, JVC’s national marketing manager. ‘We’ll offer it as long as our customers demand it.’ Hitachi also announced that it will have a dockable P2 recorder for its new SK-HD1000 camera next year.

Soon, Canon will also offer a high-capacity flash recorder by Convergent Design for use with its new XL H1S and older XL H1 tape-based HDV camcorders. As a Canon HDV user, I can’t wait to be able to record, and quickly edit, the uncompressed HD video that these camcorders can capture and output – visibly superior to HDV. I’ll also continue using the internal tape drive to record HDV on Mini DV cassettes – an hour at a time, for under $10 a pop – when that’s all the budget allows. We should better know how long tape-based cameras will survive by next nab, but no matter how things play out there, I’ll be taking all the tape I need with me.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.