Bits & bytes and piece of mind

ONFILM  April 2009

Or, how Waka Attewell learned to stop worrying and love the P2…


Imagine this – we used to shoot on film stock.

The world back then was darker and more the colour of sepia.

At the end of the day the clapper loader would give the exposed rushes to the production runner to take to the nearest railhead; then some days later an urgent telegram would have arrived by hand relaying the sketchy details of a ‘negative report’ from the laboratory; a week or so after that the results would arrive, via the postman, and we’d finally screen the results. Mostly we’d have forgotten what we’d shot.

Our wives and family used to send food parcels…


There’s something a wee bit scary about this new ‘download and upload’ world of master files via the Panasonic P2 card system.

Being the master of your own destiny is, well, I mean, all a bit immediate, isn’t it? Not to mention nervewracking when the very next day you’re shoving the cards back into the camera and reformatting them to continue with the shoot. Everything roars forward at breakneck pace in the vague hope that binary perfection ensues. And, as you know, reformatting (gulp) represents the point of no return; there’s no going back as data is erased from the card, gone forever to the ether of bytes, noughts and ones, and with only copy now sitting safely (you hope) back in the motel room on the hard drive being eyed up by the cleaner.

But even more daunting is when, at the end of the job, you get the impact-resistant, water-proof case of hard drive/laptop to the airport. At this stage it’s not just worth the $7000 of chips and other technical wizardry inside; no, now it’s escalated to the amount it took to gather and put the pictures on it – probably closer to $250,000. And then you hear that worldwide every year airlines misplace six million bags and, of those, one million are lost forever.

Suffice to say, then, whenever aviating, busing or trekking we now hand carry the hard-drive. Those cloth eco-supermarket carry bags are perfect for the job, especially if you keep the polystyrene packaging and cardboard box the drive came in. All up, with it’s packaging, it’s about the size of a severed head, so jam it in next to the exotic pip fruit and expensive Pinot Noir when next you’re relocating from Central Otago.

We were in the throes of pre-production and toying with the details of gearing up for the Panasonic P2 card system when I needed to get a three digit number (it related to a specific lighting gel) to a gaffer in Wellington. I wrote it down and gave the note to the production office, as you do, and within 24 hours three different versions of the number had been sent to the aforementioned gaffer – the correct digits, mind you, but all in the wrong order.

So with warning bells ringing in my ears, as the DP I decided there and then to cut the office out of the P2 card downloading and confirmation of back up process. My thinking being the fewer people involved in this first and vital stage of post-production process, the better (my instincts were confirmed as correct, with whispers about the office’s skill at scrambling even the simple stuff continuing the rest of the shoot).

Anyway, the Panasonic AVC-Intra Codec system was the cheapest way for us to shoot 2k, and the pictures from the HPX 3000 camera looked great, but the handling of the P2 card still feels like the weak link in the system.

Because of this, on those first few shoots I decided I would devise a process that was all but idiot proof (having done my fair share of idiotic things over the years I felt eminently qualified for this task).

The first thing I did was assign the cards a letter (6 x cards = a,b,c,d,e,f). The first clip/image/thumbnail taken (even before the bars and tone) on each card was an old fashioned slate with the P2 card number and the roll number (the job starts at roll number 1 and ends with a bigger number – you could also put this roll number into the camera’s ‘user bits’). If a card should become faulty (the digital version of a film magazine scratching, for instance) then the card can be traced and taken from the system (in all fairness I haven’t heard of a P2 card fault yet but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time).

I have been treating the cards like you would a film camera magazine, in that they are part of the camera department rather than an extension of the post-production process (I would never consider sending them away to be ‘ingested’ and ‘reformatted’) and subject to the same protocol as a film shoot. The cards are the responsibility of the ‘loader’ and, just as you would take the exposed film negative from the magazine and bag it, can it, tape secure and label it, the P2 cards are downloaded onto a partitioned hard drive on location.

(FYI, a word to the wise: beware the cameras that create proxy files, as the Panasonic DVX202 does – they are not the full resolution images you are viewing. When ‘ingesting’ into the edit suite, take all files into the system.)

We utilise two colour-coded hard drives, one of which is always at the studio/location while the other is in post or on the way to or from.

The P2 cards live in one of three colour-coded boxes: in the clear box (with a nice blue edge) are today’s newly exposed cards (the raw rushes or, in today’s nerd speak “my pictures”); in the red box (warning!) are those cards that have been downloaded but not yet backed up by post-production; and in the green box (go for it!) are those cards that have been backed up, with the card number and roll confirmed by text message and email from the ‘ingesting’ technician to the loader – ie, the production office is NOT involved in this process, though for insurance purposes a report to say it has been successfully completed is sent to the daily production diary.

(And yes, I know this sounds anal but, remember, this is for ‘idiots’ and you know how exhausting and braindeadening fast turnaround TV can get.)

The contents of the green box starts the next day’s shooting.

The cards are re-formatted at the camera, on the set, at the frontline and only at the very moment prior to reusing.

Why? Because I can envisage one of those stay-of-execution moments: you’re about to reformat; the menu prompt asks “are you sure?”; you pause for as long as it takes you to select ‘yes’ or ‘no’, your finger hovering over the buttons; cue the heaving gasps of an out-of-breath runner at the far end of the studio; he yells, “Don’t erase card ZZZZZZZ!”; and all is saved. Or not.

Then there’s the question about the physical resilience of the cards, which are smaller than a packet of cigarettes and as thin as a wafer, and therefore easy to mislay about your person.

Do they break if you drop them, for example? How do they perform in the humid tropics, what happens in the cold? I’m tempted to drop one in water and see what happens when you dry it out.

The reason I’m wondering about the potential vulnerability of the Panasonic P2 (and the Sony SxS) system is that just the other night I dumped a full glass of red wine into my laptop and, as I marvelled at just how much stayed inside the casing, I got thinking about the increasingly cavalier way we handle these cards on location.

I don’t know about you but it’s become a bit of a ritual for me: a distant location, a motel room and the P2 download, accompanied by a soothing glass of wine at the end of a long day…

Most recently: sitting on the floor of the Wellington office is a large black box; inside it is an Apple Mac laptop and a Nas Hard Drive. At the moment the box (including laptop, drive and the thing to mount the P2 card) is worth about $7000 but in two hours, when the download is complete, it will be worth $150,000 and, in a few more days, close to $250,000 thousand.

We are about to put the box on a the lighting truck bound for Auckland where we’ll reconnect with in two days for another four days shooting. It seems like a simple exercise in logistics that will save the production excess air freight costs, when it’s pointed out that all of the past three days’ material is in that box.

“Yeah, but the drive is partitioned so it’s backed up twice,” says the director.

That might be so, comes of the reply, but the point is that if the box goes missing or gets stolen, the truck catches fire or whatever, it will cost (at this point) $150,000 to re-shoot. So just how would you describe this to the insurance company?

“Er, we put all our pictures and sound in a big black box and gave it to the gaffer, who lost it somewhere between Wellington and Auckland. Can we have $150,000 please…?”

The P2 card has now been in my life for more than a year, during which time we quickly went from eight gigabyte cards to 16, and now there’s the 32 gig cards.

I like the system – it’s solid and stable – but it’s taken me this long to trust the fact that the data is in the hard drive, and there’s still a small death every time you reformat the card, all that data is erased, and your hard drive is now the equivalent of your master negative.

Of course, the next part of the technical discussion has to be the small matter of what’s the best way to store these ‘bricks’ for the next 10-20 years…