Format choice: Going tapeless

March 2011: Although it is still possible to buy a new tape-based camcorder, any models introduced recently have been tapeless, but how do you choose?

We talked to camera owners and users (members of the Guild of Television Cameramen) about their experience with file-based acquisition.

There are at least six types of tapeless media in general use: Compact Flash, optical disc, Memory Stick, P2, SD and SxS (as well as solid-state drives and hard disks), all capable of recording a variety of formats - and further media and formats can be added via external recorders or add-on units, so that most cameras can record to at least two separate types of media at once. However, for anyone buying a camera, this flexibility means that the choice can be daunting.

No wonder so many still shoot on tape, even though there are so many good reasons for going tapeless.

"File based video has huge advantages," says Mike Thomas, sales director at UK dealer, Top Teks (pictured above with Panasonic P2, Canon CF card and Sony disc-based camcorders). The shots are logged for you; you can add metadata on any computer; there is instant access to each shot; and proxy versions for fast distribution over standard internet

"Tapeless has been an amazing boon for me as a cameraman and editor," adds DP and editor, Michael Sanders. He loves the quality from his Sony PDW-800 and, for the price, from the EX3. "As an editor, having the material come in already in clips is wonderful and being able to ingest in faster than real time is great for news and some fast turn around corporates I do (we recently did a ten minute three camera shoot at 10am and uploaded a fully cut version two hours later). Reliability has been fine so far."

For anyone considering going tapeless and wondering how it will all work, Christina has an excellent guide to tapeless workflow (including such things as how to choose the right cards) on the Canon XF Notebook site (although it primarily deals with Canon's XF cameras, the workflow is relevant to all).

Disc warriors

Sanders (pictured above hanging off the back of an insert car at the Ascari Race resort) is a fan of XDCAM HD disc. "I don't have a problem with solid state at all - I love it, especially if I'm editing and ingesting." But he does have a problem with adding to his costs by buying extra cards so a production can keep shooting without stopping while he can't charge extra for it.

He also dislikes "recording to a media which is too expensive to be able to keep forever and needs archiving. I have three projects that have been ongoing for three years and regularly need me to go back to the rushes." Using media that are so small they fit in a pocket and can easily get lost is a further problem. "That's why I love XDCAM HD – and the pictures look lovely."

Milan-based DoP, Prospero Bozzo (pictured below on location in Reggio Emilia for a Nat Geo documentary) has worked extensively in news, current affairs and documentaries and went tapeless in 2009 after checking with his clients and doing a lot of research. Some 60% of his business is with Italian broadcasters, who "mostly are still on tape," often Betacam SP ("believe or not…"), the rest with international clients, although "the internal market made the choice more crucial."

Because the international market is going tapeless to implement new, faster and more reliable workflows, "leaving tape seemed to be the best choice, but a new dilemma raised itself: disc or card?"

Once he had considered all the issues (speed, reliability, duration, re-recordability, price of support, ease of downloading and editing, workflow, archive and storage), he chose Sony's XDCAM disc format.

Reliability was a crucial, as the disc allows everyone to have something in their hands, avoiding the risks of lost files on crashing laptops or damaged cards. "Once you have downloaded the files, if there are any problems you can re-download them easily." You can re-record on the disc many times, certainly more than you could reliably on a tape.

Director, David Hill, of Acrobat Television (pictured with presenter Howard Stableford on location in Jordan), shoots broadcast programmes, commercials, corporate and sell-thru DVDs and Blu-ray discs, using XDCAM HD. "When the PDW-700 was new we had one failure with the laser which was apparently a problem with a particular batch and since then it has been faultless. The workflow is very efficient: we transfer rushes to 6TB drive arrays of which up to four can be connected to each edit suite at any time. These are cheap and fast enough to edit from directly, even at full HD. We keep the SX discs as our backup in the same way we did tape and we use ShotStore as our library system, which allows us to find clips instantly and load the proxy clips onto our server from remote locations."

Acrobat also has Sony EX3 SxS cameras for some corporate jobs and extreme conditions, such as skiing or on boats. "We transfer the rushes in the same way to the hard drives and back up to Blu-ray discs. Not as elegant a solution but it works," he says.

"Tapeless has definitely speeded up our footage management and has also helped footage sales because it’s so easy to identify shots and find them."

Sydney-based freelance cameraman, Peter Heap, owns a Digital Betacam and a Sony PDW-700. He has been using XDCAM for a few years, mainly working on the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters. It chose disc rather than tape when it went HD, mainly because of the pre-record facility and time-lapse, even though the only XD HD camera then was the PDW-350, which had half-inch sensors and recorded at 35Mbps. Once the 2/3-inch chip PDW-700 was released, which records 4:2:2 at 50Mbps, it upgraded.

Mythbusters is based in San Francisco but the production company (Beyond Productions) is based in Sydney. With tape, nothing could be done until the material was shipped back, but with disc it is a lot quicker. "Because the camera records files it's easy to copy them to a computer and then FTP them to Sydney. On a few occasions I've sent the 1920x1080 files back, but usually the proxy files are all that are required for the offline," says Heap.

Another Sydney-based cameraman, Mal Hamilton (pictured in Turkey shooting a biblical documentary in HD), runs the XDCAM Pro User Group website ( He has been using XDCAM for more than six years. "In that time I had to resort to shooting on tape once, it felt sluggish, unresponsive - never again. I shoot documentaries and also do stints in the studio - mainly as single camera. Most of my work involves a great deal of travel overseas, and to this end I've used different types of camera. The Sony EX3 is ideal for light travel, and where budget permits I prefer the PMW 350 [which is currently his main camera]. One of the greatest assets of using SxS cards, etc., is the fact you no longer have to cart around boxes of tapes."

ITV's breakfast programmes, GMTV and Daybreak, have been using XDCAM for more than four years, and have Sony PDW-510 and PDW-530 cameras.

"The discs have never failed, and the only time that a camera failed on a shoot (because the battery connector board failed mid-record), we still managed to keep the contents of the disc by putting it in a player and running a special disc salvage" application, says Darren Bramley, Head of Cameras, ITV Breakfast (pictured below at a UK party political conference, shooting on XDCAM).

"Our workflow generally is to ingest material back at The London Studios via an XD deck straight into our Avid server in real time," he explains.

"On the road we have used the XD cameras and either an edit deck or a clamshell player with a built in LCD Screen to play into Avid and FCP using the Sony Proxy Software, which makes for a much faster transfer, as we dump the material back as files. Much easier than a real time playback off tape." They have also used three of the cameras on live OBs using Sony Anycast with a player plugged in on a FireWire connection to playback clips, which can be set up as a playlist.

"One of the greatest features of these cameras is the buffer, which can record up to ten seconds before the record button is even pressed. How useful when you have just missed a cabinet minister walking out of No10 [Downing Street], only to press record and then to have recorded him simply because the camera was always writing to the onboard buffer."

Card sharps

Half of Paul Osborne's work is as a freelance cameraman, the rest is for his own corporate production company (Green Field TV), shooting on tape, SxS and CF cards (he's pictured above with a Sony PMW-500 shooting to SxS cards at 50Mbps). When he started using SxS the cost of media meant there weren't enough cards for a whole shoot, so they stopped regularly and transferred data to two hard drives. "But with media coming down in price (and low cost SxS alternatives available) we can afford to shoot without transfer, but producers/cameramen generally still insist on a back up on location," something he doubts the need for – "after all no one I know ever made duplicate tapes on set."

If people have lost data off their cards he wonders: "is it because they deleted the media inadvertently whilst freeing space? Or was it a corrupt file, in which case, how does backing it up make it un-corrupt?" With the EX1, there are sometimes media errors, which are often caused by formatting outside of the camera, "which would be avoided if we didn't back up, or we get corrupt files due to powering down the camera early," which could not be remedied by a backup. He believes that "the highest risk to media during a shoot is maybe the copying, ejecting, re-using, etc."

For freelance documentary lighting cameraman, Mike Connelly (pictured below on location for BBC Click in South Korea), the manufacturer is more important than the format when he chooses a new camera. He wants "a well proven sturdy camera body; superior electronics build quality and a back-up service that will give me same-day maintenance with the facility of a possible loan camera whilst mine is out of action. Only one camera manufacturer has ever given me that service… Ikegami."

When Connelly considered going tapeless, he dismissed using discs, because it still had "the weakness of employing laser technology and hence still reliant on moving parts as in a tape deck." However, he was impressed by his first encounter with solid-state, a Panasonic P2 camera – which "looked and felt like an Ikegami, which I was very much at home with. The viewfinder […] was pin sharp and I had no trouble practicing pull focus shots." At the time, Ikegami’s GF CAM had only just been released and there were no adaptors for its GF PAK to facilitate cheap solid-state media such as Compact Flash or SDHC cards (there is now a CF adapter for the GF CAM).

His first HD project, an infomercial, "involved some very cold, muddy, wet days shooting. An ideal test ground for my broadcast work," and he hired a Panasonic HPX500 from VMI. "It was brilliant. Not a single problem with any of the rushes shot over three one-week periods. So for me, P2 was the way to go."

He has tried several methods of transferring rushes, and now uses a G-Safe mirrored Raid drive, "so I only have to transfer the P2 rushes roll once, cutting down on download times." He has a Sonnet QIO multi-card reader to handle 2xP2, 2xSxS, 2xCF and 2xSDHC cards, which he bought because of its fast eSATA connection, but he hasn't managed to get the eSATA to work so uses FireWire 800 between his MacBook and the G-Safe. "Although I have not experienced any problems, I’m told card readers can get very hot and stop reading. So as a backup I’ve also purchased Panasonic's new single card reader."

One reason Connelly likes P2 is "unlike all other manufactures they have automatic file verification," and there is "nothing like knowing everything has been laid down perfectly."

"The future for me is low-cost solid-state media and I am happy to go Compact Flash or SD card," says Osborne. "Cost is a driver. I need many for the long-term productions I am shooting - often four or five at any one time, and likewise clients need to take them away – sometimes for good. I don't need to jump through the hoops set by the broadcasters' requirements for 50Mbps, and SxS and P2 are still not a disposable cost so don't really suit me or my clients." This is why he has now bought a Panasonic AF101, which works with his set of stills lenses, shooting to SD cards at 24Mbps with the option to go higher to 100Mbps with external recorders if required. He is keeping his existing cameras as they still have a role.

Disc v Card

Because discs are less expensive than cards, particularly SxS or P2, "each freelance can have many discs and leave them at the end of the shoot for the client," says Bozzo. With cards, that would involve greater investment and he feels that TV stations would be unhappy paying many hundreds of Euros for a card that might only have a few minutes of video on it. The other option is to wait for the reporter or producer to load the files on to their laptop at the end of the shoot, which may mean waiting around for longer.

"I'm not a fan of data wrangling at the end of each day so that I can re-use a P2 or SxS card the next day," says Heap (pictured above riding a Segway while filming Mythbusters). "At the end of a 10- or 12- or 14-hour day, the last thing I feel like doing is spending a couple of hours transferring files. And even worse, I'm more prone to making mistakes when I'm tired. And if I do make a mistake, those rushes probably aren't covered by insurance and even if they are we can't just order them on the Internet; we have to go out and re-shoot the whole lot.

"Mind you, I'm not against cards. When they can compete on price with tape or optical discs I'll happily record onto a card. In fact I'll record onto any medium as long as I can keep it and not have to re-use it the next day because of cost."

Heap recently shot a commercial, using XDCAM plus a DSLR in an underwater housing. The producer was to transfer the DSLR data, but had forgotten a crucial cable. However, Heap also forgot a cable and couldn't transfer the disc footage either. The commercial was to air within days, so Heap transferred the proxy files on to a USB stick, allowing editing to begin while he sent the HD files via courier or FTP.

Last year, Bozzo shot a documentary for UN Agency IFAD and the BBC for Life / BBC World, involving spending three weeks in Egypt. As his PDW-700 could record proxies on a Pendrive, the producer could watch everything each evening, making a rough editlist, so he went into the edit suite better prepared. For a long shoot there were also considerable space and the weight savings from using 30 discs compared with 40 tapes.

Osborne didn't consider using discs due to the cost of ingest decks for all of his clients. SD, CF, and SxS cards require little capital outlay to ingest, and corporate clients rarely have extensive edit facilities. With cards, his edit suite is on his lap, not in a booth.

DoP, Lee Christiansen, of Oasis Productions (pictured below on location in Turkey), agrees. "What we really needed was a much cheaper way of playing the XDCAM discs into our edit suites. I'm finding that many production companies like SxS or CF because there is no additional outlay to ingest the media. £2,000 for what is essentially a posh DVD player seems a bit steep."

"That said, I love the idea of removable discs. Shoot on 'em, keep 'em... Never liked this brave new world where we delete the files from cards (although curiously it is what I've been doing for years on my stills cameras without concern)."

If Christiansen buys a camera he wants to be sure that potential clients won't have issues with the cost of ingest, "and no argument from me would persuade them to spend £2,000 on an XDCAM deck." If they were more reasonably priced he'd be happy to buy two or three and supply them on loan. "Much as I prefer XDCAM as a potential format I fear that production only looks at the bottom line in many cases and in that respect, solid state looks good to them."

Hill agrees about the cost of the drive. "I can't understand why it should cost more than £400 or £500 given the technology it contains."

Cost considerations

"I think the rules need to change a bit with solid state. The main issue is the cost of cards, then the cost of the interfaces although they are far cheaper than VTRs ever were," says Thomas.

Production companies used to have a tape budget. "If they wanted to view tapes, they owned or hired a deck. Same goes for discs," he adds.

A 32GB SxS costs about the same as a 32GB P2 card, although data rates, and therefore recording time, differ. "Cards are pricey enough to be classified as an asset and can be purchased, leased or hired. My view is that production companies should still be supplying the media." If their tape budget was £300 a month, they could lease about 27 32GB SxS or P2 cards, or a mix of both (equivalent to 20 HDCAM tapes, 30 Digi Beta tapes or 40 DVCAM tapes). The cards could be used like tape and returned to production who digitise it themselves. The budget they used to view tapes could go against interfaces.

For about £850 a month on a Contract Hire you could have 20 cards, a full archive system, a card interface and a field digitiser without the tie in of a long term lease. Current archive systems give secure online access to proxy and full resolution footage.

CF and SD cards are much cheaper, but easier to lose, and still too expensive to use like tape. "There are some huge advantages to tapeless as long as the workflow works for you, otherwise cheap media, i.e tape or disc, is the least hassle," he adds

Tape measure

Lighting cameraman and Avid editor, Matt Grant (pictured below), has avoided going tapeless for as long as possible. "To me a tape is safe. I know tapes do get chewed in machines, but not often. I recently had a DVCAM tape get chewed whilst digitising, but managed to splice out that section and lost thirty seconds in all. If I had a corrupt card or hard drive, would I loose it all, or just a section?," he asks.

Grant does shoot with a client's PMW-350 SxS camera and is getting used to the workflow. "There is still something inside me that tries to fight back every time I reformat my cards on location. It just seems wrong," he says.

"I was recently working on a two-camera shoot over a few days in the Middle East. A lot of my work can place me in the middle of the desert, or on boats, and setting up laptops with raid drives just isn't practical. For this reason, my client supplied a couple of Nexto DI backup devices. These are basically a shockproof hard drive in a rugged housing with built in preview monitor. They currently cost around £1,200 each for 500GB and work very fast with SxS cards. A 32GB card was copying in about seven or eight minutes. They also seem very clever in verifying the transfer, and also notifying you if you stick the same card in a second time."

Even so, he is still nervous with the Nexto DI units. "I doubt they would handle being dropped as well as a tape would, but maybe I'm wrong. I'm not about to try it. They do have the facility to plug a USB drive into them and make a second copy, which makes me feel happier. I guess I will get used to working this way, but just need to ensure there is sufficient time on a shoot to be methodical, and make sure you have definitely backed up and verified your card before formatting it again."

Christiansen has found tape to be exceptionally reliable, and has not had a single tape failure in more than 20 years, and only had one mechanism fail. "On the other hand I've had three hard drives die on me with my computers."

Nearly all his work is corporate, which he mainly edits on Final Cut Pro and usually shoots on DigiBeta, as delivery is nearly always SD or for internet use. "I'm finding an interest slowly growing in HD as computer screens offer higher resolutions and this will probably be the driving factor for a format change." The 50Mbps Sony PMW-500 camera looks particularly interesting to him, but he wants to see the cost of media and card readers reduced. "If my CF reader costs £20, why does an SxS reader cost £350?"

He has shot on Canon's 5D Mark II HD DSLR, where "despite our continuing efforts to ingest as the day progresses, it seems we've yet to achieve this. Ingesting always goes on the back burner as the next shot gets priority. I'm unwilling to allow an inexperienced operator to ingest as it carries quite some responsibility. This means overtime whilst we wait at the end of the day to import lots of cards. The portable card reader/hard drives seem great, but of course you still need to export to a drive for the client." On the P2 shoots he does the client has always supplied the cards, which is the easiest way to work.

The move to tapeless has meant he hires more. "I can't buy until things settle down. I wish we could get manufacturers to adopt Compact Flash now the data rates are 90MBps."

Osborne has always valued tape for acquisition "I have only lost one tape to technical failure in 13 years of shooting DVCAM and HDV (and that was a head issue). The long term archiving is important for the corporate work I do and also with the long production cycles tape is much cheaper when a lot of rushes are stored prior to the edit. I was reluctant to go to tapeless as speed of ingestion at the edit is not a big priority. I invariably need to view and shot pick the rushes as I ingest, so real-time ingestion is no real disadvantage."

His Sony Z7 hybrid is a very useful camera. "For many corporate agency and production company clients I have encouraged them to go tapeless, I synchronously shoot on CF card and HDV tape. At the end of the shoot the card is sent in the post to their edit, and I keep the tape as a safety backup. CF cards are relatively cheap now so I have enough for [clients] to keep them for a few weeks - or we might even encourage [clients] to buy them outright. However that hasn't been the case with SxS cards," he says.

"Tape cameras are in fact very reliable these days, but as with any mechanical device, if alignment goes astray or with wear and tear there is the possibility of malfunction," says Thomas. "Tape cameras are prone to disaster in extremes though. Humidity being the obvious condition that renders tape cameras useless and in some cases allowed the tape to completely destroy the mechanism. With the lack of moving parts in solid-state cameras the cost of ownership is greatly reduced, no expensive head drums to replace, no pinch rollers, capstans or anything."

Hill has experienced several instances of tape getting chewed up in the mechanism in humid conditions. "We’ve had tape bounce off the heads when filming theme park rides, head wear coming on quite suddenly in the middle of an overseas shoot and examples of creased tape even from premium manufacturers. Not common instances but enough to make me glad we don’t have to use tape any more.

"XD disc is far less prone to failure than tape mechanism. You only have to look at the complex winding mechanism to understand why. Also, the worst problem experienced is the onset of head/drum wear with tape formats - inevitable at some point. Over two years filming on HD EX and not a glitch – would definitely be needing a new drum by now if on tape."

Of course, older formats can still prove useful: Sanders (above) did a commercial recently where "we went for film over tapeless HD as the turnaround time was faster. The tapeless camera in question was to be a RED, we were shooting a commercial on Friday and Monday with it set to air the following Friday.

"It was felt by the post house (a big London Soho one) that there would be too long a delay in processing the RED material through transcoding and getting it into VFX. Film by comparison is pretty darn quick and we got a TK and one light back of Monday's footage at 9am on Tuesday morning."

Long term storage

Archive is the big question for Thomas. "People backing up commercial data tend to use tape. This just seems wrong for video, but maybe LTO tape is a real contender. Hard disk drives need maintenance and spinning up at regular intervals. Holographic storage has been on the drawing board for a long time but IT sources seem to think it won't happen, so Blue-ray is probably the best bet at the moment. Soon to go to 100GB I believe. It still has the benefits of file based, small in size and a good shelf life."

"I think tape has a lot going for it in that it's a time tested, cheap, reliable storage system," says Heap. "But I think XDCAM discs will prove to have the same qualities. The main difference for me is that I can transfer from my XD camera via a FireWire cable whereas getting footage off a Digital Betacam tape and onto a hard drive involves much more cost. I have to pay to have the footage digitised elsewhere as I can't justify owning a Digi tape machine or, at this stage in my Digital Betacam's life, the cost of installing an SDI card."

Related posts: Panasonic P2 drive, 3D deck + WiFiMarvin minimises media management and Articles dealing with recording

Which format...

  • Arri: SxS
  • Canon: Compact Flash, SD cards
  • Ikegami: GF PAK (flash memory drives) - can also use Compact Flash via adapter
  • JVC: SD cards, SxS
  • Panasonic: P2, SD cards
  • Red: Flash memory drives, hard disk drives, Compact Flash
  • Sony: SxS, SRMemory, Professional Disc, Memory Stick, SD cards, Compact Flash, flash memory drives

By David Fox

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