The present and future of post production business and technology | Philip Hodgetts

Jul/09

19

What happened to HDV (and tape)?

I have never been an HDV hater. I always thought that it was a great format, that allowed a lot of HD production to be affordable, while needing to be treated carefully for maximum quality.

From the first JVC HDV camcorder – lousy camera but showing promise – HDV was an affordable, accessible HD format that continued to improve in quality from generation to generation as the encoders improved. (MPEG-2, like DV, is constructed so that there can be considerable innovation and improvement on the encoder side, as long as a reference, or standard, decoder can decode it.) MPEG-2 is now more than four times more efficient than it was when the specifications were finalized 15 years ago.

The reason for the codec history lesson is that HDV is based on MPEG-2. (As are XDCAM HD and XDCAM EX.) Encoders improve over time so inevitably models fall behind the latest releases. For that reason I had to drop from consideration – for a new camera – Canon’s XL-H1, A1, and G1; Sony’s diminutive HVR-A1U ; and JVC’s KY-110U. These were all released in 2006 or earlier and while Canon claimed the “best” encode quality at the time, that is no longer even remotely true. JVC themselves claim that the MPEG-2 encoders in the HD200 and HD250 cameras are “100% better than the year before” (the year the 110U was released)!

While these would be excellent purchases on the second hand market, if you’re buying new you should be buying state-of-the-art, not three year old technology. That’s two whole encoder quality iterations!

Another reason why HDV didn’t make the cut this year is that most of the pro-focused camcorders are more expensive than more versatile and up-to-date options. For example, the nearly two-year-old GY-HD250 currently has a street price of $8,950 – that’s the highest street price of any camcorder on the list and more than Panasonic’s HPX300 or Sony’s EX-3.

I’d certainly still consider an Canon HV40 as a personal camera or a crash camera – at only $850 it’s hard to go wrong. The main reason it would still stay in play as a personal camcorder is price and native workflows in most NLEs. At least well-proven workflows in all NLEs. But even here the upcoming Canon Vixia Canon HF S11 and HF 21 AVCHD will likely give better quality – unless you want 24P, which is an HV20/30/40 exclusive in the price range.

This year we have a plethora of great choices for camcorders: none of them HDV in my opinion. If you’re not editing with Final Cut Pro – where the JVC HD100 and HD700 are less attractive – then you might consider a Sony V1U (released 2007, so only one generation of technology old) but for the million and a quarter Final Cut Studio users the native QuickTime workflow with the quality of the 35 Mbit/sec XDCAM HD codec makes a lot more sense at the same price (V1U vs HM100).

This year’s great choices are all non-tape cameras: HPX-300, EX-1, EX-3, HPX170, HM700, HM100, and HMC150 write to proprietary solid state media (P2, SxS) or to inexpensive and ubiquitous SDHC  cards. Solid state media at tape-like pricing that you can simply record and keep as well as keeping a digital backup. (Now that’s appealing.)

So, it seems that HDV was the last new tape-based format, ever. And I think we’re over it. As we’ve started to work out issues of long-term storage of non-tape media, the advantages of much-faster ingest – instant in some cases – and enhanced metadata support have become obvious.To different groups at different times, for sure, but we are facing a non-tape future.

And I think I’m OK with that.

The format that has really surprised me is Panasonic’s AVCCAM. I have to say my initial response to the HMC150 was “why on earth are they muddying the waters by rebranding AVCHD as AVCCAM”? I’m still not convinced the two names for the same format makes sense, but the higher data rates available on the HMC150 (and upcoming HMC40) and the AVC (a.k.a H.264) codec at the base of the format, mean that AVCCAM delivers much higher image quality: well, images that suffer less from compression-related degradation.

The disadvantage: only Premiere Pro CS4 and Sony Vegas really deal with it natively and Premiere Pro CS4 still has some issues with some variants of the format. Avid and Apple’s software re-encodes the files to the much-larger ProRes 422 or DNxHD codecs. (Typically 5-6x the storage requirements of AVCCAM/AVCHD.) But it’s a decent camera at a decent price with higher-than-HDV image quality, just with a workflow hiccup. (See comments on HV40 above.)

The HMC150 records to SDHC cards, as do the other two hot picks of the year: JVC’s HM100 and HM700. Whatever format you choose (HPX300, EX-3 or HM700) if you want a shoulder mount you’ll pay a premium. Typically, however, you get interchangeable lens capability in those same cameras, so it’s not all bad.

Finally, a word about the HPX-300. Because of the AVC-Intra support, the HPX-300 has the highest record quality (compressed image quality) of all with 50 or 100 Mbit/sec bit rates and 4:2:2 10 bit recording, there’s no real arguing that this is the quality king this year.

Except for the Ki Pro Factor. AJA’s almost-released Ki Pro is a hard drive or Compact Flash recorder that records native QuickTime files in ProRes 422 – near uncompressed 10 bit, 4:2:2 recording quality equal to the AVC-I support in the HPX-300. Every one of the recommended cameras this year can record uncompressed analog or digital output to the Ki Pro. If you’re not working with Final Cut Pro though, it’s a wash, like the JVC HM100 and HM700.

It must mean something when there are so many cameras targeting a specific postproduction NLE. The only other time I recall that happening was with a (from memory) Hitachi camera that recorded native Avid media, but I forget the details and it never reached any sort of momentum.

HDV 2004-2009 R.I.P.

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3 comments

  • Snow · July 20, 2009 at 12:12 am

    HDV Death is welcomed…
    AVCCam and the HMC performs well, and is a better low-end HD solution.
    Better than HDV, for sure… full raster… and the HMC respects the DVX legacy.
    Just take care of that hiccup.

  • Matt · July 30, 2009 at 11:33 am

    Thanks for the article. There isn’t much information around on AVCCAM and how it relates to HDV; your article certainly helped clear that up a bit. It also helped me eliminate a few cameras from the running, as I decide which one to buy.

    • Admin comment by Philip · July 30, 2009 at 11:42 am

      Glad the article was helpful Matt. BTW, what’s the story behind the gmail address?

      Philip

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