USA Network's Hit Television Series "The 4400" Adopts Panasonic AG-HVX200 Solid-State HD Camcorder For Challenging Handheld, POV And Action Work

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Camera Increases Creative Options for Cinematography Team on HD Production

Last Updated: June 15, 2006 5:21 pm GMT
(SECAUCUS, NJ --June 15, 2006) Many of the most intense and kinetic scenes in the new season of the USA Network's acclaimed supernatural series The 4400 have been captured with Panasonic's AG-HVX200 DVCPRO HD solid-state camcorder. The 4400, which returned to air earlier this month, is broadcast on Sundays, 9 p.m. EST/9 p.m. PST/8 p.m. CST on USA Network.

After rigorous testing, Director of Photography Tony Westman and Digital Imaging Technician Chris Oben integrated the hand-held, production quality HVX200 camcorder into production of the third season of The 4400. Westman, an Academy Award nominee, is an award-winning Director of Photography with credits including The Sentinel, The Muppets Wizard of Oz and Dead Like Me. Longtime collaborators, Westman and Oben co-developed the Magic Lantern HD Framestore™ system, which enables full HD resolution playback on-set.

The 4400 is produced for USA Network by CBS Paramount Network Television in Association with Sky Television, Renegade 83, and American Zoetrope. Since its inception, the series has been shot on high definition cameras in Vancouver, Canada. The original six episodes were shot with two Thomson Vipers, while the second two seasons have used multiple Panavised Sony F900/3s. Season three will continue exploring the travails of the 4,400 abducted individuals who all at once returned in a ball of light to Earth. Though the returnees had not aged physically, many of them reappeared with dramatic abilities ranging from enhanced reflexes to precognition.

"As the DP of numerous television series, Tony Westman has long been awaiting a more portable HD camera. In the past, shots have often been compromised due to the sheer length and weight of an F900 with a normal matte box and onboard battery," said DIT Oben. "When shooting film, Tony regularly uses his 'Pogo-Cam,' essentially a counterweighted post that the operator can literally run with. The 'Pogo-Cam' adds a kinetic element unlike a Steadicam™ or hand-held. This has been possible with 16mm and even 35mm Eyemos but not on HD – until the advent of the HVX200."

The HVX200 uniquely combines multiple high definition and standard definition formats, multiple recording modes and variable frame rates, and the vast benefits of P2 solid-state memory recording in a rugged, compact design. The DVCPRO HD P2 camcorder offers production-quality HD with independent intra-frame encoding, 4:2:2 color sampling, and less compression, making HD content easier and faster to edit and more able to stand up to image compositing versus long GOP MPEG-2 systems.

"On the hunt for a handheld HD camera, especially to supplement our action work, we tested the Sony HDVZ1U HDV camera last season," said Oben. "We looked at contrast and exposure, motion artifacting and overall image resolution and reproduction, and concluded that the camera did not meet our strict standards for motion and compression artifacting, particularly in 24 frame 'Cinetone' mode. Also, we felt that the ergonomics of the camera, such as the iris, focus and zoom controls, were not suited for the rigors of a production environment.

"We likewise tested the Panasonic AG-DVX100A Mini-DV 24p camera. While there was no comparison in image quality between the Standard Definition 1/3" CCDs of the DVX and the High Definition 2/3" CCDs of the F900, we did like the low light sensitivity and the look of the 24PA 2:3:3:2 pulldown when transferred to HDCAM. Additionally, the intuitive ergonomics of the DVX100A gave us confidence that the camera could be used in POV situations where an actor would be given a camera to operate, which we did in episode 8 of the second season."

This third season brought a new round of tests, with the HVX200 becoming available just in time for pre-production earlier this year. DP Westman and DIT Oben oversaw a series of comprehensive camera workups with the HVX200, initially examining all the HD formats and frame rate under available daylight conditions.

"In testing, we shot with both available light in an uncontrolled outdoor environment and in a low-lit studio," Oben recounted. "With the outdoor shots, we concentrated on how the HVX200 captured subjects in motion. After closely examining the footage at various shutter speeds and frame rates, it was apparent that the HVX200 DVCPRO HD output resolution of 1080 lines gave adequate vertical resolution and produced an image that had no dramatic compression, resolution or motion artifacts. Nor was there any discernible evidence of aliasing or quantizing.

"We then looked at the footage shot in the dramatic, low-light, studio scene and were immediately impressed. The images shot at preset tungsten white balance already looked very good without any specific adjustments other than exposure. Both color and contrast were acceptably reproduced and came quite close to matching images shot simultaneously with the F900."

The cinematographers' final round of tests assessed how well HVX200 footage would intercut with HDCAM acquired material.

"Our first 'off the record' use of the camera was in an action scene," Oben said. "In the first episode of season three, the story calls for a scene where a footrace takes place. Tony felt this would be an ideal opportunity to test the HVX200 in the field, again in an available light situation. The scene would be shot concurrently with our two Panavised Sony F900s and the HVX200. The P2 camera would be used as a 'chase' cam. However, because the HVX200 was not officially on the day's shot list, we literally had to gamble and shoot when the studio cameras were not rolling.

"During rehearsal for the running shot Tony asked our Steadicam™ operator, Robin Forst, to operate the P2 with a Fig-Rig [a circular camera mount designed by filmmaker Mike Figgis]. The Fig-Rig allowed Robin to hold the camera in positions not possible in handheld configuration. Robin was also able to truly run with the actor at a speed that could not be easily achieved with his Steadicam™ and the full-sized camera. Once the running footage was recorded, Tony decided to operate the P2 as a 'C' camera during the special effect shot of glass breaking."

Oben continued, "This P2 footage was ingested into our G5 Framestore (with Final Cut Pro 5.04). Having the footage in FCP allowed me to create a rough edit, and the P2 material was intercut with compressed HDCAM, all on a DVCPRO HD timeline. The edit looked fantastic and with minor tweaking, I was able to bring the P2 footage into line (contrast and brightness) with the HDCAM. The kinetic energy of the P2 footage definitely added to the intensity of the scene, and even the breaking glass footage, which was a static shot, intercut nicely. The P2 material was sent to the lab along with the HDCAM tapes. When feedback arrived from post-production saying they loved the footage, this proved that our efforts with the HVX200 were paying off.

"Our success with the HVX200 to date led us to believe that the camera could stand up to the rigors of a sync sound scene. The F900s are quite cumbersome and long (over 3 feet in length with matte box and on-board battery), which normally means budgeting for the time-consuming use of a process trailer and ultimately shooting the scene from outside the car. Tony and the director of the episode agreed that in the interest of expediency we would shoot the scene from within the car using the HVX200. Tony's challenge was to expose the interior of a vehicle that was passing in and out of sunlight with various hot or dark backgrounds."

Oben added, "Our operator Robin Forst framed the shots from the back seat. An NTSC signal was transmitted to a follow vehicle that allowed Tony and the director to see the action and assess exposure. Once one side of the scene was recorded, we reviewed the footage directly from the HVX200 via the Y, Pb, Pr analog component cable. We could tell that the color tone and exposure were perfect in the sun, but that in the shade we were a little underexposed. Armed with this info, we set out to shoot the other side of the scene."

With season three of The 4400 still in production in Vancouver, Oben uses the HVX200 at least one day per episode and declared that "it seems likely that more and more story points will be best captured with this technology."

"With the HVX200, Panasonic has found an excellent balance between size and quality," he said. "The DVCPRO HD codec stands up to the requirements of broadcast specifications and can be intercut with HDCAM-acquired footage.

"The best characteristic of the P2 is its compact size, affording us increased artistic choices, especially with handheld work, 'actor action' shots and POV work. Overall, we feel that using the HVX200 adds another color to the palette from which we make creative choices."

For more information on The 4400, visit http://www.usanetwork.com/series/the4400 . For more information about the joint work of Westman and Oben, visit http://www.chrisoben.com

The ultra-versatile HVX200 records in 1080i and 720p in production-proven 100 Mbps DVCPRO HD quality, with the ability to capture images in 21 record modes. The DVCPRO HD format offers users cost-effective, intra-frame compression, where each frame stands on its own for editing, and its full 4:2:2 color sampling allows the image to hold up under color correction. The camera records video on a P2 card as IT-friendly MXF files in 1080/60i, 30p and 24p; in 720/60p, 30p and 24p; in 50Mbps DVCPRO50 and in 25Mbps DVCPRO or DV. The HVX200 can capture fast or slow action in 720p at various frame rates--the first time this function is available in a hand-held camera. The shooting frame rate in 720p native mode can be set for any of 11 steps between 12fps and 60fps including 24fps and 30fps. For more information on the AG-HVX200, visit http://www.panasonic.com/hvx200

About Panasonic Broadcast
Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems Co. is a leading supplier of broadcast and professional video products and systems. Panasonic Broadcast is a unit company of Panasonic Corporation of North America. The company is the North American headquarters of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. (NYSE: MC) of Japan, and the hub of its U.S. marketing, sales, service and R&D operations For more information on Panasonic Broadcast products, access the company's web site at www.panasonic.com/broadcast.

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