Jun 22, 2010

HVX200 Review


Ever since the DVX100 series Panasonic has proven that they really understand the needs and wants of the indie film producer.  They were the first to provide a handheld pro-sumer camcorder that not only shot at 24 frames-per-second in progressive mode but also had a chipset that captured color in a rich "film-like" appearance which spawned many productions wanting to take advantage of both features.

Back in 2003 JVC launched the first handheld HD camcorder, the JY-HD10U and Sony quickly followed with it's offering the FX1.  What nobody realized until 2004 was the Panasonic had already realized 3 big limitations with HDV-format cameras.  1) They were all tape-based and because of the physical tape size (exactly the same as mini-DV) were very limited in the data-rate that could be written to tape;  2)  HDV's color space of 4:2:0 was inferior to even Panasonic's SD offering of DVCPRO-50 which is 4:2:2 (see more about what color space is in my page about video color)  and;  3)  None of these cameras offered a real 24p mode (Sony and later Canon attempted to replicate this with "frame mode" which was an in-camera de-interlacing that caused many problems later in editing.  And so Panasonic jumped ahead of the competition with it's tapeless format, P2.

Enter the Panasonic AG-HVX200:  A brand-new handheld HD camcorder with both a tape drive for SD formats only and a new tapeless recording media called "P2" that could record every format the camera shoots from SD all the way to 1080 HD in DVCPRO-HD, a vastly superior camera codec to HDV and even HD-CAM.  For a full listing of the camera's specs and features check out the Panasonic website HERE.

A typical full-sized ENG-HD camcorder such as the Sony F900 or Panasonic Varicam fully configured with lenses, batteries, tripod plates etc. can easily cost upwards of $200k, which puts that type of camera squarely outside the budget of 98% of independent producers and is one reason the handheld HD camcorder market was booming in 2004.   I spent a great deal of time testing all these handheld HD cams that were available at that time and after months of putting every HDV through it's paces, such as the HD100, FX1 and later Z1 I found several things that made using any HDV format camera a real pain:  1)  The real-time tape-capture process is extremely time consuming;  2) Tape drop-outs could kill an otherwise good take;   3)  The limiting HDV color space became very evident during any high-end color-correction or green-screen clips;  4)  Tape-related maintenance and possible "tape eating" episodes were a real worry;   5)  The long-GOP HDV format is especially hard on any NLE as it requires huge amounts of processor power to do even simple cut edits, and back in 2004 every NLE such as Avid, Final Cut and others were literally choking to keep pace with an on-line HDV sequences.  Not to mention that the Sony and Canon "frame modes" which attempted to simulate a progressive look were mostly incompatible with all NLE's requiring some form of pre-conversion before you could even start putting assets into your project.   All that added up to too much work being done simply finding workarounds for HDV and a deal-killer for my own productions.

It's those main reasons above that I ended up choosing the HVX200:  No more tape-based workflows or worries, a superior 4;2:2 color space and true progressive formats both in SD and HD modes.  After my first session with the little Panasonic I was immediately sold and, made the decision that every video-based project going forward was going to be shot exclusively on this new camera and the P2 media, no more tape - ever.  My company was one of the very first commercial production companies to full adopt both the tapeless workflow and P2wholly and I've never looked back.

But the best part of the HVX200 isn't how it beat out the competition it's how versatile the camera actually is and how good-looking the footage looks compared to anything else of it's generation.  Just as it's older sibling the DVX100 series the HVX200 has gorgeous color in it's chipset and combined with the plethora of formats and frame-rates makes it a poor-mans Varicam.  So what exactly does the "little Panny" do so well?

For one, it's easy to setup a "look" in-camera using the wide range of parameters available (see my page about getting a "film-like" look to the HVX200).  It also shoots VFR, or variable frame-rates, which allows to to over or under-crank the camera's frame-rate to allow for in-camera slow-motion or ramped-up speed, and at the time this camera was released in late 2004 it was the ONLY handheld camera to offer this feature.  Then there's a little-known but all too useful tool available to all P2 cameras called, "HOST mode" in which allows you to transfer your footage from the P2 cards directly to an external hard-disk directly and the camera acts as the disk controller.  (HOST mode is NOT the same as direct HDD capture, such as devices like the Firestore would do.)

The P2 media format itself is quite revolutionary.  Like a mini-RAID the P2 cards consist of SD-RAM modules arranged in a RAID-0 configuration allowing for high data-rates of 100Mb/s and just like a huge hardware RAID for a computer, the HVX200 and other P2 cameras offer "clip repair" feature allowing you to recover a clip damaged by either a power failure or user error such as removing a card during capture.  And the cards themselves are nearly indestructible.  I was hired by Panasonic as a P2 system consultant and at NAB 2007 myself and other Panny-people were doing really crazy stunts to offset the rumors started by competitors that the P2 cards were unreliable.  We threw the cards on the ground - hard, against walls, and even purposely put them under our feet and rubbed them on the carpet to build-up a static charge - all to prove that the footage on the cards were safe.  No doubt we got strange looks from people when we pulled these antics, but it clearly proved the point.  And yeah, it was fun too.

The HVX200 has been replaced by it's newer model, the "A" version which gives the camera a brand-new chipset identical to the one in the HPX170 which has an even more natural color response, lower noise characteristics and a host of other new features, but the original HVX200 still does the job wonderfully and will outlast any tape-based camera on the planet.  Yes, the HVX200 and it's "A" updated brother does have a mini-DV drive for those who just can't let go of tape workflows but if you really want to take advantage of what the camera can do there's no point in using it.


Because the newer "A" model of the HVX200 has been released there are plenty of used HVX200's on the market - but not for long, because those who understand the real capabilities of this camera are scooping up the best ones fast.  And the best part is that since P2 cards are both increasing in speed and capacity this camera will be able to use any P2 card currently offered.  A free firmware update from Panasonic is all that's required to talk to the newer "R" or "E" series cards.

Get one, be happy.  And save some dough versus a brand-new camera!

By the way, if you look at my "How To" pages you'll see some great info on how to setup and use and HVX200!

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