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Shoot Expertise: Backing Up

Aug 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Barry Braverman

Portable storage options give shooters peace of mind in the field.


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offloading of a camera’s memory cards

For wayward shooters operating primarily in the field, the occasional rushed offloading of a camera’s memory cards is inevitable. Having sufficient card capacity on hand can reduce the need for high-stress impromptu transfers.

For shooters, a tapeless workflow undoubtedly has its advantages. Recording to flash-memory P2, SD, or S×S is reliable; supports abundant metadata (in theory, at least) for DAM and archiving; and in general provides for better, more efficient, and easier access to our footage at every stage in a production.

Gone are the travails associated with a camera's pesky mechanical transport, clogged heads and humidity issues, coming-up-to-speed drawbacks, and undue constraints on a camera's recording parameters. The demise of the ubiquitous tape drive has enabled manufacturers to greatly expand their camcorders' capabilities, frame rates, and resolutions — including, as in the case of Panasonic P2, the introduction of AVC-Intra 10-bit recording and native modes.

A bus-powered HDD such as the G-Technology G-RAID mini

A bus-powered HDD such as the G-Technology G-RAID mini can be indispensable to the tapeless shooter who spends much of his life on the road. FireWire 800 is the preferred interface for the G-Tech drive, which is available in capacities up to 1TB.

While improved ruggedness has been a positive thing for shooters — Panasonic recently extended its warranty on its tapeless cameras from one to five years — the file-based workflow has also had a less desired result: The shooter is now often responsible for offloading the camera footage from the flash-memory cards to a hard disk drive (HDD).

In years past, at the conclusion of each shooting day, a nerve-wrecked producer would usually pose the nervous question to the crew: “Who has the tapes?” Now the question, asked with no less anxiety, is: “Who has the hard drive and who has the backup?”

Of course, for many years, our camera footage ended up on HDD anyway — only that process occurred considerably later, and we generally weren't responsible for digitizing the analog tapes into the Avid. With the advent of digital formats such as Digibeta and DVCPRO, the transfer from tape was accomplished in much the same way via a realtime process into the editor's workstation.

bus-powered Fusion F2 from Sonnet Technologies is an eSATA mini RAID

The bus-powered Fusion F2 from Sonnet Technologies is an eSATA mini RAID that uses the laptop’s ExpressCard/34 card slot. Advantageously, this leaves open the FireWire 800 port for other takers such as the Panasonic AJ-PCD20 five-card P2 reader and the AJA Io HD.

Now we're data managers

Like it or not, this is our new role: the transfer of files to HDD and the clearing of the camera's memory cards. If all goes well, we can do this at night calmly in a motel room. But occasionally during a shoot, we are forced to offload cards in a virtual panic — in a corner of a set, in the back of a moving car, or sitting on a wretched smelly curb in midtown Manhattan with a tethered laptop and hard drive.

Ideally, we try to have enough card capacity and personnel on hand to avoid such crash transfers in inopportune locations. But truth be told, every purveyor of the tapeless workflow has had the occasional stressful offload — for which a reliable bus-powered hard drive is absolutely essential.

Reliable bus-powered storage

Inasmuch as the bus-powered HDD plays a critical role in the new tapeless workflow, serious shooters must be wary of the many inferior units with flimsy, trouble-prone connectors and notoriously unreliable controller boards. These drives have been the source of much anguish to shooters (including me!) working in far-off lands who can least afford the ramifications of a failed drive and lost data.

Glyph Technologies PortaGig's  bus-powered hard drive

The Glyph Technologies PortaGig is simply the best, most reliable bus-powered hard drive on the market. Beautifully machined and rugged as hell, the unit is constructed with the best materials I’ve seen in a portable unit. For high-end shooters offloading P2 and SxS camera files in the field, this is the portable bus-powered drive to have.

From my own adventures, I can attest to the ruggedness and reliability of the G-Technology G-RAID mini. While a supplemental power supply is required for USB operation, the dual-drive unit can be bus-powered via 6-pin or 9-pin FireWire — certainly good news for Mac users. You don't necessarily need a RAID 0 configuration or even a 7200rpm drive for routine file transfer — although it's nice to have the additional speed for the drive's other uses, including playback of multiple streams from your NLE timeline.

If speed is of the essence, it's worth looking closely at the bus-powered Sonnet Technologies Fusion F2, which contains two mini eSATA drives mounted side by side. While this arrangement is slightly less convenient, it does provide a larger surface area inside the thin aluminum case, which helps dissipate potentially damaging heat.

The principal advantage of the Fusion F2 is the eSATA interface. Providing up to 1TB of storage in a RAID 0 configuration, the F2 uses a laptop's ExpressCard/34 slot, leaving the FireWire 800 port free for an external card reader such as the Panasonic five-slot AJ-PCD20.

With respect to offloading files in the field, the gain in speed owing to the eSATA interface is only about 6 percent. For shooters, therefore, the advantage over FireWire 800 is relatively slight.

Direct mounting of the HDD

Mounting the HDD directly to your camera set to host mode obviates the need for a laptop in a typical workflow. Whether you're using USB or FireWire, the drive — when used in conjunction with most prosumer models — must be powered from an external source. Most cameras, even 6-pin FireWire models, do not provide bus power to the drive.

The Panasonic AG-HVX200A in 1394 host mode

For direct offloading of files, the portable HDD can be formatted and mounted directly to a camera. The Panasonic AG-HVX200A in 1394 host mode is seen here.

Moreover, the hard drive connected to your camera must be formatted in your system's appropriate Material eXchange Format (MXF) file format. In the case of Panasonic's P2, this can be accomplished via a simple menu option in the MCR section of the camera.

Flash to flash

Just as every tapeless shooter requires a buspowered HDD in his basic kit, so is a robust and reliable flash-memory drive also a growing necessity. The ultra-rugged Corsair Flash Survivor is the cream of the flash-memory-drive crop. Constructed from CNC-milled aircraft-grade aluminum, the drive is water-resistant to more than 600ft., effectively sealed against dirt, and fully dampened from physical impact. While high-end portable HDDs such as the G-RAID mini and Glyph Technologies PortaGig carry a three-year warranty, the Survivor — with no moving parts — is warrantied for a full 10 years. Of course, offloading camera files to another flash-memory device may not be practical due to current drive-capacity limits, but the option is there for shooters operating in expedition-type situations when no other solution exists.

Corsair Flash Survivor thumb drive

The Corsair Flash Survivor thumb drive is extremely robust and reliable. For general handling of media files and the occasional emergency offload from a tapeless camera, the Corsair Flash Survivor deserves a place in every shooter’s traveling toolkit.

The bootable Corsair Survivor is currently available in capacities up to 32GB. Offload speed out of a P2 camera to the Corsair is quite good for a flash-memory device; it certainly doesn't obviate the need, however, for a bus-powered HDD such as the G-RAID mini or PortaGig.

Conclusion

For tapeless shooters, the new workflow offers many advantages along with an increasing dependence on portable storage devices. By eschewing the inferior low-cost options flooding the market and choosing instead a robust model such as the G-RAID mini or PortaGig, we can be assured of the integrity of our footage long after we've offloaded the files, reformatted our camera's memory cards, and moved on to other things.

The stakes have never been higher for shooters picking up the mantle of the new tapeless workflow. Like our camera, lens, and tripod, portable storage demands our attention now. Be sure to give it its due.


To comment on this article, email the Digital Content Producer staff at feedback@digitalcontentproducer.com.

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