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Issue: HD - April 2006

SONY'S XDCAM HD TAKES ON IDITAROD

By: Marc Loftus

ANCHORAGE, AK – Minneapolis-based freelance director of photography, Mark Falstad, is the first in the US to get his hands on Sony’s new XDCAM HD camera. The company approached Falstad to shoot footage for its upcoming NAB exhibit. It needed to show the capabilities of the new HD camera as well as reassure potential buys as to the stability and reliability of both the camera and its optical disc media. So off to Alaska Falstad headed to participate in the annual Iditarod dog-sled race, where the variable frame rate PDW-350 would be exposed to both sub-zero temperatures and the dangers of the Iditarod trail.

Falstad has years of experience shooting news magazine pieces and documentary project for programs such as Dateline and 60 Minutes. He started his career in film and was eager to try out the XDCAM’s 24p capabilities, something he was familiar with having used Sony’s Cine Alta in the past.

The goal of the eight-day, three-camera shoot, that took place in March, was to produce a 1:30 newsmagazine-style segment as well as a longer-form documentary. The pieces would appear at Sony’s NAB exhibit in Las Vegas later this month, and would also be used by Sony sales reps when demonstrating the new XDCAM HD line.

Falstad says the shoot included several segments. Since the camera team was not going to travel the entire Iditarod route from Anchorage to Nome, they had to narrow their focus. The first day of shooting involved an interview with four-time race champion Martin Buser, who they caught up with during his final training session.

They also covered the event’s ceremonial start. And another segment included interviews and an on-sled shoot with Zoya DeNure, a one-time model, Falstad says, who’s training a team of rescued dogs to form a sled team for next year’s race. Falstad says a camera was primatively-bolted to DeNure’s sled, “without any sort of cushioning or shock absorbtion.” The first two run, he recalls, we’re so intense, that the tripod loosened up causing the PDW-350 to tip over. Footage captured was mostly the quickly-passing ground. After adding a few tie-down straps, the camera was secure for another pass.

Footage from the front of the sled gave the perspective of the dogs and the environment. Another pass with the camera facing DeNure captured her expressions during the ride.

Even with the rough conditions, one camera tipping over and another being dropped on the ice, Falstad says he noticed no drop-outs in the footage. He even got thrown from a snowmobile chase vehicle on one occasion, and the camera sustained no damage.

Falstad says they shot 1080/24p with the 35mbps “HQ” high-quality variable frame rate. The project was shot feature style in 16x9 with markers for the 4x3 news-style piece.

“I loved playing with two features,” he recalls, pointing to the 350’s variable speed and frame accumulation features. “Variable speed” he says “is done in-camera, so we could see it in the field. You could check your footage.” Falstad used the variable speed for capturing timelapse footage of snow whipping over mountains, as well as to shoot the spectacle of the Northern Lights.

“That’s the first time in my lifetime that we were able to shoot the Northern Lights timelapse,” he says. The PDW-350’s frame accumulation capabilities also helped with the low-light nighttime shoots.

The ability to manually dial in color temperature helped unify the look between the three cameras. “It’s cool because with multiple camera shoots, you normally hope to get white balance from card,” he explains. “We’d just dial it in” to get the desired consistency.

The opening ceremony, he recalls, was overcast, so they used walkie talkies to communicate the same settings. “Also, for night check points,” he notes. “Mushers use these blue LED headlamps that are 6,800 degrees and I basically just dialed in for a warming light at 15,000 degrees.” The blue lights, he says, then looked more like the traditional and familiar flashlight-type units teams used in the past.

Falstad says Sony is currently editing the two videos in-house, using their Xpri nonlinear editor. Footage will be playing at the company’s booth, and Falstad, himself will be on hand to comment on his first-hand use of the XDCAM HD PDW-350.