I just spent two weeks staring at a big-ass metal case on my floor. Yeah, I opened it once or twice just to look at the big-ass camera inside. The big-ass camera does have a proper name: the Panasonic AG-HPX500P, which, for the purposes of this review I‘ll be forced to use — though for me, it‘s still just the big-ass camera in the big-ass metal case on my floor.
The HPX is a professional-minded camera built on the same P2 system as the better-known AG-HVX200P. What makes it more professional besides the size? Greater storage (four 16GB P2 slots) and the ability to change lenses. It‘s also designed with a shoulder-mount curve on the underbelly. A base plate can be attached for tripod use as well.
I‘ve been shooting Panasonic exclusively for the past three-and-a-half years, primarily with the AG-DVX100A, though recently I rented an HVX for my last short, 12.5 Seconds Later....That said, the HPX review loaner sat on my floor for so long mostly because I was trying to adapt my head to the camera‘s size, which is equivalent to that of a news camera; I‘m used to smaller, lighter-weight gear. I like the idea of being mobile, and the HPX is not what I‘d consider mobile.
Strangely enough, around this time, I was Web surfing and came across David Lowery‘s Drifting: A Director‘s Log blog (road-dog-productions.com/weblog), which, under a post titled “More Blood” featured a photo of the HPX with a wall of splattered blood behind it. The HPX in the photo was on legs and also had a matte box attached. The camera was apparently being used to shoot a vampire comedy called Blood on the Highway, which David was helping to edit.
I asked him how he liked using the camera, and he replied, via the comments on his blog, “We haven‘t really had to keep more than one 16GB card in it at any time, but it‘s nice knowing there‘s that extra space. The best thing about it, in my opinion, is the fact that you can put another lens on it. We put some really nice glass on it, and that makes all the difference in the world, especially since we‘re doing almost all night shooting.”
Okay. A proper production is one thing. But using it in a manner to conduct a test — a manner that would invariably be guerrilla — meant I needed an “in.”
What ultimately intrigued me was the camera‘s ability to shoot variable frame rates, a luxury of its tapeless workflow. When shooting 720P in the PN mode, which locks playback to the chosen record mode — 24PN or 30PN, for example — the actual recording frame rate can be adjusted to overcrank or undercrank in increments of two frames. When you watch footage shot at 48fps, because playback is locked at, say, 24PN, it‘s legitimate slow motion, not the frame-blended footage many have become accustomed to by altering the speed in postproduction. In other words, it basically works under the same assumption as a film camera.
Once that decision was out of the way, I still needed a subject. While brainstorming for a topic, I considered that it might look interesting if I were to capture a long tracking shot at 60fps. I set up a shoot and decided that the actual actions and coverage would be determined only then.
As I started blocking out the shot, which would ultimately stretch from one side of an apartment to the other, to out into the hallway, up a ladder to the roof, and then move from wide to tight to wide on the roof, I realized the inherent dreamlike quality of the piece and started making some offbeat choices. This was partly about aesthetics, but also, I had one serious technical challenge: adjusting the iris from a dark, practical-lighted interior to an overblown exterior set against a wide-open sky.
I learned immediately that the HPX‘s built-in ND filters are operated by a knob on the front of the camera. Unlike the DVX or the HVX, which have an easy-to-reach switch that when flipped automatically makes the changes, here I had to reach around and turn the knob without being able to see what I was doing. Furthermore, as I turned the knob, I could actually see the black borders of the filter wiping across the screen through the shot. And that was awful.
Completely by accident, on the next pass, I inadvertently left the #2 ND on and didn‘t find this out until after the take was over. To my complete surprise, the camera was so sensitive that I could see everything perfectly during the interiors, and because the ND was already on, I didn‘t have to turn it on as I approached the exterior section. This was a positive derived from a negative.
At this point, I started blending techniques that would both heighten the reverie of the piece while also calling attention to the medium itself. To affect the former, I manually set the focus to roughly seven feet while keeping the zoom completely wide; this created a look where nothing is ever terribly out of focus, yet the actual focal point can never really be spotted. In relation to the latter, I left the iris on auto, allowing for visible light adjustments both inside the apartment and during the exterior transition. I also made a point of not being entirely smooth in my handheld coverage, rendering a floating image that‘s not always accurate in its motion or framing.
After 16 takes, the post was simple: I just FireWired the footage right into Final Cut Pro via the Log and Transfer option. I was happy enough with the ND-affected look of the image that I didn‘t even apply any color correction; what you see is straight from the camera.
In retrospect, as happy as I was with the end result, the HPX was probably the wrong camera for what I did — it‘s just too big and heavy. A shot like this would‘ve worked better with an HVX. But, I suppose, since they both record the same P2 DVCPRO HD, the ideal independent production might involve both cameras. The HPX, with its adjustable lenses, might make better sense for the bulk of principle photography on a project, with the HVX picking up the slack where greater mobility or guerrilla methods are required.
Although the HPX, with its four 16GB P2 slots, has plenty of storage capacity, during the shoot I kept wondering why P2 cards are even necessary and haven‘t been replaced by internal hard drives that can offer even greater memory.
To answer that question, four days after the shoot, I retired my old DVX for a brand new HVX — only instead of getting it with P2 cards, I opted for a 100GB FS-100 FireStore drive. Aside from the extra memory, the FS-100 allows me to record my footage directly to Quicktime without any translation; it plugs into my Mac as any FireWire hard drive would, and I can simply click and drag the QT files right into a folder on my desktop.
Now I just have to arrange for UPS to pick up that big-ass metal case from my floor.
See Jamie Stuart‘s test footage from the Panasonic AG-HPX500P at filmmakermagazine.com/cameratest.php.