The Nonlinear Editor: Freeze Frame
Posted Jan 23, 2006

Today's technology "wars," like the other wars that saturate our senses in the news media, come to us as 90% spin, cleansed and calculated to mask what's really going on. The war of words that keeps Blu-ray and HD DVD in the headlines is actually 100% spin on both sides at this point, since all those dueling press releases have little to do with tangible product, CES "releases" notwithstanding. Back in the formative years of DVD, the fracas between DVD-R and DVD+R unraveled in a swirl of superfluous spin. Long before the two formats settled into crowded co-existence, the DVD+R camp effectively delayed the adoption of DVD-R (which beat DVD+R to market by three years) by promising a superior product that they had no intention of delivering anytime soon. Did you ever wonder why DVD recording didn't become accessible to videographers until years after all your clients had DVD players in their homes? There's your answer.

But we won't get fooled again, right? Wrong. Panasonic's response to Sony's early-2005 HDV breakthrough was straight out of the DVD+RW playbook (which is somewhat ironic given that Sony, a DVD+R patent holder, probably helped design the play). I still remember the awed hush that followed when Panasonic announced their HVX200 at Apple's NAB press event, as they promised to leapfrog over HDV entirely by offering "true" HD in DVCPRO format. Never mind that they didn't plan to ship it for eight months, and that few, if any, event videographers use DVCPRO, or that the P2 card they announced alongside the camera—a fantastic idea whose time has not yet come—could hold about four minutes of full-quality HD video in DVCPRO format (we're up to eight minutes for $2,000 now). And never mind that most event videographers don't pay $8-10,000 for their cameras, which is the HVX200's realistic cost of entry.

By decrying HDV as a mere stopgap, Panasonic had us all swimming in spin. At this writing, we're still in the pre-shipping spin zone, so it's virtually impossible to dispute any claim, up to and including the company's alleged 40,000 pre-orders. Nor will we ever know how many potential early adopters HDV lost because of Panasonic's efforts to freeze out the HDV market. But even JVC, first to market with HDV in 2003, was already distancing itself from the format by NAB 2005, unveiling its GY-HD100 camera under a "ProHD" umbrella that nominally aligned it with JVC's higher-end "true" HD cameras present and future. Only Canon, with its end-of-2005 HDV offering, the XL-H1, seems to be emphatically embracing HDV with a camera that extends Canon's popular XL1/2 line into HDV in the same way Sony's FX1 and Z1 extended the VX2000/2100 and PD 150/170, respectively.

So, in leapfrogging HDV, has Panasonic overshot the videography market with the HVX200? If they have, it may well be by design. Videographers aren't this camera's target market. Panasonic's real goal is to capture the indie filmmaker. With their firehose HVX200 ad campaign in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today, Panasonic hopes to drench every indie director or wannabe who rolled out of bed and picked up a paper. And just to make sure they sent the right message to the trade media, Panasonic unveiled a surprise guest at its DV Expo press event, indie icon Kevin Smith of Clerks and Chasing Amy fame, who joked about shilling for Panasonic in colorful language we can't print in this magazine. In doing so, Smith conveyed exactly the message Panasonic wanted to send to its countercultural indie electorate.

But just because Panasonic is largely looking past the event video world, it doesn't mean that the HVX200 won't be worth a serious look for event shooters—particularly DVX100 fans—who can afford a $10,000 camera that shoots in a dizzying array of frame rates and formats. And the company's "cheapest way to get a ‘real' film look" message, which goes back to the DVX100 and its touted 24p capability, clearly has a lot of pull in the event video world, whether via a Panasonic or other camera or tools and techniques applied on site or in post. And it's certainly a compelling way to produce video. Four days spent staring awestruck at one gorgeous "cinematic" wedding video after another in WEVA Expo seminars last year made a believer out of me. By the end of the week, videos that lacked that cinematic grandeur started to look like cable-access TV.

This assessment is far from fair, I realize, and largely a function of context. But we all have to live with our perceptions of ourselves, even as those perceptions are partly shaped by people outside the industry who don't understand or respect what videographers do. Most videographers still have to fight that negative perception of event video, and one of the ways we attempt to counter it is by distancing ourselves from "video" itself. How many videographers do you talk to these days who insist on being called "cinematographers," rather than "videographers," and describe what they do as "filming," rather than "taping" or "videotaping"?

These aren't meaningless distinctions in a still-struggling industry where perception often overrides reality. Any videographer who can improve her business and distance herself from her competition by using alternate terms to characterize her work is more than entitled to them. But if you promise the fabulous look of film, you also have to deliver it. We're not in the kind of business that allows us to survive on spin—even if we buy products from people who do.