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In the Field: Focus Enhancements FS-5 DTE Recorder
Posted Dec 26, 2008 - January 2009 Issue Print Version     Page 1of 1

Focus Enhancements has been making hard drive-based digital video recorders for many years now, calling its products DTE, or Direct-To-Edit recorders. The company’s FS-4 line debuted in 2005, providing popular and reliable recording for DV and HDV cameras. The FS-100 has made an impact on Panasonic’s widely used P2/DVCPRO-HD cameras. And now, the company has reached the next step in the DTE product line with the FS-5. The FS-5 comes along at the right time too.

First, let’s look at the theory behind the FS-5. Using a FireWire connection, the unit records footage from DV and HDV cameras to its internal hard drive using one of several digital formats. Just like the FS-4, this allows you to save time capturing from tape back in the studio. An hour of HDV recorded to the FS-5 can be transferred to the NLE system in a matter of minutes, a fraction of the hour needed for tape-based capture. You can still record to tape at the same time, giving you a reliable backup, if you need it. The FS-5 also allows for longer nonstop recording times than a typical 60-minute MiniDV tape—again, just like the FS-4.

The formats supported by the FS-5 for DV footage are as follows: AVI types 1, 2, and 2-24p; Canopus AVI; Matrox AVI; Avid MXF; QuickTime; QuickTime-24p; and RAW. For HDV footage, the FS-5 supports the following: .m2t (720p 24/25/30/50/60, 1080i 50/60); MXF HDV (720p30, 1080i 50/60); and QuickTime HDV (720p30, 1080i 50/60). This format versatility allows the FS-5 to be compatible with a wide variety of NLE platforms.

Several new features make the FS-5 a significant step forward from the popular FS-4: Smaller size, lighter weight, higher-definition color screen display, navigation wheel, simplified menu system, metadata input, wireless connectivity, and metadata templates. First, I’ll go over the physical improvements; then, I’ll spend some time discussing the metadata functions and the reasons they’re important in today’s broadcast and video industry.

Physical Enhancements
The first thing you’ll notice when working with the FS-5 is how much faster this boots up and shuts down than the FS-4 and FS-100 units. This is one of the best new features. I use the FS-100 often, and the only thing I’m not thrilled with is its longish boot-up and shutdown times. The FS-5 unit comes up to attention very quickly, and it shuts down even faster.

The FS-5 is 25% lighter than the FS-4 and 60% smaller in size (Figure 1, above right). Size and weight are always important factors in broadcast and video work. We have enough weight to deal with already and enough physical hardware bulk to lug around. Thus, I see this as a welcome improvement.

The higher-definition color display screen is simply awesome. As an FS-100 user, I’d love to see this implemented in other FS units across the board. It’s much easier to read in both pitch black and in bright daylight. The most challenging time to read any LCD is at midday in the summer sun; I shoot a lot of nature work, so I’m often required to be out at this less than desirable time of day to shoot. The FS-5 is much easier to read than my FS-100 in the midday glare. The only real “color” you see is the splash screen when it boots up; the rest is just black text on an off-white background—except for the main screen, which is, thankfully, white text on a black background. This makes the text much, much easier to read. And the heightened resolution provides more clearly rendered text (Figure 2, below).

Focus Enhancements FS-5

The next new physical feature of note is the new menu layout. The FS-5 has only about half the number of menus as you’ll find on the other FS units, and they are much simpler to get through. The FS-5 also boasts a new navigation “wheel,” which acts just like the one on iPods and iPhones, although it’s much smaller. The wheel is rather sensitive, and it took me a bit of time to get used to. But with some experience and time spent reading the manual to learn the short cuts it enables, you’ll find the new wheel a huge improvement over the old navigation buttons. The other buttons, which serve basically the same functions that are available in previous units, are of better quality, and they are arranged in a more symmetrical, easier-to-learn-and-use layout. These are all very welcome improvements. Again, I’d love to have these on my FS-100! Focus, are you listening?

Another improvement is the battery configuration. The FS-5’s battery fits inside of the housing itself, not in a slot exposed on the back as before. The connection ports are all consolidated on the top of the body. There’s a sturdy 4-pin FireWire port for connecting to the camera, a USB port for connecting to a computer (no FireWire for computer connection, tsk, tsk), a wired remote control connection, and an AC port for running on AC power and charging the battery (Figure 3, below).

Focus Enhancements FS-5

The one disappointment I have with the physical construction of the FS-5 is that to have wireless access, you have to plug in a USB wireless dongle. I guess the small size and lighter weight were achieved by not including the wireless components inside to make it more self-contained. But I would think that a device whose strongest selling point is its wireless access to metadata would have self-contained wireless hardware, such as a cell phone or iPod Touch. The other aspect of this I’m not thrilled with is that the wireless USB dongle sticks up, which is sort of awkward if you have the FS-5 mounted to your camera rig. I was constantly worried about knocking it off and breaking the unit in a way that may or may not qualify for a warranty repair. It’s not a deal killer, but it is sort of odd (Figure 4, below).

Focus Enhancements FS-5

Metadata Features
With the physical aspects out of the way, let’s look at the real star of the FS-5 show: its ability to input and manipulate metadata, even while you’re recording. All metadata functions are accessed via the wireless connectivity of the FS-5. To get inside this unit, you attach a USB wireless dongle into the USB port and fire the unit up. Then, in the Setup menu, you have to configure the wireless network settings.

As a former IT professional, this was all second nature to me. For anyone with no computer networking experience, don’t worry. Unlike the user manuals of many electronic devices, the section in the FS-5 user manual that covers this is very clear and easy to follow. (By the way, the user manual has a better layout than the ones that shipped with the FS-4 and FS-100. It has a nice TOC that makes topics and info very easy to find; for those questions that aren’t answered by the user manual, see http://firestore.ning.com for an online resource for FireStore DTE users.) It would be nice to have a wireless set up as easy as an iPhone or MacBook, but the FS-5 also acts as a server, so I really don’t see any way around the techno-geek setup scenario. But I think the step-by-step in the user manual will make it easy enough for most anyone to work with.

Once you have the FS-5 configured properly for wireless, it acts as a sort of web server. The user manual also takes you through setting up an iPhone/iPod Touch or laptop/desktop computer (both Mac and Windows). Other wireless devices can easily be set up based on the instructions for those. Your computer or wireless device will see the “FS5 network” and launch a web browser such as Safari, Firefox, or Internet Explorer. Type in the IP address from the screen of your FS-5, and presto, you’re connected! You’ll see the webpage the FS-5 has ready for you.

From here, you can pull up one of the metadata templates it comes with, or you can customize your own. Templates can be exported for storage. If the FS-5 loses power, your custom templates are lost, so exporting them is a good idea—and another good reason you should always back up your data! It would be nice to see the FS-5 keep my custom templates even when powered down; I hope to see this improvement in future updates of the FS-5. The included templates are XML-based and compatible with Final Cut Pro (and thus Final Cut Server) as well as Focus Enhancements’ own ProxSys media storage/management system.

Using and customizing templates is really easy. I wasn’t expecting such a well-thought-out system. You fill in the metadata files as you would any form on a website, and you can enable and disable fields with a single button click. But then there are my two favorite features: You can make fields into drop-down menus and give fields “friendly” names, which can save time when setting metadata on set or in the field.

For example, in the FCP Browser window, you’ll see a column of metadata called “Master Comment 1.” I can give that a friendly name of “Camera Person” and create a drop-down list of the camera people working on my project. Thus, when shooting begins, I can pick a name from the drop-down menu, either after the shot is done or while the shot is in progress. That clip now carries metadata that tells my editor which camera person shot it (Figure 5, below).

Focus Enhancements FS-5

I can also assign metadata to specific timecodes within a clip. Let’s say I’m shooting an event and someone has a “wardrobe malfunction” on camera. I just jump on my iPhone, get into the FS-5, enter the comment “Cut Nudity” in one of the metadata comment fields, and attach it to a specific timecode on that clip. Inside the NLE (FCP in my case), my editor will see the clip with a clip marker, and that clip marker will have the comment in its own comment field. This could be very handy on larger productions.

As tapeless acquisition becomes more and more prevalent, metadata becomes more and more desirable, almost necessary. Metadata is a very important part of digital assets. Even though tape does record some metadata, it doesn’t carry nearly as much of it as digital assets are able to. It can be used in all sorts of ways to make postproduction, media management, and media storage much easier for post departments. Even my consulting clients who still shoot on tape are taking advantage of metadata more and more when logging footage, and they love it. Organization, search/retrieval, and storing digital assets really do become much more viable when you take full advantage of metadata. I don’t want to do a whole presentation about the uses of metadata here, but if you’re not utilizing it, please look into it. Metadata can make your postproduction life much easier when dealing with digital assets.

All in All
All in all, the FS-5 is a solid digital acquisition unit for DV and HDV formats. I find it to be a solid build from the company with more experience with these units than anyone else. It’s really easy to use. And getting used to wireless configurations is not that tough.

But the huge selling point, and rightly so, is the metadata access. Using a wireless-based system via any old web browser is a stroke of genius. It’s much easier to work on a webpage than the tiny screens FireStore units and digital video cameras come with. If you don’t have any need or interest in metadata, you’ll want to look at the FS-4 Pro HD unit. But if you shoot in DV or HDV and have that need, the FS-5 will serve you well. Just be careful of the wireless USB dongle sticking up. Aside from that, I am very impressed with this unit.

One additional note: As you may have heard, Focus has undergone some management and financial restructuring this year, but I can assure you, the company is still very much alive and kicking. Focus will be around for a long time to come. Many large companies have gone through similar situations and have survived just fine. In fact, JVC and Canon have just recently contracted to have customized versions of the FS-5 made for their new cameras, which is about as good a vote of confidence as you could ask for.

Ben Balser (benb at bbalser.com) is an Apple Certified Trainer based in New Orleans, Louisiana. He specializes in training and consulting, and he also produces documentaries, educational material, and commercial work. Contact Ben with Final Cut Studio questions and he will try to address them in future tutorials.

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