September 21, 2014

The solid-state missing link: Sony’s XDCAMEX Browser 2.0

The solid-state missing link: Sony’s XDCAMEX Browser 2.0Once you’ve had the joys of solid state shooting, with formats such as P2 and XDCAMEX, its hard to imagine going back to tape By Mike Jones

Once you’ve had the joys of solid state shooting and production, with formats such as P2 and XDCAMEX, its hard to imagine ever going back to tape. This is not to say that solid state doesn’t come without its drawbacks: no shelfable master, re-wrapping processes, short record times are all tangible workflow concerns. But the advantages – speed, efficiency, on-set clip review – for the most part outweigh the drawbacks. Going further, the real advantage to be embraced is metadata tagging and media management. It’s here that solid-state steps into a realm of its own.

Final Cut Pro has its log and transfer system for managing solid-state files which, whilst rather rudimentary, works reasonably well. Adobe’s Premiere Pro CS4 goes much further with a comprehensive system for metadata and solid-state file management built into a dedicated browser inside the GUI. But there has for some time also been a software tool floating around deserving much more attention than it attracted.

Sony’s decision to use the MP4 wrapper for its MPEG-2 based XDCAMEX essence often comes under fire from critics but the criticism is largely unjustified. MP4 is an open format wrapper, highly flexible and not proprietary. Many mistakenly associate the *.mp4 suffix with low-quality, high-compression H.264 codec files since this is where the MP4 wrapper is most commonly seen. But MP4 is a much more versatile wrapper than many realize. The only real issue is that so far Sony is the only company to use MP4 as a camera recording format wrapper.


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In light of this, what Sony was always going to need to complete the XDCAMEX MP4 workflow for the EX1 and EX3 cameras was a dedicated software browser for managing the files into the NLE environment.

The solid-state missing link: Sonys XDCAMEX Browser 2.0

XDCAM Browser export

No sooner was the EX1 camera on the market than the XDCAMEX browser software was released. Sony already had a similar browser for its optical disc format, XDCAM and indeed the XDCAM browser, designed to work with the MXF format their shoulder mounted XDCAM cameras use, could import and rewrap XDCAMEX MP4 files. But the XDCAM browser was still not optimized for or focused on solid state XDCAMEX so a different and more dedicated application was released.

(Although, that said, the differences between the two browser apps have caused much confusion among users and indeed the decision to call the two formats themselves– XDCAM and XDCAMEX–  names that are almost interchangeable, was far from smart).

The first version of the XDCAMEX browser had the capability to browse, tag, and import XDCAMEX media. But it still seemed a very bare bones tool. What seemed to slip under the radar more recently however has been a new release of the browser to version 2. The new release now possesses a very useful toolset for solid state production and makes the application much broader in scope.

The XDCAMEX browser will most often be used to re-wrap the MP4 format to more NLE wrappers such as MOV or MXF but it would be a mistake to think this is the extent of purpose for the browser. The browser can certainly rewrap the MP4 to MXF which will suit many NLEs such as Avid and Vegas, but If you’re using Premiere Pro you don’t need rewrapping at all as Premiere will read and import the MP4 files natively. If you’re using FCP by contrast you’ll be forced to re-wrap the files to MOV which the XDCAMEX browser can’t do. But neither of these scenarios rules out the usefulness of the XDCAMEX browser. Its real power lies in markup, management and on-set file wrangling rather than just re-wrapping; a process which can be handled elsewhere if need be.

The solid-state missing link: Sonys XDCAMEX Browser 2.0

XDCAM Browser overview

The browser sees the XDCAMEX media direct on the SxS cards and provides a comprehensive set of tools for the mark up of that media. Clips can be renamed, annotated with descriptions and notes, in and out points can be set and new independent subclips or trimmed clips can be generated from the originals.

All the metadata generated from the Browser is embedded in the clip and viewable in any NLE capable of reading the data (which is virtually any pro NLE) The XDCAMEX browser also allows for the thumbnail image to be nominated to better visually indicate the content of the clip.

Particular to the XDCAM and XDCAMEX formats is the use of essence markers which are essentially time based metadata flags inserted in the clip. These clips can be inserted to mark particular moments, lines of dialogue or any other cue point the camera operator or editor may want. The essence markers can be viewed in the clip in any NLE which supports essence markers. Sony’s own Vegas NLE  (as you would expect) has particularly superb support for XDCAM and XDCAMEX formats including essence markers. The XDCAMEX browser application allows for essence markers to be viewed and inserted and thus provides a perfect middle ground for markup between camera and post.

The solid-state missing link: Sonys XDCAMEX Browser 2.0

XDCAM Browser tagging

All these resources for marking-up clips ready for the edit environment is well and good but the XDCAMEX browser also serves a number of production, rather than post production purposes. Primary among these is on-set file wrangling. The rise of solid-state tapeless shooting has seen a subsequent reinvention of the role we might traditionally have known as the clapper-loader. Where once the responsibility of the CL was the management of film stock, reels, salting and labeling, the new Clapper Loader in the digital age serves the role of data wrangler, responsible for importing files to a laptop on-set, clearing the cards ready to shoot again, and the digital labeling and management of the rushes. It’s to this role that the XDCAMEX browser is perfectly suited.

Sony has done very well to maintain a succinct efficiency of processing to match the fast 1/4 real-time importing of XDCAMEX files. Even on a busy set the browser makes it very easy to not only copy the files from the SxS cards to hard drive but also to quickly mark good takes and bad ones, add shot info and assign essence markers with a few keystrokes.

As a particularly useful feature, the new version 2 has added the capability to export compressed rushes from the master MP4 files. With an efficient 2-click batch processing mechanism, the browser can export the files to a variety of formats for end-of-day rushes in H.264 or WMV as well as DV. This export to DV also means the XDCAMEX browser can serve as a very effective bath-processing tool for creating off-line files at SD res and DV compression.

What’s missing however is the capability to export to QuickTime, which will frustrate the QuickTime environment of Final Cut Pro. I suspect this option is missing due to licensing issues but it’s one many editors would hope Sony will address in the future.

The XDCAMEX browser is an application arguably under exploited by those working with solid-state. This new version adds a good set of improvements and functions that position the browser as much more than post-production importer and more in line as a powerful production data management system.

The browser can be downloaded free from

http://www.sony.ca/xdcamex/software.htm


 

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