For all the shots of breaking glass in “Stull,” I knew I was going to need slow-motion capabilites. Panasonic makes two excellent HD cameras that are capable of slow-motion: the HVX-200 and the VariCam (AJ-HDC27).

The HVX-200 can only record HD footage in a format called P2. After having a lot of headaches with Avid’s P2 support at work, and given the need to change P2 cards often or use a fragile Firestore drive while recording, I opted for VariCam — even though the price tag is a great deal heftier. The VariCam is big enough it gives a true hand-held feel — mounted on the DP’s shoulder and swinging around.

My DP, Hanuman Brown-Eagle, has attended the VariCamp, and proved to have mastered the weird way the VariCam does the variable-frame-rate magic that gives it it’s name. As I understand it, whether you’re recording 24 fps or 48fps, the VariCam is always recording 60fps (actually 59.94) by duplicating frames and placing a flag or a little bit of metadata marking the frames that have new information. Certain hardware (such as Panasonic DVCPro decks) and software (such as Final Cut Pro with a free download) can see these flags and extract just the frames needed for correct playback.

Continue reading about the VariCam and post-production workflows…

Because the VariCam does some jumping jacks in how it records non-standard frame rates to tape, you have to do jumping jacks in post-production to play these shots back at the correct speeds.

My first attempt to capture the off-speed footage was with an Avid Adrenaline system running on a G4 Quad. I made a 720p/23.98 project and connected the deck to the front port on the G4 via Firewire. Getting the Avid to recognize the deck was a couple of hours of trial and error. I knew from experience you had to change the controller from DNA to 1394. Turning off ‘Output to DV’ under the ‘Video Display’ Setting is also recommended, as is going to the ‘Film’ Setting and selecting ’35mm’ and one of the two pulldown options.

In the Capture window, there is a radio button for Preserve Varicam Frames. It works, but as they warn you, you can’t set an Out point when capturing. Essentially, it seems you have to capture each individual shot — whether or not there are speed changes between them — on the fly and let it roll well past the end of the shot. Then you ESC from the capture or it boinks automatically and you keep your fingers crossed the whole shot was captured. Several times it wasn’t, and it didn’t happen at cut points so I’m guessing you need to let the Avid roll the amount of real-time it takes to play the slow-mo shot.

The captured-in-chunks slo-mo stuff did play back nice and smooth, although the one problem I haven’t solved yet is how to get Avid to show the playback on the nice big HD monitor. (If I switch back to DNA, the monitor registers a 720p/59.94 signal but only shows static.)

The one high-speed shot, a time-lapse of a sunset, didn’t look smooth played back when captured with the Preserve Varicam Frames selected and when not. This may just be a miscalculation in camera settings, or just a representation of how poorly the VariCam does timelapse, since it has to record four real-time frames and then rewind the tape back.

Depending on how well these slo-mo shots export — I am using them as effect plates, which is why I’m doing them first — this weekend I may try a capture session on Final Cut Pro. I only have so many weekends I’m willing to invest in VariCam expertise. After all, I have to edit the movie too!

MORE on the Varicam in the HD Camera Comparison

[Photo credit: Kurt Hanover]