Using the Canon XL1 and
Panasonic LT75 Laptop Editor
on Assignment in Hawaii

by Mike Parker
Los Angeles based Freelancer

A couple of months ago I was contacted by a friend of mine at KDNL TV News in St. Louis, Missouri. At the time he was News Director and he wanted to know if I'd be interested in doing a shoot in Hawaii aboard the USS Missouri.  There was going to be a big ceremony on the "Mighty MO" on September 2nd, commemorating the 53rd anniversary of the end of WW2.

The station had found a veteran who not only served aboard the USS Missouri during WW2, but who was just feet away from the place where the Japanese signed their surrender on the ship when it was anchored in Tokyo Bay!

Our plan was to fly the veteran, John Atkins and reporter Andy Banker to Honolulu, where I was to meet them. I'm based in Los Angeles and most of my shooting is on Betacam, and that's what we initially planned on shooting in Hawaii.

About a week before flying to Hawaii, a major problem came up. We were planning on editing at the ABC affiliate in Honolulu, KITV.  The problem was that KITV had recently converted to  JVC's Digital-S for news shooting and editing. There are a pair of Betacam edit bays, but they're Avid MC8000 rooms and are used for commercial production. We could only get them at odd hours. Since we were locked in to satellite feed times ("windows") we had to be guaranteed access to editing facilities at that station.

One option was to shoot on Betacam, dub to Digital-S and then edit on Digital-S. Everyone agreed that this was far too time-consuming considering our deadlines.  I remembered that KDNL was converting to DVCPRO for news. I called Executive Producer Nancy Tully and asked if they, by chance, had one of the Panasonic DVCPRO LT75 laptop editors. She checked and they did. The plan I came up with was to shoot the three-part series with my XL1, edit the stories on the LT75 using a CS750P adapter for the smaller MiniDV cassettes, and then feeding directly from the LT75. Bear in mind that 1) I'd never spent any time with the LT75, 2) had never tried to edit from MiniDV to DVCPRO and 3) hadn't done any tape-to-tape editing since I went non-linear almost four years ago.

The people at KDNL got a little nervous when I asked them to FedEx me a copy of the LT75's instruction manual. "You mean he's never used one of these?"  was the shocked response. They sent the manual anyway. Since they were unfamiliar with the XL1 I suggested they check out, and this website to learn about the camera. I called a couple of friends who were familiar with DVCPRO and the LT75 and picked their brains. The manual arrived on Saturday. By the time I flew to Honolulu on Monday and met the LT75 for the first time, I was confident my plan would work. It did, but there were a few

Much has been said about the Canon XL1's image quality. It does come close to Betacam, but it's not  fair to compare a $5,000 camera with an Ikegami broadcast camera whose lens alone costs twice as much as the XL1. That said, the images are remarkable and certainly more than acceptable for broadcast.

The major problem with the XL1 continues to be the standard lens. It is very difficult to focus, especially in a fast-breaking news situation. I've found the best way (at least for me) is to leave the lens on manual focus, zoom in to the subject, press "auto focus" and let the lens snap into focus. Trying to focus manually is an exercise in frustration. As most know by now, there is no mechanical helix attached to the focussing ring. Focussing is done by servo motor and the ring is essentially a rheostat. There is no sense of touch to the ring and no footage markers on infinity stop. The ring will keep turning forever. This is not good.

The absence of a footage scale and infinity stop prohibit you from marking the barrel for making a focus pull and prohibit you from setting the footage by "eye" when you're shooting a quick interview at wide angle. If you focus at wide angle and then try for a short zoom in, nine times out of ten it will go soft. Your option is to use auto focus, but then you get the "hunt" which I find unacceptable.

Another problem with the lens is that I don't believe it's a true zoom, i.e. a lens that holds focus while zooming.  I believe it's a varifocal lens: a lens, which has to be refocused when you change focal lengths. It appears that Canon has designed a very sophisticated varifocal lens that is computer compensated to make it (usually) perform as a true zoom. You can often "fool" the lens and have a significant focus change when zooming in or out. A true zoom will not do this.

Why did Canon take this route? A varifocal lens is lighter, smaller and less expensive to manufacture than a true zoom that has the same range and specifications. It works most of the time. But makes the camera slower to work with, a quality that may be acceptable for production work, but is a real problem when shooting fast-paced news.

One feature on this lens that I'm absolutely in love with is the image stabilization. I'm sold! I'm not into the "MTV" style of shooting and I really dislike shaky video. I shot almost everything off my shoulder with this camera, some of the footage at the longest focal length, and it looked wonderful. Canon ought to be congratulated for developing this terrific feature. It almost makes up for the focusing problem.

Some have complained about the color viewfinder, saying that they would prefer a black and white viewfinder. I disagree. The color viewfinder lets me know that the white balance is okay. It also allows me to see how the foreground and background work together as far as their colors, not just shades of gray. Clients can do a quick check in the field without me having to lug along a color monitor. I just wish it were sharper.

Another complaint: if you take video out of the camera when it's in camera (as opposed to VCR) mode, your video is cluttered with viewfinder data. I know you can turn this off with the remote control, but you can't set "screen data off" as the default. No big deal? Imagine trying to do a live shot with this camera when you can't find the remote control.  You would be faced with the real possibility of aborting the live shot, something I would hate to have to explain to the bosses.

The audio section of the XL1 is very impressive. DVCPRO has only two digital audio channels so we kept the XL1 in its 16-bit mode. The sound quality is simply incredible. It is, for all intents and purposes, transparent. The XLR adapter seems solidly built and the bracket on it allowed me to mount a pair of Sony UHF wireless receivers. There is only one problem: the XL1 will not allow you to input an external mike into one of the primary channels while feeding the on-camera shotgun mike to the other channel.

Why is this important? When shooting Betacam in the field, we usually send a hand or shotgun mike to the left channel and send the on-camera shotgun mike to the right channel as a backup. My tookus has been saved many times by doing this. Wireless mikes get hits or crap out completely at the worst possible time. The audio from the on-camera mike may not be pristine, but it usually is airable. Less than great audio is better than none at all.

Calling the Panasonic LT75 a "laptop" editor is a misnomer. It weighs almost 25 pounds and that doesn't include its power supply. Maybe it's a laptop, but only if you're Godzilla.  I'm absolutely in love with it.

Consider the alternative: you could ship a pair of Betacam BVW-75 editing VCRs, a couple of monitors, an audio mixer, cables and shipping cases. Figure at least 400 pounds by the time you add everything up. Not to mention that all this stuff will set you back close to $100,000. The LT75 lists for $30,000, which is not exactly pocket change, but compared to Betacam equipment, it looks like a bargain.

The LT75 is a no-frills cuts-only editor. No dissolves, pushes or wipes. It has a pair of DVCPRO VCRs, a matching pair of 6.5 inch active matrix LCD displays on a flip-up lid and editing controls similar to what we've become accustomed to: two jog/shuttle knobs, keys for marking in and out points, volume controls, etc. All that you need for classic three-point video editing and not much more. This is a field editor, not a production editor.

Here's the really nice part. Someone at Panasonic was actually thinking when they designed the LT75. While it is designed to edit DVCPRO, it will also edit from DVCAM and MiniDV to DVCPRO. We shot on MiniDV with the Canon XL1, inserted the MiniDV cassette into one of Panasonic's  $40 CS750P adapters and went to work. We were able to crash edit two 2:30 packages in roughly two hours each and make our satellite windows. We were very happy.

There are a few quirks with the LT75. First, since the audio is digital, you cannot hear it when shuttling tape. When you make your cue points and hit "play" the first few words of the audio track are clipped. Plan on using "trim" a lot until you become more familiar with the LT75.

While you can play back DVCAM and MiniDV you cannot record on these formats. You can record on DVCPRO tapes only. Also, because of the less robust nature of the MiniDV tape, shuttle speed is limited to 32x while DVCPRO tapes can go up to 60x. Finally, the MiniDV tapes with drop out of "still" mode after only 60-seconds, which can be disconcerting when you're trying to edit quickly. The player screen goes blank, but the edit points are retained in memory. All you have to do is hit "preview" and the image comes back up.

We fed directly out of the LT75 to our uplink. One of the things I noticed is the quality drop DV takes when you convert it from digital to composite video. It is noticeable, even more than the "hit" when you go from component Betacam to composite. Unfortunately, we still live in a composite world when it comes to ENG or SNG feeds. Until that changes, we're at a disadvantage when mastering on DV.

We really gave the XL1 and LT75 a workout in Honolulu. We subjected both the camera and editor to the rigors of hard news coverage and each of them came through for us. Neither was perfect, but very few things in life are. They are a very workable combination, although the XL1 would not be my first choice for covering breaking news, primarily because of the focusing problem. In the real world, it's results that matter. In this case the client was very happy with what we accomplished.

Nancy Tully, KDNL's Executive Producer, has this to say about the XL1/LT75 combination: "The quality was fine, what we expected, and we would not hesitate to use this combination again."

Neither would I. We have a shoot for CBS "Eye on People" scheduled for tomorrow. We'll be using the XL1.

Click here to read Larry Hatteberg's XL1 Review:
"We're Not Special Anymore"


Reviews of new equipment appearing in the Camera Corner of THE DIGITAL JOURNALIST are solely the opinion of the author. There is no compensation or pressure by the manufacturers considered in the evaluation of the products reviewed on these pages.

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