Recording a camera’s output has been more difficult than building the camera itself for quite some time, right back to the original video tape experiments of the early 1950s. Current small devices that can be camera-mounted are practical only because non-mechanical storage, to wit flash, has become much more available in the last 10 years or so. There are now a lot of these things, as we saw at IBC, and the differentiation is largely in the degree and type of data compression applied and the tools and user interface that the device offers. Some have monitors, some don’t; some have test and measurement displays, some are optimized for minimum possible space and weight, and so on.
Blackmagic‘s Hyperdeck Shuttle is unashamedly targeted at a specific point on that continuum of size, weight and codec – it’s tiny and simple, and it records anything up to 10-bit 1080p30 YUV with no compression at all. The lack of compression means that it’s going to chew through storage at the really startling rate of around 120MB/sec for the highest end signals, give or take the audio. This provokes two further issues: sheer space, and speed, because something like the compactflash card you’d put in a Nanoflash can’t handle data at that rate regardless of how much actual storage space there is. Happily, the computer industry has provided us with an off-the-shelf solution in the form of the 2.5-inch solid state disk. This is a device both physically and electrically compatible with the 2.5-inch hard disks traditionally used in laptop computers, but flash-based so that the power consumption, weight and physical robustness are all much improved. The industry seems to have realized that these things are likely to be used as big, fast portable storage devices and usually supplies them fully-enclosed in a metal case, as opposed to hard disks which usually have exposed circuitry.
People will immediately worry about the sheer amount of information that this recorder is going to produce, and question whether it’s really practical at anything but the high end. I think it is, although it will require a properly thought-out postproduction and archiving workflow – not that you don’t need that with a Canon 5D, too, albeit for far less data. What’s really important is that all of these things will get a lot easier in time, as flash devices, hard disks and data tapes get bigger and cheaper. From a pure postproduction point of view, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that any form of compression is bad news – not only does it sap picture quality, but many compression codecs are tied to particular manufacturers or pieces of software. Whether this is done deliberately to create vendor lock-in or not, uncompressed pictures are both more flexible and maximally future-proof, and will only get easier to handle in time.
There’s also the issue of purpose. The kinds of cameras on which this recorder is likely to be used may already use a flash recording system such as P2 or SD card, and there may be little practical purpose in replacing one heavily compressed recording option with another. Given the option to go uncompressed, though, any camera with a worthwhile HDMI or SDI output can be improved with this device.
Anyway, given their experience at building SDI and HDMI devices, the availability of suitable flash storage and the explosion in interest in this sort of thing, Blackmagic were clearly in a pretty good position to do this. The device itself is an almost minimalistic design, and it’s nice to realize that it really has been milled out of a solid block of metal. This is slightly surprising for a company that’s been known entirely for postproduction tools before, and it’s good to see they’ve immediately grasped the level of robustness required of a piece of camera equipment. There’s even a cheese plate accessory for it now with a variety of ¼-inch and 3/8-inch holes in it, for mounting to appropriate surfaces.
Of the six faces of the cuboid, three are entirely plain. One end is cut away to house the SSD, and the two long edges hold, respectively, the connectors and a rubberized control panel and indicator lights. Other than the two miniature coaxial connectors that provide video in and out, nothing protrudes, and it’s extremely difficult to hurt the thing. This creditable dedication to robustness doesn’t quite extend as far as the power connector, which is one of those miniature coaxial DC power connectors used on everything under the sun. There is no mechanical retention for the power cable, so it’s probably a good thing that the device has its own built in battery, good – according to the manufacturer – for about an hour’s work.
There are a couple of other design choices I’d argue with, but nothing terribly serious. The use of the little push-pull coax connectors for the SDI in and out is slightly questionable as you’d have thought there ought to be room for full-size ones, but then they do take up a lot of space behind the panel. Blackmagic supply two adapter cables, but astute users will procure spares, both to cover failures and because the supplied pair include one each of male and female BNCs which might not be quite what’s required. The only other gotcha is that it is, with extreme violence, possible to just shake the SSD out of the end of the recorder. The only retaining mechanism, as far as I can see, is the SATA connector, and that wasn’t really designed as a mechanical latch. It wouldn’t be an issue in normal use, but anyone subjecting one of these to a lot of vibration might want to wrap a piece of tape over the end to preclude this issue.
In use, the thing is incredibly simple – just plug the camera in, it will recognize the input format, and switch its output to the appropriate format for display. If you press “record,” it starts recording. If you press “stop,” it stops. But it does lack a few refinements that are on the studio version of the recorder – there’s no pause and frame forward or back, for instance, and I’ve raised that as a feature request because it’s often useful to frame through takes to examine things like reflections. Other than that it is so beautifully simple – which is a kind way of saying it actually has very few features – that it’s hard to get wrong. There is no way to delete takes from the card, which is a very good idea in a world of capricious directors who think they’re a lot more objective on set than they are. There is no remote start, unfortunately, and although various features are available over USB via control software that probably isn’t a solution for the studio floor.
The only major problem I have with this device is that it insists on using disks formatted in the HFS+ filesystem to record. Without going into intricate detail, a filesystem is a standard according to which data is arranged on a storage medium such as a flash card or hard disk, and they’re often associated with particular operating systems – Windows PCs generally use NTFS, whereas Macs use HFS+. There is an older standard, FAT32, that’s used on compactflash cards in digital stills cameras because there are no software licensing issues with it and it is compatible with more or less any computer currently working. The problem with FAT32 is that the maximum filesize is limited to around four gigabytes, which you’d reach in something like thirty seconds at 1080p24 10-bit YUV. Therefore, Blackmagic had to choose one of the more modern filesystems for the Shuttle recorder. Personally, I’d have much preferred to see NTFS used, as it can be read by practically all modern PCs, Macs and Linux machines. Presumably there are software licensing issues with NTFS, but this does mean that all Windows people who want to use this device will need to pay another $40 per computer for the MacDrive software to access the disks. Blackmagic are coy about why this decision was made, which is odd. Apple have licensed things like the ProRes codec to other recorder manufacturers and one might cautiously assume that Apple’s interest in vendor lock-in may lurk behind the decision. An unfortunate inconvenience. If the recorder offered DPX sequence recording, FAT32 could have been used since no one file would be more than a few megabytes, but that would also limit the maximum overall disk size to 2TB (which is presumably an imminent possibility given the pace of SSD development). As it is only Quicktime movies in the uncompressed V210 codec are available.
There may be interesting things in the future for the Hyperdeck Shuttle. There’s a button (marked “Disp”) on the side which is currently unassigned, and intended for future updates. Also, the very best SSDs are actually now fast enough to store 4:4:4 RGB video at rates over 50fps and this is only likely to improve with time. The SDI hardware in the Shuttle recorder is capable of 3Gbps operation and therefore could theoretically support 4:4:4 RGB modes and increased frame rates in 4:2:2 and 720p modes. Eventually the SATA link, which uses only the older 300Mbps specification, will become the limiting factor here, but it could in theory record almost anything that would fit down a single link of 3 Gig SDI.
At the end of the day, the big deal on this is that the Hyperdeck Shuttle only costs about $300. That’s very, very keen pricing, for something that could be used on all but the pickiest high-end productions, and it would be possible to put a kit together of three 128GB SSDs (17 minutes or so each at 1080p24 10-bit 4:2:2) and the recorder, plus cables, for considerably less than $1,000, including a very nice flight case. The old issue of what you then do with the data springs to the fore, which would imply an LTO4 drive and a suitable host system, and of course a person to run all this stuff. But by doubling up on SSDs and assuming you’d back up in the hotel overnight, it’s possible to put together a working, insurable, high-end data recording solution for… well, less than I suspect Sony are going to charge for one SR Memory card.
Thanks go to Johnny Johnson at the Gear Factory (http://www.gearfactory.co.uk/gf ) for supplying the Panasonic AF-101 for this review.