Friday, December 18, 2009

High Definition for the Road

Article Focus:
Thanks to formats like DVCPro HD and HDV, High Definition can now be edited pretty much anywhere on just about any computer. Yeah, this is cool and you can really make your friends jealous just cutting away with your super slick laptop. But you know what’s really slick? Editing Uncompressed High Definition anywhere. How about an Uncompressed editing workstation in a 25” square box? No way? Way! Read on to find out about Wally’s Traveling Box of Mystery and Intrigue…..

Why Wally, why?

It all started during a discussion with a D.P. about how nice it would be to be able to capture footage from a Varicam via the HD-SDI output whenever shooting green screen material. For those who don’t know, the Varicam records in the compressed DVCPro HD codec, but the HD-SDI feed out of the camera is pristine, uncompressed 720p footage. So by recording direct from the camera and bypassing tape, you don’t get any compression, thus a perfectly clean key. Yes, you could rent a D5 deck to do the same, but have you seen the rental prices on those lately?

Well to test the theory I packed up my Medea Fibrechannel Array into its box and the G5 into its box and the Kona 2 Kbox into its box and the monitor into its box and then some cables into a bag and the computer accessories into another bag and….. well you get the picture. It was a lot of boxes and “stuff” which barely fit into the back of my vehicle. So I pondered a bit…… And then I thought a while…….. and then I watched my Bruce Springsteen concert DVD and it hit me. “I need a Road Case!”

You know, those big black road cases you see at every concert. Pop one open and presto, a 200 channel mixer appears ready to rock in a matter of minutes. What if I could do the same for high definition editing? Just pop open a case at any location and I’m editing in 10 minutes or less.

Plan once, uh, build twice.

I had the perfect plan, now I just had to execute it. The primary equipment in this system would be the Apple PowerMac G5, the Medea FCR2X Fibre Channel Array and the Kona 2 K-Box. For those who don’t know, the Apple G5 is too tall to mount horizontally so you’re pretty much stuck standing the thing up. The computer is approx. 21” tall so I’m thinking a nice 36” box which can flip open with some shelving and I’m good to go. I have a Honda CR-V so I figure the box should fit in there nicely.

I head on down to my local Guitar Center and find the perfect solution. A slant mixer rack from Odyssey that’s about 38” tall with a big flip open top that’s big enough to hold a computer monitor. Big door panels front and back to give easy access to the computer and drives inside. I purchase it and my father in-law and I flip it on its back and slide it into the truck. Did you get that? I said I flipped the case on its back to get it into my truck because it was too tall to fit standing up. My spidey senses should have been tingling at that point saying “danger danger” but I drove away blissfully happy.

On the way home we stopped off at a new Fry’s Electronics store. I was curious to see if they had a small LCD HDTV that might be a good field monitor. Certainly not something for critical color, but something that could be used for editing in the field and then all coloring would be done back in the main suites. What I found was the Sony MFM-HT75W. This multiformat monitor has 2 inputs for computer feeds (RGB & DVI) along with Component HD and Composite S-Video & Composite inputs. Very slick little monitor at a great price so my plan was to use the DVI input for the computer and the Component HD feed for the HD signal from the Kona 2.

Two weeks later I had modified the box into the perfect field editing workstation. It was all set up in the office, I took pictures of it and was ready to roll. So I called my wife down and said “Honey, help me put this into the truck, would ya?” Piece of cake, right? I mean, just roll it to the back of the truck and then flip it on its back and push. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It would be very inappropriate for me to divulge the words that came out of my mouth as we attempted to do this very simple task. See flipping over an EMPTY case was easy, but now add a heavy computer and very very heavy hard-drives along with shelves, a battery backup and more….. well let’s just say it was a very painful and ugly experience. The Odyssey case is currently occupying it’s own space in my garage. If anyone would like to purchase it, let me know. It was only used once…. really!

But I digress.

Round Two

So the first box looked cool, but there was no way I was going to manage this thing in a single case. I needed to break down the system into smaller units that I could lift myself into the truck and then simply stack up on location. So I headed back to Guitar Center to see my buddy Raz in the Pro Audio Department and we set to work putting together a modular rack system. First we found the Road Ready RRM8U slant mixer rack on the floor. Only 26” tall so it would fit vertically into my CR-V.

Next we looked for a rolling base but there wasn’t one on the floor that I liked. Then we found the ultimate base on the website. The Road Ready RR6WD rolling base unit with storage drawer. Oh yeah! It stands 17” tall bringing the overall height of the workstation to about 43” which is perfect for standing. And the best part? It has a pull out storage drawer that’s about 6” deep with plenty of room to hold the cables, keyboards, tape stock and computer accessories. At to that a third Road Ready Case for the Sony 17” monitor and I had three cases that would easily fit into the back of my vehicle which should be easier to lift. For good measure I added two wing shelves to hold the keyboard and monitor.

First off, the RRM8U is a slant mixer rack which has rack rails both up the front and across the top with the rails across the top slanted at an angle to make it easier for the operator to run the audio mixer. My plan (as with the first case) was to install the Fibrechannel array hanging down vertically in the back of the box with the Kona 2 K-Box right next to it. You do not want hard-drives hanging on an angle, so my first step was to remove the slanted top rails and modify them so they were perfectly flat across the top.

Kona 2 K-box (foreground) and Medea FCR2X FibreChannel Array mounted in the rear of the RRM8U. The Sony MFM-HT75W sits on the shelf at the top of the photo.

This worked out beautifully and gave me plenty of room in front of the drives to set the monitor shelf.

What am I doing?

With a box this small, the only way to fit the G5 in there was to mount it horizontally. There’s only one way to do that…. hacksaw. I found Marathon Computers on the internet as the only company selling a horizontal G5 rack mount and they had very good instructions on how to cut the handles off the machine. It all sounded so simple, have a good sharp blade, face the teeth backwards, cut on the backstroke and file off the edges nice and clean. Unfortunately when the unit arrived, I realized it was too deep for the travel case, it’s designed for a full size stand up rack unit. But I already had the hacksaw, file and instructions so……

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G5 Dual 2.0 prepped and ready for cosmetic surgery.

The instructions from Marathon are quite good and I love their tongue-in-cheek suggestion for the “ultimate” tool to remove the handles, a chainsaw. They do request a video from the person who attempts this, but as this was going to be a working computer, I decided to stick with a standard hacksaw. I considered a powered jig-saw but I was afraid that vibration from the tool could damage some internal parts. Obviously, you need to cover all the vents and have a vacuum with one of those crevice attachments handy.

As I made the first pull with the hacksaw I have to admit, my first thought was “What the heck am I doing! This is a very expensive computer and I’m cutting it with a hacksaw!” It was pretty scary at that point. But then I remembered a particular crash during a long render that caused me to work late into the night. The second cut felt a bit better. Then I remembered more crashes over the past four years with various PowerMacs and suddenly it became fun to cut away at the machine.

The key to doing this step well is to really take your time in both the prep and the cutting. About every 10 cuts I used the vacuum to clean up the shavings. Approx. 1 hour after I started prepping the machine, I had a handle free G5 ready for horizontal installation.

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Look ma, no handles!

The Final Touches.

Now like I mentioned earlier, the Marathon rack mount unit was too deep for this particular installation, but I found that the G5 fit snugly inside the case and really could not move in any direction once it was sitting in there. But obviously you don’t want a computer sitting right on the floor of a case because it could get rattled pretty good when rolling the case on location. So I went down to my local hardware store and picked up four large round doorstops. They’re about 2” across with a large heavy duty rubber ring that perfectly hold up the G5 in the case and provide shock absorption. They also raised the G5 to the perfect height to allow the DVD drive to open cleanly.

There’s another huge advantage to the G5 simply resting in the case rather than being actually rack mounted. Remember the whole weight thing from my first case? Well, the G5 and the Medea FCR2X in the box together still require that two people be present to lift the case. But if I find myself alone, I simply slide the G5 out of the case, lift the case into the truck, then slide the G5 back into the case. Then I reverse the process on location if need be. So I can truly move this system to a location by myself.

All cables, the keyboard & mouse, and even raw tape stock fit neatly into the rolling base for ease of transport. Since the Sony accepts RCA inputs and the Kona 2 has standard BNC connections, I ordered a set of cables with BNC on one end and RCA on the other end. This way I never have to worry about having adapters on location, it’s all built into the cables. The K-Box does have RCA audio outputs so those connect direct to the monitor. Going with Fibrechannel means that I have two very thin cables to connect between the G5 and the FCR2X which is a lot nicer than dealing with thick SCSI cables. A second shelf wing out front holds the keyboard and mouse.

All in all, it’s about 10 minutes from the time I get the cases into position until the system is fired up and ready to edit.

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Finished system ready for editing.

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The Road Ready RR6WD rolling base offers a nice hidden storage compartment.

On the Road, Not in the Air.

Now before you go out and try to build this thing yourself, know that this is a road traveling case only. I would never put this on a plane or ship it using a commercial carrier. With the rough treatment of a commercial shipping companies or air service, the components would be destroyed. There are specific air travel cases that feature a ton of shock absorption that should protect the components, but even then, I’m not sure I would ever actually ship something like this. No, this system was specifically built to travel in a personal vehicle and preferably with me driving.

Though originally designed with green screen work in mind, the system will most likely also head out to film locations, corporate conventions and even to live broadcast locations. DV to 10bit HD in a box. Now that’s pretty cool!
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