JUNE 27, 2019

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake shook northeastern Japan, caused a tsunami that flooded over 200 square miles of coastal land, with waves as high as twelve story buildings. This devastating natural disaster left more than 22,000 people dead or missing and triggered the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. The direct economic loss from the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster is estimated at $360 billion. Many businesses and factories were destroyed or flooded but few predicted the effect the disaster would have on television production around the world. Various Sony factories suffered serious damage and suspended operations, including the Sony Blu-ray Disc and magnetic tape factory in Tagajo City, Miyagi Prefecture, where HDCAM-SR tape was manufactured.

At the time of the disaster the HDCAM-SR tape format (made only by Sony) was used in many high-end television applications such as camera masters, dailies and broadcast masters. News of the disaster caused an almost immediate shortage as broadcast, production and post production companies scrambled to secure any remaining inventory and Sony began carefully allocating supplies, trying to prevent hoarding and price gouging. Some productions and facilities began degaussing and recycling old tapes; others scrambled to find new tape stock on websites like Craig’s List and Ebay, often paying heavily inflated prices, sometimes as much as double.

Digital cameras and the corresponding file-based workflows were still in their infancy. One of the first high-end cameras to only output files was Vision Research’s Phantom, a specialty camera used for high-speed cinematography, introduced in the early 2000s. RED had debuted the RED One in 2007, along with a file-based 4K workflow, and directors like Peter Jackson and Steven Soderbergh immediately became fans. ARRI had introduced the ALEXA camera in 2010, which combined recording over HD-SDI, which could be to a Codex or similar recorder or to a HDCAM SR tape deck, with what ARRI called “direct to edit” – recording ProRes files to SxS cards. A prototype ALEXA had already been used in 2009 by cinematographer Anna Foerster on Roland Emmerich’s movie about Shakespeare, Anonymous. They choose ALEXA partially because of the amount of green screen and partially because they planned to shoot candlelit and flame lit scenes and appreciated the ALEXA’s dynamic range and chose to record to Codex Portable Recorders. The ALEXA was formally launched in April 2010. Sony cameras, such as the F35, along with the Panavision Genesis, relied on tape.

Sony F35 and ARRI ALEXA Studio

Once the impact of the HDCAM-SR tape shortage became clear, productions, particularly TV productions, began searching for an alternative. Pilot season was about to begin and the estimates were that there was a two week supply in Hollywood. A 30 minute sit com could easily use 40 to 100 tapes per week. Sony was promising that production would resume as soon as possible, but it would ramp up slowly and would most likely not be in time for the return to production of many US primetime series. ARRI had included ProRes recording, to SxS on the ALEXA but they assumed that it would be a secondary recording format for editing only, not for finishing. However, many TV producers, cinematographers and post houses had already started looking into file-based cameras and workflows and were intrigued by the prospect of recording ProRes directly in the camera.

Coincidentally, Game of Thrones debuted on HBO on April 17th, 2011, one of the first television productions (albeit with feature film-like budgets) to shoot with the ARRI ALEXA camera. For the first season the production recorded to HDCAM-SR and followed ARRI’s intended workflow of simultaneously recording to ProRes for editing but by season two production switched to an entirely file-based workflow, designed by HBO’s Chief Technology Officer Steve Beres in conjunction with Greg Spence, the show’s co-producer, and Jonathan Brytus, an associate producer. The workflow still began with the ARRI ALEXA but now the camera data was captured by Codex recorders. A dailies colorist used a Codex Digital Lab to prepare deliverables and archive to LTO tape at a location near-set. The workflow allowed the production to be responsible for processing dailies and generating deliverables - Game of Thrones was shot primarily in Northern Ireland, far from the kind of post production infrastructure that a show of this scale would require. Other locations were also remote – Croatia and Iceland were featured in the second season and the near-set dailies set-up moved to be close to production.

The tsunami and the consequent shortage of HDCAM-SR tape vastly accelerated what otherwise would likely have been a gradual transition. Options were limited – returning to shooting film was not really an option but tapeless, file-based workflows were finally a viable alternative. According to ARRI Inc., approximately 40 pilots - 80 percent of the total - were shot with ARRI ALEXA in 2011. From there, the ALEXA (usually recording directly to ProRes) quickly became the camera of choice for TV shows, with RED and Sony also making a strong showing.

Post facilities, some of whom had been fighting the transition to tapeless workflows because of the investment they had made in HDCAM-SR decks (around $100,000 each), suddenly had to react to meet the changing needs of their clients. This trend had already begun, driven by the adoption of the RED camera by shows like John Wells’ Southland, for which Hollywood Intermediate (later acquired by Deluxe, becoming Next Element by Deluxe) developed a ground-breaking file-based workflow in 2009. The only tape used was for the final delivery master. But until the tsunami, many post houses were still delivering HDCAM-SR tapes to their clients for dailies, marketing and final delivery.

Today, HDCAM-SR tape is seen occasionally but is becoming a distant memory. The ARRI ALEXA camera continues to dominate both television and feature film production, despite film making a comeback. IMF (Interoperable Master Format) has become the dominant delivery format, driven by the requirements of streaming services like Netflix. No one could have predicted the earthquake and tsunami but fortunately the television industry was able to shift quickly to file-based workflows with no noticeable impact to the viewer at home.


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