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VariCam-35

Article by David Leitner Filmmaker

2014 CAMERA ROUND-UP

 

Four years ago, I titled Filmmaker’s first digital cinema camera round-up, “Digital Motion Picture Cameras For The Rest of Us.” (Published as “Does Size Matter?”) I mentioned the advent of HDSLRs, citing the example of Canon’s 7D used to film Lena Dunham’s breakthrough Tiny Furniture. New cameras on the block were Sony’s NEX-VG10, NEX-FS100, PMW-F3; Panasonic’s AG-AF100; RED’s Epic-M; ARRI’s Alexa; and Aaton’s Delta Penelope.

2012’s camera round-up, “Good Things in Smaller Packages,” noted shrinking cameras, improved HD from DSLRs, and the advent of 4K and Ultra HD. Welcomed were the Sony NEX-FS700 and F65; Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EOS C300, EOS C500 and EOS-1DC; Nikon D800; ARRI Alexa-M and Studio; and RED Epic-X and Scarlet-X. A banner year for bread-and-butter cameras.

Last year’s round-up, “Back to the Future with 4K,” looked at advances pulling us towards 4K, including pixel count, sensors, lenses, digital media, frame rates, compression and latitude, camera design and control, and post workflow. New cameras included Sony’s F5, F55, and NEX-EA50. I was skeptical towards the Chinese KineRAW S-35, Blackmagic Design’s Cinema Camera, and Panasonic’s 4K modular “balsacam,” mocked-up under glass at NAB. I ended on an admiring note, describing not a new camera but monitor/recorder concept: the disruptively affordable Odyssey 7 from Convergent Design, with flexible touchscreen controls as simple to operate as an iPad.

 

TURNING A CORNER

A lot can change in four years, as the thread of these topics indicates. Scrappy nofilmschool recently pointed to the fact that three of five 2014 Oscar nominees in Directing and Cinematography were ARRI Alexa projects (the remaining two in each category, 35mm ARRI Arricams). For Best Picture, the Alexa-Arricam ratio was greater than 2:1. (Whither Panavision?) Meanwhile, Debra Kaufman’s recent obituary of the era of big film labs makes clear that we’ve decisively turned the corner on the analog chapter of cinema history. Think 1927 and the arrival of sound.

What happens to revolutionaries who win? They shed their sabers to form the new establishment mostly. I took the ten all-time highest grossing films worldwide and sorted them by date. The three most recent originated on ARRI Alexa. Two others were shot on Sony HD cameras. Meanwhile RED Epics are the recent camera of choice for blue-chip directors like Peter Jackson, Steve Soderbergh, David Fincher, Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi, and Ridley Scott.

That leaves most of the technology churn, the red tide of disruption if you will, to the minor leagues, those farm teams of low-budget, student, and indie filmmakers who populate festivals like Sundance and SXSW and fill the channels of YouTube and Vimeo. Plus ça change…. the more this is an exciting place to be!

 

IN MEMORIAM

All of the cameras mentioned above are still active products, save for one. This is the first year I’m sad to report the death of a digital camera project, Aaton’s Delta-Penelope. Days after last year’s NAB, the storied French company declared bankruptcy purportedly due to quality and delivery issues surrounding Dalsa’s S35 CCD sensor. Another death in the family, from Sweden, is Ikonoskop’s A-cam dII, a tiny extruded box, originally C-mount, that was the digital answer to Aaton’s S16 A-minima. It fit the palm of your hand (with a big cut-out for your thumb) yet captured 1080p as uncompressed 12-bit RAW using Adobe’s CinemaDNG file format. (Ikonoskop were the first to record to CinemaDNG).

Although introduced circa 2008 and seen at every NAB since, Ikonoskop could never quite bring its bantam trailblazer to market, or for less than $10K. Meanwhile, the market moved on, as it always does, serving up cheaper alternatives, and Ikonoskop sought bankruptcy protection last July. I didn’t include A-cam dII in past camera round-ups because I chose to limit coverage to cameras with S35 sensors, which were breaking important new ground at the time.

 

CROWDSOURCING & DIY

But, as cell phone forefather Alexander Graham Bell once remarked, “When one door closes, another opens.” (True, he originated this line!) This last year has seen the unlikely rise of crowdfunding, namely Kickstarter, as an engine of camera development. Perhaps the best known example is Digital Bolex, whose inaugural D16 just happens to incorporate the same S16-sized Kodak CCD as the A-cam dII, as well as the same uncompressed 12-bit RAW to CinemaDNG recording.

D16

Digital Bolex, who licensed the Bolex name for North American sales only, has no more to do with the classic Swiss firm than the design of their D16 has to do with the iconic spring-wound H-16 Rx. Announced at SXSW in 2012, its shape, which has been described as “ray gun,” embodies an aggressively retro attitude, including a crank and detachable pistol grip, and all but assumesyou own a collection of vinyl too. Clearly the first digital motion picture camera conceived by Millennials and generated by today’s democratic start-up culture.

There’s no viewfinder really, and audio XLR inputs are on the traditional “operator side” of the camera. An internal battery powers the D16 for four hours (a 4-pin XLR next to the audio XLRs accepts external power), while an internal SDD, 256 or 512GB, undertakes recording. There are two CompactFlash slots, but at present they’re only for offloading the SDD. CinemaDNG files can also be downloaded via a USB 3.0 Micro-B connector.

Philip Bloom, an early adopter who took possession of one of the first batch of C-mount D16s in December, repeats like a punch line in his charming 40-min. video review that the D16 “is not a low-light camera.” Of the current 100, 200, and 400 ISO settings (800 is promised), he states flatly that 200 is optimal. Maximum frame rate at full resolution, 2K or HD, is 30 fps.

While the ill-fated A-cam dII offered HD-SDI, timecode, viewfinder, and a rock-solid build, the Digital Bolex team has brought their product to market for a third the price, namely, $3299 (256GB version), which meets their stated principle: “Must Not Be More Expensive Than a Top of the Line DSLR.”

 

D16-prototype

 

It’s easy to poke fun at a camera in which function follows form (worse, pop styling), but the Digital Bolex team are clever and thinking outside the box. For example, they’re developing a set of 10mm, 18mm, and 38mm ultra-compact C-mount lenses with a fixed f/stop of 4 and no moving parts. At $300 each, lacking internal coatings to prevent flare, sharing a 40.5mm outer diameter, they invoke the simplicity of classic Switars. (They’re designed by Sadhvani Kish, who started as a lens designer for Cooke.) Exposure can be controlled with a variable ND with step-down ring, and a novel rail system in the camera body slides the lens in and out for focus, operated by the crank. A prototype three-lens turret takes this innovation to the next retro level.

Digital Bolex cites Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries and the “minimum viable product” concept touted in his 2011 book, The Lean Start Up, as inspiration for a product that intentionally doesn’t do everything, but pares down critical functions to achieve dogged simplicity at low cost. This example of the democratization of camera manufacture by way of the DIY ethos represents a potential seismic shift from the way video cameras have been created ever since inventor Vladimir Zworykin handed a working Kinescope to David Sarnoff of RCA. Ironically it also harkens back to an era of small shops designing and building early motion picture cameras a century ago.

Perhaps the beau idéal of DIY, funded not on a crowd but individual scale, is Black Betty. “Just two dudes,” self-described, in Boston cobbled together a Silicon Imaging SI-2K Mini Camera head bought used off eBay and an Apple Mac Mini to create an ergonomic digital incarnation of a 16mm camera. (Makes me want to put tape around the “magazine.”) It takes 16mm lenses and records 2K Cineform RAW to common SSDs. Best of all, there’s a simple start/stop button on the handgrip, that’s it.

Yet another crowdfunded camera project under sail, the 4Kapertus° Axiom Alpha, promises, if built, a 4:3 S35 CMOS with global shutter and uncompressed 4K RAW output.

 

4K UPDATE

Speaking of 4K: a year later, how’s it doing? Momentum is snowballing. Don’t confuse 4K’s prospects with the 3D debacle four years ago, when the industry bet its resources on a supposed consumer hankering to wear dark glasses and watch overpriced 3D TVs. 4K simply brings my digital motion picture camera in line with my aging Canon 7D, which snaps images greater than 5K. Why can’t my digital motion picture camera do that, only 24 times a second?

Enter Gordon E. Moore. Each couple of years brings us faster silicon — more CPU cores, more powerful ASICs and FPGA’s, denser VSLIs, faster read-outs from CMOS imagers, lower power draws — which enable brawnier camera operating systems and ever more efficient codecs.

The upshot is that affordable 4K camcorders are invading the consumer market at the very time they’re popping up in our professional realm. (More below.) This exposes the obverse side of Digital Bolex’s “minimum viable product” coin. In the process of paring down, what are you giving up? For example, what kind of digital motion images will the D16s’s $3299 buy in a current DSLR?

 

MIRRORLESSNESS

This last question is salient in light of this year’s third notable development in digital motion picture cameras: mirrorless, interchangeable-lens still cameras that also capture 4K. Technically not DSLRs — no reflex mirror flips down for direct viewing — these new designs are variously called MILCs, for mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera (sounds vaguely pornographic to me), SLDs, for single-lens digital, and DSLMs, for digital single-lens mirrorless.

Whatever the label, a mirrorless, interchangeable-lens paradigm replaces a traditional optical viewing system with an electronic viewfinder and/or large LCD. Losing the mirror and reflex mechanism allows the body of the camera to collapse in size and drop ounces. With no mirror to take up space, lenses are mounted much closer to the sensor, which simplifies lens designs and improves optical performance. The resulting shallow flange focal distance permits cheap mechanical adapters for virtually any lens that covers the sensor: Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Voigtländer, Zelss, PL, the list goes on.

Two mass-market mirrorless cameras in particular are poised to make 4K inroads, one based on the Micro Four Thirds system favored by Panasonic, the other Sony’s E-Mount system.

 

GH4

 

Micro Four Thirds gave us Panasonic’s popular Lumix DMC-GH2 and -GH3 mirrorless cameras as well as Panasonic’s first large-sensor camcorder, the AG-AF100. In February Panasonic announced the 4K Lumix DMC-GH4 — $1700 for the body and $2000 for an optional DMW-YAGH Interface Unit with pro video connections – both of which I previously detailed in Filmmaker.

Using 8-bit 4:2:0 high profile H.264 compression, the GH4 internally records HD (200 Mbps intraframe), Ultra HD and 4K (both 100 Mbps, long-GOP) to turbocharged SDXC cards. Uncompressed 10-bit 4:2:2 Ultra HD and 4K can be output to a third party recorder via HDMI 2.0 or with four 3G-SDI cables (quad output) using the optional video adapter.

Since it arrived four years ago, Sony’s E-Mount has straddled still and motion cameras. On the motion side it has given us the FS100 and FS700, as well as economical large-sensor camcorders like the APS-C NEX-EA50 and full-frame NEX-VG900 (each about $3300). This underscores the key difference between E-Mount and Micro Four Thirds: sensor size. While an E-Mount sensor can be either APS-C (same as S35) or twice that size, full-frame, an MFT sensor falls about halfway between S35 and S16.

What’s more, the GH4 achieves its Ultra HD or 4K image by “windowing” a smaller center section of its sensor. In the case of 4K, this area equals 4096 x 2160 pixels. (Canon’s 1DC DSLR does the same.) The GH4’s cropped 4K scan is barely larger than a S16 frame, yielding S16-like depth of field, which can be terribly advantageous in hand-held documentary production.

 

a7S-blues

 

At NAB Sony has announced the Alpha a7S – an Ultra HD version of its E-mount, full-frame Alpha a7R, the big buzz in photographic circles at the moment.

What sets the a7S apart from the a7R is pixel count. Where the a7R ($2300) boasts a whopping 36.4 megapixels, the a7S introduces a new 12 Mpixel full-frame Ultra HD sensor with only a third of the a7R’s pixels – which means its pixels can be three times larger! This translates to low noise, high dynamic range, and astounding, see-in-the-dark sensitivity: an ISO range of 200-102,400 for Ultra HD. Is there a faster camera out there, 4K or otherwise? (Canon’s 1DC tops out at 25,600 in 4K mode.) It also means that, unlike an a7R, there’s an Optical Low Pass Filter to defeat aliasing and high-speed readout to defeat rolling shutter.

Internally the a7X records HD using XAVC S, Sony’s high level H.264 codec, at 50Mbps (8-bit 4:2:0 long-GOP) to SDXC and Memory Stick cards. Ultra HD, not recorded internally, is output 8-bit 4:2:2 via HDMI 2.0 and must be recorded using a third-party recorder. Maximum frame rate is 30 fps. Professional features include S-Log2 gamma, picture profiles, timecode/user bit support, and optional XLR audio inputs. When shooting 720p, frame rates up to 120 fps are possible.

At NAB you’ll find an a7S featured at the Atomos booth. I’m pretty sure the just-announced Ninja Blade, hardly larger than its 2.5-inch SSD media, will be on the receiving end, even though it’s designed to capture uncompressed HD to 10-bit 4:4:2 ProRes or DNxHD. An Ultra HD version of Ninja Blade perhaps?

In comparison to the GH4, the full-frame Ultra HD image of the a7S – no windowing — produces shallow depth of field and more than twice the horizontal angle-of-view for any given focal length. Both camera bodies are remarkably light – 19.8 oz. for GH4, 14.3 oz. for a7S – ideal for gyro-stabilized hand-held systems like Freefly’s MOVI M5, with its 5-pound maximum payload, and compact aerial drones. When it comes to drones in particular, however, twice the horizontal angle-of-view confers a distinct advantage on the a7S.

Except for a blue “S,” the a7S looks like exactly like the a7R. It has the same startlingly clear 2.4-million dot OLED viewfinder (GH4 has similar), which would pass for optical if not for superimposed symbols and characters. And I think it will be priced to compete. But even if it were to retail $1000 more than the a7R — to stay competitive with the GH4, I don’t think it can — it would still cost no more than a Digital Bolex. How’s that notion of minimum viable product looking now?

 

16MM REDUX

The smaller sensor areas of the Digital Bolex and windowed 4K in the GH4 represent a fourth trend this year: a return to the classic look of 16mm. Those who shoot documentaries or fast-moving subjects hand-held, where greater depth of field is a godsend, as well as those who own 16mm and S16 glass are paying particular attention to this development.

 

BM-Pocket

 

At last year’s NAB, Blackmagic Design introduced its mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Pocket Cinema Camera with a S16-sized sensor. Hardly larger than an iPhone, it records to an internal SD card either 1920 x 1080 RAW to lightly compressed 12-bit CinemaDNG, or HD to 10-bit ProRes HQ. Best of all, it retails for under $1000. The perfect RAW crash cam?

In December Sony released a free firmware upgrade (Version 3.0) for the F5 and F55 that adds “2K Center Scan” windowing for use with S16 lenses. Sony will soon bundle a third-party B4 mount adapter with the F5 and F55 to permit use of 2/3-in. ENG zooms in 2K Center Scan mode, with a mere 2/3-stop light loss. Available recording formats are XAVC HD or 2K, HDCAM SR, and 2K RAW.

Of course RED invented 2K windowing for RAW capture with RED ONE in 2007. Since RED ONE’s 4K topped out at 30 fps, windowing at that time enabled 120 fps whenever needed. Epic bumped the windowed frame rate to 300 fps. So even though it has been possible to shoot entire projects with S16 lenses on RED cameras since the beginning, the ergonomics beneficial to long stretches of hand-held technique is not what RED is known for. And those drawn to RED’s 4K and 5K sensors were, and are, mainly interested in large-sensor cinematography.

It’s also worth noting, for sake of context, that a 2/3-in. sensor is roughly equivalent to standard 16mm in terms of image size. Put another way, the two formats match when it comes to horizontal angle-of-view. But it also goes without saying that the highly compressed, over-sharpened, shallow-bit-depth, color-subsampled look of ENG video is exactly what we’re trying to escape from when we shoot RAW or use Log gammas with today’s digital motion picture cameras.

 

Sony-PXW-Z100

 

I mentioned consumer 4K (actually Ultra HD) camcorders: Google the Sony FDR-AX100 or FDR-AX1. Or GoPro HERO3+ Black Edition. Or pro version of the Sony FDR-AX1 called PXW-Z100, which I profiled in Filmmaker last September. While not S16 exactly, they share S16’s deep focus aesthetic.

Looking like a slightly swollen member of Sony’s current Handycam line-up, the Z100 with a street price of $5500 “would seem to do for 4K what Sony’s epochal HVR-Z1 did for HD almost a decade ago…” The Z100 impressively records 4K and Ultra HD as 10-bit, 4:2:2, intraframe XAVC, up to 60p, using new, fast solid-state media called XQD, developed by Sony, Nikon, and SanDisk to replace the 16-year-old CompactFlash.

These consumer camcorders are advance troops for what the industry hopes will grow into a home invasion of 4K. But the Z100 with its almost ½-in. sensor demonstrates an interesting roadblock. Smaller 4K sensors pack smaller pixels and smaller pixels are less sensitive. They shrink as targets and fewer photons hit them. The only solution is to boost gain at the cost of noise. Which is why the Z100 is a poor performer in low light, reminiscent of the old Sony V1.

Perhaps pro 4K sensors should stick to size S16 or larger.

 

REINVENTION OF SHOULDER CAMS

Two heads are better than one, no? Last year’s balsacam becomes this year’s VariCam as Panasonic at NAB bounces back with a new system that manages to be both 2/3-in. and S35.

No, not interchangeable sensors, a never-realized goal of early digital cinema cameras… Panasonic instead introduces a 2/3-in. head for HD and a S35 head for 4K, which use the same recording module. The recording module docks to either of the identical cameras by V-mount. It can also be tethered by cable for remote use. Like an Alexa and Alexa M but in one package.

 

VariCam-35-head

 

The S35 PL-mount head is called VariCam 35 (no global shutter). The 2/3-in. three-chip B4-mount head is called VariCam HS for high speed. If you don’t look too closely, you might mistake them for a Sony F5 or F55, or even an Alexa. (Hint: Alexa is always the one with a built-in shoulder pad arch, attachment rosettes and front holes for 15mm rods. ARRI, you see, knows a thing or two about hand-holding.)

On the operator side you’ll notice VariCam’s small rectangular user interface display screen — in the style of Alexa’s assistant-side U.I. with its convention of three control buttons top and bottom, homepage camera status in big characters, and monochrome look. The F5 and F55 moved their version of Alexa’s U.I. to the operator side, directly below the handle. Panasonic’s version is also on the operator side, but located on the recorder. In other words, these new VariCam heads must be used with the VariCam recorder module, which also contains the video outputs — quite unlike F5 and F55 cameras, which incorporate video outputs and can stand on their own. (Notably, VariCam’s U.I. is detachable as a module for remote control.)

Panasonic says the VariCam recorder module is capable of variable 4K frame rates, ramped up to 120 fps. This would involve one their H.264 codecs, likely AVC-Intra Class 100. For 1080p, variable-speed frame rates climb to 240 fps. Higher AVC-Intra and AVC-Ultra bit rates achieve 10-bit 4:2:2 and 12-bit 4:4:4, coupled with a new Log gamma to preserve dynamic range.

A fast new P2 card called expressP2 debuts at NAB, which holds over two hours of 4K at 24 fps. VariCam’s recorder provides two expressP2 card slots for 4K and high frame rate recording, as well as two microP2 slots (same size as SD) for HD and 2K. VariCam’s recorder also outputs 4K and Ultra HD via four 3G-SDI cables (quad output) and RAW via two 3G-SDI cables. This indicates the need for a third party recorder to capture RAW.

I’m particularly impressed with VariCam’s OLED viewfinder design and can’t wait to try it. VariCam availability, per Panasonic, is this fall and price is to be determined. If the price is right, this third-generation VariCam system could be a big hit.

 

Canon-17-120-EF

 

Add a baseplate with rods and shoulder pad by Movcam, Vocas, or ARRI to a VariCam 35 and it joins the F5 and F55, and Alexa before them, in defining today’s shoulder-mounted large-sensor camera. This drive towards sensible ergonomics includes Fujinon’s compact, servo-driven Cabrio zooms – 14-35mm, 19-90mm, 85-300mm — with rocker-switch control (think inflated ENG lenses) and a similar new compact zoom, CINE-SERVO 17-120mm, which Canon will unveil at NAB.

Sony, in turn, is taking modularity in a novel direction at NAB with its new “build-up kit” for F5 and F55. Essentially an L-shaped cradle that wraps around the camera body, the build-up kit converts the F 5 and F55 into an ENG camcorder equivalent, something like an F800. Sony says it takes five minutes to attach.

The build-up kit adds a camera base with shoulder pad, 15mm rods, ARRI-style rosettes, a new handle with mic holder and viewfinder mount, and a rear interface section that shifts XLR inputs to the back. Audio controls are moved from submenus to actual physical knobs on the operator side. There’s also a module next to the lens mount with rows of buttons to control frequent settings like gain/ISO, white balance, and shutter speed, including user assignable buttons. Slots at the camera’s rear accept wireless mic receivers. Sony says the build-up kit is available this fall, price to be determined.

 

AMIRA-operator

 

Ergonomics pacesetter ARRI hasn’t slacked off either. At NAB ARRI is introducing its latest belle, Amira, what it calls “the new documentary-style camera” designed to boot up while being picked up. Or as ARRI’s website puts it: “Pick Up > Shoot.”

In a sense, Amira is Alexa on a crash diet. Same 16:9 sensor, same color science inside, same light charcoal spatter finish outside. But the body sans viewfinder has dropped serious weight, from Alexa’s 14 lbs. to about 9 lbs. (For comparison, the F55 body weighs 5 lbs.). Power use, from 90W to 50W. And price has dropped too, from Alexa’s base $75K to $40K for an “entry point” Amira with viewfinder, limited to Rec 709 ProRes 422 and 100 fps.

ARRI will tier Amira models in terms of functionality, with a pricier version around $45K that adds Log C, ProRes HQ at 200 fps and cached pre-record, and a “premium” version for around $50K that adds 2K and ProRes 4444 up to 200 fps, plus custom 3D LUTs. These are base prices; choice of lens mount (PL, EF, B4), battery mount, batteries, baseplate assemblies and other accessories can add another $10K.

Amira’s costs are not for everyone. Others will balk at the lack of a RAW option. (Didn’t seem to hurt the look of Dallas Buyers Club, reportedly shot in ProRes 4444 with Alexa.)

 

AMIRA-connectors

 

I spent time with an Amira prototype on display at Sundance in January. The build of this camera is ARRI rock solid. Machining second to none. Adjustability is unsurpassed. You simply believe in it. With a shoulder that’s hefted decades of Aatons, SRs, CP-16s, and Betacams, I can report that Amira achieves a deliciously seductive balance – if the lens isn’t competing in weight. The 28mm Zeiss Ultra Prime and lightweight ARRI clip-on matte box I tested were perfect for hand-holding. I’m not so sure how 6.4 pounds of a cantilevered Fujinon Cabrio or Canon CINE-SERVO zoom would feel after a half-hour, though.

To facilitate single-operator run-and-gun work, Amira’s controls have been brought around to the operator side like F5, F55, and VariCam. A novel LCD monitor hinged to the brilliantly sharp OLED viewfinder doubles as the main 6-button user interface to access camera menus.

Amira is pioneering use of a new media standard, CFast 2.0, derived from CompactFlash and intended for pro video recording. The Sandisk Extreme Pro 120GB card I tested is $1200 at B&H. A 60GB version is about half that much.

While you can fantasize about an Amira that’s lighter and cheaper, you gotta love a camera that has a real bubble level built in!

 

RISE OF PLATFORMS

Amira and VariCam 35 and HS turn out to be exceptions to this year’s fifth emerging trend, which is to not introduce a new camera, but rather introduce significant performance upgrades through firmware releases and board swaps, a strategy borrowed from ARRI’s and RED’s playbook. RED, for instance, has produced few camera models but, along the way, incrementally improved the performance of each one. If you bought an EPIC anytime since its introduction in 2011, you can get in line to swap out the original MYSTERIUM-X sensor for a new, larger DRAGON 6K, which the influential website DxO Mark just rated as superior to Nikon’s D800E and Sony’s a7R.

ARRI and RED, in other words, build camera platforms. In so doing, they tap into something fundamental. If a camera is built to last, as opposed to being built to be replaced, the owner feels better about the investment, even, or especially, if it is substantial. The owner also feels better about his or her investment in lenses and camera accessories, which can rival the camera in cost. And not least, the owner feels better about the investment of time and energy it takes to master a particular camera system. Pride of ownership builds brand loyalty like nothing else. Except perhaps free firmware updates that enable fun new features.

Perhaps this is why Canon and Sony have joined the club. Canon are bringing no new digital cinema cameras to showcase at NAB. Instead they will demonstrate the latest firmware updates to their Cinema EOS line of cameras. In December a free user-installed firmware update for the C300 added 15 features including push auto-iris and one-push momentary (not continuous) auto focus for EF lenses, continuous autofocus and auto-iris for Canon EF STM (stepper motor) lenses, movable 2x magnification for focusing, a new wide-dynamic-range gamma with 800% headroom for highlights, a new 1440 x 1080 35 Mbps mode for ENG, and a hike in ISO to 80,000.

I found the one-push momentary autofocus to be of little use in a feature documentary I shot hand-held last December. It is contrast-based and not remotely fast enough for the quicksilver situations I faced. By February Canon had announced a $500 upgrade to the C100 that adds dual-pixel autofocus (a/k/a phase detection) identical to that introduced last summer in the Canon EOS 70D. With contrast detection and dual pixel working in tandem, the C100’s autofocus is now perky and accurate, if determinedly center-weighted. Canon did not announce, but one can assume, a similar C300 upgrade in the near future. A trip to a Canon service center is required.

 

Odyssey-v-Sony-R5

 

Sony is following a similar path. They announced in June a Version 3.0 firmware upgrade for the NEX-FS700 that adds 12-bit RAW recording when using Sony’s AXS-R5 RAW recorder (same one the F5 and F55 use). With only a single 3G-SDI cable to connect FS700 to R5 recorder, 2K RAW can be recorded up to 240 fps, and 4K RAW up to 60 fps. An internal buffer even enables a four-second burst of 4K RAW at 120 fps. Also included in Version 3.0 firmware is the S-Log2 gamma found in the F5 and F55. This upgrade requires a trip to a Sony service center and a $400 labor charge, so in September Sony introduced an “R” version of the FS700 with 3.0 already installed.

Enabling a $7700 camcorder to show what it can really do — high-frame-rate RAW — has opened new doors. Anyone who has tried to order a Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q monitor/SSD-based RAW recorder since they arrived in October knows they’re virtually sold out. Much of this demand is tied to the FS700R’s new 2K and 4K (4096 x 2160) capabilities. Therein lies a back story.

Sony’s RAW output is not conventional. To send 4K RAW at 60 fps down a single cable, Sony developed some deft signal compression technology, intended to advantage to its own RAW recorder, the R5. In a spate of behind-the-scenes diplomacy last year, however, Sony agreed, after much internal discussion, to provide Convergent Design with an SDK (software development kit) to permit Odyssey 7Q to also capture Sony 12-bit RAW.

At the outset FS700R’s third-party recording was limited to 2K RAW up to 240 fps. Convergent Design’s March 19th firmware update has just raised this bar: 4K RAW up to 60 fps. Also new with this update is “4K2HD,” in which the FS700R’s 4K RAW output, up to 30 fps, is deBayered on the fly and recorded as ProRes 422 HQ. Both REC709 and S-Log2 are supported. With this latter choice, you get a super-sampled image with extended dynamic range for grading, instantly ready to view. Sweet!

Convergent Design’s March 19th firmware update to its Odyssey 7Q recording platform also adds support for Canon’s C500, including Ultra HD RAW recording up to 60 fps and recording 12-bit 2K/1080p RGB as DPX files up to 30 fps. Uncompressed 12-bit RGB from the C500 has to be seen to be believed, it’s that good. Can 4K ProRes be far behind?

 

F55-w-Movcam

 

Sony’s F5 and F55 camera platform has not been neglected either. December brought firmware Version 3.0 with 28 new features, including user LUTs, a new S-Gamut3 color gamut, new S-Log3 with 1300% dynamic range, internal Ultra HD recording to XAVC in the F55, Slow & Quick motion for 4K and Ultra HD XAVC, auto-iris for B4 lenses with an adapter, and 2K Center Scan mode for S16 lenses.

This last feature, described above in “16mm REDUX,” is a breakthrough, turning both F5 and F55 into two cameras in one. NBC Sports is reportedly crazy about it, since S16 deep focus facilitates tracking fast action. The last camera to pull off this duality, by the way, was the mid-1950’s Éclair 16/35 Caméflex, which set in motion nothing less than the French New Wave.

Firmware Version 4.0 for the F5 and F55, released April 4, adds user generated 3D LUT’s, access to menus from the user interface display, extensive menu customization, viewfinder markers in seven colors, start/stop with ENG zooms using the RET button, and, notably, implementation (F55 only) of last fall’s HDMI 2.0 standard, which supports 4K and Ultra HD to 60 fps as well as Rec. 2020 color space.

 

CBK-55F2K-2K-filter-option-for-F5-55

 

Sony’s platform upgrades are not just software. Exhibit A is the “build up kit” described above that reconfigures an F5 or F55 into an ENG camcorder. In September Sony announced an optional 2K optical low-pass filter, CBK-55F2K, that improves aliasing when shooting 2K with the full F5 or F55 sensor. An interchangeable OLPF is a first for any camera. Changing it takes a tiny screwdriver and perhaps five minutes of the user’s time. Sony even hinted a creative outcome of “softer, more organic” images when using the 2K OLPF to shoot 4K. Sort of like a Tiffen Satin filter, but behind the lens.

In the run-up to NAB, Sony floated the news that ProRes and DNxHD were coming the F5 and F55 – the first time a Sony camera would incorporate third-party codecs. This would require a new compression board. There seems to be discussion about whether or not this includes ProRes 4444, the codec that fueled Alexa’s conquest of episodic TV.

 

OTHER HORIZONS

How can I neglect to mention Blackmagic Design’s Production Camera 4K? Introduced a year ago at NAB (down payments were taken), the Production Camera 4K just started shipping a month ago as of this writing. Delays were due in part to problems with the first batch of production sensors. But 4K RAW CinemaDNG has yet to be implemented. More than a work-in-progress, less than promised, the 4K Cinema Camera has had, to date, no practical impact. Will it?

Nor did I mention GoPros, which, like RED, have engendered a testosterone-inflected subculture of cool. Like Apple, an ecosystem of accessories too. Every teen craves one. No 4K camera is more playful. Every light drone accommodates a GoPro HERO3+ Black Edition. But I need a Rosetta Stone to decipher the menus. No thanks.

Action cams, in any case, are a universe unto themselves. DP extraordinaire Anthony Dod Mantle used Indiecam’s recent 12-bit 2K RAW micro camera with global shutter to shoot scenes in Ron Howard’s kinetic Rush. Codex gets into the same game at NAB with their new Action CAM, substituting a 2/3-inch CCD for CMOS, HD for 2K, and halving Indiecam’s length – a result the size of an ice cube. Panasonic just announced the HX-A500, the “world’s first 4K/30p Wearable Camera,” relying on Wi-Fi and NFC (near field communication) to connect to your smartphone. Will it out-GoPro the GoPro?

I have not mentioned 3D. Reports of its death are exaggerated. 4K is the key that will unlock consumer lust for 3D. HD screens simply did not provide the kick 3D needed. 4K screens, with four times the pixels, do. I experienced this first-hand at NAB last year. The difference was dramatic. Don’t give up on 3D camera systems yet.

I mentioned crowdfunding as a left-field source of fanciful digital cinema camera designs, but there is another one, right under our noses. China, home to the biggest cinema audience on the planet, can land a rover on the Moon yet can’t create a new digital camera? In fact the Chinese market is snapping up 4K TV sets faster than any other, according to the trades. Why not fashion a 4K camera? Or a 6K camera? Why not indeed?

There’s also 8K. Sony at NAB will be showing the results of an 8K RAW shoot with the F65.

But hey, I have to save something to write about next year!

 

Article By David Leitner

FilmmakerMagazine

Sony-PXW-Z100

 

It has been nearly three years since Canon, Nikon and Panasonic started putting high-definition video technology into some of their medium-priced DSLR cameras. They did this without realizing how useful these new cameras could be to the professional filmmaking community. Tim Smith of Canon USA recently joked in an interview that most of the filmmakers he’d met did not know where to find the still-photograph function on their new cameras. In a way he’s right, but at this year’s NAB it was apparent that it is camera manufacturers who need to figure out how to make videography an even more efficient function on HDSLRs. None of the most useful innovations presented at NAB for these cameras were developed by Canon, Nikon or Panasonic. PL mounts for 35mm film lenses, remote control focusing and zoom software operated with iPhones, professional in-camera sound-recording systems, matte boxes and shoulder mounts were for the most part unveiled by small entrepreneurial companies and rental houses more closely attuned to the needs of filmmakers.

More and more still-camera companies (including cell phone manufacturers) are hopping on the HD video wagon, yet some of the d.p.s I spoke to for this article remain challenged by the limitations posed by HDSLRs at this stage of their development.  Take for example the elaborate workaround Chris Chomyn and his crew devised on a video for Swiss recording artist Patje to make up for the fact that there’s no easy way to monitor the live HD signal of the Panasonic GH1 on an external monitor:  “When we mounted the Panasonic GH1 on a Steadicam… the challenge became, ‘How does one operate a Steadicam without a monitor?’  By mounting another camera, an LX2, on a flex arm behind the GH1 and using the manual macrofocus function, we were able to shoot a full frame of the LCD on the back of the GH1.  Then using the video out from the LX2, we sent that video signal to the Steadicam monitor and were able to both shoot HD as well as record the SD video on the LX2 of the LCD to give an alternative image for use in editing.”  Whew!  But for Chomyn as with many cinematographers, the quality and uniqueness of the image is what makes this technology a part of his regular arsenal.  And isn’t half the fun of filmmaking overcoming obstacles such as these?

Nevertheless one of the most popular “after market” companies at NAB this year was Hot Rod Cameras, so I contacted its president, Illya Friedman, and asked why he thought the camera manufacturers are not anticipating the needs of filmmakers and why they seem content to play such a game of catch-up. “You could say the same thing about the journalists and d.p.s that initially dismissed HDSLR cameras as a ‘novelty’ but now realize the impact of these little cameras,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s fair to characterize it as ‘catch-up.’  Nikon and Canon are obviously very large companies. They’re diversified and build products to maximize return on investment. HDSLR cameras weren’t designed for professional use. The manufacturers were surprised by the swift acceptance on the sets of real professional productions.  The fact that low-cost HDSLR cameras are being used in these capacities proves that the technological hurdles have been cleared to create not just acceptable but truly high-quality filmlike full-motion HD images. A new baseline for image quality has been set.  I predict that much like computers and automobiles, HD camera technology is just entering an era where there will be many high-quality and relatively inexpensive products, and modest improvements in image quality will come with a premium price tag.”

Of course, it’s also possible that the well-publicized discovery by high-profile ASC cinematographers and A-list directors of what is possible with small and un-tethered HDSLRs just might raise the price of these miraculous tools.  When you have veteran cinematographers like Brian Reynolds shooting TV shows (The Good Guys) with Sony F-35s as well as Canon 7Ds and Kodak Pocket Video cameras (used as “eyemos”), a successful show like House using nothing but Canon 5Ds on their season finale, and none other than George Lucas researching HDSLR technology for future projects, how long before more professional, higher-priced versions enter the market?

PANASONIC

Take the AG-AF100 as an example of what might be in store.  Panasonic is putting much of their GH1 large-sensor technology into a body that will better meet the technical and ergonomic needs specific to narrative filmmakers.  It will sell for $6,000 when it’s hatched at the end of 2010. Compare that to the $1,500 price tag on their first HDSLR, the GH1. The AG-AF100 camera uses a micro 4/3 short depth-of-field sensor like that on the GH1, but the body of the camera will actually be shaped like a small video camera.

  Like the original GH1 it will be inexpensively compatible with anamorphic and other motion picture lenses by use of a PL lens adaptor.  No other DSLR offers such easy compatibility right from the factory, at least not yet. The GH1 was also the first camera to take into account the need for built-in professional quality sound recording.  But the AG-AF100 (also called the AVCCAM HD camcorder) moves forward in this area as well.  It will feature a pair of XLR inputs, 48-kHz/16-bit two-channel digital audio recording, and support LPCM/Dolby-AC3, and a built-in stereo mic.  And one more giant step forward still missing on other HDSLRs: time-code recording.

But the trade-off in using a Panasonic system is that compared to Canon and Nikon HDSLRs, all  their  models provide the least filmlike depth of field because of their relatively smaller 4/3 sensors.  It’s still an incredible image though, and the new camcorder does record in both 1080 and 720 HD at 60, 30, 25 and 24 frames per second, right from the factory, even if it does require deinterlacing later (something friendly hackers at the discussion website DVXuser seem to have corrected).  This, compatibility with PL-mounted lenses, and in-camera professional quality sound make Panasonic quite competitive with Canon and Nikon.

CANON

If engineers at Canon are not working nights and weekends trying to figure out how to make film camera lenses compatible with their HDSLRs, companies such as Hot Rod are stepping up to the task, and, according to cinematographers like Chomyn, doing so quite nicely.

Friedman tells me that for $3,250 you will be able to modify your Canon 7D so it accepts 35mm motion picture camera lenses natively without the loss of any light to the sensor or loss of edge-to-edge sharpness of the image, unlike a relay-lens adapter which before Hot Rod Cameras was the only way to put a PL-mount lens on an inexpensive HD camera.  It takes about two weeks for Hot Rod to perform the camera transformation.  Currently the company only converts the  Canon 7D and 5D Mk II, but a PL-mount system for the 1D Mk IV will be available in August of 2010.  The process is quite involved, but highly efficient. Friedman says they begin “by masking and sealing the imaging sensor cavity from the rest of the chamber so it’s not harmed for the rest of the process, then removing the mirror and original lens mount. The entire area is then flocked with an antireflective material and the penta prism is masked so that no light can flare the imaging sensor.” They then install “a PL-compatible lens mount and shim it so that the flange focal depth is accurate. If you are using calibrated lenses your focus marks will all line up.”  Cool beans, but all that work around the “sensor cavity” makes me cringe like when I think of laser eye surgery.  Hot Rods offers its own 2-year warranty for around $200 to replace the factory warranties nullified by making these kinds of changes to your camera.

 

The newest large-size sensor HDSLRs from Canon are the 1D and 7D. The 1D sells for around $5,000, but before you fall off your apple box over that price tag you should know you’re getting one of the largest sensors made for an HDSLR (27.9 x 18.6mm, or nearly the size of a 35mm frame) and an acceptably usable ISO (according to Canon) of 6400 — the best of all the Canons.  But that sensor is still slightly smaller than the full-size sensor on the Canon 5D which sells for half the price.  As you may recall, bigger sensor equals shallower depth of field, and that’s a good thing if you’re trying to get video to look like film.

 

When all the dust settles, what may well turn out to be the most popular camera with filmmakers (if it isn’t already) is the new 7D which sells for around $1,700 — $1,000 less than the 5D. Reynolds tells me that the 7D cuts seamlessly with the Sony F-35 and Panavision Genesis for action shots and that the studios he has worked for prefer the 7D over the 5D because the APS-C sensor on the 7D is smaller, enabling it to work with all motion picture lenses, whereas the larger sensors on the 5D or 1D severely limit the use of wider cine lenses that were not designed to cover such a large area.

 

I asked Chomyn what this difference in sensor sizes might mean in the field if different cameras were being used on the same shoot. He compared the 5D and 7D in his explanation:  “…[First of all,] the same focal-length lens used on the 5D will appear ‘wider’ than on the 7D.  All else being equal, the 5D will have shallower depth of field than the 7D….  In practical terms this means that under many close-up situations, using the 5D one would want a T-stop between 4 and 5.6 whereas for similar depth of field using the 7D, one might shoot at a 2.8 or 3.2.  If one chooses to shoot with a 5D at a wider stop, there may prove to be focus issues. This could be adopted as a style  or it may be distracting. Whatever the choice, it needs to be considered.”  Chris also mentioned another matching consideration, and that is that the 5D sensor exhibits a lower signal-to-noise ratio.

 

Both the 7D and 1D shoot 60, 25 and 24 frames per second right from the factory —something the Canon 5D cannot do, at least not off the assembly line.  But the good news for people with the 5D is that it is now finally able to shoot 25 and 24 frames per second as well as its original 30fps.  This is due the Canon website right into your camera.  The times we live in.  Firmware is like software, except that it’s injected right into the cerebral cortex of your camera’s operating system instead of just floating around in there like a plug-in, and you’ll never really have to think of it again.  An option for the new frames-per-second just appears on the menu like it came from the factory that way.  Still, it’s an additional step current and near-future Canon 5D owners have to take.

 

All of the above mentioned Canons shoot 1080 and 720 HD.  And in 720 mode, the 1D and 7D will also shoot at 60 frames per second.  Anyone that has ever wanted to shoot close-ups of hands performing a task or other convoluted processes will understand the need for such slight slowing of motion;  48 frames per second would be better.  It might seem puzzling why Canon would withhold these frame rates from the 5D firmware, but HD video on the 5D was developed for photojournalists and tourists that occasionally shoot video for Web or home use, and these are larger markets for Canon than the filmmaking community.

 

One more new offering this year from Canon of interest to indie filmmakers is the Rebel T2i.  Released in February at a price of around $900, this camera accepts interchangeable lenses, shoots 30, 25 and 24 frames per second at 1080p plus 60 and 50 fps at 720p.  The T2i uses the same APS-C sensor as on the 7D.

 

NIKON

 

The camera that Nikon has released recently that will most likely impress HD filmmakers is the D3S. Out since October of 2009, it sells for around $5,000 but is equipped with a much larger sensor than the similarly priced Canon 1D.  At 23.9 x 36mm the D3S sensor is actually a millimeter larger than a 35mm film frame as well as the full-size sensor in the Canon 5D.  It is about twice the size as the sensor in Nikon’s first HDSLR, the D90.  The larger sensor size gives Nikon a slight edge over Canon and Panasonic in extreme low light conditions when one would need to shoot higher than 6400 ISO.  But this is decidedly a special effects look of use mainly to wildlife videographers and people like private investigators not shooting a theatrical feature.

 

The D3S has other improvements over the D90 that will please Internet videographers especially.  Getting good quality sound onto the same card in the camera that’s recording the video has been a problem for both Nikon and Canon, but an external mic can be plugged directly into the D3S allowing stereo sound to be recorded. For narrative filmmakers, dual system sound is preferable anyway, but this is a great feature for grabbing an interview to put online or recording something like auditions.  And the D3S also has an in-camera editing (i.e. trimming) function.  Videographers on deadline will like being able to quickly shorten clips for relevant content before posting them on the Internet.

 

But what will continue to keep the Nikon from being as popular as the Canon 7D with filmmakers is its insistence on making HD available only in 720p.  While still an excellent HD image, 720p just does not have the clarity of detail that 1080p offers. It’s close, but psychologically most filmmakers want that full HD if their work is ever going to appear on a 60-foot screen.

 

The fatal blow as far as Nikon ever dominating the filmmaking market is that the D3S has chosen to record in MJPEG rather than the codecs used by Canon and Panasonic (H264 and AVCHD respectively).  MJPEG offer a slightly more degraded image than those codecs.  This is great when you’re loading video onto a computer or streaming on the Internet (it’s faster because MJPEG is a smaller, more compressed file), but the price for this is loss of data.  When it comes to HD video, Nikon seems to be aimed at photo-journalists and experimental filmmakers that shoot video for the Internet.  And for that, I guess they could use a Flip.

 

  VIDEOGRAPHY FOR THE WEB

If the cameras discussed so far are still more expensive than some budgets can handle, in addition to the Rebel T2i there were three new large-sensor cameras able to shoot HD with interchangeable lenses introduced this year that are worth looking into. The first is the Panasonic DMC-GF1, which retails for $800 and records in either AVDHC Lite or MJPEG.  It shoots in 720p at 60 frames per second in AVDHC Lite and 30 fps in Motion JPEG.  The other two cameras of interest to filmmakers whose work is not going beyond the Web sell for around $700.  They are the Olympus EP1 and Samsung’s NX-10. All three cameras are getting excellent reviews from techie websites.

The Olympus and the Panasonic use a micro four-thirds sensor.  Although the Olympus shoots true 1080p HD at 30 frames per second, it only does so on MJPEG. Samsung’s NX-10 shoots 720p in H264 and on an APS-C sensor which is slightly larger than the four-thirds system and only slightly smaller than the sensor on cameras that cost two or three times as much.

WHAT’S NEXT

These are thrilling times. For the first time in motion picture history there is a seamless “intercuttable” loop between a relatively inexpensive, portable consumer camera and professional, theatrical, high-end film or video systems. Film technology was never able to do this. The use of 8mm or 16mm film in 35mm productions was reserved for special effects sequences, scenes set in the past, delusions or dreams because consumer stock looked so grainy and contrasty compared to 35mm. HDSLR technology means people making movies on HD for theatrical release do not necessarily need large quantities of money to attain a big-budget look. What would El Mariachior The Brothers McMullen look like if made today? What would those movies have cost?

But we’re still waiting for that HDSLR hit.  The most successful high-profile use of these cameras has for the most part been with large productions that have full camera crews and a solid post department just standing by for data to be delivered. Andrew Disney, who just wrapped his full-length feature, Searching for Sonny, has this to say: “The DSLR is the reason I was able to make [my] movie. With the Canon 5D, I was able to create a spec trailer, a proof of concept, that looked superprofessional and filmic while costing very little. After I made the spec trailer, I found producers who saw potential, investors who wanted to back it, casting directors who wanted to cast it, and eventually actors who loved the script. The DSLR-shot trailer became my pitch, and it opened many doors.  Almost too many.  The project that I originally thought would be shot sort of guerrilla-style with friends became bigger than I ever imagined. We started getting names attached.  Many of them joined not just because they loved the script, but also because they saw the [DSLR] spec-trailer.  But then a funny thing happened.  We started seeing some of the pitfalls of shooting [a feature-length narrative film] with a DSLR.”

Although the Canon DSLR was still very useful on second-unit and as a second camera, Disney’s feature was ultimately shot on a RED ONE. “As awesome as the footage looks [with a DSLR], what you see is what you get.  There’s not much changing in post. Once we started asking the questions about DSLR, we instinctively looked at the RED. The freedom with white balance and color temperature became alluring. The ability to shoot RAW sounded pretty intoxicating. [And then] there’s the jelly effect — still a problem, especially when you want to shoot with longer lenses.” Monitoring at 480i doesn’t help either since the cameras can’t output at 1080 or even 720 when recording.

Richard Ulivella, who has worked with RED ONEs on features and Canons on commercials as a d.p. and gaffer agrees for the most part.  “The best part of these cameras is that they are the size and shape of an SLR,” he says. “Ironically, it’s also the worst part.  But they should be used for their strengths. If you routinely build them out to twice their weight and triple their size just rent a full-sized camera.” Ulivella feels that as amazing as the image achievable with an HDSLR is, the cameras are still best suited for commercials, documentaries, and as “eyemos” or B cameras.  For now, shooting a whole feature with a HDSLR is doable but remains difficult.  These cameras have achieved a secure position as a tool to be used for specific types of shots and sequences and as affordable cameras by cinematographers conscientious enough to test and plan for all the applications they will be asking of them and knowledgeable of what is going to happen to the image in post.  The more things change, the more they remain the same.  There is still no substitute for careful planning.

 

 

Article by Filmmakers magazine