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Monday, 29 November 2010 23:59

Cutting-Edge High-Def Cameras

Written by  Carl Mrozek
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NAB 2010 introduced a healthy offering of new HD cameras, and, as always, camera manufacturers are looking for the cream of the crop. Typically, favorites steal the spotlight but, occasionally, a dark horse will ease ahead of the pack. To find out if 2010 was an atypical year for new cameras, I spoke with some rental houses and dealers to see what their customers are demanding.

It’s no surprise that the ARRI ALEXA is one of the hottest cameras on the American scene. Among its many highlights: high sensitivity (base EI 800) with a dynamic range of 13 stops; frame rates from .75 to 60 fps even in 4:4:4 mode; recording of ProRes 422 (HQ) and ProRes 4444 to SxS cards; the D21’s color-management tools; plus myriad features still in beta. “I can’t find enough of them [in North America] to meet our rental demand,” says Stan Glapa, rental manager at Fletcher of Chicago. “We have three but could use double that. Everyone wants to try it out. The ability to record to onboard SxS cards was another plus. Our TV drama clients love being untethered from a big deck and how comfortable it feels on their shoulder. Even cinematographers find it user friendly, including its high-res color viewfinder.” And there are new features still to come, like On-Set Dailies with color grading, metadata management and expedited deliverables within a digital dailies suite.

The response at Hollywood’s Clairmont Camera was similar, despite the fact that many clients still prefer to shoot higher-end commercials and dramatic features on film. “ALEXA has everything our biggest clients want, [such as] high sensitivity [at ISO 800] and dynamic range [and] mobility,” reports VP/Rental Manager Irving Correa, noting that Clairmont has six ALEXAs in its inventory. “It’s easy to use and it gives them the organic look they want. Also, its media plays on both PCs and Macs with Final Cut and card readers. It’s already booked for major projects by big directors.”

So has all the excitement about ALEXA come at the expense of other top new digital cameras like the RED ONE? Not at Sim Video/Bling Digital. “ALEXA is the hot new camera but the demand for REDs is still strong,” says Chris Parker, digital cinema specialist at Sim Video/Bling Digital. “With the new [Mysterium X] sensors, the ASA is now 500 to 800 versus 250 to 300, with more latitude. The difference between the two is night and day. All our REDs have been converted.”

Other cameras aren’t gathering dust because of the ALEXA’s popularity. “Each camera has its niche,” explains Parker. “The [Sony] F35 and even the F900 are still in demand, especially at tape-based post houses, but demand for film cameras is declining steadily, albeit slowly. The higher sensitivity and dynamic range of the ALEXA and the improved RED have moved even more clients to digital acquisition. We’re in a transition now. A few years ago, film was more sensitive [to light] with more dynamic range, but now that the ALEXA and RED [EPIC] are comparable [to film], film will probably take a hit.”

Meanwhile, the file-based workflow is rapidly displacing tape-based, especially when turnaround time is tight, as often in TV production. This creates another opening for the ALEXA, RED and other higher-end digital cameras. “With a file-based workflow, we can deliver dailies overnight, anywhere; whereas tape and film take a day to ship and another day to process, digitize, etc.,” Parker notes. “With a file-based workflow you can wrap in Toronto at midnight and FTP DNX or ProRes files to L.A. by early the next morning! Most [TV] shows have already switched to file-based capture.”

Not all projects have the budget to rent ALEXAs or REDs, which creates an opening for other HD cameras, including the new (and almost accidental) genre of HD camera, the HDSLR. In truth, the HDSLR comprises a handful of cameras, notably Canon’s 1D Mark IV, 5D Mark II, EOS 7D, Rebel T2i and the new EOS 60D. These digital still cameras with progressive HD video recording have morphed into one of the hottest genres of “affordable HD” cameras and perhaps created a new market as well. “At IBC this year, half the traffic in our booth was there for DSLRs and accessories,” says Band Pro Marketing Manager Seth Emmons. “Many were buying HD cameras for the first time, including some photographers and others who rented or shared a camera before but see HDSLRs as a chance to have their own pro-HD camera and hire themselves out as DPs. This is a growth area for us.”

Another factor driving the popularity of HDSLRs is the recent availability of high-quality, cine-style prime and zoom lenses, notably Zeiss Compact Primes and the UniQoptics Signature Series, both with PL and EF mounts. The same is true for the Focus Optics Ruby (with a 14–24mm-wide zoom) and the Zeiss LWZ.2 (15.5-45mm). Also new is a PL or Nikon mount option for Canon HDSLRs called the “Schmidle” (available via Band Pro), which enables using any PL lens with Canon cameras. “The new lens options have heightened interest in HDSLRs by seasoned pros and in the peripherals for cine-style shooting,” Emmons explains. “We sell a lot of Element Technica’s MANTIS packages and Marshall [Electronics] monitors to HDSLR shooters.”

HDSLRs are especially popular for music videos, commercials, short documentaries and web content and as second-unit cameras on features and docs.  They’re also being used to complement popular, smaller sensor HD cameras to create distinctive or stylized looks. “When I started my own company after five years of creating outdoor TV shows for DVD and cable, I needed a film-style camera for commercials and to jazz up a pilot for a new outdoors show,” says Jim Kinsey, owner of Kinsey HD Productions. “I couldn’t afford a RED so I chose the Canon 5D Mark II with a 21 MP sensor. I started with just one lens ─ the 24 to 105mm ─ and a Redrock Micro rig. Later I added a 100 to 300mm [lens] with the EOS 2X for wildlife and other telephoto needs. From the get-go I was wowed by the high quality and ‘new looks’ I was able to get with the 5D. Using Squared 5 MPEG Slipstream and Apple Pro Res, I can intercut that footage with my [Sony] EX3 to blend the best of both genres for my new reality-based outdoor show.”

HDSLRs aren’t for everyone, including many reality TV shows, where high shooting ratios, multiple cameras and tight deadlines are the norm. Sony’s new cine-style PDW-F800 camera and the PDW-700, both HD XDCAMs, are currently the hottest cameras at Wexler Video, especially in reality TV production. The F800 also does off-speed shooting and has a dual filter wheel and much more. “It’s like a PDW-700 on steroids,” says Joel Ordesky, Wexler’s chief technical officer. “It’s perfect for reality and other TV shows with the fast workflow of file-based capture plus an archivable master.” Wexler’s older half-inch XDCAMs, like the PDW-F355, also keep busy since they’re a good value and still compatible with the newer XDCAMs. However, Ordesky hasn’t yet had many calls for the new PMW-350, which records to solid-state cards rather than disks. ”Many of our TV clients need a tangible master versus footage on a hard drive somewhere,” he explains. “It’s too tough to keep track of source footage from five to eight cameras week after week on hard drives alone. That is why our tape cameras like Panasonic’s HDX900 and Sony F900 are still in demand, plus the post houses support them.”

By the same token, the demand for Panasonic’s original (tape) VariCam has tanked in part because the slow-mo playback process is clunky when compared to newer cameras. What all the 2/3-inch sensor cameras do have in common is their ability to utilize the hottest HD lens on the rental scene: the Canon HJ14ex4.3B wide-angle zoom. It has the longest zoom ratio of any wide-angle zoom and may also be the widest wide-angle zoom available. “It is our favorite lens by far because it covers the full range,” says Ordesky. “At 14X you have some telephoto, and if you need more you can use the 2X. Some clients choose that lens first and a camera next.”

Wexler also stocks smaller HD cameras like Sony’s Z7 and EX3. “There is always a limited demand for smaller HD cameras as ‘companion cameras’ for behind-the-scenes footage, as second, third, fourth … cameras and for ‘risky’ shots from moving vehicles, planes, boats, etc.,” Ordesky explains. Possible new 1/3-inch HD cameras to add to your inventory include JVC’s new ultra-compact HM100 and HM700, which record .mov files to SD cards ready to edit in FCP, or the XDCAM codec with a dockable SxS recorder. Canon’s new XF300 and XF305 (both 4:2:2 file-based camcorders) are also a new option, but only when and if customers demand them. “Our customers drive which cameras we carry,” says Ordesky.

Two HD cameras that have captured the fancy of many pros may ship before the year’s end. One is the RED Digital EPIC with a 5K sensor that offers 13.5 stops of latitude with a base ISO of 800. It will also be able to capture lossless 5K at 100 fps –– all in a smaller chassis than the RED ONE! Another key feature is modularity, with most components being interchangeable. RED Digital boasts that hundreds and even thousands of permutations of the RED, EPIC and SCARLET are possible via the multitude of accessory options available, hence their promise to “make obsolescence obsolete.”

Another hot HD camera to watch for before Christmas is the Panasonic AG-AF100, which also boasts a large 4/3-inch sensor but is on the lower end of the price spectrum. While merely a concept at NAB 2010, it has since captured the imagination of many a pro because it pushed the large-sensor/small-chassis HDSLR concept to the next level, while correcting shortfalls like the lack of pro XLR audio inputs. It also offers multiple formats and frame rates with a video camera design without losing affordability. Moreover, it features interchangeable lens mounts, including Nikon and Canon still lenses, plus cine primes and zooms. It will capture both 1080p and 720p formats at multiple frame rates (50Hz and 60Hz) and record an advanced professional AVC/H.264 High Profile AVCHD codec compatible with a wide range of editing tools to SDHC and SDXC cards. The response of pros to the AF100 has been so positive that Panasonic put it on the fast track and showed a working model at IBC in the fall. It’s scheduled to start shipping by the end of 2010.


If all this sounds like a lot from one large-sensor camera for under $5K, you won’t be the only one thrilled if Panasonic delivers even 90 percent of its promises for the AG-AF100. It could well be this year’s dark horse, the HD Camera Derby winner that HDSLR users and others have been dreaming of. Or it may just be another step on the long, winding road from big heavy cameras capturing low-res images to even lighter cameras capturing crisp hyper-definition HD imagery onto ever tinier media at even more affordable prices. Stay tuned for the final results!

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