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Monday, 26 November 2012 15:48

Digital Cine Cameras Permeate the Production World

Written by  Carl Mrozek
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pro_hdcameras_randall-dark-with-jvcs-hmq10-camera_4k-shooting_012-5What a difference a couple of years can make on the pro camera scene. Little time has passed since the Panasonic AF100 became the first large (micro 4/3-inch) sensor video camera priced under $19K, triggering a succession of similarly priced large-sensor cinema cameras. This year, Blackmagic Design introduced one of the smallest new-generation cine cameras to capture 2.5K imagery for roughly $2.5K. Few were available at press time, but it’s clearly a key milestone in the affordable cine-camera trend launched by the RED ONE and HDSLRs several years ago. RED Digital recently debuted the SCARLET X, with a Super 35mm sensor that’s identical to the sensor of the RED EPIC, minus the extra digital signal processing that boosts its capabilities and price significantly.

There’s now a variety of small-bodied compact cinema cameras with large sensors and varying capabilities on the market at various price points, alongside even more DSLRs. This camera revolution owes plenty to the recent embrace of DSLRs by shooters of many stripes, thanks in no small part to DSLRs delivering such a big bang for the buck. While the demand for DSLRs is down, it’s not out. “Canon’s 5D continues to be a great low-cost option for many commercial shoots,” says Band Pro Marketing Manager Brett Gillespie, adding that there’s also a great deal of interest in Blackmagic’s 2.5K camera.

It’s clear that compact cine-style cameras are the next big thing, which is partly due to DSLRs and partly at the expense of DSLRs and traditional ENG-style video cameras. That’s the report from AbelCine in New York, where many TV clients like “Saturday Night Live” now rent compact cine cameras instead of DSLR packages. “‘SNL’ now chooses ALEXAs, EPICs and [Sony] F3s to shoot their digital shorts versus DSLRs,” says Mitch Gross, AbelCine’s applications specialist. “The same is true of most of our midlevel TV and cable clients who need fast, efficient workflows plus good camera specs and ergonomics. They also prefer to capture at the highest resolution available, including RAW. DSLRs can only capture RAW still images, while the video is all compressed H.264.” By contrast, the new cine-style cameras offer a broader range of options. ALEXA can record either Apple Pro Res or Avid DNX files that are each ready to edit in their respective editing systems. That’s invaluable for clients like “SNL,” which may not shoot until Thursday for a Saturday-night show. “With an ALEXA they can begin editing in the field or as soon as they’re back at the studio,” Gross explains.

pro_hdcameras_photo1Not surprisingly, the ALEXA has been one of AbelCine’s most popular rental cameras. “ALEXAs are going out daily for commercials, high-end docs, [TV] episodics and specials, and even for some indie features,” says Gross. “They’re built like tanks and can take a beating while capturing [film] imagery that everyone seems to love. They’re our biggest workhorse, but Sony F3s and Canon C300s are also in great demand.  But, there is still some demand for Panasonic’s AF100, whose micro 4/3 imager is a bit smaller but can still capture impressive imagery at a good price. Imager size can affect sensitivity, but a DP can compensate for those differences with good lighting technique.” In Gross’s view, under average conditions, you can get outstanding imagery with all of the compact cine cameras, even with those at the lower end of the price scale, including Blackmagic’s new 2.5K camera.

JVC’s HMQ10 may be the smallest compact cine camera now on the market with the biggest sensor for the buck — a full 4K (Super 35) on a camera priced under $5K. Unfortunately, it only captures in 4K mode and hence must be scaled down for editing in HD. Austin-based indie Producer Randall Dark recently used the HMQ10 to shoot a marathon river race in Texas, and he intercut it with footage from 14 different cameras, including iPads and iPhones. “Ultimately, it was intercut with everything from HDV to iPhone footage in Apple ProRes 422,” Dark reports. “I really enjoyed shooting with it and plan to use it again on an upcoming project.”

There’s one area where not all cameras are created equal: “off-speed” shooting. While frame-rate capabilities are improving, pricier cameras like the ALEXA and EPIC even top out at 120 FPS at full resolution. Really high-speed shoots (above 240 FPS) require specialized cameras like the Vision Research Phantom, and AbelCine has pioneered the use of the Phantom family. This year, the Phantom has added the new ultra-compact Miro model to its line. “The Miro is an amazing high-speed camera for its size, that of a small camcorder [like a Panasonic DVX100],” Gross notes. “Nevertheless, it captures full-frame HD [1080p] at up to 1500 FPS versus a maximum speed of 2500 FPS with Phantom Flex, but which costs considerably more.” At Band Pro, Gillespie reports strong interest in the Sony FS700, which can capture 1080p at up to 240 FPS but is priced well below a Miro, at less than $10K with a lens. The FS700 can also be upgraded to 4K capture at additional cost.

As you would expect, seasoned pros relish today’s cornucopia of digital cameras. Veteran Cinematographer Germano Saracco, AIC takes full advantage of the myriad camera options by selecting the camera best suited for each project. “Every job has its unique challenges that often are best solved by a particular camera,” Saracco notes. “For ‘America’s Most Wanted’ it’s the Sony F3, because we have to be very mobile and shoot in all kinds of situations and conditions. We also need three rugged cameras with good ergonomics and large [27.1mm] sensors for shallow [depth of field] that are sensitive enough to use in available light. They also need to fit within our budget.” Saracco chose the Canon EOS C300 to shoot the NBC shows “30 Rock” and “Animal Practice,” both of which are scripted and require a fair number of setups per day. “There is a lot of handheld shooting in NBC’s ‘Animal Practice,’ so camera weight was a key reason that we chose the C300,” the DP explains. “Even though it only has 8-bit color space, [it] was sufficient for the purposes of the TV show. It also integrated nicely into the post workflow on ‘Animal Practice’ and ‘30 Rock.’ Speed and mobility were also important on ‘30 Rock,’ which has a lot of script pages.”

To shoot the network pilot “Something Lost,” Saracco chose the ALEXA. The show’s producers and director envisioned a rich, cinematic TV drama, so a camera with slightly broader color space was needed. “The ALEXA has 12-bit color depth, which gives you plenty to work with in post,” Saracco reports. “I really like the ergonomics too. After a while, the ALEXA felt like part of my skin. That’s what you want when shooting handheld a lot.” The DP adds that fast workflow with the 444 RAW files was also an important consideration. For feature films, two cameras appear to be miles ahead of the rest: the RED EPIC and Sony F65. Saracco chose the F65 to shoot Gardel, a period biopic about Tango sensation Carlos Gardel. “For features [on] the big screen, you need the richest color depth possible,” he says. “The F65 captures 16-bit RAW linear, and there is also a fast and efficient workflow for it already. That made it a logical choice for this feature.”

John Sharaf, an indie cinematographer who regularly shoots for CBS news shows, is blazing new production trails with compact cine cameras, like the ALEXA, EPIC and F3, by using them for ENG and EFP applications. “We’ve changed the look of CBS news magazines from ENG to drama with the new digital cameras with super 35mm sensors,” says Sharaf. “The PL-mount cine lenses enable the bokeh needed for dramatic emphasis during interviews. With them, we get a richer, cinematic look that accents the subject.” Sharaf also uses the Sony PVW-F800 XDCAM to shoot B-roll for the same shows, often intercutting them with footage from the compact cine cameras. Additionally, Sharaf uses digital cinema cameras to achieve a more theatrical look when shooting multi-camera live events. “I’ve been using F3s to shoot music videos, including multi-cam shoots,” he says. “They already have the plug needed for connecting to a switcher or paint box. Hence we’re able to feed the log signal to a bank of live color correctors inside the remote truck. Using a C-motion controller, we can also adjust the iris on all the F3s, even [from] hundreds of feet away via [Triax] fiber [cable]. It’s fantastic to get that rich film look in a multi-camera shoot, especially for concerts.”

Camera manufacturers seem well aware of the repurposing their cine cameras for live-event coverage, as they are now equipping them with the necessary connectors. “Recently we were able to use ALEXAs to shoot a live-switched, multi-cam Barbara Streisand concert,” recalls Sharaf. “The enhanced dynamic range and reduced depth of field made it look more like a concert film than the live event that it was. Being able to give live events a theatrical look, while switching among multiple cameras, is going to create a new standard in live production that could enable this crop of compact cine cameras to last as long as beta SP did. This should extend the lifespan of cameras like the ALEXA, EPIC [and] F3 … from more than just a few years.”

pro_hdcameras_john-sharaf-shooting-w.-alexajohnny-2.alexa.-001Sharaf cautions that lens manufacturers need to pitch if digital cine cameras are going to be widely adopted for multi-cam coverage of live and outdoor events. “The longest zoom ratio now available on a PL-mount digital cine lens is only 12X on Fujinon’s 24–290mm lens, which weighs 25 pounds. With a 2X extender you get a maximum magnification of 24X, which is fine for a Streisand concert but won’t cut it for sports coverage. The current crop of 2/3-inch outside broadcast (OB) cameras can and do use lenses ranging from 40–100X, especially for covering big sports events. Those ratios currently aren’t available in PL mounts, but the new Fujinon 19–90mm lens could be a game changer for handheld shooting because it’s light enough with a zoom ratio of 4.5 X 1.

So should we now anticipate a mad scramble as networks and video truck operators retool for sports coverage with the hottest compact, large-sensor cine cameras? Probably not, considering the lensing gap and the time it takes for manufacturers to offer new optical solutions (provided that the demand is substantial). But who knows? If our economy improves soon enough, droves of us may start buying new large, 4K flatscreen TVs. On the other hand, the 4K TV trend could turn out to be a bit of a short-term bubble, much like 3D appears to be for the moment, as profits from 3D films have slumped. Nevertheless, 3D does have its constituency, though it’s not big enough to require a new crop of 3D cameras each year. Saracco just met NASA’s sky-high expectations just fine with reliable twin Silicon Imaging SI-2K cameras on P+S Technik’s new PS-Freestyle 3D rig. “The 2/3-inch camera sensors were the ideal size for good depth of field, which work best for 3D,” says Saracco. “Although SI-2Ks only have 8-bit color space, the imagery was recorded at 10-bit color on a Cinedeck recorder.” The DP adds that the finished film was projected in an IMAX theater and secured funding for NASA to continue work on the James Webb space telescope.

Ultimately, the perfect camera comes down to acquiring the right tools for the job and knowing how to use them effectively. “All of these cameras are a lot like hammers are to a carpenter,” muses Gross. “The quality of what can be built with them has more to do with the carpenter than with the hammer. The hammer or the camera does have to meet basic specifications, and the craftsman has to feel comfortable with it, but, beyond that, the brand of tool is less important than the skill and experience of the craftsman, provided that it meets key specifications. That applies to cameramen as it does to carpenters.”
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