NAB 2013 Reflections

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Another NAB has come and gone, along with some time to decompress, recover, wade through the booth literature, and get some perspective on what went on. Herewith, my take on the Big Picture (literally), as well as the smaller, mostly camera-related highlights that caught my eye.

4k: Cameras, displays, and everything in between

Prior to NAB, I was under the impression that 4K would happen about twice as fast as the HD transition did. Why so fast? We already have the cameras, we already have the displays… everything between them, by comparison, is just software.

In Ye Olden Days, every part of the production, storage, postproduction, and transmission chain was built around analog hardware following well-defined standards: 3.58 MHz subcarrier, 13.5 MHz digital sampling; format-specific tape decks, NTSC II encoding and OTA transmission. Moving to HD required replacing all of that with something new.

Now? Sensors and displays are hardware, but the stuff in the middle is a string of ones and zeroes. There aren’t hardware vision mixers any more, just T-handles driving encoders that tell DSPs what proportion of channel A to composite with Channel B. A hard drive doesn’t care if it’s storing 720p, 1080i, 1080p or 2160p, or whether the images refresh at 23.98 Hz, 50Hz, or 59.94Hz. You can wrap anything in a broadcast transport stream; it’s just bits.

But having seen NAB, I’m now betting on an even faster transition. Almost every bit (pun intended) of that in-between stuff was available in a 4K version somewhere at the show. Evertz has a 4K slo-mo replay recorder, the “Dreamcatcher”. Abekas has the Mira 4K server. Utah Scientific has a 4k routing switcher. Blackmagic Design offered a suite of 4K products using 6G-SDI, including a 4K version of the ATEM vision mixer. All of these are available now.

And those are just the ones I heard about.

(Oh, BTW, all my pix are at 1K x 1K resolution; just click on ‘em to see ‘em bigger.)

Racecar driver lower-thirds for string quartets? O brave new world, that has such programming in't!

While we might question BMD’s juxtaposition of graphics and content, we can’t deny that this was done with a $2,000 production switcher, sending uncompressed 3840×2160 progressive-scan video over single BNC cables. Read that again: a $2,000 switcher.

Can you count, suckers? I say the future is ours, if you can count!

I saw QuadHD playing on a big screen from a REDRAY at 20 Mbit/sec. Standing one foot from the screen, sure, there were a few artifacts; nothing worse than I see on cable-compressed HD all the time, and back at the Lechner distance it looked pretty much flawless. And a week ago in Luxembourg, SES, Broadcom and Harmonic teamed up for the first live satcast of QuadHD using HEVC, a.k.a. H.265, also at 20 Mbit/sec.

By comparison, OTA (over-the-air) HD in the USA is carried in 19.36 Mbit/sec channels. “Oh, 4K will never be an OTA format.” Oh, really?

So, all this 4K infrastructure makes the other big news at BMD a bit more… interesting. You’ve got your 4K Cine Cam (“4K for $4K”; scuttlebutt has it that this is the sort of thing Grant Petty was aiming for all along, once RED said the Scarlet wasn’t going to be “3K for $3K”), and you’ve got your Pocket Cine cam for $995 ($995!). I have to admit, as I sit here with seven micro-four-thirds lenses, that the Pocket Cine Cam is kinda sweet ($995!), and the first pix look mighty nice, but it’s “only” HD resolution… do I really want to get something that “only” shoots HD, even if it is only $995 ($995!)? Would it be too much like buying a Canon XL1 or a Panasonic DVX100 in mid-2006?

Monitors: There are big ones, with 84″ being the most common:

84" not impressive enough? This one at Adorama's booth is in the "85 inch class". Yes: size is everything.

84″ is a handy size, since it’s four 42″ HD panels in a 2×2 array. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only size available:

(Might as well show the back side; you're not gonna see 4K resolution on your computer or smartphone!)

Sony showed a 4K Trimaster OLED reference monitor and announced sub-$10K prices on consumer 4K sets, and Seiki has since started selling a 50-incher for under $1500.

And so on, down to the the 20″ panel Panasonic had at the Tech Retreat; it was here again, as a Win8 tablet and as the 4K display for the prototype camcorder…

…but the 4K Varicam mockup we saw last year was nowhere to be seen; no, this was a little, prosumerish jobbie, all alone and unloved in a glass case, in a dark corner of Panasonic’s booth:


No one I spoke to at Panasonic could tell me anything more than what you see on the sign. It is interesting to note that, like the Canon C500 and the Sony F5/F55 cameras, this little Panny offers both true 4K (4096×2160) and QuadHD (3840×2160) frame sizes. Or will, if it ever sees the light of day.

Vision Research Phantom Flex4K

Abel Cine introduced the much-anticipated Flex4K, the first high-speed camera from Vision Research being offered as a general-purpose production camera that just happens to do really spiffy slo-mo (1000fps at 4K, 2000fps at 2K).

VR is definitely getting the ergonomics more in line with expectations; any resemblance to an Alexa (right-side LCD with six softkeys, several hard keys, and a jogwheel) is, I’m sure, not entirely coincidental.

The camera ships in September or thereabouts, at a price of US$140,000 or so. A general production camera, perhaps, but at that price it still leaves plenty of room for more affordable 4K shooters like the F65, F55, and F5.

Panavised Sony F55

The 4K-capable Sony F5 and F55 are starting to make their way into the world. This F55 has been reworked by Panavision to fit into their particular vision of how cine cameras should be outfitted:

Panavision exotica aside, see the LCD, with six softkeys, several hard keys, and a jogwheel? Yes, it’s on the left side (the operator’s side, not the DIT’s side, which favors solo shooters instead of multi-person crews), but are we starting to see a consensus on how side-panel controls should be laid out?

FS700 4K, Sony style

Sony showed off the HXR-IF5 4K raw interface module connecting the NEX-FS700 to the AXS-R5 raw recorder (as also used on the F5/F55). It may not exactly be quite as ergonomic as the Flex4K (grin), but it’s a lot cheaper. Still, adding the 4K gumpf  pretty much doubles the base price of the camera, even as it does nothing for its looks.

FS700 4K with the Odyssey7Q

One might instead prefer to record 4K using the Convergent Design Odyssey7Q, a monitor / recorder that, along with its less-powerful variant the Odyssey7, pretty much stole the show. Think of ‘em as the second generation of the Gemini 4444.

Both devices come as 7″ monitors with HD-SDI and HDMI inputs and a 7″ IPS display with built-in ‘scopes; the 7Q has a heftier (and pricier) FPGA allowing quad-input recording, 4K recording, and a 4-way splitscreen. The 7 costs $1300 and the 7Q $2300.

Recording options cost extra (prices TBA), using dual SSD slots. The Odysseys will record DNxHD, possibly another popular compressed codec (cough, cough) if the notoriously control-freakish company (cough, cough) that owns the codec agrees, and uncompressed; details on Convergent’s site. One very clever feature: you needn’t buy recording capability you don’t always need; instead, you can rent it in 24-hour blocks. So you can get the 7Q as a camera-top monitor, and only rent recording capability when you need it for a specific gig.

Odyssey7 focus assist

Among the Odyssey’s other useful displays are a variety of focus assist modes. This one is my favorite: a color-enhanced edge-detection mode without most of the underlying picture. In this sequence, I turn on focus assist, then rack focus near, then far…

  

As a part-time 1st AC, this really grabs my attention!

Other Cameras

Canon XA20/XA25

Canon trumpeted two new palm-cams, the $2500 XA20 and the $3000 XA25, replacing the well-regarded, $2000 XA10. Both have XLR inputs, and the XA25 has an HD-SDI output—the first that I know of on a palm-cam. Both cameras also use a slightly oversize photosite array: 2136 x 1362.

I was very excited by the news, but a bit let down when I started poking through the menus on an XA25: these are still, at heart, consumer cameras. There is no control over sharpening, nor are there any other detailed picture tweaks. That extra sensor resolution isn’t used to crispen up the HD image; instead, I’m told, the camera pans ‘n’ scans a 1920×1080 center cut from that area as a means of digital image stabilization (so the cameras will be, at best, 800-line cameras, complete with pixel-level motion blur: OK, but not what they might have been).

Now, I think the world of Canon’s Vixia line and happily sing their praises. But I’m weary of vendors gaffer-taping a couple of pro connectors to consumer cameras and selling them as pro gear, at pro prices. Indeed, the XA20 and XA25 appear to be variants of the $1700 Vixia HF G30, with an $800 XLR-equipped top handle and, on the XA25, a $500 SDI port  added.

For serious audio, I can get a Tascam DR-60D for $350; for SDI, a BMD HDMI-to-SDI converter runs $295. For the price of the XA20, I can add XLRs and SDI to the G30, get the same image quality and controllability, and have money left over. Message to Canon: you’re not giving me enough of a reason to pay the premium for the pro models. For $800-$1300 more than a G30, dagnabbit, I want to be able to tweak my picture!

Panasonic GH3

Over in the Micro-four-thirds corner at Panasonic, two cameras were shown: the AF-100A, and the DMC GH3:

It’s about time Panasonic started giving their DSLMs the same motion-imaging respect their customers do! [Disclosure: I owned two GH1s—one hacked—and currently have a GH2 and a GH3; the GH3 shot all the pix in this article, and six of those pix are crops of frame grabs from GH3 video.]

Kinefinity KineRAW-S35

The KineRAW-S35 is a 2K digital cine camera from Beijing. It shoots 720p, 1080p, or 2K raw files captured as CinemaDNG to onboard SSDs. I’ve heard the price is in the $6300-$8000 range.

  

Again, I observe a certain philosophy of side-panel layout. Granted, this time there are only three softkeys, but the jogwheel and the hardkeys are all there.

Ikegami HDK-97ARRI

The HDK-97ARRI marries the front end of an Arri Alexa with the back end of an Ikegami broadcast camera, resulting in a fully broadcaster-friendly large-single-sensor camera with ARRI’s imaging quality and Super35mm depth of field.  Actually, it’s the Alexa sensor built into an Ikegami camera with a PL mount, equipped here with the Fujjinon 19-90mm Cabrio lens (“Cabrio” meaning “convertible”, in this case referring to the ENG-style grip which can be removed for cine-syle operations).

      

I’ve heard a lot of negative comment about this camera, mostly from DPs complaining about potential focus issues. All I can say is (1) yes, the focus is shallower, but TV folks focus through the viewfinder / on the monitor, and those focusing aids become more sensitive in direct proportion to the shallowness of the focus; and (2) In TV production, especially live or docco work, an on-air rack-through to find focus isn’t the mortal sin it is in scripted film production.

Even so, if you watch the test footage on the HDK-97ARRI product page (which appears to have been shot in the booth at NAB!), the very first shot is a blown focus pull. Hmm, maybe those cranky DPs are on to something…

Aaton Penelope Digital

Pure camera porn: JP Beauviala designs cameras with the operator in mind, and the Penelope Digital is his solution for folks wanting film-style handholdability and operability with digital imaging. No cut-price box, this camera; it can’t be cheap to build. But it rests “like a cat on your shoulder” and all the controls fall just so.

         

OK, this time the side panel doesn’t have a jogwheel, but still… Note how the “film magazine” is mostly heatsink and large, low-velocity (hence low-noise) fan; the use of a standard Aaton battery (the blue lump in the lower left image); the vertical fps display on the operator’s side (reads fine when you glance down to see it!); the angled front under the lens, where the mirrored shutter spins.

Yes: it uses a rotating mirror shutter, and an optical reflex viewfinder—just like a film camera. I took a look through it: there was a dim, grainy, flickering image, just like I remember from my film days… sorry, I don’t miss it!

[Breaking news today, 27 April: according to Geoff Boyle on CML, “Aaton have closed whilst looking for an investor.” If true, this is a very sad day, and I can only hope this isn’t the final chapter: that Aaton, like that cat on the shoulder, has nine lives…]

 

Next: Lenses and Support, Odd ‘n’ Ends, and Beyond 4K…

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About Author

Adam Wilt is a software developer, engineering consultant, and freelance film & video tech. He’s had small jobs on big productions (PA, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, Dir. Robert Wise), big jobs on small productions (DP, “Maelstrom”, Dir. Rob Nilsson), and has worked camera, sound, vfx, and editing gigs on shorts, PSAs, docs, music vids, and indie features. He started his website on the DV format, adamwilt.com/DV.html, about the same time Chris Hurd created the XL1 Watchdog, and participated in DVInfo.net‘s 2006 “Texas Shootout.” He has written for DV Magazine and ProVideoCoalition.com, taught courses at DV Expo, and given presentations at NAB, IBC, and Cine Gear Expo. When he’s not doing contract engineering or working on apps like www.adamwilt.com/cinemeter, he’s probably exploring new cameras, just because cameras are fun.

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