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IBC 2013: 4K Eclipses 3D

September 19, 2013 | By

ARRI's new Amira.

ARRI’s new Amira.

Before we dive into an analysis of exactly what was and wasn’t interesting at IBC 2013 from a production perspective, it’s worth being aware of an overarching theme: if you hadn’t yet noticed, where 3D was discussed a few years ago, 4K is now the topic of conversation. I won’t be quite ready to entirely write off stereo as a mainstream technique until I’ve confirmed the situation at another NAB, but as far as I can see, IBC 2013 is brought to you by the number 4 and the letter K.

And in some ways, this is odd, because while the consumer industry is churning out 4K TV sets, there wasn’t an explosion of 4K production gear to satisfy the hype. Blackmagic, of course, is in the final throes of releasing a 4K Production Camera, which looks to be very promising for the price point if only because it offers us a global shutter, but that camera isn’t news. Things from the company that are news include a 4K upgrade for their ATEM production switcher, so it would, in theory, be possible to cobble together a 4K television studio using Production Cameras when they’re released. Likewise, the excellent SmartScope Duo product gets a refresh with 6-gigabit SDI compatibility, although the displays still have the sub-HD pixel count that’s inevitable at an 8-inch diagonal size. With 4K refreshes to their mini-converter series and to the Resolve software, Blackmagic seem enthusiastic about 6-gigabit SDI and the 4K images it facilitates, and frequently without charging a price premium.

Taking into account the difference in sheer reach, one might interpret Sony‘s offering as slightly lacking by comparison. To be completely fair, that’s a difficult comparison to make, as the companies exist on different scales and don’t serve the same market, (although there is now a surprising amount of crossover, given Blackmagic’s recent acquisitions). The fact that Sony’s 30-inch Trimaster 4K OLED display is not predicted to launch before next summer is a let-down, although Sony does have a 56-inch domestic OLED 4K display, the likes of which I suspect will be widely pressed into professional service in the absence of anything better if it can figure out how to bring it to market. The display reportedly uses a difficult manufacturing process that may not be quite ready for the big time. So, despite discussion of 4K broadcasting, including a demo of 4K satellite distribution at the show, there is still no 4K studio camera. Instead we’re encouraged to consider the F65 for live 4K work.

LR-a_ibc_crowdAt the lower end, Sony did have new 4K offerings, in the PXW-Z100 and its more domestic-level brother, the FXR-AX1. Both offer 4K pictures recorded to flash, and it’s this sort of thing which will presumably be responsible for a lot of newsgathering and documentary material should there be demand for 4K ENG. Finally, Sony reps tell me the compmany upgraded around 50 FS700 cameras in Europe to support raw output and 4K resolution. This seems a pretty slim figure given the great success of this camera and the number Sony has presumably sold, although hats go off to the company for being willing to support its customers in this way at all. It’s a pretty rare thing for a big company to do. If you happen to want this option now, you can buy an FS700S, which includes the update by default. Whether or not that’s a good idea now, the original FS700 has to have been one of the best buys of the last few years if you happened to have bought one when they first appeared.

To round out our consideration of new camera technology, let’s look at two organizations that can be covered quickly: Panasonic, which has the camera-shaped 4K Varicam box mockup it has been showing for a while, and ARRI, whose contribution has been covered in the daily news services to the point where I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about it. Suffice it to say here that the Amira is doubtless capable of extremely nice pictures and will, no matter what ARRI would prefer, displace Alexa from the lower end of its budget bracket. Having handled it, I find the claim that this is a documentary camera to depend greatly on your interpretation of the word “documentary.” It’s heavy, especially with the massive Fuji Cabrio 19-90mm lens. This was mounted on the display Amira presumably because it looks aesthetically like an ENG camera in that configuration. The resulting setup is heavy to the point that it would be difficult to produce good camerawork off the shoulder for very long. It also consumes 50W of power, meaning that a 120 watt-hour battery such as the common V-lock lithium ion type would provide perhaps a couple of hours’ run time. And that’s a big, heavy battery to add to an already big, heavy camera.

LR-IMAG1365So I think that the concept of Amira as a real run-and-gun documentary camera is perhaps a little idealistic, not least because pulling focus on a super35 sensor in those circumstances is going to lead to buzzed shots (the viewfinder is, though good, sub-HD in terms of sheer resolution). Where it is likely to excel, though, is in the sort of electronic field production situations such as soap operas and lower-end drama where production is only rarely completely without reasonable support. This sort of market has already been approached by Ikegami with its HDK-97ARRI studio camera using an Alexa sensor, and is probably a more practical place to deploy Amira. In this field I have no doubt it will do very well, especially if – as I would anticipate – the price point is aggressive.

Moving from camera toward the talent, let’s consider glass. Schneider showed a couple of new additions to its Xenon FF range of lenses, designed to cover full-frame 35mm cameras such as the Canon 5D Mk. 3. While $3,000 a lens might seem a big ask for glass designed to cover such a niche format, the lenses are of course entirely usable on smaller formats too and will be of use to anyone interested in that compatibility, as well as people shooting with specialist cameras such as the Phantom 65. Moving right up to the top of the range, Cooke‘s much-vaunted range of anamorphics gained a member at IBC, with the 75mm lens on show. Competitor Zeiss does have a similar range, although I tend toward the criticism that the Zeiss approach renders anamorphics rather pointless by carefully designing out of them all of the characteristics that people actually want in an anamorphic lens. Cooke’s anamorphics are very far from cheap – a full set of five is likely to approach £100,000, which is an extreme enough price to give even quite successful customers pause. Even so, with digital cinematography now so clean that ways to impose a look on it are in great demand, it’s a very relevant development. As to commercial success, the company says that it would have been “happy with half the number” of orders it received at NAB, and this for a set of lenses for which all the prototypes are not yet complete and which is not expected to ship until March next year.

The other glass news, which will be relevant to a greater number of people, is Samyang‘s range of low-cost movie primes, coming in at just a few hundred units of currency apiece. This is still relatively expensive in comparison to still lenses, but it’s enormously less than Cooke, Zeiss or Schneider will charge you for anything which has the same numbers written on it. The Samyang V-DSLR range comes in 8, 14, 16, 24, 35 and 85mm, and while one might wish for a 50 or 100 as opposed to the very similar 14 and 16, there’s no doubt that there’s great practical need for a source of low-cost lenses for low-cost production, in a world where the supply of cheap, large-sensor movie cameras has greatly outstripped the availability of suitable glass for years.

Having considered all the amusing things that might be available in the next few months, let’s consider those for which we’ll have to wait a few years. The Fraunhofer research institute, to which I may have dared to refer in the past as the Department of Harebrained Schemes, is always worth a look because it’s the most likely place to find genuinely new and original thinking going on. Fraunhofer’s IBC displays this year included a new version of the panoramic camera system they showed at NAB, capable of full 360-degree coverage and based on a much more physically compact camera system than the Alexa rig they showed previously. There seemed to be a little more delay in the process of stitching together the panorama than I would like for live work, but Fraunhofer tells us it’s been used as such in situations such as the widest views of an event where a little delay isn’t a huge problem. Here’s hoping for further R&D to correct this glitch. The institute also had improvements on the random-pattern sensor ND filtering we discussed after NAB, as well as a larger 16-camera (over the previous 6-camera) array for their lightfield capture system. With the larger array, this is even more impressive, allowing the synthesis of any camera position within the boundaries of the array, as well as virtual changes to focus and focal length changes. The postproduction rendering process for these effects is still long winded, although it’s particularly attractive for stereoscopic 3D production where it would provide the option of rendering two cameras for variable interaxial distance in postproduction.

If we want to get an overall impression of the success of a show like IBC, we can either wander around counting people, rely on the attendance figures released later, or – and I like this approach – conduct a straw poll of exhibitors, whose subjective impressions are perhaps the most valid. My recollection, therefore, is that about 75 percent of people felt that the show was busy, that things were in general looking up, and that accords with both my subjective impression and the improved visitor numbers this year. In specifics, as excited as people seem to be about a $25k pseudo-Alexa, I’m not sure that’s the main production news from the show: there are already cameras of at least somewhat similar capability and similar price-point.

IBC 2013 may also have been one of the first few really identifiable nails in the coffin for 3D, though I’m sure many would disagree.

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