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NAB 2011: Show Me the Toys

March 18, 2011 | By

NAB 2011 runs from April 9-14 at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

I’m worried. Ordinarily, an industry journalist at this time of year is forced into an undignified clamber over huge drifts of pre-NAB press releases just to reach the mailbox, but this year it’s been suspiciously quiet. More experienced hands tell me that this isn’t necessarily a bad sign, though, and I shouldn’t expect to turn up in Vegas and find that NAB 2011 comprises three people clustered around an Arri Alexa – although if this turns out to be the case, you will read about it here first.

What’s very clear from their extravagantly-capitalized handouts is that the NAB itself is presenting awards, speeches and inductions into its hall of fame much as usual. I, and I suspect you, really couldn’t care less that SOMEONE and THEIR COLLEAGUE are being noted on some largely arbitrary honor roll in recognition of their contributions to palpable obscurity. I mean, that stuff’s for producers. Where are the toys?

Well, it appears to be a secret, but a conservative assessment suggests that something called “stereoscopic 3D” might be quite big. I was cautious about this last year, and although in the intervening period there’s been something like 34 stereoscopic releases (according to film-releases.com), that count includes rather questionable examples like Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender, both of which were shot as 2D then converted in postproduction, an approach that even people who had been fans of 3D often fall over themselves to disown. Even so, they made money, so hooray for Hollywood and for Justin Bieber and his highly experimental art film Never Say Never. Anyway, I think it’s a fair bet that everyone from 3D land will be on hand claiming that yes, this year we have, we really have, finally solved all the problems with 3D, just like they said they had last year. And the year before. Oh well.

Nobody had a truly integrated 3D camera last year, at least above the level of Panasonic‘s 3DA1 camera, the solution for the particularly ambitious wedding video, and this seemed to me to be a big deal. It’s cute, but simplifying stereoscopy to that level doesn’t really dispel the problems 3D has. Apparently Sony will have a “3D Camera” this year which looks suspiciously like it’s really just a stereoscopic optical adapter for the F335 XDCAM. There are problems with this approach, not least the fact that minimum convergence can be comparatively large, so you can’t shoot things closer than a certain rather long distance. If you really want to use a mirror rig, Ikegami are advertising simple but necessary features like image mirroring on their compact HDL series cameras. That’s not new, but I recall that they had a disk-based, file-oriented broadcast camera at NAB some years before anyone else was doing it, so I wouldn’t put it past them to spring something interesting on us.

As far as one-piece 3D goes, though, someone from Thompson once told me that they hadn’t produced a sequel to the excellent Viper D-cinema camera simply because the market is so small. Even though there are a lot more sports events than 3D movies I’m willing to risk the prediction that, for the most part, we’ll still be duct-taping two cameras to a plank, or the optical equivalent, for a while yet. I may be wrong, and if I am, it will be evidence of massive 3D takeup.

In the 2D world, well, we might snarkily expect Sony to come out with something in the CineAlta line that’ll reduce everyone’s recent HDCAM-SR investments to scrap value again, but there are rumblings of a single-chip 8K camera recording to flash memory. That’ll presumably be a raw resolution, but even so, that will mean Sony does finally have a camera capable of real, honest 4K images to go with their SXRD projector range. Postproduction issues around demosaicing and color control are potential red flags with this, but one good thing about Sony is that their high-end gear tends to be just as well done, just as complete and well-documented, as their consumer gear, which really is quite an achievement. Having talked about the Japanese manufacturers, I should mention that the first words of this article were written at the very moment northeastern Japan was being violently disassembled by the forces of nature, and I can’t imagine it’ll be either easy or much fun for the employees of these organizations to attend a trade show just a few weeks after that sort of event.

Moving away from the light-capturing end of acquisition, it’s probably worth talking about offboard recording. Provision for high end, often uncompressed onboard recording has become smaller, lighter and cheaper on a fairly predictable schedule as flash storage manufacturing gets up to speed. Both camera-specific devices such as Vision Research and their Phantom Cinemag and generic HD-SDI recorders from people like Codex are now fairly run of the mill. The other end of this market is the compressed stuff, NanoFlash and AJA‘s KiPro, but these two worlds have recently started to converge with things like Cinedeck, which, (last time I spoke to them), intended to offer both compressed and uncompressed recording. Convergent already have a 3D version of the NanoFlash, but they’re now talking about their Gemini recorder, capable of fully uncompressed work for full-blown feature film production, also with 3D sprayed all over it. Presumably more of this stuff will appear, but I’m not sure how much room there is in the market for more and more uncompressed recorders targeted squarely at big features. With my engineering hat on, I hope we can one day get away from compression entirely, but right now everyone seems to be cutting horribly compressed stuff on Macbooks and feeling very pleased about it, so that time is probably not now.

It’s getting harder and harder to talk about the technology of postproduction without drowning in a ream of workflow-related terminology, at least from the Avid and Adobe camps. Both now do so many different things, and upgrades tend to be so incremental due to the stable user-interface designs of most post software, that you can either write a book on it or a list of bullet points, but anything in between ends up seeming patchy and incomplete. What’s most interesting about the postproduction zone in NAB’s south hall, then, is not necessarily the booths, it’s the conferences, especially in post where the tools are mature and the variable is the technique. The sessions seem pricey to me, given that those oriented particularly around one manufacturer can come off as an infomercial, but the more opinionated stuff can be enormous fun in the conversations afterward, with the audience crowding round for the presenter’s attention. These moments are always the most interesting part of the whole show. I can’t vouch for their quality this time round, but there was an HDSLR production workshop last year that was pretty decent, and the director of photography sessions are often hosted by interesting speakers.

Speaking of DPs, it occurred to me at Broadcast Video Expo in London that I’ve seen all I care to see of lights and grip gear. This stuff doesn’t change very fast; a dolly has been a dolly since it was invented, through the invention of sound, color, several incarnations of 3D, and electronic cinematography, and its basic design is relatively unchanged. Lighting has changed more, but there’s still only so many ways to differentiate one hard light from a different hard light, or one soft light from another soft light. I’m oversimplifying gigantically, of course, and it will be interesting to see what LEDs are doing in the field of hard and fresnel lights. There are limits on the current technology that make it impossible to build a single one-kilowatt LED device, so all current offerings are based on arrays, and arrays with a carefully-chosen color mix to ensure reasonable color rendering in the output. All this means it’s hard to make a really sharp shadow with a bright LED light. Arri had preproduction models of their white and RGB color mixing fresnels in London, and I assume there’ll be more of this from all the interested parties, from the expensive people with the blue paintwork, down to embarrassingly similar far-eastern knockoffs of dubious performance.

And now, because news outlets in North America are (to a Brit) alarmingly comfortable with journalists’ opinion pieces, what would we most like to see at NAB this year? Personally, I’d be deeply gratified to see some genuine advancement in the field of 3D. Most of the gear we’ve seen to date has been reactionary, solving problems which, while genuine, were artefacts of an imperfect approach to begin with. Ways to obviate or automate the sort of alignment tweaks that have to be done on set – akin to on set color grading – must surely be top priority. I think the best we’re likely to see is improved tools for doing it, which is no bad thing, but it doesn’t really solve the core problems of trying to fool a visual sensory system that has several million years on us in terms of evolutionary advancement.

There are also a fairly large number of people in the world who want something like a Canon 5D, but without the big issues of the Canon 5D, the moire and the heavy compression. Canon unveiled it’s “Multipurpose Camera” concept in September last year, but if it’s their idea of a worthwhile response to that very clear and widely-held desire, they’re missing something. You could cite things they’ve released in the past (the XL-H1 springs to mind, with its lack of 24p) that betrayed either corporate political issues, or a truly breathtaking ability to overlook the desires of the target audience and I hope they haven’t fallen down that hole again. Panasonic have their AF100 camera which seemed in many ways to be one answer to that desire, so further big news from them in that area seems unlikely, but it isn’t ideal – the thing has a lens mount that almost nobody builds glass for and lacks the big-chip look that makes everyone chase the 5D despite its flaws.

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