I must admit that I arrived in Amsterdam with a sense of deep foreboding at the amount of pixel peeping I was going to be asked to do at IBC this year. The recent availability of cameras like the Sony FS700 and Canon C300, and the realization that they’re both quite decent, is an all-out assault on my customary world-weary cynicism. Cameras are now good and cheap, almost to the point where I’m no longer sure what the next best thing is going to look like.
Anyway, perhaps the most immediate impression in acquisition is that 3D is no longer special, especially with 4K competing for attention. Whether everyone has finally worked out that stereoscopic filmmaking has serious problems, or 3D has simply become as mainstream as it’s ever going to, I’m not sure. Nevertheless, there was the usual selection of exhibits requiring the customary embarrassing eyewear, and the now increasingly desperate raft of questionable approaches to glasses-free stereoscopy.
For instance, anyone passing the city-sized area covered by Sony was guaranteed an eyeful of their glasses-free lenticular 3D display. Despite surprisingly decent contrast and sharpness given the underlying technology, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more difficult-to-watch stereoscopic image, with ghosting, excessive background divergence and restricted viewer positioning all serious problems. The similarly-equipped Vaio laptop sitting next to it wasn’t doing it any favors by refusing to display color unless its webcam had recognized the viewer’s face, presumably so it could set up the appropriate optical geometry.
The reason I mention the Sony debacle is that there actually was at least one real 3D exhibit at the Holografika booth with their display that you can walk around and observe the subject from various angles – an actual 3D display, as opposed to stereoscopy. There are always going to be practical problems with this sort of thing, such as an array of 100 cameras to produce just the horizontal parallax views for a live shoot (computers can generate all the views internally, so it’s easier). Also, given the horizontal camera array, there is no 3D displacement if you try to observe from above or below. On the upside, that does mean that if you fail to hold your head exactly level, the image simply appears a bit flatter, unlike current 3D techniques where the same mistake begs a headache.
The effect still isn’t perfect. Ghosting between the various angles of view is occasionally visible, and the display itself, which is a DLP-based back-projection device, suffers some pretty serious resolution and contrast problems. Still, it’s a cute trick, and the company deserves a nod simply for being the only one at the convention to demonstrate a genuinely three-dimensional image.
Moving back to the mainstream, I guess we should talk about obvious things like the Canon C100, which completes the company’s range of cinema cameras. It’s an odd shape, but I suspect it will be better for handheld shoots than the 300 and 500 with the revised monitor positioning. Other changes are easier to understand, with the SDI port a fairly obvious target for deletion in a lower-end device. I still think the C range is too expensive compared to Sony’s FS stuff, especially as some decisions (such as the truncation of the C300’s SDI output to 8 bits) seem a little false and obvious. The principal limitation of the C100, though, is the EF lens mount, which isn’t readily adapted to other things and takes only irksome electronic stills lenses or ferociously expensive Canon movie primes, an odd choice for a low-cost camera. What’s important is whether the C100 retains the C300’s excellent imaging performance, something that hasn’t yet been demonstrated. If it does, it’ll be interesting.
Naturally, Canon was also showing the C500, complete with a 4K display. Given that it uses the same sensor, the usefulness of the C500 depends almost entirely on whether the excellence of the 300 relied on the oversampling of its 4K sensor to HD. If the sensor is really sharp and really quiet – and we have every reason to hope it is, given Canon’s pedigree in sensor manufacturing – then C500 may well be something quite special. If not, the 4K option may simply end up looking like a noisy C300 that’s only somewhat sharper. We won’t know until the pixels have been properly peeped in a controlled comparison.
In either case, there’s much talk of 4K, but only a growing trickle of mainstream products, possibly indicating continued uncertainty as to whether 3D will continue as a bringer of riches. TVLogic had their LUM-560W 4K display, several of the now-established Astro 4K line were in use in various booths, and as usual, Blackmagic is already doing its best to stack high and sell cheap with the 4K version of their SSD recorders – the HyperDeck Studio Pro. I’ve always been a fan of Blackmagic’s more straightforwardly specified devices, and the HyperDeck series is a good example of this. I wonder if we won’t eventually end up with something better than four 3G-SDI connectors for 4K pictures, though.
Staying with Blackmagic, a more universal lens mount than Canon’s is the micro four-thirds (MFT). This mount features on the most recent modification of Blackmagic’s cinema camera, a fairly simple and much-discussed refinement that was widely suggested at the time the company launched the EF version. In making the mount electronically inactive, they seem to have realized that the principal value of the micro four-thirds mount is that it has a very short flange focal distance and a comparatively large internal diameter, making it easy to adapt to almost any other mount. Unlike Canon, Blackmagic doesn’t have an axe to grind regarding lenses, although it’s otherwise unfair to compare its much cheaper camera with Canon’s range. The company was slightly evasive on the topic of an active MFT mount, but seem to be aware that many of the best lenses that actually exist in the format, which tend to be short and therefore ideal for Blackmagic’s intermediate-sized sensor, would require active electronic control to work at anything other than their widest aperture. What hasn’t changed is the power connector, which is still inadequate – but hey, Canon has the same problem.
At BVE, we met White Light, Prism‘s UK distributor for its RevEAL LED lighting range. There we learned that Prism has, in its RevEAL Profile, a 350W LED device that’s the first really decent, high-brightness solid-state profile I’ve ever seen. Using the same technology, it now has a smaller profile, the Junior, similar to the ever-popular ETC Source Four and compatible with the same optical accessories. There’s a lot of LED stuff available now, overwhelmingly of the variety that populates a large circuit board with a lot of emitters and calls the job done. Prism’s engineering is light years ahead of that, with continuous real-time calibration plus optical colour mixing that prevents striation within the beam more than a few feet from the device.
If you tire of LEDs, Zacuto was showing its “PlaZma Light.” At a distance, and especially when dimmed to a comfortable level for the show floor, this foot-square device looks almost exactly like a side-lit LED panel. It’s actually something more akin to a very large single plasma video display pixel, which is capable of much higher peak intensity than any LED and isn’t so directional. Zacuto claims that it’s softer than an LED. This seems unfair because the projecting softlight LEDs provide is otherwise hard to create, if that’s what you want, and there have also been questions over the efficiency of xenon-fluorescent emitters since Arri‘s defunct Sky Panel. Either way it certainly puts out a lot of light and it’s cheaper than most comparable LEDs.
Wandering away from the bustle of the big camera and lighting exhibits, let’s consider the people who don’t care if your production is 3D or 4K, but know very well that it will require either twelve or twenty-four volts in copious quantities. Family-run Cine Power International has been building enormous boxes full of electricity for quite some time, and every year its products grow a few extra features (more capacity, better metering, switchable voltage) but retain the same degree of indestructible build quality and no-nonsense design. Its latest darling, the HD-30, has a clever selectable voltage and capacity selector which provides for either 12 or 24-volt devices, or both, from the same battery. They claim the blue LED displays are easier to read in daylight. I think they’re gaudy.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell an experienced reader such as yourself what J. L. Fisher is, but I will tell you that its flagship product for IBC2012 was a shelf. This being Fisher, it’s a shelf made of metal refined in a crucible blessed by ministers of three religions, licked into shape by maidens and anointed with fine oils, and it is of course a beautiful and indestructible piece of engineering that will last a million years. Its purpose is to hold the separated back end of an Alexa on the side of a crane while the head rides at the far end, but it is at heart a shelf, and it’s a mark of Fisher’s unflappable confidence and long history that they need no greater headline release than this. It’s nice to talk to a company that’s been on top of the game since the last ice age and has nothing left to prove.
Finally, to wind down our tour of the outlying booths, let’s consider the cutest thing in show, Bubblebee Industries, which sells baby tribbles. No, seriously: they’re lavalier microphones with tiny, inch-diameter fluffy windjammers, in a tasteful variety of colors to match the talent’s wardrobe. Or, possibly, they’re baby tribbles. I suspect you’ll have to glance at that picture to get a full idea of what’s going on.
But to get back to the pixel peeping, I suppose in the main the reason I’m writing about tiny furry microphones as opposed to clever cameras is this feeling of ambivalence about which camera I’d like to take out on the next job. There are always issues both technical and aesthetic that suit some devices for some jobs, and other devices for other jobs, but what’s now more true than ever is that cameras are so incredibly good. There are feature differences between Canon’s cinema range and the new Sony FS stuff, but in general, it’s truer than ever that the quality of camera equipment is not a factor significantly restricting the quality of independent filmmaking. At the high end, too, things like Alexa and F65 seem likely to share the best-in-class slot for a while, and beyond easier workflows for these high-data-rate, beyond-HD devices, it’s hard to see where else we can go.
Well, OK, no, it isn’t hard to see where else we can go. When someone builds a sensor that has sixteen or seventeen true stops of dynamic range, and we can put any curve we like in it, and the film people finally stop complaining about highlight rolloff… well, even then you could argue that we’re only duplicating the characteristics of film, and there’s still more fidelity and precision and range to chase. But while people eschew the high frame rate demos we’ve seen, and tire of 3D as well, the simple desire for the familiar might be as fundamental a limitation as the physics of the photovoltaic effect that currently prevent anyone making us a seventeen-stop sensor. Books are still books, after all. Radio is still radio. Technology no longer really controls the producers of either. While we may or may not be approaching that point with movies, I don’t know, but I do know that I like the smooth pictures of a C300 better than 4K stuff output by Red.
But I mainly like the baby tribbles.