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BVE Expo Shows an Industry on the Rebound

February 28, 2014 08:58 | By

LR-entrance_smallNestled as it is between the single-camera specificity of BSC Expo and the titanic international might of NAB, London’s BVE Expo is always at risk of a degree of “trade show fatigue.” There are only so many ways to walk over cheap carpet while squinting at the lighting exhibits. Even so, if sheer footfall at the event is any barometer of economic mood, those rumors of recovery are justified, because at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, the exhibition hall seemed better filled than I’ve seen before. Over the three days, organizers report that more than 15,000 visitors attended.

In my first draft of this article, I suggested at this point that any big camera announcements were likely to be deferred to NAB, and but then Panasonic announced its new 4K Varicam. At the show, however, absent that information, the interest was in the details.

One such detail was at the booth of BECTU, the U.K.’s national union of film, TV and theatrical workers, where one conversation (that I’m sworn not to attribute) quickly turned to low- and unpaid work, bad debt, and the other miseries of the low-budget world. Though this is a worldwide problem, the situation is acute in the U.K. where it can be difficult for unions to exert influence and enforcement of minimum wage legislation is patchy. Worse, a recent YouTube hit showing a safety near-miss on the London location of a low-budget feature provoked a meeting of crew at which these issues were discussed and at which it was revealed that a majority of U.K. crew on small productions simply aren’t in the union, even though it’s comparatively easy to join. An unanticipated discussion, perhaps, for a technical show, but one highlighting the increasingly shaky ground upon which higher end U.K. crewing, with its glowing international reputation, is built.

Jonathan Haynes, White Light

Jonathan Haynes, White Light

On more familiar technical ground, BVE 2014 saw an early public showing of the Panasonic GH4, successor to the immensely popular GH2 and 3, and likely to be the cheapest reasonable-quality route into 4K. Demonstrations looked startlingly good, but we probably shouldn’t take that too seriously until we get a chance to do a hands-on test. That unusual bolt-on SDI base, while offering turnkey features, does raise a few questions about ergonomics and options for accessorizing a camera where the lens axis is so far above the baseplate.

Seeking other 4K options, we found Blackmagic surrounded by a crowd. A straw poll indicated that it was, however, a crowd unimpressed with the fact that the barely-shipping 4K camera, like its Cinema and Pocket cousins, lacks audio metering and disk space indication. Right now the only way to find out if the audio levels are correct is to connect an external SDI monitoring device, and as such I heard the opinion that the camera remained a questionable buy until these elementary and essential features are implemented. Since the 4K raw functionality is still a “Real Soon Now” feature, we might expect the development team to be concentrating on that first. Still, these caveats didn’t stop Blackmagic from almost vanishing behind a wall of people, and it’s getting harder to take the position that 4K might also vanish, like 3D, into a niche. Even so, while the idea of shooting a better picture than will be distributed is highly attractive, rather fewer people – Netflix notwithstanding – are talking about actually delivering it to the viewer.

Digital Garage has added a Thunderbolt interface to its LTO deck.

Digital Garage has added a Thunderbolt interface to its LTO deck.

Shooting all this data requires a backup solution, and LTO magnetic tape is well established in the role. Until recently, attaching an LTO drive to a computer required a SAS port, something usually found on servers. Digital Garage has now built an LTO5 drive with thunderbolt connectivity, which will be handy for digital imaging technicians working portably from a laptop. This a relatively easy thing to do, given the relationship between thunderbolt and the PCIe bus for which most SAS controllers are built, but it’s a welcome development even if most tape drives are still much too noisy to have directly on set.

To skim over the inevitable avalanche of LED lighting, sales and rental agent White Light expanded its range with 150W LED profiles soon to arrive. The advantage is that while they’re clearly less powerful than manufacturer Altman‘s current 250W devices, they can operate without forced air cooling. Fanless operation clearly makes these devices, to be available in both tungsten and daylight white as well as color mixing versions, more suitable for replacing Source 4s in filmmaking applications, and they should be about two thirds as bright for under a third the power.

Phabrix RX

Phabrix RX

Test and measurement is often a strong point of BVE, and with Phabrix in attendance, local product was well represented with the company’s announcement of audio measurement features for its Rx rackmount platform. While the company has a background in installation and engineering, its newly-patented superimposed RGB waveform displays are particularly beautiful and contain a lot more subtlety than competing types, which often operate at lower framerate and limited bit depth and risk obscuring interesting features of the image.

Those interested in just such an economy option might consider buying an Atomos Samurai or Ninja Blade, which include waveforms absent on the products they replace. They’re not perfect, operating at low frame rate, but the device is cheap and simple and runs from readily available camcorder batteries. This isn’t quite a new product for the show, but Atomos’s engineers should be congratulated on the improvements made over the original design.

Flanders Scientific's OLED.

Flanders Scientific’s OLED.

I often round off these reports with a prediction. Until this morning, I would have mentioned the possibility – yet again – that Panasonic might finally announce a 4K cinematography camera at NAB, which would have been acceptably prescient. My lasting memory of BVE, then, is that OLED displays, particularly those by Flanders Scientific which have the same display panel but considerably more comprehensive electronics than Sony‘s offerings, are becoming more affordable. Previously existing only in the $25,000 range affordable only by people with an extremely serious requirement for one, it’s possible to get a reference-grade 24-inch OLED for perhaps $6,000. And that’s only 15% more than a decent TFT.