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IBC Report: Vegas Vaporware Made Real


The ARRI Alexa.
In the past I’ve described IBC as being a “mini-NAB,” an assessment I’ve been forced to reevaluate as the exhibition has grown considerably since I’ve known it. What’s more, now it’s normal for companies to announce products many months before they’ve even built a prototype. It’s common at NAB to see things with “camera” written on them which would perhaps be more accurately termed “camera-shaped box representing our wildest imagination.” For some reason, IBC doesn’t seem to suffer so badly from this, with the intervening few months apparently enough to crank out a prototype and discover which of management’s fantasies can actually be implemented.

I mention ARRI and the Alexas M and Studio with absolutely no intention of connecting them to these concerns, as ARRI has historically been a modest and understated manufacturer, famous, at one stage, for actually understating the dynamic range of the Alexa. That’s the last I intend to say about them, though – yes, I am aware that ARRI has finally started taking orders for the Studio, but there’s been such a storm of associated press coverage that it really doesn’t bear repeating here. Yes, Alexa is good and not as expensive as things which may not be as good. Excellent. Well done. Moving on.

It’s difficult to compare the Sony F65 to Alexa since the intent is not quite the same, and since I believe Sony has either just started taking orders or very soon will, whereas Alexa is now widely deployed. What’s actually more interesting about the F65, apart from its eyebrow-raisingly modest (by Sony standards) price tag, is the recording system that goes with it. Sony’s SR Memory system is, frankly, a fairly obvious  development which most of us assumed would emerge at some point, and I presume we’ll eventually see it on other new cameras as well. Because of this, it’s important that it’s well done, since we’re likely to be seeing it around for a while, regardless of the success or otherwise of F65. I think IBC was the first major show at which the entire launch system was shown, including the 256MB, 512MB and 1TB cards, variously available up to “S-class” 5Gb/s (625MB/s) speed, and the SR-R1 on-camera recorder. Intelligently, they’ve produced both a tape-room deck – the four-slot SR-R1000 with the usual VTR style transport controls – and more IT-oriented studio decks, the slimline “Memory Data Transfer Unit” SRPC-5 with a single slot in 1U form factor.

Obviously, this is very attractive from a camera point of view: the SRW-1 portable HDCAM-SR tape deck is notoriously large, heavy and ferociously power hungry, all of which should be greatly mitigated in the flash-based replacement. There is a slight problem with this, though. People use HDCAM tape formats for various reasons, but one key advantage of any tape format is that you can put it on the shelf and it doesn’t need much in terms of maintenance. The memory card approach breaks that provision and makes productions which might previously have shot HDCAM-SR responsible for a data-style backup and archive procedure – a big, expensive part of production that the tape formats obviate. They might, by using LTO4 data tape, then end up with a better backup than HDCAM-SR could ever provide, but it’s an extra job and involves a lot of data. Also, since the SR Memory cards store material wrapped in MXF files using the codec that’s native to HDCAM-SR, it’s possible to clone material losslessly to and from SR tape.

There are solutions, and this situation has existed since I wrote a piece on the very first Panasonic P2 newsgathering camera, the SPX-800, over five years ago, and there are more solutions now than there were. Still, SR Memory is not a drop-in replacement for the tape format of the same name.

Sony’s OLED displays will cure your nostalgia for CRT mastering.
Sony have also been showing their recent OLED displays at least since NAB in a blacked-out tent against equivalent TFT and CRT devices. I repeat this here only to encourage anyone who hasn’t seen that comparison to do so, and feel your nostalgia for CRT mastering displays evaporate – OLED makes CRT look like a mid-’90s TFT monitor. Apparently Dolby have now sold several of their PRM-4200 displays, which we saw (and wrote about) at BVE in London, into postproduction places in Europe, although I can’t help but see that sort of thing as the last gasp of TFT.

Still, with OLED, F65 and SR memory, much as I don’t like to unnecessarily “big people up” when they’re quite big enough already, Sony appears to be a company at the height of its powers.

Returning to the basis that IBC often means Vegas vaporware made real, I was rather hoping that either Canon or JVC would have something to show us. JVC seemed a slightly better bet, on the basis that they’d shouted quite a lot about their 4K consumer camera at NAB. Unfortunately, it’s still a concept, and frankly, in the consumer arena, “4K” is a marketing gimmick rather than something that’s really useful. One Sony rep, (whose name I promised to withhold), agreed that 4K distribution is probably pointless, and although 4K origination may be relevant to keep big movies looking sharp through post, anywhere other than the high end, it is not something that’s terribly useful. Unless, of course, you’re a studio exec looking to re-sell all your movies once the 4K successor to blu-ray becomes availale. I’m not that hopeful, given that in most of the world even HD uptake in people’s homes is still less than spectacular. Japanese broadcaster NHK was at IBC showing effectively the same “Super Hi-Vision” concept they’ve been exhibiting for – what – four or five years? Apparently there’s a new, smaller camera capable of shooting the 7680 by 4320 pixel image, and it’s a nice demo, but I’m not holding my breath for 4000 line television in the home.

Canon released the XLH1 camera, capable only of interlaced acquisition, just when progressive scan was becoming big, so we’re sort of used to them not coming up with the obvious thing at the obvious time. Right now, I’d humbly submit that the obvious thing would be something rather like the Panasonic AF-100, but with a huge sensor. The fact that this hasn’t happened may indicate that Canon are aware that Panasonic’s effort has not been a spectacular success, and beyond that, Canon  reps have admitted in the past that they’re aware of upsetting people like Sony and Panasonic who are their customers in the lens field, but their competitors when it comes to cameras. So, no whizzy new big-chip camera for IBC. In fact, it’s in the optical department that Canon is most interesting at the moment, announcing their FK lens series in PL mount. Details are scarce, but the world clearly needs more PL glass, so this can’t be a bad thing no matter which price-to-performance point they’ve gone for.

Fast Forward Video‘s Sidekick HD
The explosion of third-party video recorders continues unabated. Sound Devices‘ Pix series of ProRes recorders is due to get Avid DNxHD encoding soon, and AJA have a new software revision for their Ki Pro Mini recorder which allows – apparently this is a feature worth shouting about – burned-in timecode on the monitoring. There’s also the new Io Express device. It’s basically an Io HD, writ small, but with two Thunderbolt interfaces, users can daisy chain devices to an Apple Macbook via the new interface. It remains to be seen whether Thunderbolt has enough of a performance lead over USB3 to really take off, and right now you can barely get the cables, but prepare to see a lot of boxes like this if it does. Continuing with the theme of recorders, CineDeck have their RX version, a rackmount revision of their portable EX recorder/monitor designed for trucks and tape rooms, and there’s even a new player, Fast Forward Video‘s Sidekick HD, recording ProRes to 2.5” SSDs. This is now a crowded market, but all players report vigorous sales, to my continuing surprise given how many camera systems now use native flash recording.

All of this stuff – from SR Memory to Cinedeck to SideKick to NanoFlash, gives us a long-term storage issue. Most people will solve this with either stacks of hard disks or LTO tape, but CineSave have another idea. It’s one that’s been idly discussed before, and easy to explain, but this is the first time I’ve actually seen it done – they’re storing digital information as 2D barcodes on 35mm film. It’s clearly an engineer’s concept because they’ve done all kinds of sensible things like including a full human-readable, written description of the decoding procedure printed at the head of every roll. On the booth, they demonstrated the system with a jury-rigged film scanner using a Canon 5D camera, just to make the point that the material could be recovered with a basic mechanism.

CineSave demonstrated a system that saves data as barcodes on 35mm black-and-white film.

It’s not a perfect system by any means – scanning with the 5D, it’d take many days to recover, say, a DCP representing a feature film. The only reason to use this sort of approach to storage is because it uses black-and-white film, and black-and-white film stock has a proven and very long archival life. Nobody’s going to seriously consider this for weekly backups in a world where LTO4 tape exists, but it’s an interesting idea if you happen to be one of those rare productions where the producers suspect that long-term retrievability is worth paying for. But CineSave gets full marks for a nice implementation.

I seem to recall being quite scathing in my BVE retrospective about the profusion of effectively-identical LED lighting that currently exists. At IBC, I found the antidote – a manufacturer of LED lighting who was willing to be entirely candid about the problems faced by the technology.

Unfortunately, I’m sworn to secrecy with regard to this manufacturer’s identity, but the situation is essentially as follows: effectively two companies, Cree and Nichia, make LED “dice,” the tiny active area inside an LED. The performance of these devices is what controls the performance available to manufacturers who use them, and it is therefore unlikely that any LED device with a price-to-performance ratio significantly better than the average will appear until fundamental advances are made in the underlying technology. Otherwise, unless you’re willing to pay ARRI prices for the necessary engineering to keep the output accurately calibrated, there is very little to choose between manufacturers beyond build quality and ruggedness – and it will all go wrong within ten thousand hours of use anyway as the white LEDs age.

Sad, but there you go. It’s a comparatively new technology and advancement should with any luck be rapid, given that there is a much bigger market for energy-efficient commercial and domestic lighting, without which, none of this stuff would exist at all.

So, even if IBC is probably still not quite competing with NAB for show-floor area, it’s big, and I can’t help but admit to a little dissatisfaction. Saying this will create a lot of mail, so I’ll point out that it’s a generalization, but while there’s new stuff, it’s incremental upgrades, improved versions of existing products, and the most interesting stuff is in the realm of the seriously harebrained. Could have been more enjoyable. Still, perhaps I shouldn’t complain, because while NAB will have lots of new toys in six months or so, it’s a fair bet that most of them won’t actually, ahem, exist yet.

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