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NAB Report: 4K Production Comes of Age

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The Canon C500 with an AJA Ki Pro
I recently read an opinion – by a member of the ASC, no less – that while 4K images on 4K displays looked stunning, that degree of sharpness wouldn’t necessarily be popular among actors, especially actors who are, shall we say, not in their early twenties anymore. Personally, I think the increased availability of 4K acquisition is great, if only because big sensors allow oversampling, and oversampling allows problems like noise to be greatly minimized, regardless of how much of that sharpness you actually allow to emerge in the final image.

Positive as it is, though, the release of more 4K cameras isn’t something that would have been hard to predict. We knew JVC had their 4K GY-HMQ10 before IBC, and Canon tell me that the C500 was actually the first design they came up with, and the C300’s extra downscaling and compression options were an afterthought.

I don’t want to dwell too much on what Canon is doing as it’ll have been covered massively elsewhere, but it’s worth considering the essential illogic of the C300/C500 pricing structure. The C500 simply has the option to do less to the sensor data, but the price is actually higher. This is nothing particularly new; cheap cameras notoriously suffer permanently-active automatic systems for things like audio gain and exposure, although that isn’t a direct parallel given the amount of data involved in sampling a 4K sensor. Either way, it’s hard to shake the impression that you’re paying more for less, or at least less technologically speaking. Paying someone money to not do something feels like extortion, but I suppose it’s just a pricing model based on performance rather than the actual cost of manufacture.

Sony announced a 4K high frame rate camera - the NEX-FS700.
Perhaps this impression is provoked by the price point of the C500, which could be taken as high for a DSLR replacement or low for an Alexa replacement, but which is ultimately difficult to interpret because we haven’t really seen any objective tests of the thing. The C300, which uses the same sensor, is an excellent camera, but it’s impossible to tell how much of that is due to the 2:1 downsampling of the sensor, and how much extra noise will be visible in the unprocessed sensor output. More, unavoidably, but how much is tricky, and it’s this factor which will determine whether C500 can compete with other 4K devices. Particularly, it’ll be interesting to see how it compares to Red’s more expensive offerings, which were, historically, not known for their particularly stellar noise characteristics.

One interesting aside with respect to Canon and higher-end cameras is the corporate restructuring provoked by the reaction to the venerable 5D Mark II. As I once wrote for this publication, Canon seemed genuinely surprised at the success of that camera and their stills division personnel assumed a touchingly rabbit-in-the-headlights posture during at least one NAB shortly after the camera was released. Recognizing the problems created by a frankly shocking lack of communication between the stills and video people, Canon tell me they’ve now reorganized such that the professional imaging division – including both still and motion picture products – is now a single department. The intention is that this will avoid embarrassing repeats of the “what do you mean, 24P?” situation provoked by the 5D2’s great but somehow inexplicably patchy launch spec.

Still, there’s always the 1DC to fall back on if you must have 4K and don’t have $30,000. I’m a little cautious about the MJPEG codec, which is primitive by modern standards, even compared to other simple DCT codecs like ProRes and DNxHD. The 1DC throws a lot of bitrate at it, and the engineering decision is simple – there’s no way to put a high quality 4K h.264 codec in a package with the size, weight, cost and power consumption of a DSLR. Still, I’m unconvinced by this engineering choice, and I suspect serious 1DC users will prefer offboard recording.

Speaking of offboard recording, AJA announced a 4K version of their Ki Pro recorder which they call the Quad, to be released in a few months. While their push at launch was for a pairing with the C500, I suspect that it might soon grow to work with other 4K devices – even things like JVC’s 4K offering, although that has four HDMI outputs and I’m not sure what the connectivity options would be. I certainly like the C500 plus Ki Pro Quad option, as a vastly more usable 4K camera system than anything Red have ever dreamed of. Again, it really comes down to the performance of C500. The competitive factor with Red is one really good reason to hope both Canon and AJA are successful, anyway, because that C500 configuration is going to be considerably cheaper than an Epic outfit and should offer somewhat competitive performance.

The wider effect of all these flash-based recorders is that things like the Sony SR-R1, designed for use on the F-series cameras, are starting to look very expensive. Fine, the Sony recorder has specialist integration with speed ramping and other features on the F cameras, and its reliability and performance will doubtless be beyond question, but at some point you’re paying a huge amount of money for a logo. It’s not even as if the leading manufacturers are really offering increased image quality. It’s a bugbear of mine that Panasonic’s AVC-series codecs, Sony’s SR tape and flash formats, and many independent manufacturers all use variations on MPEG-4, but variations which are mutually incompatible. Panasonic announced AVC Ultra at the show, a 12-bit codec with 4:4:4 RGB capability to be used in conjunction with its upcoming 4K Varicam. AVC Ultra is clearly intended to compete directly with codecs used by Sony on the SR Memory cards, so that’s yet another variation on MPEG-4 that isn’t compatible with anything else. Perhaps if people realized that just tweaking the encoder settings on an MPEG-4 codec isn’t something you could reasonably describe as innovative or clever or difficult to do, they wouldn’t be so impressed, and people wouldn’t keep reinventing the same codec.

Of course, politics and vendor lock-in are all huge factors here, but it seems terribly unsatisfactory that we can throw desktop computers together out of a collection of hugely complex parts from various manufacturers, but we can’t edit video without camera-specific modifications to the edit software. Ultimately, there are advantages for everyone to a unified workflow, because users of a particular NLE that doesn’t like one particular camera won’t overlook that camera. I hope, but don’t for a second expect, to see this situation improve.

Blackmagic Design launched a new camera at NAB 2012.
And to wrap up the most obvious, show-stopping stuff: perhaps one day Grant Petty will decide what Blackmagic Design, as a company, is actually for. Right now, I’d hate to be one of their competitors, because it’s impossible to tell what they’re going to do next. They’re certainly fast. It’s not directly camera-related, but they bought Teranex at the end of last year and have completely re-engineered their flagship standards converter device to use more modern silicon. This is more or less what they did with Da Vinci: purchase an ailing company, re-engineer its products, and sell them for vastly less money – it’s just that with Teranex they did this to a complex hardware device in thirteen weeks. Whatever Blackmagic are, they’re certainly embedded systems engineers.

This is an example of something that’s bothered me for years. Da Vinci, for instance, was a company almost entirely dependent on a very particular type of hardware engineering, and chose to ignore the warp-speed advances in computer graphics that would make that hardware obsolete and ultimately lead to their downfall. Like Teranex, what they were doing was not complex, it simply had to be done quickly, and once the silicon gets faster, the whole thing becomes trivial. There is a horrible tendency for companies that see themselves as high-end to do this; Avid and Pro Tools were and to some extent still are strange and exotic pieces of software with odd user interfaces and features stuck on with duct tape and crazy glue. More recent development tends to be easier to learn and use and cheaper to boot. To some degree, any application that’s used by people who are, for instance, editors first and computer users second, will suffer from a corporate reticence to change the things and risk alienating the user, but as Da Vinci found, that sort of desperate elitism is not indefinitely sustainable.

Or, to put it another way, independent filmmakers really can’t claim any more that it’s the lack of access to good, affordable camera and postproduction equipment, often with high-end performance, that’s making them suck. But I digress.

To touch on the wider issues surrounding Blackmagic and their string of acquisitions, they claim it’s not particularly expansionist corporate policy; more simply happenstance that attractive situations arose. Still, it’s difficult to consider the company without wondering what they’re going to buy next. I have visions of the future in which it’s possible to eat a quarter-pounder with cheese at BMD Burger.

Anyway, yeah, the camera. The numbers look good, especially compared to the price, but I’m slightly cautious. It has a rolling shutter – a really, really rolling shutter, perhaps as bad as some DSLRs although it’s difficult to be objective. It’s 2.5K pixels wide on a fairly small sensor, which is not incomparable to the density of photosites on the original Red sensor, which was noisy. They claim 13 stops of dynamic range and the sensitivity options in the menu go up to 1600, but until someone has the opportunity to shoot objective tests, it’s impossible to really evaluate. Blackmagic don’t seem to object to the idea that the camera is basically a Hyperdeck Shuttle recorder with a sensor slapped on the front, so presumably much of the system software is common and will be reliable.

Other than the currently-unknowable imaging performance issues, there are three problems: the power connector is a nasty, feeble, domestic DC jack, the case is shiny rather than black, and it reverses-out in the middle of bright highlights. The highlight reversal issue is very likely to be solvable in firmware, the shiny case problem is a forehead-slapping criticism that was received with “Of course! We’ll get right on that,” and the DC connector… well, yes, I know Lemos are expensive, but this really isn’t good enough, guys. It’s a camera, not an editor’s toy in a nice cosy post suite.

Otherwise, the only concern is about lens mounts. The mount on the sample I handled seemed to be a separate chunk of metal bolted on the front, presumably on the basis that they could then make others. The first mount available is EF, which is probably reasonable given the huge user base of those lenses. I would strongly suggest that the second mount to do is Micro 4/3, not because it’s particularly useful in itself, but because it can be readily adapted to more or less anything. They could even sell it with an approved adapter to the customer’s choice of mount.

The final big-camera news is Sony-related. There’s the usual yearly crop of new handycams and small, individual-reporter stuff which is really indistinguishable from what Canon and JVC do in the same market segment. What’s interesting is their announcement of a 4K, high frame rate camera, the NEX-FS700, capable of hundreds of frames a second at various resolutions. Really something like this boils down to a price-to-noise ratio; it will be expensive or it will be noisy, and the balancing act of that and your requirements really determine how useful it is.

Memories of Sony at NAB 2012 are dominated by something different, though, and not something that’s new. The F65 camera is not new and neither are the Trimaster series OLED displays. Both are individually excellent, and not horrendously expensive, at least for Sony products. In combination, though, I think these technologies do finally put the lie to the idea that film looks alive and video looks dead. The new ACES-related color handling helps; grading helps, lighting is critical. But ultimately, we’ve finally got to a point where every frame of this stuff can, with care, end up looking like high-end studio fashion photography, and it is beautiful, and beyond all the products and the numbers, that’s what it’s all about.

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