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Panavision 50th Anniversary: Technology


By Scott Lehane
Later this year, Panavision will bring a new digital cinematography camcorder to market: the Genesis camera. The development signals a paradigm shift in the industry as digital camera manufacturers try to match the quality as well as the functionality of a 35mm film camera. Panavision, of course, enters this market from a different perspective: It has an intimate familiarity with the film world, having supplied it with products for half a century.
“Digital moviemaking is a reality, and we felt we should design a digital camera that makes sense to filmmakers,” said Bob Beitcher, Panavision president and CEO.
Genesis features a Super 35mm-sized sensor (instead of the standard 2/3 inch image sensors found in video cameras) and a 35mm depth-of-field equivalent, which enables cinematographers to use existing spherical 35mm lenses, including Primo primes and zooms as well as support gear.
“We wanted to build a Panavision-style, cine-type camera that would use all the existing cine-style lenses,” explained John Galt, senior VP of Panavision’s Advanced Digital Imaging Group. “So the chip is the size of a 3-perf Super 35mm cine-frame in Genesis to capture all of the lenses including the zoom lenses.”
The Genesis camera captures at a resolution of 5716 x 2160 and records to a dockable Sony SRW-1 VTR. “It uses the studio level mpeg4 so it can actually record 4:4:4 at 10 bits per color and we do that in log space which is the equivalent of 14 bits per color in linear space,” explained Galt. In high-quality mode, it records at a 2:1 compression ratio, and in 4:2:2 mode records at 4:1. It also features dual link, HD SDI outputs to connect to external hard drives.
Galt, a former Sony veteran, worked on the design of the HDW-F900 24P camcorder. “In that instance we took a camcorder approach: it was an HDW 700, which was an interlaced HD 2/3-inch camcorder which recorded on HDCAM. We did that because we had no time. We had a year to build the camera and some high-performance optics to go with it. At that time, those cameras were being used for newsgathering and documentaries, so it was eventually a compromise format.”
Behind Genesis, however, are four years of R&D. “Design of the Genesis camera began when the technology that the design required hadn’t really been developed,” said Galt. “We wanted a lot of functionality that, even just five years ago, would have required a five-foot-high rack of equipment.”
According to Al Mayer Sr., Panavision’s senior VP of research and development, “The Genesis camera is coming very close to film. Of course, there is some new imaging technology coming and we want to be the leader, which we have always been in film cameras and film equipment. We want to be the leader in HD as well.”
But Mayer Sr. stressed that, “Film is going to be around for a long time. We’re still designing new film cameras.” For example, by the end of the year, Panavision plans to have available the Panaflex Millennium XL2, a successor to the popular Millennium XL.
When the Millennium was introduced in 1999, it became Panavision’s flagship camera. The enhanced XL2 camera represents the biggest sustained engineering project in company history, based on customer suggestions for new features and enhancements, including a higher top speed of 50fps, a new high-performance video-assist for brighter and sharper video, a choice of viewfinder image sizes in studio mode, and a simplified film-threading path.
Mayer Sr. has been working at Panavision since 1968; he joined to help design the original Panaflex. “That camera became famous. It was called a revolution in the industry,” he remembers. It was able to go from studio to handheld use in 60 seconds, which marked a major shift in camera design when it was released in 1972. And it weighed only 30 lbs. compared to the 100-lb. blimp cameras in use at the time.
Over the years, Mayer Sr. was involved in the design of other technology innovations such as the Panaflex Gold 1976, the Panaglobe and the Panaflex Panaglide 1978, the Panaflex 16 in 1981, the Panaflex Millennium camera system in 1997, and the Millennium XL camera system in 1999.
Today his son, Al Mayer Jr., serves as director of research and development at Panavision, working on new products like the Genesis and the XL2.
By Scott Lehane
When Panavision’s executive VP, optics research and development/chief technology officer, Iain Neil began working on leveraging some of Panavision’s Primo lens technology to apply to other markets, the highest available zoom lens on the broadcast market was under 100X.
Now, after four years of development, the company is releasing a 300X zoom lens (from 7mm to 2100mm) for sports broadcasting, newsgathering and the homeland security/surveillance market. “The idea was to take all of our Primo technology, which won all sorts of awards over the years, and migrate it into a product for another market, not the motion picture industry,” explained Neil.
National Mobile Television (NMT) recently signed with Panavision to be the exclusive rental agent for the lens in the sports broadcasting market. NMT specializes in providing mobile production facilities for live-event coverage. Compatible with the Thomson LDK 6000 HD camera, the 300X zoom will be available from NMT’s Los Angeles or New Jersey facilities when the lens becomes available later this year. NMT president Jerry Gepner said “NMT and Panavision are poised to become the hottest new production element to hit the market in years.”
But designing a 300X zoom lens is no small feat. To get to 300X Panavision had to invent a whole new optical design, which is still patent pending. “A 300X zoom is just not possible with the conventional optical approach,” explained Neil. “One of the characteristics of the new optical design is that there’s virtually no distortion throughout the zoom range. If it were a conventional design, there would be issues.
“If you look at any of these broadcast zoom lenses, they all have similar characteristics, and similar aberrations. We don’t have those problems because, by starting from scratch” he added. The lens is approximately three feet long and 85 lbs. in weight. Neil quipped, “The camera hangs on the back of the lens.”
In perfectly clear atmospheric conditions the lens is capable resolving six inches at 40 miles—the equivalent of reading a newspaper a mile away. In the sports arena, that could mean close-ups on the dimples in a golf ball.
According to Neil, the technology came about when Panavision started asking, “What do we want to do next? We’ve got the cine-market and cine-products. Do we want to try to get into another market with another product? We had our relationship with Sony developing a digital imaging system that includes our lenses and a Sony HD camera, which is used on a lot of TV shows. By working on the lenses and optics for those digital cameras we got acquainted with other markets, like broadcast.”
The lens offers a very wide field of view at the short focal length (25 percent wider than most competing lenses), continuous zoom without the use of drop-in extenders, continuous focusing through zoom, instantaneous optical breathing control at short focal lengths and low distortion over virtually all the zoom and focus ranges. And since it’s based on Panavision’s Primo lenses, it has very low veiling glare and ghosting attributes.
Other features include boresight stability through zoom, and an active closed-loop internal optical stabilization system. “In the object part of the lens we are using a fairly complex focusing system. We actually have multiple groups of lens elements moving in nonlinear complex motions,” explained Neil. “Existing box lenses don’t go this far, although cine lenses have the same arrangement—multiple focusing. So again, we took multiple focusing and said, ‘let’s put that in our 300X zoom.’ This means we can actually focus continuously from infinity down to about 8 feet. It’s a real departure from conventional optics.”

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