Talking to camera makers on the way into NAB, one message was overwhelmingly clear: HD is here. At last. Early adopters and even ordinary people are finally buying HD-ready screens in significant numbers – the Consumer Electronics Association indicates that 9 million U.S. households own some kind of DTV product, with another 5.8 million set to buy this year – and they’re starting to look for programming. That squalling consumer need is being answered by networks like VOOM and HDNet, which are shooting aggressively to generate fresh TV meat for hungry HD tuners. (See "HDTV 24/7" Film & Video, April 2004.) Figure in the growing movement toward digital production in Hollywood – where established film stylists such as Michael Mann and David Fincher are joining well-known digital visionaries like George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez as well as TV sitcoms in embracing cameras like the Grass Valley Viper, the Sony CineAlta HDCAM and the Panasonic VariCam – and it becomes apparent that the big push now is toward not just quality but also usability.
Designing and Redesigning the High End
If you spend much time talking to cinematographers, you’ve heard the repeated complaint that HD cameras haven’t been developed with the same sensibility as the film cameras they’re seeking to supplant. New high-end projects from Arri and Dalsa are aiming to change that. Arri’s D-20 is geared toward episodic production and replaces the familiar CCD technology with an Arri-designed single-chip CMOS sensor – which should go some distance toward solving problems that have plagued digital cinematographers, such as blooming in overexposed portions of the frame. The sensor is the same size as a frame of 35mm negative, and the camera body is based on Arri’s 435 ES. The idea behind using film cameras as a design base is to re-link traditional 35mm cine lenses and other accessories to digital cinematography.
The early version of the D-20 that was shown at IBC last year ran at frame rates anywhere from 1p to 72p, although it should be able to output at up to 90p by using three HD-SDI interfaces in parallel. We’re told that some recently shot test footage may make its way to Las Vegas, but at the very least, look for the same "functional model" that debuted at IBC to be on display. Actual production cameras aren’t expected until 2005.
Meanwhile, Dalsa’s high-resolution (4K by 2K) Origin camera project, targeted at feature-film production and high-end commercial work, is moving forward. Prototypes were deployed to Montreal in February to shoot a short film side-by-side with 35mm. Both formats will be output to both digital and film, and the results of that test will be seen at the SMPTE Saturday and Digital Cinema Summit events. Dalsa’s NAB message will shift this year from camera technology to workflow integration. In other words, the camera works – now what do you do with the stuff you get out of it?
On the broadcast side, the challenge for vendors is figuring out ways to get everyone in the industry up to HD speed quickly and painlessly. To that end, Thomson introduced the HD Production Kit, a new configuration in its line of Grass Valley TV Station in a Kit packages for HD and multi-format production. The kit includes two LDK 6000 mk II WorldCam HD cameras, the Kayak HD 1 M/E digital switcher, the Concerto Series multi-format router, the Kameleon Media Processing System, and the PVS 3000 Profile XP Media Platform, which can play out SD and HD from the same server.
But pressure in the camera market is coming from two directions. If the high end is demanding more dynamic range, more pixels in the frame, and more color information, most of the noise can be heard at the low end, where producers and DPs are clamoring for low-cost high-def solutions. Sony executives have been making coy reference to DVCAM’s "extension into HD," but weren’t making public details available of exactly what we might see at NAB.
But JVC is still sitting pretty with the unique JY-HD10U, a single-chip camcorder for the pro market that records a compressed HD image to DV tape in an MPEG-2-based transport stream, a format known as HDV. While the HD10U’s price (under $4000) might seem to position it as a prosumer product, JVC has higher aspirations for it. The camera was used last year to shoot a pilot for a midseason replacement on CBS that came in at a reported budget of just $150,000. With the new P+S Technik "Oszi" 400 series Mini35 lens adapter, you can even use the HD10U with 35mm film lenses (the Oszi also attaches to the Panasonic AG-DVX100 and the Sony PD170).
But while this camera may prove itself to be a nice shortcut on the road to full-blown HD production, the JVC camera launched last year falls short in one important regard – it can’t do 24p, and that’s a deal breaker for some. JVC won’t say so officially, but expect to see a 24p-capable version of the camera in Las Vegas.
While some users have groused about the image quality, the HDV format undeniably opens up new avenues for low-cost cinematography. It also creates new problems in the post process. How do you edit an HDV transport stream, anyway? JVC is striving to address that issue through a slew of NLE partnerships. CineForm has the Aspect HD plug-in for Adobe Premiere Pro, as well as a codec called Connect HD that feeds the signal to any HD-ready video app. Heuris has the Indie HD Toolkit and Pro Indie HD Toolkit, which act as intermediaries between the HD10U and Final Cut Pro. Lumiere Media’s Lumiere system converts the HDV data to an SD proxy, then autoconforms the edited footage. Ulead Systems offers native HDV support in MediaStudio Pro 7, and AJA Video Systems has a 10-bit A-to-D box that converts HDV to HD-SDI for use in high-end editing apps.
To date, you’d think HDV was solely a JVC initiative, but the format was developed in cooperation with Sony, Canon and Sharp. That makes the big question heading into NAB what kind of support HDV will see from those other vendors. Sony hasn’t announced an HDV camera, but the format is being built into Vegas Video, part of the Sonic Foundry line-up Sony Pictures Digital bought last year and officials said privately that a Sony HDV camera of some kind would debut at the show.
Speaking of Sony, the company will show a new HD camera aimed at weather-cam, traffic-cam and POV applications that measures just four by four by seven inches. The HDC-X300 handles common frame rates up to 1080i/p and is designed for high performance in low-light conditions. It ships in June for around $20,000.
Life at SD, Without Tape
SD cameras are still set to raise a ruckus on the show floor, with the two tapeless ENG alternatives that squared off last year continuing to throw blows at each other. Sony’s NAB line-up will focus attention on XDCAM, its just-shipped camcorder format that records to a 23.3 GB blue-laser disc along with a low-bitrate proxy stream for editing. (The PDW510 DVCAM-only model lists for $19,900, while the PDW530 adds MPEG IMX and runs $34,000.) Meanwhile, rival Panasonic will campaign for the DVCPRO P2 system, which records to a set of up to five solid-state memory cards that are inserted into the camera itself. (The AJ-PDX800 DVCPRO P2 camcorder lists for $19,500 and ships in May.)
Panasonic’s system is perhaps the more revolutionary. The lack of any moving parts means that the camera remains impervious to shock and vibration and runs utterly silently. However, solid state isn’t cheap. Panasonic plans to introduce 4 GB P2 cards at a price somewhere between $2000 and $2200. It’s possible that price may change before the official P2 launch – and negotiated deals on media may soften the blow somewhat – but as it stands right now, loading the camera with a set of five cards will necessitate a $10,000 to $11,000 investment. Panasonic puts a positive spin on this by claiming that, over the long haul, the P2 system will have a reduced cost of ownership over traditional systems, not only because maintenance costs will be significantly lower but also because owners will reuse P2 media rather than continuously buying blanks. Furthermore, the continued use of SD cards in consumer applications only stands to bring the media price down. Then again, XDCAM owners can re-use XDCAM discs, which only cost about $30, and Sony offers a seven-year warranty on the optical drive power-train systems inside the cameras.
Both systems have a clear path to HD, which will be adopted as soon as it becomes cost-effective to release new media types (dual-layer XDCAM discs or higher-density P2 memory cards) that have the capacity to handle it. Look for Sony, at least, to show an early version of HD XDCAM at its booth, with production models slated for no sooner than 2005. (Again highlighting the early demand for 24p SD acquisition, Sony is offering an optional 24p card for the XDCAM line at a list price of around $2500.) Panasonic also emphasizes the frame-rate independence of P2 media and says it could be applied to a VariCam, for example, once capacities increase and prices come down.
If you’re looking at either XDCAM or P2, the real questions have to do with your comfort level with the different technologies and their implications on workflow. Both systems offer you nonlinear access to your clips, which you can select from thumbnails on the camera’s LCD screen. Buying a P2 system might mean you’ll be treating data like a hot potato – pull the stuff you need off of those expensive memory cards as quickly as possible so you can stick them back in the camera and shoot more footage. To make this as painless as possible, Panasonic also has the AJ-PCD10 drive, which holds five P2 cards, as well as the AJ-SPD850 P2 studio recorder, which can accommodate a DVD burner – allowing data to be archived to cheap discs 4 GB at a time.
Buying an XDCAM system makes it easier to use your in-camera media for on-the-shelf storage, at least as long as you’re comfortable spending $30 a pop for 23 GB discs. (In terms of capacity, the two formats are similar. Five 4 GB P2 cards will hold 80 minutes of DVCPRO 25 or 40 minutes of DVCPRO 50 footage, while one XDCAM disc holds 85 minutes of DVCAM video, and 75, 55 or 45 minutes of MPEG IMX video at 30, 40 and 50 Mb/sec, respectively.) Elsewhere in the SD realm, Panasonic is busy with the introduction of the AJ-SDC615 DVCPRO and AJ-SDC905 DVCPRO50 camcorders, the first DVCPRO cameras with IEEE-1394 I/O. They’re designed to replace Betacam SP units and ship in October and November for $14,900 and $18,900, respectively.
The AG-DVX100 and DVX100A are popular cameras among indie filmmakers, but shooting anamorphic widescreen images can drive you crazy. Century Optics is debuting a 16×9 widescreen eyepiece for both cameras that slips on the viewfinder and unsqueezes the anamorphic image. Century is also showing the new 2x HR Tele-Converter for 27mm-37mm front-thread camcorders as well as the 1.6x LC Tele-Converter and.8X LC Wide-Converter for 18x/19x Canon IF Pro and 10x/20x Fujinon Pro Classic lenses.
Lens Me Your Ear
Cooke Optics is introducing its new S4/i Electronic Lens system, which gives DPs and camera operators real-time information on lens setting, focusing distance, aperture and depth-of-field. The system is compatible with the Arricam Lens Data System, which means information from the Cooke S4/i will be available directly from the Arri Lens Mount contacts. The readout also shows entrance pupil and angle of view, which can lead to significant time savings on a motion-control shoot.
Finally, how much zoom do you need? Panavision is introducing a 300:1 zoom lens (7mm to 2100mm) targeted at the sports broadcasting, news gathering, homeland security and surveillance markets. The company began researching the lens four years ago, and has applied for a patent on the proprietary design. The lens will ship later this year at a price to be announced. Also at NAB will be Fujinon’s HA18x7.6BERM/BERD, a new 7.6 mm to 137mm ENG/EFP HD zoom lens. The HAs18x7.6MD is a version of the same lens designed specifically for remote-control applications such as sports and robotic studios.
Big Questions You’ll Want the Answers To
- How will new ideas in image acquisition like P2 and XDCAM affect your workflow?
- Where’s the sweet spot in HD price to performance?
- What’s the promise of next-generation systems like the Dalsa Origin and the Arri D-20?
- That camera may shoot HD, but does it shoot 24p?
- How viable is HDV?