True variable frame rates, like the VariCam; SD/HD switchable; being able to record 1080/24p (and 30p and 60i) HD-all for under $6,000
With the introduction of Panasonic’s new $5,995 AG-HVX200-which won’t be available until later this fall-it’s obvious the company is playing for keeps. First, Panasonic has combined some of the most sought-after features of the two most popular pro HD cameras, its own $70,000 VariCam and the $100,000 Sony CineAlta. Second, it has kept many of the DVX100’s best features and packaged them all in a lightweight camera that’s only slightly bigger than its DV cousin. Panasonic will offer a special package that includes two 8 GB P2 cards for $9,999-what you’ll get for that price is mind-blowing.
True variable frame rates are what make this camera rock. Like the VariCam, which can record frame rates from 4 to 60 fps, the HVX gives shooters a wide variety of frame rates to choose from. When shooting high-definition video at 720p, it can record at 24p, 30p and 60p, but also at a staggering variety of frame rates in-between. You know what that means: superb frame-accurate film-style slow motion, which no other camera, except, of course, the VariCam, can touch.
In addition to the incredibly flexible 720p recording mode, the HVX200 becomes the first camera under $100,000 to record high-definition 1080/24p. Prior to this release, if you wanted to record 1080/24p, you had one option: Sony’s CineAlta, a $100,000 digital cinema camera used for theatrical feature films such as Star Wars: Episode II and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Panasonic has now lowered the bar of entry for 1080/24p from $100,000 down to under $6,000-and, like the CineAlta, you also get 30p and 60i. At the risk of inflaming both Panasonic and Sony, I’m tempted to nickname this wunderkam the "VariAlta."
DVX100 Familiarity, with a P2 Twist
Though it’s physically bigger and more ergonomically designed, the HVX200 retains the general look and all the best features of the DVX100, including CineGamma, CineMatrix, the Scene File Dial, true manual zoom, precise manual focus, the excellent stock wide-angle 4.5mm Leica lens, and, in my humble opinion, the best audio subsystem on any prosumer camera. But the HVX200 adds a longer zoom range (13x, as opposed to 10x on the DVX, for a focal range of 4.5mm to 58.5mm; this gives you a shallower depth of field); 16:9 CCDs for native 16:9 recording in either high-definition or standard-def; and, in addition to DV, you can now record DVCPRO50 and DVCPRO HD. What you can record on has changed dramatically, too: In addition to MiniDV tape, this camcorder records onto a P2 solid-state memory card that slips inside an on-camera slot. You can also record or transfer footage directly to an optional external FireWire hard disk.
The list goes on. There’s more audio (you can also record up to four tracks of audio at once); more control of features remotely (in addition to the familiar remote zoom jack, the HVX provides for remote focus and, get this, remote iris control); and more feedback. In addition to the familiar distance scale for focusing, the HVX200 now reads out the focus distance in feet and meters.
If you’re familiar with the DVX100 series of cameras, you’ll feel right at home with the HVX200. The HVX has all the same, familiar manual controls and switches, and uses a familiar menu system. It fits well in the hands, and the support pillar that attaches the handle to the body is now curved, angling away from the body. This means that when you’re looking through the viewfinder with your right eye, your left eye is free to see the entire frame in front of you: it’s no longer blocked by the vertical pillar. Another great ergonomic change is the higher viewfinder. With your eye pressed to the viewfinder, you’ll find that your elbow is nicely nestled into your body, making for much more comfortable operation for long shoots.
The LCD is a 3.5-inch 4:3 LCD panel. Why 4:3? We asked ourselves that same question-4:3 seems like an awfully silly choice for a native 16:9 camcorder, doesn’t it? Not when you see that the camera displays the full 16:9 image on the LCD, and uses the area above and below the image (the "letterbox" area) for all the stats, readouts and displays. No more cluttered image or trying to guess what’s hidden under the timecode or aperture display. Now you can have full monitoring of all camera functions, and full picture display, simultaneously. Add to that full underscan (for viewing the entire frame edge to edge); a focus assist function (for easy, precise, pixel-accurate focus even without an external high-def monitor, which is available during standby and recording); and peaking and zebras available simultaneously, and you’ve got one incredible camera experience. I also think that the 4:3 shape is perfect for displaying the thumbnail previews of all the clips when previewing P2 card content.
P2 Recording-and Dubbing to your iPod
Having already used P2, all I can say is, P2 changes the way you work. With the introduction of P2, Sony’s introduction of XDCAM, and with JVC implementing onboard hard-disk recording, tape’s days are definitely coming to a close. It’s also the very nature of P2 that even allowed this camera to come into being, and to support the various frame rates, resolutions, and recording types that it does. Think about it: A DVCPRO HD tape deck costs over $25,000 by itself. By choosing to record to P2 instead of tape, Panasonic brings full-fledged DVCPRO HD to a camera that costs less than $6,000. Another great feature made possible by the P2 system is pre-record (in effect, caching what the camera sees before you hit the record button), though you can get the same feature on other DV and HDV cameras if you use a direct-to-edit hard-disk like the FireStore FS-4.
You can also do real-time downconversion from the P2 card to DV tape, which let’s you bring great effects like slo-mo down from HD to SD. Buttons on the back of the camera let you control dubbing from the card to the tape, and convert from the high-definition DVCPRO HD image to standard-definition DV while preserving timecode. If you shoot in 720p at variable frame rates, you can downconvert that to DV and bring slo-mo on down to standard-def. The camera can also dub footage from the P2 card directly to an iPod, or to an external USB hard disk.
The Playing Field
Now that there are essentially three major contenders in the budget HD space, comparing formats and feature sets could shed light on what you actually get for your money. First, there are the recording formats to consider. The Sony FX1 and Z1 record HDV at 1080i. The JVC uses ProHD at 720p. ProHD is basically HDV with an extension to allow 24p recording. The Panasonic uses DVCPRO HD, which has been around for about four years. HDV is a brand new format, and ProHD is even newer than HDV.
All three cameras offer uncompressed high-definition output on the component video outputs, though the Sony, offering only 1080i, is the most limited. For the vast majority of users, however, uncompressed output is likely to be completely irrelevant. But for live studio switching, having more options could be invaluable.
The multiple frame rates found on the HVX200, in my opinion, open it up to a wider variety of potential users. Sony’s 1080i gives you an interlaced "video look," but processing that footage in post to simulate 24p, which many fine programs let you do, still means that resolution is sacrificed in the final output. The JVC HD100 shoots progressive only, at 24p or 30p, but there’s no provision made for the video look, which would require 60p or 60i, and therefore takes it out of the running to shoot reality TV and event coverage.
DVCPRO HD vs. HDV
As I’ve discussed in this magazine before, I believe that DVCPRO HD is a much more robust format than HDV. DVCPRO HD records twice as much color information, and doesn’t suffer from any MPEG motion artifacts that some have witnessed in footage from the JVC and Sony cameras. The HVX200 also offers a low-compression (3.3:1) high-color-resolution SD recording format, DVCPRO50. For all you DigiBeta hold outs, this is something to seriously consider: DVCPRO50 is approximately equivalent to Digital Betacam as a recording medium, and offers 4:2:2 color sampling and very mild compression, for exceptionally clean, rich standard-definition recording. This should also make for superb DVDs.
Then there’s the audio quality, which was consistently praised in the DVX100. The HDV format specifies that two tracks of audio (one stereo pair) are recorded in 16-bit 48KHz, and then compressed at a ratio of 4:1 using MPEG-1 Layer II audio compression. The Sony and the JVC both adhere to this specification, and consequently, when shooting high-definition video, can only offer compressed audio. The HVX200, on the other hand, records four tracks of audio (or two stereo pairs) in 16-bit 48KHz quality, completely uncompressed.
Ultimately, it all comes down to the feature sets you value most. Do you absolutely have to record to tape? Would you be lost on a shoot without an interchangeable lens and shoulder mount? Do you live and die on 24p film-look footage? Will slo-mo give your footage an edge over the competition? Is color resolution too important to sacrifice? These are all important questions you need to ask before investing in one of the budget HD cameras. And of course, you should always take the footage test first. If you don’t like what you see, then every one of these features is irrelevant.
This Just In: SONY HVR-A1U
As we went to press in May, Sony introduced yet another new member to its expanding family of HDV camcorders. The HVR-AIU has nearly an identical feature set as the HVR-ZIU, yet, thanks to a proprietary lower-voltage CMOS sensor and advanced imaging chip, it is half the size and weighs only 1.5 pounds, something even your Sherpa can love. In fact, Sony reps expect this mini cam will get a shot at all kinds of stunt-inspired shoots, whether up the face of a mountain, out of the hatch of a helicopter or on the hood of a race car. Sony pairs its CMOS sensor and its own Enhanced Imaging Processor (EIP) to produce a wide dynamic range for more natural, richer tones in both light and dark areas of footage-and stills, which it also captures-simultaneously. The CMOS circuitry consumes less power than traditional CCDs, so the smaller batteries needed actually last longer. The price has shrunk, too: The HVR-AIU is expected to ship this fall for about $3,500. A consumer version, the HDR-HC1 Handycam, will be released this summer.