Camera News: More Blackmagic Updates, ARRI Supports SxS Pro+, Red Dragon on The Knick, and More

Once upon a time, you bought a camera and made the most of the investment, putting up with any feature limitations until it made financial sense to invest in a more current model. But in the new camera landscape, you don't always have to buy new hardware to get new features — just download the latest firmware. (Sometimes it's even free!) Here's a look at new camera updates from Blackmagic Design, ARRI, and unofficial Canon EOS firmware provider Magic Lantern, plus a few more news briefs from the world of cinematography.

Blackmagic Firmware v1.9.3 Adds HUD to BMCC, Pocket Cinema Camera
Blackmagic brings a new histogram display, audio meters, and time-remaining indicators to the Blackmagic Cinema Camera and Pocket Cinema Camera with its latest firmware update. (The Blackmagic Production Camera 4K got the same upgrade last month.) The new display is accessed on the BMCC by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, or, if a manual lens is mounted, simply hitting the Iris button. On the Pocket Cinema Camera, the Up and Down buttons show and hide the display. Blackmagic has also added new options for white balance and shutter angle, and fixed a ProRes bug that affected in-camera playback.

ARRI Alexa Update to Support Sony SxS Pro+ Cards, Plus ProRes 4444 XQ
ARRI entered the second public beta phase with its new software update packet (SUP), v10.0. We don't recommend you go out and install beta software on your production camera, but this should mean a stable release is right around the corner. The latest feature to be added is support for Sony SxS Pro+ memory cards, which come in 64 GB and 128 GB versions. As promised, this update will support the new Apple ProRes 4444 XQ codec, but something had to go — ProRes 422 LT and ProRes 422 Proxy are being removed from all Alexa cameras, according to the official release notes [PDF]. Other added features include 180-degree image rotation for use on Steadicam as well as with ARRI's 9.5-18mm ultra-wide zoom lens, support for two independent HD-SDI outputs on a broader range of recording modes, and faster switching between regular and high-speed mode (now down to about 20 seconds).

Magic Lantern Says it Has Pushed Canon 5D Mark III to Shoot 1080p Raw at 40fps
At Planet5D, Barry Andersson noticed that Magic Lantern's custom firmware now claims to support shooting 1080p raw footage at 40fps on the Canon 5D Mark III. That's not exactly a game-changer, but it could come in handy for mild slo-mo effects — and, as Andersson notes, if you plan to fake real slow-motion in post, those extra frames will give your software a lot more information to work with. (If you haven't loaded Magic Lantern's code onto your Canon DSLR yet, be aware that it's unsupported by Canon and will void your warranty.)

Maxell Becomes Latest Maker of Camera Gear
Media storage specialist Maxell, still probably best-known for its run as a high-end audiocassette manufacturer in that formats 1980s heyday, is reinventing itself as a maker of pro camera accessories. It's debuting a line of power shoe adapters, a shoe clamp, power connectors, and a USB charge adapter that allows a smartphone or tablet to be charged using a camera battery. 

Writer Jack Amiel on The Knick, the Red Dragon Camera, and Why the Eyes Have It
Director Steven Soderbergh makes his Cinemax series The Knick look unlike anything else on television, and writer Jack Amiel, one of the show's creators, thinks it has a lot to do with the Red Dragon camera's low-light capabilities, and what that means for the actors on set. From an interview with NPR:

The dim lighting was Steven Soderbergh's brilliant choice and it was real. This was not an era when you had high-wattage light bulbs and everything was lit. It was an era when this was all new and not everything was wired for electricity and we wanted the reality of the darkness and the grit and what life really was like. Technology, ironically, helped with this because Steven uses the camera called the Red Dragon and it has such an incredibly sensitive light sensor that you can be in a room where two characters are only lit by one candle in the center of the table and you can shoot that scene. It can bring more light or less light. It is extraordinary. And so Steven really took advantage of that and allowed us to see what the darkness really was back then. And I think it's wonderful. I think it's something you don't see in anything else. Steven also mentioned something that I thought was really interesting, which is that he kept trying to figure out why there was a different quality to the show than anything he'd done before. And when he was editing it he kept looking at it. And what he noticed was that the actors' eyes were different, and it was because they weren't in bright light. So instead of dialing down their pupils, they were wide open. And it had a whole different effect and a sense of openness that I don't think many other productions have ever been able to capture.

New episodes of the current 10-episode season of The Knick premiere every Friday night on Cinemax.

Film’s Not Dead Yet: Four Reasons Why

The demise of 35mm film has been so widely reported by now that it's easy to believe film has been completely supplanted by digital cameras and projectors. But that's not quite true. News broke last week that 35mm negative stock had a new lease on life, as a coalition of Hollywood studios made a financial commitment to keep it alive for a few more years, and there are even places where you can still see a movie projected in 35mm, if you know where to look. We don't want to overstate the case — film really is on the ropes in a digital era. But here are some reasons filmmakers and film fans alike still have a shot at making the most of the last days of film.
Hollywood's finest won't let it go. 
Famous filmmakers have convinced Hollywood studios to keeping Kodak's film factory running. The Wall Street Journal last week revealed "secret negotiations" between Kodak on one side and Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount, Disney, and The Weinstein Company on the other to keep Kodak in the film-manufacturing business. Basically, the studios are committing to purchase set quantities of film stock over the next several years on behalf of directors who may use it. Among the filmmakers lobbying for the deal were Quentin Tarantino, Judd Apatow, J.J. Abrams, and Christopher Nolan, all of whom have continued to work in 35mm. In fact, Tarantino is promising to shoot his next film, The Hateful Eight, in 70mm, and that's Nolan at the top of this page, on location with an IMAX camera for his November release, Interstellar. And Martin Scorsese yesterday released a statement in support of the Kodak deal. "Young people who are driven to make films should have access to the tools and materials that were the building blocks of that art form," he said. "Would anyone dream of telling young artists to throw away their paints and canvases because iPads are so much easier to carry? Of course not."
It's not just for Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese.
Sure, J.J. Abrams can throw a little weight around and get the greenlight to shoot Star Wars 7 on film. But 35mm remains viable even for indie projects. With the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign and support from Panavision's New Filmmaker Program, which loans 16mm and 35mm camera equipment to low-budget projects, Washington, D.C. filmmaker Zeresenay Berhane Mehari was able to direct Difret on location in Ethopia, shooting 35mm film and sending it to India for processing. The film premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic category, and it is making the rounds of festivals with Angelina Jolie's name attached as executive producer. Not bad for a tiny film.

Film prints aren't extinct — just an endangered species.
It might seem like every cineplex in the land has transitioned to digital projection, but there are some hold-outs. At the end of 2013, according to research firm IHS, there were still 2,969 35mm-only screens in the U.S. In the New York metro area, Cinemart Cinemas in Forest Hills, Queens, is reportedly one of the last film-based theaters, leading some filmsick movie buffs to make the pilgrimage specifically to see a movie in 35mm. You'll also be able to see film projected in all its glory in November, when IMAX books 15-perf 70mm film prints of Nolan's Interstellar in "somewhere around 50" theaters, film site Collider reported in June. If you love film projection, enjoy it while you can — passion projects won't keep IMAX-format projectors running indefinitely, and distributors have been itching to discontinue 35mm entirely.
Film archives have a (much) longer life than digital archives.
Movies need to be archived somehow, and filmmakers who rely on digital masters as their "archive" may be courting disaster. As the Academy wrote in its Digital Dilemma 2 report issued in 2012, "Suitable long-term preservation and access mechanisms for digital motion picture materials have not yet been developed." Converting that color digital master to black-and-white separation film is a good way to get it into an archival format, and with that in mind, Kodak recently developed two new archival film stocks. As Kodak film exec Andrew Evenski reminded us late last year, "film offers a standardized, human-readable format that has been in existence for well over a century, and methods for retrieving content from a 35mm frame will exist well into the future." Even the recent digital-transition documentary Side by Side was eventually committed to film stock for the archives.

Blackmagic Expands ProRes Support, DJI Has a New MoVI Competitor, and More

From formats to flight plans, here's a round-up of this week's news for cinematographers.
Blackmagic Expands ProRes Support in BMCC, Pocket, and 4K Cameras
Blackmagic's latest firmware upgrade, v1.8.2, extends the company's support for Apple ProRes formats. Previously, users had the choice of recording CinemaDNG raw or compressed ProRes 422 HQ. The new firmware release adds a slate of lower-bandwidth codecs, including ProRes 422, ProRes 422 LT, and ProRes 422 Proxy. Your mileage may vary, but ProRes 422 LT is generally thought of as a pretty respectable codec for undemanding imagery. Many shooters will draw the line at 422 Proxy, which is generally considered an offline editing format and unsuitable for use in a final deliverable — but in a pinch, you can now fit nearly four hours of talking-head footage on a single 64 GB SD card if you're willing to go that low. (Just don't try to push the image in post.) Blackmagic users are discussing the new options at the company's Cinematography Forum. Read more:
In other Blackmagic news, the company is running a half-price sale on its Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, bringing the price down to a ridiculous $495 through August 31. If you've been considering it, now's the time to pull the trigger, especially if you happen to be sitting on a collection of MFT glass.Think how much footage you can accumulate with the new, lower-bandwidth recording options — why leave home without a camera in your pocket?
DJI Introduces Competitor for the MoVI M5
Cinematography drone specialist DJI introduced the DJI Ronin, a three-axis stabilized handheld gimbal. The Ronin has a payload of up to 16 pounds, meaning it can hold cameras ranging in size up to the Red Epic. Like the MoVI, the Ronin has a single-operator mode called Smoothtrack that aims to translate the operator's movements into smooth motion, but the rig is likely at its best in dual-operator mode, where a second person remotely controls the precise camera angle via an included transmitter with pan, tilt and roll controls. The rig's settings can be changed on-the-fly via Bluetooth using an iPhone app. Hitting the market at a street price under $3,000, the Ronin is getting an aggressive push as a direct competitor to MoVI M5 from Freefly Systems. Read more:
Don't Ditch That Drone
Speaking of DJI and its drones, Eric Reagan at Photography Bay has a good post looking at the potential for DJI Phantom "flyaways" — basically, a sudden loss of control that could lead to loss, damage, or (in the worst case) human injury — and offering a few tips for helping to ensure a successful flight. Read more: How to Prevent Flyaways with DJI Phantom Quadcopters.
MoVI Gets Ready to Ship Optional MoVI Controller
The latest firmware upgrade for the MoVI family of stabilizers has been upgraded to support the forthcoming MoVI Controller, first shown at NAB 2014. It offers access to pan, tilt, and roll, displays real-time telemetry from the MoVI, and allows adjustments to key MoVI parameters. In the future, it's slated to include focus, iris and zoom control via a dedicated three-channel MoVI FIZ system. Paired with a single IDX battery, it can power an LCD monitor and wireless system. The MoVI Controller is expected to start shipping next week, and AbelCine has more details at its CineTechnica blog. Read more: Freefly Systems' Firmware v3.08 Adds Support for New MoVI Controller.
Cinemartin Launches FLEC Universal Base Plate
Cinemartin is bringing its first physical product to market — a 15mm universal baseplate. It's designed for use with small and medium cameras and sports a tool-less design that lets users adjust positions using nuts and screws rather than Allen wrenches. It's available as a €99 one-piece baseplate or in a €229 kit that includes an additional top-cover piece allowing more adjustability. Read more:
Bonus Video: Watch This Octopus Start to Dismantle an Underwater Camera Housing

The Golden Pixie Awards

I know a lot of you are up to date on all the new 3D tools, but some of you are not. There are so many tools these days that it can be overwhelming. For example, when I first started covering the VFX Industry in its infancy, I covered all the available software. Mostly at first 3D Studio, a powerful but awkward DOS program, and eventually LightWave, a cumbersome multi-app package that had a killer render engine. The serious 3D packages only ran on expensive computers in those days.

But back then I was a columnist at Animation Magazine and covered them all, from Alias Wavefront and Softimage to 3D Studio and even Caligari trueSpace! Back in the day, I used to give out a limited number of “Peter Plantec's Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards.” They were cherished, and the Golden Pixie Logo was printed on many software and hardware boxes then. I wish I had a picture.

When I left Animation Magazine, I stopped awarding them, but I think it's time to start recognizing this kind of excellence again. I use the award to bring a little bit of the spotlight to excellent products and devices that may be less well known, or are just so spectacular or industry-leading that they need to be included.

This year, I'm looking closely at the following: the open-source Blender, The Foundry Modo, Marmoset Toolbag 2, the Quixel Suite, Pixologic ZBrush, E-on Vue and Plant Factory, Allegorithmic Substance Painter, Headus UVLayout Professional, xNormal and CrazyBump. I also decided to take a quick look at Daz 3D Daz Studio. Along with Blender, it's free and represents a lot of value. I also have to look at Adobe's Creative Cloud suite and possibly The Foundry's Mari. For the new test bed computer, I'm looking at Nvidia's Quadro 5000, which has a significant performance boost over the previous Quadro 5000, especially where hardware rendering is involved.

I wish I had time for more, but I also co-chair Mundos Digitales in Spain, which is coming up fast as I write this. [It happened last weekend, while this blog entry was in the Studio posting queue. - Ed.] So I keep pretty busy.

I'm Already Quixel-Titillated
Anyway. I'm not ready to give any awards yet as I'm still examining. But I'm falling rapidly in love with the Quixel Suite of texture tools, NDO, DDO, 3DO and MEGASCANS. As I understand it, this remarkable suite of tools was developed for the game industry and plays very nicely with Marmoset Toolbag 2 and the Unity game engine.

The thing is, these tools that are actually a set of very sophisticated photoshop plug-ins work with Megascan materials — IMHO, the best on the planet. Even in my non-professional hands, I can get amazing results. DDO is a smart texture tool. It analyzes your mesh and adapts the texture to match it. It can handle many layers, putting real wear and tear in exactly the right places. 3DO is a real-time PBR engine for Photoshop that produces real-time results that are hard to believe. I'm getting so used to it that waiting to see results in other applications drives me nuts.

I'm just learning this new terminology. Apparently the game industry render world uses different terms than the film world. I suggest you learn them. For example, the color map is called an albedo map. But not always. Go figure. But don't take my word for it. According to Wikipedia, albedo has to do with reflection coefficients. So color me a novice here. Also, there are roughness maps that are different from specular maps. You guys know all this, but this is the first time I've started looking into game tools. This blog is just a teaser for what is to come.

Here is one of my first attempts to do a serious photoreal hard-surface texture. The sci-fi helmet I've been experimenting on was created in ZBrush by Michael Pavlovich. I think the before and after tell the story of Quixel. I only used a single smart texture on this, but now I'm working on isolating and separately texturing various components. Look at the surface detail. (Click the image to enlarge.)

At the moment, I'm dealing with the latest Microsoft Windows 7 update, which causes my computer to not boot. I restore it and when I shut off at night, Microsoft again updates and next morning … won't boot. Have to restore again. I don't use Windows 8 on the test bed computer because I think it's unreliable and wonky. I know because I put it on my personal computer and regret it.

Have fun this summer.


EBU to TV Industry: Next-Gen Broadcast Standards Need More than Just 4K Resolution

The European Broadcasting Union has criticized the consumer electronics industry, arguing that the push to increase TV resolution may come at the expense of equally significant advancements in color, dynamic range and audio. In a policy statement issued last week, the group said focusing on 4K resolution as the sole defining characteristic of next-generation television hardware may undermine the success of new broadcast services.

Instead, the EBU Technical Committee argued for the inclusion of higher frame rates, increased image contrast, better color and more immersive audio in future broadcast standards. And the group even went one step further, suggesting the development of an "enhanced 1080p" broadcast format that would include certain UHDTV parameters such as high frame rates, extended dynamic range, and wider color gamuts, without embracing 4K resolution.

The organization didn't exactly sound an alarm in its statement, but it did note in a single bullet point that broadband services including YouTube, Netflix and Amazon seem to be ready to deliver some of these extended parameters for picture quality that the broadcast industry is, as yet, unprepared to address. For example, Dolby Vision (we've written a little more about that here) is expressly designed to dramatically increase the dynamic range of encoded video images, but there are no guidelines yet on how that kind of technology might be integrated with next-generation broadcasts.

The statement also acknowledges the headlong rate of technological announcement, noting that 8K "Super Hi-Vision" is expected to go online in Japan just in time for the 2020 Olympics and wondering about that system's impact on the rest of the world.

Does the EBU have a point? Sure. Even at 1080p, there's plenty of room for improvement over standard HDTV broadcasts, especially when compression artifacts in challenging shots (strobe lights, rainfall, confetti) threaten to reduce the entire screen to a checkerboard of macroblocks. And high dynamic range imagery really can be breathtaking, giving TV more of that looking-out-the-window quality.

But even though it would be a shame for the industry to advance to 4K broadcasts that emphasize more pixels rather than better pixels, you have to wonder how much time it will really take for the broadcast industry to sort out all of these different picture enhancements. (Enough time for some enterprising TV-maker to leapfrog the standard and start selling 8K TVs? Maybe.)

We're honoring the EBU's explicit request that the document not be quoted in part, but you can download the whole thing as a PDF from the EBU website.

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