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NAB 2007

Jun 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By D. W. Leitner, Jan Ozer, Dan Ochiva, and Jeff Sauer

Impressive new offerings at reasonable prices.


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Navigation
Introduction
Digital Nation
Editing and Output
Store and Forward
High-impact LCDs

Silicon Imaging's SI-2K Mini (at right) with the P+S Technik universal lens mount adapter (at left).
Photo by D. W. Leitner

Digital Nation

By D. W. Leitner

If you love the idea of digital cinema cameras and were awake in April, you no doubt already know most everything there is to know about Red Digital Cinema's tour de force at NAB. Although production cameras have yet to be delivered, Red did deliver on founder Jim Jannard's promise last NAB to produce working single-CMOS 4K cameras and file-based RAW capture by this NAB. That was evidenced by the NAB screenings of director Peter Jackson's 12-minute Crossing the Line, a WWI battlefield and aerial dogfight drama shot with a pair of prototype Red One cameras called “Boris” and “Natasha.” (4K projection was Sony SXRD; see more at blog.digitalcontentproducer.com/nab/category/david-leitner.) When production cameras become available, Red will have demonstrated to the world that 4K PL-mount digital cameras with 35mm-sized CMOS sensors can be produced at a price associated with conventional ENG camcorders ($22,000, including viewfinder and onboard 320GB hard disk recorder).

What's more, Crossing the Line was edited with a test version of a future Final Cut Pro (FCP) release. When this future FCP release is made available, Red's offline editing workflow, demonstrated in the Red tent, will consist of attaching a Red disk drive or flash mag via FireWire 400 or 800 to a MacBook Pro or Mac Pro, then dragging compressed Redcode RAW clips directly to the timeline. These clips will open as uncompressed and demosaiced 1K or 2K proxies, depending upon the Mac used. If less-than-4K results are acceptable (namely HD), then transcoding 4K Redcode RAW to Apple ProRes 422 upon import will provide an online HD workflow.

Red Digital Cinema Red One
Photo by D. W. Leitner

All of this threatens to overturn the apple cart of far costlier PL-mount digital cinema cameras (Dalsa Origin; Arriflex D-20; and the Panavision Genesis, which uses Panavision mount) and B4-mount cameras (Grass Valley Viper FilmStream and the new Sony F23) — which cost, if for sale, orders of magnitude more.

A kindred spirit to Red was found at the Silicon Imaging booth. The company attempted a similar feat with its 2/3in. single-CMOS cameras, the SI-2K ($23,500, 7in. touchscreen LCD, no disk recorder) and SI-2K Mini ($14,500). Both have received impressive makeovers by Munich's P+S Technik, announced at the show as Silicon Imaging's “strategic partner.” The SI-2K Mini is not much more than a 2/3in. 1920×1080 AltaSens CMOS in a shell, but the full SI-2K contains embedded versions of Iridas' SpeedGrade OnSet for adding nondestructive color correction and “looks” to unaltered RAW files while shooting, and 10-bit CineFormRAW for then compressing RAW files to disk. Also notable are P+S Technik's universal lens mount adapter, which can switch from PL-mount to C-mount, and its 2K-B4 optical adapter for B4-mount lenses (i.e., DigiPrimes).

Not all breaking camera news at NAB concerned digital cinema cameras — NAB being a broadcast technology show, after all. Boatloads of the latest HD cameras and camcorders were on the show floor; many were also on display at Cinematography Mailing List's (CML) informal shoot-out Tuesday night at the Las Vegas soundstage Media Underground. One camera that caused a considerable number of “better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be” comments at the international gathering of cinematographers was strapped to a huge Sachtler head with white camera tape. A consumer camcorder the size of a Coke can, the tiny Canon HV20 nevertheless contains a single 1920×1080 CMOS sensor (just like the SI-2K). The sensor is slightly larger than 1/3in. Besides true 24p and the fact that it's available online for less than $1,000, what further sets apart the HV20 is a full-sized HDMI terminal for true uncompressed 1920×1080 output.

You read all of this right: 1920×1080 CMOS, 24p, and uncompressed HD output for less than $1,000. Maybe you're not stunned, but I am. Even if it is a toy.

HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface), an extension of the familiar DVI standard used to digitally connect monitors to computers, is pure lightning in a bottle to budget filmmakers and video producers. Think of it as poor man's HD-SDI with audio, minus the timecode. Most new prosumer HD camcorders now sport HDMI jacks — such as Sony's HVR-V1U and Panasonic's 3CCD AG-HSC1U, which was introduced at the show (1.1 lbs., smaller than HV20, records MPEG-4 to 4GB flash cards). The striking thing about HDMI from HDV camcorders such as the Canon HV20 is that the uncompressed 1920×1080 is tapped before MPEG-2 compression reduces picture resolution to 1440×1080 for HDV recording. In other words, if you bypass HDV's compression and record directly from the camcorder via HDMI, you have pristine 1920×1080.

But how to record a signal that's at least 1Gbps? In September, Blackmagic Design debuted Intensity, a $250 HDMI ingest card for Mac and Windows (PCI Express), and at NAB, the company introduced Intensity Pro($350), which adds analog inputs such as S-Video. With a fast RAID and Fibre Channel or SCSI bus, Intensity enables capture of uncompressed HD directly to disk. Alternately, uncompressed HD can be ingested and compressed in realtime to a more manageable data rate by codecs such as DVCPRO HD in Final Cut Pro. If you don't like DVCPRO HD's further reduction of picture resolution to 1280×1080 (in 1080i60 countries such as the United States), choose Apple ProRes 422 for full 1920×1080.

If you hunger for more adventure, check out the $700 Wireless HDMI Extender that Gefen debuted at the show. It consists of a compact transmitter and receiver that use radio signals to transmit 1080i HDMI up to 33ft. using “realtime, visually lossless” wavelet compression. It's meant for wireless living rooms, but hey, it's 1920×1080 HD.

Back to camcorders: Panasonic introduced two shoulder-mount, 2/3in. 3CCD P2 camcorders, each groundbreaking in its own way. The AJ-HPX3000G has 2.2-megapixel CCDs, which produce full 1920×1080; five P2 slots; and twice-as-efficient AVC-Intra (AVC-I) MPEG-4 compression. AVC-I will double the capacity of P2 cards, which themselves will double from 16GB to 32GB later this year. Or, seen another way, 50Mbps AVC-I matches the quality of current 100Mbps DVCPRO HD, while 100Mbps is a ringer for D-5.

Mitch Gross of Abel Cine Tech with the Phantom HDhigh-speed digital camera.
Photo by D. W. Leitner

At $48,000, the HPX3000 (14-bit A/D) favorably compares to Sony's HDW-F900 (12-bit A/D, 1440×1080 HDCAM), which costs twice as much. An equally impressive value is the other new P2 camcorder from Panasonic: the AG-HPX500, which has four P2 slots and lower-res, pixel-shifted CCDs, but a $14,000 list.

Sony's prototype XDCAM EX, to be introduced later this year at $8,000 or less, scrambles the cost-benefit picture further. It's Handycam in shape and has a three-1/2in.-sensor head and interchangeable lenses with real focus and f/stop marks. That would be banner news enough, but as a member of the XDCAM family, EX records MPEG-2 at 18Mbps, 25Mbps, and 35Mbps — to SanDisk consumer flash memory cards. Looks like Sony's finally joining the “Look, Ma, no moving parts” club.

JVC took the wraps off the HZ-CA13U PL-mount cine lens adapter for its new ProHD HDV camcorders. Optically speaking, the results were well worth waiting for. In a comparison at JVC's booth of side-by-side images from 35mm cine lenses formed by popular PL-mount adapters such as P+S Technik's Mini35 adapter and Redrock Microsystems' M2, the images from JVC's adapter were clearly sharper, with better contrast. Interestingly, JVC's adapter optics retain the angle of view of 16mm PL-mount lenses rather than 35mm. So dust off those trusty Carl Zeiss T 1.3 SuperSpeeds.

A brief mention of fun discoveries in another corner of production undergoing deep transformation: lighting. If you've owned an LED flashlight, you'll know what I'm excited about. LitePanels showed a new 1in.-thin lithium battery that attaches to a LitePanels 1×1 (a flat 12in. square LED fixture) for 1.7 continuous hours of what inventor Pat Grosswendt calls “wireless” lighting. The fixture can be handheld, if desired.

Element Labs, known for architectural and entertainment LED lighting, showed its first products for film and video, called KelvinBrick (think LitePanels Mini) and KelvinBank (with barndoors). What's new and startling is unlimited variable color temperature. (No tears shed here. I always hated gels.) A spokesperson predicted, “Our Kelvin series will do for film and video lighting what nonlinear editing did for postproduction.”

Zylight, forging a similar path for compact on-camera lights, introduced the Z90 — four times brighter than its first product last year, the Z50. The Z90 toggles between tungsten and daylight and introduces a Gel Mode, in which users dial in more than 400 theatrical gel numbers to match color output.

Rosco (maker of said hated gels) took a different path with its 0.3in.-thin but-bright-flatpanel LED LitePad, which comes in six sizes from 3"×3" to 12"×12", 7,000 degrees K only. It's heatless and so slight it can slip through the cracks — literally.

Perhaps the first established Hollywood lighting manufacturer to embrace LEDs, Cinemills, introduced its LED Mini PAR light, a cute little baby spot comprised of three fat white LEDs set in reflectors. (Think three LED flashlights in a bundle.) Like LitePanel's offerings, LED Mini PARs come in either tungsten or daylight versions, with three interchangeable snap-on lenses to vary beam angles. What would a pro Hollywood lighting department be without a brawny-sounding PAR instrument, even if it's 2.25in. in diameter and runs on 12VDC?

It's been a decade of dreadful, flimsy tripods for DV camcorders, but there was good news from the U.K.-based Vitec Group, which now owns the venerable Sachtler, Vinten, and OConnor tripod lines (as well as Anton Bauer, Clear-Com, and Petrol). Vitec is sparking a renaissance of affordable, well-engineered fluid heads and legs. Standouts were Vinten's Pro-6 HDV and Sachtler's new FSB 2 and FSB 6, which feature Sachtler's handy Snap & Go sideload release. Also noteworthy was a new flat auxiliary 7.2V lithium battery from Sachtler, FSB Cell, which fits between a Sachtler head and most Sony, Canon, and Panasonic camcorders. My guess is this battery would last all day and then some, especially with new low-power CMOS cameras such as Sony's V1.

NAB proved to be one heckuva ride. But don't release your seat belts yet. This lap was more of a test run than a full race.

. . .

Apple Color

For those with talent and determination but lacking lines of credit, NAB 2007 was a godsend — the IT invasion continues to collapse costs and upset established practices.

As ever, Apple is a chief instigator, having already commoditized once-arcane professional video tasks such as editing and effects. This time, it's professional-grade color correction. In October, Apple acquired Silicon Color, whose software-based $25,000 FinalTouch 2K color finishing system was last seen at NAB 2006. It reappeared this year as part of Apple's new Final Cut Studio 2, rechristened “Color” by Apple. Free. That's jaw-dropping.

Apple Color is a sophisticated node-based 10-bit platform (like Da Vinci Resolve) with familiar lift, gamma, and gain controls and Photoshop-like curves. It provides no fewer than eight secondaries with HSL (Hue, Saturation, Lightness) keying of circles, squares, and custom shapes with full RGB control both inside and outside each key. Dumbed-down this isn't.

If you don't like driving Color with a mouse, there are trackball control panels from Tangent Devices and JLCooper Electronics. In fact, to exploit Color's capabilities properly, you will also need a pricey reference-grade monitor or DLP projector, and perhaps even a USB colorimeter such as the ColorVision Spyder2 — none of which, I'm afraid, Apple can help you with.

It's likely there will be complaints about realtime performance or that clips and sequences must be “round-tripped” from Final Cut Pro's timeline to Color and back, but initial quibbles will fade to background noise as Color's capabilities are better understood. After all, this is a product Apple integrated into Final Cut Studio 2 in a matter of months. Think of it as Apple's version 1.0.

Avid released Liquid Chrome Xe, which capitalizes on the capabilities of the AJA Xena LHe board, as well as Liquid 7.2 with support for many new camera formats.

In addition to Color, Final Cut Studio 2 ushers in a handful of techniques new to FCP (if available elsewhere) along with new apps and hardware options, each of which could be the topic of a separate article. Final Cut Pro 6, for instance, brings a new HD compression called Apple ProRes 422. It's full 1920×1080 or 1280×720 I-frame DCT, 4:2:2, 10-bit sampling, variable bit rate compression, with transport bit rates of 145Mbps and 220Mbps. Apple says that at data rates less than that of uncompressed SD, it's indistinguishable from uncompressed HD (like Avid's DNxHD). And it plays from a MacBook.

ProRes 422 is destined to become an important player because Apple claims 800,000 “paid” FCP users worldwide — by some estimates, half of the NLE market. Also, ProRes 422 forms the backbone of FCP's new Open Format Timeline, which will become hugely popular because it automatically accepts a mix of HD and SD formats at basic frame rates (30, 25, and 24) without repeat trips to the import or setup controls. You simply drag clips into the timeline, and FCP does the rest.

“Round-tripping” is also used to portage clips and sequences from the Open Format Timeline to the new Motion 3 or Soundtrack Pro 2 apps and back (changes at either location automatically update at the other). Motion 3 adds a 3D environment (with drag-and-drop 3D templates for beginners) and vector-based paint tools. I particularly liked the new motion-retiming algorithm for “optical flow” (also available in Final Cut Pro 6's timeline). The overhauled Soundtrack Pro 2 adds multitrack editing, cut-and-paste editing of the frequency spectrum, simultaneous mixing of stereo and 5.1, and a Conform tool to aid in reconforming a complex audio mix to match additional picture edits. As a bonus, Apple's buffed Compressor 3 adds MPEG-2 and H.264 support for portable devices; plug-in support for VC-1, WMV, and FLV; and even watermarking for screeners.

Apple also announced workgroup software, Final Cut Server (aimed at news departments), to be released later this year, and an aluminum breakout box from AJA called Io HD (in/out HD) that vaguely resembles a quarter-sized Mac Pro on its side. Co-developed with Apple as a portable companion to Final Cut Studio 2 via FireWire 800, Io HD provides fast hardware codec support for all flavors of ProRes 422. There's realtime up/down/crossconversion, plus every conceivable audio, video, and timecode I/O, including FireWire, HD-SDI, and HDMI. It's remarkable that a $1,300 Final Cut Studio 2 package (upgrades are less) with a $3,500 Io HD box amounts to less than a fifth of the cost of an Avid Media Composer Adrenaline system with similar capabilities.

If it sounds as if Apple stole the show, well, its splashy Sunday press conference did prove a hard act to follow. But in terms of a powerhouse suite of software tools, Adobe wasn't far behind with its pre-NAB announcement of Creative Suite 3. (These Silicon Valley neighbors are always looking over their shoulders at the other, so parallels should not be surprising.) The timeline round-tripping and suite integration that Adobe brought to last year's NAB expand with Adobe's CS3 Production Premium package ($1,700). Available for both Intel-based Macs and Windows machines, the Production Premium suite features Premiere Pro 3 and incorporates new CS3 versions of After Effects Professional, Photoshop Extended, Flash Professional, Illustrator, Soundbooth, and Encore for DVD authoring. Adobe calls Creative Suite 3 its biggest software rollout ever — and, as was the case with Final Cut Studio 2, entire articles could be written about each of these sophisticated yet affordable product updates. (Editor's note: See future issues for such articles on both companies' new suites.)

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