December 15, 2009

How to Cooke up a high-end lens

Cooke chairman, Les Zellan, with some of his lenses

An awful lot goes in to the making of a high-quality lens – but not arsenic, at least not since the European Union banned it from being used in glass (imagine if a sweet little infant were to suck on glass made with arsenic. The horror! The poor unfortunate would probably be dead within, oh…, a 100 years or so….).

Unfortunately, this effort from the EU to save us from ourselves makes life more difficult for lens manufacturers, as I found out on a visit to Cooke Optics' factory in Leicester.

The initial glass blocks come in from all over the world (Cooke uses more than 100 types of glass – each has a different colour and refraction index), and are ground and polished with incredible precision.

The lenses are then tested by eye, and rejected if there are any imperfections or bubbles. Unfortunately, these tiny bubbles don't show up until the elements are polished, which wastes a lot of hard work. This happens more often now, due to the EU ruling, because nothing matches arsenic at reducing the bubbles, which means: "We can't buy glass to the standard we reject it to," explained Les Zellan, Cooke's chairman.

Cooke makes very high-end lenses for 35mm film and digital production, a set of which can cost £100,000, but demand outstrips supply, as production takes time and requires great skill.

The Daily Grind

Glass initially goes to the grinding shop, where it is taken to about 20 microns of the eventual shape.

Then they polish it.

This can be done on wonderful leather-belt driven machines, which do the traditional spherical polishing. It takes longer, and is more labour intensive, but operators can do several elements at a time. Incredibly, the skilled operators can be more accurate than computer controlled polishers. They can fit up to 20 elements on a block (if they are small enough), which can also make them faster, even though it takes about eight hours per block (however many elements are on it).

It requires great skill as each type of glass has its own idiosyncrasies and a slight temperature difference between the centre and the edge of a glass element can cause the glass to crack at a later stage in the process, when even more has been devoted to it.

"It takes about five years to train a polisher, but for the first three years you don't even know if they'll be any good, so it's a big investment," said Zellan, who bought the company in 1998 (it had spent many years as part of the Rank group).

The computerised machines are faster, but only do one element at a time (they can do one in about 30 minutes).

On reflection

For most other manufacturers, the next part of the process is edging (blacking the edges to control reflections - pictured right), but Cooke goes to coating next – because it can, as its coatings are "really, really hard" and won't be damaged by edging.

Coating is done in large vacuum chambers, using a vapour of various metals. An uncoated element reflects 4% of the light for each surface, and as a modern lens can have 15 to 20 elements, this would considerably reduce the amount of light getting through.

Before coating, you might have an F4 lens with a transmission factor of T11 (indeed, that is why T stops came into being, as that was what the film labs cared about). With modern coatings, you lose less than 0.1% light per surface, which means that Cooke can build an F1.9 lens at T2.

Most manufacturers do multi-layer coating one layer at a time, but Cooke does all the layers at once.

To template each lens element, Cooke has about 4,000 master gauges (each of which is worth about £5,000 – about £20m in total), to which each new element is matched to make sure it is perfect. For every master gauge, there is a set of tooling.

Many of Cooke's machines are at least a century old (it has been manufacturing lenses in Leicester since 1894), although it also has computerised versions (designed especially for it) that were installed in 2008 (although they are unlikely to last so long).

"The lenses we put out are extremely consistent. There is lots of quality control checking along the way, so that a lens from today is virtually the exact same as one from ten years ago," he claimed.

It takes about three months for the whole process, from receiving the glass until the lenses are ready for delivery.

This could lead to very long delivery times, so Cooke sacrifices efficiency to make lenses in very small batches each month, so that it can deliver an order in one shipment.

An order for S4/i lenses can take one to four months. He hopes that the new Panchros will be a bit faster, as they are easier to put together), but the 5/i lenses are more complicated. "Every stop [wider] adds about a factor of eight times in terms of tolerances, so speed kills."

Two new lines

Cooke has about 80 staff, including a handful of designers (one woman was an original "computer" who did all the complex computations manually, although she now has a computer hardware to help her).

With so few people, it makes it even more impressive that they have developed two new ranges of prime lenses this year (adding to the S4/i line it already had). This was only possible because it has invested in new technology, and it now has eight computer-controlled machines running 24-hours-a-day five days a week.

"We've never been able to keep up with demand for our product," admits Zellan.

Traditional spherical lenses are relatively straightforward, but aspherical elements are a lot more difficult to polish, as they require extremely precise measurement.

It has a small network of grinding, polishing and measuring machines that talk to each other and make sure that the grinding and polishing is exact.

Several of the S4 lenses and many of the 5/i lenses have aspheric elements (which generally allows the lenses to be smaller and to use less glass).

The Panchro lenses cost less than half the price of the S4/i lenses, although it isn't a cheap lens. Indeed, it is essentially an S4 but with one stop less light. "We didn’t cut corners on the quality. What enabled us to cut the price is taking a stop out of it." At T4, it will match the S4 exactly.

Zellan doesn't know how long it takes to build a lens. "It takes as long as it takes to get right. It might take a few days or a week, depending on how long it takes to make so they are consistent."

Once the lens is built, it is taken apart again, to clean it, and rebuilt. Every lens is then hand-calibrated for iris and distance.

A 4K sensor (as on the Red One) only needs to be able to resolve 32 line pairs on a test chart, but the Cooke lenses are claimed to be able to resolve more than 200 line pairs (the equivalent of 18K or even 20K on a digital sensor – film is typically about 6-8K).

Besides its three prime ranges, there is also the CXX 15-40mm lens, which he claims is the "only fast, lightweight zoom" T2.0 lens.

The Cooke look

Its lenses are renowned for having a warm, attractive look. "The Cooke look is real. It tends to be a much more dimensional look than our competitors. The lenses are also warm, and flatter the subject," he said.

The designers aim for high resolution, but lower contrast, to give better results on film (or sensor) rather than in the viewfinder.

"Some of this is counter-intuitive. The reason our lenses look warm is because we pay a lot of attention to the blues and greens, which is what both film and chips are most sensitive to."

He says that Zeiss tends to accentuate reds and greens, which can make its lenses look cold.

"It's a combination of glass choices (all of which have different colour characteristics) and, to a much less extent, to the coatings."

Cinematographers who like the Cooke look tend to stick with it "Lenses are the paint brushes the cinematographers use," he explained, so aesthetics are very important.

This is why its lenses are used on many popular TV shows, such as House, CSI: New York, Bones, Grey’s Anatomy, 30 Rock and Burn Notice, as well as lots of movies, such as the Harry Potter series, The Bourne Ultimatum and Transformers.

However, it also helps that the basic maintenance needed for a Cooke lens is about an hour compared, he claimed, to about a day for its rivals. "This allows a rental house to get a lens back one night and put it back out the next day."

The new and the old: A 5/i with the first zoom lens
/i technology

Cooke, which manufactured the first ever zoom lens in 1936, has been a leader in putting electronics in the lenses. Its /i technology is a metadata system that it introduced in 2005, although it is only now really catching on. All of its lenses are smart lenses, so that they can talk to the cameras and other equipment on set.

The Red One adopted /i, although it only got that working fully late in 2009, but it can now read and record it. Other /i cameras include the Sony F35, Arri cameras and the new Aaton Penelope film camera – "It's quite a bit of work for them, because they have to put in contacts for the lens. But everybody now understands the need for metadata in post," he said. It is widely used in post production, such as by The Foundry for its Nuke system.

The lenses typically have two sets of connectors – four contacts on the lens mount and an external connector (although that is not on the Panchro).

As lenses become faster, everything about their construction becomes more difficult, including calibrating their scales, so Cooke had to build a new calibration area with computer controlled equipment for the 5/i range.

The scales are never pre-engraved on the metalwork, because they need to be exact for each lens, all of which have subtle differences. The /i technology is also set for each lens.

Zellan at IBC: with the new 5/i and Panchro lenses
New line for cinema

The PL-mounted Panchro By Cooke lenses are a modern redesign of the fast Cooke Panchro lenses that were much favoured in Hollywood from the 1930s onwards.

The Panchro is small, lightweight, and sacrifices one stop of light, at T2.8, compared with T2.0 for the S4. "Traditionally lenses were best used two stops down from the widest stop, 2.8 or 4.0, but the S4 was one of the first lenses designed to be used wide open, and today's lenses are all designed to be used at their fastest speeds," explained Zellan. However, "you only work at those speeds if you absolutely have to, because depth of field is so limited. Most shooting is probably done at F4."

The reduced size, weight and true focal length markings also make the Panchro range more suitable for 3D stereoscopic productions. It is available in 18mm, 25mm, 32mm, 50mm, 75mm and 100mm lengths.

Cooke sold out its first production run of Panchros, just before IBC, in just 90 minutes, and is now back-ordered six to nine months ahead.

The even newer 5/i lenses are a stop faster than the S4, at T1.4, covering: 18mm, 25mm, 32mm, 40mm, 50mm, 65mm, 75mm, 100mm, and 135mm.

It is the first set of lenses with illuminated scales. "This means the end of the assistant standing with a flashlight in their mouth in the dark," said Zellan. This is important as the speed of the lens makes them suitable for night filming. The lenses cost about 20-25% more than the S4.

By David Fox

November 30, 2009

HD DSLRs: nice pictures, nicer price

One of the most exciting developments of the past year, for those whose ambition is larger than their budget, has been the introduction of HD DSLR cameras, most notably from Canon. These allow the use of lots of relatively cheap, high-quality lenses with an APS-C (about 23x15mm) or even 35mm (36x24mm) sensor that can capture beautiful images for less than the price of a Sony EX1 or other low-budget professional camcorder. The APS-C sensor has about 5.5 times the area of a 2/3-inch sensor used in most mainstream broadcast cameras (and about ten times the area of a half-inch sensor used in the EX1 - although broadcast cameras usually have three such chips so performance isn't exactly comparable).

As HD DSLRs are designed primarily for stills photography, they don't have the ergonomic layout you'd expect from a video camera, and there are limitations in what controls you can use while recording and in facilities (especially audio). The choice of recording codecs is not always ideal either. But low-light performance is often excellent, and they are particularly useful for stop-frame animation or time-lapse videos.

Virtually all CMOS sensors used on DSLRs (as with most low-end camcorders) exhibit rolling shutter artefacts (when the camera is panned any vertical lines in the picture will wobble while photographic flashes may only occupy part of the picture). High-end digital cinema camcorders typically use a global shutter (which electronically shutters all pixels simultaneously) or simply readout fast enough from top to bottom to reduce or avoid it. However, it is certainly a problem with the current crop of HD DSLRs, necessitating slower panning speeds, the use of Steadicams or shake reduction technology for hand-held shots, or fixing the problem in post, with the likes of The Foundry's RollingShutter plug-in for Nuke and After Effects (watch a video about RollingShutter).

A further issue is audio. Many of the higher-end cameras have a mini-jack input for mono or stereo audio, some rely on inadequate built-in mics. However, it is generally best to work with them like a film camera and record audio separately.

There are also restrictions on the length of clips that can be recorded at one time (12 minutes on the Canon EOS 7D, for example), possibly to avoid sensor heating or power problems, and users have to be careful to buy memory cards that are fast enough that they will record all the way through without problems (there can be a big difference between card manufacturers on this, with some performing better at a lower stated class than others do at a higher classification).

If you're wondering what difference would it make buying a 35mm sensor over an APS-C or broadcast 2/3-inch sensor camera: 35mm will give you shallower depth of field (less of the picture in sharp focus - and more of it, especially the background, pleasingly blurred). However it can also be a nuisance. You can set up a shot, have the subject perfectly in focus, start shooting and he's moved back or forward slightly and is now out of focus. In most situations, you'll be able to get as little depth of field as you'll ever need with an APS-C sensor (and often even with 2/3-inch chips). Of course, the larger the sensor, the better quality image you should get - especially in low light, as the pixels aren't as closely packed together (but a 25megapixel 35mm sensor will have about the same pixel density as a 10 or 11MP APS-C sensor), and you're only going to be shooting at 1 or 2MP for HD video - so how the recording codec performs may have a bigger impact on your video quality than the sensor size.

Playing the field

The camera that started this trend is Canon's EOS 5D Mark II (the first 35mm HD DSLR - pictured top in use with a Vocas DSLR rig), which is ideal for anyone who wants shallow depth of field at the lowest price possible.

It currently records 1920x1080 at 30 frames per second (which has been a problem for those of us in Europe, although that can be dealt with – look at filmmaker Philip Bloom's website for suggestions). However, that will be rectified early in 2010 when Canon promises to update its firmware to allow 24 and 25fps. It has already updated the camera to allow full manual exposure while recording video.

[UPDATED: The 24/25fps update (firmware 2.04) is now out and also adds full manual audio controls.]

The new Canon 1D Mark IV already has full HD at 24, 25 and 30fps (plus 720p/50 and 60), but uses a slightly smaller 1.3x crop sensor (APS-H - although its performance in low light seems to be particularly good). The recently introduced Canon EOS 7D offers the same formats on a less expensive APS-C model (about 1.5x crop). Files are saved using AVC/H.264 compression in a .MOV container (at about 44Mbps for full HD), with Linear PCM 48KHz audio.

[UPDATED: There is also now the Canon EOS 550D (Rebel T2i in the US), which is smaller and lighter (and about half the price for the body) than the 7D, but offers the same video formats on the same sensor - although it isn't as feature rich as a stills camera as the 7D.]

Although Canon is the key manufacturer of HD DSLRs, others have entered the market.

The APS-C Nikon D90 was the first DSLR to record HD video, at 720p/24, as now do Nikon's 35mm D3S and APS-C D300S and D5000 models, using AVI Motion-JPEG codecs.

The compact Pentax K7 is another APS-C 720p camera, but only at 30fps (AVI Motion JPEG at about 45Mbps variable), although it can also shoot at a non-standard higher resolution (1536x1024 - 3:2 aspect), however the even smaller Pentax K-x records 720p at 24fps, has very good low-light performance, and is currently about the cheapest HD DSLR available. Both Pentax models benefit from in-body shake reduction, which means that they can be used hand held with inexpensive, old prime lenses.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 has an interchangeable mirrorless lens system, which means it can be smaller than conventional DSLRs, although it also has a smaller (Micro Four Thirds) sensor with a 35mm crop factor of about two. It seems to be the only "HD DSLR"* that can auto-focus while recording video, although that should be less important for anyone coming from a video or film background than it seems to be for stills photographers moving up (although autofocus only works with certain lenses). It records 1920x1080 at 50/60i or 24/25p using AVCHD (about 17Mbps), or can record 720p/50 AVCHD or 720p/25 using Motion JPEG (.MOV at about 28-30Mbps). Tests show a lot more artefacts in 1080 than with 720, which isn't surprising as the bitrates are the same. There is also the cheaper Panasonic GF1 which only records 720p/60 and 30.

*Note: Of course the Panasonic isn't a DSLR - as it doesn't have a mirror (the Reflex), but as it has interchangeable lenses it should probably be included here....

Related Posts: Cheap 35mm video - Canon cuts cost of HD - HD DSLRs: Still developing

By David Fox

November 29, 2009

Sony NXCAM video

While we were at Sony's Power of Images event, we shot a piece about the new NXCAM with Sony's Kanta Yamamoto, who told us all about it....

If you haven't read our piece about the new camera, have a look at our previous post.

Also, now that it is available, read our update - Plus, another video looking at the practicalities of using the HXR-NX5, including how it works with various non-linear editing systems.

Christina Fox

November 26, 2009

AVCHD choices increase for budget camcorders

Sony has joined Panasonic in offering professional AVCHD camcorders recording to low-cost solid-state media.

The prototype NXCAM revealed by Sony last month is essentially a remodelling of its Z5 with a new recording system. This replaces the Z5's HDV tape drive and add-on Compact Flash card recorder with two Memory Stick slots and an add-on solid-state drive, recording 24Mbps AVCHD. It is intended to be first of a new, low-cost solid-state line-up, with the first cameras shipping sometime in the first half of 2010. [UPDATE: The HXR-NX5 is now available. See more details here.]

AVCHD (which uses an MPEG-4 codec), is widely used in consumer camcorders (almost always at lower bitrates) and is supported natively by some non-linear edit systems (such as Edius, Vegas and Premiere), but not yet by Apple and Avid, where transcoding is necessary, which will probably diminish its appeal to many potential users initially.

It will cost about the same price as the Z5, and will address one problem professionals have with AVCHD, its AC3 audio codec. Although this will still be included, the NXCAM will also add linear PCM audio to be meet broadcast expectations.

The optional 128GB Flash memory drive will be especially appealing to anyone shooting observational documentaries or to wedding videographers, who need long recording times, as it will store up to 11 hours at maximum quality (and will cost less than Eur1,000). Users will be able to record on to it and the Memory Sticks at the same time. Memory Sticks currently come in sizes up to 32GB (costing less than a quarter of the price of Sony's SxS-1 cards) and the NXCAM will automatically record on the second one once the first is full.

The camera includes a GPS receiver for the first time on a professional Sony camcorder, recording the metadata in the AVCHD stream. This could be useful for future applications, whether offering a map-driven interface to online video, for retrieving archives, or for researchers shooting a recce.

"It will also have HD-SDI output for the first time on a compact Sony camcorder," said Sony product marketing manager, Bill Drummond (pictured with the camera at the recent Power of Images event in London).

We like the Z5 as a camera (it's certainly better ergonomically than the Z7), so the first NXCAM should be pretty good. The only real drawback, at least initially, is Final Cut Pro not being AVCHD native.

The NXCAM will compete with the likes of Panasonic's AG-HMC41E, which records 24Mbps AVCHD to SD memory cards, and is being offered with a copy of Edius Neo 2 editing software (until March 2010) for Eur2,470.

The AG-HMC41E records up to 180 minutes of HD at 1920x1080 on a 32GB SDHC card at 24Mbps. It has three 1/4.1-inch progressive MOS sensors with a total of 3.05 million pixels, a 12x Leica zoom lens, weighs less than 1kg, captures still images at 10.6 million pixels, and includes various focus-assist functions, such as facial recognition and touch-type auto-focusing, as well as professional functions, such as waveform monitoring. Accessories include a removable grip and an optional removable XLR microphone adaptor.

Another possible choice for anyone needing a compact camcorder is JVC's GY-HM100, especially if you use Final Cut Pro as it can record native .MOV (QuickTime) files direct to its cheap SDHC cards. It can also record Sony XDCAM EX-compatible .MP4 files for other Nnon-linear editors.

It records full 1920x1080 at up to 35Mbps, as well as 720p (19/35Mbps) and 1080i (25Mbps HDV) in SP mode. At 35Mbps, two 32GB SD cards can record for up to six hours, automatically switching between them. SD cards are now fairly inexpensive. Indeed, the cost per minute is about the same as tape, so it is economical enough to use the card for archiving, and they will probably be more reliable than storing your video on a hard drive (which needs to be spooled up about every three months or so to ensure it doesn't sieze up). The HM100 has three 1/4-inch CCDs, a fixed Fujinon 10:1 zoom, manual controls, and an HDMI output.

By David Fox

October 22, 2009

Sony EXpands XDCAM EX range

Sony has updated its EX1 camcorder and added a new shoulder-mounted model with 2/3-inch sensors.

Improvements to the new PMW-EX1R are mainly the result of customer requests, and include:
• an improved hand grip (making it more comfortable for hand-held shots)
• easier to access switches (although the one-push auto focus button hasn't been moved, and is still in the wrong place for hand-held use)
• smooth handle zoom transitions (stop/start)
• HDMI output
• one-click S&Q (Slow and Quick) mode [button glowing in photo - right]
• a 15-second buffer for continuous pre-recording
• a higher-resolution viewfinder (the same as on the Z5 and Z7)
• an image inversion option that reverses an image upside down and left/right for a Cine-style depth of field adaptor
• a new IR-cut filter to give deeper (non infrared contaminated) blacks
• an improved audio limiter.

It retains the EX1's three half-inch 1920x1080 CMOS sensors, a Fujinon 14x HD zoom lens and a dual focus ring mechanism.

Besides its 35Mbps and 25Mpbs HD formats, it now has 25Mbps Standard Definition DVCAM recording – although given that the only difference between DVCAM and DV was that DVCAM used a faster tape speed (to reduce the impact of any tape drop out), why continue to call it the more professional sounding DVCAM for a tapeless system (other than that, of course)?

That Sony has added SD to its HD range shows that there are still plenty of people who still need to shoot SD but want to buy a tapeless/HD camcorder to future-proof their investment (although why Sony didn't realise this two years ago when it launched the EX1, who knows?). It has also added a 1440x1080, 35Mbps, recording mode for compatibility with users of its XDCAM HD optical disc systems (the EX1 already recorded 1440x1080 at 25Mbps for HDV).

It has two SxS memory card slots, which allow it to record up to 280 minutes of HD using two of the newly introduced 32GB SxS cards – there is also a new, lower-cost range of cards (the SxS-1 range), which trades off a shorter lifespan (five years of daily use – with life indication displayed in the viewfinder) for its use of cheaper flash memory, and has 800Mbps transfer speed. It should cost under £450 for 32GB, compared to at least £600 for a 32GB SxS PRO card.

A lot of EX1 users had been using a lower-cost SxS alternative – SDHC-to-ExpressCard/34 adapters, from the likes of Delkin, E-films and Hoodman (for lots more on these have a look at Guy Barwood's excellent site). Obviously, Sony would rather you use its own products, so it has responded with a new adaptor (MEAD-MS01) that will allow you to record to Sony's own 8GB, 16GB or 32GB Memory Stick Pro HG Duo HX cards (although not as reliably as SxS and at the expense of some features, such as high speed recording, and with lower transfer speeds). The adapter should cost less than £100. Current EX1 and EX3 models will also be compatible – through a firmware upgrade that should be available early 2010. Users can also add a 120GB hard-disk recorder, the PHU-120K.

The EX1R should be available in December for about the same cost as the EX1 (under £5,500).

PMW-350 shoulders responsibilityThe new lightweight PMW-350 will sit comfortably on your shoulder and has the extra quality (and shallower depth of field) of three 2/3-inch 1920×1080 CMOS Exmor sensors.

It has timecode in/out, genlock in, and HD-SDI and HDMI out, making it suitable for studio use, and records to the same HD formats as the EX1R (with the option of DVCAM).

It can be bought with a bundled 16x lens (as the model PMW-350K), and has automatic lens aberration compensation, independent focus, zoom and iris rings; auto focus mode, manual focus assist. However, the lens isn't particularly wide, with a focal length of f 8mm-128mm (which is the equivalent of 31.5mm-503mm on a 35mm lens).

It boasts good, low, power consumption (15W), giving it a longer run time on a single battery.

It should typically cost under £14,000 without lens and under £16,000 with lens, and will be available January 2010.

David Fox

October 11, 2009

Off-the-shoulder prompting

For reporters, doing a piece to camera is always interesting (translation: cause of abject terror…). There's a high likelihood that you'll forget something and have to do it again, and again, and again… or just feel red-faced and ridiculous if you're live on air and can't activate the Omega 13 device to jump back 13 seconds and do it properly.

A piece of paper, with a few bullet points scribbled on it, taped just below the lens is handy (unless there's a slight breeze that will inevitably blow it over the lens), but the ideal is to have a prompter, just like they do in the studio. Until recently this wasn't especially practical. Prompters tended to be big, heavy, power hungry, and expensive.

Now, there are several cheap, simple, lightweight units you can use – including your iPhone.

Autoscript's new Miniscript on-camera TFT monitor, has all the standard connectors of its larger prompter displays, but the 5.6-inch panel weighs only 455g, so that it isn't a burden on location or in the studio (it was actually developed in response to a camera supervisor who wanted something small for the increasing number of hand-held cameras for live and studio-based entertainment productions – where presenters can't be expected to work without a script [that's why they're paid the big bucks…]).

It uses the smallest of Autoscript's new range of LED back-lit displays, which have "eight times the life span of CCFLs [Cold Cathode Fluorescent Tubes]. The output of CCFLs diminishes over time and they need replacing. LEDs produce very little heat and that's a big factor in component failure. There are still fans to regulate heat, but they only come on if it is in a hot studio or outside in the sun," explained Autoscript's MD, Brian Larter (pictured). LEDs are more expensive, but Autoscript has taken a hit on its margins to offer them at the same price as CCFLs.

There's an app for that

Autocue's new Starter Series is an entry-level product aimed at users that previously couldn't afford it. It is taking on the likes of Prompter People head on, with prices below £1,000.

For portable prompting it has introduced an iPhone Prompter, designed for freelance cameramen. It costs £599, and is similar to the 7-inch Starter pack, but with an adapter plate for an iPhone.

It uses software available from the iPhone App Store, although not written by Autocue, but Frank Hyman, Autocue's CEO (pictured) promises that it will have its own Autocue App in the near future. Autocue has also launched Mac software for its other Autocue systems, "because this market is 30 to 40% Mac based."

David Fox

Tapeless takes over

For the first time, sales of non-tape cameras have taken a majority of camcorder sales in the European professional and broadcast market with sensors of 1/3-inch or larger. They already dominate sales of consumer camcorders.

The latest figures, for the quarter from April to June 2009, reveal that 50.84% of sales from all manufactures selling in the EU went to tapeless systems. This included 7.29% of hybrid camcorders that can record tape and tapeless (although sales of such cameras have declined since last year when they reached a peak of 24.23% of the market). Sales of fully tapeless systems have trebled over the same period, according to figures from Futuresource Consulting.

Panasonic appears to have been the biggest winner from this. Its HPX301 camcorder, introduced at Broadcast Video Expo 2009 (see our video here), has taken one third of the market for tapeless shoulder-mounted, 1/3-inch or 1/2-inch sensors under Eur10,000, in just one quarter. Panasonic already has an 85% share of broadcasters that have gone tapeless (using its P2 format – mainly for news).

"Everybody in the industry knows that solid state is the future. There is no question about it," said Jaume Rey, its Director, Provideo & Broadcast IT Systems, Europe (pictured).

He believes that the rapid change in broadcaster's purchase requirement is largely due to the recession. "People are very careful about spending money and are worried that if they don't buy solid state they will be left behind. Because access to finance is so hard, investments must last longer. So, what's the point in choosing a tape-based format when I know tape is declining?"

He talked to a broadcaster last year that had just invested in a lot of SD camcorders, who justified the purchase by the fact that they would be replaced in three years, now he doubts that any CFO would allow such a short term choice.

Hybrid systems may have seemed a good interim measure, but he believes that their decline is because broadcasters no longer want to "stay on a bridge. They either stay tape or go tapeless."

By going tapeless he maintains that broadcasters will benefit not only from a faster, more efficient workflow, but also help the environment through lower power consumption.

Ultimately, at least for news, he believes that the future is medialess, with wireless connections from the camcorder to the station and any media just being used for a backup in the camcorder.

David Fox

Making 3D a spectacle

The most common complaint when people watch 3D TV is that it gives them a headache. The cause, certainly when watching anaglyph images (red/cyan) is generally not the 3D, but the glasses.

Most cheap 3D glasses are made with whatever blue/green (cyan) and red gel a manufacturer has on the shelf. But "if you get the blue wrong you might get a headache, and if you get the red wrong you won't see 3D," according to Daniel Llovet (pictured), marketing director of broadcast filter maker, Cotech. It has launched a range of custom 3D glasses. "We can match any colour any 3D designer may wish."

With programmes like Chuck broadcasting 3D specials, and broadcasters (particularly Sky) intending to roll out 3D services. Such glasses will be the main way to watch 3D unless we buy new 3D sets.

David Fox

September 07, 2009

Sony in Std Def camcorder shock…

At a time when all new camcorders are presumed to be High Definition, if not even higher definition, Sony has gone all 2003 on us and released what must surely be the last ever standard definition camcorder, the new DSR-PD175P – a direct replacement for the popular PD170.

It records to DV tape, for those of you who want something to sit on a shelf gathering dust and to probably still work in 50 years time ("But YouTube is my archive, why would I want anything else?"), and is aimed at "emerging markets", including Russia, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East where the demand for SD is apparently still high.

Sony's PD170 was beloved by many, especially people shooting weddings, because of its abilities in low light, recording down to 1 lux. Its successor isn't quite as effective in the dark, although it isn't far off at 1.5 lux.

The PD175 does have the advantage of being 16:9 native and uses three of the same 1/3-inch Exmor ClearVid CMOS sensors found in the rather nice Z5.

The camera has a fixed 20x Sony G lens (with a wide angle of 29.5mm), three ND filters (1/4, 1/16, 1/64) and independent focus, zoom and iris rings. It also has an improved high resolution LCD panel and viewfinder. To aid migration from the PD170, the PD175 also uses L series batteries, removing the need to buy new battery systems (unlike most of Sony's HDV cameras).

It can also record to Compact Flash, by plugging in the HVR-MRC1K solid state recorder (using an i.LINK/FireWire connector), and adds a 25p progressive scan mode for a more filmic look. The 25p image is recorded as an interlaced signal in two fields, for compatibility with editing and monitoring equipment that accept interlaced signals (and, more important, compatibility with the DVCAM standard), but can be recombined into a 25p image during the edit.

Its Smooth Slow Record function enables smooth slow-motion playback by capturing images four times faster than normal (200 fields per second). In this mode, quad-speed images are captured for six seconds, stored in the built-in buffer memory, and then recorded to tape (in either DVCAM or DV format) as slow-motion pictures lasting 24 seconds.

It should cost about the same as the PD170, although the HDV-equipped HVR-V1E only costs about 20% more.

David Fox

August 11, 2009

Checking Your Exposure Settings

I get asked this question (and variations on it) a lot….
I purchased a Sony ZIU and have one question: When shooting, either in Auto or Manual iris mode, with daylight or well lit indoor environments, the image brightness 'oscillates' up and down. I have tried to lock the iris, but with very little success. The iris fluctuating up and down rapidly is getting frustrating, and I can't seem to pinpoint what the cause is. Any help would be extremely appreciated…..

What you have to remember is that there are four things that affect exposure. To remember them all think SING:

ND Filter

Now all of these guys work together when you go totally automatic. In the video below, I shot the flowers then tilted to the bright sky. If you watch the data code at the bottom of the screen you’ll see the iris, gain and shutter all changing.

Checking Your Exposure Settings from UrbanFox.TV on Vimeo.

The problem comes when you start to go manual. Because you can’t just go manual on one of these functions, you have to go manual on all of them – if you want full control over exposure.

So, the answer to the original problem is … You may have switched the Iris into manual mode – but what about gain and shutter?

If gain and shutter are still in auto they will try to “help” with exposure.

So, if you go manual Iris, then make sure Gain is set to manual (usually 0dB) – then set the shutter to 50 for PAL or 60 for NTSC.

Now you will be truly in manual exposure mode and in total control.....and the exposure should stop changing of it’s own accord.

That said we can make use of this help with exposure. Stills cameras have had this function for some time – it is called aperture priority and shutter priority. If you own one of the Canon cameras it is the AV and TV modes on the control dial.
In aperture priority you have control over the iris. You set the iris – not for exposure but to get the depth of field you want and the camera sets the exposure using shutter and gain with a hint if you need ND.
In Shutter priority you have control over the shutter. You set the shutter – perhaps to get clear high speed rotating helicopter blades or for that Top Gear alloy wheel effect and once again the camera sets the exposure but this time using iris and gain (or ND).
Christina Fox

July 23, 2009

Murch and Coppola on FCP

There is an interesting video of Walter Murch (see earlier blog post) and Francis Ford Coppola talking about their latest collaboration, Tetro, on the Apple website. Murch gives his reaction to the latest changes to Final Cut – and it is generally little things that he is particularly enthusiastic about, such as being able to have different coloured markers to represent events like effects, and the new timecode window (which is movable and resizable, so that he can refer to it more easily).

Apple Updates Final Cut

Apple has updated Final Cut Studio, apparently with more than 100 new features. New are: Final Cut Pro 7, Motion 4, Soundtrack Pro 3, Color 1.5 and Compressor 3.5 – and the fact that it will only now run on Intel-based Macs. However, the price is down (dropping £50 to £799 [$999 US]).

FCP has some 50% of the TV editing market, but it hasn't been upgraded for two years, while Adobe, Avid and Grass Valley have become more competitive, so the revamp is probably overdue – although there hasn't been a widespread clamour for more new features, more a desire for support for such things as Blu-ray that other systems have had for so long now it was getting embarrassing.

The headlines for Final Cut Pro 7 are:
  • New versions of Apple’s ProRes codecs – 4444 for very high-end use, 422 LT for mainstream broadcast use (at around 100Mbps), and 422 Proxy for offline and mobile editing (will there be an iPhone app for that? – probably not as this compression is still almost twice the data rate of DV)
  • Easy Export allows you to continue working on projects thanks to background encoding
  • iChat Theater support allows real time collaboration via iChat, even if they don’t have FCP
  • New speed tools allow you to change clip speed more easily, without losing audio synch
  • Alpha transitions for moving mattes
  • Native AVC-Intra support for the latest Panasonic broadcast cameras.

Compressor 3.5 takes care of FCP's Easy Export functions, for publishing to YouTube or MobileMe, or export to iPhone, iPod, Apple TV or mobile phones, although you can do most of this from inside FCP. It can also create Blu-ray discs – although DVD Studio Pro (which hasn't been upgraded) doesn't support Blu-ray, leaving Adobe Production Suite the better choice for Blu-ray authoring. Compressor has also been made easier and quicker to use, and is also part of the new Logic Studio.

Motion 4 has a few interesting new features, including the ability to adjust depth of field within a 3D canvas by selectively highlighting a single object or using multiple objects to create a racking focus effect (this will be particularly attractive to anyone shooting on lower-budget cameras who wants to get more of a film look); there is also a new tool that makes it quicker and simpler to create credit rolls and its 3D capabilities have been extended with the ability to add point and spot lights to cast realistic shadows or turn any shape, video plane or paint stroke into a reflective surface.

Color 1.5 works better with FCP, so that things like speed effects can round-trip between the two without completely falling apart. It now has 4K support, working natively with files from cameras like the Red One, and outputs directly to ProRes for HD or DPX for film.

Soundtrack Pro 3 (which is also part of Logic Studio) adds new audio editing tools, such as Voice Level Match (which extracts volume information from the vocal content of one clip and applies it to another without altering any other audio content, so you can quickly match voice levels). It is also simpler to target and reduce specific frequencies, such as rustling paper or a bump, without affecting dialogue. There is also a new Advanced Time Stretch that stretches and compresses audio with "incredible precision" and without pitch changes.

Apple has also upgraded Final Cut Server (asset management and automation) to 1.5, which adds support for offline editing using ProRes Proxy, production hierarchies to organise media, and support for still sequences to easily view and manage image sequences for graphics and effects workflows. It has also more than halved in price to £799 (unlimited client licence – which was £1999 previously – the limited licence was £999) or a £249 upgrade.

Logic Studio includes Logic Pro 9 and MainStage 2, with more than 200 new features. Logic Pro 9 gets new Amp Designer and Pedalboard plug-ins, and new Flex Time tools for altering timing and tempo quickly. MainStage (for live performance), includes new Playback and Loopback plug-ins for backing tracks and real-time loop recording. It costs £399.

David Fox

HD video recording in a nanoFlash

Convergent Design has finally started shipping its long-awaited nanoFlash recording unit. It allows any camera equipped with HD/SD-SDI or HDMI outputs to record at up to 160Mbps 4:2:2 using the Sony XDCAM codec (or up to 220Mbps I-frame only) on a small, lightweight recorder.

It will give popular, low-cost cameras, such as Sony's EX1, the ability to record higher quality (including green screen effects shots) on lower-cost solid-state media (as it uses Compact Flash cards that are available for about one eight the price of proprietary media), and bypassing the camera's inbuilt compression system.

It can record full-raster 4:2:2 160/140/100Mbps I-Frame or 100/50Mbps Long-GOP video on two CF cards using a Sony MPEG2 hardware CODEC. It is small enough (10.5x9.25x3.5cm) to fit onto a DV or HDV camcorder, and weighs less than 400g. It can also be used with helmet cams or to create tiny 3D rigs (multiple units can be triggered simultaneously).

Features include: HD/SD-SDI and HDMI I/O, with Loop-out, and monitor / playback to a professional or consumer display; embedded audio (HD/SD-SDI or HDMI); NLE support for Final Cut Pro (.mov); Avid, Edius and Vegas Pro (.mxf); optional remote control with Record Trigger and a red Tally LED; good battery life (6.5 ~ 19.5volt, 6 Watt power consumption when active and 0.2W in stand by), optional battery adapter; LTC input; and optional ASI Encode/Decode (MPEG2 TS) with closed captioning, for use as a tiny professional player/recorder for microwave uplinks or IP connectivity.

 It can also operate as a Standalone HD/SD-SDI → HDMI or HDMI → HD/SD-SDI converter. Recording formats include: 1080i60/50, 1080psf30/25/24, 1080p30/25/24, 720p60/50, and 486i/576i (4:2:2 I-Frame at 30/40/50Mbps - IMX), plus PCM 16/24-bit audio. Using two 32GB CF cards, it can record about 50minutes at 160Mbps, 80 minutes at 100Mbps, or 160 minutes at 50Mbps.

 Further features that are promised for future free firmware upgrades include: metadata support (for a wide range of information, such as programme name, location, format details, scene ID, good take info, etc.); Redundant Recording, for mirrored recording to the two CF cards at once; RS-485 remote control, including metadata input; 24p removal; time lapse capture; 1440x1080, 4:2:0 Long GoP at 18 ~ 40Mbps recording; 10-bit recording (it is currently 8-bit only, as MPEG-2 is); MPEG1 Layer II (ASI) audio.

Most of these features will also be coming to the existing, larger Flash XDR unit (which has four CF slots, HD/SD-SDI I/O and XLR audio inputs). The best price We've seen for it so far is $2,775 – although it only seems to be shipping in the US at the moment.

Related post: Convergent Design Odyssey7 + 7Q

By David Fox

Free training at IBC...

Visitors to IBC will be able to get free camera, lighting and general production and post-production training (including seminars, small group sessions and 15-minute one-to-one opportunities from the UrbanFox). IBC has been running limited post-production training for several years, but the rest is new.... The interesting sessions take place in IBC's new Production Village (in Hall 9 - where Sony used to be). It will offer a seriously packed schedule of free, independent training sessions from some of the best in the business, as well as manufacturer-led sessions and the opportunity to compare cameras and equipment from differnet manufacturers side by side. "The aim of the Production Village is to help people to improve their skills, irrespective of what lights or camera they are working with, particularly with reference to HD," explained David Dawson-Pick (left), of DDP Enterprises, which is organising the free training sessions. The training should be applicable to a wide range of equipment, and all the sessions (including one-to-ones) are on the IBC website (click on IBC Training - it doesn't allow deep linking) or at the reception desk on site. Tutors include: Christina Fox, of UrbanFox.TV, who will be covering low-budget HD camcorders, audio, shooting interviews, camera support and production on a budget; DoP Jonathan Harrison, who will be doing his renowned Lighting On The Run as a double-session (giving it the time it needs but usually doesn't get), plus seminars on soft lights, lighting in difficult locations (such as jungles), and energy-saving lighting, as well as daily lighting clinics; Multi-camera expert, Peter Taylor, who has worked on such events as Glastonbury and the Proms for the BBC, will have sessions on OBs and multi-camera lighting and lenses; Technology specialist, Alan Roberts will cover colour science, how to set up an HD camera, test cards, operational tricks, and all your high-end camera questions (he will also be launching his new book at IBC, in conjunction with the EBU, called Circles of Confusion - an in-depth look at how to get the best out of HD); Drama DoP, Paul Wheeler, who also teaches at the NFTS, will reveal how to get a particular look using lenses and filters, how to pick the right high-end camera for the job, and location workflow. Visitors to the Village will be able to compare cameras and other equipment from different manufacturers (such as Anton/Bauer, Arri, Autoscript, Canon, JVC, Lite Panels, Panasonic, P+S Technik, and Vinten), while a BAFTA and RTS-award winning make-up artist, Shaunna Harrison, will demonstrate air-brushing techniques and prosthetics, so that you can see how they look using different cameras and lighting. "That's enormously helpful with understanding how flesh tones come out and how to light for them, and so that you can understand the demands of the make-up artist," said Dawson-Pick. The various trainers, and others, have also shot short video masterclasses, which will be viewable at IBC. The Post Production Training Zone, where you can find out more about Apple, Avid and Adobe software, is in Hall 7. David Fox

Walter Murch on movie editing

There was a fascinating talk at the London SuperMeet by legendary, multi-award winning film and sound editor Walter Murch (pictured), about how he edited Francis Ford Coppola's latest film, Tetro. The all-digital production was shot on two Sony S900 1080 24p cameras (hardly the latest technology) and edited on Final Cut Pro. It was recorded both in HDCAM and to higher-quality external HDCAM SR recorders.

About a quarter of the images were manipulated in some way (such as the seamless splicing together of different takes in split screens), about half in After Effects – he worked with a visual effects artist in the edit suite, which he believes gave him more creative freedom. The rest of the effects were done at UPP, Prague. Some of the shots were blown up by 229%, "and they still work on a 50ft screen," although it helps that 90% of the movie is in black and white.

He had five edit systems, an Apple XSAN and 14TB of RAID storage on an Xserve. The editing was done using the ProRes 720p codec (chosen after lots of testing because it gave the best image quality for reasonable speed).

The movie was shot and edited in Argentina, and shot almost completely with locked-off cameras, which meant that the actors had to be very precise about their movements. All the equipment for the shoot had to fit in to two vans (there were no trailers). "It was a very low-profile film."

He also showed how he works, plans and tracks the edits, mainly using a system of coloured and differently shaped cards arrayed on a huge board (or two), to show what needs to be done, how it all fits together, and the emotional mood of each sequence. He works with a plasma display, alongside which he placed two cutouts of people (to remind him of the scale of the cinema screen he is working too – although on Tetro he also had a projector in the edit suite for viewing rushes).

The next FCP SuperMeet will be held alongside IBC in Amsterdam, on Sunday,
September 13 at the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky (a much more central, and lavish, venue than they used for the first IBC SuperMeet last year. As usual, it is predicted it will sell out (as all the SuperMeets so far have). Online booking is now open

David Fox

Cheap 35mm video

There is a lot of interest in Canon's 5D Mark II digital SLR for video production, as it is probably the cheapest way to shoot full-frame 35mm, and make the most of the shallow depth of filed you get with the bigger sensors. But "it has made me swear more than any other camera on a shoot, although the new firmware has made a huge difference," according to DoP, director and editor, Philip Bloom (pictured). The recent changes at least mean "you can now get the same exposure shot after shot," he told the recent Final Cut Pro User Group SuperMeet in London.

A huge bonus is that "the camera is incredible in low light," but there are problems. Even so, "I do think the camera is a game changer. Even with all the flaws it's got. If those are dealt with it will be brilliant."

He advised not to try to edit the native H.264 files, because they stutter in the editor, but to transcode it. The files can be converted in Final Cut Studio using Compressor, to ProRes, or in the free MPEG Streamclip from Squared 5, which is twice as fast. Unfortunately, the Canon shoots at 30fps, although users hope that Canon will issue a further firmware update for native 24 and 25fps. Meanwhile, there is no perfect way of converting 30p to 24p or 25p. The best way that Bloom has found is to change the time base in Cinema Tools (part of FCS). Although that will give an overcranked look (slow motion replay), it is simple to do. Otherwise, he advises using JES Deinterlacer, which is free, fast and retains the sound sync. It is also better to edit 30p native, then convert rather than converting the rushes.

Bloom also demonstrated JVC's small HM-100 camcorder, which records to cheap SDHC cards and can be set to capture in 35Mbps QuickTime, so that files can be instantly accessible to Final Cut Pro. "This is the quickest transfer you're going to have if you're a Final Cut user. There is no rewrapping, no capturing, and no transcoding. You just copy across the files."

SDHC can also solve one of the biggest problems with tapeless: "How do you archive? But these cards are so cheap you could store them." A 16GB card can store 50 minutes and costs about £25. The camera can also record MP4 files, for compatibility with other NLEs.

David Fox