NAB: shoot and deliver

June 1st, 2007 Film, Film Features, Inside Film

NAB2007 attracted the largest array of products and people of any trade show in the industry. Drew Turney focuses on what’s hot for cinematographers, particularly in light of the trend towards self-production and distribution.

Attracting over 100,000 professionals and 1,400 exhibitors representing at least 130 countries from around the world, NAB2007 — the National Association of Broadcasters conference in the US — describes itself as ‘the essential destination for anyone in electronic media looking for comprehensive education, inspiration and innovation’. With participants like Microsoft, Google, Sony, Tivo and MSNBC, there was no better place to get a handle on how and with whom the area of broadcasting will change over the next 12 months. One of the major changes is the rise of the ‘maturing Pro’ market.

The New DOP

Sony’s product offering at NAB2007 was geared to one of the most interesting new paradigms to rise in the cinematography and broadcast field. It’s a digital HD model that — while not necessarily or inherently cheaper — is priced so as to put more control into filmmakers’ hands.

Where film cameras would normally be sold to productions or businesses that leased them out, the F23 digital cinematography camera is a different beast in more ways than one. There’s the obvious and now-entrenched cost and functional advantages of being able to view rushes or dailies immediately, and the F23 is a more ergonomic, more workable camera than 35 film equivalents such as the Panavision Genesis that has become a comparable industry staple.

Developed in conjunction with what Sony terms ‘leading DOPs’, the F23 is part of the new model where a camera operator or DOP can own their own camera and lease themselves out to a production. The cost structures and functionality of Digital HD allows for it, and it’s a trend Sony’s seeing more and more.

The Digital Edge

Another direction is the move away from traditional hard disk and tape media to flash memory, a trend the Sony XDCAM EX camcorder is part of. The EX has a standard-issue 16Gb Express flash memory card so it’s lightweight, easy to handle and can transfer data into any late-model laptop with no proprietary handling, formats or adaptors.

To John Bowring, managing director of camera and camera equipment provider Lemac, the drive to flash memory makes sense. "The advantage of recording to flash memory is that the disc is easily removable and you just push it straight into your computer," he says, "it’s already pre-digitised. Besides the format has immediacy — you can erase footage onboard without having to connect to a computer and remove data from a hard disk."

Shooting goes wireless

One of the limitations of shooting — especially in the case of a news crew that has to be able to set up at a moment’s notice — has always been unwieldy cabling. It’s something JVC Professional hope to overcome with the introduction of the ProHD Libre system, a microwave-equipped camera that sends data wirelessly to the data store while you’re on the run.

The system includes the camera, lens, camera-back transmitter and receiver and JVC says it can be configured for less than $30,000 compared to over $100,000 for existing systems with similar capability. The possibilities for live sports, action as it happens and comparatively far-flung locations away from the news van are endless.

The 200 series of cameras takes it even further by coming with onboard broadcast-level MPEG-2 encoding to prepare your footage for microwave or satellite broadcast.

JVC also exhibited their range of Pro HD cameras including the GY-HD111E, GY-HD201E and GY-HD251E models as well as third party accessories like hard disk drive enhancements. JVC also has a suite of lenses and lens adaptors and part of its offerings is projectors, including the new DLA HD1 HD projector, which has true native HD 1920x1080p and 15,000:1 contrast ratio.

Good quality monitors are increasingly essential for on-set or on-location digital footage review, and JVC [somewhat curiously] still invest in CRT as well as HD LCD screens to display high definition images.

Better Red than dead

The talk of the town at NAB2007 was the Red One, a digital camera whose marketing strategy has been influenced by the iPod playbook. With a short, easy to remember, iconic name and a design unlike anything else in the industry, Red threw some celebrity weight behind its efforts by asking Peter Jackson to film footage for viewing at NAB2007.

"The Red Camera was probably the hottest thing at the show," says Lemac’s John Bowring, "There was a frenzy at the stand with anything up to a three hour wait." Just what was everyone so keen to see? The Red One is a digital camera from Jim Jannard (the man behind Oakley sunglasses) that promises to be a world-beater. Described as the ‘no excuse option’ to 35mm film, the Red One boasts a 4520×2450 pixel, 12 megapixel CMOS sensor that also offers 60 frames per second.

Looking every bit like the guerrilla filmmaker’s tool of choice for the new millennium, the mounting points allow for an array of add ons and accessories even the Red website admits haven’t even been thought of yet.

With the ability to shoot in 2k and 4k, the Red One is ready to film footage for digital cinema projection right on board. It’s 5 x 12 x 6 inches and weighs 3.3kg and the whole system is available as a package or with the battery packs, lenses, etc sold separately.

"There’s a bit of a line being drawn in the sand now in that there’s HD acquisition and data acquisition in 2K and 4K," says Lemac’s John Bowring. "That’s where the Red One and [other vendors like] Silicon Imaging fit in."

Talking about the dichotomy of HD video and what he describes as the ‘almost purely digital’ workflow of 2k and 4k data, Bowring explains the difference (and why the Red One is set to clean up the field). It’s all to do with how to transport the enormous amounts of data if you shoot in digital.

"HD’s traditionally been recorded uncompressed," he says. "What Red are doing with their Cineform codec is compressed 2k and 4k. If you’re talking about a 2k scan of film that’s 12.5 megabytes per frame, a huge amount of data. With 4k you’re talking about four times that amount of data. Red and Silicon Imaging are compressing that in various forms to what they claim is lossless compression so you’re significantly reducing the data stream."

Back to the Future

Of course, what’s changing the cinematography industry most of all is the rise of the consumer as producer. "The phenomenal success of web based delivery and viewing sites such as YouTube and My Space are fast challenging the traditional way independent filmmakers are promoting awareness of their projects," says Noel Oakes, national sales and marketing manager for JVC Professional Products.

Oakes also points to the downside of quality issues associated with the non-pro and ‘maturing’ pro fields, one on which he believes JVC is placed to capitalise. "There’s the obvious positive aspect like allowing the filmmaker to get his or her story to a much larger audience than seemed possible with almost no promotional budget, but one of the negatives is the low viewing resolution and compression artifacting often applied to streams when converting the original media. Image quality and ‘viewability’ are the key factors in grabbing the broader market appeal of your creation.

"You need to start with the best possible quality and affordable acquisition format and our decision to pursue the 720P full HD resolution HDV codec lends itself brilliantly to streaming applications. It records in full 1280 x 720 resolution and the inbuilt MPEG encoders found in JVC cameras and decks give you seamless re-purposing of data with hardly any image deterioration."

So as webcasting and other delivery-by-broadband methods become more mainstream, every camera or broadcast hardware vendor is going to have to consider the shoot-edit-upload workflow and invest in the formats that suit it. Perhaps at next year’s NAB conference, the number of independent web producers and directors will outnumber traditional broadcasters.

Not the end of film

Technology is always about superceding the old ways, of the new ways becoming more affordable and relegating old practices to the history books. The often-misquoted refrain of ‘film is dead’ will likely never happen as there’s a lot of overlap in film technology. Film and digital can (and do) coexist comfortably together.

In the face of exciting developments like the Red One and the digital compression it promises to make the workflow easier to handle, digital is encroaching on more of 35mm film’s territory, but as Lemac’s Bowring says "Are Mr and Mrs Smith at a cinema in Parramatta going to be watching for artifacts? No, they’re going to be there for the story."

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