Atomos Samurai Review

We’ve been testing the Atomos Samurai hard disk recorder, the big brother of the now popular Ninja and have found it to be more than the promised, Ninja with the HDMI connections swapped for HD-SDI.

Using the Samurai on location

Using the Samurai on location

At first glance, the family resemblance is almost complete.  They both feature the same brushed aluminium casings, 2.5″ laptop sized drives mounted in the metal caddies and the intuitive touch screen interface.  The obvious difference is the input and output connections.  While the HDMI standard can theoretically carry a 10-Bit signal, hardly any manufacturers have used this option and in practice HDMI is realistically an 8-Bit standard.

SDI remains the real professional standard for both 8-Bit & 10-Bit digital from Standard Def to full HD.  While there are many factors that influence the quality of digital recordings, the scale of the difference between 8-Bit and 10-Bit os so often overlooked.  For a 20% increase in the volume of data, an 8-Bit system’s 16.7 million colours becomes nearly 1.1 Billion different colours in a 10-Bit world.

This results directly in more subtlety of colour graduations and more room for manipulation in post.  While the Ninja is capable of recording internally at 10-Bit colour depth, it is limited by the 8-Bit signals it receives over the HDMI connection.  The Samurai has miniature BNC connections that use an adaptor to connect with the standard sized BNC connections used on broadcast gear and is able to take advantage of the pristine 10-Bit signals from a wide range of different camera sources.

As with the Ninja this signal is then recorded in one of the variants of Apple’s ProRes 422 codec, especially the 10-Bit, ProRes HQ.  I wrote recently about using this 10-Bit capacity to record Log-like images produced by a Sony EX1.  It’s also worth noting that the ProRes codecs provide a great compromise between the lighter-weight onboard codecs of many cameras (even up to the F900 level) without generating the massive data load of uncompressed images.  In the process of trying to solve a workflow problem for the rather limited HDV format, Apple’s engineers managed to develop a de-facto standard that the industry has been sorely in need of.

The combination of the relatively high data rate of ProRes combined with true 10-Bit recording makes the Samurai a powerful addition for cameras as diverse as a Sony EX1 or EX3, even a Canon XL-H1 up to heavy duty warhorses like the Sony HDW-F900, original Varicam or Thompson Viper that could be given a whole new lease on life.

The Samurai also benefits from a more powerful processor than the Ninja and this manifests itself in a few different ways.  The first is that it gets around the file size limit of the Ninja, enabling long recordings to exist on the drive as a single clip, while a minor issue in most cases there are many situations where this will be a very worthwhile workflow improvement.

Another benefit of the more powerful processor is that Atomos will be able to add Avid DNXHD as another recording codec in the near future.

We decided to do a small test shot on location to see how the Samurai performed in the real world.

Test Shoot

Measuring the dappled light for EX1

Setting up for the test shoot

Director Clara Chong and I designed a small test scenario based on a kind of magical treasure hunt to push the camera & Samurai perform in a tricky situation.  The camera was the trusty little EX1 with my B-Log settings (you can  
CLICK HERE  to download the B-Log Setup File for the EX1.
We chose to shoot in late afternoon in the dappled light of parklands.  Even at that time of day, the harsh Australian summer sun would provide a tough test for the Log settings and the ability of the Samurai to accurately record the signal coming from the camera’s uncompressed output.

I rated the camera at 320 ASA Daylight for a 38% mid grey (as per S-Log) and set all exposures by meter, although with the rapidly changing light, I did do a little tweaking as the light changed in order to maintain a level consistent with the metered exposure.

This was shoot entirely with available light, with only a reflector used on one shot (hopefully you can’t pick which one… well done if you do!).  The colour grade was done in Apple’s Color to maintain the continuity of the 10-Bit colorspace.

We went for some pretty dramatic secondary colour corrections both for creative reasons and to see how the fat ProRes data responded.  For me, it is no exaggeration to say that it responded a lot like film.  Deep, malleable shadow detail with gently subtle highlights and a lot of room to play in between.  Again, this is all coming out of an EX1!

Checking exposure @ 320 ASA

Checking the dappled light.

The only criticism of the workflow would be that each take comes into Final Cut Pro in it’s own folder and I would find it easier if the takes came in grouped directly into the scene folders.  Other than that, the footage comes into the edit instantly, with no conversions or processing or re-wrapping.  While the EX1 can only feed the Samurai 2 channels of audio, the SDI inputs can record from up to 8 separate channels, as long as they are embedded in the SDI data stream.

In the shot where the girl walks from the bright side of a tree to the dark shadow side, there is roughly 5 stops of incident exposure difference between the two (more on reflected readings) and the detail still holds on both sides.  The dark side is dark, the bright side is bright and they fall very naturally around the measured exposure.  This kind of tonal range, where the shadows and highlights are all useable, again feels much more like shooting film to me than working within the constraints of HD.

It was an interesting process doing the grade in the, recently departed Color, a piece of software that I have criticised as much as any one.  Despite some frustrating render issues we had, I feel a little like I’m finally appreciating the potential of an acquaintance at their wake and wondering what could have been.  Until FCP X, I always assumed that there would be a fully Apple-ised version of Color coming and find a little lump-in-the-throat that it is something we will probably never see.

For rental houses, production companies and owner-operators with older cameras in good condition, the Samurai is an intriguing option.  As well as the quality boost, it’s an easy way to bring tape-based cameras (like the F900’s, Vipers etc.) into a fully data based workflow with all of the cost & workflow improvements that brings.  I know a lot of productions and facilities have been looking for an upgrade path from these cameras and it could now be as simple as the same camera feeding to a Samurai.

The two biggest strengths of the Ninja are picture quality and workflow.  The Samurai comfortably ups the ante on both fronts.

 

Thanks to Mark Lampard from Corsair Solutions for access to the demo unit.

 

TEST SHOOT:

Music:  Pro Scores

Talent:  Tahlia Dhakal from Bettina Management
 
CLICK HERE  to download the B-Log Setup File for the EX1.

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