NSW Creative Industries – The Cameras

Varuna

Author Carol Major at the Varuna writer’s retreat, captured on the Canon 1DC.

I was saying to my friend Pieter DeVries ACS the other day, that I keep thinking camera technology must have hit some sort of plateau and we’re in for a few years of incremental improvements.

Then every time Sony, or Canon or Red or Arri or someone else makes an announcement and I realise it’s happening again.

The downside is of course that getting the kind of familiarity with our tools that can only happen over years has become more of a luxury and in the digital world that applies at least as much to workflow as setting and using the camera. But the incredible upside is that images that were difficult or even impossible yesterday become a matter of scrolling through an unfamiliar camera menu today.

Choosing a Camera

While I’m as keen as anyone to play with new cameras, I also hate for the technology to get in the way on a real shoot. On an actual job the value of a familiar camera and a reliable workflow are usually critical to being sure you can deliver the shots on the day and as importantly- with consistency through a project. For this reason I was still choosing to use the Sony F900 on certain projects 7 years after I fist got my hands on it and remember camera years are a lot shorter than dog years! So I find it an incredibly rare thing to have a project come along that begs for you to take risks and push the envelope technically.

One of the most important things about the Launch Video for the NSW Creative Industries Action Plan was that variations in the look that would be a nightmare of inconsistency on a normal project had the potential to add to the visual diversity of this production.  To create an impression of the depth and breadth of the creative industries in the state of NSW ended up requiring over 70 separate micro-shoots, all with different subjects and environments.  The finished video features footage from, not one camera but 4 very different tools.

The Finished Video

This is the completed 3 minute video.

Not The Usual Suspects

Even taking into account the incredible pace of change with professional cameras in recent years the last few months have seen some very notable releases. It was lucky that we were testing two of the most interesting of these during this shoot.

Sony F55

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Sony PMW F55

No matter which way you look at it, the Sony F55 is one hell of a camera. Even with it’s current firmware it offers a lot of combinations of resolution and recording codec. In it’s final firmware form (a matter of months away) it’s menus will offer a dizzying array of recording options.

While the modular R5 RAW recorder and it’s 16-bit Linear 4k recordings have been grabbing most of the headlines, Sony’s new XAVC codec is a very interesting piece of work. XAVC works in both Full HD and 4k and will eventually also add a 2k option as well. The thing I love about XAVC is that it uses a sensible amount of compression to get data rates down to more practical levels but has 10-bit colorspace.

Although I’ve talked about this before, it’s worth revisiting the value of 10-bit. It’s a great trade-off for image quality if you’re going to colour grade your pictures – you increase the uncompressed data rate to 125% of 8-bit but in return you get a 400% in colour-depth.

Visually, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between original images in 8-bit Vs 10-bit but once you start pushing and stretching those pictures in the grade. the differences can be huge. I tested a prototype F55 back in December with the powerful RAW Recorder, so I was especially keen to put the XAVC through it’s paces with the production model.

Canon 1D-C

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Canon 1DC

The impression I get from Canon is that they really got taken by surprise by the way the 5D-II exploded into the cinematography world a few years ago. For all of the limitations of DSLR’s they can produce absolutely stunning pictures from (in cinematography terms) tiny camera bodies with plenty of lens options and unthinkably low cost compared the entry level for large sensor cameras before them.

I’m going to have to admit something here, I’ve watched some of the fury at missing features or awkward operation of these cameras in professional video with a little amusement. It’s just mind boggling that it works at all. Let alone that it so aften produces such beautiful imagery. But the results of all this complaining are hard to overlook.

Canon has jumped headfirst into the “Cinema” world and released 4 cameras that really don’t have any parallels. S

tarting with the C300 and then adding the C100 & C500 all purpose built video cameras built around a 4k sensor with a compact form factor and professional controls the Canon Cinema EOS line has a completely different set of priorities and point of reference to cameras like the F55.

There’s probably no clearer example of these different design philosophies than the 4th Cinema EOS camera, the 1D-C. Built on the platform of the latest incarnation their top of the line Pro DSLR the 1D-X, the 1D-C is designed as a self contained HD or 4k digital cinema camera (as is the F55) but with the form factor of a large DSLR.

Hacked Canon 600D

Using the combination of Magic Lantern and Technicolor Cinestyle turns the otherwise consumer level 600D into a little timelapse powerhouse.

Sony EX1

There’s one shot in the video that was taken on the Sony EX1 and I think it reflects well on a camera that’s old enough to be in primary school, that it stacks up so well amidst shots from the such recent heavy hitters.  (The first person who sends me a message through our contact page correctly identifying the shot will receive a free copy of The Grading Sweet Pro!)

Shoot Part 1: The F55

Sony Australia’s Nick Buchner arranged for us to test the PMW-F55 and the full set of Sony’s new CineAlta Prime Lenses and this coincided with the first part of shooting on NSW Creative. With a couple of weeks testing time before we started shooting I was able to get to know the camera much better and compared to the prototype, the production model was exactly what I’ve come to expect from a first generation release from Sony’s CineAlta team. It works straight out of the box and while the menus always take me a little while to find my way around, they are complex because they give you so many options. One thing that caught me out initially was that I thought I had switched the camera to “S-Log2” by selecting that option in the Gamma section of the Camera menu.

SLog2 001

An S-Log2 image as it looks straight from the camera.

 

Carlo

Composer Carlo Giacco in colour graded S-Log2. These big areas of smooth light colours are where the differences between 8-bit and 10-bit are most noticeable.

Only after looking back at the footage, I felt that it really didn’t look very “log-like”. After a bit of looking around in the menus discovered that you also need to switch to S-Log Colorspace in the System Settings menu. Once that was done we were getting silky smooth log images in all their 10-bit glory. Much like Sony’s XDCAM group of formats the F55 (and F5) XAVC codec is recorded in MXF file wrappers. Sony’s Content Browser software does support FCP-7 but only FCP-X for XAVC clips. While we were editing the NSW Creatives project in FCP, it wasn’t practical for us to go via FCP-X just to import the F55 footage.

Ironically, the easiest way into FCP for this project was via Avid’s Media Composer. Avid MC doesn’t even do an internal conversion of the XAVC files, so the process is simply a matter of pointing it to the MXF files through the “Link to AMA Clips” option from the files menu. The clips are then instantly available in Media Composer. Because Clara had done all of her prep work including the animatic & music edit in FCP, it made the most sense to continue working there. So we exported ProRes HQ files from Avid to maintain the low compression, 10-bit picture quality and FCP was able to easily handle the footage.

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The F55’s operator side display.

One of the things I really love about the F55 and F5 as an operating DP, is the LCD screen on the operator side of the camera body. There’s been much fiery discussion of this among cinematographers and operators since the Arri Alexa has a similar screen on the opposite side. I think both make sense in different circumstances. The right hand side of the Alexa makes perfect sense if the operator is working in a traditional camera operator role, since it allows the DP or Assistant or DIT to check the settings without getting in the operator’s way.

While operating with the F55 I found that most of the time I was able to turn off all of the viewfinder displays since I could quickly and easily glance down and see the settings on the LCD. This makes a huge difference while operating the camera. Having no distractions and being able to clearly see every corner of the image is an absolute godsend.

On the subject of viewfinders, I got to test the F55 with the new OLED Viewfinder.The picture is sharp, with accurate colours and extremely good contrast. The left hand side of the viewfinder has direct buttons for switching on and off all of the displays and also for focus magnification. These buttons have very different textures to them, so it’s easy to get used to switching either of them without taking your eye away from the image.

One warning is that with the displays off and focus magnification on, it is very easy to miss that you are looking at a magnified image. I didn’t get caught with rolling on the wrong framing but it would be very easy to do, especially with a zoom where you might be tempted to just correct with the barrel. I did give myself one big scare with the viewfinder. Clara and I had just been shooting some timelapse and I was giving her a look at playback in the viewfinder. Once she looked up and said “Great. We got it.”, without thinking I flicked the camera’s power switch while it was still playing back.

Then came the horrible moment when I thought, I hope that didn’t do anything to the camera or the SxS card. So I switched it back on and… nothing. There was no life at all in the viewfinder. A moment later I realised that the side LCD was on and everything looked normal. Phew. But then, oh no… that means the viewfinder is dead! How am I going to explain to Nick, that I’ve killed their demo OLED viewfinder?

It took a very serious couple of minutes for me to realise that the lens cap was on and the displays were off. On the OLED’s fully functional screen, the blacks were so rich and clean that it was indistinguishable from when the power was off, something I’ve never seen on a digital camera before. So if there’s any question about the quality of the contrast in the OLED being as good as Sony claims, that made the answer very tangible for me.

Sony 50mm

Sony 50mm CineAlta II beside a 50mm SLR lens.

Sony’s second foray into PL mount primes is a significant, if logical progression from the first one. The new kit of 6 lenses are as substantial physically as they are subtle optically. The 18, 24, 35, 50, 85 & 135mm lenses are all on the larger end of cine style primes, more the size of S4’s or Master Primes than of Superspeeds for example.

This size and the weight of of the solid metal construction will almost certainly invite unfair comparisons with lenses far beyond the price point of the Sony Primes. In my tests and on the NSW Creatives shoot a found them to perform extremely well optically. It is very difficult to get a flare out of them and when you do it is very subtle.

While I didn’t get them onto a res chart, they are very sharp wide open at T2, which is important when that’s where these sort of lenses will spend much of their lives. Not that contrast is that much of an issue any more with digital grading, I still found them to have really good contrast and consistent contrast across the kit and the aperture.

My overall impression of the F55 in XAVC and with the Sony Primes is that it is a compact but still proper serious production camera system.

I could imagine using it on all sorts of TV commercials, low to mid budget features and it would probably be most at home on a TV drama series. This will be all the more so when the HDCAM-SR recording to the internal cards arrives, maybe with the next update. People may question XAVC as a source format for the big screen but the images are superb.

4k resolution, visually very mild compression and 10-bit Log for only 300mbps to an onboard memory card is a combination that shouldn’t be overlooked and I can’t thick of another alternative that could come close to those spec’s. In real terms the F55 is a small and lightweight camera. It is interesting though how our point of reference for how big a professional cinematography camera needs to be has gone through a drastic re-calibration in recent years. The F55 is not near the top end of that scale, being much smaller and lighter than the Alexa or F65, but carrying it and the lenses around for the NSW Creative Industries shoots did make me conscious that it’s not near the bottom of that size and weight scale either.

Shoot Part 2: The 1DC

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The 1DC rests on my knee.

Enter the 1DC. If you asked the designers at Sony and Canon to brief each other and come up with as divergent ideas about what a self contained 4k digital cinema camera should look like in 2013 as they possibly could, I doubt that they would have been any more different than they are. I’ve been intrigued by each of the Canon Cinema EOS range when they were announced except the 1DC.

As someone who started in video, moved into 16mm & 35mm film and then made the transition to digital, the well established form factor of the single lens reflex camera is something that I don’t mind working with when shooting stills but not having come from that background (which I know many great cinematographers do come from) the SLR form has never been the most appealing to me.

For shooting moving pictures there is much to complain about. So when Canon announced the 1DC as cinema features in the body of their biggest and heaviest DSLR, I thought… well I’m sure the stills guys who’ve started shooting video since the 5d-II, will like it.

When Canon’s Charles Montesin told me that they had a 1DC available to test with the Cinema EOS Primes that I was very keen to get my hands on, I reasoned that it should at least be a very interesting contrast to the F55. The lenses first. They are not quite as different a vision from the CineAlta Primes as the cameras are from each other, but they are products of the same two philosophies.

The EOS Primes are much shorter than their Sony counterparts and taper in much more dramatically towards the EF mount. Interestingly, while Canon’s Cinema Zooms are available in EF or PL, the primes are EF only. I’ve used the 14.5-60mm wide zoom in it’s PL form and it is a very impressive lens. If you haven’t seen it in person, it’s worth checking. The sharp, clean T2.6 on a wide angle zoom is extraordinary but the only way to achieve that is with some big bits of glass!

The EOS Primes have a good sized focus ring but the tapered back end results in a very small aperture ring. I was a little surprised at first but as soon as I started using it, I realised that it was big enough to easily set an exact exposure and really that’s all a cinematographer needs from the iris. The end result is lenses that are noticeably smaller than the CineAlta’s while having an excellent feel physically and mechanically. Optically the lenses have a lovely organic look to them, not too clinical but still very clean.

STC Storeroom

The Canon 1DC & Cinema EOS 50mm captures the natural afternoon light in the props store of the Sydney Theatre Company.

They have very subtle but real lens flares which can be a a nice thing. At T1.3 they are very fast glass and like most of the newer cine lenses around they look great wide open. While smaller and lighter than the CineAlta’s the EOS Cinema Primes are still substantial lenses when compared to SLR glass or older cine lenses. Like the Sony’s the focus barrel has large clear markings that can be read from either side of the camera.

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The lightweight camera bag containing the 1DC, 600D & 5 Canon lenses.

The first thing I noticed about the 1DC having only seen it at a distance at the Sun Studios launch event was that I already knew how to use it. In the sense that it follows the same menu and operational logic of every Canon DSLR and having used several different models over the years I simply turned it on, changed the key things in the menus and started to shoot some tests. One design philosophy Canon have diligently pursued is simplicity and consistency from the bottom to the very top of their range. The next thing that jumped out at me was that for a very big DSLR, the 1DC is a very small digital cinema camera!  It came from Canon in a mid-sized Lowepro Bag, with a couple of the cine primes included.

For the NSW Creatives project, we quickly transitioned this into a rolling Lowepro Bag with all of our EOS lenses, filters plus the 600D for timelapse.  This worked for both loading quickly in and out of the car and for the extensive walking shoots to various locations around the Sydney CBD. Even with one of the cinema primes on the front the 1DC is easy to carry around your neck or over your shoulder in just about any situation.

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On location in the Sydney CBD with the 1DC & my beautiful L-Series 24-105mm zoom.

It was only after a few days of using it that I began to fully appreciate how compact the camera is. For shooting film style, the cinema primes make a very practical difference simply in allowing exposure to be adjusted without touching anything electronic.

This simple fact meant that the controls that I was regularly accessing on the camera were very quick and easy to access and think about because I wasn’t using that headspace, just to set exposure.

One of those other controls that I found myself using a lot was the recording format which is very easy to access from shooting mode without going into the main menu system.  The reason I made so much use of it was that the 1DC can switch between “Full Frame” and a Super-35 crop.

There’s still quite a bit of confusion about the nature of “35mm” sized image sensors.  Because motion picture film usually runs vertically and SLR film runs horizontally, 35mm film in the two forms has quite different image sizes.

In fact the height of the Full Frame HD image on the 1DC is almost exactly the same as 70mm in motion picture terms.

Being able to almost instantly switch between Super-35mm & 70mm image size almost instantly was a fun novelty that within a couple of days turned into a reflex action!

The result is that you effectively get two different frame sizes out of each lens.  The cinema primes are not actually rated for full frame mode and they do vignette.  However after testing them in full frame HD, I was personally more than comfortable with the subtle vignettes and shot a lot of material in that mode.

Not only that, but there wasn’t a single shot where the vignetting was noticeable enough that I didn’t add more in the colour grade!  My warning on this would simply be to test it yourself with each lens and make a personal judgement call.

Timelapse

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Clara Chong waits on a cold winter’s evening while the 600D with MagicLantern is busy doing timelapse of Sydney Harbour.

The 600D when combined with Technicolor’s excellent Cinestyle gamma curve and Magic Lantern’s firmware hack gives this otherwise unremarkable camera some amazing capabilities, one of which is an internal intervalometer.

While there are several ways of doing timelapse with this, the one that we found to be the most effective is using the camera in stills mode where I could program any combination of interval and exposure time and the camera would snap away, effectively giving us a 5k image sequence at around 600 mbps.  Although I did tests with RAW mode, the photo JPEG gave us plenty of picture quality for what we were needing.   These images sequences were then opened directly in Quicktime Pro 7 and then exported as HD ProRes files to the edit suite.

By setting the camera in it’s normal menu to shoot stills in a 16×9 aspect ratio, there were also no issues with cropping in the conversion.

The Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains peek through the fog in a graded timelapse frame.

The Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains peek through the fog in a graded timelapse frame.

 

In The Grade

Machine

These white walls, with grey and black machinery at Miller Tripods is another situation where the 10-bit XAVC shines in the colour grade.

Once the shoot was complete and the edit locked we transferred the material into DaVinci Resolve for the colour grade.  I was expecting to have to work much harder to bring the footage from the different sources together. Again, there was a huge safety net on this project in that a different feel for different locations could add to the sense of diversity.

Having said that, I was quite surprised by how little I thought about the source cameras once we got the footage into DaVinci. My big worry going in was that the 1DC’s 8-bit Log recording wouldn’t stand up but I really surprised at how little this was an issue.  Having said that, the 10-bit Log from the F55’s XAVC was bullet-proof.  After quickly working through a first pass primary grade, the shots were essentially brought to a common ground and from then on we really moved into creative tweaking where the different cameras were a vague memory.

Vince

Designer Vince Frost captured with the 1DC in it’s “70mm Movie” mode.

Conclusion

It’s almost senseless to compare these two cameras or even to put them side by side on a project when they spring from such polar opposite philosophies.

It intrigues me though, that these philosophies have both come forward from established, Japanese electronics giants. What surprised me most though was how well the images produced by these two different cinematography world views sit side by side.

That really highlights how much of the choice of professional camera is now about ergonomics and workflow as much as the final images they produce. And that doesn’t minimise the importance of making the right camera choice for any given project or even shot for that matter.

Ergonomics and workflow can easily make or break a production.  In that the wheel is turning full circle.  With film, the stock, the lab and the lens make or break the image while the camera is more a matter of… you guessed it, ergonomics & workflow.

I would much rather be matching Log images from the F55 and the 1DC than trying to match Log and Rec709 images from the same camera.

So again, I find myself thinking… surely this is it for a while, surely we’ve reached a plateau.

Probably not.  But I don’t mind if we have.

SOH Night

The Sydney Opera House at night.

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