Tuesday, October 11, 2011

NAB 2011 Camera News

Life in the desert takes on a new meaning every spring, alternately freezing us to the bone, or pummeling us with a vicious wind that constantly propels us across the expansive parking lot of the Las Vegas Convention Center. One thing holds true year after year, though: you are going to be desiccated and exhausted when the show is over.

This year's NAB Show brought new things to consider. I wondered as I walked between the postcentric South Hall and the camera-centric Central Hall how much the earthquake and tsunami in Japan would affect the products being shown. The destruction of the factory that is the only source for Sony HDCAM SR stock has been widely discussed, including of course in Debra Kaufman's extensive coverage in this issue, but manufacturing facilities for lithium Ion battery and disc media manufacturing and assembly were also lost.

There are also a vast number of small but critical suppliers to the industry that have been affected. One of the few public confirmations of production hobbled by the loss of some of these sub-component manufacturers was RED Digital Cinema's delayed release of the production model of their EPIC camera, but there were others as well.

In any case, it was not a camera year like we saw last NAB, where eight new top-of-the-line cameras were announced. Far fewer new products were announced than I anticipated, but companies showed off the largest number of camera prototypes I think I have ever seen on the show floor. The desert was definitely bringing winds of change.

The camera stories this year were 3D and 4K or more, or as Sony proclaimed in their booth, "Beyond HD," starting with the newest addition to the CineAlta line, the F65. It features an 8K sensor (8768 x 2324, or 20MP per frame), and Sony was showing the camera's live output at 4096 x 2160, the true 4K DCI projection spec.

Sony F65 CineAlta™ Digital Motion Picture Camera.

Sony really upped the bar overall, complementing their newest flagship camera with the SR recordable media lineup, from the lowest cost SR-R1 tapeless recorder to match with the PMW-F3, to the SRR3 designed as a dockable replacement for the SRW1 on the F23/ F35 camera system. At the top of the line, the new SR-R4 unit is designed to mate with the F65, allowing for 16-bit 4K or 2K RAW recording when attached to directly to the camera.

Sony's PMW-F3

Sony has also joined the high-end independent digital disk recorder companies like Codex and S.two. The entire file-based SR product lineup records to either 500G or 1T versions of the SR2 Media. The brand new SR-R1000 is part of that lineup, a desktop unit that allows up to four pieces of SR media to be transferred or backed up at one time.

Sony SR-R1000 is a desktop unit that allows up to four pieces of SR media to be transferred or backed up at one time.

The NXCAM line was also updated, with Sony showing the NEXFS100, an ultra compact full frame S35 imager camera designed for the indie and prosumer market. Sony's Juan Martinez showed me the 3D masterpiece of the NXCAM line, the HXR-NX3D1. It offers both 2D and 3D recording modes, in addition to full frame packed 3D output via HDMI.

A 3D shoulder-mount addition to the EX camera line, the PMW-TD300, uses ½" Exmore CCDs and records right and left eye data to separate SxS media cards. It also uses a more reasonable 45mm interocular preset that allows a minimum convergence distance of 1.2 meters (47 inches). Sony also showed off the PMW-F3 camera. My review is coming but let me say I really love what Sony is doing with the F3. Offering not only a large imager, but to additionally give true 4:4:4 dual link recording and native 3D sync capability in a camera this compact is just outstanding.

One of the most remarkable things to see at the show was hidden at ARRI, and it was literally a last minute addition to their booth: an Alexa, burned to a crisp in a camera truck fire, powered up and producing pictures underneath a Plexiglass cover. It was the ultimate testament to the toughness of ARRI cameras.

ARRI also announced a soon-to-be released Alexa software update that will allow Alexa owners to record 4:2:2 ProRes files internally on SxS media, at 120fps! Details on external recording at that frame rate was limited, but I am going to assume that the ARRI-branded Codex recorder being built to record ARRIRAW might be able to handle the same at some point in the future.

Other innovations at the ARRI booth included the Alexa Studio model. This is the tricked out, top of the line version of Alexa that finally allows access to imagery using the entire 4:3 sensor, a necessity when working with the anamorphic lenses popular in big budget Hollywood productions. The Studio model also showed a new optical viewfinder for the Alexa that eliminates the delay associated with digital electronic viewfinders. (All EVFs lag at least one frame, with some ENG cameras suffering more than a 5-7 frame delay.)

The ARRI ALEXA M was shown at the Cameron-Pace Group (CPG) keynote and press conference.

The Alexa M model was shown at the Cameron-Pace Group (CPG) keynote and press conference. The team led by 3D pioneers James Cameron and Vince Pace will have exclusive commercial access to the first systems to be made available in September 2011, pioneering its use in a variety of exciting 3D productions during which the design will be enhanced and optimized with new 3D application features unique to the CPG/ARRI.

Pace's Shadow 5D rig

When I showed the web's first walkthrough of the Alexa's menu structure at CreativeCOW.net last summer, I hinted at major changes coming in the camera's architecture. At this year's NAB, we saw it: the Alexa imager block separated from the camera body, allowing for smaller, remote operations, especially designed for 3D production.

L-R: Dr. Martin Prillmann (ARRI), James Cameron, Franz Krause (ARRI), Vince Pace of Cameron-Pace.

With 3D the focus of the CPG announcement, ARRI has certainly taken the lead in 3D production tools on the high end. I cannot wait to see some of the other compelling 3D companies like 3ality Digital and Element Technica to also take advantage of the Alexa M for handheld 3D production's next generation.

RED's presentation booth at NAB 2011.

RED returned to NAB this year, tattoo parlor and all, to show off both the EPIC M camera -- this is the handmade version available to existing RED ONE owners only. More than one working Scarlet prototype was also seen, heightening the buzz about an impending release date.
RED EPIC with Shoulder Mount

RED announced a partnership with Band Pro Inc. to market the EPIC camera with Leica Summilux-C lenses under a package agreement. RED also jointly announced with AJA the Ki Pro Mini as the preferred 1080 ProRes recording option for EPIC, speeding the TV and industrial workflows when using EPIC for noncinematic production.

RED announced a partnership with Band Pro Inc. to market the EPIC camera with Leica Summilux-C lenses. Photo courtesy Band Pro Inc.

Lastly, as I was writing this article, the Cameron/Pace Group, announced that, in addition to the Alexa M investment that they had already announced, they had purchased 50 of RED's EPIC cameras to help them accommodate their upcoming 3D production schedule.

There were an unbelievable number of digital disk recorders shown this year.

In addition to the ones I just mentioned, I noted the Gemini 4:4:4 unit from Convergent Design. However, I was not allowed to view the Gemini unit in their booth next to the mango smoothie stand in the Central Hall, having been blocked by one of the booth personnel because I had on my AJA exhibitor badge.

Notable too, was the new Apple ProRes/Avid DNxHD recorder from audio recorder company Sound Devices Inc. In addition to recording, it uses the camera's timecode connection to provide visual feedback, in-camera, as to the status of the recorder -- something not possible with any other digital recorder that I am aware of.

The true gem of the show was tucked away in the far reaches of the noman's land between the South and Central Halls, one of the most ground breaking pieces of technology I have seen in years: 3aility Digital's booth showed more of the future of 3D than anything else at the show.

From their command center next to a basketball court, 3ality ran a live 3D production multiple times daily.

From their command center next to a basketball court, 3ality ran a live 3D production multiple times daily, showcasing the most advanced 3D tech for live broadcast that I have ever seen or even heard of. Because I was given hints a couple of months ago, I thought I knew what to expect, but what I saw far surpassed what I had imagined.

The real innovation for me was the 3space™ technology suite. IntelleMatte allows real-time keying of 3D graphics with accurate control of those mattes in Z-space. I have to tell you, the optical flow processing to handle this type of key in real time will change the future of live mattes and key in sports and broadcast. IntelleScene automates the process of transitions and scene convergence that are the bane of every 3D live broadcast -- those cuts between scenes in live broadcast are among the greatest sources of discomfort. Shown to the audience without a single convergence operator, the live footage being shot and transmitted was well received by everyone that I talked to, with IntelleScene automating the smoothing and even prevention of many of those painful live-action scene transitions.

Lastly, I saw IntelleCam, their automated camera and rig control alignment tools. 3ality's presentation at the show was running eight 3D rigs, controlled and maintained from a single processing unit taking up less than 10 RU of rack space in the truck.

The 3space suite is a real leap ahead for 3D production, addressing the key issues of cost and complexity. It reduces the equipment and manpower costs to set up 3D rigs for broadcast or cinematic productions, and simply makes those productions easier to run, thereby reducing the overall cost entry for future live 3D productions.

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Chicago Illinois USA