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Tech Talk: Through a lens crisply

Natural history might be one of the last bastions of celluloid devotees in this reality TV-gone-wild era where video rules. While HD has been supplanting film as an acquisition format at the higher end of the production spectrum, non-HD formats have been embraced less enthusiastically, partly because camera makers haven't put nearly the same effort into creating non-HDcameras that mimic film functions.
October 1, 2004

Natural history might be one of the last bastions of celluloid devotees in this reality TV-gone-wild era where video rules. While HD has been supplanting film as an acquisition format at the higher end of the production spectrum, non-HD formats have been embraced less enthusiastically, partly because camera makers haven’t put nearly the same effort into creating non-HDcameras that mimic film functions.

The embrace of Panasonic’s DVX 1000 DV/24p mini camcorder by a new generation of filmmakers lit the fires of invention in the world of video camera design. Finally cine-style features developed for HD cameras – like 24fps, time lapse, 16:9 framing – are appearing in a new generation of non-HD cameras, including Mini dv camcorders.

Canon’s new XL2 can operate at 24p, 30p and standard 60i scanning rates – an improvement over the XL1′s ‘frame-mode.’ Colorimetry, dynamic range, contrast and other elements of the film look are enhanced with the muscle of 12-bit digital processing, an advanced menu, color matrix and new features like ‘film grain.’ A cine shutter rate of 1/48th second and interval recording (time lapse) can also enhance the film look. A new 20X lens included ensures an out-of-focus background, especially when zoomed in on wildlife.

Reacting to the popularity of its HD Varicam and DVX-1000, Panasonic designed a similar camera for the sub-HD digital cinema market. The AJ SDX 900 operates at 60i, 30p and 24p, plus an advanced 24p mode for direct export to most non-linear editing systems (NLEs). In time-lapse mode it captures one or more frames at a time, at intervals of up to a few hours.

The SDX 900 also has pre-record, which grabs the last 15 seconds of action captured in the frame buffer, prior to hitting record. This can spell the difference between just missing and nailing a shot, especially when filming animals. As acclaimed filmmaker Andy Young attests, ‘It’s the most significant advance since digital NLE systems. The image buffer is constantly capturing before you shoot, so you always have 15 seconds in the buffer… Shooting orcas, I hit pre-record the second we saw the splash, and got beautiful images of breaching whales… The SDX 900 footage [also] has a real film look – very close to HD.’

A tapeless version of this camera, the SPX 800, records up to 45 minutes of DVCPRO 50 onto flash memory cards and is lighter yet more durable. But with 18-minute (at DV 25 Mbps), 4gb flash media cards costing US$2,000, this will not be a cost-effective alternative to film for owner/operators with film cameras, in the near term.

Ikegami offers a cheaper tapeless alternative with its series of disk-based editcams. The cost of 80gb fieldpacks with six-hour capacity (at DV 25 Mbps) is $660. The downside is they only record in the Avid file format. Plans are afoot to add open file format capabilities.

Editcams were among the first video cameras to offer time-lapse and single-frame recording, as well as retro-loop (pre-record). With editcams, the pre-record buffer can be scaled from five seconds to more than eight minutes. Ike’s 12-bit DSP, detailed menu and robust color matrix offer a unique but viable path to ‘film looks,’ but without a 24p or 30p mode. The U.S. army has 110-plus editcams, many in combat zones, attesting to their durability.

SONY is the first to merge tapeless acquisition with a full suite of digital cinema features in its XDCAM series, featuring 24- and 30p formats, flexible interval recording, and a robust color matrix. With XDCAM, SONY uses blue lasers to write data to optical disks – 85 minutes at DV 25 Mbps (DVCAM) and 45 minutes at DV 50 Mbps (MPEG). The optical drives are shock, dust, humidity and extreme temperature tolerant, perfect for wildlife filmmakers. xdcams feature a 10- to 12-second pre-record buffer and operate in very low light, especially using the slow shutter option for dreamy filmic effects. A 2.5′ color LCD flip-out monitor also makes it easier to locate birds in the bush than with the stock black and white viewfinder provided. It also features random access to all shots recorded for preview or in-camera editing.

Although they’ve come a long way in several years, cine-style video cameras are still in their infancy. Imagine the look of things to come in the next five years.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.

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