HD for a fraction of the cost?

The arrival of the new breed of professional hdv cameras with a price point of under us$10,000 - the Sony HVR-Z1U, Panasonic's AG-HVX200 (available this fall) and the JVC GY-HD100U - could
August 1, 2005

The arrival of the new breed of professional HDV cameras with a price point of under US$10,000 – the Sony HVR-Z1U, Panasonic’s AG-HVX200 (available this fall) and the JVC GY-HD100U – could herald a new era of affordability for doc producers wanting to deliver HD quality without the hefty price tag. The question is, will the end quality make the savings worth it?

‘I’m two different people, really, when I look at it,’ says Emmy award-winning doc-maker Wayne Abbott of Northern Sky Entertainment in Toronto, who recently spent some time test-driving the Z1U over several days. ‘I’m a producer and a cinematographer. From a cinematographer’s standpoint, I’m looking at it going, ‘This is a small camera, not much weight to it, the lens isn’t very good.’ But, from the producer’s standpoint, I’m looking at it going, ‘How can this little thing do what it can do for under $7,000?’

The Z1U is a professional camcorder that looks like a heftier version of the DSR-PD170 DVCAM, and comes with three 1.04 megapixel ccds, a 12x optical zoom Zeiss lens (which cannot be exchanged), and the ability to shoot in HD, DV or SD formats.

‘I’m not a technician,’ says Abbott, who is currently shooting on location in France with the Sony 700A, ‘so I don’t know about the compression and all that stuff. All I know is when I looked at it, I was very impressed with the HD. And when it came to down converting it to sd I was impressed – I thought the colors looked great. For certain applications it’s going to look wonderful, [though] I don’t know what’s going to happen at post.’

Juan Martinez, senior product manager, acquisitions systems for Sony Electronics, is confident doc-makers will be happy with the editing options. ‘All the major nle companies are offering native MPEG2 editing and they are surprisingly agile,’ he assures. ‘And this is only the beginning. If you are a documentarist and you are traveling extensively to remote areas, you may want to be able to manage the content or even do some rough editing. It is possible to use the down conversion utility to edit on a very underpowered machine ­- even a laptop. You can edit the content as if it were dvcam tape. And the beauty of it is the time code has exact correlation, so at the end you can conform in high definition.’

Sony is also introducing an A1U model, about half the size of the Z1U and even less expensive. The size of these cameras makes them a ‘graceful’ option, Martinez suggests, adding that they are ‘good enough to intercut with [the 700 and 900 models] or to sustain on their own, and [the picture] looks extraordinary, even when you blow it up on a large screen. It is just one more tool that is empowering to people.’

There are two big differences for the upcoming Panasonic entry into the market. The HVX200 uses dvcpro hd just like the VariCam – a full-frame codec, unlike the 15-frame GOP structure of HDV or the six-frame JVC ProHD. In addition, it will provide the option of recording directly to 4-gig P2 memory cards. While these are both exciting developments, the limited space on the cards (less than five minutes of time at the highest quality setting) could pose a problem for doc-makers.

‘I don’t want to have the stress of erasing certain things to fit on a flash card,’ Abbott says, ‘because when you are in the trenches you could always erase something that you shouldn’t. Also, if you’re continually downloading into this portable handheld hard drive, you could drop it, you could lose it, there could be some glitch you don’t even know about until you get back to the hotel or off the set at night. In a really controlled environment it might work, but most of my stuff is working under very difficult conditions. I can’t wait until we don’t have to use tape, but I think in due time.’

Joe Facchini, director of product marketing for Panasonic Broadcast, points out that filmmakers will have the option of tape or memory card recording (an 8-gig version of the cards will be introduced in the winter months), and that they can also record to the card on HD and down convert to SD tape in the camera – something even the powerful VariCam can’t do. Facchini also stresses the compatibility between the $65,000-plus VariCam and its less costly cousin. ‘VariCam’s claim to fame is that it has a variable frame rate capability – the 200 also has that,’ he says. ‘It will integrate very well in a production. That’s what it’s made for.’

In the end, the price point of these cameras will make them irresistible to some doc-makers. And if the ability to intercut them with full-scale HD pans out, and broadcasters decide the quality is good enough for them, they will likely find a permanent home in the camera bag of most filmmakers.

‘There’s this excitement because of what you get for the money,’ says Abbott. ‘It only takes one production, maybe two, to pay for something like this. It’s not like one of the 900s, which is a long-term investment; this is short-term. You could take it, throw it off a waterfall and be happy if the shot is there. I’m excited this technology is coming out, because as a producer there’s a lot of times you want to get into that HD realm, but you can’t afford it. There’s a lot of people in the doc realm like that, so this is going to open up a lot of doors. And this is only stage one of the technology. I can’t wait for five years from now.’


Suggested list price: US$6,295

Features include:

Fujinon 16:1 ProHD lens

Full high definition progressive recording at 24 frames per second

Compact shoulder style for stability, comfort and mobility

Three newly developed 1/3-inch CCDs with 1280 x 720 (square) pixels

Interchangeable lenses with standard 1/3-inch bayonet mount

Rugged die-cast body

16X Fujinon newly developed ProHD lens included

HD Focus Assist makes focusing faster and more precise

Live 720/60p analog component output

Dual Media option (record to disk and tape simultaneously)

XLR audio inputs (x2)

Extensive user-adjustable parameters can be stored on SD memory card

Records on Mini DV tape HDV/DV format

Panasonic AG-HVX200

Suggested list price: US$5,995

Features include:

1080/60i, 1080/24p, 1080/30p, 720/60p, 720/24p, 720/30p, 480/60i, 480/24p, 480/30p – some variable frame rates in 720p mode

DVCPRO HD/50/25 and DV recording

1/3′ 16:9 native progressive 3-CCD imager

Wide angle Leica Dicomar HD lens with optical image stabilizer (motorized/manual mode switchable)

ND filters

Cam-driven manual zoom

CineGammaTM and NewsGamma software

Two P2 card slots

Mini DV tape transport for DV recording

3.5′ LCD display

48kHz 16-bit 4-channel PCM audio (2 XLRs)HD Component (D4) output

Composite input/output

S-Video input/output

Standard IEEE 1394 interface

USB 2.0

Sony HVR-Z1U

Suggested list price: US$5,946

Features include:

HDV 1080, 50i/60i/30F/25F recording/playback

3 1/3′ 16:9 newly developed Super HAD CCD imagers, 1.12M pixels gross

High-quality 12X optical zoom Carl Zeiss Vario- Sonnar T lens

Super SteadyShot optical stabilization system

Manual 24-step iris control

3.5′ 16:9 hybrid LCD display (250K pixels)

Large 16:9 color and B/W switchable EVF

Balanced audio XLR input connectors (x2) with selectable Phantom Power

6 user-assignable buttons for quick access to frequently used functions

i.LINK DV interface (IEEE1394)

MPEG2 Real Time Encode System for real time processing of HD data

14-bit DXP (Digital Extended Processor)

Switchable HDV/DVCAM/DV format recording 60i/50i (NTSC/PAL) switchable

Built-in HD to SD down conversion

Precision 16:9 SD DV recording

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.