February

February 8

THE ULTIMATE "REALITY CAPTURE" MACHINE

Finally, Sony got it pretty much right, with their latest video camera technology: the XDCam EX, a lightweight and compact video camera that shoots full-field 1920x1080 and records the full raster to solid state memory cards called "SxS". Few cameras lay claim to that capability. And they all cost over $50,000, right on up to the Sony HDW-F23 at $180,000.

For months, I was asking the question, "why would Sony sell a camera with this picture quality, dirt cheap like this?" I wondered how these cameras would impact sales of their $100,000 units, when most engineers could not discern any difference in picture quality between the two.

Then it hit me: Sony got clever and, like the printer manufacturers that practically give the printer away and make their money on the ink and paper, I think Sony adapted that model to the pricing strategy for the XDCam EX. You see, the recording media costs about $1000/hour of video recorded. Those SxS cards are very expensive, and only one company makes them, and Sony can lock out competitors via firmware, so that the camera will refuse to read, say, a Lexar media at 1/4 the price. So there you have it: the possible strategy for giving away the XDCam EX under $10,000.

But as costly as the SxS cards are, the picture quality is worth every penny. This, friends, is the manifestation of what I had hoped HD format could be. This camera delivers the image quality that's orders of magnitude superior to HDV. How?

Let's start with the Fujinon broadcast lens--a real, manual lens, just like the ones I used to use on the big old tube cameras 25 years ago--a lens with optical quality that, according to critic and reviewer Adam Wilt, has no right being on a camera in this price range. A lens with practically no chromatic aberration (those purple & green outlines that show up on the necks of swans in bright sunshine and other bright objects on a dark background). A lens that, although very wide, is surprisingly rectilinear. A lens you can control directly, not via servos that spin with no stops and no calibration. This lens is marked off in feet/meters, and you can pull focus predictably, repeat zoom levels easily and adjust a real iris that goes from f1.9 to f16.

Next is the three Exmor CMOS image sensors, each with 2.2 megapixels of light receptor sites. These are 1/2" imagers, the first of their kind in a camera this compact. What do 1/2" sensors bring to the table? Tremendous light sensitivity and the ability to have narrow depth of field for artsy differential focus shots. In fact, this camera has more light sensitivity than my old standard definition VX2000, the low light champ that reigned supreme for almost a decade.

So what about the audio? Well, I'm delighted to share the test results. It is DAT-quality. Flat from 20-20KHz and very quiet. In fact, a recording we made in our dining room with the built-in stereo mic was free of hiss, and way down, you could hear the hum of our refrigerator, and someone's stomach growling, as my daughter took fancy to the new camera and hammed it up for the lens. No hiss. And a nice clean thump when she bounced on the floor. Not bad for a built in mic. But I plan to get a good X-Y coincident pair and mount it on the clamp provided for external mics.

As for controls, this camera's got almost way too much to tweak. While you can point and shoot with it almost as easily as with any prosumer camcorder, the PMW-EX1 offers hundreds of adjustable parameters that are understood only by television broadcast engineers. I recall quite a few of these from back in the days when I used to service Newvicon tube video cameras. They were internal pots that one would adjust during alignment. Sony has brought similar controls and much more to the menus of the EX1. Of course, it's made by Sony's CineAlta Division, the one that makes the F900, F23 and so on, which cost as much as a house.

The bottom line about the tweakability is that the camera's picture can be adjusted in ways you would not imagine possible; with all that control, you can achieve wonderfully-warm, artistic looks, or cold, sterile images, or you can really screw up the images badly if you aren't careful and understand what parameter does what. I spent 5-1/2 hours with mine so far and still feel incompetent with it. Some paradigms are different than with prosumer cameras I also own, and some routine procedures are very different on this CineAlta model.

Image and sound aside, there are other interesting aspects to this camera. The LCD view panel is full-raster HD--1920 pixels wide, and it's dot pitch is absurdly-fine. You can actually adjust focus on manual with this display. Going back to my HVR-V1U, the panel looked like a cheap consumer camera LCD by comparison.

Audio controls are wonderful. Full bevy of attenuators, balanced XLR, phantom 48V DC power, AGC switchable, stereo linkable, too and more. The camera sports and SDI output. This goes into high end workstations and carries a higher color sub-sampled, uncompressed HD signal. Not for the faint of hear to deal with.

The workflow is going to be terrific. I say going to be because all the pieces aren't quite there with the PC and Mac applications to directly read the files. Well, maybe Final Cut Pro on the Mac is there now, but Premiere Pro needs third-party CODECs and there are many nasty sacrifices in the process. Give everyone about a year, and they'll have native support for XDCam .MXF files and the fun really begins. The workflow is much like shooting with a digital still camera. You plug it into a USB 2.0 port and open Sony's Clib Browser software. Each video take shows up as a thumbnail image in the Browser. Select the shots you want to copy over, hit Control-G and select a destination folder and voila! In 3-4 minutes, you've copied an hour of video to your hard drive! I can't tell you how many countless hours I've wasted with whole days spent ingesting one tape at a time at real-time speeds. This is going to be such a boon to productivity.

There are numerous benefits to this camera, but the caveats are going to be the price of recording media. Fortunately, it's reusable.

Now a bit of unfortunate news: After using the XDCam EX for about 5-1/2 hours, it malfunctioned and eventually got to a state where it would not even power on past showing a logo screen and then an error message. B&H has arranged for return shipping (at their expense) and will send out a replacement next week. I sincerely hope it was just a freak failure. So far, I'm the only known case of a dead PMW-EX1. I should have lots more to share next week when a replacement arrives.

 

February 19

XDCAM EX INSPIRES THE FILMMAKER

I finally received a replacement PMW-EX1 from B&H on Friday, after well over a week waiting for an exchange and a FAX to the chairman of B&H. Over the weekend, I got out and did some image acquisition. Downtown, a sunset, nighttime footage--all stunning.

Early today, I worked on artistic use of depth of field. Achieving a shallow DoF with the EX1 is easy to do because of the large imagers and lens. So I wanted to make a nature video in the spirit of Philip Bloom's work, and found it easy to achieve luscious, warm, inviting imagery with this camera.

I used a picture profile recipe that I've been slowly evolving for wedding work, a color matrix that bumps up the saturation of greens and reds just a bit, with low skin tone detail to make complexions look smooth. The profile uses a Cine gamma curve and some reduction of detail. Yes, actually de-sharpening to achieve a softer, filmic look. I find that the camera can afford to because of the tremendous resolution of the imager.

I went outside, with a homemade rain slicker (a piece of Saran wrap) over the EX1, as it was sprinkling on this balmy February day. The stream was flowing nicely, and some lichen and moss on stones at the banks of the stream provided a nice contrast to the browns and reddish browns of the decaying leaves on the ground and in bottom of the stream. The day looked grey and dull, and nothing particularly stood out colorfully, but with my custom picture profile, with color dialed in to give a sort of "Fuji Velvia" film color to the video, I found that the subdued colors in the scene popped nicely and gave some lively look to an otherwise dull, almost monochromatic scene.

The water flowing in the stream looked more "wet" than what I get with HDV and the V1U. Those block edges on the HDV footage would roughen the look of water, diminishing the glassy 'wetness' of the surface. The XDCam EX preserves this smoothness and the water looks more wet as a result.

I focused on nearby objects and then pulled focus to objects in the distance. Obtaining shallow DoF involves a very much wide open iris. Though it was a dim, overcast day in the woods, the EX1 requires an ND filter and a 90 shutter to achieve f1.9 under these conditions. But the result was nothing short of stunning.

I've finally finished editing and uploading "Winter Thaw". You can watch it here:

 

 

 

 
 

February 20

MY FIRST BLU-RAY DISC BURN & LASERS & THE LUNAR ECLIPSE

This evening marks a new milestone. I installed a new LG GGW-H20L Blu-ray disc burner in my editing workstation. It writes all forms of CD, DVD, dual-layer and Blu-ray dual layer discs. It also plays every format, including HD DVD. That last one will have limited use, given the news that HD DVD has officially lost the "war."

I burned test video of the Bridgeport Symphony master reel onto a BD-RE disc. It plays beautifully in my Sony BDP-S301. Next step is to author menus, but the disc technology works!

Some interesting observations with regard to how the XDCam EX handles very difficult laser light... Last night, I set up a test consisting of a red laser and some prismatic plastic, whereby the images are projected on to a white poster board. I ran this test last year with the HVR-V1U and, while it was notably improved over my old tube cameras, the chroma smear was still ruining the clarity of the images. Enter XDCam EX: I shot the same thing, and when I viewed it on the HP LP3065, my jaw dropped to the floor. Not only was it sharp and clear so that I could see fine strands of light in the image, but I could see the "corpuscular" effect--the granular peppered look of laser light that no video camera I used in the past could convey because of the chroma blur. As a further benefit, the color was accurately conveyed--it didn't get shifted to orange like the V1U did and all prior cameras used for making these shows.

This evening saw a lunar eclipse around 10PM. I wanted to try out the time lapse recording capabilities of the XDCam EX, so here was a great opportunity to do so. I am editing and exporting the video now. And here it is:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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