In Review: Increased Efficiency: Atomos Ninja Reinvents Your Camera's Recording Capabilities
Ninja is one of two new products by Atomos that records the uncompressed HD video stream from cameras with appropriate output ports. Ninja ($995) records directly from the camera's HDMI port, while Samurai ($1,595), the other Atomos offering, records from an HD-SDI port. Both models also serve as external monitors. The primary purpose of these units is to bypass the native compression method of the camcorder and record in more robust, NLE-compatible codecs such as Apple ProRes.
Ninja is a small, lightweight recorder/monitor that can mount on top of the camera. The 4.3" screen, although not HD, provides a sharp image adequate for judging basic picture quality at a resolution of 480 x 272. It also provides reliable playback of captured footage.
But Ninja is really an advanced recording device with monitoring capability added as a bonus. Ninja accepts either a solid-state drive (SSD) or a laptop disk drive (HDD). While SSDs offer more shock resistance and durability, they are still too pricey for most consumers. Ninja offers the economical option of using standard laptop hard drives. A 750GB hard drive will hold about 7.5 hours of Apple ProRes (HQ) footage and cost about $75.
Ninja taps into the HDMI signal from the camera, thus bypassing the camera's compression codec. HDMI signals are uncompressed 8- or 10-bit streams that can be recorded using a different codec with less compression and a deeper color space. Ninja currently is capable of recording in Apple ProRes HQ, ProRes 422 or ProRes LT. Atomos is working with Avid to add the Avid DNxHD codec, which is immediately useable on Avid systems with no transcodin.g (Ninja tech specs)
Aside from the ability to use a higher-quality compression codec, the other distinct advantage of these Atomos products is in workflow. By recording directly into Apple ProRes or Avid DNxHD, files are instantly available for editing in Apple Final Cut Pro or Avid Media Composer. Simply remove the storage media from Ninja, plug it into the provided docking station and begin editing. No transcoding is required. Ninja is designed so that it will not become obsolete, as newer codecs can be added via firmware update.
A great deal of thought has gone into Ninja's design. It is powered by two Sony-style NP-F570 lithium-ion batteries that provide five to nine hours of continuous recording time, depending on the codec selected. The batteries are hot-swappable, so one can be replaced without interrupting recording.
The user interacts with the graphic interface via pressure-sensitive touchscreen. The menu is graphically simple and easy to navigate. An HDMI port on the side is all that is needed to connect to the camera, providing uncompressed video from the camera's image sensor and two channels of embedded audio. In addition, there is a two-channel line level audio input and a two-channel headphone line level audio output.
Ninja is very simple to operate. While recording, press the monitor icon to view the live image. Immediately after recording you can review the shot by pressing the play icon.
It is equally simple to access the footage for editing. Ninja comes with a small docking station that connects to your computer via FireWire 800 or USB 3.0/2.0 connection. SSDs or HDDs in the docking station are read as hard drives, and you can drag shots from the Ninja drive right to the Final Cut Pro timeline and begin editing. The files are already in the Apple ProRes format and require no transcoding.
The Ninja kit comes with two 2,600 mAh batteries, battery charger, docking station, connecting cables, two plastic "caddies" for adapting 2.5-inch laptop drives for media, and a very sturdy plastic carrying case. It does not include an HDMI cable for connection to the camera, or storage media.
I tested Ninja with a Panasonic AG-HMC150 HD camcorder shooting 1080/24p. This camera is designed to record onto SDHC memory cards using the AVCHD codec. For media, I chose the cheap route. I went online and found one of the recommended laptop hard drives—a 320GB Hitachi Travelstar—for $40.
I placed the hard drive into one of the plastic caddies that comes with Ninja. It's a simple operation that takes a screwdriver and ten minutes. Once in the caddy, the hard drive functions like a memory card. I plugged it into Ninja and was ready to go.
Operating Ninja was very simple. I selected the ProRes HQ codec on the touchscreen, connected an HDMI cable, turned on the camera, pressed the monitor icon and I could view the image from the camera. Recording was simply a matter of pressing the record icon. Once I completed a shot, I pressed the play icon to verify that it had been recorded. I simultaneously recorded onto the SDHC memory card in the camera so I could compare the images later.
Once I was done shooting, I removed the caddy from Ninja and plugged it into the docking station, which was connected to a Mac Pro via a FireWire 800 cable. I fired up Final Cut Pro and was ready to edit. Because the files were already in Apple ProRes format, I could simply drag them into the bin and begin editing.
I carefully lined up the duplicate clips from the camera's SDHC card and Ninja and compared them frame by frame. In this case, shooting with a Panasonic HMC150, the image improvement was not readily apparent. One factor is that the HDMI output from the Panasonic HMC150 is 8-bit, not 10-bit. With different cameras you will get different levels of image improvement from Ninja.
But when the image requirements are pushed, Apple ProRes or Avid DNxHD will outperform AVCHD. These codecs handle rapid motion and complex backgrounds better than Long GOP codecs such as AVCHD or MPEG-2. ProRes and DNxHD use intra-frame compression, meaning that each full frame has all of the necessary data. Long GOP methods assemble the image from a group of frames, making them more subject to motion artifacts. ProRes and Avid DNxHD also have higher color sampling rates, so there is more color data there, which is important when doing color correction, compositing or greenscreen work.
But even putting image quality aside, there is an enormous advantage in how Ninja streamlines the workflow. It is a time-consuming and sometimes frustrating process to work with AVCHD files—AVCHD clips have to be transcoded, whether using FCP or Avid, and it is a slow process. If you are shooting a documentary, you can spend an entire afternoon just transferring AVCHD footage into your NLE. It is hard to view the clips, they are not transportable like QuickTime files, and the file structures make archiving a headache. Offering the ability to bypass the cumbersome AVCHD file system alone makes Ninja well worth the price.
For a speedier workflow, you can edit directly from Ninja's drive, skipping importing entirely. And at $50 per 500GB, the storage is cheap enough to serve as a permanent archive. This is an attractive advantage because it allows archiving to be built into the workflow.
The Ninja concept is actually based on a re-thinking of workflow and archiving. Jeromy Young, one of the partners in Atomos, explains that by using inexpensive media, you can emulate the tape workflow. That is, you go on your shoot, fill up the drive, edit your product and then store the drive on the shelf. For those of us who long for the days when all of our footage archive was safely stored and easily available on a bookshelf, this is the answer.
The Atomos Ninja is elegantly designed, economical and flexible. It enables you to record the maximum quality output from nearly any camera with an HDMI port. It creates files in the native format used by Final Cut Pro and Avid (coming soon), which eliminates transcoding and vastly streamlines the editing process. And by using very inexpensive media, you can emulate the tape workflow that automatically creates a permanent archive. This is a remarkably inexpensive and efficient device that solves a host of problems.
PROS: Records video directly in Apple ProRes and (coming soon) Avid DNxHD for transcode-free editing in a robust codec. Very inexpensive media. Reliable and easy to operate. Provides recording/playback monitor.
CONS: Works only with cameras that have an HDMI output.
BOTTOM LINE: The least expensive means of acquiring video in Apple ProRes or (soon) Avid DNxHD onto disk or SSD media.