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2013 Forecast: Bigger, Faster, Stronger: Plan for Higher Resolution and More Robust Systems

12/26/2012 8:35 AM Eastern

The largest movement this year in the film and video sector has to be in cameras. There are more than ever to choose from, with a strong push into 4K products. HD-video-enabled digital still photography cameras continue to attract users and that movement shows no sign of dropping off. One common design trait in both types of products is the incorporation of large-format, single-sensor chips instead of the traditional 2/3” 3-CCD video camera design. This is a significant change that is driving software development in post and enabling the production of content for 4K delivery systems, including consumer TV sets.

Acquisition and the Push for Higher Resolution

Canon C500

Sony rounded out 2012 with a roar, introducing the PMW-F5 and PMW-F55 cameras. The F5 is positioned as the bigger brother to the F3, with the F55 the smaller sibling to the F65. These use a Super 35mm-equivalent CMOS sensor, with the F5 capable of up to 2K output and the F55 of 4K. (There’s a lot of disagreement among camera manufacturers about what “4K” really means. The term is generally a number based on horizontal pixel width and not actual resolution, but for ease I’ll stick with the 4K shorthand. It means the sensor or the frame size of the video is 4096 or 3840 pixels wide.) The F5 and F55 add more codec (XAVC) and storage options (AXS memory card), which, of course, will make life more confusing for post houses.

Sony’s offerings seem in direct response to the Canon’s Cinema EOS C100, C300 and C500. The C300 in particular has become quite popular, but it’s now time for the 4K-capable C500 to hit the streets. These cameras share a common sensor design, but the C500 will output 4K camera raw images to an external recorder like a Codex S, Convergent Design Gemini 4:4:4 or AJA Ki Pro Quad. The C300 and C500 come in PL or EF lens mount configurations.

Aaton Delta Penelope

A common feature in these new cameras is camera raw recording. The different versions of raw don’t adhere to a single, common standard, so the term “raw” simply means that the image has not been fully converted to RGB. Some methods require more intensive post processing than others. Many are proprietary formats.

Blackmagic Design took a different approach with the new Blackmagic Cinema Camera. It records QuickTime files as well as camera raw image sequence files in the open Cinema DNG format (originally developed by Adobe). Bucking the 4K trend, the BMCC uses a 2.5K sensor, with the design goal of delivering an optimized, downsampled HD image. Cinema DNG recording has also been incorporated into Ikonoskop’s A-Cam dll, the Digital Bolex and Aaton’s Delta Penelope.

During this past year the ARRI Alexa has been the dominant digital cinema camera in Hollywood episodic TV production, and it’s made a mark on such feature films as Hugo, The Avengers and Skyfall. With all the 4K talk, Alexa owners are wondering where this camera goes next. ARRI is currently in beta testing of a software update that will likely enable 2K ProRes recording via a firmware update. True 4K would require a new sensor, but the current camera raw capture (2880 pixels wide) that Alexa is capable of seems to hold up quite nicely in 4K and even IMAX projection at theaters.

RED Epic Monochrome

Raw recording and 4K motion image capture have been effectively commercialized by RED Digital Cinema and all of this new competition presents a strong challenge. Not to be outdone, RED announced a significant price drop on its cameras, which notably included a limited supply of “battle tested” (refurbished) RED ONEs with the M-X sensor. This is the camera model used on The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. At $4,000 for a 4K-resolution camera body of this caliber, the offer was certainly hard to beat. The company also introduced a monochrome-only version of the flagship EPIC camera. In black and white, the pixels of the entire sensor capture grayscale data. The result is an even higher resolution B&W image than a color image from the same sensor. RED is also in development on a 6K sensor, dubbed “Dragon.”

HDSLRs are still coming on strong with such interesting products as the Canon EOS-1D C, which offers 4K on-board recording in a still camera form factor. Nikon has struggled to get market share among the HDSLR cameras, but introduced very solid competitors in the D7000 and D800. Even Sony has a contender in the Alpha A99. A real shocker was the new GoPro HERO3 Black Edition that will do 4K at 15 fps.

GoPro HERO 3

There’s a big push to go beyond HD, but for production owners trying to make the best investment in gear, 4K is still a sale based on futures. Consumer electronics manufacturers like Sony will roll out viable 4K products this year and the post pipelines can handle 4K, yet for the immediate future 2K is still the common denominator in feature work and 720 or 1080 for broadcast. To get 4K content to the user, Sony will include scaling chips in its 4K Bravia television models to up-res Blu-ray discs to 4K. Company bloggers have also hinted at some type of internet-based delivery method that could bring Sony movies in true 4K resolution to owners of these sets. Meanwhile RED is moving forward to bring its REDRAY 4K cinema player to market. REDRAY plays content compressed with a version of the REDCODE codec.

Postproduction
Apple’s release of Final Cut Pro X in 2011 and the subsequent updates have kept the post world guessing where to go next. FCP X moves forward and has many loyal supporters. The 10.0.6 update introduced one of the best solutions for RED camera support. If you need an NLE today that can handle 4K and/or 60p media with a reasonable level of responsiveness, then FCP X is worth considering. Despite its robust functionality, X is sufficiently different that most enterprises (post houses, networks, broadcasters, corporations) have either stayed with FCP 7 or changed to Adobe or Avid.
 

Autodesk Smoke 2013 with Apple iMac and Promise Storage

There is pent up demand for a high-powered NLE designed around a standard layout. Autodesk is trying to satisfy this desire with Smoke 2013. This version is optimized for the Mac interface and operating system and is intended as an easier transition for editors coming from Avid Media Composer and Final Cut Pro. It gives editors the best of both worlds, with a timeline that functions in a known fashion coupled to node-based effects common to Flame.

All eyes this year will be on Adobe. The post world is increasingly file-based, and collaborative editing is key. At the 2012 NAB Show Adobe shared a technology preview of this concept, which was formally announced at IBC as Adobe Anywhere. We can assume this product will be officially released sometime in 2013. Adobe Anywhere is a collaborative editing platform that can be implemented over a LAN or WAN (via VPN) network. It’s Adobe’s foray into cloud-based editing. The facility has to install Adobe’s server-side software, but hardware requirements include off-the-shelf computing and storage hardware. Image processing is handled at the server, so you will also need one of the Adobe-qualified NVIDIA GPU cards for hardware acceleration. The remote editing station can be rather lightweight, however—an Apple MacBook Air, for instance—since the heavy lifting is being done by the server, not locally. In the first version, editors will be able to use Adobe Anywhere with Premiere Pro, After Effects or Prelude.

Adobe Premiere Pro CS6

Adobe Anywhere’s performance is based on the Mercury Streaming Engine, which delivers full-resolution video to the remote system. During playback, it throttles the viewer resolution on the remote editing system based on bandwidth, but then displays a full-resolution frame when the playback is paused. Over a fast DSL or cable modem connection, an HD timeline will drop to about one-quarter resolution during play. Editors normally tweak composites, like chromakeys, with the timeline paused. Since the effect is actually being performed at the server, the Mercury Streaming Engine needs to send only a single frame at full resolution while you make these adjustments. All media and project information resides at the server, so versions are instantly updated without the possibility of local material being lost or corrupted.

With all of this focus on file-based production, asset management software is on the mind of every facility owner. Avid has had the big gun with Interplay, but Apple had been poised to make a dent with the now defunct Final Cut Server product. This burgeoning market is now shifting to CatDV (Square Box Systems), which comes in single-user and enterprise-grade versions. Square Box even offers a migration path from Final Cut Server data to CatDV.

Square Box Systems CatDV

Launched at IBC, Axle Video is a new player in this market space. The company is led by a development team with backgrounds at both Avid and in the general IT world. Axle Video is addressing the market’s sweet spot of small shops with five to ten connected systems. That’s the type of client who often feels that robust asset management software is out of his reach. The Axle Video system is designed with a user-friendly front end and runs on an Apple Mac mini server. It can catalogue a wide range of media formats, creates viewing proxy files and enables search data exports using XML. It also features an integrated review and approval process.


Platforms

HP Z1 All-in-One Workstation

Historically the post world has seen a 50/50 split between PCs and Macs. This ratio varies depending on whether you are editing video or creating 3D animation, and the PCs are often running Linux and not Windows. Nevertheless, Apple’s continued success with phones and tablets has caused some to question the company’s commitment to enterprise hardware. There has only been one cryptic announcement implying that Apple would release a machine in 2013 that pro users would be happy with, but it’s entirely unclear what shape that product will take. Meanwhile, the latest iMacs and even MacBook Pros have become more than powerful enough for many individual users. The performance leadership in towers today is held by HP with the Z-series workstations (like the Z820) and Dell with the Precision line (like the T5600). These models have the added advantage of accepting the latest NVIDIA GPU cards.

The betting editors expect a powerful Mac Pro replacement that will rely mainly on the Thunderbolt protocol for peripherals. If you need PCIe slots, the expectation is that this will be covered by a third-party expansion chassis. In 2013, Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 are the two main protocols that will dominate both Mac and PC hardware. FireWire 400 and 800 and even eSATA, which are still supported, are on the wane.

Software developers are still eager to design applications for the Mac OS. Avid, Adobe and Blackmagic Design/DaVinci continue with feature parity between Mac and Windows versions. Autodesk Smoke 2013 is targeted strictly at the Mac, and EditShare still intends to port the Lightworks NLE to the Mac after its Linux version becomes solid. Hiero, The Foundry’s advanced shot management and conforming application, was developed for Mac alongside Windows and Linux. One interesting new signal is the release of Sony Creative Software’s Sound Forge Pro Mac. Sound Forge Pro has been the principal two-track audio editing and mastering software for the PC. Releasing a Mac version reinforces to users the Mac platform’s position as a strong creative tool.

The Foundry Hiero 1.5

FCP X invigorated the plug-in community in two ways. It launched a significant new product, which is bound to gain a large user base, and it pushed many toward Premiere Pro. Adobe’s NLE hasn’t enjoyed optimized plug-in support up until now. That is changing as developers come out with new filters, transitions and generators specific to Premiere Pro. FCP X’s effects are based largely on Motion 5 templates, which has created a cottage industry of small developers who design custom effects in Motion and then publish them as FCP X effects. Many are available for free, but a few editors have set up shop as developers offering unique tools in the range of $20-$50 per filter.

As editors, we debate interesting technology directions—such as whether we’ll all be editing on tablets. The reality is that 2013 won’t see such a radical departure. More editors will be running laptops and all-in-ones (Apple iMac or HP Z1), but the film and video landscape will look a lot like 2012. 4K may be the new stereo 3D. Some may be able to make a business case for it, but the mainstream users will still be producing a lot of HD, web and even SD content. The best advice is to buy what you need to get the job done today. Costs are lower, but product lifecycles are running in the two-year range and fractionalization is the watchword. The good news is that it’s harder than ever to buy a truly bad product, so have fun.