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4K in Play: Real-World, High-Resolution Production with Sony’s PMW-F55

Sony has identified and seized on an opportunity in the 4K camera realm.

Sony’s PMW-F55

They had a new recorder technology (the AXS-R5, generating raw data) that uses Sony’s implementation of the open standard MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 recording format (XAVC), a new recording media (SxS Pro+ memory cards—pronounced “Ess by Ess Pro Plus”), a new battery pack (BP-FL75) that uses olivine-type lithium iron phosphate instead of conventional lithium ion cathodes, a new, steadier shoulder rig and, of course, a new type of 4K Super 35mm image sensor with 4096 x 2160 resolution utilizing a total of 11.6 million pixels.

Their crowning achievement, the $65,000 F65 4K camera with 8K image sensor, had become the darling of many in the Hollywood digital cinema community. Their PMW-F3 Full HD camcorder ($16,000 list) was doing equally well among smaller productions.

But there was a huge gap between that top-of-the-line F65 and the cost-effective PMW-F3.

So in early February Sony will begin shipping two new entries in the CineAlta line: the PMW-F55 and PMW-F5, whose bodies will list for $34,900 and $19,400, respectively.

“Our large sensor camera line now ranges from the FS100, FS700 and F3, to the new F5 and F55, to the flagship F65,” says Rob Willox, director of marketing for large image sensor cameras at Sony Electronics. The line “gives content creators incredible flexibility and creative options for acquisition in HD, 2K, 4K and beyond.”

On the set of “Dig” (from left): Andrew French (actor), Steve Lawes (DP), Leo Holba (1st AC), Jodi Clark (grip), Adam Dunnett (trainee) and Brendan Crehan (sound)

The design of these two new cameras was based on the feedback Sony had harvested from professional cinematographers. “The large sensor camera market is becoming very crowded these days,” explains Peter Crithary, Sony’s marketing manager for large sensor acquisition, “but we felt there were still wide opportunities for improvement. That’s why these cameras can uniquely acquire in XDCAM 50 Mb/s 4:2:2, Sony’s own SR codec in 4:2:2 and RGB 4:4:4, XAVC from HD up to 4K with high frame rate, and 16-bit linear raw.”

Reflecting changes in the needs of our industry, the result of the input from pro shooters will be on display in several innovations in this month’s PMW-F55 and F5 releases. For example, the “plus” in the name of the new internal SxS Pro+ recording media indicates that it can handle higher frame rates in XAVC than the previous SxS cards, up to 4K resolution. Uniquely, SxS Pro+ media can be partitioned to record two different codecs simultaneously. This lets you come home with either a redundant recording or with simultaneous offline/online resolutions that share the same metadata. The F55 can shoot at up to 240 fps, while the F5 can record 120 fps, each in 2K raw.

Another welcome innovation for both the F55 and F5 cameras is a 0.7” high-resolution OLED viewfinder, the DVF-EL100, that will enable even greater image clarity through the lens and sharper critical focus capabilities than Sony’s conventional LCD models.

One difference between the cameras: the PMW-F5 records Full HD at 1920 x 1080 and 2K internally, while the PMW-F55 records HD, 2K, 4K QFHD and 4K onto its onboard cards. Both can capture 2K and 4K raw on an external AXS-R5 recorder, however.

Sony has not overlooked the need to actually see those dynamic 4K images in all their glory on the set. Using four 3G-SDI interfaces, the F55 can feed its signal to Sony’s new PVM-X300 4K 30” LCD monitor even up to 60p. With an HDMI 1.4 cable, it can deliver 4K to the same screen at up to 30p. Or you can see the pictures on Sony’s BRAVIA Quad Full HD (QFHD) consumer display via HDMI in a resized horizontal resolution of 3840 x 2160.

From "Dig"

The PMW-F55 shares the wide, 14-stop exposure latitude of the F65. But Sony has upgraded the separate mechanical rotary shutter technology of the F65, creating an electronic global shutter for the F55.

“The F55 has frame image scanning embedded directly on the imager,” Crithary adds, “so when you are shooting very fast motion, you won’t get any flash banding or Jell-O effects in the picture it records. It’s the world’s first 4K CMOS imager that can accomplish this feat.”

With that kind of a reputation behind it, digital cinematographers around the world have been lining up to get their hands on a PMW-F55.
While accepting with grace that, of necessity, Sony asked them to beta test preproduction models, several of these digital cinematographers were willing to share their first impressions as well as some tips, tricks and techniques gleaned from their first work with the PMW-F55.

Steve Lawes, “Dig”
A freelance DP based in London who specializes in high-end TV dramas and movies, Steve Lawes won a BAFTA Cymru Award in 2011 for his work on the BBC series Sherlock. Sony asked him to shoot a test short film with the F55 for Fried Pixel Films which ended up being called “Dig.” It debuted on Nov. 28 at the Plus Camerimage Film Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

“Dig” was designed for 4K projection, and when Lawes screened the final product at Dolby in London, he was impressed with the visuals. “There was very little noise in the images, meaning the PMW-F55 compares very well with other high-end digital cinema cameras,” Lawes begins. “We recorded directly to the SxS Pro+ memory cards in an external AXS-R5 raw recorder, saved everything onto a RAID hard drive system, and took the footage to the Mytherapy post facility, where chief colorist Dado Valentic graded it on a [Blackmagic] DaVinci Resolve system.”

From "Dig"

The F55 on “Dig” shot in the camera’s 10-bit XAVC format, but there was no editing software available at the time with support for it, so the team sent files to a Blackmagic Design unit for conversion to ProRes for Final Cut Pro 7 editing. Once they exported an XML file from the NLE, “Dig” was conformed on a Blackmagic DaVinci system in 4K DCP format for presentation.

One piece of advice Lawes offers to other first-time users of the F55: don’t be too concerned about the low-level noise from the camera’s monitoring output seen on the 24.5” Sony BVM-E250 OLED screens. “Like some other high-end digital cinema cameras, you can’t yet trust that what you see is what you’ll get,” he tells us. “It’s sort of like watching a proxy. What you actually record in the raw files from the F55 is far better, and this will probably be corrected in future software updates.”

You should especially check out the scenes in “Dig” that take place in the back of the taxi. “They were shot with small LED fixtures,” Lawes says, “and although the behind-the-scenes cameramen using Sony F3 cameras were struggling to get enough light in the scene, there was plenty of illumination for the F55. It can literally see in the dark.”

Sam Nicholson, ASC, Mahout
International production company Stargate Studios sent its founder, Sam Nicholson, ASC, from its Los Angeles headquarters to Sri Lanka to test the F55 on their new film, Mahout, about an orphaned girl who helps a baby elephant escape an abusive owner. The film was screened on the Sony Pictures Entertainment Culver City lot during an industry event in November.

You can see 17 minutes of footage from this proposed feature film below.

“The 4K raw sent to the external recorder at 2.4 Gb/s is awesome, and the onboard AVCHD recording on SxS Pro+ at 600 Mb/s is very robust,” Nicholson begins. “My tip would be to trust Sony’s technology since the SxS Pro+ version will take you by surprise. Although it can be used for offline, it provides online quality for many purposes.”

Sam Nicholson films Mahout

Nicholson does have some quibbles with the camera’s physical layout. “The knob that controls the internal ND filters is not protected enough,” he tells us, “so you have to be careful not to accidentally hit it when handling the camera. But Sony will probably respond to user feedback on this. I’d give this camera an A+!”

Jesse Green, 7x6x2
Freelance cinematographer Jesse Green worked with New York’s Tribeca Enterprises on a devilishly intriguing film, 7x6x2, based on a script by graphic novelist Paul Pope. In a future post-war apocalypse, 2 humans are being hunted by 7 nasty rock creatures, but they have only 6 bullets with which to defend themselves. Hence, 7x6x2.

“I was very excited to get a chance to shoot with the PMW-F55, having used the F65 and F3 on previous projects,” Green says. “But we shot with the F55 in HD on this production, since that’s how our project had to be delivered.”

The two humans in 7x6x2, a space cowboy named Bryce and a scientific surveyor called Swanson, find refuge from the monsters around their nighttime campfire. Since Green used the fire itself as the film’s main key light, he quickly appreciated the low-light sensitivity of the F55.

“The F55 sees more than you do, so I can pretty much guarantee that when you look at the monitor, you will start to turn lights off on the set,” he laughs. “I was shooting everything at about an f/2.0, setting the ASA at about 1000 (pushed to 2000 ASA), but we didn’t lose anything in the shadows.”

Sony’s PMW-F55 is positioned at a very tantalizing price/performance point considering its features. The Hollywood history of the PMW-F55, however, is still to be written.