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First Footage from the Phantom Flex4K: High-Speed Cinematography for Real-World Production

6/19/2013 9:30 AM Eastern

Sometimes a journey can be as intriguing as its destination, so come along with me on a quest to discover the remarkable features of Vision Research’s Phantom Flex4K high-speed digital camera while it is still under development.

Still from the video “Let me know when you see Fire”

Although the Phantom Flex4K was previewed at the recent NAB Show, where it received a Best of Show Black Diamond Award from this publication and a Mario Award from TV Technology magazine, this groundbreaking high-speed 4K camera won’t be officially released until IBC in September. Vision Research expects that it will begin shipping by October.

But you don’t have to wait until then to get to know the camera. Just as you can follow most members of our community online, you can follow the camera’s development on Facebook and Twitter.

Although only a few pre-release models have seen the light of day, you can see why so many digital cinematographers are excited about the Phantom Flex4K by watching some test footage shot by cinematographer Greg Wilson and director Brendan Bellomo called “Let me know when you see Fire.”

Go ahead and look. I’ll wait.

 

 

Wilson and Bellomo shot this incredible short film with an alpha version of the Phantom Flex4K. When you see the frames at about 1:05—of a fireman unleashing a blast of water recorded at 1,000 fps—you will know why this camera has created such a stir. Although the film is streamed at 1080 on the web site, you’ll be able to see it in 4K at upcoming camera demonstrations on both coasts. More on this film in just a bit.

Vision Research’s Phantom Flex4K

For more than 60 years, Vision Research and its parent organization, Photographic Analysis Company, have been designing high-speed film and digital cameras. While their early offerings were intended for military and industrial applications, there was so much interest in slow-motion effects among the mainstream production community that the company brought out the Phantom HD camera in 2007 to meet the demand.

“Not only did we hope to find a lucrative market, but it was also exciting for the engineers who work here,” says Toni Lucatorto, cinema product manager at Vision Research. “The problem was that many of our early-generation cameras had to be controlled through a computer on the set, which made them somewhat cumbersome to operate.”

From “Let me know when you see Fire”

Subsequent technical innovation has addressed many of these early issues. The Phantom Flex4K has a resolution of up to four times HD (4096 x 2160 at 1,000 fps), lets you record either uncompressed raw files to outboard storage or compressed files directly out of the camera to a Phantom CineMag IV (1 or 2 TB capacity) for a simplified postproduction workflow, and provides a new on-camera control interface so you don’t have to lug your laptop and bring a dedicated engineer/operator to your high-speed shoot. It will be able to record up to 2,000 fps at 1920 x 1080 and 3,000 fps at 1280 x 720.

When I say the camera is still under development, that includes recording specs. As of this writing, Vision Research could not specify the format of the compressed files the camera will record. You can probably narrow the potential candidates down to a couple of industry standard codecs, however.

Like most high-speed cameras, the Phantom Flex4K is constantly recording to its onboard RAM, whose 64 GB can capture about five seconds of real-time imagery that will play back in three and a half minutes of 1,000 fps slow motion. It’s going to sell for between $100,000 and $115,000, and a fully kitted out solution will be available for around $150,000. Of course, if you don’t need this kind of overcranked 4K horsepower, Vision Research has several other successful high-speed cameras. There’s the Phantom Miro M320S, which will give you 1,500 fps at 1920 x 1080 and sells for between $25K and $60K, for example. We reported on the Miro M320S in Digital Video last November.

If you’ve seen the aforementioned “Fire” video, maybe you realized that the Phantom Flex4K is much more than just a slow-motion device. “It was designed to create pictures with color fidelity and image structure that can rival any digital cinema camera,” the film’s director, Brendan Bellomo, says. “And most importantly, it is a tremendous storytelling tool. Although we staged the action in the ‘Fire’ film, we wanted to use the camera to show how real firefighters would handle a real fire, not just as a gimmick to spray water on flames.”

In fact, although cinematographer Greg Wilson was responsible for principal photography, their second camera, Lt. Matthew Troy, is a firefighter and a working emergency medical technician.

“When it came to post, we had to create a custom workflow,” Wilson says. “Our team ran the raw files through Glue Tools conversion software inside of Assimilate’s Scratch to create uncompressed 10-bit DPX files, and we did an offline edit using Apple’s Final Cut Pro 7 software at 1080. Then we created a complete 4K VFX and color grading pipeline and finished online using The Foundry’s Nuke X v7, mastering from the DPX files. You can take a 1080p extract from any of the 4K files and nobody could tell it was just one-quarter of the resolution of the camera.”

Wilson and Bellomo assure me that the footage seen on Vimeo is a valid representation of the Phantom Flex4K’s image capabilities.

“All of the fire, water and smoke is actual footage that we shot over a single weekend,” Wilson says. “We used some compositing to track some elements into certain shots, but what you see is the real stuff. We shot mostly at 300 to 400 fps, although there is one take at 24 fps, if you can identify it. All of the water and fire is at 1,000 fps, though.”

AbelCine is the exclusive North America distributor of the Phantom Flex4K for the video production market and is a development consultant with Vision Research on this project.

Mitch Gross, applications specialist at AbelCine in New York, says the Phantom Flex4K is not simply a high-speed 4K camera. “It’s an imaging machine,” Gross says, “capable of bringing back digital pictures that are better than most other professional cameras out there today. When released, the Phantom Flex4K will be able to record its footage to onboard SSD storage for about the same package price as other top-of-the-line cinema cameras, even when used just at 24 or 30 fps.”

That’s the “flexible” part of Flex. “It’s a camera that can basically do it all,” Gross adds. “The final production models will be able to interface with the necessary postproduction systems with the same simple plug-ins all the others use.”

Follow its development on Twitter or Facebook so you’ll be ready for the camera’s shipping release at the end of the year. The Phantom Flex4K may prove to be a game-changer.  

Phantom Flex4K Frame Rates

Resolution Max fps Loop Mode
4096 x 2304 (max resolution) 900 fps
4096 x 2160 (4K standard) 1,000 fps
3840 x 2160 (16:9) 1,000 fps
1920 x 1080 (16:9) 2,000 fps
1280 x 720 (16:9) 3,000 fps

 

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