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A Further Appreciation of the Sony HVR-MRC1

HVR-MRC1 Memory Recording Unit

The HVR-MRC1 Memory Recording Unit (shown here attached to the tail of the HVR-Z7U) contains its own playback controls. A full-sized NP-F970 battery is behind the MRC1.
All photos by D. W. Leitner.

I use a lot of different cameras and camcorders, from Sony HDW-F900s and Panasonic Varicams on down. I welcome the variety because it challenges my understanding of camera basics and builds my appreciation of the many paths that camera design can take. But there is a price to pay.

In the heat of battle, so to speak, my instinct for where certain camera functions might be found can fail: “Where's the friggin' auto/manual focus control? Where did they hide the headphone jack?” And let's not get into the origami of menu trees: “What does this cinema gamma do compared to that one?” Nor do manuals reliably provide meaningful clues. It is little wonder that many, even professionals, default to factory settings — always a safe choice, if not an artistic one.

Sony HVR-Z1U and HVR-Z7U

The Sony HVR-Z1U (left) and the new HVR-Z7U (right), shown with Sennheiser wireless receivers attached, are comparable in size.

The truth is, each sophisticated camera or camcorder is its own artistic toolshed, and there's no substitute for spending serious production time mastering its capabilities and eccentricities. You must develop a particular technique and set of instincts for each camera if you want to get the most out of them.

I was reminded of these truisms during my recent travels with Sony's new HVR-Z7U, a 3CMOS HDV handheld with interchangeable lenses that can uniquely dual-record to CompactFlash. In other words — a toolshed like no other.

From New York to Paris, rural Burgundy to rural Alabama, I put the Z7 through serious paces — and it put me through its own paces. On most shoots, I also had a Sony HVR-Z1U on hand as a backup — and sometimes even a PMW-EX1 too — so frequently, I was able to make direct comparisons.

The bottom line: The Z7 is, at first, an acquired taste — then an addictive one. Once you've learned to use it, it's nearly impossible to revert to previous HDV models.

The HVR-Z7U's

The HVR-Z7U's "push auto" iris button is at the far end on the zoom lens handgrip, exactly where it should be.

As I detailed last December in my extensive review of the Z7's new features and capabilities, the Z7 bundles an embarrassment of innovations. In addition to those cited above, these include a high-res sequential color LCoS viewfinder, the first electronic/mechanical hybrid Carl Zeiss zoom, and native progressive recording.

In this review, I'll focus on operational and field advantages of the Z7, leaving aside recording issues such as the choice of native vs. 24p-over-60i recording or related postproduction concerns. I'll also skip discussion of image quality, although I will note that the Z7's sensitivity has been enhanced to match that of the famed Sony's DSR-PD150/170 series, minus any highlight-induced CCD vertical smear. So choosing a Z7 over any first-generation HDV camcorder for situations promising sketchy lighting is a no-brainer.

The first thing you notice upon picking up the Z7 with the supplied Zeiss 4.4mm-52.8mm (12X) zoom is ergonomics: how light and exceedingly well-balanced it is. It melts into your hand. Using only one hand to wield comfortably a camcorder with an interchangeable zoom is without precedent.

A key to this graceful comportment is the robust but skeletal body — which, separated from the lens, is almost featherweight. One practical advantage demonstrated itself when, in a rush to the airport, I realized I could break down and transport the Z7 in two halves, like carrying an SLR body separate from its lens. In fact, I was able to organize the two halves — the Z7 body and lens — into the extra space of the same satchel in which I carried an EX1. This reduced two camera carry-ons into one — no small advantage in this inconvenient era of single-carry-on rules. (Although I did get chewed out at JFK by Homeland Security for packing two camcorders into one bag. They weren't amused and tried to invent a rule against it on the spot. I kid you not.)

Taking on and off the lens, I had some trepidation at the thought of possible backfocus issues, especially given the tiny 1/3in. sensors. (Hardly any depth-of-focus margin for error compared to larger formats.) Sony does supply a page-sized Siemens star with the Z7 for the express purpose of adjusting backfocus if necessary, but thankfully I haven't yet found a need for it. In the case of the Zeiss 12X zoom — which connects to the Z7 via a 14-pin hotshoe inside the bayonet mount — backfocus adjustment, if required, is automated.

Before discussing the operation of the Zeiss zoom, I should reveal that I learned to shoot vérité using handheld 16mm cameras with mechanical Angénieux lenses. Notwithstanding, from the introduction of the Sony DCR-VX1000 onward — a decade of autofocus zooms — I've adapted reasonably well to focus rings that endlessly spin (unlike most people, I'm told). I grew adept at manually pulling, racking, and following focus with them. So if a lens were to offer both autofocus and mechanical focus, as first the EX1 and now the Z7 does, which method would I choose?

It is robust with features, but the Z7 also sports a featherwieght body—which, when detatched from the lens, gets considerably smaller and is easy to store.

It wasn't a conscious choice. My hands decided. Mechanical focus every time. The zoom ring of the Zeiss 12X is always parked in the rear position for manual focusing. I've almost forgotten that the Z7 also has an autofocus capability.

In fact, operating the Zeiss zoom is a guilty pleasure. The auto/manual iris switch and momentary “push auto” iris button are — could it be? — at the far end of the handgrip's zoom-rocker switch, exactly where they should be on a pro camera. (Incidentally, push auto is entirely absent from the EX1.) The Zeiss's zoom-rocker switch is more sensitive and feathers better than the EX1's Fujinon zoom. (I have a hard time feathering zooms at all with the EX1).

As with the EX1's zoom and those of all professional 2/3in. cameras, the Z7's zoom is driven using an external gear (in contrast to internal servo-driven zooms like that of the Z1). This introduces a problem and an advantage. The main problem has to do with mechanical play or backlash between the zoom's servo-motor gear and the larger zoom-ring gear which, in this case, is uniquely rubber. (Mechanical slop exists to a degree in all geared zooms.) If you zoom using the rocker switch and then accidentally knock the protruding 1/2in. zoom-ring knob, the image will jump in size. It can be startling. (A secondary problem with geared zooms is that they're noisier; often, an onboard mic can hear the servo.)

For 25 years I've screwed off similar sawed-off little manual zoom levers, always useless in my opinion and always in the way. But as I said at the outset, each camera demands its own technique. The Z7's zoom speed is unmistakably on the languid side. Mostly I'm OK with this, because I like subtle, deliberate zooms. And I enjoy using the Zeiss zoom's sensitive rocker switch to accomplish this. But what happens when I want to suddenly zoom to the long end to check focus, or instantly adjust to a different framing? What's terrific about the Z7/Zeiss zoom combo is that I can grab that little knob and muscle the zoom ring, overpowering the servo and whipping the zoom ring wherever I'd like. Sounds violent, but I love it. Impatience has its rewards, especially in unpredictable documentary encounters.

In this way, operating the Z7 reawakens my sense memory of handholding 16mm (albeit with image stabilization), and so too does the amazing high-res sequential color viewfinder. I call it sequential color because it operates on a principle similar to the way color video was sent back from the moon. Ever notice how the Apollo astronauts bouncing across the lunar landscape break up into subtle yet noticeable red, green, and blue trailing edges? Video sent back from the moon was black and white (bandwidth reasons), so lunar cameras used spinning color wheels with RGB filters (like the early 1950s CBS color-broadcast system). Watching the result through synchronous spinning filter wheels on Earth constructed a color image.

Flick your eye back and forth in the Z7's viewfinder, and you'll see similar discrete RGB edges. The Z7 uses radically new viewfinder technology, first seen in the $10,000 HD viewfinder debuted by AccuScene at NAB 2003: FLC+LCoS. (If you must know — ferroelectric liquid crystal combined with liquid-crystal-on-silicon technology.) Amazingly, it's a reflective method, unlike the familiar transmissive polysilicon TFT LCD color viewfinders of every consumer and most prosumer camcorders. You can look up the details of LCoS on Wikipedia, but in a nutshell, it provides far finer resolution and no visible pixels. In the case of the Z7, it is 1,226,000 compared to the Z1's 252,000. It's the closest approximation of an optical viewfinder I've ever seen in a videocamera.

Color breakup — not ordinarily evident in the Z7 viewfinder, by the way — is due to the fact that the reflective LCoS imaging surface is monochrome and must be illuminated in rapid sequence by bright red, green, and blue LEDs.

stubby zoom lever

The stubby zoom lever on the lens proved to be unexpectedly useful.

The flipout LCD is a new type too. Slightly smaller (3.2in.) than that of the Z1 (3.5in.), it has 921,000 pixels (1920×480) compared to the Z1's 250,000 (1120×224). It also bests the Z1's finder in contrast (250:1 instead of 100:1) and color gamut (65 percent of NTSC compared to 35 percent). Both the Z7's viewfinder and LCD are now full-frame (no overscanning) and 6500K to match the color temperature of professional monitors (Z1 is higher than 6500K).

As mentioned above, I always had a Z1 on location along with the Z7, with many opportunities to compare the two directly. Compared to the Z7, the Z1's LCD and viewfinder reproduced significantly plugged-up shadows. (I had sensed this in the past but never had the opportunity to determine how egregious it truly was.) The Z7's LCD and viewfinder, on the other hand, depicted an evenly distributed tonal scale from shadows through midtones. In fact, the Z7's LCoS viewfinder images appeared so much flatter in contrast than those of conventional color viewfinders that it threw me on many occasions, and often I had to rely utterly on zebras at 100 percent to judge highlights.

One time in Paris while using both cameras during an interview, I leaned over from the Z7, which I operated, to check framing of the Z1, operated by a colleague. My eye instinctively panicked: the Z1 was out of focus. Luckily my brain regrouped and quickly grasped that it was the LCD viewfinder instead: its characteristic slight blurriness and screen-door effect. That's how much the Z7 had altered my eye's expectations. No wonder I felt comfortable manually focusing the Z7, rarely remembering to check the 2X expanded focus. A touch of white peaking (only color available) sometimes came in handy, though.

A few holdovers from the Z1 were most welcome. I'm a huge fan of the placement of the Z1's LCD at the fore of the handle, with camera and VCR controls underneath. The Z7 continues this design, even keeping most of the buttons in the same place. At one point when I first began using the Z7, eye glued to the viewfinder, I absentmindedly reached up to press the button that turns off all the alphanumeric characters in the display. They popped off. Then I realized I was using the Z7, not the Z1. Identical button, identical location — the kind of surprise that makes me smile.

Placement of audio controls is exemplary — much improved over the Z1. Level dials are moved to the operator's side and placed under a small, magnetically latched protective door (nice touch). Input switches are located directly under the mic holder, facing the operator. Both controls and switches are ideally positioned to steal a quick glance at. The new one-touch mic holder with quick-release clip instead of the conventional screw is a keeper too, although its physical connection to the Z7 body needs to be fortified. With mic attached, I accidentally wrenched it off more than once.

Lastly, I experimented with dual recording. And this is what I can report: unless your CompactFlash cards match MiniDV tapes in duration, dual recording is more trouble than it's worth — at least in typical run-and-gun documentary production. Only 16GB cards fit the bill — 72 minutes each of .m2t files based on HDV — but these weren't available when I shot in Europe. Instead, I took a handful of 8GB cards, each capable of storing about 36 minutes. I figured two CF cards would parallel each single MiniDV cassette. That idea died on the battlefield. There's just too much to keep track of during a real shoot to pay attention to switching over from the A-card to B-card in the middle of each MiniDV cassette. I do, however, look forward to returning to this experiment someday with the more appropriate 16GB cards.

Playback from CF cards is not as facile as playback from the EX1's SxS cards, which respond immediately to playback controls (like Panasonic P2 does). For one thing, the detachable HVR-MRC1 Memory Recording Unit contains the playback controls for reviewing .m2t files — not the Z7 itself. And in operation, these rudimentary controls are sluggish. Here's what the manual says: “During playback, the screen may become momentarily blue or frozen for about 0.5 second at the transition between scenes [when switching clips].”

The manual also describes a “trick playback” mode in which you keep pressing the fast-forward or fast-reverse buttons of the MRC1 to jump from 3X to 6X to 9X playback. Sounds great — pressing and pressing a button like a chimp seeking food rewards — but it just never worked that way. I couldn't tell what I was looking at half the time, as the image leapt pell-mell from clip to clip in seemingly random fashion.

Playback from our MacBook Pro was an entirely different matter, however, and this is how we best examined CF card clips on location. The MRC1 docks to a cradle with a FireWire port. When connected to our laptop via FireWire, the MRC1 appeared instantly as a volume. Drag-and-drop copying of the media folder found in each CF card was simple and swift. We used Sony's XDCAM Transfer 2.5.1 plug-in to enable log and transfer capture into Apple Final Cut Pro 6.0.2. All clips played fine. An even quicker method to spot-check clips is to download the free utility MPEG Streamclip 1.9.1. Double-click any copied .m2t file and it will open and play instantly in Streamclip (nicely designed, by the way, for Mac and Windows).

In all fairness, the MRC1 did once save my behind in Paris. I had arisen before dawn on the last day to shoot scenes of the Latin Quarter awakening to the early-morning light. Through a dumb snafu, I realized that I had only a portion of one MiniDV tape to shoot with (another crew member, unavailable, had our boxes of blank tapes). With no time to lose, I set off alone, me and my tripod. It was a magical morning: shots of bakeries opening, shopkeepers sweeping, bleary lovers wobbling home hand in hand. Heading over to the Seine, I found a long, wide melancholy sidewalk with haunting silhouettes of leafless trees, everything wet with rain. One or two lonely individuals shambling off somewhere. Pure Atget. And naturally, the tape had run out.

What to do? My last-minute inspiration that morning before I left the hotel had been to pocket the little MRC1 and a few 8GB cards, just in case. Only — to my chagrin — when it came time to turn the Z7 into a tapeless camera, the MRC1 just didn't work. I pressed the camera record button, and nothing.

That's what I get for using an early-model MRC1 — serial number 13, if you must know — and not thoroughly testing it beforehand. (A firmware upgrade back in the States later restored the missing function.)

But this story has a happy ending. It occurred to me on the spot to engage the MRC1's record buttons as if the MRC1 were a separate deck, and voilà — it worked. Not exactly intuitive. But I came back with my Atget shots and other striking footage (quaint term) of the sleepy Seine, all before sitting down to a breakfast of butter, croissants, and fresh orange juice.

I've barely scratched the surface of this wildly innovative camcorder — which, along with other recent advanced handheld cameras, is reinventing small-format digital video before our very eyes. It's a terribly exciting time to experiment with these new techniques. Climb aboard and you'll see.


Vitals


Company: Sony
www.sony.com/professional

Product: HVR-Z7U

Assets: Light, well-balanced body, contains handy Zeiss zoom feature, LCD display matches pro monitor quality.

Caveats: HVR-MRC1 control of playback files is sluggish.

Demographic: Pro shooters on the move.

Price: $6,850

A Further Appreciation of the Sony HVR-MRC1


As I got to know the iPod-sized Sony HVR-MRC1 better, I really grew to appreciate its function and design. It is plastic and ultra-light but well-built, with a rugged feel. Detaching the MRC1 from the HVR-Z7U camera and snapping it into its cradle is as easy as attaching the camera battery to the rear of the cradle. The cradle''s i.Link port thankfully features a full-size 6-pin connector (FireWire 400).

The MRC1''s menus are limited (a good thing) and very clear. Nothing is buried. Deleting a single clip is straightforward, as is deleting all clips. Deleting all clips takes place almost instantly. Impressive.

The 8GB CompactFlash cards get surprisingly toasty — the MRC1 manual states, “The CompactFlash may become hot just after use. Handle with care.” — but this doesn''t seem to impact the MRC1''s functioning. I remain amazed at the volume of data Sony''s CF cards are able to push around, just as I find it hard to believe that such good-looking HD plays back from a card the size of a large postage stamp.

To import MRC1 clips, I used Sony''s Log & Transfer plug-in for Apple Final Cut Pro (my version is 6.0.3), which installs easily. If you open Log & Transfer in Final Cut and then attach an MRC1, the MRC1''s files appear in the Log & Transfer window automatically. It''s as easy as importing JPEGs into iPhoto from a point-and-shoot.

I particularly appreciated the MRC1''s automatic clip naming. For instance, an actual clip of mine imported as “00_0007_2008-04-04_180112.mov.” At first glance, you might think this is a long and awful name for a file. But this is what the Z7''s automatic clip-naming convention means: camera number is 00, clip number is 7, date is April 4, 2008, and start of recording took place at 6:01 p.m. and 12 seconds (180112 is hour/minute/second). When a long list of such clips appear in a folder, they are automatically arranged in chronological order. Fantastic.

You can download Sony''s Log & Transfer software and find further information on the MRC1''s workflow at www.sony.ca/hdv/HVR-DR60_60i/products/HVR-DR60/soft.html. Once you're there, be sure to check out the PDF called “Streamline Your HDV and DV Editing Workflows With Sony''s File Recording Solutions.” — D.W.L.