Sign of the Times
I recently had a production
meeting with a young cameraman who owns a Sony PMW-EX3. In the course of getting to know one other, he asked me what it was like to shoot film, which he said he''d very much like to do one day. I''ve shot so much film I almost have yellow blood, which is what they used to say about lifetime Kodak employees in
I commented that from a logistics point of view, shooting 16mm was like shooting with tape cassettes that lasted 10 minutes. He looked at me and, with slight embarrassment, said, “I''ve never shot tape either.”
There''s a first time for everything.
Call them the Red generation. Or generation P2. They''re talented young DPs and camera owner/
operators born into a time of hastening transformation, in which old methods are yielding to new ones at a pace almost no one can keep up with. In a time of file-based acquisition, the 1980s term “videographer” sounds as quaint as “magic lanternist.”
Another sign of the times: During TV coverage of President Obama''s recent address to Congress and the nation, as press and video camerapeople hurriedly scrummed down the aisle in advance of congressional pooh-bahs, I noticed a female journalist holding out a still camera as she walked, intently eyeing the rear of the camera. You guessed it: She was recording moving images.
So when Canon offered its new Realis WUX10 projector for review, I seized an opportunity to survey a handful of the developments that are unfolding across our fast-changing landscape, which I''ll detail below.
The WUX10 is a briefcase-sized wonder: 3200 lumens from something that weighs 10.8lbs., same as an early laptop computer. (I still recall lumbering Eidophors the size of refrigerators. Look it up on Wikipedia.) The WUX10 is the world''s first WUXGA (1920x1200) liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS) projector.
While 3200 lumens can''t illuminate anything boasting stadium
seating, it''s not chump change either. Today''s high-end 1080p (native 1920x1080) home-theater projectors, LCoS or DLP, typically put out 700 lumens to 900 lumens and weigh about 25lbs. The few 1080p projectorsmostly single-chip DLPthat come even close to 10lbs. often rely on an additional outboard processor.
So what''s the catch?
It''s the WUX10''s notably weak contrast ratio of 1000:1that''s Canon''s own specwhich is evocative of early LCD projectors with milky blacks. Even home-theater projectors these days start at 2000:1 or 3000:1 and often claim 5000:1 or more. How can this be?
Perhaps it''s my wabi-sabi sense of beauty in imperfection (a Japanese aesthetic), but I find the Realis WUX10and what it portendsno less intriguing because of this very inadequacy. Or is it?
To explore these matters further, I got together with friend and fellow cinematographer Mark Forman, an active member of the New York Section of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) and owner of the Forman HiDefinition Screening Room, one of the first professional HD review theaters in New York. Forman''s screening room still features an overhead Sony VPH-G90, a massive three-eyed CRT monster from the late ''90s. You''ll remember that CRT projectors, whatever their many flaws, produced the best blacks of any type of electronic projector, to this day.
Forman also happens to be an early adopter of Canon''s groundbreaking EOS 5D Mark II DSLR—which, as you probably already know, can capture 1080p at 30fps as H.264/MPEG-4 AVC at 38Mbps (variable bit rate), recorded as QuickTime .mov files to CompactFlash cards.
Forman has the distinction of having shot the first Canon 5D scene ever included in a theatrical feature film: Fox Searchlight''s Notorious (2009), a biopic on the life and death of rap star Notorious B.I.G. Otherwise filmed in Super 35 for release in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the film was in the final throes of editing when a last- minute request came to Forman to shoot a single nighttime shot of the lead actor entering a building. Forman had taken possession of his Canon 5D three days previously; nonetheless, the producers were thrilled with both the result and its low cost. No crew involved.
As in the case of the Realis WUX10 projector, the 5D Mark II embodies imperfection—at least as an HD acquisition tool. In HD mode, there is no control of ISO (camera sensitivity), which leads to runaway increases in gain and heavy noise in low-light subjects. (Iris and focus can be manually locked prior to recording, however.) The 3in. LCD at the back is close to standard-definition in resolution, yet there''s no peaking, making focusing a challenge.
And let''s face it, staring at the 5D''s fixed LCD screen at eye level means always shooting at eye level when hand-holding. That''s a serious limitation. (Older folks, bring your reading glasses.) There''s a reason film cameras and video camcorders have eyepieces and LCD panels that swivel.
The 5D Mark II made a big splash when it was introduced last fall because it couples a full-frame (24mmx36mm) 21.1-megapixel CMOS sensor with full HD 1920x1080 progressive capture for up to 12 minutes of AVCHD recording at a clip. Or 30 minutes of
standard-def at 640x480. There''s also a built-in mono mic and a stereo mic input (no phantom power, however, and no headphone jack). With a comparatively inexpensive body ($2,700 retail) and access to more than 60 lenses in Canon''s advanced EF (Electro-Focus) series, visions of a cheaper, more flexible large-sensor alternative to the already cheap Red Digital Cinema Red One (body: $17,500) danced in the heads of many dreamers.
However, the Red One is in no danger here. It uses PL-mount
motion-picture lenses in front of a Super 35-sized CMOS sensor to capture 4K compressed RAW files many times greater in pixel count than HD. As Canon 5Ds arrived in stores and the reality set in, Internet boards and chat rooms swelled with calls to add 24p (23.98p) and 25p; adjust 30fps to standard 29.97fps; alter the
audio sample rate from 44.1kHz (a CD sample rate) to conventional 48kHz; add a headphone jack along with audio controls and an audio-
level display; permit simultaneous use of LiveView and HDMI output for monitoring; permit toggling between LiveView and the optical viewfinder for focus checks prior to recording; and at the very least, enable full manual control of f/stop, shutter speed, and ISO during HD recording.
In other words, the basic functionality of a high-end HD camcorder at the bargain-basement price of a consumer camcorderan idea that is likely to build steam as we navigate treacherous economic straits. Which is why these initial DSLRs equipped to acquire full HD are blinking signposts of what''s to come.
For instance, the September announcement of Canon''s 5D Mark II
was preceded by three weeks by that of the very first DSLR with HD: Nikon''s D90, which debuted a 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor, Motion JPEG recording of 720p, and $1,000 price (body only). Canon has since introduced a compact consumer PowerShot SX1 IS (not a DSLR) with a smaller 1/2.3in. 10-megapixel CMOS sensor, HDMI output, and the same powerful Canon DIGIC 4 processor as the 5D Mark II. It features a 2.7in. 16:9 LCD screen that folds out and swivels, a wide-angle 20X zoom with optical image stabilization, and a built-in stereo mic (no external mic input). The SX1 IS records the same HD formats as the 5D to cheap SDHC cards (class 6) and retails for about $780.
Which brings us to Panasonic''s entry: the compact Lumix DMC-GH1,
which was introduced in March. The GH1 captures full HD 1920x1080 at 1080/24p, 1080/25p, 720/60p, or 720/50p. Compression is H.264/MPEG-4 AVC (AVCHD). 1080p is recorded as 1080/60i (pull-down added) or 1080/50i.
The Lumix DMC-GH1 is striking for a number of reasons. It incorporates a new compact DSLR standard called Micro Four Thirds system, which Panasonic and Olympus announced last year. Based on the existing Four Thirds system which specifies a 4/3in. sensor (hence the name), the Micro Four Thirds system dispenses with the traditional mirror and prism altogether, introducing a smaller, shallower lens mount.
This necessitates an electronic viewfinder, and the Lumix
DMC-GH1 serves up a humdinger: a large, sharp, pixel-free LCoS findera first for digital still camerasexploiting the very same technology that drives projectors such as the Realis WUX10. The GH1''s brilliant finder rivals those found in Sony''s HVR-Z7U and HVR-Z5U
HDV camcorders (where LCoS finders first appeared, unless you count AccuScene''s 2002 technology, which was acquired by Red Digital Cinema) as well as in upcoming 1/3in. camcorders such as JVC''s GY-HM700 ProHD, which records to SDHC cards, and Panasonic''s 3-CMOS AG-HPX300, which records AVC-Intra and DVCPRO HD to P2 cards (see p. 40 of the April issue of millimeter for Barry Braverman''s review of
Once you''ve used a color LCoS finder, you can''t go back to LCD. I''ve shot extensively with Sony Z7s and Z5s, and in November, on a trip to Japan, I put a Lumix DMC-G1 (same camera, minus HD) through its paces at a store in Tokyo''s Akihabara electronics district. I was utterly mesmerized by the vivid 1,440,000-pixel viewfinder. It''s the next best thing to an optical viewfinder, with the added advantage that data can be superimposed over the image.
In a nutshell, the DMC-GH1
features a 4/3in. CMOS sensor with 12.1 megapixels, dual-CPU image processing, stereo mic input, HDMI output, and recording to SDHC cards. The 3in. LCD viewing screen swivels and folds out to the side. And how cool is this: The viewfinder turns on only when you bring your eye to the eyepiece. You can even relegate the LCD panel to a detailed status display if you want. All this in a camera body weighing 13.6oz.
Now, none of these hybrid still cameras produce always-flawless HD. CMOS images are vulnerable to rolling shutter, a noticeable skew from top to bottom caused by the fact that CMOS images are captured as sequential horizontal lines, from top to bottom, rather than all at once. If a tall, fast-moving object darts across the frame, for example, the portion of its image at the top of a single frame will be registered a split-second earlier than the portion at the bottom of the same frame. Panning a CMOS camera too quickly can produce the same oblique, wobbly result. (This look has already been dubbed “jellocam.”)
And as Forman points out, not being able to lock down the ISO, or sensitivity, of his Canon 5D Mark II means that when shooting at night, the digital signal processing of the
5D Mark II, such as it is, can jack up the ISO rating as high as 3200in the middle of a shot. (Think coarse shadow detail in an Impressionist painting.)
Nevertheless, Forman likes his
5D Mark II, which he says is “definitely great for stock shots, where there are no actors involved and no focus-pulling.”
I spent an afternoon with Forman while he worked down a list of needed HD stock shots in midtown Manhattan. Since I sometimes shoot films about architecture, I was particularly interested in Canon''s EF series of tilt-shift lenses, including 17mm, 45mm, and 90mm. Tilt-shift lenses are specialty lenses used in landscape and architectural photography for perspective control, and they''re also unsurpassed at creative control of depth of field. (See accompanying photo on p. 32.) These effects have been common in large-format photography since the 19th century, but they remain extremely rare in digital video and film. Until the
5D Mark II, that is.
In February, Canon announced two new tilt-shift EF lenses: the ultrawide TS-E17mm f/4 and the TS-E24mm f/3.5 II, which replaces Canon''s original 24mm EF tilt-shift. Canon says the new version offers lower geometric distortion and reduced chromatic aberration. Both feature Canon''s new TS Revolving System, which permits tilt-shift lens movements to be adjusted in parallel or at right angles to each other.
With Forman, I tested a
Canon TS-E45mm f/2.8 (which can also rotate if you know the trick). A normal focal length for 35mm, it wasn''t wide enough to serve as an aid to filming architecture (a topic for a future article?). But what an amazing feeling to have this early photographic technique updated for digital motion imaging!
Which brings us back to the Realis WUX10 projector. There''s no Moore''s Law of optics or illumination, meaning that just because electronics shrink, it doesn''t mean lenses or projectors shrink too. Which is why 19th century optics firms, mostly German, are still going strong doing pretty much what
they always did.
By contrast, bulky CRT projectors from the vacuum-tube era were driven to extinction by tiny LCD panels and reflective semiconductor image engines, such as DLP micromirrors and LCoS. A glance at the photo on the opposite page of the ceiling-mounted 1999 Sony
VPH-G90 atop the bantam WUX10 says it all: 275lbs. vs. 10.8lbs.; desk-sized furniture vs. desktop peripheral; $35,000 vs. $10,000 (street). Forman quipped that the WUX10 weighed maybe as much as a single
While the blacks of the
VPH-G90 are beautiful to behold (projectors don''t project black, by the way; black is the absence of light), the tiny WUX10 is noticeably brighter, sharper, snappier, and clearer. Both Forman and I thought so.
But those milky blacks (actually grays) kill the dealat least in the dark surround of a true theatrical screening room like Forman''s. I tried a .9 ND (three stops) over the lens, even a circular polarizeranything to force down the black levels. But even with a .9 ND in place, the WUX10''s blacks were still grayish, not even close to those of the VPH-G90.
But what if Canon, not known for theatrical or even home projection (where Sony and JVC are kings of LCoS), had created a different breed of projector in the
Realis WUX10 targeted at business presentations, point-of-sales displays, even gamingenvironments typically suffused with ambient light?
In those less-than-ideal situations, where the perfect absence of light and therefore accurate blacks are impossible, the WUX10''s bright, powerful output would appear contrastier to the eye than the output of projectors capable of true blacks. Put another way, the WUX10 favors accurate perception of midtones and highlights over shadow detail in imperfect screening environments in which genuine blacks can''t be realized anyway.
This may seem counterintuitive to everything you know about quality projection, but if your best work had to be viewed in less-than-ideal circumstances, it might start to make more sense. With LCoS, there''s no screen-door texture typical of LCDs, and none of the geometry or convergence issues typical of CRTs. And setting aside the nettlesome issue of blacks, when you consider that
center-to-corner resolution holds across the entire 1920x1080 image, the WUX10 becomes a solid choice for on-location viewing of HD dailies to detect focus issues. Remember, it weighs 10.8lbs. It''s a carry-on.
What''s more, it''s smart. It has an automatic setup function that detects the type of input signal, then performs automatic focus (like a camera),
automatic vertical keystone correction (plus/minus 20 degrees), and automatic screen color correction (so that white on the screen appears white). Of course, the automatic functions can be disabled and done manually if desired. The WUX10 even has an internal charging unit that continues to run the lamp''s cooling fan when power has been interrupted or cut prematurely. In addition, a digital zoom feature permits image magnification up to 12X for closer inspection.
Inputs include DVI-I (for digital RGB), analog RGB, analog component, S-Video, analog composite, three stereo audio jacks, and
How much HD from his EOS 5D Mark II did Forman and I scrutinize on the WUX10? Not much, to be honest. The wheezy old Sony VPH-G90 produced noticeably better contrast in his plush, properly darkened screening room. The DP in each of us could not sanction
But if Canon someday made a WUX10 with true blacks, Forman would be first in line. Ask him.