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Camera Class: Intel and Insight on Sony’s CineAlta F65

Sony’s CineAlta F65 has become the most anticipated digital cinema camera introduction since the RED ONE from RED Digital Cinema back in 2007. Not only did the F65 receive TV Technology magazine’s Mario Award at the 2011 NAB Show and a Best Camera Technology prize at Cine Gear Expo 2011, but by the time it was released in January 2012, it had received more than 400 pre-orders worldwide—before anyone actually got their hands on a working model.

“The CineAlta F65 has several breakthrough features that make it unique,” says Joel Ordesky, project marketing manager, digital motion picture production, at Sony Electronics. “It’s the only camera with an 8K CMOS [Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor] imager filled with 20.4 megapixels, providing a true 4096 x 2160 resolution on output. In addition, pending the release of ARRI’s ALEXA Studio M, it’s the only digital cinema camera with a spinning mechanical shutter to eliminate the rolling shutter ‘Jell-O effect’ that plagues most CMOS sensors.”

But most importantly, thanks in part to Sony’s design of the proprietary CFA (Color Filter Array) and the fact that the F65 is the first camera to offer a dedicated green photosite for each pixel in the 4K image it outputs, the CineAlta F65 has a color gamut that is actually wider than that of film. It is a point of historic irony that Sony released the CineAlta F65 during the same month that the Eastman Kodak Company filed for bankruptcy. Remember film? The celluloid king is dead, long live the digital king!

Sony CineAlta F65

Sony is pricing the F65 at $65,000 for the camera with viewfinder but with an electronic shutter. The company ran a promotional special through December bundling the camera with a mechanical shutter, SR-R4 portable memory recorder module and control panel for $85,000, which should give you an idea of where it will hit the street.

The camera uses standard PL-mount lenses, ARRI’s “positive lock” style, which should increase its familiarity to traditional film shooters.

How can filmmakers get the most out of the Sony CineAlta F65? As the training department manager at the AbelCine sales and rental facility in New York City, Andy Shipsides is a camera technology specialist and one of the first to test out Sony’s new offering.

Shipsides says the camera is fairly straightforward and easy to use, but there are a few tips and tricks that will help digital videographers maximize its potential.

Still photo (JPEG from an F65 frame) from The Arrival,
directed and shot by Curtis Clark, ASC

Shipsides begins by explaining that with all its signal processing power, the F65 requires a lot of power. “The camera draws 105 watts per hour when running with both the mechanical shutter and viewfinder on. That’s more than most other digital cinema cameras except perhaps the Vision Research Phantom, so it could go through even an Anton/Bauer HyTRON 140 battery block in an hour.”

Shipsides also cautions that the earliest F65 models could output only in a 16-bit F65 RAW format (19 Gb/s) at 4K resolution; however, software to convert this to the SR codec at 5.5 Gb/s should be available by the time this article appears. Once converted, the recordings will be viewable on set on an HD monitor and may be imported into a file-based postproduction workflow.

The camera comes with a 256 GB SRMemory card from Sony, which is good for recording only about 15 minutes. To shoot an hour’s worth of material you’ll need a 1 TB card, so investing in a SR-PC4 SRMemory data transfer unit/download station will help free up memory cards and facilitate ingesting the recordings into other systems through faster-than-real-time transfers. The current SR RAW files take considerably longer.

The F65 holds detail in the sunlit exterior as well as
the interior blacks in this still from The Arrival
(JPEG from an F65 frame)

As it is shipping now, the camera can record only up to 60 fps, but speeds up to 120 fps should be enabled by June once a faster shutter is developed.

You can set up the camera either via switches on its side or over Wi-Fi on an Apple iPad. Just dial in the shutter speed, ISO and frame rate, set the white balance and LUT output, and it’s ready to go. Shipsides expects that apps will be available soon to let you control the camera through any web interface.

He suggests you monitor the camera in Sony’s flat S-Log mode to best evaluate its 14-stop exposure latitude. By looking at this “digital negative” logarithmic curve, you can select either “S-Log high” or “S-Log low” mode to see details in either the brighter or darker areas of the image. Then, to see how the video will look in the real world, you can switch the camera’s display to Rec. 709 video mode and evaluate it against reference black and white levels.

If you are working with a CineAlta F65 equipped with a spinning shutter, you are going to have to be prepared for a slight delay while the rotating shutter gets up to speed or if you decide to switch from the electronic shutter mode to the mechanical shutter.

The F65 is being used to shoot M. Night
Shyamalan’s After Earth

The electronic shutter mode can be a boon in low-light situations because its effective opening can be greater than the 180-degree limitation of the rotating shutter.

The first versions of the CineAlta F65 are designed to record to an SR-R4 portable memory recorder, which can also play back video in HD format. As of now, the SR-R4 is designed to be mounted on the camera, but a removable fiber-attached version is expected soon.

With the resolution potential of pictures being recorded at 8K and downsampled to 4K as they are in the CineAlta F65, it will be worthwhile to budget in ARRI or Zeiss Master Prime quality lenses if you want to get the most out of the camera’s imaging capability.

Shipsides appreciates the fact that the F65’s PL-mount lens mounts are flangeable, which means that micron-thick metal shims can be inserted behind the lens to adjust the back-focus distance between the lens and the sensor. But he suggests this adjustment should be left to camera specialists.

Sony’s CineAlta F65 is more than just a successor to the CineAlta F35 that has been the main camera on many big-budget productions, most recently Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails. The F65 has the potential of raising the bar for digital cinema and redefining what we will be expecting from future digital cinema cameras.