AJA surprised the industry in 2014 when it rolled out its CION digital cinema 4K camera at the NAB Show. Although not known as a camera manufacturer at that point, it had been working on this product for more than four years. Last year the company offered the #TryCION promotion, which loaned camera systems to qualified filmmakers. Even though this promotion is over, potential customers with a serious interest can still get extended demos of the camera through their regional AJA sales personnel. It was in this vein that I arranged a two-week loan of a camera unit for this review.
I'm a post guy and don't typically write camera reviews; however, I'm no stranger to cameras, either. I've spent a lot of time "shading" cameras (before that position was called a DIT) and have taken my turn as a studio and field camera operator. My interest in doing this review was to test the process. How easy is it to use the camera in actual production and how easy is the post workflow associated with it?
Peter Taylor in a frame grab from the finished video
The AJA CION is a 4K digital camera that employs an APS-C CMOS sensor with a global shutter and both infrared-cut and optical low-pass filters. It can shoot in various frame sizes (from 1920 x 1080 up to 4096 x 2160) and frame rates (from 23.98 up to 120 fps). The camera uses sensor scaling rather than windowing/cropping, which means the lens size related to the image it produces is the same in 4K as in 2K or HD. In other words, a 50mm lens yields the same optical framing in all digital sizes.
CION records in Apple ProRes (up to ProRes 4444) via the built-in Pak media recorder. Think of this as essentially an AJA Ki Pro built right into the camera. Since Pak media isn't FAT32-formatted like CF or SD cards used by other cameras, you don't run into a 4 GB file size limit that would cause clip-spanning. You can also record AJA Raw externally (such as to an AJA Ki Pro Quad) over 3G-SDI or Thunderbolt. Video is linear without any log encoding schemes, but there are a number of gamma profiles and color correction presets.
Taylor assembles a Chellee instrument
CION is designed as an open camera system that uses standard connectors for HDMI, BNC, XLR, batteries, lens mounts and accessories. CION uses a PL lens mount system because that's the most open, and the best glass comes for that mounting system.
When the AJA rep sent me the camera, it came ready to shoot and included a basic camera configuration, plus accessories including some rods, an ikan D5w monitor, a Zeiss Compact Prime 28mm lens, 512 GB and 256 GB solid-state Pak media, and a Pak media dock/reader. The only items not included—other than tripod, quick-release baseplate and head, of course—were camera batteries. The camera comes with a standard battery plate, as well as an AC power supply.
About This Project
Oliver Peters produced and edited a short documentary to evaluate the process of working with footage shot by an AJA CION camera. The film is an interview with Peter Taylor, a talented luthier who builds and repairs electric and acoustic guitars under his Chellee brand. Peters worked with Ray Bracero, a budding cinematographer and graduate of the Valencia College Film Production Technology Program, on this project.
Watch the finished documentary film at vimeo.com/149225301.
Learning the CION
The subject of this mini-doc is a friend of mine, Peter Taylor. He's a talented luthier who builds and repairs electric and acoustic guitars and basses under his Chellee brand. He also designs and produces a custom line of electric guitar pedals.
To pull this project off, I partnered with the Valencia College Film Production Technology Program, with whom I've edited a number of professional feature films and where I teach an annual editing workshop. I worked with Ray Bracero, a budding DP and graduate of that program who helps there as an instructional assistant. This partnership gave me the rest of the package I needed for the production, including more lenses, a B-camera for the interview, and lighting and sound gear.
Our production schedule was limited, with just one day for the interview and B-roll shots in the shop. To augment this material, I added a second day of production with my son, Chris Peters (chrispeters.net), who played an original track that he composed as an underscore for the interview. Chris is an accomplished session musician and instructor who plays Chellee guitars.
CION in foreground with Peter Taylor in background during final lighting setup
With the stage set, the schedule provided about half a day for Ray and me to get familiar with the CION, plus two days of actual production, all within the same week.
This project would be a pretty good test of AJA's assertion that, with CION, it had designed an easy-to-use cinematic camera. Ray had never run a CION before but was familiar with REDs, Canons and other camera brands. Picking up the basic CION operation was simple. CION's menu is easier than that of other cameras. It uses the same structure as a Ki Pro, but there's also an optional remote setup, if you want a wireless connection to the CION from a laptop.
This project didn't require 4K, so everything was recorded in 2K (2048 x 1080) to be used in an HD 2.35:1 sequence (1920 x 817), which would give me some room to reframe in post. All sync sound shots would be 23.98 fps and all B-roll would be in slow motion. The camera permits "overcranking," meaning we shot at 59.94 fps for playback at 23.98 fps. The camera can go up to 120 fps, but only when recording externally in AJA Raw. To keep it simple on this job, all recording was internal to Pak media: ProRes HQ for the sync footage and ProRes 422 for the slow-motion shots.
The large version of this image shows a comparison of an original, ungraded 2K frame and the cropped and graded version from FCP X. Color correction was carried out with the FCP X Color Board. The camera was set to EI 320, 4,500° K color temperature, Normal/Expanded gamma preset and Skin Tones color preset.
CION is largely a "what you see is what you get" camera. Don't plan on extensive correction in post. What you see on the monitor is typically what you'll get, so light and control your production setup accordingly. It doesn't have as wide a dynamic range as an ARRI Alexa, for example. The bottom EI (exposure index) is 320, and that's pretty much where you want to operate as a sweet spot. These characteristics are similar to the original RED ONE. This means that in bright exteriors, you'll need filtering to knock down the light. There's also not much benefit to running with a high EI. ARRI's Alexa looks great at 800, for instance, but that setting didn't seem to help the CION.
Gamma profiles and color temperature settings didn't really behave like I expected. With our lighting, I would have expected a white balance of 3,200° K; however, 4,500° K looked right to the eye and was, in fact, correct in post. The various gamma profiles didn't help with clipping in the same way that Log C does, so we ultimately stayed with Normal/Expanded, which shifts the midrange down to give you some protection for highlights. Unfortunately, with CION, when highlights are clipped or blacks are crushed, that is actually how the signal is being recorded, and these areas of the signal are not recoverable. The camera's low end is very clean and there's a meaty midrange. We discovered that you cannot monitor the video over SDI while recording 59.94-over-23.98 (slow motion). Fortunately, HDMI does maintain a signal. All was good again once we switched to the HDMI connection.
Frame grab from the FCP X interface showing a timeline view of the edited video
CION features a number of color correction presets. For day 1, in the luthier shop, I used the Skin Tones preset. This is a normal color balance that slightly desaturates the red-orange range, thus yielding more natural flesh tones. On day 2, for the guitar performance, I switched to the Normal color correction preset. The guitar being played has a red sunburst paint finish, and the Skin Tones preset pulled too much of the vibrance out of the guitar. Normal more closely represented its appearance.
During the production, Ray used three Zeiss Super Speed primes (35mm, 50mm and 85mm) on the CION, plus a zoom on the Canon EOS 5D B-camera. Since the locations were tight, he used an ARRI 650W light with diffusion for a key and bounced an ARRI 150W light as the backlight.
The CION permits two channels of high-quality audio input (selectable line, mic or +48V). I opted to wire straight into the camera instead of using an external sound recorder. Lav and shotgun mics were directly connected to each channel for the interview. For the guitar performance, the amp was live-mic'ed into an Apogee audio interface (part of Chris' recording system), whose output was patched into the CION at line level.
DP Ray Bracero sets up a B-roll shot as Peter Taylor hand-assembles a guitar pedal circuit board.
The real-time interview and performance material was recorded with the CION mounted on a tripod, but all slow motion B-roll shots were handheld. Since the camera had been rigged with a baseplate and rods, Ray opted to use the camera in that configuration instead of taking advantage of CION's nice shoulder pad. This gave him an easy grasp of the camera for "Dutch angles" and close working proximity to the subject. Although a bit cumbersome, the light weight of the CION made such quick changes possible.
As an editor, I want a camera to make life easy in post, which brought me to Apple Final Cut Pro X for the finished video. (Watch it at vimeo.com/149225301.) Native ProRes, easy syncing of two-camera interviews, and simple-yet-powerful color correction makes FCP X a no-brainer.
We recorded a little over three hours of material: 146 minutes on the CION, 37 minutes on the EOS 5D and 11 minutes on an EOS C500 (for two pickup shots). All of the CION footage consumed only about 50 percent of our single 512 GB Pak. Using the Pak media dock, transfer times were fast. While Pak media isn't cheap, the drives are robust, and unless you are chewing through tons of 4K, you actually get a decent amount of recording time on them.
I applied just a small amount of color correction to the CION footage, primarily to bring up the midrange due to the Normal/Expanded gamma profile, which naturally makes the recorded shot darker. The footage is very malleable and doesn't demonstrate the type of grain-like sensor noise artifacts that I see in footage from other cameras with a similar amount of correction. Blacks stay true black and clean. Although my intention was not to match the 5D to the CION—I had planned on some stylized correction instead—in the end, I matched it anyway, since I used only two shots from the 5D. Surprisingly, I was able to get a successful match.
CION achieved the design goals AJA set for it. It is easy to use, ergonomic, and gets you a good image with very little fuss. As with any camera, there are a few items I'd change. For example, the front monitoring connectors are too close to the handle. Occasionally you have to press record twice to make sure you are really recording. There's venting on the top, which seems like it would be an issue if you suddenly got caught in the rain. Overall, I was very happy with the results, but I think AJA needs to tweak the color science a bit more. Video levels and color science don't seem in line with the results you would expect to see from other cameras. The best results are at a low EI, and whites tend to clip easily.
In conjunction with FCP X for post, this camera/NLE combo rivals ARRI's Alexa and Amira for postproduction ease and efficiency. On-board ProRes recording enables easy postproduction workflows without transcoding, and optional raw recording via external recorders is a plus. There are no performance hits due to taxing native Long GOP media. It offers proper file names and timecode. CION is a truly professional setup.
This is a robust camera system that can produce excellent video if you are careful when setting up and lighting your images. If you treat it like a digital "reversal film" camera, you'll get nice results.
At a starting price of $4,995 (body only), the AJA CION is a dynamite camera for the serious producer or filmmaker. The image is good and the workflow is outstanding.