We’ve been waiting a long time for a new version of Panasonic’s venerable VariCam, and you may be surprised to hear the company’s response to why it took so long to upgrade their flagship production camera with digital cinema capability: “We were late coming out with a large format camera,” says Steve Mahrer, P2 product manager at Panasonic. “As our press release says, ‘Sometimes it’s best to be the last product in a class.’ After all, it’s the pioneers who take the arrows.”
There are actually two new VariCams: the VariCam 35, with its brand new Super 35mm MOS image sensor for 4K (4096 x 2160) image capture, and the 2/3-inch VariCam HS, which uses 1920 x 1080p 3MOS imagers, offers 14 stops of latitude and is capable of shooting up to 240 fps. Both cameras feature a two-piece design. The 4K and 2/3-inch camera heads are separate from but dockable to the common, shared recording module, which allows users to switch between Super 35 and 2/3-inch camera heads to best suit the project. For the purposes of this survey, we’re going to look at the VariCam 35 camera.
The VariCam 35 camera/recorder offers real-time, high frame rate, variable speed 4K recording up to 120 fps; and workflows with parallel simultaneous 4K/UHD, reference 2K/HD and proxy recordings for in-camera on-set color grading and monitoring/editing.
Panasonic VariCam 35 head and lens.
One of the most notable features is the VariCam 35 sensor’s “Dual Native ISO” functionality, meaning the camera has two “native” ISO settings, at ISO 800 and 5000. Thanks to separate output charge-to-voltage conversion processing circuits, there is no gain applied to the signal and the noise level between the two sensitivities is within 1 dB. In other words, the noise present at 5000 is nearly identical to that at 800. Imagine the shooting opportunities afforded by native 5000 ISO in low light.
VariCam 35 uses Panasonic’s new expressP2 card for high frame rate and 4K recording and microP2 cards for recording HD or 2K at more typical production frame rates.
Also among its standout features, the VariCam 35 features “dual recording.” The camera has four memory card slots: the master recorder holds two expressP2 cards for 4K/UHD, 2K or HD normally utilizing Panasonic’s V-Log recording curve, and a submaster recorder holds two microP2 cards that can record 2K or HD plus proxy (960 x 540) with optional LUT or CDL burned in. Significantly, the submaster recorder also records at project speed with normal audio when the master recoding is doing up to 120 fps. The double-recorder and dual-codec recording function allows simultaneous recording of master and dailies for offline editing and previewing.
Codex V-RAW, a 4K uncompressed raw recorder, should be available for the VariCam 35 by the NAB Show in April. Non-raw recordings can be in a choice of codecs, either Panasonic’s AVC family or Apple ProRes 4444 in HD.
Michael Minock (foreground) with VariCam 35.
“Providing a simultaneous multiple format recording capability makes 4K production much more affordable,” Mahrer says. “By coming in last with a large sensor digital cinema camera, we aim to be first.”
The MSRP of the VariCam 35 is $55,000, but consider that the outlay buys you a modular camera head and a docking recorder that may also be used with a VariCam HS camera. The modularity means the head can be flying around on a crane while the recorder is nestled in a rack by the DIT.
If you want more detail on the inner workings of this new digital cinema contender, Panasonic’s West Coast sales manager, Doug Leighton, posted a complete video introduction to the features of the VariCam 35 on the Digital Cinema Society web site. You can see it at www.digitalcinemasociety.org/new-streaming-videos.
Michael Minock is a director/cinematographer and a master faculty member at the International Film & Digital Cinema Workshops in Florida, where he works on TV series, features and commercials. Minock has already found the VariCam 35’s 5000 ISO capability a real boon for shooting in natural light on a powerful narrative short film about human trafficking called “Don’t Look Away.”
“Our protagonist had to be seen fleeing from a hospital room to escape incarceration,” Minock says, “and we had only one opportunity for the take, with no lighting setup. The low-light footage had almost no visible noise.”
A still from Michael Minock’s “Don’t Look Away” shot at 5000 ISO with the close-ups lit only by candles.
Thanks to the camera’s dual recording feature, Minock’s crew was able to shoot 4K V-Log but start editing right on the set using 2K files as proxies. The camera may be operated with the control panel mounted on either side, which Minock has found a great help. With a Wi-Fi plug-in, you can even operate it from a remote position.
Minock especially likes the VariCam 35’s built-in ND filters (clear, 0.6, 1.2, 1.8) that are manually operated. “One less thing to break,” he says. “And the fact that you can record metadata from an intelligent lens right into every video file means the look of our images should be maintained throughout post, even extending to secure archiving.”
He is convinced that this is a high-end camera whose value will outlast its amortization.
“Just considering the VariCam 35’s sturdy, robust construction and high-end features, this is not your father’s Oldsmobile,” Minock adds.
John Sharaf with VariCam 35
Having been a VariCam owner since the early 2000s, John Sharaf, a cinematographer in the Atlanta media market, received two VariCam 35s during Christmas week. The cameras are available through his John Sharaf Photography rental facility.
“Eight or 10 years ago I was invited to a preview of the next VariCam prototype in a ‘whisper room’ demo and I’ve been anticipating its release ever since,” Sharaf says. “Now, having two VariCam 35s, we have extensively tested the difference between their 800 ISO and 5000 ISO recordings. Although scopes may detect the difference in noise, when watching the video from a 5- or 6-foot viewing distance, it is unnoticeable. Panasonic has created an imaging device that literally is better than your eyes.”
It’s the camera’s ability to record ProRes 4444 video that really sets it apart for Sharaf, as well as its ability to import a true 3D LUT (lookup table) to mold its video. “This means that the video you see on the set is better than you’d get from almost any other camera. In addition, it has a wireless or Ethernet GUI [or one inside the camera] that immortalizes the 3D LUT metadata for either immediate dailies or archived footage that can last longer than the cameraman.”
Scott Henderson, a cinematographer in the Tampa/Orlando area, received his VariCam 35 the day after Thanksgiving. He figures it approaches the gold standard of 35mm film, especially when recording skin tones, which gives his company, Scott Henderson Productions, a competitive advantage.
Henderson posted footage he shot with the VariCam 35 online.
“The image coming out of the camera has a very light palette, which is a popular commercial look,” he says. “The blacks aren’t crushed and there is not too much chroma. This makes it easy to adjust in post, or compensate for with a 3D LUT.” (The HD shots on his site have had the blacks corrected just slightly.)
Scott Henderson shoots a project for JPMorgan Chase at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Amalie Arena.
With the bright Florida sunshine, he often needs to wear sunscreen, which led to an unexpected complication with the AU-VCVF1G OLED viewfinder. “The sensor is tricky to clean,” he laughs. “You have to turn the camera off to wipe spots off the glass. Of course, since the viewfinder has a proximity sensor to save batteries when your eye isn’t right up next to it, we sometimes have to pause action on the set to clean it. It’s a little delicate.”
But overall, Scott has no trouble expressing his enthusiasm for the VariCam 35. “This camera gives you the truth. The colors are spot-on, and its operation is transparent. This is the best camera I’ve come across in a long time.”
The history of the VariCam 35 is just starting to be written. We are undoubtedly going to hear a lot more about it in the future.
VariCam 35 Recording Format
*1: In case of 25 fps or 50 fps format, VFR range is 1 – 100 or 1 – 50.
*2: Sub-recorder does not support off-speed (VFR) recording.
*3: Specification is as of February 2015.