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NAB 2011: The Big Stories

Despite a down economy in 2010, many manufacturers at last year’s NAB displayed a wide array of product innovations. This year was a noticeably healthier show, with packed aisles throughout most of the week, but for the manufacturers it was a chance to catch their breath and refine many of the products introduced last year.

Stereo 3D was the “next big thing” in 2010, however this year it settled into the mainstream. Many companies had stereo 3D offerings — ranging from cameras to rigs to post solutions — but these were largely just another solution or product feature among many that a manufacturer was showing. Several emerging trends were visible at NAB, including a move towards 4K, the “second screen” market of mobile devices, new business models and new editing products for “the cloud.”

Unfortunately the show came in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and radiation threats in Japan, forcing various manufacturers, including Sony, Panasonic and RED Digital Cinema to acknowledge the impact on their supply chain. All promised to work through these shortages quickly, but it has had the most immediate impact on Sony’s ability to deliver HDCAM-SR tape stock and XDCAM media. Of course, this directly fuels the argument in favor of file-based solutions, which were in abundance in Las Vegas.

Cameras

As I predicted, large sensor cameras would be a hallmark of the show. RED Digital Cinema’s Alpine-tent booth was back and featured production versions of the new EPIC 5K camera. RED also drew attention with the on-going live tattoo sessions taking place in the front of their booth. When RED started down the route of high-resolution imagers, many thought them insane, but now Sony has jumped on the bandwagon. One of their new F65 cameras was prominently displayed in the Sony booth, along with a short film commissioned to demo this camera. The film was projected in both a screening theater using a Sony 4K projector and in the booth using Sony 4K display panels.

The Sony F65 is equipped with a 20MP 8K CMOS sensor designed for HD, 2K and 4K delivery today. It records to a dockable SR memory recorder with SR cards in 256GB, 512GB or 1TB capacities. The 1TB card will hold up to 50 minutes of footage in 4K 16 bit RAW at 24fps. The F65 was one of several new Sony cameras in their NAB booth. The Sony PMW-F3 with its Super 35mm imager and standard HD recording fits better into most mid-range budgets and productions. New features include Sony’s S-LOG profile and options for RGB 4:4:4 output. Combined with a high-quality external recorder, the F3 becomes an excellent alternative to Sony’s more expensive CineAlta models. This year Sony also joined Panasonic in offering a compact, twin-lens camcorder for stereo 3D productions. Sony launched the HXR-NX3D1E NXCAM, which will be available in summer. It records full left and right HD images using the AVCHD codec.

Building on the momentum of the Wall-E-style twin lens camcorder, Panasonic added the AG-3DP1 to its lineup. This is a stereo 3D P2 shoulder-mounted camcorder that records using the 10-bit AVC-Intra codec. The 3DP1 incorporates two 1/3″ full-HD 3-MOS imagers and includes stereoscopic adjustment controls. The twin-lens system allows the convergence point to be adjusted and includes functions for automatically correcting horizontal and vertical displacement.

Advancing the use of AVC-Intra is clearly a priority for Panasonic. They unveiled the AG-HX250 P2 handheld camcorder. This camera is the successor to Panasonic’s popular 200 and 170 models and supports AVC-Intra 100/50 recording, along with DVCPRO HD, DVCPRO50, DVCPRO and DV. It records to P2 cards in a variety of frame rates and is equipped with Dynamic Range Stretch. Naturally the AG-AF100 drew a lot of attention, as well. It’s been out for several months, but was only shown in mock-up at last year’s NAB. This Micro Four Thirds format camera is designed to offer the HDSLR crowd a more robust, production-friendly camera and initial reports from videographers have been quite positive.

Tapeless Recording

It’s clear that tapeless recording is on the rise. Sony and Panasonic displayed a number of file-based studio recorders as an extension of their P2 and XDCAM product families. This year they were joined by a slew of new providers who are making both studio and field products. For example, Blackmagic Design introduced the HyperDeck Studio and Shuttle devices, which record uncompressed HD video to cartridge-style SSDs (solid state drives).

AJA, of course, has had success with the KiPro. That’s now followed by the KiPro Mini, which RED has qualified as a 1080p recording solution for its EPIC cameras. Many of the other products, such as the Cinedeck Extreme, have combined the recorder with an LCD display for camera-mounted use. Convergent Design — maker of the popular Nanoflash recorder — joins this group with the Gemini 4:4:4 — the first such recorder to feature dual-link recording.

More low-cost solutions came from Atomos. Their Ninja and Samurai attracted a lot of interest for field recording of ready-to-edit files in uncompressed or Apple ProRes format. The Ninja is designed for HDMI users, while the Samurai adds HD-SDI connectors.

The product that got the nod from many production folks, though, was the Sound Devices PIX 240. It records to both the Apple ProRes and Avid DNxHD codec families and features high-quality audio preamps, timecode generation, genlock and word clock output. The PIX 240 records to removable SSDs and integrates up/down/cross-conversion of 480i, 720p, 1080i and 1080p.

Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt is the new peripherals interface protocol developed by Intel. It was formerly known as Light Peak and combines 10-Gig-E bi-directional data transfer bandwidth with display communication. The connector looks like a MiniDisplayPort plug, but can be used to daisy-chain a number of external hard drives, as well as a monitor, from this single connection. The newest Apple MacBook Pro laptops are the first computers to implement this new standard.

AJA, Blackmagic Design and Matrox all had Thunderbolt solutions ready or in development. AJA’s hardware was still in technology preview mode and not quite ready for the show. Codenamed “Phaser”, AJA’s upcoming product supports 3G, HD/SD-SDI and HDMI workflows, including HDMI input and output (with stereo 3D playback), 10-bit up/down/cross-conversion, RS422 device control, reference and LTC. Blackmagic Design’s entry into Thunderbolt is the portable UltraStudio 3D. It permits up to 2K capture and playback and supports two streams of full resolution video up to 1080p HD for stereo 3D workflows.

Matrox took a far simpler, but more useful approach for existing customers, by offering a Thunderbolt adapter that is compatible with all of its existing MXO2 products. Current MXO2 owners can take advantage of Thunderbolt simply by adding the Matrox Thunderbolt adapter, as long as the MXO2 is the last device in the chain. Storage vendors providing Thunderbolt-enabled drives and arrays included LaCie, Sonnet Technologies and Promise Technology.

Color Correction

Last year Blackmagic Design made a splash with DaVinci Resolve software for under $1,000. That’s now in version 8 for 2011, but they topped themselves with the announcement of Resolve Lite — a free version of the software. DaVinci Resolve 8 adds multi-layered timeline support, XML import/export with Final Cut Pro and OpenCL processing. The Lite version – available as a free download starting in July — is a full-featured version of the application, but is limited to no higher than HD frame sizes and two secondary color correction nodes.

Another new high-end entry into the budget color grading space is Filmlight’s Baselight plug-in for Final Cut Pro, which will be available later this year. This gives FCP editors nearly the complete Baselight interface as a filter within FCP. In addition to grading with this advanced tool, editors can also use it to exchange settings with a facility that’s using a full Baselight system. A feature used in the setting from a full Baselight unit that isn’t available in the plug-in can still be applied as part of the grade – with the limitation that it isn’t editable by the plug-in user. In the other direction, all plug-in settings transfer over to a full unit.

Along with Filmlight, Quantel and Autodesk are viewed as the “heavy iron” of the color correction industry. A new software product introduced by Quantel is the Pablo PA, which is designed as an assistant station for eQ, iQ and Pablo suites. It includes a full version of the Pablo software with the V5 stereo 3D toolset. It is intended to be used for import, export, conforms and archiving in conjunction with one of the advanced systems. For its part, Autodesk has been promoting the Flame Premium upgrade. This bundle combines Smoke, Flame and Lustre software on a Linux platform. It is designed to give Flame artists more color grading tools, as well as to give DI suites full effects capabilities.

Red Giant Software offers Magic Bullet Colorista II — everyone’s favorite color correction plug-in. At the show they released two free products — Colorista Free and LUT Buddy. Colorista Free is much like the original version of Colorista, minus the mask. In addition to the color wheels, it also includes sliders and a burn-in overlay for ASC CDL values. LUT Buddy lets you turn any color correction filter into a LUT (color look-up table). For example, you can use the FCP 3-way or one of the Colorista filters and LUT Buddy to generate a LUT file saved in one of a number of color profile formats. Then apply LUT Buddy to a clip in another application, like After Effects, read the LUT file created in FCP and this correction is then applied without the use of any other plug-ins.

With an increasing number of video cameras that can record a camera RAW format, color correction systems are the logical place to incorporate this capability. Two such tools are IRIDAS SpeedGrade and The Foundry’s STORM. SpeedGrade NX was shown at NAB with refined stereo 3D support, increased RAW camera support and improved color management. STORM is currently being developed as a “pre-editing” tool targeted at DITs (digital imaging technician) in the field who need color correction and basic editing capabilities. STORM currently only works with RED cameras, but The Foundry intends to expand its capabilities to cover ARRI, as well as HDLSR cameras. Another surprise in the color correction field is Assimilate’s entry into the Mac market with an OS X version of Scratch. Assimilate was not on the NAB floor, but demoed Scratch in a hospitality suite at the nearby Renaissance Hotel.

Postproduction

4K has come to desktop NLEs thanks to Adobe, Grass Valley, AJA and Blackmagic Design. Both AJA and Blackmagic Design announced versions of their respective KONA and Decklink cards that would be compatible with 4K post. On the software front, Grass Valley’s EDIUS 6 NLE, as well as Adobe Premiere Pro, offer the capability to cut with native 4K media in a 4K timeline. Adobe intends to fully support the RED EPIC camera in CS 5.5, which will extend Premiere Pro’s capability to 5K timelines.

Adobe announced the Production Premium CS 5.5 bundle at the show. It features a lot of under-the-hood improvement to Premiere Pro, as well as stereo 3D support for After Effects and a new warp stabilizer tool. The biggest change to the suite is the replacement of Soundbooth with Audition, which is now available for the Mac. This gives the Production Premium bundle a true audio application on par with Pro Tools or Soundtrack Pro. Adobe sparked interest with the announcement that its software would also be available on a subscription basis as an alternative to outright purchase. This means customers have the option of “renting” a software collection or single application on a monthly or annual basis.

Avid had already released Media Composer 5.5 prior to the show. It adds support for three of the Avid Artist series control surfaces, as well as codec support for the SR Lite and SQ versions of Sony’s HDCAM-SR software codecs. Nitris DX owners can integrate new codec cards to accelerate AVC-Intra projects. The biggest new feature is PhraseFind, an optional dialogue search tool based on the same Nexidia technology as in AV3 Software’s Get for FCP.

A much bigger milestone for Avid is Interplay Central — the first of a number of “cloud” editing products, first alluded to in last year’s technology demo on the show floor. In its current form, Avid Interplay Central is a workflow tool for news editors and journalists that leverages web and mobile applications as a window into their media infrastructure. Using a laptop or desktop computer connected to the web, users can sign into the Interplay Central portal and access “panes” that are designed for tasks associated with different parts of the production process. Changes made by users who are working with Interplay Central Mobile in an offline mode will be reflected in projects as soon as they have reconnected to the network.

Quantel introduced its own take on “cloud” editing with QTube Global Media Workflow. It offers two interfaces — QTube Browser, a Silverlight-based media player and metadata editor for content review — and QTube Edit, a remote editing client application. The editor uses a similar interface to Quantel’s other editing products and provides frame-accurate timeline editing that can combine local and remote content over the Internet. Finished edits are published back to the home server with local content compressed to H264 for minimum transfer time.

EditShare continues its advancements on the Lightworks editor. It’s currently available as a free download of the Open Source version (in beta) as well as a purchased turnkey system. One advanced feature added in this past year is stereo 3D support. This became a requirement for Thelma Schoonmaker, a loyal Lightworks user. She is cutting Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Hugo Cabret in stereo 3D using Lightworks.

The Elephant in the Room

In a controversial change of agenda, the Las Vegas SuperMeet became the host for a “sneak peek” at Apple’s new Final Cut Pro X. This was an off-site affair, since Apple isn’t an official NAB exhibitor. It definitely sparked discussion among post professionals and manufacturers who make their living from the FCP ecosystem.

The software is slated to be released in June, so it may be out by the time you read this. Like typical Apple OS previews, this presentation only revealed a sliver of what’s in the application and left more questions than answers. Whether or not it is more or less “pro” will have to wait for the real thing.

Final Cut Pro X has been rewritten to take advantage of all the modern features of the Mac OS and Apple’s hardware. This means 64-bit operation, native 4K editing, better real-time performance with a wide range of codecs and functions like background rendering. In addition, it has gained a number of “automatics”, like image analysis upon ingest and color matching. The interface has been redesigned in a style reminiscent of the current version of iMovie and GargeBand, which has caused many to question whether it is for today’s professional editor.

The kicker was the announced price drop to $299 and the delivery of the software using Apple’s App Store. No word on the fate of the other applications in the Final Cut Studio bundle — namely Color, DVD Studio Pro, Motion, Compressor, Cinema Tools and Soundtrack Pro. Most developers will likely require some adjustment of their products to be compatible; however, the folks I spoke with at Boris FX, AJA, Blackmagic Design and Filmlight all felt confident that their filters and hardware cards would work with Final Cut Pro X.

Once again, in March this NAB had looked like it would be a bit unexciting. Clearly, that wasn’t the case. In the end, it turned out to be noteworthy after all!

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