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Panasonic AG-3DA1 vs. Stereoscopic Camera 3D Rigs

As anyone in the 3D industry can attest to, this past year there’s been a lot of PR and hype surrounding the new

Panasonic AG-3DA1 camcorder

(the “A1�). But why wouldn’t there be (a lot of press) – it’s a “self-contained�, High-Def, stereoscopic 3D camera system. That in itself is amazing technology by any standard, right?! I think so, but then again I’m biased. Over two years ago I started the 3D Film Factory. A small company that designs and sells “bulky�, but affordable 3D camera rigs (beams-splitter & side-by-side configurations). We also shoot 3D productions around the world for select clients and we offer a popular 3D training workshop. I digress. Sorry, but I wanted to confess my bias up front.

Anyhow, at some point last month I decided I wanted to see for myself if this new 3D camcorder was the real deal, you know, walked the talk, so to speak. So I decided to poll a few professionals, folks who I knew had recent experience with the A1. And when I say professionals, I’m talking about 3D experts – stereographers & 3D cinematographers, who’ve been shooting stereoscopic 3D for several years or more, not weekend warriors, or self-proclaimed stereographers.

The biggest surprise came right away. Believe it or not, all of them asked to remain nameless in order not to upset their relationships with Panasonic. I was surprised, but equally impressed the company unexpected clout.

The second revelation – someone pointed out that although Panasonic touted the A1 as the World’s first, professional quality, HD 3D camcorder – the 3D-One HD – 3D camcorder had proceeded the A1. But the A1 – still classified itself as amazing.

Even I can tell you that over the past few months – many, many, many A1’s have been handed out to test, experiment with and just shoot 3D. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a product comp’d to this degree. I do know of several folks who have actually purchased the camera, but no one that I would consider a “realâ€? stereographer.

The following diatribe was assembled from my conversations from my 3D pros and from “official� articles online. All in all, I think it’s came out okay. So let’s dig in, shall we?

When comparing the Panasonic to the bulkier, heavier, traditional beam-splitter style 3D rigs (like we sell), the A1 proves to be a relatively easy-to-use, light-weight option. Yes, our beam-splitter rigs are bigger and definitely require some 3D training and/or knowledge to use properly. Fact, I tell people candidly having a rig is only 50% of shooting 3D, the other 50% is knowing how to set it up properly and shoot 3D with it.

Now back to the A1 and some dry, but necessary techie facts. Weighing in at a mere 2.8Kg (6.1 lbs.), the A1 is equipped with dual lenses and two 1/4.1-inch full 1920 x 1080, 2.07-megapixel 3MOS imaging sensors. These record 1080/60i, 1080/50i, 30p, 25p and 24p (native) HD recordings in addition to 720/60p and 720/50p in the AVCHD format. In addition, it records up to 180 minutes on dual 32GB SD cards in Panasonic’s professional AVCHD “PH� mode. The camera’s professional interface includes dual HD-SDI out, HDMI (version 1.4), two XLR connectors, built-in stereo microphone and twin-lens camera remotes. It’s also equipped with a remote terminal for Focus, Iris, Zoom, REC start/stop and Convergence Point (for 3D). A nice looking 3.2-inch LCD screen provides the option to switch from Left or Right viewpoint or select an overlay image display. All nice stuff.

If I had less experience shooting and editing in stereo, I’d be saying, “Great. Where can I buy one?� After all, ignorance is bliss, especially when it comes to stereography where it’s rampant. Most of the 3D people ask us to preview is unusable.

Here’s the cold hard truth. When you shoot 2D, you know right away if it’s good 2D photography or bad 2D photography. But creating good, high-quality 3D, isn’t immediately apparent and much more difficult to attain. Because acquiring professional, comfortable 3D images – requires knowledge, skill and the use of a capable, professional 3D camera system. These capabilities include allowing the stereographer (or cinematographer) to achieve 3D picture alignment – AND allowing for the adjusting of the “3D effect “. The 3D effect includes depth, pop and parallax.

First, to achieve 3D picture alignment both lenses need to move about the X-Y-Z axis (up, down, tilt, roll, etc.), basically allowing the 2 images from each camera to “line-upâ€?. Conversely, to control the “3D effectâ€?, the cameras must be able to diverge, or separate to bring out the stereo effect as needed. This is done be adjusting both the inter-ocular (camera-to-camera distance) and convergence (tow-in, or out). Unfortunately, the Panasonic A1 only allows for convergence control and NOT inter-ocular (IO) movement. This means that as the focal length from camera to subject varies from shot-to-shot, the only tool the stereographer has with the A1 – is convergence – or the tow in/out of the lenses. In 3D terms – this means the Panasonic A1 is unable to shoot anything closer than approximately 8 ft. (some claim nothing closer than about 12 ft.) and nothing further than about 20 ft. (some claim as much as 50 ft). I think it’s fair to say that the camera has a “sweet spotâ€? from about 10 ft. to 30 ft. Adding insult, the mere use of convergence can often result in backgrounds becoming too divergent or different. As the cameras’ focal trajectory increases with distance, the greater the disparity in the background images. Later trying to overlay such images in post means eye-strain. The symptom worsens for close-ups (which are not feasible at all under 8 ft.) and master shots, which begin to flatten out uncontrollably. So you have to ask yourself – when was the last time you made movie/feature/commercial/etc. without a close-up, or a wider establishing shot?

In other words, despite Panasonic’s claims about the A1 making incredible 3D Hollywood style movies – it isn’t usable for professional 3D projects, let alone Hollywood 3D movies. Unless you have a beam-splitter and side-by-side rigs standing by. What it is good at is – setting up fast, shooting quick, getting okay quality 3D in a “run-n-gunâ€? type setting. Making it a great 3D ENG (news style) camera, or YouTube 3D video camera. High-quality 3D movies – no.

As a real-life example, when we shot Yosemite in 3D, many of the focal length up to a 1 mile from camera. That’s a long way. So we configured the cameras on our side-by-side 3D rigs – from 3ft. to 10ft apart. The IO on the A1 is less than 3 inches. When we humans look at mountains in the distance (our eyes are 3, or less, inches apart) – the dimensionality flattens out. To reverse this effect in camera and accentuate the 3D effect – we have to pull the cameras apart, not tow-in or out the cameras (convergence).

But regardless, most of the stereographers I spoke with generally liked the A1. They felt it was a great tool to use for non-professional, casual 3D situations. Many of them felt this way not only because of its 3D limitations, but because the lenses were, as one said “mid-gradeâ€?. In other words, you can’t use cinema quality or prime lenses. I heard the camera described as “one tool in their 3D arsenal of toolsâ€?. Most agreed it was nice having a light-weight and easy to use camcorder, but conceded privately that any fixed lens 3D system – is just that – “fixedâ€? – in a flexible 3D environment.

At $21,000 Panasonic claims their A1 3D camera is being “offered at a much lower price than traditional 3D rigs”. I’m assuming that they’re talking about the larger, bulky, beam-splitter rigs that use two cameras. Our company has several side-by-side 3D rigs priced under $1,000, while the bigger beam-splitters are $3,000 to $5,000. So here’s where I make a shameless plug. The 3D Film Factory features a host of affordable, professional 3D beam-splitter rigs. So I know for a fact that you can get 2 HD camcorders and the rig for less than the $21,000 Panasonic A1. Actually most folks I know rent their cameras for 3D projects.

So in the end – if you’re going to shoot a professional quality 3D project, be it a commercial, documentary, feature, or anything worthwhile in 3D for that matter, you’re going to need close-ups and wide, establishing shots, right? Right. Therefore you’re going to need a beam-splitter and side-by-side rig in addition to your Panasonic A1. I say, save your money and buy a beam-splitter and side-by-side and save the $21K. But then again, I’m biased.

About the 3D Film Factory

The 3D Film Factory is the leader in professional, affordable 3D camera systems and real-time 3D viewing solutions. In addition we provide a host of 3D production services “for hire�, including 3D camera rigs, 3D viewing systems, stereographers, and 3D post, as well as, monthly 3D training workshops. Former clients include ESPN, NASA, Disney, HD Cinema, Pinewood Studios, and Discovery. For more information visit