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Panasonic are ready to take on the high-end market with the new Varicam

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 12:00 AM

Patrick van Weeren, Production Specialist at WTS and a cameraman with almost 20 years experience, is getting excited about the imminent arrival of the Varicam. Is Panasonic ready to challenge the Arri Alexa's look?         

Panasonic Varicam 35 at IBC 2014

Panasonic’s Varicam is back on the scene after being king of the 720p video market in the early 2000s – and it’s looking to usurp its rivals to the high-end market crown.

Perhaps we can even hope that the new Varicam 35 and HS will prove as interesting as their predecessor, the SDX9000, was when it was personally responsible for shaking up a market that had been dominated by Sony and Ikegami!

More than a decade later, Panasonic is going head-to-head with Sony’s CineAlta series and even Arri’s Alexa. Panasonic and Sony, the two video giants from Japan, have finally gained momentum since the large sensor market exploded with the advent of RED and DSLR filming.  With Arri, Canon and even new manufacturers on the scene, Panasonic have really had to catch up...

True to their Varicam name and history, they’ve approached the challenge with both a high-speed 240 fps HD-camera and the new 4K camera, the Varicam 35.

Here’s the good news for cameramen and cinematographers: they’ve added some refreshing views on what a 4K camera should be.

Varicam 35: First Look from Varicam on Vimeo.

Lenses used:

  • Main lenses: Leica Summilux
  • Helicopter shoot: Fujinon 18-85mm
  • Product shots: Leica Macro 90mm, 40mm; Arri Macro 24mm 
  • Closet on stage: Leica 40mm
  • Aeroplanes: Cooke 25-250mm
  • Nature shoot and MLS football game: Fujinon 85-300mm
  • Nature shoot: also used a Canon 70-200mm, Arri Master prime 12mm

Panasonic’s Varicam has always been more popular in the US than Europe – though there was something of a shift when wildlife and documentary filmmakers started to understand the beauty of slow motion and the quality of the older Varicam tape-based systems (1-60fps). Top cameramen such as Martin Colbeck, Max Hug Williams and Gavin Thurston used the Varicam on major nature and wildlife documentary series such as BBC’s Planet Earth.

So is now the moment that Panasonic buck the trend? I’ve taken a look at the key features of the Varicam, to see if they all add up to a serious challenge to Sony’s European reign.

Control Panel

Panasonic Varicam 35 control panel

Since the full-frame sensors came to the market, a whole host of new cameras have appeared with peculiar interfaces and layouts – switches and buttons in strange and surprising places, even near the operator’s ear, or on the back of the unit. With the Varicam, Panasonic gives you the option to move the control panel wherever you like. It’s easily changeable from the operator’s side to the ‘dummy’ side, for instance, when working with a camera-assistant. Or it can be handheld, attached simply with a cable.  And just in case we get it all mixed up, the viewfinder can be moved to the other side as well, and it will automatically rotate the image, just like the classic Aaton and Arriflex 16mm cameras used to do.

Umbilical Cord

Like Arri’s Alexa M, the Varicam 35 and Varicam HS allow the recorder to be separated from the camera head via an umbilical cord up to 20 metres long. This could be handy when you’re shooting in small places or using a jib. Another reason for wanting to do this would be so that you could use two cameras for a 3D set-up.

On-set colour grading

Panasonic has developed its own V-Log and V-Gamut, which are supposedly  “better than film”. The first generation Varicam won filmmakers round with its ‘look’, so Panasonics claim is certainly one to whet the appetite.  The camera‘s dynamic range is said to be 14 stops. Naturally, I will test-drive the camera as soon as we have a model available! Another claim from Panasonic which I’d like to see for myself is that the 14-stop dynamic range is wider than just on the native ISO (which seems to be the case with many competitors). According to Panasonic it will be possible on both 800 and 5000 – and maybe even some more.

Panasonic Varicam 35 controls

Just like the S-Log and C-Log, Panasonic’s V-Log gives the user the opportunity to use LUTs. Thanks to the Varicam’s ability to simultaneously record two streams, you could record 4K/UHD with a Log and an HD proxy with a baked-in LUT (e.g. Rec 709). Of course you can use LUTs on monitor outputs if needed without recording them.

Filters

The camera comes with a built in optical low pass, UV and IR filter, combined in one filter in front of the sensor. To prevent dusting off ND filters, they are built in an ENG-style rotary system (Clear, ND.6, ND1.2, ND1.8).

Frame rates for the 4K version are from 1-120fps and adjustable while recording (after a firmware upgrade).

Recorder/Cards and Codex™

Panasonic Varicam 35 card slots

The recorder has four memory card slots. The two express P2 slots will fit classic P2 cards as well, but it's the express P2 cards that are capable of recording the demanding 4K codecs and high speed. Two micro P2 cards can record HD or 2K proxies simultaneously.

To give the user more options, Panasonic have joined forces with Codex™ to build a recorder that fits within the streamlined footprint of the unit and can be connected without the need for cables/wires.

Viewfinder

Panasonic Varicam 35viewfinder

Like many other manufacturers in the high-end sector, Panasonic have ended up deciding to give us cameramen a 1280x720 OLED viewfinder. It’s still tricky for judging focus in a 4K setup – but it seems to be a technical limitation that most manufacturers can’t overcome.

Lucky for Panasonic users then that, apart from the regular dioptre to adjust for the eye of the operator, there’s a second ‘dioptre-style’ dial that will give allow you to get a closer look at the image to help critical focus.

Varicam HS

The 1080 HD version in the new line-up goes up to 240 fps with a standard 2/3-inch based lens mount. Its impact will mostly be in the fields of sports and nature documentaries. Using the classic three-sensor MOS system with a Prism, the 2/3-inch optics from the broadcast industry can be used easily. Most exciting about this set-up for me is the possibility of ramping the fps while recording – giving us the option to do this in-camera like we used to be able to do back in the days of film. The Varicam 35 and HS can work with the same recorder, saving you buying two complete camcorders. When you need 2/3 inch or 4K – PL, you can make the choice on the spot without having to invest in two complete systems.

Panasonic Varicam 35 at IBC 2014

The Panasonic Look

If Panasonic can get the new Varicam up to the level of the Alexa, it might become a really interesting battle. Both cameras are known for their ‘look’. When combined with nice glass, the Alexa is unbeatable at the moment – but so was the Varicam 720 in the ‘old days’.

If Panasonic can bring their own look to the market, this might be more important than any of the other specs. It might bring us back to the days when cameraman chose film stock from Kodak or Fuji for a specific look. Today they might choose between an Alexa or the Varicam. RED and Sony will have to watch this race closely.

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