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What happened in Las Vegas? A cameraman's review of NAB2015 - Cinema and production cameras

Thursday, April 23, 2015 12:00 AM

A week in Las Vegas may sound like pure hedonism, but NAB 2015 was a case of nose to the grindstone for WTS production specialist and cameraman Patrick van Weeren as he hunted down the very latest cameras and lenses – as well as some gadgets – for broadcast and production. In the first instalment of his post-NAB blog, he focuses on cinema and production cameras of all shapes and sizes.

NAB 2015: Las Vegas skyline at night

In the notorious playground that is Las Vegas, NAB is always about manufacturers showing off their latest toys – and unsurprisingly they all had one thing in common when it came to cameras: 4K.

NAB2015: Panasonic VariCam 35with V-RAW extension unit

Panasonic's Varicam 35 gets even better

Panasonic may have been the last of the big names to the professional 4K camera party with its Varicam 35, but it was definitely worth the wait – and now it’s got even better. They mentioned at last year's launch that they would have a RAW on-board recorder available and here it is: working with Codex, they’ve come up with the V-RAW extension unit.

Upgrade 3.0 is also planned for the end of April, giving the Varicam ProRes 422 HQ (HD up to 120fps), 2K/HD in 4:4:4 AVC-I, false colour, noise reduction switching, and low ISO support (640, 500, 400, 320, 250 and 200). There will also be the option for adjustable fan speeds – the fan can be relatively noisy and the demand from drama cameramen/sound engineers was to give them more control over the speed, and thus the noise.

Panasonic is still considering the question of Cooke /i data support, but for the time being, LDS support will be available with selected lenses.

The SUB recording will be able to record variable frame rates, and interval/one-shot and cache recording of three seconds will be available – something which had been specifically requested by wildlife cameramen.

NAB2015: Panasonic AG-DVX200 4K large-sensor hand-held camcorder

As if playing catch-up, Panasonic also unveiled a veritable 4K family, with three new 4K cameras spanning the full spectrum from cinema to studio. Have a read of our earlier blog for a more detailed look at these cameras, including the Panasonic AG-DVX200 4K large-sensor hand-held camcorder, pictured above.

Smaller is better for Blackmagic Design's new URSA Mini

With their high specs and utterly out-there interfaces, Blackmagic Design has really shaken up the video camera market. It's almost as if they are a fashion designer trying to break into the haute couture while dealing with prêt-à-porter prices. Nevertheless, their Pocket Cinema Camera exhibited a somewhat more sensible spec, and they've worked on that concept with two new products: the Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera, for use with small drones, and an Ursa Mini, which looks to have a better ergonomic design than its larger sibling.

NAB2015: Blackmagic URSA Mini 4K/4.6K camera

It was this URSA Mini that really stood out from the crowd of 38 new products from the Australian manufacturer – finally, a Blackmagic camera that looks like a camera! Users have the choice of purchasing it either with a 4K sensor or a new 4.6K (4608 x 2592) sensor (which will also be available in the larger URSA).

Available in both PL and EF mounts, the 4.6K sensor can be switched from rolling to global shutter and offers 15 stops of dynamic range in the rolling shutter mode, with slightly fewer in the global shutter mode.

The spec sheet says that it gives you Dual C-FAST 2.0 memory card recording (hot-swappable), 12G-SDI bandwidth (eight times faster than HD-SDI and up to 60fps UHD), a maximum 30fps (global shutter)/60fps (rolling shutter) in 4K, 60fps in UHD and 120fps in HD and a range of codecs including CinemaDNG RAW 3:1, 4:1, and Apple ProRes 444, 422, XQ, HQ, LT and Proxy.

The URSA Mini also offers Time Code and Reference inputs, XLR connectors for audio, a LANC control port, SDI out, and 4-pin XLR 12v in/out. And it utilises a VCT baseplate which most people will recognise and use.

With the cheapest option, the 4K EF-mount version, costing £2,149, Blackmagic have set their pricing structure for the URSA Mini very competitively. But potential buyers should note that the camera comes without a shoulder mount, V-lock battery plate or EVF 1080 OLED viewfinder, all of which are optional parts.

NAB2015: Blackmagic URSA HD viewfinder

Speaking of the 1080 OLED viewfinder, although the spec sheet tells us that it's for the URSA and URSA Mini, the fact that it's based on an SDI output suggests that it may be possible to use it on other manufacturers' cameras, which would definitely appeal to the masses. So there's the potential for Blackmagic to intrude on the market of the Alphatron, Cineroid and Zacuto EVFs, with a higher resolution screen at a competitive price. Of course, we will have to wait until the first real-life review to see if using the viewfinder on a wide range of cameras is actually an option.

AJA gives CION an upgrade

NAB2015: AJA CION 4K/UHD production camera

Blackmagic competitor AJA has a fine reputation for its post-production expertise, but it is only now, one year on from the fanfare which heralded the CION's announcement at NAB 2014, that we can begin to judge their 4K camera-building expertise.

We’re seeing steady upgrades and improvements being made to the CION to iron out some early bugs. The recent second firmware update is an essential one, and now AJA has taken advantage of NAB to announce a further firmware update, v1.2.0.46, coupled with some post- accessories.

V1.2.0.46 will incorporate, amongst other features, improved white balance performance in overexposed areas, improved IRE levels for various Exposure Index, gamma and colour correction combinations, video LUT monitoring, auto white balance, and expanded RGB output on SDI.

Recognising the CION's introduction to the 4K market, both Convergent Design and Atomos have added AJA RAW to their respective Odyssey 7Q+ and Shogun external recorders.

Arri's Alexa Mini looks set to punch above its weight

NAB2015: Arri Alexa Mini 4K camera

On the 4K front, Arri has upgraded its complete Alexa family to 4K with the SXT series - and it was a necessary upgrade, as their competitors had hurdled the 2K standard that was Arri's first port of call.

Part of that Alexa family, of course, is the Alexa Mini, which weighs in at a mere 2.3kg. Although it was announced at BVE in London, NAB was for many the first time to see it in real life. Knowing Arri it is solidly built, but the challenge for them in developing the camera was knowing what they needed to keep and what they could jettison.

Step one: no viewfinder. You can use the Amira viewfinder (which has had an optical upgrade) if you need to, but for most drone, Steadicam and gimbal uses this is - remarkably - not an essential requirement.

Arri already had receivers integrated into some Alexa cameras, and this feature is preserved in the Mini. By using the ARRI WCU-4 hand-held control unit (below) you can connect the lens motors directly to the PL mount, enabling focus, zoom and iris control.

NAB2015: Arri Alexa Mini 4K camera with WCU-4 handheld control unit

ND filters are built in and remotely operated if needed. The sensor can be selected in 4:3 mode (only in 2K Cine, 2.8K, 2.6K (cropped)) for anamorphic use, and 16:9 mode for regular widescreen usage in HD, 2K cine, 3.2K, 4K, UHD and 2.8K Arri Raw.

In HD ProRes 422, the Alexa Mini can go up to 200fps internally on CF Fast 2.0 cards. The Codex external recorder will be able to boost the 2.8K Arri Raw from max 30fps internally to 120 fps externally and, in the case of 4:3 sensor use, up to 60 fps.

Canon offers autofocus for 4K with the C300 Mark II

NAB2015: Canon  EOS C300 Mark II 4K camera

The Canon C300 Mark II was one of the main announcements at NAB and worth reading about in its own blog. The C300 Mark II not only brings the popular C300 into the spec range of the Sony FS7 in terms of 4K/120fps capabilities, it also actually has more features in the camera and should be compared with the FS7 and XDCA-FS7 adaptor combined. It also adds sensor-based auto-focus systems, Canon's pride and joy from their stills background.

RED Weapon takes aim at 8K

NAB2015: RED Weapon Dragon 6K/8K camera

RED showed up with an impressively lit booth and, in the face of the challenge from the Alexa Mini, really pushed the boat out in showing its own small-footprint, lightweight camera, the Weapon Dragon. The booth was armed with a veritable arsenal of small grip, drones and sliders, all designed to showcase the advantages of the Weapon’s footprint, as well as its versatility in both film and photographic setup.

The Weapon might have a small footprint, but it is with great strides that, come late 2015, it will march into the 8K world. Few cameras – the Sony F65 among them – are competing at this rarefied level in the resolution race.

Where the 8K Weapon does not yield an advantage – at least as yet – is in the broadcast world. The option to use 4K cut-outs in a live environment, is not available (for now). For me, an 8K camera backed by RED’s know-how would be ideal for a 4K or UHD broadcast setup. Maybe next year. Nevertheless, RED, as always, has moved the bar up a notch.

Look out for our forthcoming blogs as Patrick continues his round-up of NAB2015. Next up: Lenses.

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