Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Reading the Runes at BVE. Canon XF100, Panasonic AF101 cameras.

Maybe it's wishful thinking, but there seemed more of a buzz about the BVE trade show (Earls Court last week) than the last couple of years.  Certainly more new cameras, and a wider range of formats than in recent years, and on the face of it, more for your money in terms of picture quality.

I'm not a great fan of exhibitions, with the crowds of wannabe film-makers, overpriced catering and demos too slick to be convincing - but this year's BVE started well for me, with a piece of good luck.   By happenstance, the first familiar face I saw was Dr Alan Roberts, the man who knows Everything about cameras.   Alan tells me that the talk he debuted for us in Bristol (Things we've forgotten we knew) has now been through 30 or so performances.   Given that he changes the talk each time based on instant feedback, it's probably about time he came back to us;  like Nelson's Victory, few of the original timbers now remain.

Alan's top tips for me to see were the new Canon and Panasonic cameras, previously announced but now shipping - the Canon XF 100/105, which is a smaller, cheaper, 1-chip version of the XF300/305 models, with an impressive set of features and picture quality, and the Panasonic AF101, the 4/3" sensor 'digital cinematography' kit with interchangeable lenses.  If you knew where to look (such as under the big 'Canon' sign) both models were in evidence at the show, and I'm certain we're going to be seeing their footage everywhere, soon.

Which means, oh goody, time to start revisiting the techy details of formats, codecs, and workflows.  Whether it's the Canon, with mpeg-2 files on CF cards (as MXF format) or Panny with AVCHD files on SDHC cards (or for that matter, at a higher price, the new Sony F3 XDCAM on SxS cards), the recordings are files, no tape anymore.   And obviously, they're not particularly compatible.  Add to this the abundance of shooting formats (frame rate, HD field size, i or p) and it's going to be an 'interesting' couple of years in the cutting room.

Also debuting (but needing a little hunting out) was the 'Ninja' external hard-drive recorder, a neat box no bigger than the standard LCD camera-mounted monitor, which records in ProRes (you choose the flavour) from the HDMI output.

That was one of many extras available to hang onto the camera - and given the smaller form-factor of these new cameras, it's my first prediction that this year will see more and more of us turn to shoulder support / matte box / rail systems just to keep the equipment in a workable, portable form.   Plenty of those too at the show.  But, to some extent, compatible with each other!

After a week's reflection, mostly taken up with reading the brochures and mags I picked up at the show, (and then working out what I didn't see at the time), my main impression is that we've been here before  - roughly 15 years before, when the first of the DV cameras to hit broadcast TV (the Sony VX1000) began to make its mark.   The big deal then was how affordable 'high quality' DV pictures could be, at a price point (I think) of around £1500 - £2000, and how this would revolutionise productions.   Didn't quite happen except for docu-soaps on TV, but look what you get for your money now:  full HD, widescreen.  And (depending on how you correct for inflation) £1500 1995 pounds are the equivalent of some £2250 in 2011.  Hard drives are insanely cheap (1TB for under £40 if you buy the bare drive) and we all know about how the cost of editing hardware and software has dropped (compared to 1995!). 

My next prediction - this is to be the year when HD tapeless production goes mainstream.   Tapes for big drama and features, maybe, files for the rest of us.  Backwaters of broadcasting will stick with the expensive hardware they've got (better the devil you know) but for the rest of us, we can do better, smaller, cheaper:  so brush up your knowledge of standards, codecs, file formats, backups, transfers and yes metadata.  If you don't have an archive strategy, get one, even if it's just burning to DVD-ROM.  If you don't have media browsing / cataloging, get some.  And keep an eye to the future.   What comes next is cloud-based, collaborative, maybe even platform-agnostic.   But that's for another day.

PS.   There were quite a few 3D kits out there too.   So far, not in my living room.