D.W. Leitner has more than 50 directing, producing, and cinematography credits in feature-length documentary and dramatic films produced in the U.S. and abroad.

22: Mondo NAB ’10, Large Sensors

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Upcoming Sony consumer camcorder with interchangeable E-mount lenses and 14.2 megapixel CMOS sensor.
CLICK PHOTOS TO ENLARGE
NAB photos by D. W. Leitner unless otherwise indicated

Announced just yesterday, May 11, half the world already knows about the NEX-5, Sony’s impossibly slim new HDSLR (in-depth review here) and upcoming AVCHD consumer camcorder based on the same sensor and lenses.
Such is the contagion of the Internet that nothing is bottled for long, as Apple recently experienced to its chagrin. Heated rumors of affordable (no bank loan) large-sensor HD camcorders from Canon, Panasonic, and Sony have been circulating for months. While much of this speculation has been dodgy, Panasonic and Sony did fan the flames at NAB with sneak-peaks at nonfunctional mock-ups of large-sensor camcorders.

At its traditional press conference on Sunday prior to the exhibition opening, Panasonic surprised journalists with the AG-AF100 (photo below). It will feature a 12.1 megapixel Micro Four Thirds CMOS sensor and lens mount, with capture to SD cards using AVCHD compression (24mbps max). Available by end of 2010, it’s expected to sell for about $6,000 without a lens.

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Prototype of Panasonic AG-AF100 under glass at NAB.

(Micro Four Thirds is a 2008 standard launched by Olympus and Panasonic to shrink DSLRs. It entails a smaller sensor than full-size DSLRs.)

Power requirements are suggested by the fact the AF100 will use the same battery as an AG-HVX200. In fact, the AF100 looks a lot like an HVX200 with the lens section sawed off. Presumably the AF100’s 12.1 megapixel CMOS sensor is the same as that in the DMC-GHI, Panasonic’s popular Micro Four Thirds HDSLR ($1,900 sans lens).

I say “presumably� because neither design nor fabrication of large CMOS sensors is trivial or cheap. In contrast to CCDs, however, CMOS sensors are versatile and readily repurposed. To spread large-sensor development costs across as many products as possible is business common sense.

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What did Sony VP Alec Shapiro have up his sleeve at Sony’s NAB press conference?

Which is why the mysterious prototype (photo at right) unveiled by Sony Senior Vice President Alec Shapiro at Sony’s NAB press conference (immediately following Panasonic’s) surely uses the same 14.2 megapixel CMOS sensor as the NEX-5 HDSLR and unnamed AVCHD camcorder above. Sony said this concept camera, which resembles a Sony HVR-Z7 on steroids, would feature a PL mount and use XDCAM EX MPEG-2 compression. More than that, their lips were sealed.

The PL mount is significant, made practicable by Sony’s choice of APS-C (Advanced Photo System type-C) sensor size. (See last week’s column about the flood of new PL-mount lenses at NAB.). APS-C, while smaller than legacy 35mm still film, is typically 30-40% larger than Micro Four Thirds (depending on manufacturer), virtually a match to 35mm motion picture film. Compare the size of the Exmor CMOS sensor in the NEX-5, 23.4mm x 15.6mm, to 35mm standard Academy aperture, 22mm x 16mm.

The new E mount announced yesterday for the Sony NEX-5—evident also in the depiction of the consumer camcorder–has a shallow 18mm flange focal distance (FFD). Micro Four Thirds FFD, likewise, is 20mm. Almost all prior lens mounts, still and motion picture, have FFD’s considerably deeper than these two. Don’t be surprised by the coming avalanche of inexpensive E-mount and Micro Four Thirds adapters made possible by this circumstance.

Much as last year, HDSLRs were in evidence everywhere at NAB. A year ago, however, HDSLRs were a novelty, flaunted by young bucks on the show floor as a badge of rebellion. This year HDSLRs occupied the mainstream, enlisted at countless booths to demonstrate new lenses, support, and lighting.

This is disruptive technology as kudzu, blanketing the landscape at an alarming rate. As anyone paying attention to such things already knows, the last episode of this season’s House on Fox was shot entirely with Canon EOS 5D Mark II HDSLRs.

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PL-mount conversion of Canon EOS 7D introduced by BandPro at NAB.

So it must be noted that that virtually all HDSLRs at NAB were Canons. I saw no Nikons, and while Panasonic GH1s certainly must have circulated, I didn’t come across them. I did see lots of Canon EOS 5Ds, like last year, and the newer Canon EOS models introduced last fall, the 7D (APS-C like the Sony NEX-5) and 1D Mark IV.

At Canon’s booth, directors and DPs experimenting with HDSLRs shared their experiences and screened their work. Particularly impressive was the short film shot at night under streetlights by Vincent Laforet to tout low-light capabilities of the 1D Mark IV. I’ve seen it before, streamed from the Internet, but it was considerably more convincing on the big screen at Canon’s booth, as was Vincent in person.

For those hankering to convert their Canon 5Ds and 7Ds to PL, Illya Friedman of Hot Rod cameras wandered the show with a sample of his new 5D PL-mount conversion. I happened to sit next to industry legend Joe Dunton of Joe Dunton Cameras Ltd. at Saturday’s Digital Cinema Summit (this year’s topic: 3D), and handed him a Hot Rodded PL-mount 5D for his inspection. A thin smile crept across his face as he turned it over in his hands, fingered the controls, and focused the 50mm Zeiss Compact Prime. That’s Joe’s version of two thumbs up. (For more about 7D conversions by Illya Friedman and Hot Rod Cameras, see my column, “HDSLR Rebellion in Park City.�)

BandPro announced their own 7D conversion, performed by Munich rental house FGV Schmidle. Schmidle’s modification involves removing the 7D’s mirror and optical viewfinder and installing a single-piece steel chassis that combines a PL mount, 3/8-in. threaded mounting bracket, and fortified surface for remounting the APS-C sensor. A 3-pin Lemo connector at the rear of the 7D adds start/stop for a remote camera control. Because this extensive modification obliterates Canon’s warranty, BandPro includes a one-year warranty of its own.

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Not just the beer. Solid as a tank, a working RED EPIC felt good in my hands at CML’s bash.
Photo by Mark Forman

RED didn’t have a booth this year, but as mentioned in last week’s column on lenses, I encountered RED’s founder, Jim Jannard, and a couple of working EPICs at CML’s beer/camera bash. EPIC is RED’s long-awaited second camera and introduces a new 5K sensor. I had seen prototypes and felt a lingering skepticism towards its heft and odd boxy shape—but I’ve got to admit, in the hands, it felt great.

EPIC is endlessly modular and the rig I test-drove in the boozy gloom of the Greek Isles lounge was stripped down to the basics. It resembled something like a Mamiya medium-format camera with attached handgrip joined to a compact RED 17-50mm zoom and sharp LCD viewing screen. Perhaps because of its solid build, it felt steady and inertial, and I flat-out enjoyed handholding it. (In real life I’ve done decades worth of handheld.) No one was more surprised than me at this revelation.

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EPIC on the shoulder.

EPIC’s modularity was further demonstrated in a working shoulder-mount version (photo left). Despite appearances, it balanced gracefully and lightly. If there’s a whirring fan anywhere in this camera, I didn’t hear it. EPIC appears to raise RED to entirely new levels, image-wise and ergonomically.

Speaking of renown balance, Aaton revealed details of their forthcoming Digital Cinema back for the 2-perf/3-perf 35mm Penelope, which should be available by this time next year. As expected, it displaces Penelope’s film magazine, roughly the same size and shape. The stunning news is that it will contain a 3-perf Super-35 sized Dalsa CCD sensor.

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What Dalsa Origin should have been? Aaton Penelope with Digital Cinema back containing 3-perf Super-35 sized Dalsa CCD sensor.

Aaton says the Dalsa sensor will provide “beyond 4K� resolution and offer dual sensitivies of 100 and 800 ISO. Images will be captured as uncompressed RAW DPX files or compressed DNxHD files to a pack of four RAIDed 2.5-in. solid state drives. Penelope’s optical viewfinder and spinning mirror will comprise a mechanical global shutter, as in the original Dalsa Origin. Watching Mitch Gross of Abel Cine Tech expound upon Penelope’s attributes, it was hard avoiding the sad thought that this is the camera Origin should have been in the first place.

As anyone following digital cinema cameras at NAB 2010 knows, the biggest splash of all was ARRI’s introduction of the Alexa. Five years of experience with the D-20 and D-21 are distilled in the Alexa and it shows.

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How the operator can see beyond the frameline: ALEV III CMOS sensor in ARRI Alexa sees 3168 x 1782 pixels but uses only center section of 3072 x 1728 for capture to RAW.

What didn’t ARRI get right? A new Super-35 sized CMOS sensor with base 800 ISO and 13.5-stop dynamic range (similar to what RED and Aaton claim, by the way), native capture to QuickTime using Apple ProRes 422 HQ or ProRes 4444 to a pair of Sony SxS flash cards, simultaneous output of uncompressed HD or ARRIRAW files, a stunning 1280×720 LCOS color viewfinder with overscan to see beyond the recorded frame, an Exchangeable Lens Mount system for use of PL, Panavision, Canon and Nikon lenses, electronic control modules that detach from the camera body for future upgrading, even the promise of a spinning-mirror optical viewing system as an option.

Available in June and priced at 45,000 Euros for the basic body ($57,000 at today’s rates), Alexa is poised to take over as a television workhorse. It’s hardy build will appeal to rental houses everywhere. Rental houses may also wish to check out Phantom’s new Flex, due in July. It achieves frame rates up to 2,800 fps at 1920×1080—a perfect complement to Alexa’s 60 fps.

The first miniaturized movie format targeting the amateur, 16mm, arrived from Kodak in 1923 and was promptly branded “substandard� by the industry. Ten years into the 21st Century, the amateur/professional divide has blurred and affordable large-sensor moving image cameras are retaking lost ground. Ninety years makes a difference.

How much more exciting can this get? Stay tuned. NAB 2011 is going to be fireworks.

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About

Leitner's Cinematography Corner is a new destination for reviews, blogs, notes, and opinions from longtime millimeter Contributing Editor David Leitner, who also happens to be an award-winning director, producer, and cinematographer of independent films showcased at film festivals like Sundance and Berlin. Leitner argues that since everything's now digital outside of cameras and projectors that shuttle celluloid, "digital" has lost its cachet. Leitner's Cinematography Corner will instead frame innovations in production gear as the latest advances in the long march of motion-picture technology, well over a century old. And never lose sight of the fact that technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

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