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.

Shoot Review: Sony PMW-500

Sony PMW-500

Operator side of new PMW-500.
CLICK PHOTOS TO ENLARGE

A couple weeks ago at the first Vimeo Festival—a showcase of digital shorts based in the curvy, white-glass Frank Gehry headquarters of Vimeo’s parent company, IAC/InterActiveCorp, run by Barry Diller and trendily located near Manhattan’s Chelsea art galleries—I moderated a keynote discussion between two of the brightest stars in the HDSLR firmament, Vincent Laforet and Philip Bloom.

The discussion was entitled “DSLR Cinema: The new dawn of filmmaking?” and took place in the IAC Building’s narrow, futuristic lobby. Behind the dais were multiple images of the three of us on a 118 foot-long video wall reminiscent of Blade Runner, while seated before us were several hundred young filmmakers, clearly evangelical in their fervor for all things HDSLR.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that inexpensive HDSLRs—principally Canon’s EOS flying wedge of 5D Mark II, 1D Mark IV, and 7D—have rapidly seized a respectable chunk of short-form production: commercials, industrials, music videos, and all manner of indie projects, especially short films.

I took advantage of the occasion to remind the audience that 35mm-size sensors are not nirvana, that in many situations smaller sensors are preferable. Shallow depth of field can be a wonderful tool in portraiture but can wreak havoc in trying to follow a fast-moving documentary subject.

In the exchange with Vincent and Philip and a talk I gave later that afternoon—”Filmmaking and Large Sensor Cameras: What’s Next?”—I underscored the practical fact that going forward, small-sensor and large-sensor camcorders will coexist—neither will supplant the other—with each type exploited for its intrinsic advantages.

I showed stills from Citizen Kane, illustrating the point that “deep focus” is equally cinematic (once exceedingly difficult to achieve). I posed a hypothetical: what if—as was indeed the case with motion picture film, where 35mm preceded 16mm and 8mm—35mm-size sensors had been developed at the outset, and only lately had 2/3in.,1/2in, and 1/3in. sensors arrived as miracles of miniaturization, like the iPhone? Wouldn’t we be celebrating small sensors as a liberating breakthrough?

Sony PMW-500

Almost indistinguishable from a PMW-350. (Clue: Power HAD FX.)

Sony’s latest XDCAM HD family member, the PMW-500, achieves exactly what I think a tapeless, shoulder-mount 2/3in. camcorder must deliver in 2010 at the brink of the large-sensor era: an integration of low weight and power consumption with high-performance sensors and long record times.

In fact the PMW-500 is a mash-up of an XDCAM Professional Disc series PDW-700/F800 front end (my PDW-F800 review here) and an XDCAM EX PMW-350 rear end (PMW-350 review here). It essentially outfits the short-bodied PMW-350—the 2/3-in. 3-CMOS XDCAM EX camcorder Sony introduced a year ago—with top-shelf, 1920×1080 progressive Power HAD FX CCD sensors and high-end compression from the Professional Disc format.

In other words, 50Mbps 4:2:2 MPEG-2 recorded to SxS cards for the first time.

As in case of the Professional Disc format, the PMW-500 uses MXF wrappers for clips captured to 50Mbps 4:2:2 MPEG-2 and 35Mbps 4:2:0 MPEG-2.

Alternatively, as in the case of EX camcorders like the PMW-EX1 and EX3, the PMW-500 also uses MP4 wrappers for clips captured to 35Mbps 4:2:0 MPEG-2 and HDV-equivalent 25Mbps 4:2:0.

Optional is MXF-wrapped SD video in the form of IMX 50Mbps 4:2:2 MPEG-2 and DVCAM, as well as MP4-wrapped DVCAM.

Like I said, a mash-up.

By eye, a PMW-500 is indistinguishable from a PMW-350. Body only (sans lens, viewfinder, mic, battery) weighs 7lbs. 15oz., hardly half a pound more than the lightweight PMW-350. While the PMW-500′s 29W power consumption (body only) exceeds the PMW-350′s 18W, it nevertheless marks a practical advance over the 40-watt average of the PDW-700/F800 series. Any way you slice it, impressive for a Full HD 3-CCD 2/3in. camcorder.

The PMW-500 incorporates all recent Sony pro camcorder capabilities, including standard 1080p and 720p frame rates, undercranking and overcranking, 15-second cache recording, time-lapse, slow shutter and frame accumulation, 2X focus magnification while shooting, Automatic Lens Aberration Compensation, glass ND filters with electronic CC filters for white balance, and the four HyperGamma curves common to all Sony CineAlta camcorders. Four channels of uncompressed 24-bit, 48kHz audio are provided.

sbs-64g1a-card.png

New 64GB SxS-1 card equals 2 hours of 50Mbps HD422 or 4 hours of HDV equivalent.

The PMW-500′s dual SxS slots accept Sony’s just-introduced new generation of SxS-1 cards, featuring a 64GB card (SBS-64G1A, $900 list) that can capture 2 hours of 50Mbps HD422 MXF or 4 hours in 25Mbps mode. There’s also a new 32GB SxS-1 card (SBS-32G1A, $600).

Both new SxS-1 cards boast a 50-percent-faster 1.2Gbps maximum transfer speed compared to the 800Mbps of the blue SxS PRO and original SxS-1 cards. This may hasten on-location backups (other factors are involved, your mileage may vary).

They share the orange color of the earlier SxS-1 design but bear a distinctive red stripe on both their label and protective box. Note that with the exception of the recent PMW-320, earlier XDCAM EX camcorders will require firmware updates to use the new SxS-1 cards. A compatibility chart can be found here.

SBS-64G1A

Case for new, faster series of SxS-1 cards features distinctive red stripe.

Sony’s XDCAM HD422 PMW-500 is a racehorse disguised as a durable workhorse. Its base price of $27,900 (even B&H; I checked) is not the pocket change of an HDSLR, but its seasoned underlying technologies won’t be different a year from now either.

Available early November.

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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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