This Little Camera is Amazing!!!
In late November of 2006 I was attending an XDcam-HD training session at Sony, and got to take a quick look at their (at that time) not-yet-released 3 x 1/4” CMOS-chip camera. Physically, it looked a lot like my PD-150, and I was initially a little skeptical. After all, I had been looking at incredibly beautiful footage from the XDcam HD cameras for three days, and was not really ready to give this ‘little guy’ a lot of attention. I did get to see a nice green screen demo done with it, and found myself impressed in spite of myself.
Flash forward a month. I’d been contacted by music documentarian Robert Mugge about being one of the DP’s on his next project - a 2 hour documentary about a week-long ‘blues cruise’ in the Caribbean. My first suggestion was to go with four of the XDcam-HD cameras, but after discussion (and careful analysis of the budget) we decided that HDV would have to be our format of choice. Bob was already quite comfortable with HDV, since our previous collaboration - New Orleans Music in Exile - had been taped with the Sony Z1 cameras, broadcast in HD on the Starz networks, and had received a number of kudos for both the look and the content of the finished film.
We did spend about 5 minutes considering the Panasonic HVX-200, but immediately realized that would have been a huge mistake. During the week of concerts, we expected each camera to shoot anywhere between 30 and 50 hours of material, making P2 cards both prohibitive and unrealistic, and shooting 7 hours of handheld in a day would definitely produce ‘toaster-arm.’ In addition, the low pixel resolution of the Panasonic chip seemed mushy, even compared to the Z1. Plus Bob had worked all the bugs out of his HDV/ Final Cut system workflow on the last film, and was ready for some smooth sailing on the new one.
Our initial thought was to again use multiple Z1’s for the shoot. Their versatility, reliability and high quality images were definitely in their favor. Plus they match very nicely from camera to camera. Only one problem stuck in my mind -- I knew that I wanted to have a camera that had a longer zoom - to be able to get nice close shots from distances of over 100 feet from behind the audience. I briefly thought about the Canon H1, but felt that its look would be too hard to match with the Z1, especially since I knew we’d be bouncing amongst at least five main locations, each with its own lighting issues.
Deciding to try the V1
I knew the V1 was about to be released. I called EC Video (my normal Sony dealer) to try to get an exact availability date, but ended up with more detailed info from the people at Sony. I called my co-DP Christopher Li and we talked about the possible issues with trying a new camera, and its pluses and minuses for the shoot. Eventually we decided that if I could obtain one in time to properly test and evaluate it before the shoot (with time built in to replace it with another Z1 if necessary) that it was worth giving it a try.
So I bought one.....
The Initial Tests
Of course for my first tests I tried all the formats----
-Shot close-ups of a rotating cieling fan - hand held - to check for motion artifacts
-Extreme close-up of a fly on a screen door, slowly zooming in and out to check for aliasing in the pattern of the screen (and checking for sharpness and the ability to see every wire in the screen..
-Panning with moving cars, as well as some fast ‘un-motivated’ movement.
-Shot the same sequence for each record format (though the fly didn’t stick around for the whole test.)
So much better than I expected.
The ‘feel’ of the image was far smoother and cleaner than I had imagined, plus the color had a pleasant richness to it.
Aliasing and moire were not an issue, even with the finest details of the screen door. In exterior wide shots, every twig on a distant tree was sharp. Gain was rather clean not only at +3, but also at +6. 24p looks fabulous, a light year ahead of the ‘fabricated pulldown’ of the Z1 in Cineferame 24 mode.
The downside - image ‘lean’ on rapid pans (produced by the true progressive scanning of the chip) seemed like it would be an issue if I were shooting car races, but for most of my needs it would be a non-issue.
This is not the world’s fastest chip. Of course that’s to be expected when you consider that exposure is a combination of chip ‘chemistry’ and pixel area -- the small chip size combined with its high pixel density makes for a slower imager - ie one that requires more light.
The bottom line is -- give it enough light and it looks incredible!!! Kudos to Sony for not deciding that a softer image (fewer pixels) was ‘good enough’ (the way I’ve read that Panasonic did with the HVX-200.) For my money, the image from the V1 blows the socks off the HVX-200 every way imaginable!
First Professional Shoot
A few days before the Blues Cruise shoot was to begin, I was working on a project for a major accounting firm. We were using a ‘big’ NTSC camera ($60,000) with a separate recording deck. As part of the shoot, we needed some b-roll shot from another angle during our interviews, so it seemed like a pretty mellow way to ‘check out’ the V1. The big challenge for the V1 was when we took a down-converted 4:3 NTSC output from it and A-B’d with the ‘big’ camera on a professional monitor.
OK, I’m a cameraman, and I’ll admit that both the engineer and I could see a slight difference. I don’t think the producer or director could pick out one or the other based on the monitor image.
Deep Sea Blues
With airlines the way they are now, I found myself having to bring a pile of stuff as carry-on for the flight to Florida. Amazingly enough I had no trouble fitting the V1 into the same Petrol carry on case with a Z1, half a dozen NP970 batteries, two chargers, cables, ferzzi sungun and a remote zoom - all wrapped in padding. (The second carry-on bag held a VAIO notebook computer, 6.5” Sony LCD field monitor, some hytron 50’s and a few personal items.)
For some reason, in order to ‘link’ timecode to the Z1, we needed to have a tape in the camera. Once we figured that out the timecode link process took about 10 seconds (including attaching the firewire cable and pressing the appropriate menu functions.
The V1 is even better for hand-holding than my old PD-150, since the handgrip has moved forward a bit to provide better balance. For normal handheld, I would mount onto a monopod, which acts as a steadying handle and allows for additional stability even when not extended to touch the floor.
To paraphrase a recent email from the director: (3 weeks into editing) ‘The footage from Dave’s new little camera is amazing - it looks sharper than the Z1’s’
Real 24p to Intercut With XDcam-HD
What is XDcam-HD? A new camera /acauisition format / work flow -- in other words, a whole new way of working with HD images without using tape (or those stupid P2 cards, or having to carry a RAID array, or trying to record on firewire storage but still having to run tape as a backup because the little firewire systems are flaky.) When I first sas XDcam-HD projected on a 20 foot screen I was frankly blown away - How could it look that good when shot and recorded with a camera system that cost less than 30K? This has got to be the next big acquisition format!
So what happened when the multi-XDcamHD budget just wasn’t there and we used the V1U as a second camera and intercut XDcam-HD footage with stuff shot at the same time with the V1U? OK - I can tell the difference - when looking at a 42” HD monitor --- but darn if the V1 doesn’t look almost as sharp and rich. (Remember, the XDcam-HD is no slouch - the production company that purchased it prefers its color and sharpness over the Varicam’s.) We’ll just say that the client - a high profile ad agency - was verrrry happy!
Day of the Dawn.....
A day of wraparounds with Insectavora for the DVD of director Jim Riffel’s newest opus.
We’re in a photo studio that’s all white with windows on two sides. As long as the sun’s coming through the windows, we diffuse it slightly to soften it on our host’s face, and let the sun patterns play on the white walls and floor. The V1 camera handles the whites remarkably well.
In addition to recording directly to HDV on tape, we’re simultaneously down-converting to DV and outputting through the firewire output to monitor and record in DV-Rack.
I pretty much knew going into the day that Jim would be using the Dv downconvert rather than the full HDV version, so why did I still record in HDV? Perhaps I was hoping that he’d decide later to go back to the original HDV (which he may still do). But the hidden reason didn’t appear until two days later, when the producer e-mailed to ask whether the images from the shoot would be good enough to use for photo art for the DVD box cover art. I hadn’t yet tried to pull stills off a recorded tape, so I figured it was time to give it a try.
Though I’m not a big fan of shuttling the camera master through the camera over and over, I put the tape back in the camera, made sure there was a memory stick duo in the camera, and started to play. As the tape was playing I would occasionally hit the ‘still photo’ button - and the camera captured about 60 freeze frames onto the memory stick.
I have a VAIO notebook, so I was able to view them immediately - and I was stunned by how good they looked - almost as sharp and clean as ones that I might take with my 8 megapixel still camera. Within an hour I had selected 30 shots to send (each a J-peg of about 500k) and e-mailed them to the producer - whose response was ecstatic to say the least.
Another triumph for having recorded in HDV!
After several years of shooting wonderful images with the V1u, I had finally gotten to the point that I was shooting predominantly with my EX1, and it was time for the V1u to find a new home where it would be fully appreciated. One of my friends bought it - and he still loves it! He bought a Ninja recorder to record straight to 4:2:2 data from the HDMI, with the HDV tape as a backup. Every time I talk to him he mentions how great the camera still is!