Topic Index

What the 4K!

Every so often my twitter stream will burst into life about 4K and the 4K Jets and the HD Sharks will get ready to rumble.  It may be a new 4k product announcement or a post on Red User which will act as the catalyst.  It seems far more polarising than say, 3D, as an issue.

I think there are a lot of aspects to this battle for hearts and minds - worth a little reflection I think.  If we look at acquisition then there just a couple of systems capable of 4k (or more acquisition).  Of these RED is the poster boy for 4K as Sony's F65 is only just starting to appear.  

F65 Prototype at NAB

Now most people would agree that more resolution is better (possibly not older actresses).  I saw a demo on the Sony stand at NAB2011 and it was deeply impressive despite the screen being huge and the audience being unrealistically close.  It is also true that it gives you more flexibility in post for reframing and cropping.  It certainly true that throwing resolution away usually works better than adding resolution.  Major motion pictures shot on film (though not all) tend to be mastered at 4K and many cinemas are equipping with 4K digital projectors.  RED claims this makes them the future-proof option.  30 years in IT leads me to believe that future-proof is a myth - perhaps future-resistant is more accurate.

The challenge at the moment on the acquisition and production side is the maths.  4K has four times more area roughly then 1080p.  That means 4x the data - all other things being equal.  That data is going to be present in your entire pipeline if you are going to master in 4K.  This has obvious implications in storing, movement and computation required in post.  This will increase costs and increase time.  Over time, improving technology will reduce this but it has significant implications now.

Currently, 4K equipped cinemas are the only place the public is likely 4K footage natively.  Will this change in the near future?  There are signs that the consumer electronic industry is going to put its faith in 4k as the next big thing after 3D.  CES this year had a smattering of 4K models.  CE Manufacturers always need a next big thing, its essential to their business model to persuade you that the consumer durable they sold you 2 years ago is no longer sufficient.  Interest in 3D is waning, they need a new flag to wave.

Toshiba 55" 4K TV

I happen to have a 3D set bought recently and a 3D projector waiting for an install.  Am I a 3D evangelist? Not really, I was really making the move to 1080p and 3D was just a bonus.  Its not that I don't like 3D, I enjoy the experience when its done well, but there is hardly anything to watch.  I have 2 sources of material: Sky and Blu-ray.  Sky has one channel which is about 70% repeated material (my impression, I am not sad enough to measure it) and a few blu-rays.  Even cinema releases which were 3D don't seem guaranteed to get a blu-ray disk.  If they do its normally dearer list price and less likely to be discounted.  

What have I got plugged into my setup.  I have a Blu-ray player (1080p), PS/3 (720p/1080p), SkyHD (720p/1080i) and AppleTV (720p). My amp is theoretically capable of handling and upscaling to 4k but compatibility is always in doubt till some standards emerge.  The signal path is via HDMI1.4 which can do 4k24p.  I do expect to see a jump in quality in my new 1080p projector over the old 720p one slightly offset by a bigger screen size.  However, I see no real difference in percieved resolution at my 3.5m viewing distance between my new 47" 1080p LED LG TV and my old 1024 x 720 Pioneer 42" plasma.  The step up in resolution to 4k is more marked than that between 1080 and 720 but I am not convinced it will be obvious at TV panel size.  How big do you have to go before you notice 4k.  In the world of AV consumerism there is the much feared WAF.  This is not a technical term but stands for wife acceptance factor.  Flat screen TV has faired well in WAF because the resulting sets maybe larger but they have taken up less space.  Get over 50" though and the sets are starting to draw to much attention to themselves and the WAF plummets relegating them to dedicated media rooms and bachelor pads.  This is probably less of an issue in the US where homes are typically more spacious, but any new format has got to succeed globally. 

I am the kind of early adopter guy who would buy 4K so what would it mean to me and how would I get it?  I think we can rule out broadcast.  In the UK, only the death of analgue has freed up enough space for a few HD over-air channels.  Sky too tends to worry about how many channels not the quality or we would not still be on 1080i.  Download services could distribute a file but how long are you prepared to wait.  In metropolitan areas it may be OK but I am limited to 5mbps out here in the sticks.  A single 4K movie not compressed to mush would probably exceed the typical UK monthly download limit for most punters.  So we are looking at some kind of disk or device to deliver the movie.  Blu-ray could do it but most current players arent going to be able to cope.  Even the ubiquitous and future-tolerant PS/3 is probably going to fail as its missing HDMI1.4.  If blu-ray can be stretched to fit (and in this I include at the pressing facilities) it just might gain a foothold with a slow burn dual play approach similar to 3D.  The disruption level is similar in that case.

I can't see a brand new physical format succeeding now.  DVD had the full weight of the industry behind it and its take off was slow in the UK taking a few years to hit critical mass and oust VHS.  Most of us early adopters have a drawer full of Region 1 disk we played on hacked DVD players.  We bought them so we had a decent choice back in the day and now we cant trade them in against blu-rays.  Blu-ray had a more troubled birth as it was fighting not just against DVD but HDDVD too.  It won the format war in the end but even after all this time it still has a smaller section in HMV than DVD.  Look round the rest of the store and you see racks of CDs.  CD is 30 years old and no higher definition format has come close to unseating it as a retail format.  The threat to CDs comes from a variety of formats that are worse - an interesting lesson for video.  Even HMVs future is far from assured - condemning video sources to online or a small selection at supermarkets. 

So winding right back to where we started with acquisition, how important is 4K?  If you are filming big budget features then it seems to make sense to feed the growing number of 4k projectors.  Not that I have seen any issues with Alexa films at my 4k equipped multiplex.  For lesser budget features then its a finely balanced decision.  What is going to provide the most production value up on the screen?  Any skimping you do on other crafts to feed that 4k pipeline are only going to be more visible in your end product.  For TV, Indie Films and Commericals I think its a long time before most of the 4k benefits start paying back with time being so critical.


A few bits and bobs

I haven't posted anything recently after a busy Christmas and New Year.  Its been relatively quiet in the DSLR world with only Nikon D4 and first impressions of the C300 and Scarlet to entertain us.  Rather more with the C300 it must be said.  After a slightly negative initial reaction with mumblings about the feature set and price the C300 seems to be winning hearts and minds.  Canon bringing the price down to more F3 like levels has not done any harm.  However, the real theme I have noticed is that people really like using it.  They also like the image, especially in low light.  Its not the perfect camera but it seems one with relatively few compromises.  As a step up camera from a DSLR it makes a lot of sense.  It is still, unfortunately, a pretty big step though.  Here are a couple of reviews from my friends Philip Bloom and Nino Leitner.

The D4 shows Nikon is stepping up its game on video.  Have they finally avoided introducing any gotchas that undermine their camera in video?  I still haven't seen any definitive hands-on reviews yet.  Like its arch-rival, the 1DX, its still too much camera for me - too big, too expensive.  I don't have any Nikon lenses so I was never going to be a buyer but I welcome its innovations and hope Canon follow suit.

How soon will that response be?  Well the rumour mill has been hotting up for the Canon 5D MkIII since the turn of the year.  There now seems to be a strong chance of an announcement as early as February with some going as afr as to say the 5D and its rival the D800 me get released on the same day.  Unknown cameras from both suppliers have been spotted (leaked?) in pictures recently.  The specs on both still seem to be inconsistent in the rumours.  The Canon also seems to have characteristics similar to the 7D as much as the 5D.  Could the 7D get updated first?  Could we have something like a 6DX, replacing both models in the same way the 1DX does for the 1D and 1Ds.  No idea, I will be keeping an eye on Canon Rumors as diligently as the next man till they break cover.  It would be great to see something as soon as BVE or Focus on Imaging.

I was planning to follow up on my backup and archiving article with some practical advice and experience.  Unfortunately the floods in Thailand put pay to that as hard drive prices rocketed.  I have added an SSD and a 4 way USB3 card to my MacPro but I wont be able to complete my plan until we get back to those October prices.  We seem to be at around 30-50% dearer though it has been worse.  I am on the lookout for fast USB3 caddy or external drive.  I have been disappointed with the ones I have tried so far.


The Big Day Arrives!

I am a little tired this morning.  In the wee small hours this morning I was watching a Twitter stream flashing past with hashtags like #C300 and #Scarlet.  This was mixed with a largely fruitless search for any web feeds that were responding with new information.  I finally gave up when the tweets started to get more like #Ihateyouwitheveryfibreofmybeingforlikingthatcamera.  For camera geeks it was their birthday and Christmas all in one day.

So what kind of perspective does a good nights sleep bring and how well did I do in my predictions?  I was a bit hit and miss about the individual cameras as the C300 is more a hybrid of my imagined two models.  The C300 does borrow some tech from the XF305 but we have a brand new form factor.  We do have a choice of EF or PL mounts.  It is a proper fully functional video camera and blissfully free of any regional market foibles.  Its natural rival is the Sony F3, both in functionality and price. This is no convergence device, stills are available but only at 1080p - there is no attempt to use the full 8Mp sensor.  I was right about it not looking like a hair dryer.  It is a very high density body - more in the style of the Epic and FS100 than the more conventional F3.  Time will tell whether Canon have achieved this without the ergonomic eccentricities of the FS100.  

Canon C300

They also came through with cinema prime lenses but at $6800 a lens!  Thats about twice the going rate for a CP2, I guess that pent up demand is going to stay pent up.

New Canon cine primes

There seem to be a lot of people who have had access to this camera during its development including shooters and accessory manufacturers.  I think Canon must have had the NDAs hand delivered by ninjas to keep everything quiet - I didn't see anything even vaguely revealing the form factor on the web.  Everyone said very nice things about it at the launch but they always do.  It doesn't seem like we should have to wait to long before we see reviews in a more neutral environment.  My favourite film from those in the know comes from Mr Laforet (again) check out his blog

There was no respite between the lights dimming on the Canon presentation starting and the fanfares blaring out from RED.  Finally Scarlet is revealed TADA!  Only it isn't Scarlet, this is Scarlet-X.  Its certainly nothing like the camera Ted from RED showed us at the FXPHD live back at NAB.  What it looks like in fact is the Epic S which mysteriously disappeared from the RED roadmap recently.  This is no bad thing as I wasn't seeing a lot of love for the 2/3 chip and fixed lens on the NAB version. What we have instead is a slightly crippled Epic.  To be fair, the term crippled is a bit disingenuous in camera terms.  This is a "Usain Bolt running in brogues" sort of crippled - mere mortals are still only going to see what he looks like from the back in a race. Its so close to the Epic that RED seemed to have dropped the mass manufactured X model and I only see the machined M version listed.

Scarlet-X kit

Choosing to launch head-to-head with the C300 was a canny piece of marketing from RED.  Any other day and they would have faced a mixed press - delight over the spec and some questions over the price.  The promise of 3k for $3k was a long time ago (in camera years at least) but it keeps coming back to haunt them.  They managed to keep the sticker price under $10k and Scarlet is a 4k camera. Any heat they may have taken over the price inflation was completely covered when the C300 was pegged as a $20k camera.  Anyone who prefers a simplistic form of maths or is predisposed to a certain outcome will think "RED cheap, Canon expensive".

Such is the way of price relativism these days.  I would strongly recommend any potential buyer to take a step back and try and gain a sense of perspective before they make any judgments about cameras.   Just a few years ago having a camera capable of mainstream movie production under $20k was almost inconceivable.  The RED One spearheaded a downward trend but we were still a long way from affordable.  Then along came the 5D Mark2 and changed everything.  OK, so a full mainstream movie is a bit of a stretch, but it didn't stop a paradigm shift in peoples pricing expectations.  Suddenly everything else was compared to its $3k price point.  Even entry level "proper" large chip camcorders like the AF100 and FS100 were seen as a bit expensive when they arrived.  There is a reason why DSLRs are so cheap - they are subsidised.  They are subsidised by a group of people called photographers who buy them to take stills with.  Crazy idea I know, but there are a lot of them out there.  If you want to buy something that is primarily a video camera then you are restricting yourself to a much smaller pond and forsaking the economies of scale of the convergence devices.

So concentrating on large chip video cameras where do we stand?  We seem to now have 3 distinct sectors and I am going to go with UK ex VAT pricing for consistency.  We have the entry level cameras like the FS100 and Af100 which are about £3500 body only.  We have a mid-range with Scarlet, F3 and C300 in the £10-15000 range and then a big step up to the Epic, Alexa and F65 which are in the "if you have to ask you cant afford it" range.

The most interesting battle ground is the middle one.  I must admit that the F3 really impressed me in the Zacuto shoot out.  Only the Alexa consistently out pointed it to my eye and not by much. Its "old-school" EX body is a bit big and clunky for someone coming off DSLRs but battle tested and with all the pro bells and whistles.  To get the very best out of it though you do need to invest in some extras to record off-board, but you can use it straight away with HDCAM.  So how does the C300 stack up against the F3?  Well for someone who started with a 5D2 very well.  I have lots of nice EOS lenses and nothing else.  This is not a good place to start from with an F3.  If you go through a list of weaknesses with a DSLR the C300 checks every box:  sound recording, monitoring, clean out, SDI, ND, XLR, codec, remote operation - all there.  It also keeps all the DSLR strengths of low light performance, compactness and inexpensive media.  The big exception of course is that it is of no interest to photographers - so no subsidy.

So that leaves the Scarlet.  Like the C300 it comes with an EF mount option, RED even seem to be squeezing a bit more from the Canon mount than Canon.  On sticker price alone the Scarlet ducks under the £10k barrier but the basic option is not really useable unless you already have an Epic in your camera collection.  Take due consideration of the traditional RED appetite for power and media and a workable kit is inline with its competitors.  It is, however, just a fraction of the price of an Epic M and what has been taken away is far less remarkable than whats has been left in.  That must make it a bargain then.

The spec sheet and the RED Faithful would make you think this was "Game Over" and I am not saying they don't have a case.  Canon may talk 4k about the C300 but 2k of that goes missing in the signal processing.  RED outguns the Canon with RAW, HDRx and faster frame rates.  The RED UI with the touch screen always looked slick in the demos and we are yet to see much on the Canons control system.  There is a catch to all this tech though and that is complexity.  I saw one tweet rather unkindly implying the RED was a "science project".  I prefer to think of it like an F1 car.  On a F1 car you can adjust everything to extract the ounce of track performance, but you need some new skills and some powerful workflow to achieve this.  An F1 car is pretty useless though when you need to go down to the shops for a pint of milk.  I got the impression from the Canon launch materials that their focus has been to deliver great performance effortlessly.  I struggle with this part because the geek side of me yearns for all that RED tech, whilst my sensible side of me says that the Canon would be better for my kind of use.

In fact my sensible side also points out that my 5D is better for my kind of use than either of them and that I should spend more time catching up on editing than surfing on camera sites and blogs.  It goes on to say that my stuff would stand a better chance of improving if I shot more and researched less.  I don't think I am really that fond of my sensible side. 

But what was THAT…in that keynote slide…a DSLR with a new red badge…thats my perfect camera right there…I wonder what it does?


Playing Mystic Meg with Canon

Tomorrow is the day Canon makes its big Hollywood announcement.  Just for fun I am going to put up my own predictions.  I have no information bar the constant chatter on the Interweb

  • It will be a camera announcement not just a new printer.  I think the new Hollywood facility is evidence that Canon is trying to create a new market for itself.
  • I think this new segment will mean a range of cameras with different abilities.  Typically Canon video cameras come in two versions - one with a more limited feature sets.  I expect there to be more variation this time.
  • A PL camera with an S35 4k chip.  I expect it to have an F3/XF305 form factor and facilities.  On camera recording may use Canon existing 50Mbps MPEG2 4:2:2 codec and be 1080p. I think 4k will be off board only, possibly extra like S-LOG is on the F3.  Price will be somewhere in the gap between the F3 and the Epic X.  I expect them to have a way of adapting EOS lenses to work.  It would be almost embarrassing not to when the Epic can.
  • An EOS camera using an adapted DSLR sensor and electronics.  The 1DX is the only next ten chipset near production but a crop sensor feels more likely.  I also expect the codec and frame rates to come over from DSLR rather than the video line.  I expect there to be a version with HDMI only out  and a dearer variant with SDI.  I think that there output will be clean 1080p but no more than 4:2:2. I think Canon will want to keep the pricing near the FS100.  It seems a lot to squeeze into the diminutive XF10x line and borrowing from the XF30x line would screw up their range pricing.  Either they are going to have to give it a brand new form factor or use the XF30x chassis and pitch it between the FS100 and F3.  If they go the more expensive route then PL adaption is likely.  
  • I don't expect either camera to look like a hair dryer.
  • I expect them to launch more cinema oriented lenses, though it may be a while before we see any ship as Canon has been very slow relaxing lenses recently.  However, this may be the most lucrative prize for Canon.  Not only is there a huge pent up demand for people having an affordable dedicated video camera that can use EOS lenses, Canon are also ruled out competing for lensing other manufacturers bodies.  If Canon could do a "CP2" with their fast L primes and zooms like the 70-200f2.8 for a little less dosh than Zeiss, they would have a brand new revenue stream. 

What would I like to see most?

A 5D Mk3 carefully tailored to my own wish list of course. 

I would be tempted an EOS video only camera but even at FS100 pricing I would need to have to be serious about this earning some cash for me.  It's still too much for an indulgence/hobby camera.  I don't think we will see any successor to the 5D Mk2 till 2012 though.


Rest in Peace Steve Jobs

Steven Paul Jobs, 1955-2011My son Alex rang me this morning from University.  Not such a strange sounding event perhaps, but this was 1am and it is the first time he has rung me since he started his freshman year a couple of weeks ago.  Up to that point, he had been fiercely guarding his new found independence and I had always initiated any calls or the few flurries of messages we had on social networks.  Given the circumstances, my mind kicked into parent-facing-imminent-emergency mode.  However, what he had rung to tell me was that Steve Jobs had died. 

That Alex thought this warranted a phone call is just a small personal testament to the significance of the Steve Jobs.  Alex had spotted the news from a DJ he follows, by the time I got to Tweetdeck the stream was full of condolences.  The people I follow come from the disparate areas of filmmaking, photography and business intelligence but there was only one topic.

I am not a long-term Apple fanboy.  My formative years were in an IBM “shop”.  Hell, I even used OS/2 for a while.  It was just a few years ago when I visited my first Apple shop in the US and played with the original iPhone.  It coincided with a growing weariness with the constant tinkering I had to do with my custom built PCs.  Even then it took a frustrating episode with an LG touch phone for me to take the plunge and dump my long-term carrier Vodafone just so I could get an iPhone 3G.  That was followed by a Macbook Pro, then an iMac, then a Mac Pro and so on.  I have now fully embraced the Apple eco-system an I am very happy here inside the walls that Steve built.

What is unique is the holistic nature of the ecosystem and the quality of its design in hardware, software and retail.  I don’t think there is much doubt about how much that is due to the vision and determination that Steve Jobs possessed.  There are many talented people who contribute to that success but the leadership and drive came from Steve.  It is the loss of this leadership which I believe has affected so many people today.  In few fields of endeavour has such leadership been so apparent or so successful nor did it falter or fail near the end - Steve Jobs has left us still at the height of his powers and at the peak of his commercial success.

Steve Jobs was a private man who valued his family as well as the company he will be forever be synonymous with.  So it is his family and his colleagues that my thoughts will be with today.