Slugline

Simple, elegant screenwriting.

Needables
  • Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
    Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
    Panasonic
  • TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM
  • The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    by Stu Maschwitz

Entries in Panasonic AF100 (3)

Wednesday
Dec152010

Scarlet What You Will

Be a fanboy or be a skeptic, but there’s a working fixed-lens RED Scarlet on this very planet.

Interesting times, these. We’ve got inexpensive 35mm-ish cameras rife with artifacts, a couple of reasonably-priced not-quite-35mm camera with great features, and a 35mm PL-mount camera with a price perhaps not befitting its consumer codec. Add to the mix a 3K raw-shooter with RED’s impeccable codec and the promise of some juicy frame rates, but a 2/3” sensor that seems positively tiny these days and a conveniently-cybernetic, but love-it-or-leave-it lens. Will Scarlet find love from folks more concerned about frame rates, latitude, and gradability than with depth of field so shallow you have to choose which eye is sharp? Will such shooters be content with a finite set of focal lengths, in exchange for a presumably reasonable price-point?

Sometimes even remembering that last year’s Academy Award winner for Cinematography was shot on 2/3” sensors and the Best Picture winner was shot largely on Super 16mm isn’t enough to quel that nagging feeling that bigger is better, even if it’s bigger, softer, and sizzlier.

RED is betting that you like some sanity with your cinematography. Do you?

Sunday
Dec052010

The Panasonic GH2, DSLRs, and Funky Frame Rates For Creative Effect 

Many folks wrote in the comments of my Canon 60D article something to the effect of “what about the upcoming Panasonic GH2?”

The GH2 is not yet available. Despite having been briefly up for pre-order on both Amazon and B&H, it is now listed as unavailable on both sites. That, and that it is not a DSLR, excuse it from inclusion from an article titled “HDSLR Shopping.”

However, the GH2 does look very exciting. I had been thinking of selling my 7D and buying a 60D, but I might wait and get a GH2 instead. My only real trepidations about that are covered in my post about the Panasonic AF100, where I discuss the slightly-smaller-than-35mm imager and the dearth of fast motorized lenses.

In brief, if you’re not familiar, the GH2 is a mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera in the Micro 4/3 format. Being mirrorless, it is not a DSLR — but the desire to compare them is natural. Like our Canon HDSLRs, it is a stills camera with a video mode. What it promises over the Canons and Nikon HDSLRs are cleaner, higher-resolution video images and Panasonic’s signature attention to the needs of video shooters, with features like touch-to-focus, on-screen audio level monitoring, “Cinema Mode” color profile, clean HDMI out, and even a 1:1 crop mode — which allows you to take an HD crop out of the center of the frame, effectively acting as a digital tele-extender with no light loss.

The predecessor to the GH2, the GH1, broke my heart by suffering from compression artifacts so egregious that I resorted to rhyme. By all accounts, the GH2 does much better in this area, although it joins a sadly crowded category of cameras that seem to do everything right and then commit all your hard work to a codec just barely sufficient for the task.

One of the things that piqued my interest about the GH2 was its “Variable Movie Mode,” which purports to allow over- and under-cranking. Turns out this feature is not very exciting in practice. Panasonic’s site shows what looks like a broad array of speed options, from “80%” to “300%.” However, it soon becomes clear that the increments, 80, 100, 160, 200 and 300 percent, are significant in that they represent frame rates likely to be available on almost any camera.

If your base, 100%, is 24 fps, then 80% is 30 fps, 160% is 15 fps, 200% is 12 fps, and 300% is 8 fps. My 7D has 24 and 30, and if I wanted 15 fps, I’d just shoot at 30 and double in post. Same with 12 and 24. And if I wanted to shoot at 8 fps for some unprecedented reason, I’d shoot at 24 fps and speed up 3x in post.

The 7D and 60D shoot at 60p in a heavily artifacted 720p format (which I nonetheless used indulgently in Brick & Steel). The GH2 can shoot 1080i60, which you could de-interlace carefully and create 60 fps slow-mo (detailed instructions for this are included in The DV Rebel’s Guide). In both cases you’d better watch out for high-frequency horizontal detail in your frame, because it’s going to be dancing the night away. So the GH2 is not really offering much more than the 60D in the variable frame-rate department.

UPDATE: The GH2 also shoots 720p60, which is the better choice for slow motion.

What filmmakers really need are funky frame rates all around the home-base of 24, and overcrank rates that can be cleanly sped up in case you discover in the edit that your shot wants to be more John Ford than John Woo. Here are some of my favorites:

  • 24p is our everyday frame rate for sync sound and business as usual.
  • Undercranking by only one tick to 23 fps speeds up motion so unnoticeably that it’s recommended for almost any fight scene not featuring Tony Jaa.
  • After lunch, when everyone’s moving a bit slower, you can shoot fight scenes at 22 fps. You can even drop down to 21, but things might start to look a bit keystone cops at that point.
  • [UPDATE: See the comments for a discussion of achieving these undercrank speeds in post, if your camera does not offer them]
  • I have seen car and motorcycle drive-bys juiced-up by undercranking as far as 12 fps. Only works on smooth surfaces.
  • Moving into overcrank territory, shooting 30 fps for 24p playback can give scenes an almost imperceptibly dreamy quality. Everything feels a bit lighter and floatier, but you’re not telegraphing “slow motion” to the audience. Many of the behind-the-scenes shots in Brick & Steel were shot at 30.
  • If I’m worried that 30 might be noticeable, I’ve been known to shoot at 27 fps, which always sends the camera assistant scrambling to make up a new velcro-backed number for the slate.
  • 36 fps is exactly 1.5x slower than normal. The audience will know something is up, but it’s still subtle.
  • In fact, so is 48 fps. You’d think that half-speed would seem slow, but it doesn’t feel as slow as it sounds. 48 is handy because you can double it in post and be back to real time.
  • Since my 7D has 50 fps, not 48, I’ll use that when I think I might want to double back to real time.
  • Many cameras top out at 60 fps, which is fine for slow-mo, but it’s hardly Inception-grade slow-mo. Still, it’s nice. See the flyswatter in Brick & Steel.
  • Better is 72 fps. 72 is just a pretty slow motion speed. And conveniently, you can 3x it in post and you’re back to real time.
  • I shot some fight scenes in The Spirit at 88 fps. Why? Because it’s a nice slow speed, and if you 4x it in post, you’re back to 22 fps. So I could ramp from amped-up speed to dramatic slow in the same shot.
  • 120 is another handy speed at 5x real time. And beyond that, you’re into frying-pan-to-the-face slow motion effects.

OK, we’ve gone a bit off the topic of the GH2. But this is the ride my mind went on after getting excited about the “Variable Movie Mode” and then realizing what a non-thing it actually is. All it really buys you is the slight convenience of not having to conform different footage speeds in post, and the nicety of being able to preview these speeds in on-set playback.

The GH2 is going to be similar in price to the 60D, i.e. cheap. You’re going to have to spend more, like AF100 or Sony F3 money, to get the funky frame rates I list above, and even in those cases, you’re topping out at 60 fps (which, in the case of the Sony, is only available at 720p). I’ve completely lost track of the various cameras that Red is busily making, but hefty overcrank rates are something they promise, at a proportional price.

Meanwhile, If you, like me, are excited about the little GH2 despite its shortcomings in the frame-rate department, check out what Phillip Bloom has done with his pre-release model.

And I’ll let you know if I find one under my Christmas tree.

Tuesday
Oct122010

Do You Want to be a Grown Up?

It’s kinda fun doing things the wrong way.

You can buy a fancy slider (I did, I love my Glidetrack HD), or you can feel so much more clever and agile turning any tripod into a jib arm.

We’ve been having a lot of fun shooting with DSLRs, complaining the entire time about all the obstacles they present. Won’t someone come along and make a camera with a huge sensor, interchangeable lenses, and proper video features?

I’ve been a part of this complaining, but I don’t share the opinion of some that the challenge is easy, if only Canon or Nikon or whomever cared to rise to it. The line-skipping or binning issue is not simply a question of will or understanding — it’s an actual limitation of how fast data can be streamed off the back of the sensor itself. To pull a full 5616x3160 image off the 5D Mark II’s sensor every 24th of a second would likely require a much more expensive sensor and a method of dealing with the resultant heat. We can complain all we want, but we’re the beneficiaries of a glorious happy accident of “good enough” coupled with Canon’s years of experience hacking OK-looking movies off point-and-shoot sensors. The result is that we’re making sexy-looking video (just don’t look too close) with cameras that costs only a grand or two — and most of that cost is due to features we’re not even using.

Still, it seems to be obvious that what I predicted two years ago is true: It’s no longer OK for video camera manufacturers, whether they be Sony or Canon or RED, to make a video camera that doesn’t excite us emotionally. I added: Buttons and features and resolution charts just had their ass handed to them by sex appeal.

But can we have both? Panasonic says yes.

This is the AF100. A proper video camera that will presumably ace its test charts, and also sports a 4/3” sensor like the GH1 and GH2. Interchangeable lenses. XLR mic inputs. HDMI and SDI outputs. No aliasing. Waveform monitor and focus-assist peaking in the viewfinder. A viewfinder. Watch this video and/or read his detailed write-up — Barry Green does a much better job than I ever could of pimping this thing.

It’s easy to understand his enthusiasm — this is everything we’ve been wanting. Or is it?

When I tweeted about the availability of the AF100 for pre-order from B&H Photo, I got a couple of replies to the general effect of “but will the images hold up to those of the 5D?” Now, why would a person ask that? Obviously Panasonic has gone to great pains to emphasize that this is a camera for grown-ups, with no pixel binning or line skipping. They have repeatedly stated that their target is zero aliasing artifacts. Between this an all the other pro features of this camera, such as its focus and exposure aides and various gamma modes, there’s no reason to doubt that this camera will make superior images to the current crop of HDSLRs.

No reason? Oops, I meant to say three reasons. One artistic, one technical, and one marketplace reason.

First, the technical reason to doubt the AF100: its codec. The AF100 is an AVCHD camera. We’ve discussed this codec here before, and while opinions vary, few would argue that it is a professional codec. At 17mbps it cripples the GH1. At 24mbps, the maximum allowed by the format, will the images from the AF100 be “good enough?” That strikes me as a sad question to be asking about a $5,000 camera body with a mission statement of quality.

The marketplace reason has to do with the availability, cost and quality of lenses for the AF100, and how those issues meld with the camera’s unique features. A big part of the cost and advantage of a camera like the AF100 is sophisticated autofocus. Even with my Redrock Micro EyeSpy Deluxe rig and my Zacuto Z-Finder, I find shooting with my 5D and 7D to be laborious for the simple reason of focus. The idea that I could enjoy shallow depth of field with (occasionally, mind you) reliable, fingertip-on/off face-tracking autofocus is actually quite revolutionary. You might save enough money in follow-focus add-ons and blown takes that the AF100 could start looking less expensive than a kitted-out 7D.

But if you want to take advantage of this revolution, you must chose from Panasonic’s small selection of continuous-AF, video-optimized glass. Most of these lenses are zooms, and rather slow:

You can see where I’m going with this. The top reasons for a big sensor are light sensitivity and control over depth of field. But with these lenses, you’ll be hard-pressed to create a sumptuous, DSLR-like narrow-focus world.

Panasonic does offer a 14mm prime that’s F2.5, and an awesome 20mm pancake at F1.7. Here’s a shot made with the latter.

Panasonic GF1, 20mm at F1.7. Photo by Josh Locker

Clearly with the right lens, Micro four-thirds is plenty big to create a shallow-focus look. But so far there’s only one or maybe two video-optimized lenses that offer this. Which might be fine for many users, who look at the Micro Four-Thirds format as an opportunity to collect abundant, adorable little speedy primes, or to use a PL adapter to mount gloriously fast cine lenses. But in doing so, you’re not only making an investment in glass that might start to feel out of proportion to the camera, you’re also back to manual focus, which means an abundance of expensive support gear.

This rambling point I’m making about lenses has one last nuance, and its a personal one that you may or may not share. One advantage of shooting video with the same DSLR that I use for stills is that I only ever have to buy one kind of lens. As a result, I buy them more freely, and I buy really nice ones. If I suddenly had to collect completely different lenses for stills and video, the sad fact is that I’d buy fewer of each — even though these adorable little Panasonic lenses are quite reasonably priced.

The last reason to doubt that the AF100 will impress us more than the 5D Mark II, the artistic one, is the biggest, and it relates directly to the lens issue.

Quite simply, we have tasted full-retard DOF, and it is good.

Canon 5D Mark II, 50mm at F1.2

With a 5D Mark II, its sensor double the size of a motion picture film frame, we can achieve cinematic focus at F4. We can get fetishistically shallow depth of field at F2.8. At F1.2, we can create abstract art in a Burger King. The insanely shallow DOF afforded by the 5D Mark II is the artistic solution to the camera’s numerous technical problems.

Buttons and features and resolution charts just had their ass handed to them by sex appeal.

So the question becomes, if you have a little sex appeal and you nail the buttons and features and charts, do you defeat the less expensive, double-duty camera with its wealth of gloriously speedy lenses and sex appeal dripping down its glistening magnesium-alloy body?

Not with an F4 lens you don’t.

So at long last, here’s the thing about the AF100. It’s the sensible solution. But we might not want to grow up and use it. It’s a compromise. Its sensor is slightly smaller than that of the 7D, which you may recall I also weighed in this sex appeal equation, and determined that it just barely passed. Meanwhile, in this corner, the AF100 — smaller sensor, slower lenses, a $5,000 invite to the “buy a bunch of new lenses” club.

At this point, you must be thinking, “Man, I thought Stu liked Panasonic, and here they built exactly what he’s been asking for. Why so grumpy?”

The truth is, I am thrilled that Panasonic made this thing. They do get it. And by all indications, this camera rocks. Did I mention that it shoots at arbitrary frame rates up to 60fps at 1080p? Including funky frame rates like 22fps, for those post-lasagna-lunch Kung Fu fight scenes? It’s a true filmmaker’s camera.

What it needs is a better codec and some sexier continuous-AF lenses.

That’s all, and it ain’t much. I mean think about it — if this thing shot to ProRes, it and a PL Mount would be a ghetto Alexa for a tenth the price.

Now if I don’t buy an AF100, you can’t take that as a poor review from me. I’m not a pro shooter. Not even a responsible adult. I like doing things the wrong way, especially when I’m trading technical accuracy for images that make me want to lick the screen.

But that’s just me. You’re rockin’ it Panasonic. You’ve begun the flow of sex appeal into the world of proper video cameras. Please don’t stop though, you’re not quite done.