NAB 2009 - Wilt's Wrap-Up

Three top themes from NAB 2009, and other observations.
Adam Wilt
By Adam Wilt 04.29.09

An Akeley Audio Camera at the ASC booth.

When it comes to cameras and production gear, I saw three major themes at NAB this year: 3D, storage, and digital cine accessories. I'll discuss these, look at what the "big 3" camera suppliers had on offer, and mention other things of interest at the show.


3D—or, more correctly, stereo imaging—is a preoccupation of researchers and vendors, based on the number of 3D demos at the show.

Panasonic's mockup of a possible future stereo camcorder.

Panasonic showed this rather intimidating mockup, clearly the result of an ill-considered assignation between an HPX170 and a pair of binoculars following a night of drunken debauchery.

More realistically, they demoed a 103-inch 3D plasma display (using polarized glasses) with a variety of clips that illustrated both the promise and the problems inherent in the medium: yes, dimensionality is fun, but shallow depth of field doesn't work nearly so well in 3D as in 2D (which makes dual release paths problematic for live-action productions; with CGI at least you can render a 2D version with shallow depth of field and a 3D version with deep focus), and items coming towards the viewer from the plane of the screen break not only the fourth wall, but the entire illusion, once they clip at the edges of the screen they've just come through.

Sony showed off 3D-capable LCDs using line-alternating polarizers and passive glasses: interleaved polarizers on the screen direct all the even lines to one eye and all the odd lines to the other eye. It's a very effective display method, and it looked very good (especially with Sony's deep-focus demo material) but get too close to the screen and the line-interleaved nature of the image starts to become apparent.

Both approaches still need glasses. Various demos avoided glasses by using lenticular screens (as did the informational video kiosks in the corridors of the north hall) or, in one case, by an array of side-by-side projectors allowing partial walk-arounds of scenes within an area as wide as the screen itself, but these tends to suffer from lowered resolution, aliasing, and at times severe ghosting.

Even the polarized glasses systems show noticeable (sometimes distracting) crosstalk or ghosting. Unfortunately the amount of crosstalk was different on each of the systems; it's hard to see how ghost-busting during authoring will solve this problem. Either the image-separation technologies need to improve or displays will have to perform their own bespoke ghost-busting, or both.

Panasonic cited 3D as the driving force behind "AVC Ultra", a higher quality / higher bitrate version of AVC-Intra, since twice the image data needs to be carried. Sony similarly said that 3D was a target application for 3G (3 Gigabit/sec) production equipment, which is otherwise used in the 2D world for 1080/60P acquisition and production.

Cineform Neo3D controls for display type and view alignment.

Cineform showed off Neo3D, the stereo-enhanced version of their high-quality, cross-platform, raw codec (as used in the SI-2K camera and the Wafian disk recorders). Neo3D carries one eye as a video stream, the other as a metadata stream (taking a somewhat similar approach to what TDVision has done for MPEG distribution, though Neo3D keeps both images intact instead of image + difference data).

Both views remain separately-encoded and are only mixed together during playback, depending on the options you set to match the display technology you're using (see image above). Likewise, each image remains separately tweakable (so you can correct exposure differences, for example), and you can adjust convergence and alignment on the fly. It's an extension of Neo4K, so it includes all the active metadata tweaking for debayering/decoding images nondestructively.

One very cool aspect of Neo3D is that it's not just a codec, but an application with a shared underlying database. This mean that you can run apps in parallel—like FCP and Cineform's metadata-tweaking utility—and changes in one are reflected instantly in the other. If you decide to regrade the decoding of one or a set of files, or change the display method of a 3D clip, there's no need to exit FCP to make the changes; simply tweak what you need to in Cineform's UI and the changes take place in FCP as soon as the next frame is decoded.

Neo3D uses QuickTime today, with DirectShow / AVI coming in the future. Today it's a great way to cut 3D in FCP, while AVI support will make it a truly cross-platform, NLE-agnostic tool (of course, the NLE has to be able to use the codec: as long as it uses QuickTime or DirectShow, it'll be fine).

gCubik: Sharing and Grasping 3D Images

Is 3D really here to stay as a mainstream tool, or is it just the latest instance of an oft-repeated fad? I asked that question a lot, and found to my surprise that many people, including DPs working full-time in 3D, agree with me: it's a fad. Every generation gets its own dose of 3D, but then tires of it and moves on... it works very well for immersive "event" programs, like sports and concerts, but its value in storytelling is still very debatable, and the compromises involved in both production and consumption of 3D content are still substantial.

Hey, I could be wrong. Maybe, maybe not. We'll see, eh?


Four different tapeless recorders at Arri's booth.

There was a veritable explosion of field recorders that don't use tape. Here are four shown on Arri's booth:

S.two OB-1 solid-state uncompressed HD recorder.

The S.two OB-1 (seen previously at the HPA Tech Retreat) replaces S.two's previous hard-disk recorders at a fraction of the size, weight, and power consumption.

AJA Ki Pro hard disk / ExpressCard34 ProRes422 recorder

As previously mentioned, AJA's Ki Pro is a self-contained ProRes422 field recorder with comprehensive analog and digital I/O. At $4000 it's very affordable, and even those not using Final Cut Pro may wish to use it as a 10-bit, 4:2:2, full-raster "black box" recorder, playing it back via HD-SDI into their NLE and codec of choice.

Toshiba IK-HR1S 1/3" CMOS HD compact camera and Convergent Design Flash XDR recorder.

Convergent Design has been building codec-equipped interface boxes for years. Last year at NAB they introduced the Flash XDR, a portable recorder using a Sony MPEG codec and CF cards.

Convergent Design nanoFLASH CF card recorder.

This year they showed the nanoFLASH recorder, which does most of what the Flash XDR does in a smaller, cheaper, much more portable product. It has only two CF slots instead of four, and sacrifices the XDR's discrete buttons for membrane switches, but it can still record 8-bit, 4:2:2, full-raster I-frame MPEG-2 at up to 160 Mbit/sec, or long-GOP up to 100 Mbit/sec.

I've heard several folks discount Convergent Design because it isn't a big name like Sony, AJA, or the like. But consider that the founder, Mike Schell, has been playing in this arena at least as far back as 1997's DPS Spark, the first 1394 capture card for DV editing (back then, I bought a Spark for $900, and a 2 GB SCSI drive for $900, and put them in my blazingly fast 133 MHz Windows 95 PC: that's how long ago it was!). Mike knows his stuff, and he's in this for the long term; discount him at your peril.

Panasonic A-Series and E-Series P2 cards.

Fujifilm A-series and E-series P2 cards.

Maxell's A-series and E-series P2 cards.

One of the Big Stories at NAB was the appearance of E-series P2 cards. Current P2 cards, the A-series, use SLC (single-level cell) flash memory; it's expensive but durable. You can fill up an A-series card every day and it'll last you for 100 years. E-series cards use MLC (multi-level cell) flash, which is cheaper (and faster to read, too, reducing transfer times), but somewhat less robust: it's rated for five years of daily use.

For many shooters, an E-series card will outlive their cameras, and maybe even outlive them; Barry Green on the Panasonic booth thought he's test the life of E-series cards by putting a couple in one of his cameras in loop-record mode... until he figured out how long it would tie up his camera!

The cards track their use and tell the camera when they're getting near the end of their rated cycle count, and if you use Panasonic's PC-based P2 Formatter software, you'll get a "gas gauge" of lifespan used.

Panasonic's E-series cards will be less than half the price of A-series cards, which remain in the lineup for hard-core, heavy users:

  • 16GB: A-series $900, E-series $420

  • 32GB: A-series $1650, E-series $625

  • 64GB: A-series $2600, E-series $998

The 16GB and 32 GB cards will ship in May, the 64GB in August.

I don't have prices and dates for the Fujifilm and Maxell P2 cards, but they will likely be very comparable.

Maxell was also showing their IDVR line of ruggedized 250 GB hard drives and docking stations.

Maxell IVDR disk pack with "electronic paper" label.

The drive packs include a label of electronic paper (e.g., the stuff a Kindle's display is made of), which can be set up to show a thumbnail of a clip or other graphical and textual info using a PC-based program. E-paper retains an image without power, so you can write the label and then stick the drive on the shelf. Sure beats post-it notes or scribbled-on bits of camera tape!

1 Beyond Wrangler: ruggedized ingest/edit system with multiple card slots, dual removable drives, and LTO 3 tape.

1 Beyond has been building and selling editing systems for a long time. Their Wrangler line of ruggedized computers is set up for DITs and data wranglers, letting them offload all these non-tape devices in the field in an expeditious manner. Pop your media into the Wrangler—it has slots for P2, CF, SDHC, Memory Stick, and just about any other card, as well as FW800 ports for RED drives—and the contents thereof are automatically transferred to two removable hard disk packs simultaneously, then verified. Data can be further replicated onto an LTO 3 tape to keep the bonding companies happy. The box has the horsepower to run your Windows NLE of choice (the one shown is running Edius) or, as shown at the RedUser party, a program like Iridas SpeedGrade OnSet for location grading and look management.

An HDCAM-SR tape alongside an SRW-9000's assistant's panel.

Does this mean tape is dead? Not quite; Sony announced the SRW-9000 HDCAM-SR camcorder for high-end TV production. But that's the only new high-end tape-based product I saw.

Next: Cine Accessories, JVC, Panasonic, and Sony...

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