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Special Report: Testdriving the Panasonic SDX900

Special Report: Testdriving the Panasonic SDX900

Articles - Digital

Luke Geissbuhler and the SDX900
Cinematographer Luke Geissbuhler takes the SDX900 for a "road
test." Photo by: Carlino/Gooch

The discussion below followed an ultimate real-world
road test conducted by Abel Cine Tech and New York-based Offhollywood
Digital. The two companies collaborated to shoot a commercial
spot for Volkswagen in order to try out the refined production
path made possible by the new SDX900 DVCPRO 50 camera.

MM: Is the SDX900 really the best solution
for anyone who wants to achieve a film look? Is that why
there’s been so much interest
in this camera?

Peter Abel (PA): We’re interested in any equipment that
aids or expands the storytelling capability of the filmmaker. In
my opinion, the SDX900 does just that. And it does it better than
any low-cost camera developed since the Aaton A-Minima. In fact,
it does it better than any standard definition digital camera we’ve
ever tested. We’re finally able to recommend a standard definition
digital video camera that we feel won’t be a creative compromise
when compared to shooting film.

Mark Pedersen, Director (MP): Just prior to starting Offhollywood
Digital, we tested the Panasonic Varicam high definition camera,
which we fell in love with. After testing that camera and realizing
its potential, we felt there was a real opportunity to carve out
a niche by specializing in Panasonic formats. We were aware of
the specifications of the AJX900 for some time before a prototype
camera was even available. They seemed too good to be true, so
we were extremely eager to see how the camera would perform. We
were knocked out by the performance. This camera and format are
going to make a very, very big splash. The integration with Final
Cut 4 is fantastic, and it makes for a super-cost effective work-flow
available to the everyone.

Tom Edmon (CEO, Heavy Light Digital): The
SDX900 fills a really valuable gap in the market. Increasingly,
for digital origination,
I’ve seen filmmaker
clients gravitate toward HD or mini-DV-with nothing in between.
I’ve long been an advocate of standard definition if you’re planning
on a film-out, but it’s difficult to get filmmakers to use Digi
Beta when they can rent HD cameras for roughly the same price.
And documentarians have to be able to afford to buy their cameras.
The SDX900 addresses these criteria.

MM: Why did you feel the Volkswagen spot would be a good test
for the camera?

MP: Well, the rationale to shoot a Volkswagen
spec commercial was based on several factors. We started with
the parameters of
shooting something with a lot of movement to see how much of a
cinematic look we would get in standard definition 24p. We also
knew we wanted to shoot daylight exterior, because a lot of DPs
like to say that digital formats don’t hold up well in daylight,
and it is really easy to carefully light an interior for a "test
shoot" and skew the results. We also wanted to do something "low
concept" so the emphasis was on the image, not the content.
Then suddenly we thought-couldn’t this camera be the perfect thing
for shooting commercials? A broadcast camera which natively
captures a film look!

PA: In a sense, the Volkswagen spot was a proof-of-concept
for us. We were interested in seeing how the camera would perform
in the hands of accomplished filmmakers on a project that would
otherwise call for film or HD acquisition. What better than an
automobile spot?

The camera itself is only one element of what
made this shoot so exciting for us, and so timely. At the same
time they debuted
the SDX900, Panasonic was introducing FireWire boards for a couple
of their DVCPRO50 decks: the SD930 and the SD955A. This would give
filmmakers the capability of capturing video directly from their
deck, in real time, without needing to purchase a third party capture
card for their edit system. On top of this, Apple’s release of
Final Cut Pro 4, with its DVCPRO50 codec, was only a few weeks
away.

Needless to say, we were very interested in seeing this project
all the way through the post and editorial processes. If all the
equipment described actually performed as promised by its manufacturers,
then we would experience improvements, not only in quality, but
in editorial time, as well.

TE: We make a lot of presentations to
people about to shoot their films. We’ve followed Panasonic’s forays into electronic
cinema closely, and suspected that this standard-def camera would
come in at a price point (either purchase or rental) that would
fill the gap between mini-DV and HD. The SDX900 offers much higher
image quality than mini-DV, thereby filling a huge hole for those
theatricals and documentaries that really don’t need to be shooting
HD.

MP: And we didn’t really know what to expect. We knew the
24p would give us a "film" motion, but coming from film
backgrounds, we were pretty skeptical that the results would blow
us away, because, after all, it’s a standard definition camera.

MM: How do you prepare for a project that has no budget and
is relying on beta versions of equipment to work?

Jesse Rosen, Engineer (JR): When the prototype SDX900 arrived
from Panasonic, I had about a day to get familiar with the camera.
I spent some of that time in front of charts with a light meter
and waveform monitor getting a feel for what the different gamma
modes do and the rest getting a handle on what might be operationally
different about this camera and developing a basic look for the
shoot. It certainly would have been nice to have more time, but
since I knew that this piece was going through a color-correction
stage in post, it wasn’t necessary to get as polished a look as
would be necessary on some other projects.

MP: Gill Richardson, who owns a company
in Florida called Runnin’ Shot, donated his top-of-the-line camera
car for the exterior day of the shoot. Gill and I became good
friends after working
together on the feature film Super Troopers, which featured
a lot of car stunts and driving sequences, and he wanted to help
out. He arranged for Michael Lindgren of Cinema Resources Motorsports
to donate his time and drive the rig and grip for us. Having someone
with as much experience as Michael would make things run like clockwork.
We would be shooting with available light and a total crew of eight.

MM: What did you think about the camera’s
performance?

Luke Geissbuler, Director of Photography (LG): I’m
pretty familiar with Panasonic’s other 24p camera offerings, the DVX100
mini-DV model and the VariCam HD Cinema camera. In fact, I’ve shot
three recent features with the VariCam: Justice, Season
of Youth
, and Mail Order Bride. In each case I used
the VariCam with external paintbox control (the AJ-EC3 camera remote
control unit), which is perhaps my favorite aspect of the camera.
It really lets you use the system to its fullest extent. Paintbox
control essentially lets you call up color saturation and swing
the dial around until you get the unique look you want. The menus
are deep, and you get in and out of them more quickly with the
paintbox option. I was delighted to learn that the same ECU plugs
into the AJ-SDX900.

Specific to the Volkswagen shoot, I was pleased
with the SDX900’s
performance-even though, given time constraints, I didn’t engineer
it myself. I look at the SDX900 as a NTSC version of VariCam, a
niche I really like. I was pretty happy with the images; in contrast
to the DVX100, the SDX900 is a little heavier, not a tank, but
with a nice balancing weight on your shoulder. Again, the paintbox
is totally instrumental in getting an actual look. If you’re willing
to dive into the controls and menus, you can surgically affect
different parts of an image.

MM: Was there anything that the camera delivered
that you didn’t
expect?

LG: I liked the Pre-Recording Board
option, which automatically stores up to 15 seconds of audio
and video in memory when the camera
is in standby. This should work especially well for documentaries.
And I appreciate the fact that, with the inclusion of the DVCPRO50
codec in Final Cut Pro 4, you can do 24-frame editing from the
SDX900 render-free. Compression has seemed to be the new problem
in editing, so it’s great not having compression upon compression.

JR: I was surprised by the amount of latitude of the camera.
In my initial tests I found that I could reproduce a 10-stop range
of brightness without clipping. I was also surprised that this
was possible while keeping a very natural-looking image.

LG: We did the shoot with all natural
light, not even a bounce. To my mind, highlights are a limitation
of all video cameras,
but we dealt with the highlights on this shoot pretty well. The
shadows, on the other hand, were amazing. We were able to keep
the noise level way down. I was very impressed with the camera’s
color rendition. The car was an odd pastel yellow, almost cream.
I worried that it would look white or lemon. But with no tweaking,
we got the exact color.

MM: What general camera settings did you use and how did you
arrive at them?

JR: The camera was set to the "24p Advanced" mode
with the vertical detail set to "Progressive" since these
are the best settings for editing in 24p and outputting to film.
The gamma was set to "Filmlike 2," which maintains the
greatest amount of highlight detail. I left the look of the camera
relatively flat to provide the best raw material for color correction
later on.

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