Taking the “high” way

High definition has been proclaimed the king of video formats right now, and a couple of HD camcorders have been introduced into the Middle East market over the past few months. Digital Studio asks some end users which brand they prefer and why.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  April 7, 2004

|~|craigb.jpg|~|Nick Davidson and Craig Secker (standing) at their edit suite in Dubai Media City. |~|High definition has been proclaimed the king of video formats right now, and a couple of HD camcorders have been introduced into the Middle East market over the past few months. Digital Studio asks some end users which brand they prefer and why. When business partners and cameramen Nicolas Davidson and Craig Secker of Alchemy Films, a small production company based in Dubai Media City, got a chance to work with the two biggest HD competitors in the regional market — the Sony and the Panasonic HD cameras — they decided to put them to the test. The Sony HDCAM gives a much sharper image, says Secker. “Sony’s got much more detail in their pictures and that’s one thing Panasonic has not even tried to match. But it depends on what you are using this for. If you are going to blow your image up for cinema, the Sony will be an appropriate buy. But if it’s for video, then that might sometimes be a little too much detail for the human eye,” he says. In fact, the image from the Panasonic camcorder has “more soul in it,” according to him. “Panasonic gives that soft look, which is very nice although I’m quite sure the Sony can also achieve the same results,” he adds. Both Davidson and Secker agree that Sony has concentrated on ensuring sharp picture quality while Panasonic has focused on luminance and colour. “White looks exceptional on the Panasonic,” says Davidson. “I recently shot some footage during the golf tournament when Tiger Woods came to Dubai, and I realised how crisp and how beautiful the colour white looked in my footage. It was whiter than the usual white but there were also the details and textures that you often lose in video when you’ve got bright highlights. Panasonic deals with colour very well in this camera,” explains Davidson. The Panasonic is a dedicated 25P camcorder, which means it allows you to shoot only progressive scan while Sony has included both progressive and interlace options on its camcorder. “If you know that you want to go for a film look with high definition, which is probably the reason why you are shooting in this format anyway, the progressive look is very nice and it’s the closest approximation to film,” says Davidson. “If you want interlaced, you may as well be shooting on Digibeta or DVC-Pro 50 or something. 90% of the uses that I can envisage using HD will probably be using the progressive scan option anyway.” One key point that Alchemy fancied in the Sony HDCAM was the camera’s time lapse feature, where it can record one frame per second. This, according to Davidson, ‘gives you the smoothest time lapse you can get on the video camera’. “The other day I filmed the Burj Al Arab when it was foggy. I filmed the fog clearing for about 10 minutes. By doing a frame a second, I got a very smooth kind of reveal of the Burj with all the fog dissipated,” he adds. The Panasonic, by comparison, does about 10 or 12 frames every two seconds. Perhaps the most impressive feature of all that bowled the Alchemy partners over, is an optional add-on that the Panasonic HDCAM has that allows the end user to ramp slow motion in-camera. “The Panasonic camera can record from one frame per second to 60 frames per second. At the golf, we had a guy swinging and started the ramp as he started his swing, we started at 25 frames which is the normal speed and by the end of the ramp, we had it at about 60 frames… and when it was played back through the frame rate converter (FRC) onto the monitor, you could see this lovely smooth slow motion. As it was all done in-camera, this was exceptional,” says Davidson. ||**||II|~||~||~|This is made possible with the help of a big, heavy hard drive system from Panasonic called the frame rate converter (FRC). When the footage is played out of the VTR deck into the FRC, it re-records that video onto a hard drive, from which the end user can then play back the slow motion effects that he has done. “You can do in-camera slow motion and you can also ramp it as you are shooting by fixing the shutter so that the iris does not change if you go through your frame rate,” explains Davidson. This is a feature that both Secker and Davidson have loved although Secker is quick to caution that things done in camera reduce your capability to manipulate footage at the editing table. “Whatever you manipulate in the camera cannot be changed like the settings. This footage becomes the source material you’ve shot and you’re stuck with it, while if you keep your source material quite clean and basic, you can do all the changes you want in post production. If you’ve been doing all your changes in-camera and your client decides he wants a different look, you’re stuck. So you have to use these features very carefully.” Still, the fact that the camcorder gives you the flexibility to add effects in-camera means you can now cross over into production. Another nice feature on the Panasonic, according to Davidson, is a portable monitor that comes with the camera. “It can be mounted on top of the camera and is a waveform monitor, which is very simple to use and allows you to examine your picture in an ENG/studio setting. It allows you to verify your exposure very simply.” For the Alchemy partners, who were impressed with both the Sony and Panasonic camcorders, the ultimate determining factor has been affordability. According to them, the differences in features and image quality between the two HDCAMs have been minimal. With the Panasonic HDCAM costing about US$20,000 less than the Sony HDCAM, Alchemy is tempted to lean towards the former as it is a more affordable option. “If you are buying the Panasonic camera and the optional FRC, you’d probably be spending the same money as the Sony HDCAM with the added advantage that you can shoot at 60 frames per second. And by shooting at 60 frames per second, you can then also down convert to NTSC or you can down convert to PAL,” explains Davidson. There are others, however, who will pick a Sony without batting an eyelid because of the level of trust and support that the vendor has created in the region. Iranian filmmaker Sayed Mani Mirsadegi, who has been making documentaries and films for the past 11 years, has just acquired a Sony HDCAM. He had one day to test the camera before he made up his mind. “There’s such a freshness of colour to the images,” says Mirsadegi, “and there’s a good contrast with the colour and shadows. It’s very close to cinema,” he explains. Mirsadegi has also had other concerns. According to him, the Panasonic is heavier than the Sony. “I need flexibility to move fast on my shoots in the mountains and the rivers and the Sony HDCAM gives me that,” he says. More importantly, Mirsadegi also needs good support when he goes back to filming in his country. “I’m going to be one of the first to use the HDcam in Iran. This is a very dark and unexplored field and I need all the help I can get. Sony has support in Iran and since that is very important to me. I am happy to go with this vendor.” Ironically, budget is also one of the chief reasons why the Iranian filmmaker has chosen Sony. “I am an independent filmmaker, operating on a tight budget. Sony has given me the option of paying in instalments,” he explains. “The fact that I don’t have to pay the whole sum at one go helped me make up my mind.” Both HDCAMs have impressive features and are just as well received in the industry. What has, however, helped end users choose one camera over the other is primarily based on the features that are most relevant to their line of work and, of course, budget. ||**||

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