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NAB 2012 – Filling The Vacuum


Logo of the National Association of Broadcasters.

It’s been two years since I last attended the National Association of Broadcasters Convention (NAB) – a two-year period in which much of production has undergone some serious seismic shifts. NAB is the giant trade convention in Las Vegas where just about anyone who sells a good or service tied to the film, TV, Radio, and even internet business comes to debut new products and hawk their wares. I’ve been to Comicon and I’ve been to NAB and it would be hard for me to say which convention was bigger.

Although with more-than-adequate blogging, blogging, and from the convention floor, it’s always great to go to the show, talk to the camera reps and such, and even put one’s hands on the gear. It’s also always great to talk to the people who make the damn stuff, many of whom are there to directly explain what they do.

NAB is an overwhelming trade show and there’s no way to cover EVERYTHING. And I’m not a huge fan of Las Vegas in general, so I tend to drive in to NAB for a day and drive back the next day.

A FCP-Sized Hole in Postproduction

Final Cut Pro

FCPX, I'll see you in hell.

I think the biggest takeaway from the show for me was the giant void that Apple has left when it abandoned its professional users a year ago with its controversial release of Final Cut Pro X. Although a few defended the indefensible move to throw away a fully-functioning editing application which had established a hard-won professional user base, the consensus was clear from the NAB show floor – there was ZERO representation of Apple’s cyclopean-idiot-beast-child to be seen. Even with Apple’s aversion to trade shows, I did not see even one computer running the application anywhere. And I saw PLENTY of Apple computers. And even people on the camera side could easily earn a cheap laugh by mocking FCPX.

Adobe Assumes the Same Space that Apple used to Occupy

One of the first and most glaring signs to me that things had changed was Adobe – the company best positioned to drink Final Cut Pro’s milkshake. I was first struck by the symbolism of Adobe’s massive display/ongoing seminar/demo station in the lower South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center – It’s where Apple used to set up. I remember in 2003 standing in that very spot trying to get my hands on a workstation running Apple’s then-new After Effects-wannabe software package Motion.

The EXACT spot where Apple used to hang its hat.

Now Adobe has consumed that entire space to announce the release of Creative Suite 6, one of  handful of packages that could eat FCP’s user disgruntled base whole (full disclosure – I switched to the Adobe suite for my own projects in June and haven’t looked back). The improvements to the Adobe suite were decent, incremental, and positive. I suspect that Adobe has been racing against time to make their production premium everything FCP users wished it would be – and for the most part I think they’ve succeeded (more below).

Blackmagic’s Less-Than-Magical Magic-Cam

Blackmagic's Cinema Camera: $3,000 worth of mind-numbing could-have-been.

This breaks my heart to report.

Blackmagic Design, purveyor of high-end video cards and current steward of the iconic color grading platform DaVinci Resolve blew everyone’s mind this past week with the announcement of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera – a tiny form-factor image machine with 2.5K resolution and a price tag of $3,000. The sensor is slightly on the small side (smaller than Super 35mm, smaller than Micro 4/3, but bigger than 16mm film or 2/3″), and it takes EF-mount lenses. Plus, a reported 13 stops of dynamic range! It’s the “3K for $3K” camera RED pitched as the Scarlet years ago. But there’s one tragic flaw (and it’s a doozy):

Battery life. According to the reps at the Blackmagic booth, it only works for 2-3 hours on a single charge, and you can’t swap batteries in the field. In fact, you can’t swap batteries AT ALL. You can plug the thing into a wall (bleh), and the reps at the Blackmagic booth assured me that 3rd parties will bring solutions to the table to allow you to connect it to other batteries (goodbye, elegant form-factor, hello, Anton/Bauer Battery brick!), but this somewhat invalidates the promise of the whole camera.
It’s like they never talked to a cameraman while conceiving this and it forces me to ask the follow-up – what else didn’t they figure out real shooters would need?

Nonlinear Editing Goes Up in Smoke

Yes, I’m the first person to use that pun.

Autodesk Smoke is one of those things I never suspected I’d get to use, nor would I ever develop the necessary expertise to even think about using it. It was a magical $85K box used by high-end compositors and VFX pros to add 3D elements, compositing, and general zazz to projects I’ve rarely had the pleasure of working on. Even when they dropped the price to $15K, I would NEVER have considered it for anything unless I was hiring a specialist to work on it on a high-end project. I would never deign to operate it myself.

But now, possibly also taking their cue from the fall of FCPX or even the ubiquity of Adobe, Autodesk has thrown their hat into the ring of nonlinear editors. Priced still a little high for the likes of me ($3,500 plus a $500 yearly subscription), they’ve re-outfitted their high-end VFX box to run on laptop GPU’s, and then added a state-of-the-art NLE into the package. For my money, the interface looks a lot like Adobe Premiere. There will be a trial version available which I plan on downloading even if it’s just to see how the other half lives.

Canon’s Strong Showing

Recently I ragged on Canon’s new $15K offering, the C300. I made fun of it mostly for its price, which I maintain is priced out of the realm of people like me who – not being a DP or a camera rental facility – will have a hard time getting my money out of the camera. At NAB, Canon announced two other priced-to-rent camera bodies – the 1DX ($15,000) and the C500 ($30,000). The 1DX is a DSLR-looking cinema camera which produces a 4K image and the C500 has a similar form factor to the C300 and is capable of 4K – but only with an external recorder (AJA makes the one they recommend).

The Canon C500 rigged for 4K. Priced to rent.

Now I’m not revising my opinion regarding the cost of these cameras. They are seriously professional cameras designed for a professional market. All I can say is the images coming out of them were nothing short of spectacular. There was still a bit of rolling shutter (as there is on every CMOS camera), but after my beloved 5D Mark II all other rolling shutter looks minor. I couldn’t help but think that if I had a feature to shoot today, the choice of camera might come down to the Epic, the Alexa, or one of the Canons.

As for the Big Boys…

To me the two stalwarts are Panasonic and Sony who, until recently, seemed to be perpetually battling it out for our love and patronage. The news from both this year was somewhat underwhelming, but even the big dogs are allowed to have an off year.

I’m a huge fan of Panasonic cameras, having shot one short on the SDX-900 (which I found at NAB 2003), one feature on the HPX-3000, an Instant Film on the GH1, and countless projects on my own HVX-200. Two years ago the buzz was about their then-upcoming micro 4/3 camcorder the AF-100 which appears to be doing decently but this year Panasonic didn’t seem to have any bombshells to drop in the image-making world and seemed more fixated on their big-screen TVs. Maybe next year, Panasonic!

Sony FS-700. Can we make this look less appealing to pick up?

Sony, on the other hand, has been releasing all kinds of new cameras lately, including the 4K-capable FS-700. Even though I’ve wondered out lout if Sony were competing in an ugly-camera competition with itself, the promise of the FS-700 is high but what I saw felt very flat and looked like the things we describe when we describe how bad video looks. It could be that their booth just wasn’t set up to maximize the “cinema” feel or a lot of other mitigating factors. I would be more than happy to give Sony another spin around the block with this or any camera, but the Sony booth did nothing to convince me that it was better than the competition.

What’s the Deal with All the Helicopters?

Seriously, I saw no less than four booths with remote-controlled helicopter-mounts for your small cameras. Here’s one. It’s very cool – but I think all of the helicopter-cam people should join forces rather than compete in this niche-of-a-niche market. But I’ll mind my own business.

Another booth, another selection of camera-copters.

Two Flavors of Digital Projection

There are always amazing screenings held in modular theaters around the show and this year there were two with some buzz that I wanted to see. One was a 3D demo on RED Camera’s 4K RED Ray  cinema projector, and the other was a 3D presentation by Christie Digital featuring filmmaker James Cameron explaining why the new projection standard should become 60 frames per second rather than the traditional 24.

The Red demo was solid. They projected a short shot on RED’s Epic camera and directed by Luke Scott (son of Ridley). It was not surprising that the expensive-looking sci-fi short (featuring Giovanni Ribisi no less) looked great, and the 3D effect was superior to what I’m used to seeing in movie theaters. I will look for other demos of the RED Ray in the future.

As for the Christie demo… It was very informative. I’m nobody to be contradicting James Cameron, but the 60FPS standard for projection ends up looking like the highest-possible rendering of the 6:00 news possible – and in 3D. My issue with the footage is that it renders things SO realistically, it draws attention to all the artifice of filmmaking. Allow me to explain:

Cameron and his legendary DP Russell Carpenter ran a test, creating period-piece looking footage with a medieval feel. So castles, costumes, people eating with their hands, candles, etc. And they created shots intentionally designed to create unpleasant artifacting in 3D – strobing, ghosting, flickering, etc. The same shots were then shot at 24FPS, 48FPS, and 60FPS and played back at the frame rates at which they were captured (they did slow motion later, but for now it was about more frames per second in capture and exhibition). The higher frame rates DID get rid of the artifacting but Cameron’s boast that it looked like we were “looking through a window” on the scene was also (in my opinion) somewhat overstated. But the extra dose of reality that the high frame rate photography gave the image was more reminiscent of interlaced video (which runs at approximately 60 fields per second), and suddenly the sets looked like sets, the lighting looked like lighting, and everything felt more artificial.

Maybe my eyes and my brain just need to catch up with Mr. Cameron’s new system and we’ll all have a chance to see this in action when “The Hobbit” comes out after being shot at 60FPS – but I did not leave that theater a believer that this was the best way to exhibit all films, or even all 3D films.

So… Not 3D… Sorta…

Two years ago after my Vegas trip, I spent a lot of time wondering if 3D was the absolute next step for me and/or the business as a whole. So did a lot of other people. The bummer of 3D is that it’s like learning filmmaking all over again from scratch, and learning new things makes my head hurt. Plus I want to leave 3D to the geniuses who do it well like 3DIY impresario Eric Kurland, rather than homogenize the art of stereography.

I don’t want to rain on the 3D parade, but two years ago you could tell if you were talking to a vendor or a content creator mostly by their attitude about 3D – Vendors couldn’t wait to sell everyone the newest 3D camera/rig/software, and content creators were (generally) praying that 3D was a fad and they weren’t going to have to start producing everything in 3D. In a sense, both got their wishes as 3D has become an in-demand niche exhibition format while good-ol 2D production still predominates. The 3D products which had been rushed to market in the wake of the success of “Avatar,” have mostly weeded themselves out, and for the serious 3D creator (like the aforementioned Eric Kurland), the tools that remained seemed to be pointing toward a bright (literally!) future for their beloved medium. For the most part, except Sony’s “no glasses” headache-induing 3D television, most of what I saw from the 3D landscape looked decent.

Note to self: $20 for Indian food at a convention with no seats is an expensive, drippy, inefficient mess.

Things I would actually use:

My whirlwind style of getting through NAB in a single day doubtlessly meant that I missed some awesome stuff but for the most part I saw the things I was most excited about and found a bunch of random things in the nether regions of the show floor, nestled in the cheap booths (where I once saw the now-ubiquitous Phantom camera at their first show). In no way is this list comprehensive, but as I left the show, these were the things that really stuck with me.

  • New Canon Cameras – Without a doubt, some of the best-looking images I saw at the show were at the Canon booth. I would not buy any of the cameras priced north of $5,000 for almost any reason, but I would certainly rent them or test them for upcoming projects.
  • The Entire Adobe Creative Suite – This is pure confirmation bias but Premiere CS6 is now being jokingly referred to as Final Cut Pro 8. They have eliminated many of the things that regularly drive me to distraction (I’m looking at you, soundtrack organization) in Premiere Pro CS6, and have added a lot of cool features (multicam, warp stabilization, adjustment layers, “hover scrubbing,” etc. that I know will come in handy. The one disappointment is their new grading software, Speedgrade. My mind is boggled by a color correction/grading program that doesn’t have a still store and only lets you reference nine clips in an entire show. I can see that one changing already.
  • Imagineer Systems Mocha 3 – Mocha (formerly Monet) ia an amazing “planar tracking” tool (meaning it can pull 3D camera data out of a 2D image and allow you to drop new elements into that space or onto any plane in the shot) and I’ve tried to learn it several times with little success. After watching a demo of what it does, I have recommitted myself to digging into it because I believe an understanding of what can be done in planar tracking will inevitably change the way I shoot.
  • Rampant Design Tools – I found these guys buried in the rows and rows of cheap booths. Basically, they make high-res, royalty-free stock elements for compositing in Adobe After Effects (or Smoke or whatever you use), and the elements are great. It’s reminiscent of Video Copilot’s Action Essentials, but with more elements from which to choose. I just downloaded their free samples, and so should you.
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One comment on “NAB 2012 – Filling The Vacuum

  1. […] As I blogged about last year, much of the nonlinear editing (NLE) world has furiously pushed to fill the void left by the departure of the venerable Final Cut Pro as it transformed itself into the aforementioned nonprofessional mistake known as FCPX. The challengers to the FCP throne have all been people who were already in the post world (unlike FCP when it first emerged), notably Avid (already the undisputed industry leader for the longest time), Adobe Premiere (my tool of choice for editing today, but something the pro editing world hasn’t fully embraced), and last year Autodesk Smoke (my opinion – too expensive, too complicated, and the NLE is too underdeveloped). So this year, add DaVinci Resolve 10 from Blackmagic Design – you’ll be hearing me talk about this company a bit more – added the beginnings of a NLE into the Resolve interface. The people at the booth claim that this is only so colorists can make final tweaks for clients in the finishing bay but when pressed I was told that one could theoretically edit an entire project in Resolve if one were so inclined. Incidentally, this functionality will be available in the “lite” version of resolve, which is a free download. Will anyone be cutting with it anytime soon? No idea – but I’d give it a year. […]

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