August 31, 2005

Small Cameras, Big Show: NAB Ushers in the Year of HDV

The Panasonic HVX200

Every April, over 100,000 delegates converge on the Convention Center in Las Vegas for NAB (National Association of Broadcasters), the largest electronic media convention in the world. According to John Milner of NAB, the show floors cover the equivalent of 68 football fields (800,000 square feet) to accommodate 1,400 exhibits of audio, video and moviemaking equipment. This is the show of shows for the unveiling of new equipment.

This is clearly the year of high-definition video (HDV). Although JVC introduced a single-chip HDV camera, the GR-HD1, at NAB 2003, soon followed by a prosumer version, the JY-HD10U, neither made huge inroads into the market share of the Panasonic AG-DVX100A. 

At NAB 2004, Sony attracted lots of attention with a mock-up of the Z1U, a three-chip 1080i HDV camera with dual XLR inputs. Looking like a PD150 or PD170 on steroids, the Z1U was to output 1080i, but the data, as with all HDV cameras, would undergo MPEG-2 compression to reduce the data rate to 25 megabits per second-one sixth of the bdata rate of regular HD-CAM, and low enough to fit an hour's recording time onto a standard Mini-DV tape.

By the DVExpo in Los Angeles in December 2004, the consumer version, the Sony HDR-FX1, was already available, and the professional version on display, the HVR-Z1U, was attracting swarms of people. Readily available in February, the HVR-Z1U looked to be the HDV camera of choice.

Then, at NAB 2005, JVC showed its new HDV camera, the GY-HD100U, recording what JVC calls ProHD. Looking like a scaled-down version of the big, shoulder-mounted broadcast cameras, the GY-HD100U offers high-quality interchangeable lenses from Fujinon, three progressive scan CCDs, cine gamma and 24p recording. With two XLR microphone inputs, an innovative focus-assist, as well as peaking, an earcup and big batteries, this camera is clearly aimed to be the crown for HDV cameras-that is, until JVC gets its full-sized, three 2/3" CMOS chip HDV camera to market.

With Focus Enhancements able to provide the option of recording directly to a hard drive, thus eliminating both the tape drive and the need for a deck, the GY-HD100U seems to have covered all options and wishes for an HDV camera.

I returned several times to see this camera, thinking, "If only it recorded in 720p DVCPRO100 HD, instead of HDV." When the crowds cleared, Brian Rutz, district sales manager for JVC, mentioned to me that the GY-HD100U outputs live 720/60p, which doesn't record to Mini-DV tape, but can be converted via a small AJA or Miranda analog- to-digital converter box and then outputted to an HD deck, like the Panasonic AJ-HD1200A. Since this deck can be used on DC power, even field recording in 720/60p HD is possible, and without the MPEG-2 in-camera compression.

I would be surprised if the GY-HD100U equaled the quality of the Panasonic Varicam (which records in 720/60p) because it's only got 1/3" chips instead of the 2/3" CCDs on the Varicam. But it's about a quarter the weight of a Varicam, and at $6,600, is ten percent of the cost, and that's before you even add a lens to the bigger camera!

The other multi-award-winning camera on display at NAB-albeit in a mock-up-was the Panasonic AG-HVX200. The camera, expected in November, is unquestionably going to revolutionize moviemaking across the field.

What makes the AG-HVX200 special? Product manager Jan Crittenden described this revolutionary camera point-by-point. It records in 100 Megabit HD, not HDV, and to the P2 memory cards, as used on the AJ-SPX800 camera.

A solid-state camera similar to the AJ-SDX900, but recording to five P2 memory cards instead of to tape, the AJ-SPX800 was announced at NAB2003, shown in prototype form at NAB 2004, and widely purchased by many TV stations as the news camera par excellence later that year. The P2 cards, although currently only four GB each, will be available in eight GB capacity by the time the AG-HVX200 ships.

To increase the recording time, the AG-HVX200 records in 720/24p for 20 minutes to each of two eight-GB cards; it also records in 720/60p, but only for eight minutes per card. Surprisingly, the camera even records in 1080/60i format, also for eight minutes. Do bear in mind that as years go by, these cards will quadruple in capacity, and the price will come down.

Also, the AG-HVX200 will record DVCPRO50 (16 minutes per eight GB-less, because of less compression than HD), DVCPRO25 (32 minutes per eight GB), and Mini-DV for an hour-but to tape, not to card!

Why, then, does this almost futuristic camera still sport a tape drive? To make the camera compatible with anything you might have right now. By the time the tape drive wears out, you can probably ignore it; we'll all be recording to cards anyway!

By recording HD as 1080 in 60i, 30p or 24p; or 720 in 30p or 24p; or SD as PVCPRO50 or DVCPRO25 (both in either 60i, 30p or 24p); or Mini-DV in 60i, 30p or 24p, the AG-HVX200 can match the format and frame to every popular video format in use today. It even records variable frame rate HD in 720p.

An SD card records up to four set-up files, with another four in the camera; there's an IEEE1394 (Firewire) port, a USB 2.0 connection, dual XLR inputs, with available phantom power, composite, S-video, line level audio in/out-and an analog HD out to record to an external deck, should the need arise.

There's a three-second pre-record in HD, extended to seven seconds in lesser formats; loop record availability across the cards; and, as with the big AJ-SPX800, the P2 cards are hot-swappable. Four hours of operation are anticipated from a new 5400mAH battery, and there's 48K, four-channel audio and a 13x zoom with cam-driven manual control (as well as power), with the 35mm equivalent of 32.5mm to 422.5mm, with a 2x digital push-in for focus. The high-resolution LCD is 4:3 aspect ratio to permit information to be displayed above and below the image; SMPTE and HD color bars are available; and time code options include REC RUN and FREE RUN, or user bits.

Slow shutter goes down to 1/6 second, 1/12 in 24p, and there is the option of recording with automatic settings as well as manual. Curiously, the on-board mic only records via automatic level control circuitry. Perhaps the Panasonic engineers believe that anyone interested in quality audio would not use an on-board microphone. But why not? There are no moving parts! Apart from zoom and focus motors, the camera is totally silent!

Compared to the JVC GY-HD100U, the Panasonic AG-HVX200 records uncompressed audio, and has image stabilization in a fixed lens camera. The JVC model records MPEG layer 2 audio compression, does not have image stabilization as a feature, but does have interchangeable lenses. Both the JVC and Panasonic models have progressive scan chips, so offering 24p will provide strong competition for the Sony HDV cameras, the FX1 and Z1U.

With P2 cards, one downloads footage to either a laptop or a hard drive. The filmmaker won't need a deck and will never need to store tape again. It's a revolution in video editing, and mostly a revolution in your mind! IT (information technology) cameras are the future. I can't wait for November.

 

Robert Render Harrison is an independent producer/director based in Northern California.

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