Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sony F55 using Canon FD lenses, first looks, part 1

I haven't blogged since 2009 and found my old blog page had simply disappeared (probably because I hadn't blogged since 2009). So now I've begun again, only because I recently felt I had something to share.

When I first started Behind The Looking Glass, I was hoping to carry an on-going discussion about digital cinematography and have others contribute. But I've found there are no end to articles and insight from far more knowledgeable and famous cinematographers that, well, frankly, I didn't feel I could shed much new light on things.

Since then I've had opportunity to work with some of the higher-end cameras on the market, and just now coming on the market, specifically, the Sony F55. There are plenty of pictures and specs about the camera so I won't go there in this blog. This is more of a "greeting" of sorts and my personal first hands-on experience with the camera.

Last week I traveled down to Austin to visit the folks at Omega Broadcast Group, who are the only authorized dealers for the F55 in Texas. The reason why is because they were willing to take the mandatory training course Sony required in order to represent the F55. Sales Manager, Allan Barnswell was so kind to let me come in and fiddle with the new camera all while trying to get ready for a 4K screening of a short film by Sam Nicholson using the F55 called, MAHOUT. Many people might have seen this film and camera talked about in Digital Times last month.

My goal was to try my Canon FD prime lenses, via a MTF adapter, on the F55. The idea was to see a worse case scenario of optics and see the results. There had already been some lovely examples of the F55 online, including DIG, seen here:  https://vimeo.com/54571154 that used high quality glass. I wanted to see if photo primes would hold up, because if they did, I could conceivably use my photo primes on lower-end projects and rent high quality glass as projects dictated. If you've priced the F55, you can't really put a package together for under $40K, by the time you get the batteries, charger, cards, EFV, shoulder mount, etc. that's not even including the 4K recorder, and certainly not with high quality glass. I'm a one man owner operator and have to be careful what I buy. I have to make a business case for buying this camera, photo primes would help me do that.

I am seriously considering the F55 because it seems to be a real contender to the Arri Alexa (which I'm very fond of) and Red Epic (which I'm less fond of but also impressed with). I got to shoot with both of those cameras in 2012 and tend to judge the new cameras from those experiences. I am so serious about the F55 that I purchased the MTF adapter ($420) just to carry out this test.

The FZ MTF adapter is the same one used on the Sony F3, which I shoot a fair amount of, so it's a reasonable investment to make anyway. Sure enough, the adapter fit nicely on the F55 and though it takes a little finagling, I was able to get all my Canon FD lenses to go on. I was in a real time crunch because the camera was scheduled to head out to the presentation site at the Alamo Cinema Draught House where the 4K screening was to take place. That gave me only enough time to shoot a couple clips indoors under the Omega house lights and a couple clips out front of the building, where subject matter is a little lacking. I was able to change out lenses a couple times only.

Once back inside, I needed to download the clips on a portable drive to take back with me to Plano and really evaluate what I shot. Here begins the series of Sony catches I was to discover.

Firstly, Sony decided to not provide the new Content Browser 2.0, which is required to view XAVC clips, as a free download. I am a long time user of my Sony XDCAM EX1 and other XDCAM cameras and a free browser has always been available for download. This was discouraging to say the least. So just to look at my test clips I'd have to buy the Content Browser. I wondered how that would work in a client situation. Sometimes I simply hand off files to them. Would they be less likely to hire me if I told them these files could only be viewed on a browser they had to buy first?

Had I known that, I guess I would have configured the camera to shoot that usual XDCAM Mpeg-2 MXF to the SxS cards instead of the new XAVC. But I wanted to see the new codec in this test and it was too late to shoot more samples.

Secondly, I am a Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 user. They are among the first to accept the XAVC codec in the NLE, but you have to buy the plug-in from Rovi (a Mainconcepts third party software company) at a cost of over $552. (I remember having to buy a Mainconcepts plug-in when the first XDCAM EX footage came out before Adobe made it native). So no real surprise there but another barrier to my test and to my business model. Will clients hire me if the codec requires a pricey plug-in to work in their favorite NLE?

Oddly, Sony provides a free plug-in to use the 4K content in Premiere Pro CS6, so long as you have the computer specs to handle 4K material.

I went ahead and downloaded the clips, hoping a solution would present itself in the near future. On to the 4K presentation.

Apparently, the Alamo Cinema Draught House has one of the few 4K projection systems in Austin. They even have a plaque in the lobby certifying them. Two regional Sony reps were in attendance but they were letting Omega run the show. They ran MAHOUT. My first reaction was, "this is video". Not quite the filmic cinematic experience I was expecting. Mind you, this was really sharp beautiful, noiseless, video, but video nonetheless. I kept trying to put my finger on it. Was it the lack of noise or grain, the lenses used, the way it was graded or exported for the server playback? Was it the projection setup. Was I looking at a 120 MHz frequency? It was lovely, but not very cinematic to my eye. Now I'm thinking, how would I convince a feature film client to shoot with my F55 if it doesn't produce the cinematic quality they are expecting?

I asked the Sony reps about it and they couldn't say how the projection was set up or anything about the file export for the server, but that it had a different look in other projection environments. It would have been better if Sony had a series of shorts on one reel to show how various filmmakers were treating the footage. But alas, we only had Mahout. Though I was a bit let down, I was inclined to think that 4K footage on a 4K projector was simply a new experience for me, and that it would have been different in a different environment, different projection system or settings. I was glad I went because the trip taught me a few things.

First, wait till a new codec is well adopted into the industry and readily available to editors. Wait till clients can have access to their footage without having to buy a browser first. And finally, get a look at other projects in other display environments before committing. And I guess that's where I am on the F55. Waiting to see what happens next.

My next posting will reveal some new developments since that February 28 presentation. Stay tuned.

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