Precision Productions+Post, based in Los Angeles, produces commercials, EPKs and online content for networks and corporations alike. Our work ranges from EFP-style interviews and documentary work to national campaigns with high production values and a cinematic look. For many years, this translated into very different camera packages. ENG/EFP gear was finely tuned for fast, grab’n’go work, while cine gear came in a half-dozen cases and dictated a different mode of operation. The challenge was when clients and directors began asking for a mixture of both, which started to happen more often than not.
Digital cameras such as the Panasonic VariCam offer a hybrid approach but still feature a 2/3in sensor. Part of the problem is the lens. Despite rapid improvements in digital technology, optics remain stubbornly bound to the laws of physics, and bigger sensors mean big, heavy lenses and various compromises. The thought of having to lug a mammoth zoom lens around is enough to make ENG crews write off cine gear altogether.
The Fujinon PL 19-90 Cabrio (ZK4.7x19) promises to bridge the "glass gap" and offer cine lens performance with ENG ergonomics. It is a true cinema lens, covering the Super 35 sensor size with a PL mount. Its focal length translates to a versatile 4.7X zoom factor, and the aperture maintains a constant T2.9 throughout the focal range. Better yet, the lens is 9in long and weighs 6lbs. This is a blessing for handheld work since comparable cine zooms weigh twice as much, if not more.
The most innovative part of the lens is its integrated, yet detachable, servo unit. The handgrip form factor makes ENG operators feel right at home. Three servos control focus, iris and zoom, and connect to standard Fujinon zoom and focus demand units — unheard of in the film world. On the cine side of things, the pitch gear is 0.8 and not Fujinon’s usual 0.6, and the servos send ARRI LDS and Cooke /i metadata (useful for motion-control and 3-D rigs). Two switches disengage the servos for manual operation, and the whole handgrip can be easily detached from the lens for fully manual work. (It self-calibrates when reattached.)
With assistance from local outfits Evidence Cameras and Dependent Media, we were able to test the Cabrio on a variety of cameras, including an ARRI ALEXA, Sony PMW-F3, RED EPIC and even a Panasonic GH2 DSLR. The initial impression was that this is a high-end professional tool. The construction quality is excellent, with smooth and accurate ring rotation.
Optically, the lens is on par with any professional cine zoom. The 5K resolution of the RED EPIC made it the most demanding camera in our test, and the Cabrio passed with ease. Wide open, the lens exhibited minimal chromatic aberration, which was eliminated when stopped down. Distortion was present but surprisingly minor, and breathing was minimal. From the test bench to the set, we got solid, sharp footage with accurate colors.
While the lens makes for a great lightweight zoom, it truly shines when used with a shoulder-mount camera. Handheld operation of motion picture cameras has always required plenty of rigging, with elaborate mounts, handgrips, remote control units, and help from camera assistants and a dedicated focus puller. With the Cabrio, much of that is gone, and we regain the simplicity and immediacy of ENG. It’s just a camera and a lens, and it all makes sense.
Operating in this manner emphasizes the different approaches to ergonomics in cinema versus ENG. Cine cameras come in all shapes and sizes, and care should be taken to customize a rig so the handgrip ends up in a comfortable and sensible position for the operator. The ARRI ALEXA performed particularly well in that regard since its design ergonomics are closer to the ENG form factor.
Testing the lens on the Panasonic GH2 DSLR was another thought-provoking experience. Granted, customers may not couple a $38,000 (MSRP) lens with a $900 camera, but the unlikely marriage feels surprisingly natural. It’s akin to a handycam that delivers theater-worthy footage, and the fact that its weight distribution is 85 percent glass is merely a technicality. The vision of “a lens with a chip in the back” is becoming a reality.
Note that focus is as critical as in any Super 35 camera, so directly manipulating the lens can yield underwhelming results without extra experience, additional takes or a dedicated focus puller. Thankfully, using a remote-control follow focus is easy since the servo unit directly integrates with a number of wireless remote systems.
The lens opens up an interesting new chapter in image acquisition. Will we see it in programs such as “60 Minutes,” bringing the cinema look to news? Will cine cameras become integrated in multicamera workflows? As the broadcast industry rethinks its place in a world of cell phone cameras and giant-screen TVs, the convergence of cinema and ENG will surely affect the next generation of shooters. A lens like the Cabrio simply facilitates that change.
—Drew Lahat is the lead engineer at Precision Productions+Post.