Panasonic’s AG-HVX200 DVCPRO HD P2 handheld camcorder provides 1080i and 720p recording with 100Mb/s DVCPRO HD quality.
Can anything really still be new in camera technology after all these years? A century ago, U.S. patent commissioner Charles Duell said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” But he was wrong.
Consider the advancements in the last 40 years, from the introduction of color to the miniaturization of cameras. Engineers in labs in Japan, Europe and, to a much more limited degree, the United States seem to be able to produce something new out of an old concept each year.
It is actually quite simple: Focus light on an electronic sensor, assemble the image in a serial fashion, transmit it to a monitor some distance and time away, and display the picture. It is the very nature of television, which the German language descriptively calls fernsehen, literally translated as “to see far away.”
The latest advancements
The latest round of advancements are wrapped up in new camcorder technology, which is not so much the acquisition of the image, but a novel way to record it and move the recording to a distant point. In the last couple of years, it was the introduction of HDV camcorders. These small marvels are true HDTV samplers with good-quality recording, wrapped up in a quasi-consumer/professional package for less than E6000. Moreover, HDV is not only cheap, but also it outputs multiple standards and multiple frame rates. Further, it records standard DV and long GOP MPEG.
Although the format was conceived of for HDTV consumer camcorders, it immediately found its way into professional use. Event photographers, news professionals, documentary filmmakers and even commercial producers snapped up the first units and recorded some pretty stunning footage. Edit system manufacturers were quick (a relative term) to provide packages that allow all the usual range of nonlinear editing functions.
What sets this new idea apart is that HDTV has dramatically dropped in price. Although these cameras are not the tools George Lucas wants for primary photography in the entertainment business, at least they democratize the acquisition of HDTV images and accelerate the shift in consumer electronics, which has lumbered along since the mandated introduction of DTV seven years ago. The most insidious fact is that €50,000 camcorders contain much of the same electronics. With the introduction of solid-state recording of HDTV images by both Japanese and European companies at IBC this year, the medium moved further along. These were not consumer products gussied up, but rather products intended for professionals, geared toward entertainment production workflow. This is a huge shift in the market, and the ripples will be felt in many ways.
With Sony’s XDCAM HD, users can record 1080i video at three data recording rates: 18Mb/s, 25Mb/s and 35Mb/s.
There were three important introductions that happened at IBC2005:
Sony showed working models of professional Blu-ray XDCAM camcorders in HD.
Panasonic featured the AG-HVX200, a P2-based palmcorder in HD.
Grass Valley introduced the Infinity series, a whole line of solid-state and removable drive camcorders with matching workflow products.
What began with JVC's introduction of a consumer crossover camcorder a couple of years ago has blossomed into a wide range of products that drop the entry-level price of HD into unprecedented territory. Apple, Avid, Leitch, Pinnacle and other editing system manufacturers have delivered products to support some or all of the new approaches. These are not toys, but the real deal.
Solid-state recording versus spinning media
Under the hood, the debate about solid-state versus spinning media recording goes on. Grass Valley claims to offer both, with Iomega REV removable disks and SD memory. Panasonic has gained traction with P2, which consists of repackaged consumer memory technology. Sony offers the highly portable and IT-friendly, DVD-like, high-capacity disk, which is based on proprietary Blue-ray technology. Ikegami has developed a hard-disk-based HD camcorder using a codec developed by Avid. Hitachi developed another hard-disk-based recording system that mates with its Z-3500 and other cameras to make a complete camcorder system (developed in association with storage vendor nNovia).
Grass Valley’s Infinity camcorder features SD and HD video formats and 14-bit digital signal processing using JPEG 2000 coding.
What all of these have in common is a fresh look at what the recording medium is and the impact of workflow on field production cameras. If you get the impression that linear tape is on its way out as a field medium, I would suspect you are correct.
How soon? It may be three to five years before videotape begins to disappear. If you remember how long U-Matic lasted, you might understand how the inertia in the industry changes. In this case, nonlinear editing has made the switch to nonlinear camera recordings more compelling.
But in front of the recorder, we will always find cameras with sensors and lenses. After all, the point of all of this camera technology is to turn photons into electrons and deliver a representation of reality to a distant screen. (Remember fernsehen.)
Much like in lenses, what is new in cameras is incremental in nature, but profound in the ability of manufacturers to deliver incredible product performance for a lower cost. In part, this is based on the penetration of high-quality cameras into consumer markets. The research and manufacturing expertise put into both still and moving image electronic cameras benefit the professional marketplace directly.
The HDV cameras showing up in professional use are a clear example of this consumer crossover business. I would be disappointed if this market dynamic changed. There are things we can do today that we could only dream of yesterday. The monochrome moguls of the '50s and '60s would hardly believe we are so lucky today with CMOS HDTV sensors, digital cinema cameras with 4k resolution, progressive scan 60fps capture and recording, and loads of other newly-minted technology.
John Luff is the senior vice president of business development for AZCAR.
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