HD camera madness

Things have gotten interesting on a side project, as we've been upgraded from Canon XL2s to the same Panavision HD cameras used by George Lucas in his new Star Wars movies.

I mentioned several months ago that I had accepted a position as cameraman on an independent film being shot in Los Angeles. Back then, the plan was to use Canon XL2s, which are standard definition cameras that are pretty good. Canon XL1-S cameras (the previous version of the Canon camera) were used to shoot Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later," which if you are a horror fan, is an amazingly good addition to the genre (I have a thing for zombie films, and sprinting zombie-like creatures are even scarier than the slow-moving bumbling dead people of "Night of the Living Dead").

Well, those plans just got thrown out the window. Instead, we'll be using the Panavision HD-900F High Definition Camera System, which are built on a Sony F900 base. Just for perspective, those are the same cameras that George Lucas used to shoot "Star Wars: Episode II, Attack of the Clones" (and subsequent films).


As the picture shows, the camera is pretty damn big. It's a bit like going from a pistol to a bazooka, and given the George Lucas connection, makes me feel like I should start blasting imperial forces with the thing.

Panavision is an odd company. They are the premier supplier of video equipment, hands down. When you rent from Panavision, you don't just get the camera, but all the accessories necessary on a modern video shoot. Not only do most big-budget films use their equipment, but when we went to pick our stuff up for a test run this past weekend, major TV shows were filling trucks full of camera gear for use in various places across the country (it's pilot season in LA).

Panavision doesn't sell cameras. Their HD camera is built on a Sony base, but all the parts, and in particular, the lenses, are constructed in house. You can only use them as rentals.

Talk about proprietary hardware. Of course, people put up with that because Panavision makes the best hardware, and the care and feeding of these beasts can be pretty complicated. Panavision is an example of outsourcing institutionalized. Production companies leave it to Panavision to care for the gear as well as push it to the next level (the specs on the next-generation Panavision camera, the Genesis system, are pretty impressive), leaving them free to concentrate on the 1000 other issues associated with a video production.

Panavision cameras feel like quality, as a 60 pound camera clearly should. Of course, the weight does change somewhat the kinds of things you can do. I can go handheld, with a bit of assistance, if I have the smaller zoom lens attached. The big telephoto creature (which is shown in the photo) would crush me like a bug in handheld settings.

Anyway, I'm sacrificing eight weekends for the shooting of this film. The Panavision HD camera makes it 100 times more interesting because, as I mentioned to our sound mixer who scoffed at the notion that I would have no interest in learning the traditional film process, HD is the future. Most editing is already done digitally, which means traditional film has to be converted, or "telecined," to digital video. Removing that step in the process, not to mention reducing the complexity associated with a traditional film shoot, saves sets money.

Granted, most crews, and most video experts, know the traditional film process backwards and forwards. However, more consumers buying HD-capable TV sets, and the growing importance of the home theater market (a market which will soon have HD-capable DVD players, whether HD-DVD or BluRay), puts pressure on film productions to use HD from start to finish. Kodak knows its in trouble, and given the number of digital cameras I saw being loaded at Panavision, I should the think the industry will see the writing on the wall.