by John P. Hess
On Sunday April 15th, 2012, the eve of the NAB Las Vegas Exhibition Week, Canon officially premiered their first line of 4K cameras to an invited group of filmmakers and press at the Dresden theater inside the Palms Hotel. The new 4K Canons included the EOS 1D-C, the world’s first 4K HDSLR camera, and the EOS C500, the 4K big brother of last year’s C300.
Having driven from California (with a 2 hour detour after I realized I left my camera at home) I arrived exhausted but just in time for the event. The place was packed with seating only available in the front 4 rows. Now normally I would have shyed away from sitting so close to the screen, but having recently read up on the biological limitations of the human eye I felt that sitting in the front would be the perfect place to really get the full impact of 4K projection.**
**Aside: Using a screen calculator estimating a 50 foot screen (600 inches), I would have to sit a maximum of 37 feet away (American Football fans, imagine a little more than 10 yards) from the screen to fully appreciate the pixel count of 4K (this is because the 20/20 human eyesight resolves only to 1/60th of a degree, and my eyes are far from 20/20). So if I was really going to pixel peep a 4K projection, the third row was the place to do it.
The event started with the usual corporate heraldry sounding off on the greatness of Canon’s camera offerings. It was preaching to the choir as almost every camera in the room carried the Canon logo. And we all knew the news. What we really wanted to see were the demo films and get more specs.
Instead of a blow by blow recount of the evenings show, I’m just going to boil it down to just what you need to know about these cameras. If you need more information, the web is full of tech rich discussions on these cameras to aid your purchasing/rental desires.
I’m going to start with C500 – the KING of Canon’s Video Cameras. There has been some lamenting as to why the C500, which has essentially the same imaging chip as the C300, wasn’t the first to be released. But if you know anything about showmanship, you know you want to save the best for last.
But there was a technical reason as well. To many of us, a video camera is a mystery black box: Light goes in one end and it gets stored as data on these little square pieces of plastic. What I gathered from the engineering explaination (which had words I recognized but combined in the manner of explaining the C500’s image processing managed to flow right over my head) the C500 required a greater amount of technical voodoo to hand off all those pretty pixels.
These are pictures of the slide show from Adam Wilt’s blog on the screening at ProVideoCoalition
Okay… now I get it!
A short film "Man and Beast" shot by Jeff Cronenweth showcased the Canon C500’s capability. And it is quite a remarkable capability. The film was told through narration and visual story telling. Pixel peeping from the 3rd row, the images were about as visually perfect as I could tell. There was a shot of a tiger (or lioness – I forget) that would have rivaled any National Georgaphic photo.
To be fair, my experience isn’t with cameras of this high a calibur but everything about the image from the focus to the fleshtones to the sharpness all just felt right. It was CINEMA with a capital C.
At $30,000 it should be.
But I have to remark on the length of ending credits… any short film with a list of names that long had better look damned good.
Okay, maybe the $30k C500 is too much dought to spend (or even rent). What about the 4K HDSLR?
The technicalities of the 4K are rather interesting and totally explained to the layman this way:
Well, jah….. duh…
All kidding aside, it basically means the video image sensor crop varies depending on the type of video you are shooting. So if you shoot 4K you’ll get a slightly smaller center cropped field of view than shooting HD (which can be switched between full frame and Super 35).
But does it shoot good?
"The Ticket" was the demo film presented by Shane Hurlbut from the 5D MkII Act of Valor fame (click here to see the film). Shot on the streets of Santa Monica at night mostly handheld, "The Ticket" used mostly natural light with a just a little help ("4 amps only" as described by Hurlbut on one dark shot on a ferris wheel).
The Ticket told a story of a young couple having a long overdue date at the pier… oh who am I kidding.
No one watches these kinds of films for plots… certainly not from the third row.
So how did it look?
Good… with a very big "BUT"
When the 1D-C was fed a ton of light the 4K really popped. No Moire artifacts (why should there be? the camera doesn’t down sample) and no noticeable rolling shutter at least in what they were showing us. The video noise, what little there was to be seen, had a the much talked about "organic look" that didn’t scream, "I’m video noise! Look at me!"
The low light shots out on the streets, while still an amazing accomplishment in terms of low light aquisition, was were the camera starts to show some signs of "breaking down". And by "breaking down" I use that in the lightest and most delicate sense as it still blows almost everything else out of the water. There were couple shots in a running sequence where the resolution inexplicably drops down perhaps due to some post-stabalizing work done. And in the very final shot which was a wide of the Santa Monica Pier lit up at night, the highlights coming off the ocean had a distinctively harsh "video" look to them.
No, you can’t tell from this screengrab…
These issues could be explained by any number of the things. It could be a matter of my tastes generally lean toward more enhanced looks over flat natural lighting which is why I wasn’t sold totally on the low light shots… Let’s just say, it was EXCELLENT, but no C500
But… and here’s the real kicker.
There were quite a few shots that were slightly out of focus. And this is not reflecting poorly on Mr. Hurlbut or his crew… it’s the limitation of the camera.
Here’s a few samples I pulled from a screen Vimeo stream on Shane Hurlbut’s site. Now… this is a 720p stream with NO SCALING… so the difference is kind of ridculously small to the point where you should be yelling at the screen, "C’mon!" And you’d be right… but here we are talking about 4K when the primary mode of delivery is internet at 720p.
But I think you can still see them… and if you can barely pick them out at 720p, they’re noticeable at 4K. You’ll need to expand these images and really lean in to see any differences between these images:
Look closely at the moustache… the shot on the left is a smidge softer than the razor sharp moustache on the right. And that’s one of those things about 4K… when it’s sharp in 4K, its POPS – so you can tell when it’s not (especially from the 3rd row sitting in front of a 50 foot screen).
Here’s another example… this is a push in and rotate – hard to pull focus anyway… so its bound to float in and out of focus. But when shooting 4K – this incredible small flaws get blown up big time.
Two more examples… and we’ve all done this when shooting HDSLR.
Here’s the problem… The Canon 1D-C DOES NOT OUTPUT a 4K signal. It does output a 1080p signal but that’s almost like trying to focus an HD image using a SD signal.
Now if Canon would have included "Peaking" in this release, this might be resolve the issue. But there is no peaking. So there is absolutely no visual confirmation you are getting the exact critical focus. You are flying based solely on those numbers on the side of the lens – and you can’t be off by even a hair…
And this is moment where I think everyone out there getting ready to ditch their HDSLRs and jump onboard the 4K bandwagon needs to stop and think.
Imagine the same issues pulling focus you have with shooting HDSLR with the micro focusing errors being squared.
Now… let me make this point really clear: The level of pixel peeping here is reaching the "asshole-troll" level. And you probably won’t catch this sitting further back in a theater (to which I ask, at what point does the line between 2K and 4K blur?)
But this focusing blind is one major issue I see with a camera of this capability, especially if I’m going to shell out $15K (or a little less) for the body alone. The C500 demo film did not have these issues (that camera has electronic peaking and they also shot mostly locked down or on dolly with a crew reaching up to 100 whereas The Ticket was shot mostly handheld an small crew).
I have been a more than a little skeptical of 4K in the past. I’m not necessarily reversing my opinions on 4K but I can really appreciate the beauty of it when blown up on a large screen.
But speaking as a low budget filmmaker I’m really concerned that 4K will make things worse rather than better. When you have sharp focused images popping out, it just highlights the other shots that aren’t quite in focus. And that’s not to mention the post pipeline needed to handle it.
Ultimately it comes down to creating that connection between the audience and the story playing on the screen. I think HD and 2K is enough to provide that immersive environment. 4K is gorgeous, but unless you can pull it off perfectly (which means you have all the gear and a fully professional crew who can really nail it), I worry that those minor errors will end up taking people out of the story rather than keeping them in.