MUSINGS ON EXES

November 20th, 2009 | Tags: , , , ,

The Sony PME-EX3 Camcorder.

The Sony PME-EX3 Camcorder.

by Robert Primes, ASC

During the past few months I’ve had the pleasure of demonstrating or speaking about 3 different cameras from 3 different companies, Canon’s 5D Mark II, Panasonic’s Varicam 3700 and Sony’s EX-1/EX-3. I happen to love all three cameras so I felt no conflict of interest. But I’m impressed that all three of these major companies trusted me to present their cameras and allowed me to remain an objective voice speaking from my real world experience.

I believe this ecumenical spirit comes from the many years competing vendors of cinematography products shared a stage speaking to the American Society of Cinematographers as educators rather than rivals. There is something noble about the way competing cinematographers share their secrets and wish each other success. Miraculously, the higher purpose of advancing the art form seems to supersede individual ambition. The manufacturers seem to have caught the same bug. Hallelujah! But I’ve been asked to write this article about the EXes. So here goes.

Sony’s EX-1 and EX-3 are cameras that I might never have considered. They’re small and at first glance look like fancy consumer cameras. Most of my life’s work has been shot in 35mm and when the EX-1 came out I had recently shot a movie with the excellent Sony F-23, a camera system that cost over a quarter million dollars.

A team from Sony came to the American film Institute, where I was teaching, in the winter of 2007/2008 to show us one of their first EX-1 cameras. The lights were out in the classroom and a weathered multi colored brick wall stood perpendicular to a large exterior window. The monitor was at about the same color temperature as the daylight coming through the window. The little EX-1 was aimed roughly toward the brick wall. It looked like a toy to me until they turned it on. Man, did that little camera make those bricks rock!

I kept looking back and forth between the monitor and the brick wall and the density and color tonalities were reproduced exactly the way I was seeing them with my eyes. That’s not at all what I had expected. Further, when we backlit a subject against the hot window and then had them turn to allow the window light to gradually flow into their profile, it was stunning! Lush blacks and gorgeous shadow detail . . . like a Dutch master! No one there knew the ISO of the camera or how it was set up. We just saw those gorgeous images and totally flipped out. This wasn’t supposed to happen in this price range!

The Sony PMW-EX1 Camcorder.

The Sony PMW-EX1 Camcorder.

Shortly after our AFI experience, Sam Nicholson of Stargate did a series of exhaustive tests comparing most of the high-end cameras of the day. He threw in an EX-1 seemingly as a wild card. When the results were shown, it seemed like every geek in town was prattling about the quality of the EX-1 images. At the 2008 NAB show, the EX-3 was introduced and it was the essence of the Ex-1 with a highly expert makeover that included interchangeable lenses, a hooded, magnified LCD finder with controls attached rather than buried in the menus, better ergonomics, external paint-box connections, Genlock, a more user-friendly speed control etc. Love at first sight! We ordered a bunch of EX-3s for AFI and Sony lent me one of each camera to test and generate some diverse footage.

Since then I’ve shot quite a few production with the EXes. I learned the menu system while shooting time-lapse clouds and sunsets in British Columbia. Then we shot a little drama called ‘Etude in Black’ in San Francisco. We used the Picture Profiles, particularly the various preset Gamma curves. All the paint or image manipulation tools are found conveniently in the ‘Picture Profiles’ menus. You can store 6 completely different looks in the camera at a time. We could walk into a hotel ballroom or sunlit interior or night exterior and quickly find the stop and specific gamma curve that would best hold the highlight and the shadow detail. The cameras have roughly 11 stops of exposure latitude and are so quiet they look pretty damn good at an ISO 0f 1000, so you can capture almost any ambiance. Instead of having to light a room from scratch or having to treat all the practical light sources or finding a place to hide fill light, generally all we had to do was either find or create a space for the action and add or take away a little light for portraiture and we were done!

An example is a night exterior walk and talk we shot at the end of a very long pier jutting out into San Francisco Bay. Two characters would walk and talk in a hand-held two-shot master and then we’d shoot matching singles. The shot began with the Bay Bridge in the background and showed a lot of dark bay water. Of course we wanted to see details in the water so it wouldn’t look like black velvet. Then as the couple continued to walk, the San Francisco skyline would come into frame along with the long row of Sodium Vapor luminaries lighting the long pier. We didn’t want to distract from the quiet mood of the scene by blowing out those luminaries. We chose the softest gamma curve of the EX-3: Cine 1, and opened the lens to f/1.9, set the shutter speed to 1/32 sec (about 240°) and added 6 db of gain, netting roughly 1000 ISO. Now the dark water had reflection and life, the city lights were brilliant and the eye of the pier luminaries showed a lovely orange color. We had turned off the Sodium Vapors at our end of the pier because their light was butt ugly. I auditioned a large Chinese lantern with a 150-watt globe. Too bright! We dimmed it down. Too orange! We switched to a 75-watt globe. Aah! Perfecto Garcia! We fish-poled the Chinese lantern to create a soft flattering ¾ light that followed the couple around and it was flat out gorgeous. I asked San Francisco’s finest lighting and grip crew if they’d ever shot on that pier using only 75 watts of light. They laughed.

If you have to run and gun and those nasty people you’re shooting for take away your calibrated picture and waveform monitors, don’t sulk. There is a way. Turn on the color bars, put your eye to the finder, reach behind the LCD and set the contrast almost all the way up, set the brightness to see only one pluge (picture line up generation equipment – grayscale test pattern), kill the bars, frame up, set the iris where you like the picture, press the Go button and shoot the sucker!

A reasonable question is whether all this sophisticated technology and opportunity for instant gratification makes for better or for worse cinematographers. I don’t really know, but at AFI we hedge our bets by teaching arduous control of film gamma, density, printer lights etc. along with complete and deep excursions into the digital image manipulation tools available in camera. Hopefully the rigorous craft discipline will add gravitas to the newly more bearable lightness of shooting.

Robert Primes, ASC on location.

On location with Robert Primes, ASC.

Another new widget that extends the EX’s power even farther is the brilliant Jon Thorn designed AJA Ki-Pro box. This little battery-powered box can ride along under your camera and convert almost anything to almost anything else in real time. I’ve used it with both the Canon 5D Mark II and the EX-3. It can handle HD/SDI, HDMI, Component, etc and convert to almost anything including down-converted SD and Apple’s mighty ProRes 422 HQ compression. It includes a removable 250G hard drive cartridge and 2 SxS card readers that will be actuated when Sony finally agrees to their use. The greatest benefit is that instead of being limited to the EX’s excellent looking 8 bit 4:2:0 long GOP compression, you now have Apple’s far better 10 bit 4:2:2 compression, an improvement you might not notice on the tube but you’ll almost certainly be affected by on the silver screen.

Now the specially designed 14:1 and 8:1 Fujinon lenses are excellent, especially for the remarkably low price, but when you put really good (read expen$ive) glass on the camera and then tap its uncompressed 10 bit 4:2:2 output, O Lordy does that baby sing!

And it is this song that I hope is heard by more and more people. I hope this because I want to kvetch about two troubling trends. The first is the trend toward using media as a way of passing time rather than as an enlightening experience. The ipod and iphone are decent enough music players but to my spoiled eye they’re far too tiny for you to experience the visual textures of a well-made drama. And unless you’re in Kobe’s league, gaming and interactivity are an unsatisfying substitute for the immersive experience of a huge screen reflecting the profound work of master storytellers. I want to be touched deeply and made more aware of the glories of our universe and the mysteries of the human condition. I want the full power of Cinema!

The second trend is for entertainment corporations to try to feed us junk food. There are great films made every year but they seem harder and harder to finance. It seems to be financially safer for many networks and studios to feed us crowd pleasers than to challenge our intellects.

And this is where the EX-3 comes in. Here is a device capable of providing big screen visual immersion, yet can also help smaller film makers afford to bring their ideas and values to the screen. With commercially sponsored messages bombarding us everywhere, our very ability to rise above junk thought may depend on the effectiveness of thought-provoking, independently produced media.  

  1. Clever Dan
    November 24th, 2009 at 16:21
    Reply | Quote | #1

    I’ll take one.

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