American Cinematographer Magazine: January 2007 - New Products

The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
January 2007
Catching Up with the Dalsa Origin
Since its creation in 1980 by image pioneer Savvas Chamberlain, Dalsa has been engineering digital-imaging products for many different markets, including the motion-picture industry. After seeing the viability of digital production tools, the company decided to create a digital-cinema camera, and in doing so, its engineers listened closely to cinematographer
Codex Digital
Hot on the heels of two very successful appearances at NAB and IBC, Codex Digital seems poised to redefine how cinematographers will be able to capture and manipulate images using digital-cinema field recorders.
J-Box Softboxes
Chicken coop, coffin box, softbox — whatever you want to call them, they’re all roughly the same thing: a soft, usually overhead light that is most often custom-created for each location.
Zacuto Universal Camera Support System
Zacuto is now offering its Universal Baseplate System V3 for use with prosumer cameras such as the Panasonic HVX200 and Canon XL-H1.

New Products and Services
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Catching Up with the Dalsa Origin

For years, many cinematographers have considered digital cinema a compromise compared to the image quality of 35mm film. Although arguments abound as to the actual resolution of 35mm film, especially when referring to release prints that are several generations away from the original negative, it is generally believed that 4K is the appreciable resolution for 35mm film. High-end hi-def video is 1920x1080, barely 2K. For many, that wasn’t good enough.

Enter the folks at Dalsa. Since its creation in 1980 by image pioneer Savvas Chamberlain, Dalsa has been engineering digital-imaging products for many different markets, including the motion-picture industry. After seeing the viability of digital production tools, the company decided to create a digital-cinema camera, and in doing so, its engineers listened closely to cinematographers.

The Dalsa Origin, a 4K x 2K digital-cinema camera, is the result of this development. Its single Bayer CCD is 4096 pixels x 2048 pixels (8.2 million photosites), although only 4046x2048 are “optically active”; the remaining 50 horizontal pixels provide dark references for signal processing. The CCD image sensor, which has a Bayer mosaic color filter (GRGB), is roughly the size of a 35mm frame. The camera is capable of recording data in 4:4:4 RGB (48-bit) or 16-bit raw Bayer uncompressed data (in DPX format via InfiniBand), which can be reconstructed externally. Because the latter option creates raw data, the information does not have a color space until it is reconstructed. Because the camera has just one CCD, it does not require the complicated beam-splitters necessary for 3-CCD cameras, and can therefore work with any 35mm cine lens. The Origin is fitted with a PL mount, and it has a reflex spinning-mirror viewing system designed by P+S Technik instead of an electronic viewfinder.

To record the immense amount of data generated by the camera, Dalsa teamed up with Codex Digital, who designed its high-resolution digital-media recording system to work seamlessly with the Origin. The two RAID array decks in the Codex Digital recorder (each comprised of 10 drives and together netting about 2 terabytes of space) work together when recording in 4K and can provide up to 54 minutes of recording time before the user has to swap out drives. The tether to the drive is a 4-braided-band fiber optic umbilical, a 1/4"-round cable that can stretch up to 1.2 kilometers.

The camera is generally rated around a 320 ISO and boasts a latitude of greater than 12 stops. A variable-degree shutter allows shooting between 42.5° and 200° and frame rates up to 33 fps. The camera is naturally a 5600°K color balance.

If troubles arise in the field, a simple connection to a CAT6 Ethernet hub can allow Dalsa to remotely address the camera and repair the issue from anywhere in the world. In addition, up to four Origins can be jam-synced together.

For its size, which is considerable, the Origin is remarkably light, weighing about 35 pounds. To allow for a video feed from the camera, the shutter is always running, so there is almost always a “rolling flicker” in the viewfinder. Most of the camera’s size, which Dalsa is working to pare down, is due to the computer boards inside and the space between them, which is necessary to keep the boards cool.

The Origin’s sensor is a native 2:1 (actually 1.98:1 with the active pixels 4046x2048), which means anyone looking to shoot 1.85:1 will be cropping in on the picture to about 3788x2048 pixels, just under the 4K mark. If the project requires a 2.4:1 “anamorphic” aspect ratio, the image will be cropped to 4046x1686.

So far, just a few productions have tested the Origin. ASC associate member Jesse Dylan recently used it on a series of commercials for Snickers that featured the Black Eyed Peas. Dylan and his cinematographer, Rolf Kesterman, reported no problems with the camera, except for one particular setup when the umbilical was not long enough and had to be detached and reconnected — a process that took five minutes.

David Stump, ASC, who chairs the ASC Technology Committee’s Digital Camera Subcommittee, had an opportunity to put the Origin through its paces on a University of Southern California-U.S. Dept. of Defense co-production that required a single high-definition image to be displayed over three 1080i-resolution monitors side by side. “I love that camera,” says Stump. “Anything that is 4K is okay with me. The more Ks I can shoot with, the better I like it!

“The main [disadvantage] to the Origin is that Hollywood hasn’t accepted the technology and hasn’t learned how to deal with the images,” continues Stump. “Doing postproduction in 4K is very difficult for everyone to get used to. We’re more addicted to film and tape than we care to admit.”

In terms of how the Origin’s size affected his shoot, Stump notes, “When I first started shooting, I used [Mitchell] BNCRs, which are much bigger and heavier than the Dalsa. I didn’t have the luxury of growing up with Arri 2-Cs or 435s or Panavision Millenniums! I do know that the next generation of the Origin will address the size issue.

“The tether doesn’t bother me, either,” he continues. “There isn’t a camera made these days that isn’t tethered back to something. Most of the time it’s video village, but you’ve also got battery cables and whatnot, unless you’re shooting Steadicam. So the Dalsa isn’t any different in that respect.”

Stump found the viewfinder “bright and clean.” He adds, “It has all the advantages of a film camera, especially the ability to see more than the frame to catch the danger of anything encroaching on the frame. That’s a big concern when shooting digitally — you don’t have that extra area of the frame to be warned, and once something breaks that frame, that’s it. You can’t frame it out unless you blow up the frame, and that’s rarely desirable.”

Dalsa is committed to helping users with post workflows and is collaborating with many post houses to integrate an easy workflow for Origin-originated projects. “Generally speaking, Dalsa is very responsive to the needs of the cinematographer,” concludes Stump. “They listen to us, and that’s something our community really appreciates.”

by Jay Holben

contact info:
Dalsa (818) 884-7022
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Codex Digital

Hot on the heels of two very successful appearances at NAB and IBC, Codex Digital seems poised to redefine how cinematographers will be able to capture and manipulate images using digital-cinema field recorders.

Codex Digital, whose mantra is “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime,” rose from the ashes of 5D, a London-based company that in 2002 was one of the first to dabble in hardware for on-set digital acquisition with the 5D Commander. The Commander was able to record and play back real-time, uncompressed RGB data, but it was not built to withstand the full physical demands of field production.

Picking up where the Commander left off, 5D senior developer Delwyn Holroyd and Academy Scientific and Engineering Award winners Paul Bamborough and Arthur Wright, who earned their Sci-Tech kudos for the Lightworks nonlinear editing system, decided to develop a system where raw or compressed data not only can be captured, but formatted, viewed and delivered, all from one device.

Given the rapidly expanding popularity of digital production, Codex finds itself occupying a surprisingly vacant niche that has few if any residents. (S.two with its D.Mag is one.) Cameras such as Panavision’s Genesis, Arri’s D-20 and Dalsa’s Origin are proving to be reliable tools, but because there is no tried-and-true format implemented by all digital cameras, there is no tried-and-true workflow for processing the data.

Digital storage on location and in the studio can be costly and cumbersome. Filmmakers using existing solutions have been hampered by transitional file formats, slow connections, and bulky hardware — everything one would expect from an adolescent technology. One of the more constant elements of hi-def cinematography has been the use of SRW videotape, which can be limiting to both the compression rate and image size (300Mbps, with an approximate resolution of 1920x1080).

Streamlining production workflow is Codex’s key emphasis, beginning with the actual capture process. The back of the rack-mounted, microwave oven-sized station features dual BNC HD-SDI (for the Genesis, D-20, Viper, and CineAlta) and 4K fiber-optic inputs (Origin). Footage is recorded in the camera’s native format at resolutions ranging from standard-definition video up to full 4K digital image files. The system is scalable, and men behind the box are adamant about their ability to adapt the Codex to any camera.

During shooting, image data is “ingested” to a modular DiskPack that interfaces with one of two slots in the face of the Codex machine. About 108 minutes of 4K digital footage from one camera can be recorded seamlessly across two 7.5-terabyte Packs (54 minutes per Pack, a number which Codex spokesman Colin Ritchie claims will double right about the time this article hits), or simultaneously for dual camera shoots and digital 3-D cinematography. The Packs are hot-swappable, allowing for quick change-outs.

A proprietary “Virtual File System” can then be configured to “wrap” the data in a variety of common file formats (AVI, MOV, etc.), resolutions, or naming conventions as it is captured by the Codex system. Down-conversions are made in real time. The playback module allows filmmakers to jog or shuttle through takes, edit metadata, and apply custom look-up tables to the footage, all of which can be accomplished via a user-friendly touch-screen interface.

Fiber-optic network connectivity makes it possible to easily export the footage almost instantaneously — no small feat considering that Codex’s sister company and network service provider, Sohonet, has laid approximately 50,000 miles of fiber cable worldwide. With the DiskPacks dispensing data at rates of up to 750Mbps, Ritchie asserts that transfer rates will only be hampered by the speed of the incoming network connection.

Another example of this workflow involves exporting timecode-embedded Quicktime files to the Codex’s built-in DVD recorder or DiskPacks for transfer to a non-linear editing system where an EDL is gleaned from the final edit. According to Codex, “the EDL would then be mapped back to the original 4K uncompressed files which would then be rendered into directories of full-quality frames.”

(There have been some concerns that a DVD writer feature may compromise the security of a digital storage system on set. “Not so,” assures Ritchie. Burned DVDs can be copy-protected or numbered for tracking purposes. Otherwise, the drive can be disabled completely by a Codex technician.)

While the Codex system has yet to see action on a major production, Curtis Clark, ASC, chair of the ASC Technology Committee, put it to the test during a spec-commercial shoot using Dalsa’s Origin. On set with the Codex, Clark was able to composite effects shots in Adobe After Effects, export AVI files for ramping tests in Windows Media Player, and compare side-by-side motion control takes with those that had been shot the previous day. “It’s an exceptionally capable piece of technology,” says Clark. “Paul Bamborough and his team understand the issues and requirements facing cinematographers working with digital technology, and they’re committed to meeting our needs.”

A few of the issues Clark and other cinematographers face involve image size, colorimetry, capture methods, and final delivery. With so many variables, and so many complicated ways to manage the data, it’s no wonder so many working cinematographers are wary of the digital-cinema realm. “Digital is a disruptive technology that may eventually dominate the industry,” says Clark. “We’re in the middle of a technology revolution that’s totally changing the way things are done. When you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to see where the future is taking you.”

by Iain Stasukevich

contact info:

Codex Digital, (310) 540-6015
In the U.K., +44 (0)20 7292 6918
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J-Box Softboxes

Chicken coop, coffin box, softbox — whatever you want to call them, they’re all roughly the same thing: a soft, usually overhead light that is most often custom-created for each location. They come in different sizes and shapes; they can hold a couple of medium-base globes or 72K of space lights, and they can cover a pool table or a football field. Overhead soft light is a common tool of the trade.

Veteran best boy Joshua Jenkins got tired of making up a new softbox for every show. After learning that a 2003 fire on a Warner Bros. soundstage had started in an overhead softbox, Jenkins was inspired build a more robust and safer overhead source that would also be versatile enough to work in many situations. Starting with the simple batten-strip concept, he created one out of aluminum with a series of medium-base sockets wired together. He mounted that to a rear frame made of box aluminum and constructed a front frame from the same material. He then connected them with jointed tube aluminum and added a color frame to the front. His creation became the basis of the J-Box line of fixtures.

I recently requested two of the small fixtures, the J-Box 12 and J-Box 14, so I could test them. The J-Box 12 is a 2'-long by 1'-deep by 1'-wide fixture, with three medium-base sockets controlled by a single switch and powered by a single 20-amp Bates connector. The user can employ any medium-base globe; Jenkins sent me two, a standard Sylvania “R40” 300-watt “mushroom” globe, and a proprietary Par 38 dichroic globe (manufactured for 3000°K). The J-Box 14 is a 4'x1'x1' fixture that features seven medium-base sockets broken out into two 20-amp Bates connectors.

The first thing I noticed was that the units were very light, even the 14. For a 4' unit, it was very easy to carry around with one hand. They are also extremely well constructed out of robust materials that will easily stand up to the stresses and abuse of production. The “box” of the J-Box
is constructed of a powder-coated aluminum frame onto which a lightweight, heavy-duty yoke is mounted. The yoke features a standard junior pin for mounting into any junior receptacle. The yoke lockdown knobs are large, easy to grip and made of plastic, which will stay cool.

The side panels of the box are flexible material that are black on one side and white on the other and attach via Velcro. They are made of Teflon-impregnated fiberglass, a material primarily used as a welding curtain and designed to resist flame from hot slag. They’re flexible enough to roll up for storage, but strong enough to resist puncture, tearing and heat. The interior of the side panels is coated white with a ceramic paint called Cerana-Tek, which can withstand heat up to 1,200°F. Jenkins designed the top and bottom panels to be slightly larger than the fixture so that they wrap around the sides and eliminate light leakage.

Each of the tube-aluminum side supports has a break in the center and is spring loaded to snap into place or snap into position half-extended (which puts the front frame 7 1/2" from the back, as opposed to 11 1/4" at full extension). This is designed to help collapse the fixture a bit for storage, but it also works to get the front diffusion closer to the inside fixtures or reduce the profile for tighter work. This was one aspect of the fixtures that didn’t quite work for me. Whether partially or fully extended, the side expanders tended to lock themselves into position, and a good deal of force was required to get them free.

I was also surprised that the fixture does not collapse down completely. If it did, it could be slipped into a lot of convenient places on the truck. In addition, in order to let the side panels sit flush with the fixture, the loosening knobs for the expander joints are on the inside, which makes them a little awkward to reach if the lamps inside are hot. I’d like to see expanders that collapse down completely and have a button-release system instead of the lockdown knob.

J-Box has created color frames for the fixtures, which are made of flat 1" aluminum, just like a standard open grip frame. The user can attach any flavor of color or diffusion to the frame, and it slips into side and bottom slots and then snaps into a rigid top hook. On the J-Box 14, this design isn’t a problem, because the color frame is large enough to easily bend to get under the rigid hook, but this was very awkward on the J-Box 12, especially when the fixture was hot.

The efficiency of the fixture depends wholly on the user’s choice of globes and diffusion. J-Box provided me with two pre-made color frames: 216 diffusion for the J-Box 12 and 250 for the J-Box 14.

The batten strip in the J-Box also features a pass-through 20-amp Bates socket for daisy-chaining fixtures together and a very clear guide on controlling amperages when doing so.

Taking versatility a step further, the batten strip can be removed from the softbox frame (by means of two threaded knobs) and mounted to another piece of hardware or a wall or door with hardware also manufactured by J-Box. Or, the user can choose a Lighten-ing Rail, manufactured for J-Box by Industry Advanced Technologies; it’s a batten-strip-sized component that screws in place, but instead of medium-base sockets, it has adjustable baby-pins so you can put whatever fixture you desire in the box. Want to use Nook lights instead of medium-base fixtures? The Lighten-ing Rail will allow you to do it.

The J-Box 14 has two 20-amp Bates connectors and two switches. Each is clearly labeled and colored (“A” is red and “B” is blue), and each has its own pass-through socket. The “A” circuit controls four of the seven lamps (numbers 1, 3, 5 and 7) and the “B” circuit controls the remaining three (2, 4, 6).

Also available are the J-Box 22 and 24. The 22 is a 2'x2'x2' fixture that features three 2' batten strips of three sockets each. The 24 is a 4'x2'x2' fixture that features three 4' batten strips of seven sockets each. The user can integrate any combination of batten strips or Lighten-ing Rails for any combination of fixtures and/or globes in the J-Box fixtures.

I tested both the J-Box 12 and 14 first without diffusion and then with the pre-made diffusion that had been provided. As always, these are real-world measurements, not laboratory-controlled. I also tested both fixtures with the “R40” 300-watt household globes and the custom-created Par 38 dichroic 250-watt globes.

The Sylvania “R40” globes were very warm at a color temperature of 2600°K. I wanted to cool them down a bit with a little CTB, but I didn’t do that for my measurements. The Par 38s were a little cooler, reading about 2800°K, but were still a little warm to my eye. There was also a large amount of back spill from the dichroic filters, actually about 45 footcandles out of the back of the fixture at 4', which was very high in green. If you didn’t black-wrap this off, it could easily bounce back and contaminate the set.

Another really nice feature of the J-Box fixtures is that they assemble and disassemble completely without tools.

J-Box has several accessories in development including an egg crate and a gel clip that snaps onto the side extenders to allow the user to position a second layer of diffusion between the globes and the front of the fixture.

by Jay Holben

contact info:

J-Box at (818) 341-JBOX
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Zacuto Universal Camera Support System

Zacuto is now offering its Universal Baseplate System V3 for use with prosumer cameras such as the Panasonic HVX200 and Canon XL-H1. Improving on previous versions, the V3 Baseplate is 30-percent lighter than the original V1 and maintains such key design characteristics as behind-the-camera rods for mounting accessories — keeping the weight off of the smaller-format cameras and balancing the load for the operator — and an adjustable plate that permits use with a wide range of cameras.

According to Steve Weiss, Zacuto’s sales manager, “We decided on a few principles at the outset. One, we wouldn’t make any products unless we could improve on what’s already out there; two, we wouldn’t make any products unless we could make them universal, so users could move them to future cameras; three, we make them of incredible high quality with a lifetime warranty; four, we make them in the United States; and five, we design them to be both beautiful and functional.”

Additional features of Zacuto’s Baseplate V3 include an integrated Zacuto Double or Mini Mount for mounting monitors and accessories; arm locks to prevent arms from loosening; Zacuto’s universal Wireless Plate, which accepts any size wireless, down-converter, or video transmitter unit; the Zacuto Red Plate accessory plate, which allows up to four on-board Zacuto Wireless Plates at a time; and a rod-mounted battery system with 7.2-12V power taps.

The Universal Baseplate System V3 and other products offered by Zacuto are available for purchase through Zacuto’s online store:

contact info:

Zacuto (888) 294-3456
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