by James Mathers
Cinematographer and Founder of the Digital Cinema Society
(Excerpted from the January 2017 Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter)
I make it my business to keep up with the tools filmmaking professionals need to create content, and with all the new technology coming our way at an ever increasing pace, it has become a rather daunting task. So after covering conventions the world over, from IBC, Cine Gear Expo, the HPA Tech Retreat, and NAB, you might ask why I would again devote our limited resources trekking to Las Vegas to check out Consumer offerings at the annual CES. It’s because the vast Consumer market not only drives the technology we Professionals use, but also gives us a preview of what is to come.
Like it or not, the manufacture of professional content creation tools is a boutique business compared to the millions of units that can potentially be sold to consumers. This exponentially larger pool of potential customers justifies enormous R&D budgets. We can count ourselves lucky as some of this technology eventually “trickles up” for our use as professionals.
Apple didn’t get to be the most valuable company on earth by concentrating its energy on high-end computers and software for professionals. Instead, some would argue that these markets where the company first made its mark, have now been somewhat neglected in favor of the mass market for mobile devices. They still make some of the best high-end computers for Pros, but the progress has been incremental compared to the iPhone and iPad, which after all have only existed for about a decade. The company also seems perfectly happy to have lost market share in the professional editing space to make their new Final Cut more accessible to amateurs and compatible with iOS.
Besides having greater R&D clout, the ever increasing quality of home entertainment delivery and display has necessitated the need to provide all the better picture and sound quality. We wouldn’t have to worry about how to finish our content in 4K and HDR if the consumer electronics industry had not figured out how to affordably offer home viewing in these formats. It is also true that when movies can be made with DSLRs and iPhones, the lines between Consumer and Pro gear for photographic acquisition and display become blurred.
So, every year, I make the January trip to Las Vegas even though I’m not a particular fan of the city, especially when it is as crowded as it is for CES. It is the biggest convention Las Vegas sees all year, and if you’ve ever been to NAB, think of that as an intimate gathering compared to the massive two and a half million square feet of exhibit space at CES, which is packed to the gills with a sea of humanity.
Although the organizer, known as CTA (Consumer Technology Association, formerly the Consumer Electronics Association), does a pretty good job of breaking down the exhibits by areas of interest, they are spread all over town. Exhibits are housed at either “Tech East,” the Las Vegas Convention Center, “Tech West,” at the Sands Expo and Convention Center, or new this year at “Tech South,” spread between the ARIA, Cosmopolitan, and Vdara Hotels. I was kept on the move, since I had a wide variety of items that I wanted to check out; everything from VR, HDR, 4K, 8K cameras and displays to Drones.
Since I’ve already mentioned Apple computers, let me first tell you how OWC is working to put the “Pro” back into MacBook Pro by offering an expansion interface that is more friendly to creative professionals. Most Pros love Thunderbolt, but as Apple has streamlined their design, many have decried the loss of connectivity options. I got a chance to meet with OWC Founder and CEO, Larry O’Connor, who gave me a sneak peak at their answer to this dilemma, a product which they are dubbing the “OWC DEC”.
Adding the OWC DEC, (which attaches completely flush to the bottom of the 2016 MacBook Pro) allows users to extend the life and the functionality of their laptops, while at the same time increasing the performance by providing additional flash storage and lots of connectivity. Once installed, the OWC DEC and latest MacBook Pro combined, will be no larger than the 2012 MacBook Pro, but with a host of added benefits including:
▪ Up to 4 TB of additional Flash/SSD storage (for a maximum of 6 TB, including factory capacity)
▪ SD Card Slot/Multi-Media card slot
▪ USB 3 Type A Ports for standard USB cabled devices
▪ Gigabit Ethernet
▪ And the ability to add future functionalities as they are developed in order to help future proof your laptop investment.
The OWC DEC is expected to ship in the spring of 2017, available from MacSales.com and other retailers. For more information, please visit www.owcdigital.com/DEC.
Another product of significance to Filmmakers is an update to Panasonic’s Micro Four-Thirds mirrorless flagship, the DC-GH5. This hybrid stills/motion camera offers some impressive specs including UHD 4K at 60 fps, (HD frame rates up to 180 fps), DCI/UHD 4K at 24/30 fps with internal 10-bit 4:2:2 recording, 12 fps continuous shooting, 4K and 6K PHOTO, as well as 5-axis in-body stabilization. It also features a newly developed 20.3MP Digital MOS sensor without a low-pass filter. The 1.66x faster processing and a new Venus Engine that is 1.3x faster helps to produce and process the higher data throughput. The new sensor technology also offers a noticeable improvement in dynamic range with a boost in sensitivity.
V-Log L recording is also available as an option along with a V-Log L View Assist Function for easier viewing during shooting. An additional UHS-II compatible SD card slot has been added which can be used for auto switching, creating an automatic backup, or selecting which files are saved to which card for organization. This has helped the GH5 to avoid the recording time limits of earlier models. The new camera should be available by the end of March and will retail for under $2,000US.
Since I’m a self-confessed car nut, I also like to check out all the new vehicles. It’s like getting a sneak peek at an international car show, only several years in advance. There was a plethora of sleek, electric powered autonomous cars. However, as a “Car Guy,” it is hard to get too excited about these new, fairly identical, personal transport units. I want a car that’s about more than just getting me from point A to point B. The fun is in the journey and I want to be the driver, not cargo.
One exception to the boring pods was from BMW, who actually gave CES attendees the chance to take their breathtaking Hybrid i8 out for a spin around the neighborhood. It doesn’t have too much to do with the Industry, but a guy’s got to have a little fun while he’s in Vegas. Although I didn’t want to wait in the rather long line, Honda was also offering attendees rides on their new UNI-CUB, a sort of a motorized shop stool that is part of their “Cooperative Mobility Ecosystem”.
In order to get back to technology that might have some bearing on the Entertainment Industry, and to segue into VR, let me tell you about a couple of virtual rides I also experienced. Samsung’s “Galaxy Studio” featured a number of VR experiences, which were enhanced with gyro 4D simulator chairs. One simulates a 360-degree race through space, another is a speed boat ride on a rough Australian outback river. There is also an airshow from a pilot’s perspective and even a roller coaster. It gets pretty exciting via the synchronized Gyro 4D simulator chairs, some of which can rotate 360 degrees vertically and horizontally to replicate the dynamic motions.
4D was just one small aspect of the VR exhibits omnipresent at CES. Every imaginable format, camera rig, and viewing apparatus was on display. However, the fact that there are so many different forms of VR brings up the great need for standardization and interoperability. If VR is to really take hold, creators need to be able to easily port their content from one system to the next. Users need to be able to experience audiovisual content, either live or on-demand, through mobile or tethered VR headsets or on traditional “2D devices” such as tablets.
An Industry group, known as the VR Industry Forum has been formed to address these issues. I was lucky to have been invited to the inaugural get together at CES. By coincidence, it was in the same room at Caesar’s Palace where DCS held it’s first event some 14 years ago to introduce our own group at NAB 2003. “VRIF” is also a not-for-profit company with the stated purpose “To promote the adoption and end-to-end interoperability of VR across key media and entertainment sectors and further the widespread availability of high quality audiovisual VR experiences, for the benefit of consumers.” The Forum has grown out of a series of informal meetings held over the past 12 months involving over 200 people from a large group of stakeholder companies such as Ericsson, Fraunhofer, Intel, Technicolor, Sony Pictures, and Verizon, among many others. More information about their efforts can be found at: www.vr-if.org
With all the future technology on display at CES, it was nice to get a nostalgic blast from the past. Kodak used the occasion to announce that they are binging back Ektachrome film stock, a reversal stock known for rich saturated color, fine grain, and high-quality contrast. Although many a Photographer lamented the loss, Kodak discontinued Ektachrome in 2012 due to lagging sales.
Ektachrome, as opposed to color negative film stock, generates a positive image, or slide if you will, that can be directly viewed or projected after a relatively simple processing for quicker turn-around and at a somewhat lower cost. Production of Ektachrome will take place at the company’s film factory in Rochester, N.Y and will be available in Super 8 mm and 35 mm by the end of 2017. Now, what would really please me, (and probably Paul Simon too), is if they also brought back Kodachrome, which rumor has it, they are considering.
Of course, home theater displays just keep getting bigger and better with just about every model offering 4K resolution and HDR capabilities. There were large screen panels not much thicker than a pane of glass; LG calls theirs “Wallpaper TV”. At just 2.6 mm thick, it is also light enough to be hung on the wall with MAGNETS. A single cable runs to a sound bar which houses the electronics and has all the normal connectors including four HDMI ports and built-in Wi-Fi.
And what’s better than a great looking large screen display? How about hundreds of large panels stitched together to create a seamless giant cinema screen or curved screens that can be fused together for an immersive dome experience. This technology is really improving and I would predict that as the cost of panels goes down, we will see more theatrical cinema screens go this route in lieu of projection systems.
There was a lot of talk this year in regard to HDR capabilities. Of particular interest to Professionals, LG had a stunning OLED available inexpensively from your everyday consumer outlets. Now, what makes t interesting, is that they claim to be working with Technicolor, who will be building a viewing LUT for the new display, potentially creating a very low cost 4K HDR reference monitor. I’m sure it will not have all the performance or control available in something like the top of the line Sony BVM OLED, but available screen sizes are much greater and the prices are much, much lower, so it could be a good fit for some professional operations.
It’s interesting to reflect back on previous CES conventions to see what was predicted to be “The Next Big Thing”. Some of these predictions did pan out, but others, not so much. 8K was highly touted last year, and although there were a few samples on display, it wasn’t getting much traction. What I didn’t see at all this year, which seemed conspicuously absent after it had been pushed so hard in previous years, was 3D. Support for 3D television has all but vanished with companies like Samsung, Vizio, Sharp, Hisense, and TCL having already dropped the option, while LG and Sony plan to join them by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, DirecTV and ESPN have shut down their 3D channels, and cooperative 3D TV effort between Comcast, Sony, Discovery and IMAX was short-lived. Although 3D continues to enjoy some success as a premium offering in theatrical exhibition, the technology has virtually flatlined for home entertainment.
If there was one theme ever present on the exhibit floor it was Connectivity, from self-driving cars and smart homes to digital health, our connected world was on display at CES 2017. Every gizmo imaginable was bragging about its ability to connect with Alexa, (and I’m talking about the Google voice activated controller, as opposed to ARRI’s Digital Cinema camera). I’m not sure how practical it all is as of yet; at this point, I fear the time taken to load the myriad of available apps and figure them out, could be more time intensive than it would be to manually perform the functions. There are also cyber security concerns to consider, but there is probably no escaping this trend; it is the future.
Another subject that got a lot of attention at CES 2017 was artificial intelligence, or “AI”. It is key to the technological progress of many of the products that were showcased, from intelligent assistants and smart homes, to self-driving cars, VR, gaming and robotics. Computer modeling built on top of GPU technology allows software to learn from data, which is the machine equivalent of experience. However, this requires an enormous amount of computational parallel processing power to be practical, and that’s where the GPU shines. DCS supporter, NVIDIA is a company that pioneered the GPU and remains at the heart of these technologies. So much so that NVIDIA Founder & CEO, Jen-Hsun Huang was invited to give the Keynote at CES 2017.
According to Huang, “Today’s AI networks can write captions of photographs and imitate the painting styles of van Gogh and Monet. They have learned the fine motor skills required to open a bottle of water, how to get up off the floor and walk, and even how to drive a car on dirt roads in the rain. The achievements of GPU have been nothing short of miraculous.”
With 200,000 attendees and 3,800 companies, this year’s CES was one for the record books. Its 50th anniversary was not only a milestone for the largest technology conference in the world, it marked a historic moment for the technology industry itself. I was glad to have been there and provide this Filmmaker’s perspective. Now, it’s time to look ahead to the HPA Tech Retreat which is followed soon after by NAB. This is always a busy time of year for me and DCS, but it’s never boring.
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