Week 1 with the Varicam LT

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Art Aldrich operating the Varicam LT at the KPMG WPGA Championship

When Panasonic released the Varicam35, it got my attention. The camera had a great look and the feature set was impressive. I couldn’t justify the expense of that camera, especially since I was invested in EF glass.

I was ready to move to a 10 bit camera system, and looked seriously at the Canon C300 MKII. It had many of the features I wanted, but there were a few drawbacks. Mainly that I would have to move to CFast cards.

Flash forward to February 2016. Panasonic makes a surprise announcement that a new Varicam (LT) was about to be released. I decided to wait on a camera purchase until after the NAB show.

On paper, the camera seemed to offer everything I wanted: EF lens mount, optional PL mount that is user swappable, 4K recording, and up to 240 frames per second. To tie it up in a nice bow, the 16K base price was right where I wanted to be.

My concerns where mainly about the memory cards, and whether I would be able to use my collection of older P2 cards, mainly R and E series. The short answer is yes, in 1080p recording, I can use my existing cards.

The timing was right, and I decided to pull the trigger on 3 units. We went with the complete kit with PL and EF mounts, ENG style shoulder pad, EVF and Express cards. I will use these to replace our C300’s and older P2 cameras.

The cameras were ordered through AbelCine in NY, and we received them one day before a big 10 day shoot at the KPMG WPGA Championship at Sahalee Country Club near Seattle.

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Olympic Gold Medalist Shawn Johnson interviewed for event title sponsor KPMG with Varicam LT and cine-style 30-300 lens.

Without much prep time, we jumped in with a mix of Canon photo glass and Cine glass on our three cameras. Out of the box images were brilliant, just using Scene 1, REC709 with no grading.

We even made use of the 240fps recording to shoot some player hero shots, which impressed everyone who watched it.

There were a few wrinkles, like trying to kit out the cameras for 19mm rod support and replacement top handles. The Wooden Camera kits worked great, the Zacuto kit didn’t work with Panasonic’s EVF (thanks FedEx SameDay).

Also, NLE support for the new codecs is still in beta, so we were forced to use our new ExpressP2 media and shoot ProRes HQ. That allowed us to work in FCPX without issue. We later discovered that 4K AVC-Intra works just fine with FCPX.

In order to shoot between 61-240fps, we needed to shoot in a new codec called AVC Intra LT. The LT codec required us to use Davinci Resolve to convert the clips to ProRes. I hope this is fixed with a software update soon.

We even put the proxy record functionality to work in order to supply multiple networks with our footage at the same time. Using a simple SD card, I can record a full raster 1080p picture with a LUT applied at the same time my main recording occurs.

Overall, we are very pleased with the cameras, and look forward to exploring it’s features deeper as we go.

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Live From Alaska, It’s the Iditarod

 

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The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race takes place in Alaska, on the first Saturday in March. The 1000 mile race, known as The Last Great Race™, starts in Anchorage and transverses through the Alaskan Interior, to the edge of the Bearing Sea in Nome. The race will take about 9 days for the winner, and up to 14 days for the last team to complete. With a worldwide fanbase, the Iditarod.com website is the natural home for race coverage. That coverage includes blog writers, photographers, and a broadcast video team. This year marks the 44th running of the event.

Of the 10 years that I have been involved with the video production side of the race, this year proved to be the most ambitious. We launched a live streaming video component to the coverage that has never been attempted before. Our goal was to provide live video coverage of the race leaders in every checkpoint. This was challenging for several reasons, one being the lack of infrastructure along the trail, and the second biggest factor being limited resources. The Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) hosts the race, and operates as a Not-For-Profit entity. Every expense is scrutinized carefully.

My plan was to build a small studio setup in Anchorage at the race headquarters, the Lakefront Hotel in Anchorage, and create a live news channel with former mushers Joe Runyan and Danny Seavey as hosts. The show would “break in” for race updates and live video as necessary, 24 hours a day.

This was going to be a two man operation at best with some volunteer help, and likely a one-man show most times. Everything had to be small, lightweight and flexible enough to work in multiple scenarios. The gear I picked needed to accommodate all of these goals.

The Studio Setup

At the heart of the production would be my 15” MacBook Pro running Telestream’s Wirecast 6. I have used this software before to combine two live GoPro’s that hang on the Burled Arch at the finish of the race. I knew the software could handle the task, but I had never used the full feature set of the software before. I would be the weak link.

For cameras, I knew wanted 3, maybe 4 angles. GoPro’s were an option, but on the wish list was a Pan-Tilt-Zoom (PTZ) setup to allow me to run the studio alone. Plan A was to rent some Panasonic HE60’s and a RP120, but I wrangled some HE130’s from Panasonic to test. The HE130’s were light enough to mount on Matthews light stands with a Noga ball head (in case I needed angle adjustment). This would save on weight and additional cost of tripods. Another big benefit is that the HE130’s can be powered and controlled via a single ethernet cable (POE+). This would make the setup cleaner and simple.

The cameras were fed into an AJA IO 4K box connected to my 15” MacBookPro. Using AJA’s software, I configured the box to pass 4 distinct HD 720p signals into Wirecast. This was key to keeping the footprint small and manageable.

For audio, I used an existing Allen & Heath Zed10 from my edit suite. A little big, but great sound, and could handle 4 mics.

I just picked up a BlackMagic VideoAssist prior to the race, and brought it along to serve as my video monitor/recorder. An AJA T-Tap provided the proper outputs from Wirecast. A Livestream Broadcaster was the encoder engine to the CDN.

Lighting was tricky, knowing that i needed to keep it small. The original plan was to shoot on an outdoor patio, so HMI’s were the only choice. I had a Joker 400/200 kit to use, but wanted something else. I had rented a Westcott FLEX LED 1×3 from LensProToGo and was so impressed with the output that I purchased my own Westcott 1×1 travel kit with two panels. It’s a complete kit in a small travel case that includes batteries, dimmers and stands. The whole kit weights 50lbs and I was very impressed with it.

Take to the Sky

One of the most exciting and challenging parts of this year’s Insider coverage was the live video from the checkpoints. Never, outside of the state of Alaska, has our audience experienced live video from the checkpoints. There are many reasons for this, but the main issue is that satellite coverage in Alaska is not great, and the throughput on small dishes is limited. There are no roads between many of the checkpoints on the Iditarod trail, so everything needs to be flown on bush planes. Think small and light.

This year, KTVA, the broadcast partner of the Iditarod arranged for a 24” dish from ViaSat, in the form of their Pro-Portable data satellite. This Ka band unit packs into a small flight case and can delivery upload speeds of 20Mbps. These speeds are theoretical, and in Alaska, we were planning on 6Mbps upload max.

The idea was to fly this dish ahead of the race leaders, and push a live stream back to our studio in Anchorage. Since the ProPortable would only have reception for the first part of the race, we planned to share KTVA’s two 1.2m flypacks for the second half.

In order to get the video back to our studio, I employed a Teradek Cube with a MPEG-TS license, which allows the cube to stream back to a cloud server called Sputnik. I setup Sputnik on the Amazon cloud, and could then pull streams directely into Wirecast with the free Teradek StreamReader plugin.

The tricky part was using the flypacks. These units are beamed into the KTVA facilities in Anchorage. Using a Mac Mini and an Ultrastudio recorder I could receive a signal from master control. Using Wirecast and Wowza Streaming Engine software running on the Mini, I was able to transcode the video and re-route it to Wirecast as an input. This was something that we had not planned for, and we worked it out thanks in part to the flexibility of Wirecast.

This was a huge breakthrough for race fans, and we streamed hours and hours of live cameras from the Alaskan Interior, which has never been done before.

The devil’s in the details

I have worked briefly in news when I first graduated college. I did not mind the pace, but found a more comfortable existence in production. I should have paid more attention to IFB’s and satellite windows, because I was in for a world of hurt. Let’s just say that I have a new respect for the gang in news production.

One Last Hurdle

We have been using Livestream as our content delivery network (CDN) for many years. Their pricing model in the past has been reasonable, with no per-user fee. Reliability has always been good, but this year Livestream experienced a major service outage right around the time of our finish. In order to keep our live video up, we switched the YouTube encoder on in Wirecast and was able to service our fans for about 4 hours until LiveStream was back up. Again, Wirecast saves the day.

Big time production, small footprint

Overall, the production was received well by the fan base. The equipment functioned as planned, and my main issues were mostly human error by myself.

When I think about what this team achieved with a few Macs and some software, compared to what would have been needed even 5 years ago, it is simply amazing.

Black Magic Video Assist: First Look

While I do have some Black Magic gear in my collection, my track record with their products has been spotty. Generally I have found that if a BMD product does not work out of the box, then it will never work for me.

side connectors When I first heard about the BMD Video Assist, I though here was another cheap on camera monitor with some recording capabilities. I was very happy (and still am) with the two Odyssey 7Q’s I own from Convergent Design. But after some though, I think the BMD Video Assist has a place. Allow me to elaborate.

Proper Positioning

For my purposes, I am thinking of the Video Assist as a ProRes recording with a confidence screen. In that vein, there is a lot to like. The unit can take SDI or HDMI, and record 10 bit 1080p in Apple ProRes HQ, ProRes, ProRes LT, or ProRes Proxy. It has built in dual tray battery unit that uses Canon LP-E6 batteries like my 5D MKII, and will charge those batteries when the unit is plugged in. But for me, maybe the greatest strength is that the Video Assist records on SD menory cards, which are very inexpensive these days. The cost per Gb is about 40 cents vs 80 cents for an SSD solution.

Nuts and Bolts

connectionsThe Video Assist is a 5″ touch screen, with a native display of 1920×1080. It has SDI in and out using mini lemo connectors, as well as full size HDMI in and out. There is a headphone out jack on 1/8″ mini, an SD card slot, and a AC input on the same side.

There are three 1/4-20 holes on the top and bottom of the monitor for mounting, as well as a kickstand for propping the monitor upright.

With the 1.1 firmware, the unit can display zebras from 75%-100% in 5% increments. There are also on screen guides for HD action and title safe, 4:3 protection, and film guides for 2.40, 2.39, 2.35, and 1.85

The unit ran for more than 2.5 hours on a pair of LP-E6 batteries in record mode.

 

A Few Issues

The first problem I ran into was simply trying to set the proper date and time. Whatever I tried, the parameter would not stick. A quick trip around the interweb confirmed that I was not the only one with this issue. Not the end of the world, but, you know…

sd-cardsSecondly, the Video Assist is particular about SD cards. Not just any card will do. Proof positive when I tried a 32GB Panasonic gold card that worked fine for my AF100 back in the day. the Video Assist would not even recognize it. I later received a Transcend 64GB card from Amazon that worked fine at ProRes LT (did not try other levels yet). Black Magic recommends at least UHS1 cards for HD. Read the list here.

 

Summary

Overall, I think the Video Assist will suit my purposes well. I do not intend to use this for on set picture evaluation, as I stated earlier. I will continue to use my Odyssey 7Q for that.

I would love to see a way to add Metadata to the files, or at least have a user definable naming convention.

Instead of a Histogram, I would like to see a waveform, which is a more appropriate tool for video pros.

I plan to use the Video Assist as part of my live stream kit to record the output of the production pre-encoder. It will make it’s debut during the 2016 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Watch for more  updates then.

Flights of the Phantom: One Videographer’s adventures with drones

OTEK's Phantom2 DronesThey go by different names, like Drone, UAV, or Quad copters. They carry cameras, and take amazing video and stills from crazy heights. Every videographer and photographer wants one. The attack of the drones is upon us.

I write this blog post to detail my journey, my pitfalls and the choices (or compromises) I have made.

PHANTOM I

My journey began in September of 2013, when I purchased a DJI Phantom 1 from Amazon for $679. The idea was to use the drone to film fly-overs on corporate golf outings. Everything seemed simple; get the drone, drop a GoPro camera on the mount, and go shoot. And that is what I did.

The Phantom 1 was a good craft, very easy to setup and fly out of the box, although I did have a small learning curve to overcome.

The problem I had with this setup was the lack of smooth video. What I needed was a gimbal, like the Movi, but for small crafts. The gimbals was available, but some cost more than the drone itself, and all required taking the drone about, and soldering in wires.

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A 3D printed GoPro shockmount for the Phantom.

I did try this simple, low cost, 3D printer contraption, but with only minimal improvement.

Even the cheap gimbals (<$200) made a huge difference in the quality of the video as one of the members of the NJFCPUG demonstrated one meeting.

All of this was a bit outside of my comfort zone, so I decided to pass on the gimbal option for the time being.

To add insult to my injuries, DJI reduced the price after I purchased by $200, so I decided to return the unit, and chalk the whole thing up as a learning experience.

PHANTOM II

Flash forward a few months, to April 2014 at the NAB Show in Las Vegas. DJI had a large booth in the main hall, and they had several new versions of the Phantom, but the one I was interested was the Phantom 2 with a 3 axis gimbal pre-wired.

DJI Booth at NABI purchased one right on the show floor, very anxious to get my hands on one. I only waited a week, as my drone had shipped mere days after NAB.

The results were stunning. The Zenmuse 3D gimbal made all the difference in the world, smoothing out the bumps a newbie pilot makes in flight. Everything was great, except…

While the video that my Hero 3+ recorded was stellar, I yearned for a way to live monitor what the camera was shooting. I needed a way to frame and orient the tilt axis on the camera.

Again, DJI to the rescue, or so I thought.

LIGHTBRIDGE

At NAB, DJI showed off a long range digital HD video transmitter for their drones. It was relatively expensive compared to the cost of a drone, at around $1500, and it was not available yet.

I waited and waited, chewing through props all the meanwhile. DJI posted a few videos that show how great it worked, but they did not tell the whole story.

The LightBridge works on the 2.4Ghz radio frequency, same as the stock Phantom flight radio. After installing the LightBridge on my P2, I quickly realized something wasn’t right. I could not control the motors or anything. Frustration begins.

LACK OF SUPPORT

Phantom2 and LightBridgeI tried calling the DJI support line directly several times, only to be told that due to high call volume, my call could not be taken at this time, and to try again later. I did try again later, numerous times later, with the same result. It appears that DJI just doesn’t take calls now.

There are several dealers listed as well, and I called a few. All the ones I spoke to had never seen a shipping version of the light bridge, nor had they any answers to my questions.

It turns out, that in order to use the LightBridge, you need to purchase a controller that can tether to the LB so the frequencies don’t interfere. So I purchase a Futaba radio that some others on the forums had recommended. That did indeed work, but the controller needed to be “programmed” to learn the phantom controls, and in the end, did not behave the same way in terms of easy of use.

Most frustating was the lack of a Mac updater tool for the LightBridge. DJI has a Mac utility for the Phantom, so it does not seem like a stretch to expect Mac support for all of their products.

After a week of kibbles and bits, I was able to get the LightBridge to work, and it worked well in my limited testing, but the setup was a bit gangly.

 

iPAD GROUND STATION & AUTONOMOUS FLIGHT

Around the same time, i was watching some videos about the DJI Ground Station, and autonomous flight modes. With a couple of add-on pieces, you can literally plot points on a map, and allow the drone to fly by itself at user determined points. This was perfect for me on the golf course, being able to let the drone fly down the fairway without me screwing the flight up.

So I ordered a Ground Station kit for the Phantom2, only to realize that it is incompatible with the LightBridge. Do you see a pattern here? Not blaming DJI or anyone for that matter, but the lack of clear and concise information on this is frustrating. Especially when the price point of this gear is aimed at green-horns.

The Ground Station is amazing from the technology to the interface. I was able to plot a few routes and have the drone fly all by itself. It was a bit scary at first, but it worked. For me, this feature trumped LightBridge for my use.

PHANTOM VISION+

Shortly after NAB, my friend bought a DJI Phantom with an integrated camera, called the Vision. It touted a live video transmitter to an iPhone or iPad for realtime FPV. The idea was good, but for me, the lack of a 3 axis gimbal was a deal breaker.

Enter the Vision+. The Vision+ is an update to the original Vision, but includes a re-designed camera AND a 3 axis gimbal. Plus, it includes the Datalink hardware in the unit. For me, this was almost all I wanted. Once again to Amazon.com to order.

FOURTH TIME’S A CHARM

So the Phantom Vision+ arrives and I start the all to familiar drill of  assembling, charging, and updating firmware on the drone. Once all was set, I went out to do some testing. Immediately, I had an issue the the drone not talking with the radio. Double checked everything, but no luck.

Back to the support lines. Who would answer the phones first? Atlanta Hobby answered first, and the tech suggested I read the manual, which I had, about linking the controller to the drone. After a second call, another tech walked me through the steps. Still no go. Call DJI he says. HA!

I really did not have time for a long round of call attempts, so I simply returned the unit to Amazon, and they advance shipped me a replacement. I figured it was worth a second attempt.

The new Vision+ I am happy to say worked out of the box. My review on this drone will follow soon.

SUMMARY

The entry point for this technology is incredibly low for a professional user, which makes it very attractive. The UAV industry is at a crossroads now, where technology is developing by leaps and bounds. I would still categorize this like the wild west though. Every pro can buy one, but it’s buyer beware. Not just from the hardware, but also the law. The FCC says that these craft for professional use are not approved without licensing. That process is out of reach for most in the category. You may get away with it once or twice, but the law may catch up with you at some point.

Then there is the safety element. I personally don’t fly my drones over people in a public space, and try to minimize the impact if my drone drops from the sky. Others do not take such precautions and those are the stories you hear on the news.

As a matter of fact, I am launching a support group for video pro’s who are getting into the world of drones.

Be safe, be patient, and have fun!