NAB 2010 wrapup

Another year of NAB has come and gone. Making it out of Vegas with some remaining faith in humanity seems like a successful outcome. So, anything worth talking about at the show?

First off, there’s 3d. 3D is The Next Big Thing, and that was obvious to anyone who spent half a second on the show floor. Everything from camera rigs, to post production apps, to display technology was all 3d, all the time. I’m not a huge fan of 3d in most cases, but the industry is at least feigning interest.

Luckily, at a show as big as NAB, there’s plenty of other cool stuff to see. So, what struck my fancy?

First off, Avid and Adobe were showing new versions of Media Composer and Premiere. Both sounded pretty amazing on paper, but I must say I was somewhat underwhelmed by both in reality. Premiere felt a little rough around the edges – the Mercurial Engine wasn’t the sort of next generation tech that I expected. Media Composer 5 has some nice new tweaks, but it’s still rather Avid-y – which is good for Avid people, less interesting for the rest of us.

In other software news, Blackmagic Design was showing off some of what they’re doing with the DaVinci technology that they acquired. Software-only Da Vinci Resolve for $999 is a pretty amazing deal, and the demos were quite nice. That said, color correction is an art, so just making the technology cheaper isn’t necessarily going to dramatically change the number of folks who do it well – see Color.

Blackmagic also has a pile of new USB 3.0 hardware devices, including the absolutely gorgeous UltraStudio Pro. Makes me pine for USB 3.0 on the mac.

On the production side, we saw new cameras from just about everyone. To start at the high end, the Arri Alexa was absolutely stunning. Perhaps the nicest digital cinema footage I’ve seen. Not only that, but they’ve worked out a usable workflow, recording to ProRes plus RAW. At the price point they’re promising, the world is going to get a lot more difficult for RED.

Sony’s new XDCam EX gear is another good step forward for that format. Nothing groundbreaking, but another nice progression. I was kind of hoping we’d see 4:2:2 EX gear from them, but I suppose they need to justify the disc based formats for a while longer.

The Panasonic AG-AF100 is another interesting camera, bringing micro 4/3rds into video. The only strange thing is the recording side – AVCHD to SD cards. While I’m thrilled to see them using SD instead of P2, it sure would have been nice to have an AVCIntra option.

Finally, Canon’s 4:2:2 XF cams are a nice option for the ENG/EFP market. Nothing groundbreaking, aside from the extra color sampling, but it’s a nice step up from what they’ve been doing.

Speaking of Canon, it’s interesting to see the ways that the 5d and 7d have made their way into mainstream filmmaking. At one point, I thought they’d be relegated to the indie community – folks looking for nice DoF on a budget. Instead, they seem to have been adopted by a huge range of productions, from episodic TV to features. While they’re not right for everyone, the price and quality make them an easy choice in many cases.

One of the stars of the show for me was the GoPro, a small waterproof HD camera that ships with a variety of mounts, designed to be used in places where you couldn’t or wouldn’t use a more full featured camera. No LCD, just a record button and a wide angle lens. I bought two.

Those are the things that stand out for me. While there was plenty of interesting stuff to be seen, given the current economic conditions at the University, I wasn’t exactly in a shopping mindset. The show definitely felt more optimistic than it did last year, and companies are again pushing out new products. However, attendances was about 20% lower than 2008, and that was definitely noticeable on the show floor.

CaptionManager – easily add and remove captions from QT movies

Cough. Yeah. Remember this blog? Right then.

Here’s a new little app to add and remove caption tracks (SCC files) from Quicktime files. In theory you can do this with Quicktime Pro, but it doesn’t seem to work so well anymore.

This zip file includes the source for the app, Xcode project, and a compiled build.

Basically, you can open a quicktime movie, and it’ll detect whether there are already captions or not. Then you can strip the captions if they already exist (plus an associated TC track) or add new captions from an SCC file. You’ll either need to be on Snow Leopard or have the Caption Component installed. The built version is Intel only, though you could probably compile a PPC version if you were so inclined.

The app writes out a new file, rather than updating in place, due to some limitations in QTKit.

For the command line, running ./ -help will give you the relevant info.

No license attached, because I still don’t understand the implications of BSDing stuff created on the University’s dime.

Oh also, the GUI leaks a little memory. Deal. I’ve also posted a screencast of the app.

Sony Launches Less Useful Z5U

Sony today announced the NXCAM, an AVCHD-based “professional” camera which bears a striking resemblance to the EX1 and Z5U.

You get 1080p exmor CMOS chips (presumably 1/3″?) and records AVCHD to the highly popular (sarcasm) Memory Stick media.

Pricing hasn’t been announced, but presumably it’ll be in the $4000 range like the Z5U. I’ll be curious to see how this shakes out in the market.

XDCam EX gets some friends

Sony has announced a couple new additions to the XDCamEX family – the PMW-350 and the PMW-EX1R.

The 350 is a shouldermount camera with interchangeable lenses and 2/3″ chips. That puts it somewhere between the 1/2″ PDW-F355 and the 2/3″ 4:2:2 PDW-700.

Sony Pmw-350 Angle Med

The EX1R is a minor bump to the EX1, adding features that users have asked for, like a dedicated viewfinder and a DVCam recording mode.

For me, the most interesting bit of news is that Sony is launching the “MEAD-MS01,” an SXS to MemoryStick adapter. I guess Sony noticed that many EX1 and EX3 users have been using SD adapters, and decided to get into that market. And of course, they had to use everyone’s least favorite flash format, Memorystick. I’ll stick to my SD cards for now, but it’s nice to see Sony “legitimize” that recording option a bit.

Why iFrame is a good idea

I’ve seen some hilariously uninformed posts about the new Apple iFrame specification. Let me take a minute to explain what it actually is.

First off, as opposed to what the fellow in the Washington Post writes, it’s not really a new format. iFrame is just a way of using formats that we’ve already know and love. As the name suggests, iFrame is just an i-frame only H.264 specification, using AAC audio. An intraframe version of H.264 eh? Sounds a lot like AVC-Intra, right? Exactly. And for exactly the same reasons – edit-ability. Whereas AVC-Intra targets the high end, iFrame targets the low end.

Even when used in intraframe mode, H.264 has some huge advantage over the older intraframe codecs like DV or DVCProHD. For example, significantly better entropy coding, adaptive quantization, and potentially variable bitrates. There are many others. Essentially, it’s what happens when you take DV and spend another 10 years working on making it better. That’s why Panasonic’s AVC-Intra cameras can do DVCProHD quality video at half (or less) the bitrate.

Why does iFrame matter for editing? Anyone who’s tried to edit video from one of the modern H.264 cameras without first transcoding to an intraframe format has experienced the huge CPU demands and sluggish performance. Behind the scenes it’s even worse. Because interframe H.264 can have very long GOPs, displaying any single frame can rely on dozens or even hundreds of other frames. Because of the complexity of H.264, building these frames is very high-cost. And it’s a variable cost. Decoding the first frame in a GOP is relatively trivial, while decoding the middle B-frame can be hugely expensive.

Programs like iMovie mask that from the user in some cases, but at the expensive of high overhead. But, anyone who’s imported AVC-HD video into Final Cut Pro or iMovie knows that there’s a long “importing” step – behind the scenes, the applications are transcoding your video into an intraframe format, like Apple Intermediate or ProRes. It sort of defeats one of the main purposes of a file-based workflow.

You’ve also probably noticed the amount of time it takes to export a video in an interframe format. Anyone who’s edited HDV in Final Cut Pro has experienced this. With DV, doing an “export to quicktime” is simply a matter of Final Cut Pro rewriting all of the data to disk – it’s essentially a file copy. With HDV, Final Cut Pro has to do a complete reencode of the whole timeline, to fit everything into the new GOP structure. Not only is this time consuming, but it’s essentially a generation loss.

iFrame solves these issues by giving you an intraframe codec, with modern efficiency, which can be decoded by any of the H.264 decoders that we already know and love.

Having this as an optional setting on cameras is a huge step forward for folks interested in editing video. Hopefully some of the manufacturers of AVC-HD cameras will adopt this format as well. I’ll gladly trade a little resolution for instant edit-ability.

New Sanyo cameras have editing in mind

Sanyo has announced some ‘A’ revisions to their existing FH1 and HD2000 cameras, which add a new “iFrame” mode. It appears this is an i-frame only h264 mode, at a reduced 960×540 resolution. It’s a very interesting idea – if other manufacturers adopted it as an optional setting, and if NLE manufacturers supported it, it could turn H264 into an edit-friendly format. Right now, editing H264 is hamstrung by the extremely long GOPs and complex interframe relationships. Going to i-frame only makes it essentially a more advanced version of a codec like DV or DVCProHD.

Interestingly, the bottom of the press release mentions that

“The iFrame logo and the iFrame symbol are trademarks of Apple Inc.”

That’s news to me. One wonders if Sanyo jumped the gun on a release, or if this is just a format that Apple uses internally in tools like iMovie, which Sanyo has co-opted. I’ll certainly be keeping my eyes open for an Apple announcement about “iFrame.”