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Cinematography – NAB: Considerations for On-Camera Monitors

NAB 2015 saw many companies in one segment of filmmaking moving into other areas with innovative and evolutionary products.

By Paul Isaacs

NAB PIX 240iAccuracy in monitoring and capturing imagery is vital to all video productions, from online streaming to television broadcasts—and, of course, feature-length films. Years ago, the professional relied on capturing moving pictures to film, on tape, or more recently to expensive, proprietary, solid-state memory cards. The search was on for on-camera recorders that could capture edit-ready, file-based video in higher resolutions on readily available, mass-market media storage.

As video technology has progressed, the market has become open to more accessible, more powerful cameras with smaller footprints, and the industry as a whole has moved from a linear world of film and tape-based capture to file-based, non-linear digital capture. With this evolution, the need for more compact devices with quicker, more efficient and cost-effective monitoring capabilities—that can capture higher resolutions, such as 4k acquisition—has become paramount.

Basic monitoring considerations

Image resolution is fundamental to any video monitor and should be one of the foremost considerations to aid cinematographers and videographers in capturing sharp imagery. The size of the display and its pixel density are important, but other key elements to consider are the tools critical to monitoring video. These include tools that help with focus, exposure, color balance, and framing. At the core of any good monitor lie tools such as false colors, zebras, peaking, zooming, frame guides, Look Up Tables (known as LUTs), and various scopes—histogram, waveform, and vector scope.

Just as cameras have evolved toward lighter, more portable models without sacrificing features, so too must monitors, especially those mounted on cameras and used in field productions. When choosing an on-camera monitor, it also is important to evaluate weight, robustness, battery consumption, angle of view, and sunlight readability.

A great monitor must feature a responsive and simple-to-use interface to meet the rapid demands of fast-paced productions. With lighting variations and actors constantly moving between marks, a focus puller or camera operator must be able to react quickly to capture the shot effectively.

Video Devices monitor adds new capabilities to a Sony camera.

Video Devices monitor adds new capabilities to a Sony camera.

Bringing it together

At NAB 2015, Sound Devices, under the brand name Video Devices, introduced new monitors, including two with 1920×1080 five-inch LCDs (PIX-E5 and PIX-E5H) and one with a 1920×1200 seven-inch (PIX-E7) LCD. The PIX-E7 is suitable for larger camera rigs that require more detail and screen space, as well as for use as a handheld director’s monitor. The most compact 4K recording monitors available on the market today, the PIX-E5 and PIX-E5H are better suited to DSLR mirror-less camera rigs and smaller form factor cameras. Though smaller, the PIX-E5, like the E7, comes with both SDI and HDMI inputs and outputs, while the PIX-E5H is an HDMI-only model.

Like all on-camera monitors, the PIX-E Series features all the must-haves, including a sunlight-readable LCD with a 179-degree angle of view and 441 pixels-per-inch density, the highest available (and necessary) on the market today. They also feature an interface that allows all functions to be accessed through the tactile buttons on the front panel or via a touchscreen.

A unique feature of the PIX-E Series is the company’s proprietary TapZoom, which provides focus operators with speed and ease-of-use and allows an operator to tap any point of interest on the screen to automatically center the focus point and magnify it by two or four times. It also offers the ability to track a subject, by simply dragging the image to the left or right, which is something that was once only possible by physically moving the center of the camera.

The next generation: 4K

While 4K has become almost a generic term, it really encompasses two standards—the 4K-specific 4096×2160 pixels, which is more aimed at cinematic applications, but also the similarly-sized UHD/QFHD 3840×2160; the PIX-E Series supports both.

Another view of the Video Devices monitor.

Another view of the Video Devices monitor.

To capture 4K, users must have the ability to store larger amounts of data, because 4K is literally four times the amount of data used by standard HD video. The main problems that arise from 4K recording are the speed and reliability needed for these high data rates, as well as accessibility and affordability. An accessory product for PIX-E is the company’s SpeedDrive that at first glance looks like a standard USB 3.0 thumb drive. It is that and it also can house an mSATA drive, which is available from many consumer outlets, such as Amazon or New Egg, and capable of storage up to 1 TB. When connected to the rear of the PIX-E, the SpeedDrive’s USB 3.0 interface automatically switches to a SATA interface, which is well-suited to record continuous, high-data-rate 4K video. The added advantage of SpeedDrive is that when a user is finished recording, no special card reader or docking station is needed. They just unplug it from the back of PIX-E and plug it into any USB computer port to quickly and easily transfer data at very fast USB 3.0 rates.

As a company entrenched in the audio business, Sound Devices has created the PIX-LR, an audio accessory for the PIX-E line of monitors. With the ability to bolt onto the bottom of any of the three PIX-Es, the PIX-LR provides the highest quality XLR-balanced inputs and mic preamps for which Sound Devices is renowned. The mic preamps include phantom power and limiters to protect against loud signals, while high-pass filters protect against low-frequency rumble. LED audio metering and balanced line-level outputs also are incorporated. Recessable gain pots make fast adjustment of audio level a breeze.

Because the PIX-E monitors are designed to be mounted on portable cameras, they were engineered with a robust, die-cast metal chassis and the virtually indestructible, scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 2 protecting the high-quality screen. This device comes from the experts in reliability with a proven history of developing professional gear that keeps on working even in the most extreme production conditions.

With a full-suite of monitoring functions, ProRes 4444 XQ recording, top-of-the-line audio recording and media transfer options, plus its unique TapZoom feature and its ‘best of both worlds’ tactile or touch screen interface, the PIX-E is ideal for today’s competitive industries of video and motion picture production. It’s the complete package.

Paul Isaacs is director of product management and design for Sound Devices.

June 26, 2015