2014 Year in Review in Creative Gear

My goodness, 2014 was loaded with so much going on that I didn’t have much time to write about it. We completed some major threat avoidance films, purchased and tested a LOT of gear, and made some major shifts in how we work. Here’s a quick look at the year in review, starting with our conversion to a fully 4k-capable workflow from acquisition to edit to render out:

The “early 2014” Mac Pro

The “new” Mac Pro was announced in June of 2013, barely shipped the last week of 2013, but was not readily available for immediate shipping and pick up in stores until around June of 2014. It had to be one of the most backordered products I have ever seen. Luckily, we received our 8 core dual D700 unit with 64GB of RAM in early January of 2014. Here’s what I think about it after a full year of use:

I don’t know what I was thinking when I ordered it getting only 512GB of storage. I have had to add a 1TB SSD externally to store documents and the like while my applications and the OS stay internal (this actually works out fine). You can add internal storage now via Other World Computing, but it’s not nearly as fast as Apple’s internal offerings. (You get about 700MB/sec vs 900… not slow by any means but not as fast).  A better deal is purchasing a 1TB “pull” from a late 2013 Macbook Pro Retina unit which is as fast. But then you have no way to transfer the data…

The Mac Pro has been worth every penny. Final Cut Pro X now takes full advantage of the dual video cards, as does the Adobe Creative Cloud (we use both) and Davinci Resolve (even Lite). It took much of the year of 2014 for software to catch up, but most everything we use can saturate the CPUs now. Not every application saturates the second video card. But it is used, especially for FCPX renders and in Davinci Resolve. 

The newly announced iMac with 5K Retina Display with the highest end 4GHz processor is faster than the “new” Mac Pro at single threaded tasks. And it has a single GPU as fast as one of the single D700’s in the Mac Pro. However, where the Mac Pro continues to shine is in editing native (non transcoded) 4K in real time with layered effects on it. While not perfectly smooth, the Mac Pro can maintain real time 4k playback with a few heavy-computational effects such as FilmConvert 2 layered on, albeit at a reduced resolution. My top of the line late 2013 Macbook Pro 15” Retina cannot do this with nearly as many effects layered on (though both do fine with just the raw 4K footage). The Mac Pro is indeed 4K ready.

While editing 4K, and not transcoding, both GPUs are heavily used, and I have found the memory use on them (6GB per card, 12GB total) can actually be nearly full. The iMac just can’t keep up. Rendering is also much faster on the Mac Pro, with heavy CPU usage for transcoding. High bit rate dual pass H.264 encoding is much faster than my laptop (and the iMac), and background rendering on the Mac Pro in FCPX in particular is very very fast. Even Neat Video noise reduction is bearable.

Can the Mac Pro be faster? Sure. The holy grail is full-resolution real-time playback of non-transcoded 4K with multiple effects loaded on. We are not there yet, but it’s smooth enough when the playback quality is reduced. Edits go extremely fast and I never run out of main system RAM.  This was a wonderful purchase, 4K capable, and will last us years. Things will only continue to get better as FCPX plugin makers add dual GPU capability to their products; right now the second GPU could stand to get a lot more use.

4K Displays

Concurrent with the Mac Pro we purchased a 31” Asus 4K AGZO PQ-321Q display. This unit uses multi stream display port to combine two screens into one. It is the same as the Sharp unit that Apple still promotes and sells for $3500. Don’t pay that though; you can get the Asus under $2,000 now. This is an amazingly good monitor. It’s perfectly color calibrated out the box, runs at 60Hz, and is effectively “retina” from where I sit. It has a matte screen, which I actually don’t like as much as a glass screen (like in the new 5K iMac), but it has the benefit of zero glare.  

There are other cheaper 4K displays out on the market now, but they max out at 50Hz and only just this past month did any have an IPS display. Now is a good time to purchase 4K displays, as you can get a good 27”+ model for around $1,000 and have it be a high refresh IPS display from the likes of LG. And they don’t use multi stream technology. Want a 5K display? You will have to wait until a Thunderbolt 3 equipped Mac Pro.

In addition to the primary 4K display, and an old Apple LED Cinema Display as a 2nd screen and 1080P check, we have a cheap 39” 4k display from Seiki to show off to clients and just see images on a larger screen; it looks like an 8 bit panel however (the Asus is at least 10 bits or more, I believe), and only runs up to 30Hz. The 8 bits makes a difference: you can see banding that the much more expensive Asus panel does not show. This is fine for video playback, however, and the colors (minus the banding) are at least accurate.

One great thing with a third 4K TV used as a large playout/monitoring screen is that you can hook it to the Mac Pro via HDMI, and it will act as an A/V Output in FCPX at full 4K resolution. Very helpful indeed for monitoring while using our main 4K display as a retina workspace.

Storage

Aside from the mentioned SSD for documents/music while working, online storage for editing remains our trusty Promise 12TB Pegasus R6 Thunderbolt 1 RAID array. I still see transfer speeds in excess of 700MB/sec from it which is beyond most SSDs in speed. Truly great product. We refreshed all the drives this year, and the old drives are now used as archives.

We archive to bare drives using an OWC Voyager USB 3 dock for read/write. The drives are stored in anti-static plastic storage boxes and cataloged with the outstanding “disk tracker” utility that has been out for Mac since the 1990’s. At any time we can find any file on any drive and pop it in. We backup paid projects 2 times and off-site them as well. 

We prefer Hitachi and Toshiba drives for their demonstrated reliability, and spin them up at least once a quarter to keep them lubricated. We have tens of terabytes available at any one time.

Final Cut Pro X (FCPX)

2014 was the year I transitioned over from using mostly Adobe Premiere to using Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. When FCPX was released years ago, I thought it was a travesty. I still prefer Adobe Media Encoder to Apple’s Compressor in fact (it’s faster) and After Effects to Apple’s Motion (more capable). But using FCPX itself has been an absolute revelation.

I was moved attempt FCPX after getting the Mac Pro, and finding that Adobe Premiere was (at the time) not really tuned to use all the "new" Mac Pro's power and would crash and burn long edits at the worst of times. When the "early 2014" Mac Pro was released, FCPX was one of the few programs that was able to use all the hardware. Given the issues I had with Premiere at the time, I decided to give it a good try.

We have grown to absolutely love this thing. (MBTA Active Shooter timeline shown; preview was shown on 2nd & 3rd displays)

Adobe has since added many of the FCPX capabilities in, and uses the Mac Pro's power now. Did I go back? Not really. 

I find Apple’s strength is with metadata. I use metadata extensively to help choose shots and organize what I am working with, and it has drastically sped up my editing. Keywords make finding relevant shots far easier, and also make organizing interviews a treat. Multicam is incredibly well envisioned and seamless as well, and the program tends not to crash nearly as much as compared with Adobe, which still gets extremely unstable after long edits. There are also a ton of very powerful plugins available for FCPX now (such as the amazing Slice X with Mocha) as well.

FCPX needed time to gel and cook: years in fact. Apple really botched the launch but has since steadfastly committed to improving the software. Only in 2014 did we finally get media management on par with FCP 7, and an application that was able to do all FCP 7 could - and much more. This was about the time I started using it in earnest and it really helped. I learned how to use FCPX in much the same way I would use Premiere, but with the enhancements available in FCPX (such as the magnetic timeline, which ends up being more help than hinderance) I can get work done faster. Sharing with other editors has been fine using both transfer libraries and XML, and round tripping apparently works well with Davinci Resolve, though I have yet to test this out.

This is a very short (and all over the map) summary, but in the end FCPX became a revelation for me. It’s not perfect, and most of the world still prefers Avid due to its reliability and preferred workflow for sharing edits simultaneously with groups of editors (perfect for large projects). But anyone can create amazing edits quickly with FCPX now; it’s used by the BBC and for some feature films in fact. Apple continues to develop and improve it, with tons of additional functionality added for free over the years. 

I believe a new paid version of FCPX is coming in 2015. Apple did not add too much in 2014 to the program, but did make usable additions such as ProRes 4444 XQ and native MXF file handling, as well as vastly improving relinking. The program has easily matched or exceeded, for us, where FCP 7 was. It took a few years, but I can fully and confidently say it is ready now for even the most complex of projects. If you teach yourself to understand the paradigms they use in the application, you really can be more creative and fluid in your editing. And all that hardware you bought will now go to good use.

I can now say that FCPX is highly recommended, which is a 180 degree turn from what I thought back in 2011; just make sure you take a good training class before you start. I used the excellent Ripple Training series.

DJI Phantom Drones and Aerial Cinematography

There’s a lot to say here. I will however condense it into a few videos and a few paragraph. 

About a year ago, I dove into using the DJI Phantom drone (first the Phantom 1, then the vastly improved Phantom 2). I became quite good at flying it and getting the best image possible out of it. I don’t sell the footage outright, but have used some free shots I created in paid productions to make them far more impactful. Clients are very pleased. I hate to use the word “game changer” but this thing definitely is: the creative possibilities are immense, especially when used sparingly.

Gimbals and cameras vastly improved in quality this year, relative to the Phantom. We moved from the H3-2D gimbal for the Phantom 2 with a GoPro Hero 3 running in 1080P, to a H3-3D 3 axis gimbal running in 4K with a GoPro Hero 4. The images can be astounding (see the opening and closing shots from this piece).

These two videos sum up my thoughts thus far:

The possibilities from these drones are just amazing. I am now focused on sub 400 foot closer-in footage as this I find the most compelling. And I am updating to the quite interesting Inspire 1 drone from DJI, which you can read all about here.

Aerial photography is here to stay, and these are still infant times improving rapidly. We’ll see where the FAA takes us with new rules… (some of the proposals are troubling) but for now - it’s play ball. Safely. 

Folded up and ready to go; and I can mount the Atomos Shogun to get 4k from the Sony A7S on it. Very nice.

Folded up and ready to go; and I can mount the Atomos Shogun to get 4k from the Sony A7S on it. Very nice.

Motorized Gimbals

Much like the motorized gimbals on the drones, which help steady the camera as the craft moves around - someone (Freely Systems) took that functionality and put it on a set of handlebars, charged at least $14,000 for it and called it the Movi. Flash forward to 2014 and we finally go in the game - for a lot less.

Late in the year, we added a Varavon Birdycam 2 gimbal to the stable. It is extremely well built while remaining light, and does a great job once you get a hold of the software you need to tweak it. It’s designed for smaller cameras like DSLRS and the new breed of 4k capable large sensor mirrorless cameras like the Sony A7S. It is perfect for me because I cannot physically handle a lot of weight with a larger camera on say, a DJI Ronin gimbal which is far heavier.

The Freestyle Systems Movi was one of the first gimbals released (itself, repurposed from drone use) and came in at around $14,000. Now you can get similar quality from DJI (who did the same thing as Movi) for $3,000. (The Varavon model is $2,300). While handheld gimbals aren’t quite as steady as a true steadicam (you can see subtle up/down steps while walking), they allow for a far more creative use of the camera, and can take over for many jib and slider shots. 

And now the cameras you can put on these small gimbals can put out images rivaling the big boys. I will review this gimbal more fully in a future post. 

Which brings us to…

Small and Light 4K: The Sony A7S and Panasonic GH4.

When I purchased the Panasonic GH4 with about $5,000 worth of native glass for it, initially I was in heaven. This camera definitely operates better than the Sony A7S, which a nicer touch screen, remote app, nicer EVF, much better auto focus, and internal 4K. I hate to keep repeating myself here, but my initial reaction was "wow".

We went all in to test and use the GH4, and shot extensively with it while testing. However, for actual jobs… we never ended up using it. Why? 

This thing is filled with magic sauce.

This thing is filled with magic sauce.

We purchased the full frame Sony A7S shortly thereafter. Announced at NAB in 2014, this tiny, all-metal 35mm full frame mirrorless E-Mount camera could use any lens you wanted (including Canon EF glass with the excellent Metabones smart adapters). It can shoot in almost full darkness, with an ISO up to 409,000, and a relatively clean and usable ISO up to 80,000. It has 14+ stops of dynamic range (I find 12 in actual practice) with an internally recorded 50Mbit image that in my opinion, completely matched sort exceeded the C300 and C100 from Canon. And the camera could output 422 images in 4K. And the camera was only $2,500. 

"It's full of stars!"

In side by side comparisons in bright light, the GH4 looked very nice… almost like a 16mm film camera. Getting 4K shots whenever and wherever was a revelation, and I captured many a pretty scene.  I am a fan of a lot of the GH4 4K work I am seeing on YouTube, in fact. 

However, the dynamic range in the highlights in particular on the GH4 was relatively weak and flat, at least when compared with the A7S and my old trusty Canon Cinema EOS C300. I ended up selling the GH4 and all the lenses once the ability to record 4K from the A7S came out in December of 2014 via the Atomos Shogun.  The GH4 just could not match up to the other camera. It also helps that the A7S could take a dedicated XLR hardware XLR-K1M XLR jack pack ($700) made by Sony, whereas the GH4’s was larger, more expensive, and required external power.

The A7S also takes amazing stills, when matched up with nice glass such as the “mini OTUS” 55mm F 1.8 Zeiss lens from Sony. The images are only 12 Megapixels, which is good enough for an 11x17 at 300dpi and realistically, a poster sized print will look just wonderful. What you lose is the ability to crop in as compared with a higher resolution camera (for stills), so you need to really consider your composure for stills. But this camera was good enough to replace my Canon 5D mark III and my Canon Cinema EOS C100. 

I still think the 5D Mark III is a better stills camera overall for capturing moving subjects: it has a far better autofocus system, and a higher resolution for cropping. However the A7S has better overall images, in far lower light - a 2 stop advantage over the 5D Mark III. And image quality is what matters.

Furthermore, the internally recorded HD images using XAVC-S in the A7S readily beat the 5D3’s, only being matched by those who shot in raw using Magic Lantern - a very time consuming and messy workflow. I would go so far as to say it matches up well with a Canon C300 or C100 cinema camera... at 1/4-1/2 the price.  And the 4K out of the A7S is an absolute revelation, with low light capabilities matched by no other single 4K camera around. Yes, it's that versatile and that good.

The A7S has its quirks of course but it is otherwise an extraordinary camera for the size and cost. This was an amazing addition for us in 2014, and will live as a small and light 4K camera, a B camera, and a portable jib and gimbal camera. It’s that good.

If you want to read more about how it performs in 4K, check out our full Atomos Shogun review.

“4K for Free” FINALLY; The Sony PXW-FS7.

I wrote a ton about this amazing little camera that replaced our Canon C300 (and Joe Simon’s, and Dan Chung’s, and Philip Bloom’s…) in two different articles (here, and here) with not one, but two (1, 2) test films.  I won’t repeat it all here; just read the articles. I will say this to sum up:

Here is a relatively small (though larger than the C300, slightly), decently rugged all-metal camera that shoots 10 bit 4:2:2 high bitrate (up to 600Mbit) 4K internally. And it can Canon EF lenses (if you want) in a full frame look (with a Metabones Ultra Speedbooster). And its images from it's 14+ stop sensitive Sony F5 sensor that match the much more expensive and widely praised Sony F5 and F55. And it's light and ready for shoulder mounting out of the box. For $8,000.

Gasp! Wow!

High quality 4k tools became far more capable and far less expensive in 2014.

High quality 4k tools became far more capable and far less expensive in 2014.

The Sony F55 was recently used to shoot the 2014 feature film Annie in 4K, and now you can get practically the same image for your indie film from the PXW-FS7 for $8,000. Even the Canon C300 cost $16,000 it as released; and even as of this writing is still $12,000.

$8,000 for the FS7. I'm still shocked. With the Sony F5 sensor, virtually same processing quality as the F5, and the same recording codecs as the F55. Think about that. 

Wow. 

When I heard this camera was coming, I preemptively sold our Canon C300. The C300 still puts out amazing images, but it has limits in its 8 bits of color and of course resolution. I have no doubt Canon will meet or beat the Sony FS7 in features this coming April with their new camera, but the cost I am sure will be more expensive. I'd bet on it.

Where Canon has the advantage is in color science; out of the box the image is just nicer on the skin tones. The Sony F5/55/FS7 can be made to look as good (if not even nicer), but there’s often significantly more work involved. And shooting a true LOG at 14+ stops is difficult, compounded by Sony’s odd color science. So the downside to the Sony is you need to put more work in post to get the most natural looking image. But when you do, it can look quite good.

The FS7 is a relatively small, light, somewhat rugged 4K camera with a cinema-ready image at $8,000. It can be run off a shoulder out of the box. It offers 4K “for free” - and halves the cost that similar quality cameras cost just 3 years ago. Sure there are odd operational quirks (that are being addressed by Sony), It’s a wow camera, especially for a producer, and we are happy we added it to the stable.

Why the Love for 4K in 2014? Didn't you say you hate it?

70" at 8 feet: how many people have or need televisions that big?

70" at 8 feet: how many people have or need televisions that big?

I have gone on record saying that 4K is for most people useless: for distribution. I still maintain that distribution in 4K is indeed useless for 95% of the typical target audience of a boutique or independent video professional. Why? Because most people will never be able to see the improvement visually with 4K, much less have a 4K TV.

Our eyes are not bionic. To see even a minor difference in quality at a typical 10 foot seating distance, you need to have a minimum of a 75" television. (Assuming typical 20/20 vision; if you have better eyes you can get the benefit sooner, and if you like me have eyes that are dying you get the benefit later.)

Very, very few people have the room for such a beast in their house. (We have a 106" projection screening room here, but we are unique). 4K makes sense in large theaters for those in the first third of the theater, massive TVs, and small displays where the image is inches from your face (ironically). 

So why bother? 

Well, 2014 brought us a wealth of affordable quality cinema making tools at 4K and at Anticipate Media we jumped on it for a few reasons:

  1. It looks better in HD. Most of these cameras, when you take their 4K output and downsample it to 1080P HD in your editor, the image retains more detail than the native HD image out of the same camera. This is one reason the C300 looks so good even today.
  2. You can crop, pan, zoom in/out and stabilize with little to no image penalty for HD productions. This is huge; it opens up a wealth of creative possibilities for the editor. I would not use it as a substitute for real camera movement or alternate angles, but 4K can cover you in a pinch.
  3. Future Proofing. This is weak, but some day there will be a need for this larger footage. Perhaps it will be sold as B-Roll. Maybe we will all have flat OLED wallpaper where we are printing out images hundreds of inches long. We are soon approaching a world where everyone has a retina screen and wants to experience all the detail they can. Shooting in 4K and mastering in it as well offers a degree of future proofing for applications we can not yet see.

I always maintained that when 4K was "free", in other words high quality 4K images came on relatively affordable professional cinema-style cameras, that I'd move to it. And now we are there. Everything looks a little better, and I have many more options in post. All of our camera platforms in fact now shoot in 4K, from the GoPros to the drones to the mirrorless little cameras to the bigger shoulder mount ones. It is now no more expensive to do so than it was to get high quality HD 3 years ago. Thank you 2014.

We love Kessler.

Kessler (Crane) makes extremely high quality support gear for a decent price. Last year we added the Pocket Jib Traveler (see our full review), and we kept using it this year with many smiles on our faces. We also used the outstanding K-Pod system on K-flex track for true tracked dolly movements, and the Kessler KC-8 Crane rented out very often.

This year, we added the fantabulous Kessler Kwik Release system of quick release plates and receivers to all of our gear. You can watch a video here that explains all of this, and I won’t go into too much more detail except to say: buy them. Buy 2. Buy 5. BUY. You won’t regret getting these over-engineered, incredibly well built plates and receivers.

We can now move to sticks, to a monopod, to a slider, to a jib, to rails, to shoulder mount - all by dropping and and lifting off in 2 seconds. It’s a revelation, and we are very very happy to know and love Kessler Crane products.

We love Zacuto.

Yes, Zacuto’s products are expensive. But they too are rock solid, last forever, and blow away any cheap stuff you may save money on. With Zacuto, you get what you pay for. We use Kessler’s QR shoulder pad and swivel and other mounts to ensure quality rigging. Highly recommended. And this year, we loaned our new FS7 to them to make the rigging even better.

We love Rule.

When no one could get the FS7, John Rule from Rule Boston Camera ran though flaming hoops to get us one of the first units in the world. We produced an honest review, and some of the feedback made it into later firmware updates. We were able to use the camera on shoots to get to learn it, and we are thrilled John and Sony felt fit to give us the camera months before others could get their hands on it. Rule is the real deal.

We also recommend B&H (when they have stuff in stock), and Texas Media Systems in Austin, TX - who got us a Shogun recorder immediately at release.

Way Too much to talk about!

Ok. I’m tired of typing. There was so much that happened this year, gear wise, project wise, and life wise that I couldn’t begin to cover it all. I will have to cover things in future posts… for example focusing on how we shoot with our public safety and security clients. That new Insipire drone. Why we moved to 4K when we don’t actually distribute it, and so on.

There will be more gear and software reviews. We will have an exciting new training program for the public sector, and much more.

2015 will be a year of creation and less a year of acquisition. We look forward to working with and connecting with you in this new exciting time.