NAB 2014: The Highlights
Any attempt to summarise an event as huge as the National Association of Broadcasters' show in Las Vegas is always doomed to seem patchy and incomplete to at least someone.
The Association tells us that there were more than 1500 exhibitors on the show floor, but that overlooks events, seminars and talks in various function rooms all over the city. This, then, is a discussion of the most prominent trends in camera and acquistion in which we'll try to avoid retreading the ground of the most well-known announcements.
To skirt dangerously close to the obvious though, I'd be remiss not to mention the further normalisation of 4K acquisition, with widely publicised announcements from Blackmagic, Panasonic and AJA but also JVC and Grass Valley. This is interesting not because it's a surprise, because it isn't, but because there still hasn't been an equivalent increase in the availability of either 4K distribution or displays priced at the home-user level.
Now, there certainly are more 4K displays than ever before – Seiki's 39” 4K device among them, which was shown at CES – but while a lot of people talk about it, there still isn't that much concrete development in 4K broadcasting.
Among the slightly less obvious contributors to 4K TV work (as opposed to 4K single-camera filmmaking) were Grass Valley, with their announcement of a prototype 4K camera intended for studio and OB truck use. The boxy prototype should be reworked into a more conventional form factor by IBC.
It's easy to miss the fact that there really isn't a 4K studio camera, in the conventional box-lens sense. Various manufacturers have shown 4K filmmaking cameras from Canon and Sony accessorised for studio use, particularly Nipros with their very nicely-made fibre adaptors, but it's hard to overlook the problems of focussing for big sensors and the limited lens selection that won't really be properly solved until Grass Valley get their 4K studio gear to market. And even then, there's the question of how well HD-oriented, B4-mount broadcast lenses will hold up on such a high-resolution sensor. Canon didn't have much to say on that subject, although the costliness of some existing HD glass can be extreme enough to make one question the practicality of making it any better.
Shooting 4K for a 2K finish
So, mass availability of beyond-HD pictures in your lounge would still appear to be some way off, Netflix notwithstanding. What makes a lot more sense – to get dangerously close to one of Sony's favourite phrases – is the idea of shooting 4K for a 2K finish.
The wider issue of shooting better formats than we distribute was highlighted in a discussion of high dynamic range imaging chaired by Curtis Clark, ASC. Comments by the panel, as well as questions from the audience, suggested that there may be significant interest in shooting better formats not because we actually want to distribute the extra information, but simply to allow greater flexibility and margin for error when producing for conventional distribution. Shooting HDR, for instance, should make grading easier. Shooting 4K for a 2K finish potentially eases concerns over reframing, visual effects, noise reduction and can make critical focus a little easier to assess.
This is nothing new: feature films historically shot a vastly better format (35mm film) than they generally distributed to people's homes (standard-def video) with the result that people's viewing experience could more easily be guaranteed to be of high quality. Shooting HD for an HD distributable doesn't give us that margin for error, but shooting 4K, HDR or wide gamut pictures does, and the increasing availability of more capable cameras is putting that advantage in more hands.
From conventional electronic devices to microelectronics
Having satisfied our appetite for pixel-peeping, let's move on to a more general issue: that of firmware.
It's been true for a while, but perhaps particularly highlighted by a couple of products at NAB this year, that a lot of modern equipment has its capabilities defined not so much by its hardware but the code that it runs.
This situation is exemplified by two products: enticing new revisions to SmallHD's 7” monitor series, and conversely, Blackmagic's dedication to pushing out new products while only slightly older ones go without updates. SmallHD's monitor update provides a simple but capable grading interface to provide for creative image manipulation on set, a brilliant feature which demonstrates both the utility of modern programmable logic devices and SmallHD's rare dedication to supporting their existing customers, as well as expanding their range.
Blackmagic, on the other hand, have for several years been in a phase of launching a wide range of new products, but still haven't provided basics like disk space indication and audio metering to their original Cinema Camera. While the camera range is generally well-received, the company deserves a sharp rap on the knuckles for this sort of oversight, especially as it mainly disadvantages existing customers who might reasonably have expected these features to emerge quickly.
The big change though is that not long ago many pieces of film and TV equipment were mechanical and conventionally electronic devices. Now they're principally microelectronics, defined by firmware, a longer tail of manufacturer support is required to get the best out of the technology.
The final element in a summing-up of this year’s NAB has to be attendance. Published figures show that 98,000 people were at the show, an increase on last year’s attendance. More directly, a straw poll of exhibitors revealed a general impression of keen interest and the feeling that things were improving after a few years of underwhelming business.
All was impressive; the camera releases, the invasion of buzzing drones in the Central Hall, but perhaps more than anything, the crowds of eager viewers around booths like that of recorder manufacturer Atomos will be the lasting memory of NAB 2014.