The Nonlinear Editor | NAB 2010: Random Notes
Posted Jun 2, 2010

Back in the mid-’80s, I read Rolling Stone religiously. Granted, if the magazine ever had any real counterculture credibility, it was on the wane by then. But I was still in high school and didn’t know that. It was the heyday of MTV, the era still sort of defined by Steve Wozniak’s US Festival, and the pop-rock mainstream in which Rolling Stone reigned supreme seemed plenty edgy to me and my fellow teenage music obsessives.

One thing that made Rolling Stone so great (if also, sometimes, so tedious) was that it did these seemingly endless interviews with all the acts I most wanted to read about, and the magazine's capsule album reviews read like gospel. That all ended abruptly one day in 1987 when I arrived in my high school library to find David Bowie on the cover of the new issue, which would have been fine except for the headline that proclaimed “STYLE!” That was when it finally dawned on me that it might not be all about the music anymore.

But even when Rolling Stone sold out the bulk of the magazine to flash and fashion, there was always Random Notes, quick hits that ranged all over the map, and no matter who they were covering, those notes were always worth reading.

In the interest of passing along a few highlights of April’s National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)—which was also, as always, all over the map—here are a few Rolling Stone-style Random Notes on NAB 2010. We’ll leave the Lennon Remembers-esque epics for another time.

Golden Years
NAB has always provided videographers with a great opportunity to geek out over the latest gear and has given interesting glimpses at what may be lurking around the bend. But as a broadcast show, NAB’s preoccupations have never fully aligned with ours. All that news cutting and ENG (electronic news gathering) stuff that commands a sizeable share of the NAB buzz misses us by a mile. Likewise, those bedazzlements that cause each year’s show to be declared “The Year of …” for broadcasters and moviemakers often take years to trickle down to us—long enough that it’s pretty silly to take them seriously when they first appear.

As I recall, it was “The Year of HD” for 3 or 4 years at NAB before HD became a practical thing for event videographers, and anyone in our space who’s still touting this year or any other as “The Year of RED” sounds pretty green. This year, just like last year, most of the hype concerned 3D, although with more of a “this time it’s for real” vibe than last year. Some event filmmakers are beginning to do some interesting things with 3D—most notably, Brett Culp (who surely knows the market and application for what he’s doing). But it’s still miles from mainstream.

The real challenge with 3D, as with HD, comes when you look at how many pieces need to fall into place to make it viable, from acquisition to editing to delivery to, well, whatever happens when clients take home their movies and have to figure out how to play them. And it’s arguably worse with 3D than with HD because there was much to recommend shooting in HDV or AVCHD, even if your clients didn’t have Blu-ray Disc players. (And there still is.) But unless I’m missing some arcane future-proofing argument (much more convoluted than the future-proofing argument for HD), I can’t think of a single reason to invest money, time, or expertise in producing 3D films if your clients aren’t able to play them, especially when it’s not exactly inevitable that they ever will be able to, as it arguably was with HD.

Rebel Rebel
Another weird thing about attending NAB from the event filmmaker perspective is realizing that NAB is not a photography conference. Therefore, still cameras that shoot video aren’t the big deal for most of the NAB crowd that they are for us. So there was a lot more 3D talk than DSLR talk. I don’t think I spotted the late-breaking Canon Rebel T2i anywhere, and I saw much less than I expected about the 5D or the 7D and not much of anything new on the DSLR front. Most of the DSLR-related repartee at the show concerned rigs, stabilizers, storage, and other accessories—essentially, the kind of stuff that makes using a still camera as a video camera less awkward than it would be otherwise.

Cinevate and Zacuto were there in full force, of course. But two of the most interesting DSLR-related announcements came from two plug-in vendors, CoreMelt and proDAD, which updated their stabilization tools (Lock & Load and Mercalli, respectively) with utilities for addressing CMOS-derived rolling shutter issues. Of course, DSLRs aren’t the only cameras that shoot video with CMOS chips and are, thus, susceptible to rolling shutter distortions. But it’s interesting that both these plug-ins are addressing rolling shutter now, with the ascendancy of DSLRs, rather than in response to the first and second generations of pro and consumer video cameras using CMOS chips. Mercalli seems to be the more substantial upgrade—proDAD has added Mac support, for one thing, which means it’ll be knocking on CoreMelt’s door—but it’s the rolling shutter tool in both applications that should draw the most attention from our audience.

Under Pressure
Just because there weren’t a whole lot of DSLR developments at NAB this year doesn’t mean we didn’t see some interesting moves from the camera manufacturers. Judging from what DSLRs did to conventional video cameras in our space over the last 16 months, one would think the camera majors would feel some pressure to respond. But for the most part, they didn’t, which suggests that they still see fusion cameras and video production as things apart.

Instead, we saw incremental improvements on past video camera models from three of the four major manufacturers. Sony’s new NX5, which was announced in advance of the show, is the company’s first AVCHD-based tapeless pro handheld, with multiple card slots, 1920x1080 HD, and a flashy $800 Flash drive module.

JVC introduced a new studio camera, the HM790, which is being touted as the flagship of its ProHD line and strikes a blow for CCD purists, but it really operates out of the range of the event filmmaker. (The HM700, reviewed by Jan Ozer in March, is the current ProHD model in our wheelhouse.)

Canon’s new XF300 and XF305 replace the aging XH-A1 and XL-H1, respectively, with mid-size chips (1/3'' CMOS); discrete rings for focus, iris, and zoom; multislot tapeless workflow; ingenious new positioning for the switch-hitting HD flip-out screen; and support for Canon’s new XF 4:2:2 50Mbps codec. The price could be a bit nicer ($6,700 for the 300, which has everything the 305 has except GenLock and HD-SDI and is thus the better fit for our market). But all in all, the XF300 is an interesting entry from Canon, even though it isn’t exactly the camera event filmmakers were looking for. It looks like a rock-solid upgrade for A1 shooters and a nice, incremental progression beyond what Canon has offered in conventional-chassis video cameras in the past. But those who were anticipating something revolutionary from Canon—the company that has revolutionized our industry in the past year with the 5D and the 7D—have to be scratching their heads. Then again, our expectations may have been unrealistic. While Canon may be in the best position to launch a video camera that might beat back the DSLRs, it also has the least reason to do so.

The most revolutionary camera entry at NAB this year (and isn’t it always the way?) was still under glass and probably not in its final body design (let’s hope so, anyway): the Panasonic AG-AF100, a new AVCCAM model boasting an eye-popping 4/3'' sensor and—get this—an interchangeable lens mount that’s compatible with still-camera and film-style lenses with fixed focal lengths and primes. Imagine a sort of HMC150/5D manticore, with the body of the HMC150 and the head of the 5D (at least, that’s where I hope the body ends up, even though it’s not there now).

There’s a reason that an entire cottage industry of rigs and other support products has rallied around the 5D and the 7D: Shooting video with a still camera can be a bit weird, and not everyone is inclined to adjust to it, which is why so many event filmmakers were looking to Canon to essentially retrofit the 5D or the 7D into a video-camera body. It appears that Panasonic may very well beat them to the punch, although the IBC show in Amsterdam (an even bigger video show than NAB) still stands between Panasonic and the projected December 2010 launch of the AG-AF100. A lot can (and probably will) happen in the meantime. And, of course, you can stick just about anything under glass at NAB and call it your next camera. But Panasonic has a pretty good record of delivering the cameras it promises (a significant point for those who wonder if the RED Scarlet may show up first with a similar sensor and a better acquisition codec).

The Man Who Sold the World
I won’t go into a lot of depth on what was arguably the best all-around new release at NAB this year, Adobe CS5 Production Premium, for three reasons: 1) Jan Ozer did a bang-up job of reviewing it in May, 2) I’ve been doing nearly all my editing with Premiere Pro CS5 on the Mac for close to 4 months now and I’m so used to what it does (and so inured to, say, the mystifying wonders of the mainstreamed Ultra keying engine) that it hardly feels new anymore, and 3) it was arguably upstaged at NAB by a guy who didn’t even show up. By now, we’re all well-trained parrots of whatever phrases Steve Jobs plants in our mouths, and this year the phrase of choice at NAB was “Flash is dead.”

Apple gave new meaning to “conspicuous in its absence” at NAB 2010, and this time around it went several steps beyond simply snubbing the show. Jobs was the man behind the curtain, working his universal remote from the friendly confines of Cupertino (Calif.), keeping the focus on his oddball iPad, the rosy future of HTML5 (never mind its messy present), and his insistent lockout of Flash from every quadrant where he holds the keys, which has left industry pundits to muse, summarily, on where Adobe’s mobile strategy ultimately failed. At this point, Jobs’ ability to make anything he says or produces seem cool may in fact be exceeded by his ability to make its opposite seem profoundly uncool. His iPad rollout has been nothing short of masterful in its mythmaking, dating back to several weeks before the launch when we all of a sudden found ourselves touting Apple’s then-unnamed product as the savior of the newspaper industry. If that’s not strategic leaking and rumor seeding, I don’t know what is. But what the hell, if the iPad makes the dreaded incipient era of all-electronic reading more accessible to old folks and the less-than-eagle-eyed than the Kindle and the iPod touch do, I suppose I’m all for it. I’m not sure where I heard that, but I find myself strangely compelled to repeat it.

Young Americans (and One Canadian)
I suppose the overarching theme of this column, like NAB itself, has been the new developments in the media production world that either sort of pertain to event filmmakers or pertain to event filmmakers in spite of where they’re really targeted. But there was one event that happened alongside NAB last week that was all about event filmmaking and what it might aspire to: the world premiere of Kevin Shahinian’s City of Lakes at the Brenden Theatre in the Palms Casino. I did my epic Rolling Stone interview with Kevin in the April issue, so I won’t repeat myself too extravagantly on what City of Lakes is and what it represents. But I think the three key points here are that it’s a wedding film woven into a concept film, it represents the collaboration of four of the hottest filmmakers in our business (Shahinian, Patrick Moreau, Joe Simon, and Casey Warren), and that it wouldn’t be the masterpiece it is without the benefit of that collaboration.

But after all the buzz, the 6,000-word EventDV cover story, the podcasts, the trailer, and the Cinevate promotional campaign, questions remained: Could Shahinian actually create a film that delivered on all that promise? I went to the premiere fairly confident that the answer to that question would be yes. But there was another question I really didn’t want to ask out loud because I was afraid the answer would be a resounding no: At what cost? That is, could City of Lakes succeed as a feature that so thoroughly transcended the wedding genre—and its locked-in reliance on the bride-and-groom perspective—without failing as a wedding film?

Boy, was I wrong. The answer to this question underscores what is so magical about City of Lakes, and what makes it not just a triumph for Shahinian and his crew but for our industry as a whole. City of Lakes is not just a great short film but a great wedding film. It contains the hallmarks of effective wedding cinema, concept or otherwise: It’s personal, it’s intimate, and it’s awash in the most meaningful moments of real life. The DSLR and Steadicam work is stunning, the pacing is nearly perfect, the child actors give beautiful and touching performances, the script is taut and eloquent, and the concluding plot twist is ingenious. But it wouldn’t be the movie it is without the pure human emotion and intimacy of the wedding moments interwoven with the scripted scenes. If City of Lakes accomplishes the things most of us never imagined someone might someday do in a wedding film, it’s just as inspiring that it succeeds, in part, because it’s infused with the essential elements of what wedding filmmakers everywhere already do.

Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EventDVLive and programming director of EventDV-TV.