The Nonlinear Editor: Panasonic AG-AF100—DSLR Killer or Filler?
Posted Jan 28, 2011

Last week I watched a documentary film called Wisconsin Death Trip, which was nearly as hokey as its title would suggest. But the topic was fascinating: the stranger-than-fiction saga of a small Wisconsin community that, according to legend, succumbed to a sort of collective insanity for a few years in the 1890s that manifested itself in a spate of murders, suicides, arsons, and demonic possessions. Is it possible for harsh winters, a bad economy, or other factors to drive an entire town into madness? Likewise, could a collective madness grip an entire industry? Those who predict that Panasonic’s just-released AG-AF100 Micro 4/3 camcorder will prove to be a “DSLR Killer” in the video market seem to think so. The line of argument goes like this: Video cameras are for video and photo cameras are for photography. Videographers/filmmakers have no business shooting with photo cameras. Photo cameras are not meant to be used for film production and are only serving as video-camera stand-ins until the real thing—i.e., an affordable video camera with comparable imaging capabilities—comes along, which it has, in the form of the GH1/GH2-analogous AF100.

This is what scientists call “hogwash.” For one thing, it suggests that the filmmakers who have adopted the DSLR workflow and have substantially stepped up their game have done so begrudgingly, suffering through compromises such as 12-minute continuous recording limits, dreary audio, awkward rigs, overheating headaches, and the ignominy of wedding guests mistaking them for photographers and striking poses. Of course, none of this takes into account the rapture of early, middle, and recent DSLR adopters who would much rather fight than switch at this point. This is where the “collective insanity” theory comes into play. So, are we likely to look back at the last 2 years as some historical hiccup when event filmmakers around the world spat in the face of nature and shot movies with photo cameras? No way. DSLRs are here to stay.

Does that mean that DSLRs are the be-all and end-all of event filmmaking? It depends on the filmmaker. But there’s no question in my mind that DSLRs have revolutionized this industry, changing it radically, rather than incrementally, as HDV and AVCHD did.

As with HDV and AVCHD, the real impact of DSLRs happened a little differently than was predicted at the outset. The biggest boon of HDV and AVCHD in the early years was wooing us all to widescreen. And it was well-worth it for that, even if the limited opportunities for HD delivery meant that the extra pixels didn’t always do us much good. Likewise, with DSLRs, the opportunity for photographers to make movies and filmmakers to shoot stills turned out to be a bit of a red herring, or at least less of a big deal than many people supposed. The real magic of the DSLR era has come from all of the light that the glorious imager lets in, the quantum leap of image quality, the pinpoint depth-of-field control, and the paradigm shift of interchangeable-lens shooting.

I think the first time I fully recognized what was happening came at Re:Frame Austin in April 2009 during Jason Magbanua’s presentation. He started off by showing a pre-DSLR same-day edit (SDE), and I thought, “It can’t get any better than this.” Then he rolled out one of his first DSLR SDEs on that big Alamo Drafthouse screen, and it was a true beyond-imagination moment. If DSLRs haven’t made every event shooter into Jason Magbanua, they have helped elevate the work of nearly all the leading filmmakers in the business, and best of all, they’ve helped transform the films of ambitious midmarket producers as well.

So, in short, I don’t see the AF100 or any other new player swaggering into town and proving to be a DSLR Killer. But I do think Micro 4/3 camcorders will round out the revolution begun with DSLRs. Rather than a DSLR Killer, I see the AF100 as a DSLR Filler, or a DSLR Fulfiller—the camera that will complete our industrywide ascension into the big-imager light and into the image-making mastery that comes only with mastering interchangeable-lens shooting. What’s more, the Micro 4/3 camcorders will fulfill the promise of DSLRs for those videographers/filmmakers who prefer the heft, feel, and audio function of cameras designed expressly to shoot video.

I know there are those among the DSLR faithful who see the AF100 as, at worst, an insult to their way of life or a relic of a bygone era when videos and photos were shot with different cameras and we all carried camcorders that signified our second-class citizenship. They also cite the fact that the AF100 needs a Birger adapter to work with Canon EF lenses, as if that were some fatal flaw. Still others malign the design, which isn’t exactly inspiring.

But keep in mind that this is just the first Micro 4/3 camcorder with a price point to match our market and that others will follow. The 5D Mark II wasn’t the first DSLR to shoot video; it was just the one that represented the biggest step forward and that captured the imagination of the video/film world. And it was still a major firmware upgrade away from prime time during its initial flush of success. For many event filmmakers, Canon DSLRs didn’t hit their stride until the 7D, T2i, or 60D.

And who knows how many ambitious event filmmakers out there have been yearning for the image quality and the low-light performance and lens-swapping of DSLRs but are waiting for them to come along in a camera built for video? Well, if you find yourself among that group, let me be the first to advise you to ignore the AF100 naysayers and to welcome you to the big-imager world. The view is great, and the company is even better.

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