In the Field: Atomos Ninja HDMI ProRes HDD/SSD Recorder
Posted Aug 26, 2011

Atomos NinjaWho would win in a fight between a samurai and a ninja? This question has long been discussed by scholars who debate the merits of the armored samurai, who were bound by a code known as the bushido, and the stealthy ninja, trained assassins who used poison and the element of surprise. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist and author of The Art of War, would probably have favored the ninja as he wrote, "Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy's unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions." Although I know a few wedding videographers who occasionally wish they could blow a poison dart or two toward an obtrusive photographer, modern-day video producers employ a balance of both the samurai's training and equipment and the ninja's ability to blend in with his environment. And as important as it is to get the shot, capturing it in the highest-quality intraframe codec (as opposed to interframe/LongGOP MPEG and AVCHD codecs) is becoming more important with the increasing demand and support for 1080p playback resolution across HDTVs and computer screens and 720P for smartphones and tablets. Previously, high bitrate, intraframe HD recording was only available on shouldermount cameras such as the Panasonic HPX300/370, although Panasonic recently announced the $6,500 camcorder-style intraframe recording HPX250, which is due for release in late 2011. For the rest of us, there is Atomos Global Pty Ltd.'s Ninja or Samurai-external HDMI or HD-SDI Apple ProRes recorders.

Now let me clear something up right away: ProRes was invented by Apple, but it works on most PC NLEs as long as you install the ProRes codec, which is as simple as installing QuickTime. I didn't realize this when the first ProRes recorders were announced, so as a PC user, I didn't consider using them; the company that launched them spoke only of their Mac support.

Following the success of AJA Video Systems' $3,995 Ki Pro, companies raced to come up with an affordable and more portable solution to capture uncompressed video directly from HD-SDI and HDMI outputs. AJA started shipping the smaller and more portable $1,995 Ki Pro Mini in February 2011, but only 2 months later at NAB 2011, there were several new entrants into the marketplace. Having reviewed them all, the one that stood out the most (after performing a cost benefit analysis for my own business and workflow) was the $995 HDMI Ninja. Atomos has plans to ship the HD-SDI Samurai later this year. I received my first unit in early June, and after using it for 4 weeks, I found that it lived up to my expectations. It's now part of my daily HD workflow.

How It Works
One of the things that I really like about the Ninja is that you don't need to buy many accessories. The Ninja ships with almost everything you will need, including a case, two batteries, a double-slot battery charger, two hard drive caddies, a hard drive dock, and cables to support FireWire 800 and USB 3.0. Atomos doesn't ship the Ninja with a hard drive, but you have the option of using inexpensive SATA laptop hard drives for normal use or SSDs for more rigorous environments. I consulted the Atomos-approved list of hard drives and decided on a 7200 RPM 500GB Western Digital Scorpio Black laptop hard drive, which I purchased from my local computer retailer for $65.

The remaining add-ons I required were a shoe mount and a short HDMI cable, both which I already owned. When you compare this to other solutions that require SSDs or CF cards; use expensive, heavy Anton/Bauer batteries; are too heavy to be shoe-mounted; don't have the ProRes codec (and so require more storage); and don't include a dock, you will quickly realize what a bargain the Ninja really is. The other thing to consider is that for the price of a Ninja, you can still buy an external FireWire-based recording device, although I can see that market quickly drying up with the introduction of a new breed of 10-bit intraframe external recording devices.

The Ninja connects to any clean eight- or 10-bit HDMI output (meaning some DSLRs are not fully supported, which is the fault of DSLR manufacturers, not Atomos), and it records to three ProRes codecs: the 100Mbps LT, 145Mbps 422, and 220Mbps HQ. Video is recorded using the FAT32 file system, which means it is both Mac and PC-compatible and has a 4.3GB file size limit. Although there is no recording time limit, a new file is automatically created every 4.3GB. Because ProRes is an intraframe codec, there are no missing frames between files, such as what I experience on my Sony HVR-MRC1K CF recorder when it is recording HDV.

I should note that on one of my shoots I could feel the hard drive vibrations in my tripod pan handle. This was the only time that I mounted the Ninja on my camera and subsequently switched back to my original mounting method, which is to the tripod, rather than the camera.

First Test Projects
The first project I used the Ninja on was a greenscreen shoot. I was still a bit stingy with bitrates and used the ProRes LT codec, but I was amazed with the improvement over the same-camera HDV recording. I used my Sony HVR-Z7U and recorded simultaneously to MiniDV tape, CF card, and the Ninja, so I was able to do an accurate frame-by-frame analysis. I reached the conclusion almost immediately that the 1920x1080 ProRes recording was much better for keying than the 1440x1080 HDV codec.

The area where I noticed the biggest difference was around the edges, which is the most critical area when keying. I should note that because the Ninja records the uncompressed HDMI signal before it is compressed by the video camera's codec, it provides a higher-quality recording than one that
is played back and captured or simply converted to ProRes after the recording. So Mac users who already convert files to ProRes as part of their workflows will notice an improvement when using natively recorded ProRes files over files that are only converted to ProRes after a previous lossy compression.

Atomos Ninja
On the left is an image from the greenscreen shoot captured with HDV; on the right is the same frame captured to ProRes LT with the Ninja.

I found the Ninja's TFT touchscreen easy to use. There aren't too many settings, and there really doesn't need to be; the Ninja automatically detects the resolution and frame rate. In addition to being used for menu settings, the screen doubles as a reference monitor. With a resolution of 480x270 on a 4.3" screen, the Ninja won't challenge the resolution of a small HD DP6 monitor, but it has a larger display than a camera's LCD. Having an integrated monitor and recording device really came in handy when I was filming a concert with my Kessler Crane. The Ninja was mounted right in front of me with a Manfrotto super clamp and a 1/4" threaded stud. I had access to my record and stop buttons as well as the added measure of confidence that I was still getting a signal, despite the camera being 10' up in the air. The Ninja even has a headphone-out jack to monitor either the HDMI inputs or the 1/8" stereo audio input.

Shawn Lam Video, a Vancouver Video production Company
Ninja footage from a dance recital shoot

Connections and Transfers
Transferring footage is as simple as removing the caddy, which holds and protects the hard drive, from the Ninja and inserting it into the dock. The dock connects to your MAC or PC with your choice of FireWire or USB. The FireWire connector on the dock is FireWire 800, and a FireWire 800 cable is included, but I understand bilingual FireWire 800-to-FireWire 400 cables are available, although I didn't test one.

The other option is the USB 3.0 connection; a blue USB 3.0 cable is included, which is also reverse-compatible with USB 2.0. When using the USB connector, a second, supplied USB power cable is needed to power the hard drive dock. Same-day edit producers will be interested to know that footage can also be quickly edited straight from the hard drive while it is still in the dock.

Shawn Lam Video
A close-up image of Ninja footage from a concert shoot

Ingest, Editing, and Delivery
Editing with the ProRes codec is a joy. There is less compression and fewer artifacts than with familiar camera codecs, and the colors have a fuller range. My test system was Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5 on the PC, and the footage played back in real time after I sorted out one small detail: By default, the Ninja is set to record both the HDMI stereo inputs and an additional 1/8" stereo input, which it does even if an audio device isn't connected.

Unfortunately, Adobe currently supports only two channels of audio when using the ProRes codec, so I had to turn off the recording on the two additional unused tracks in order to create a compatible recording. Other than that, my editing with ProRes has been real-time and native, although I should also share that I am not able to export an archive ProRes file from Adobe Premiere Pro. This isn't a big deal for delivery since ProRes isn't a delivery codec, and I use Adobe Media Encoder and Encore to create my delivery formats. But you might want to consider this limitation if you're accustomed to exporting your projects to an intermediate codec before rendering a delivery codec. FCP users can expect full Ninja ProRes support. But this shouldn't be a deal breaker because you can always export to AVCHD Intra if you require an intraframe codec.

When you think of the Ninja and delivery formats, don't forget about legacy delivery media such as SD DVDs. Online HD and, to a lesser extent, Blu-ray are where most of the HD video I shoot ends up. But my company still produces a lot of DVDs (the month this article was written, we produced a little more than 2,000 discs). It is pretty obvious that the Ninja produces better HD videos, but one of the most dramatic benefits of the Ninja and its full HD ProRes codec is that it helps produce better DVDs. My old acquisition codec was the very lossy, low-bitrate long group of pictures (GOP) and anamorphic (1440x1080) HDV codec, and I've never been happy with the limits on DVD quality that this codec imposes. Now, as DVDs are approaching their end of life, at least I can finally say that I am happy with the quality of the video on my DVDs, thanks to the Atomos Ninja.

Shawn Lam Video
A Kessler crane setup for the world's first three-Ninja shoot, a Shinobi Creative Productions concert

Overall
Overall, I feel that the Atomos Ninja has allowed me to improve my acquisition and delivery video quality using the same video camera I've been using. The best part is that the cost to upgrade my recording is relatively low compared to the cost of a new video camera, and it exceeds the recording quality of AVCHD, the codec that has replaced HDV. I'm also not a big fan of having to media-wrangle-that is, to change and dump cards while on-site-and having a 500GB hard drive means I can record 11 hours in LT, 7.5 hours in 422, or 5 hours in HQ before I need to switch to a second hard drive.

The same month I started using my new Ninja, I filmed a few greenscreen shoots and several dance recitals, but an event that occurred the week before I wrote this review was probably the highlight of my Ninja usage. What better way to test a Ninja than on a shoot for Shinobi Creative Productions? (Shinobi is another word for ninja.) Shinobi's owner, my friend and BCPVA colleague, Scott White, convinced me to buy another Ninja, and using my two Ninjas and his one, we filmed what just might have been the world's first three-Ninja concert using a trio of Sony Z7Us. I'm sure our very unofficial record won't last
long-I expect to see a lot more Ninja-equipped video cameras in the hands of camera operators at every level.

Shawn Lam (video at shawnlam.ca) runs Shawn Lam Video, a Vancouver video production studio. He specializes in stage event and corporate video production and has presented seminars at WEVA Expo 2005–2009 and the 4EVER Group’s Video 07. He won a Silver Creative Excellence Award at WEVA Expo 2008, a Bronze CEA at WEVA Expo 2010, and an Emerald Artistic Achievement Award at Video 08.