A conversation with John Naylor, Director of Grass Valley’s Infinity Camcorder Program

I was very impressed by many of the design decisions made by the designers of Grass Valley’s Infinity professional 2/3″ 3-CCD ENG camcorder. At the NAB2006 show I caught up with John Naylor and talked with him about the camera. Naylor is the Director of the Infinity Program, with overall responsibility for the camcorder, the media, and the field recorder. He also has responsibility for Grass Valley’s future developments in the Infinity series. Prior to joining Grass Valley he was with Snell & Wilcox and Kodak. What follows is a slightly edited, yet unabridged transcript of our conversation.

David Tamés: What is it that sparked the Infinity project? The camera seems to depart from a lot of the traditional thinking in ENG camera design.

John Naylor: I think the initial spark was when Jeff Rosica, who’s our V.P. of Marketing for Grass Valley, went and bought himself a new backup device called REV from Fryes in Burbank, California, and sitting there in his office playing with it he thought, “you know, this is almost perfect for broadcast media recording,” that was the initial spark. We were looking to do some strong organic growth [and] we did not have an offering in the ENG, EFP capture market at the time, so basically putting the two together. We know how to make cameras, we wanted to enter that market, we thought it was time for the people in that market, customers in that market, to be given choice between solid state recording, choice between spinning disk media, choice between the codecs that they use, choice between formats, resolutions, interlace, progressive, frame rates… We decided to put all of that into a camcorder and companion deck, so that basically ends the stranglehold that the proprietary companies have had on the segment for far too long.

Tamés: Let’s say that I’m someone who’s trying to decide what sort of camera system to invest in for quick turn-around projects like news reporting and news magazines, and let’s say I’m thinking about what am I going to replace my Betacams with. It looks like I’m currently faced with a choice between P2 from Panasonic or XDCAM from Sony, and then there’s this whole sphere of data options [based on open standards]. How do you position your design choice in this landscape of options?

Naylor: Our positioning is that the media that we use started life as generic IT media, with high availability. In the case of Compact Flash, tens of thousands of retail outlets worldwide, and in the case of [REVPro] spinning disk technology from places Best Buy, Fryes in the U.S. Whereas the other companies basically started off with something that was IT based but ended up being broadcast centric, specialized, and let’s face it, proprietary. We’re trying to end that, we don’t have huge tape plants to support, hat gives us the latitude to use what’s on the shelf, and in the case of REVPro we had to optimize it a little bit for use in broadcast, it was almost perfect, and it’s still almost perfect. You can just use a standard REV disk to record, what’s different about REVPro is that you can get two sustained streams in either direction off the drive [with] a guaranteed quality of service of 55 Mbit/sec per stream, that means you can do things like edit in place, on the device, and you can be copying stuff on and off your camcorder while you’re recording, or while you’re playing. That gives you a lot of flexibility, it’s a little bit like having a tape with two heads.

Tamés: Wow, you’re telling me the camera supports reading asynchronously from the disk while the camera records to it?

Naylor: Yes, or streaming over Ethernet, USB, or FireWire, while you’re still recording, this is basically a computer with a lens on it (laughs).

Tamés: Speaking of computers, what’s driving the camera on the inside?

Naylor: At the heart of the camcorder we’ve got a PowerPC running Linux, we chose that combination for rock-solid reliability, we understand and appreciate that people are little bit leery of having to working about “my camcorder’s got an operating system?”

Tamés: So does your TiVo and many of the devices we use every day.

Naylor: We use Windows CE for the PDA-like touch screen GUI on the side, that allows you, we’ve got some fairly useful asset management operations.

Tamés: For example?

Naylor: Say you plug in a USB drive to the camera, you can use that interface to drag and drop you assets either on or off the USB drive from the internal media.

Tamés: And what format are the assets in?

Naylor: The content that the camcorder and the deck produce or consumes is wrapped in MXF OP1a. We produce a high quality capture thats pictures, sounds, timecode, metadata, and we produce a JPEG2000 proxy with thumbnails, aLaw 8-bit audio, and timecode, [with] exactly the same metadata that goes into the high definition image. [This] means you can confidently do a cut-down edit on the proxy and know that when you conform, it’s going to be frame-accurate and everything you expected from the proxy edit that you did.

Tamés: What are your favorite design aspects of the camera?

Naylor: I think the image quality is going to be there. The fact that we’re using 2/3″ sensors is quite important, it positions us as a serious high-quality offering, it avoids all of those issues that you get with smaller sensor sizes, it keeps the noise low, and it keeps compatibility with existing glass, the image processing that’s in the camera has a long heritage, we’ve got some really smart intellectual property inside the image processing.

Tamés: What, specifically, is the heritage of this camera?

Naylor: Before Grass Valley did cameras, a company called Philips BTS did, and then Thomson acquired them and then acquired Grass Valley, and the Grass Valley brand is used across the whole company.

Tamés: So does that mean there’s a little bit of the Viper FilmStream DNA inside this camera?

Naylor: In that it came from the same design team, yes, there’s also a little bit of the LDK 6000 in there as well.

Tamés: So it’s got good genes, so to speak

Naylor: Yes.

Tamés: So what’s the delivery timeframe for the camera? The prototype you’re showing here looks impressive, but it looks like you still have some issues to work out [in terms of image quality and energy consumption].

Naylor: Initial units will be going out in the June/July timeframe, we expect the first ones [will go to] strategic accounts, this will consume our production for some time. If you buy from a retailer, then we’re [expecting to deliver in the] September/October time frame. The field recorder will trail the camera by a couple of months, but we’ll have plenty of beta units available at the same time that the camcorder is available for sale. The people buying the camcorder will be the candidates for inclusion in the deck’s beta trial.

Tamés: In addition to the IT-centric Ethernet, USB, and FireWire connections [and support for recording onto REVPro or Compact Flash], am I correct to assume the camcorder will sport all of the connections in and out we’d expect from a professional ENG camcorder?

Naylor: Yes, it’s also got a cute feature which you can press a button while you’re recording and record a voice cue like “this is where the airplane crashes” or “this is where the footballer gets his leg broken” and those are recorded onto the media itself.

Tamés: Is this implemented as MXF voice notes?

Naylor: Yes.

Tamés: So, with all these features, what will this camera set me back?

Naylor: The list price for the camcorder is $26,000, that’s with the viewfinder, the list price for the field recorder is $15,000.

Tamés: And what kind of lens do you expect me to put on this camera?

Naylor: [Any good 2/3" lens] in the range of $8,000 to $12,000. We’ll be putting a package deal together so you can buy the camera together with a lens, we just don’t know the pricing of that yet.

Tamés: What else should I be checking out from Grass Valley at the show?

Naylor: Once you’ve recorded something, you need to edit it. We’ve got a couple of good editors, with the recent acquisition of Canopus, we’ve got a craft editor in our stable now that’s called Edius that goes all the way from small laptop editors to big fully HD hardware assisted turnkey solutions, it’s worth looking at, it does grading and color-keying and all that.