By far the coolest thing on the show floor was the Viper camera, which according to David Bancroft of Thomson Multimedia, “transfers every detail from CCD to post.” The camera puts out an uncompressed digital signal that’s simply a digital version of the analog data coming direct from the CCDs without any video image processing. It offers a choice of aspect ratios: 16:9 or ‘scope (2.35:1) without the need to use an anamorphic lens or cropping. Other cameras being sold for high end digital cinematography are really disguised video camera originally designed for high definition news gathering. The Viper, on the other hand, was designed from the ground up for digital cinematography.
The Viper offers image resolutions of 1920 x 1080 progressive, 1920 x 1080 interlaced, and 1280 x 720 progressive (all at various frame rates). Output choices including YUV video over an HD-SDI (1.5 Gbps) link and full resolution RGB video (4:4:4) over a dual HD-SDI link (almost 3 Gbps). While the huge data rates of the camera will limit it to use in special effects and commercials, it certainly offers a view of cinematography’s future as storage devices increase in capacity and performance.
You might be wondering how you take this huge amount of data and put it in a usable form. The post chain demonstrated at the show was to take the raw data out of the camera and record it using a hard disk based recording system developed by Director’s Friend. Then from hard disks the data is taken into Thomson’s Spectre datacine to do a color correction transfer session much like the film to tape telecine transfer done today. Sony’s CineAlta system finally faces some competition.
The camera at the show was an engineering prototype, so not too many people have had an opportunity to shoot with the camera. Cinematographer Geoff Boyle convinced the Thomson folks to let him take the camera out Tuesday morning to shoot the sunrise. The images were impressive, with gentle compression in the highlights and clean shadow details (this was after the images were graded on the Spectre). When I asked Geoff how the Viper compared to the film cameras he’s used to working with, he replied the Viper was “the first machine I would use without serious complaints,” and in terms of image quality, the Viper provides “absolutely unf*%#ed with images.” High praise indeed coming from a serious commercial cinematographer. There will be a Viper dog and pony show at the Cannes film festival. I would expect more footage will be available for show at that time.
This post is a section from the article “NAB 2002 Roundup” published in the New York Independent Film Monitor, Vol. 7, No. 7 (May 2002)