Shooting Music Video With The Panasonic SDX900 Camera

The Right Tool For The Right Job…
By Eric Gustavo Petersen

As a cinematographer, I have on more than one occasion come across a director or producer who has said to me, “that technical stuff is not my thing”.  (Very painful since I happen to think that my choice of cameras and lenses is very artful!)  If that hits home, you might not want to read on.  For the brave, foolhardy, or just plain enlightened amongst you, read on – and to quote Bill Cosby – “…if you’re not careful, you might learn something before it’s done”.

In February of 2004, I had the opportunity to shoot a low-budget music video for Monzelle Dozier – a talented and up-and-coming music video director.  Our early conversations included talks about what format to shoot and what the benefits and disadvantages of each would be. As schedules and a final budget solidified, the right tool for the project was the Panasonic SDX900.

In The Beginning

In the summer of 2003, Panasonic released a professional, standard definition DVCPRO50 camera: the SDX900.  The premise of its design was to take the lessons learned from the VariCam (Panasonic’s 24p high definition camera) and the DVX100 (Panasonic’s 24p standard definition miniDV camera).  The result is a camera with many controls and options for developing a look in camera, the aesthetic quality of shooting 24 fps with progressive image capture, and image data on par with Digital Betacam quality while being able to capture and edit that footage on a home computer system via IEEE 1394 (or FireWire).  Allow me to geek out here: the camera sports three 520,000 pixel, 2/3″ progressive scanning CCD imagers, switchable 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios, records both DVCPRO50 (50Mbps, 4:2:2 color space, 3.3:1 compression, and 33 minute load) and DVCPRO (25Mbps, 4:1:1 color space, 5:1 compression, and 66 minute load), an impressive 12-bit DSP (digital signal processor), and records in 24p (advanced and standard pull-down), 30p and 60i.  In addition to that, the camera can record time-lapse footage with the use of the Pre-Recording Board option and can output a 10-bit signal with the optional SDI board – useful if you’re doing critical compositing work.

From a cinematographer’s standpoint, this camera is a huge step forward from the limitations of miniDV on one hand and the cost prohibitive nature often associated with high definition or film on the other.  For me the most critical advantages of the camera from an image aesthetic and practical view point are: 24 progressive image capture, twice the image data as miniDV, image control by way of a six-pole matrix and 12-pole color correction, and a reasonable rental cost for productions with a tight budget.

24p

Much as been said and written about 24p cameras in the last three years, but for those of you new to it, here’s a very simple explanation of what it means.  Traditionally, video captures images at 30 frames-per-second (fps) while film cameras capture at 24 fps. The “24” in 24p refers to the frame rate of 24 fps and the “p” refers to progressive image capture, that is, it captures the whole image, all at once, and records that image to tape.

It’s important to be clear when you speak about 24p since you can record in 24p on both standard definition and high definition cameras.  The SDX900 captures 24 progressive frames and is standard definition.  It is in my opinion the best imaging, standard definition camera on the market today.  What you get when shooting with this camera are images with temporal movement similar to what you would get with a film camera.  Many might call this a “film look” and I suppose in some ways it is.  The quality of the image is softer (I’m not speaking about focus here), more fluid motion that’s not as “newsy” or “live” as 30 fps video.  Some of you might ask, why spend the money on this camera when I can get 24p from a miniDV camera, like the DVX100.  Yes, you can use the DVX100.  It’s also a great camera but what you save comes with a cost – image quality.

Image Data

The Panasonic DVX100 is a miniDV camera (or often referred to as DV25) and the only other standard definition camera that offers true 24p as of this writing.  The “25” refers to the data rate of the camera – in this case 25 Megabits per second.  Panasonic’s SDX900 is a DVCPRO50/25 camera and records to tape twice as much information.  (Incidentally, the SDX900 can also record DV25 if for some reason you needed to.)  What does this doubling of data rate mean to you.  If you’ve ever tried to do serious color correction on miniDV or tried to key out a blue/green screen you’ve probably had a hard time doing it.  The added picture data means there’s more color information to manipulate and when you consider the low compression rate of 3.3:1 (compared to 5:1 on miniDV) you end up with an image that’s can key easily, be manipulated to greater extremes, and solid color areas, especially black, reveals very little-to-no compression artifacts.

Image creation

Now let’s say you don’t want to do too much image manipulation in post.  With a skilled director of photography or digital image technician, you can set-up some great looks in camera by creatively using filters, white-balance, gain, shutter speed, and the matrix and/or color correction features of the camera.  For the Stone & Ivy music video, I spent several hours the night before setting up the camera for my use and working on the “look”.  For the most part we used two looks: a green/cyan look for the mannequin factory and a slightly desaturated and higher contrast image for the rest.  For the green/cyan look, I started by white balancing to a 1/2 minus green gel over the gray card.  This gave me the green I wanted.  Then I went into the controls and changed the gamma, pedestal, and knee.  What I wanted is lots of highlight information with slightly crushed blacks and med-tones.  For the other look, I pulled back the saturation of the colors and only crushed the blacks a bit.  We also shot with a 1/250 shutter and for one of the performance shots we used 1/1000.  Then each setup was saved to a SD memory card for recall while on set.

The set-up menus on the camera are extensive and numerous.  You can get lost if you don’t know what your doing, so make sure you leave that work to a qualified operator or digital image technician (or engineer).  The menus include such items as gamma, knee, pedestal, detail, matrix and color correction, system and viewfinder settings, VTR operation, maintenance, etc.  In the manual, one-fourth of the book is devoted to just the menus.  You can totally goof the camera if you’re just playing around, but take heart, there’s a reset to go back to factory settings if that happens – you just have to find it!

The matrix and color correction features allow you to tweak the colors to your heart’s delight.  Without getting too technical, you adjust the matrix to get your colors into the ballpark and then you can adjust the color correction to fine-tune.  It’s neat to watch because you can affect a specific color and change just that color, for example, change a specific hue of blue to green.  To be honest, though, unless you’ve got time it can be hard to do on-set.  Although on the last music video I did manage to take time to darken just the reds on one set-up.

The camera offers two “Film-Like” options.  These are not to be confused with the plug-ins available for editing and compositing programs.  These “Film-Like” options control how the camera responds to highlights by gradually rolling off to white, creating a smooth image tonality.

And when it’s all been set the way you like it, you can save the settings to a SD memory card for switching back-and-fourth during the show or for future recall.

Rental Costs

As much as I’d love to only shoot film for every project, I’m aware of my responsibility to the budget and the need to finish a project with the maximum quality and production value.  Here is where this camera might be of help to many productions that have some money but not enough to shoot on a higher-end medium.  From my recent experiences, the camera package rental starts at about $700 per day (usually on a three-day week).  What you can expect to get is the camera and a mid-range lens, some batteries, a tripod and fluid head, and maybe a 4×5 matte box.  If you spend a little more – say $1500 – you can expect to get the package as mentioned above, a couple of high definition lenses, a gear head, short and tall tripod and hi-hat, an on board monitor and a high-resolution 16:9/4:3 switchable field monitor.  Deals can always be made if you just ask, but take note, this camera goes out often.

Final Thoughts

I think it goes without saying that I’m a huge fan of this camera and have been since the first time I saw it at NAB.  Having used it on commercials and now a music video, my fondness for the camera has only grown and I plan on using it for a narrative feature later this year.  I love the look I can get from the camera and the image quality and image control that this camera offers over using miniDV goes without saying.

In addition to the features already mentioned, I also like the “digital zoom” feature.  For those of you who have used a film camera with an image doubler (used for checking critical focus), this camera has a digital zoom that doubles the size of the image.  It’s mostly used for newsgathering, but I’ve used it to also check critical focus.  The camera also offers two video outs that can be set up to send time-code information to a script-supervisor or someone logging the tapes on set and another that is clean of onscreen information that can be used for the “client feed”.

If you can’t get a waveform monitor for the shoot, the camera also offers two zebra settings and a “spotmeter-like” function called Y Get On.  I used this feature many times to get the brightness (or luminance values) of whatever you aim the crosshairs at.  You can use it to make sure that a highlight on a person’s head aren’t too bright or that the levels on a background are consistent.  It’s a center-weighted metering system similar to the old 16mm Arriflex cameras.

In closing, for a music video with only a grand or so, you might still be better served shooting with a miniDV camera and investing the balance on art, wardrobe or lighting.  But for productions with enough of a budget to go toward a camera rental (but not enough for high def or film), I can’t recommend this camera enough.  The camera alone won’t make great images (no one should be that naive), but in the right hands, you can achieve some impressive images, do some sophisticated compositing or just deliver a final project that’s of the highest quality a standard definition workflow can deliver.

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Project Specifications (Stone & Ivy “Blinders” music video):

Director: Monzelle Dozier
Production Coordinator: Aaron Rattner
Director of Photography: Eric Gustavo Petersen
1st Camera Assistant: Koji Kojima
Chief Lighting Technician: R. Scott Marvin
Key Grip: Teruhisa Yoshida

CAMERA (Moviola – Hollywood, CA):
Panasonic SDX900 (recording on DVCPRO50 – personal settings)
Canon 9X5.5 HD Lens with extender (Mostly used)
Canon 15x 8mm SD Lens with extender
Sony Monitor (16×9)

Camera Support (Plus 8 Digital – Burbank, CA)
Arri Gear Head 2
Ronford Standard Tripod

Dolly
Chapman Leonard Super Pee Wee
36″ Slider Plate

Grip & Electric (Wooden Nickel – Burbank, CA)
2-ton grip/electric package

For more information, visit:

Moviola

2-Pop Forum – Panasonic SDX900

Eric Gustavo Petersen


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