UPDATE: 1/7/11 I have a Phantom v640 .cine raw file at the bottom of this blog for download. This file was shot on a Phantom that was not working properly until a firmware patch was applied. You will notice a large “plume” in the center of the frame. This file is for demonstration and testing only.
First of all, I must say I am exhausted. I have not slept for days. Every waking hour I think of shooting something in high speed. All of my attention has been directed at the Vision Research Phantom HD GOLD high speed digital cinema camera. If you read my blog, you are the type who would understand this “sickness”. And if you got your hands on this camera package and the assortment of expensive lenses I had access to this past weekend, you would fight sleep as well.
My good friends at Rule Boston Camera set me up with the Phantom. Rule is a TV/Film rental house located in Boston, Massachusetts. They have an extensive stock of gear and the people who work there are top notch and understand the business. I recently bought a $60,000 Sony F800 CineAlta camera package from them and I had an excellent experience throughout the purchasing process. In fact, Rule even gave me a loaner 17x Fujinon HD broadcast lens for my F800, for free, since my purchased lens was back ordered!
I have been shooting with Fastec Imaging HiSPEC2 720p high speed cameras for the past few weeks. I am working on a New England mountain biking film called “The Missing Link” with fellow downhiller Nick Keating.
The Fastec cameras I have been using are small metal boxes with a lens attached. Very compact and can take g-forces, so they are perfect for extreme sports coverage. However, the HiSPEC2 camera that I used had to be hooked up to a PC laptop at all times. You can read more about this by clicking here. These cameras are inexpensive to rent and work quite well. Check out the lacrosse commercial I shot mocking the real Paul Rabil Maverick spot shot by NFL Films camera guys on the Phantom HD GOLD. You can see my version here shot with the cheaper alternative Fastec camera.
After spending this past weekend with the Phantom, I was able to draw a few quick conclusions regarding image quality using the cheaper high speeds verses the ridiculously expensive Phantom. The Phantom excels in resolution, speed and stops of latitude between brights and darks. Dust kicked up in bright sunlight by a mountain biker has detail on the Phantom and blows out on the HiSPEC camera. Keep in mind the fact I was using a $60,000 lens with the Phantom and a $50 Nikon prime with the Fastec camera.
The Phantom does not need a laptop in the field. Very little time is needed to “render out” the high speed sequence on the Phantom. The HiSPECs need extra time between takes. The Phantom can be operated like an ENG broadcast television camera. Even off the shoulder! But I was able to shoot with the HiSPEC hand held with the computer as the viewfinder and got good results. One big surprise was the fact that the light sensitivity between the HiSPEC and Phantom was about the same. You need a lot of light to shoot high speed.
All that being said, I would still recommend the HiSPEC cameras to anyone on a budget. If you are shooting a Jaguar commercial use the Phantom. If you want a few sick shots for broadcast TV or the web perhaps the $500/day rental at Fastec Imaging is perfect for your 720p high speed needs.
Now lets talk Phantom HD GOLD and an insane assortment of expensive glass for the rest of this blog. Rule Boston Camera let me take almost anything I wanted, as long as it was not being rented for the weekend! You have a lot of reading to do, as I got a bunch of stuff to say. And the big payoff is the fact you can download a file at the bottom straight off the Phantom camera… 1050 frames per second in 1080p ProRes. Enjoy that!
I grabbed the Zeiss Super Speed prime lenses. This kit included the PL mount 18mm, 25mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm lenses all at f1.2 (or in film talk t1.3). These lenses were super fast, lightweight, had built in follow focus treads and a silky smooth focus barrel and iris ring.
I asked for a telephoto lens and Brian brought out a Nikon Nikkor 200mm t2. Beautiful lens with an aperture blade system that must have consisted of a hundred little blades. I had never seen anything like it. Plus the outer element was huge, allowing for a ton of light to get into the lens and onto the sensor.
I wanted a cine zoom lens. I had used the Angenieux Optimo 25mm-250mm t3.5 for a job with the Boston Celtics a couple years ago. The TV station rented the lens from Rule and I attached it to my Letus Extreme (PL Mount) attached to a Sony EX1. You can read more about that here. I knew Rule had the super sweet 17mm-80mm t2.2, but I figured it would be rented out or off limits. My buddy Mike at Rule, somehow secured it and I was good to go.
The Phantom HD GOLD included a color Sony HDVF-C30W viewfinder. When I bought my F800, I thought about this LCD color viewfinder for use with my new XDCAM. But, I had never used it before and worried that the LCD would not meet up to my picky standards. Plus the C30W costs over $11,000! So I decided to go with what I was use to on my F800, the Sony HDVF-20a black and white CRT version. We use these to cover broadcast sports everyday and they are tack sharp. Plus these high resolution b/w viewfinders cost just over $3,000. Who needs color in a viewfinder if you set up the camera properly in the first place!
I was pleasantly surprised at how sharp and vivid the color C30W was on the Phantom. I never liked the RED ONE LCD version. But the Sony was much better. It was easy to focus, clear to see and there was no trace lag in the LCD image when whipping around. I was very happy with it and had slight buyers remorse with the 20a version I bought…. but wait, I needed another eight grand to upgrade to color?!
The HDVF-C30W had a specially modified connector to plug into the Phantom. This connector stuck out quite a bit and was defiantly a possible point of failure if the camera’s weight fell on the connector. In fact, on my first day of using the Phantom, the cable connector was intermittent. I should have found this problem while setting up the camera at Rule, but it worked at the time. During my shooting on location, I had to pull the connector on a slight angle to keep the viewfinder powered.
Another thing to remember is never point the viewfinder into the sun. CRTs can take more heat than LCDs. Just a few seconds of diopter magnified exposure to the sun and the LCD can be destroyed. Point those diopters DOWN!
The guys at Rule asked me if I needed a tripod and I said no. I wanted to use my Vinten Vision 10 AS. This tripod has served me quite well and I am a huge supporter of Vinten. But… this camera system with Optimo lens weighed in at nearly 60 pounds! The Vinten was rated for about 45 pounds. This extra 15 pounds of weight was a bit scary at times and I was unable to get perfect balance because I exceeded the payload rating of my tripod. I still came back with good stuff tho and made sure my assistant, Nick, was always standing next to the camera when mounted to the tripod.
Let me take a second to talk about the weight of this beast. I found it impossible and down right stupid to try to carry the Phantom by its handle with the heavy Optimo attached to the PL mount. I HAD to use two hands at all times. One hand on the bottom rods and the other on the top handle. This made carrying batteries and a tripod difficult, so strapping them to my back was the only answer when working solo. The waterfall footage in the video blog was shot by me alone at Profile Falls in New Hampshire. Not a long hike, but still a hike.
The Phantom is a power hungry camera system. It pulls nearly 75 watts of power. I tried to power it with my Anton Bauer charger and it did not have enough juice. I could have used Anton Bauer high current batteries, but I did not have them with me.
The camera did come with an a/c power supply, but I could not hike a generator with me into the mountains.
Rule sent me out with six car-like lead acid batteries. These bricks weighted in over ten pounds each and they had four pin XLR connectors on them. They were designed to power older film cameras. Each battery had two sides of power, so once one side died, I move over to the other side. I got about 30-40 minutes on each side. The biggest problem was the fact they had no gauge on them. I had no idea if the camera would die during a RAM to CineMag data transfer. When the battery died, you lose the buffer in the camera. If the buffer did not make it to the CineMag storage in time, you lost the take forever! Happened 5 times over the weekend and I cursed so loud the fifth time it occurred, birds few out of the trees above me to get away.
That leads me to storage. CineMags are the solid state devices that snap onto contacts on the top of the Phantom. These mags are filled with high speed transfer memory and I had two 256GB and one 128GB CineMag.
Let me explain how this camera records something in high speed. First of all, I have the camera set up to buffer the footage and take the clip post trigger. This means that when the Phantom is recording 1050 FPS at 1080p, I have a looping buffer of 4.1 seconds utilizing the internal RAM memory. This has nothing to do with the CineMag. The RAM is internal and built into the camera.
For example, I hit record filling the buffer, a mountain biker rips past me and just as he leaves the frame, I have my AC, Nick, push the remote trigger button. The recording loop stops and you get 4.1 seconds of time prior to the trigger. Get it? The data lives on the internal RAM memory. You do not want to lose power now or the RAM will be lost! Gotta get that footy over to the Mag.
Next, I look inside the viewfinder and set in and out points in the clip. I take only what I want because the 4.1 second is like 3 minutes of video at the 1050 frame rate. Finally, I save the clip to the CineMag. This happens so fast that it only takes seconds. The transfer rate of this memory and CineMag is crazy. Now the clip is on both the RAM and the CineMag. Once you set the camera back to record, the RAM clears out and you repeat the process for the next high speed event.
I need to mention here that one of the 256GB CineMags was not loading at times when snapped into place on the Phantom. I got a “Mag ERROR”. I figured out the issue, dirty contacts. I used a cloth to wipe the large array of tiny metal pins and metal contacts on the mag and got the thing to scan and load.
All high speed cameras need cooling systems because the sensor heats up. The Phantom HD GOLD has an exhaust fan in the back that speeds up when the temperature rises. The camera also has a sick looking copper heat sink on both sides of the camera. Be careful with these, they can bend easily like the fine fins on the back of an air conditioner.
Since the camera and sensor heats up, you must black balance before every shot (or very often) to keep the black levels correct. They tend to get grainy and move towards purple when left alone. It is easy and fast to preform a black balance. Just cap the lens and execute it. The white balance seemed to hold well over time and even with battery changes.
The sensor in the Phantom is big. Not sure the dimensions, if you find them post a comment at bottom of page. A lot of amazing stuff has been shot with the Phantom sensor. Shark Week on Discovery Channel, Air Shark, BBC Planet Earth and LIFE, to name a few. Even Hollywood films are using this technology.
Looking for buttons? There are only two of them on the entire camera. Plus a knob that you can also push in to execute a command. You can adjust frame rates, ISO, resolution, trigger points, black/white balance, in and out clip points and a few other necessary procedures. You can defiantly control a lot using the simple four page menu inside the viewfinder, but to really get the camera dialed in, you hook it up to a PC laptop via gigabit ethernet. But like I said before, when in the field, you do not need to tether a computer to this high speed camera.
The workflow of this camera is tricky and I cannot really explain it in great detail on this blog because I do not totally understand it. But, I will tell you what I do know and how I am getting the footage into Final Cut Pro. Phantom does not offer free software like RED does for viewing RAW clips or accessing camera controls. Rule was unable to give me the Phantom programs for me to install on my own laptop, so they gave me a rental Mac Book Pro running Windows XP.
The CineMags hold files with the .cine extension. They are RAW Phantom files. I have never dealt with these files and do not plan on to at this point for my project. I have no way of editing them and cannot get the software easily. So I found a work around that will work with my mountain biking film and for the content in this video blog.
I take the HDSDI out of the back of the Phantom and feed it into an AJA KiPRO portable recording device. The KiPRO takes the 1080i HDSDI signal from the camera and transcodes it realtime to Apple ProRes 422 HQ. The KiPro has a built in hard drive where the files are stored. The biggest problem with doing this is the fact the camera only plays out a clip or MAG at a time! So I have to sit next to the camera and KiPro and manually play out each clip. Keep in mind I filled all three CineMags! This took forever and to make matters worse, I ran out of time and did this grueling work at 4am. I was hallucinating from lack of sleep and accidentally deleted part of my video blog on my SR11 camera at 5am. Story for another time…
I know I’m not editing with the master RAW .cine files, but the footage still looks amazing and the Apple ProRes 422 HQ codec is high bit rate. For the time being, the .cine files will sit on a hard drive at Rule for my future children to try to sort out and edit them!
In the video blog at the top of this page, I tried my best to show you how this camera works. I shot the demo in such a way that it would answer my own questions had I stumbled upon the video before I met Phantom. If you have further questions, please post them at the bottom of this page and I will try to answer them.
Also, be sure to download the high speed waterfall footage in 720p XDCAM HD 1080i for smooth playback. I am also including an Apple ProRes 422 HQ file straight off the camera. The picture of the green leaves above is a grab from the 1080p 1050 FPS footage I shot with the Phantom. This was the very first thing I ever shot using this camera system. Not very exciting, but great color and DOF. Plus, I cant post the best stuff til the film is done!
Wet Leaves – ProRes 422 HQ Phantom 1080i (707.3 MiB, 875 hits)
Profile Falls – XDCAM HD 720p (848.9 MiB, 718 hits)
Here are a few behind the scenes videos shot on a blackberry on the slope style course at Highland Mountain Bike Park during the filming for “Missing Link”. Big thank you to my AC, Nick Keating, for using his BlackBerry to record these. Wish we could have used his 5dmk2 more, but we were both focused on carrying car batteries!
And here are a few screen grabs from the mountain biking footage shot at Attitash Mountain and Highland Bike Park. The film should be done next summer!
Big thanks to the guys at Rule Boston Camera, Mike Sutton, John Rule, Dave Kudrowitz, for giving me this chance to test out amazing gear. Also thank you Nick Keating (taking behind the scenes pictures and video) and Dave Hand for your help on location this weekend.
Additional Downloads (for use with GlueTools or similar):