The Digital Journalist
DV Progress - Random Interim Thoughts
December 2003

by Steven Trent Smith

DV is moving, as the British are wont to say, "from strength to strength." There have been some recent developments that I believe light the path that this amazing format will take in the near term. The key development is the introduction, by Panasonic, of 24 frames per second recording, i.e., the "film look." The ability of two of that company's DV camcorders two shoot in this mode is changing the way people shoot their films, videos, whatever you want to call the finished production. And I think this is a permanent change– 24p is not going away anytime soon.

This film look thing is going to be very big. It may very well kill off 16mm, and will certainly put a ding in 35mm production.

I doubt that Panasonic realized what a good thing they were on to when they introduced the little DVX100 DV camcorder. It caught fire quickly, and more than a year after it hit the stores, it remains a hot item.

The really amazing product, though, is the new SDX900 (which I plan to review as soon as I can get my hands on one). This is a full-size DVCPro camcorder that gives a producer an amazing variety of choices. You can shoot regular 4:3 or true 16:9 wide screen. You can shoot regular 60i video or 24p film look. You can shoot regular DVCPro25 or the much higher quality, full 4:2:2, DVCPro50 format. And, you can mix and match any of these to best serve the project on which you're currently working.

The SDX900 has penetrated the production world at a very high level, right up there with Sony's Digital Betacam, only it's more versatile. As a result, many high-end production houses are acquiring these Panasonics to avail themselves of the myriad features the camera offers. The SDX is certainly affecting– negatively– interest in high definition (HDTV) production. In my home market, Philadelphia, we've seen a proliferation of 900's. Videosmith has one in rental now (and two DVX100's), and is contemplating adding another because the first is always busy.

Sony has yet to respond to Panasonic's leap into affordable 24p. The only Sony cameras that do 24p are for DTV, still an expensive proposition. I'm hearing that Sony may introduce a 24p camcorder for its new optical disk format. If so, expect to see it at NAB this spring. But, alas, it means changing to a whole new format. I sure hope they make a move soon, though, else they're going to miss the boat entirely.

Another interesting development is JVC's HD10U miniDV HDTV camcorder. It records HD as MPEG-2 files, and egular 60i as miniDV 4:1:1. It does not do 24p. There are still some other shortcomings as far as editing and display are concerned, but JVC is working hard to make it easy for HD10U users to complete and show their productions. The camera is less than $4000 and it's going to be interesting to see how well it takes off.

Curiously, a kind of cottage industry has grown up around the DVX100 and Canon's XL1S. You can trick the DVX out with a studio matte box (for stacking 4x4 filters), follow-focus (with fixed end-stops and accurate distance markings) and all sorts of gimcracks. And the Canon. My goodness. P&S Technik in Germany makes an adapter that lets you put 35mm Arriflex-mount lenses on your XL. The device costs several thousand dollars and the Zeiss lenses, well, they're a few thou apiece. The advantage? You get the same depth of field that you'd have on an Arri. That's cool. But you'd end up putting a lot more money into the accessories than into the camera. They've also come out with one for 2/3" chip cameras, like SDX900. Pricey, but it could be a lot of fun.

The moving image world is going to change even more dramatically in the next five years, with the introduction of new high density "blue laser" technology. If the dozens of members of the DV Forum can agree on a format, HD DVD's are just around the corner. And it may be that instead of recording on tape, we'll all finally make the move to disk.

The bottom line today? If I was in the market for a personal "big camera" today I would certainly choose an SDX900. And what the heck, as I companion I'd get the DXV100. That would cover just about all the bases.

© Steven Trent Smith

Steve Smith is a cameraman for CBS News and 60 Minutes. He and his wife, Martha, founded Videosmith, a Philadelphia-based company that sells and rents professional and consumer-level video equipment.