When the Phantom HD camera was released, word quickly spread that it was the new benchmark for high-speed Digital Cinema quality imaging. Producers learned to say, “Get me a Phantom!” But wait…Vision Research makes an entire line of cameras that all start with the name “Phantom.” So what actually differentiates them?
Let me first point out that Vision Research began as a company producing industrial cameras for science, manufacturing and military use. It was only with the start of their Digital Cinema program that cameras appropriate for the production community became available. Currently, the three cameras of the greatest interest to our industry are the Phantom 65, the Phantom HD and the Phantom v12.1. The Phantom 65 is a unique camera in that it is the only 4K Uncompressed RAW camera in the world. At its fullest resolution (4096×2440), it can shoot 145fps. It also has a sensor the size of 65mm motion picture film, so large format lenses are required. Everyone always seems to start out wanting the Phantom 65 thinking, “It’s 4K so it has to be the best!” But when they realize that it needs the special glass and can only get to moderately high speed, they often change their mind. So far, the Phantom 65 has been a camera of great interest to the effects community, where a high resolution plate can be used to scan within to extract elements.
So what do most productions turn to? The workhorse of our industry has become the Phantom HD. It is a 2K camera (2048×2048) that is most often used for 1920×1080 capture. At that resolution, it can capture up to 1054fps, and the sensor is the same size as Super-35mm film, so standard PL and PV mount lenses can be used. Because of its unique 2Kx2K square sensor, the Phantom HD can also be used to shoot with anamorphic lenses and use the full image area for which those lenses were designed. In fact, most lenses will cover the full area of the Phantom HD’s sensor, so some productions choose to shoot the full sensor to allow for reframing in post. When shooting action at 500fps or more, it can be tough keeping the subject perfectly centered.
Recently, Vision Research introduced the Phantom v12.1. The sensor is about the same physical size as the Phantom HD’s, but the resolution is 1280×800. While the Phantom v12.1 has a lower resolution than the others, it also has incredible frame rate capabilities. When shooting the common HD resolution of 1280×720, the Phantom v12.1 can capture an amazing 6900fps (that’s two zeros there — six THOUSAND nine HUNDRED frames per second). As the resolution is lowered, the available frame rates climb, so standard definition imaging yields nearly 20,000fps. If you really want to get crazy, then the resolution can drop to a pinhole of 128×8 (which is pretty useless for our industry), but also pretty amazing when you discover that it can allow 1,000,000fps.
There are some other features that set the Phantom v12.1 apart. Because of its lower resolution in the same sensor size, it has much larger pixels, which means that it is about four times more sensitive to light. It’s about 1200 ISO compared to the Phantom HD and 65 at 320 ISO. (Note: these are the real world numbers Abel has tested as opposed to the manufacturer’s specs.) When shooting at extreme frame rates, every little bit of light helps.
The Phantom v12.1 also uses a global electronic shutter as opposed to a rolling shutter. This means it captures all the information from all of the photosites on the sensor at the same time instead of scanning them off line after line. A global shutter is the type that most professional video cameras use, which means the v12.1 will intercut that much better with pro video sources. But perhaps the most unique feature of the Phantom v12.1 is its live in/out workflow capabilities. The camera has an internal memory that can be partitioned into multiple “takes.” The camera can shoot a take and is instantly ready to shoot the next. Meanwhile there are two HD-SDI outputs from the camera, one of which can start playing back that recorded take while the other sees the live feed from the sensor. In fact, the camera can actually be recording a take into memory while a previous take is played out the back, and all of the playback functions can be controlled remotely. Think of the possibilities for sports: a boxer throws a punch and the operator records it. In the control room, an engineer starts pulling the slow motion shot from the memory while the live feed from the camera continues to feed the switcher. The boxer then delivers the knockout punch, and the camera operator captures that into memory. The control room gets the shot live, and the engineer can switch instantly to the new take and immediately start playing back a slow motion instant replay of the knockout. There is simply no other camera system in the world with this capability.
All of these cameras can use color viewfinders, Arri-compatible camera accessories and, of course, the Vision Research CineMags for recording the files. They are all uncompressed RAW cameras. The Phantom 65 and Phantom HD are more “cinematic” in their look and use, while the Phantom v12.1 has unique features more in tune with broadcast work, such as nature documentary and sports production.
In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss some of the emerging niche Phantom cameras in the V series; namely the V310 and the V640, and the role that they will play in our industry.