In this exclusive 3-part online series, indie filmmaker Noah Kadner takes a first look at Panasonic’s revolutionary AF100, the first prosumer camera to combine the interchangeable lenses of a digital SLR still camera with the ergonomics of a camcorder.
Part 1 – Introduction and Pre-Production
If you’re an indie filmmaker type like me, you’ve probably long been chasing the ‘film look’ for your projects. Unless you happen to be independently wealthy, this is a nebulous and elusive way to describe the image-quality divide between most indie projects shot on video cameras and the 35mm-originated films created with Hollywood-sized budgets. Putting aside production design, actors, make-up visual effects and other important creative qualities of big-budget features, there are other purely technical differences that contribute to this gap.
In no particular order, these factors include resolution, frame rate and optics. Many of these were achieved on a professional level in the early 2000’s with the Sony CineAlta 24p high-definition cameras that enabled filmmakers like George Lucas to originate their projects digitally instead of on film-based cameras, using cinema-quality 35mm lenses. However, these camera systems still cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, putting them firmly outside of the reach of indie filmmakers like you and me.
For the past decade, a series of technical developments in the prosumer camera world has narrowed the gap. 24p cameras arrived with the affordable Panasonic DVX100 in 2002, giving us film’s frame rate and overall look. This was later augmented with High Definition on the Sony HDV camera systems in 2004, and afterwards, even more advanced 24p, high-definition cameras such as the Panasonic HVX200/170 and the Sony EX1/EX3 from 2005-2008. Around that time, the RED ONE digital camera also appeared, providing a ‘cheaper than film’ but still fairly expensive camera system with very high 4K resolution and access to cinematic quality, PL mount 35mm optics.
In 2009 Canon released the 5D Mark II, primarily a digital SLR still camera, but also with the ability to capture 1080p HD video. This was the first affordable camera capable of natively mounting still camera lenses. With its larger 35mm-sized CMOS sensor, the 5D offered groundbreaking control of depth of field, meaning you could get the same shallow focus range and beautiful soft focus bokeh that had long been the norm of 35mm film productions. Finally, the holy trinity of resolution, frame rate and optics was achieved in an affordable camera. Canon enjoyed great success with the 5D and touched off a huge DSLR-for-video revolution. The one major drawback: the cameras were designed primarily as still cameras, thus much more difficult ergonomically compared to already existing camcorders in terms of operation, handling, monitoring, and the occasional, but hard to predict, moire and aliasing artifacts that would crop up and ruin shots.
Earlier this year, the game changed once more with Panasonic’s AF100, the first camera to combine the ergonomics of a professional-level HD/24p camcorder with a large 4/3s sensor, and an interchangeable lens mount. The AF100 shoots 720p/1080p in 24p, 25p, 60i and 50i video formats. It also has a variety of over and under cranking frame rates in 1080p, which will be familiar to anyone who’s used Panasonic’s VariCam series and HVX200/HPX170 cameras. The camera shoots in AVCHD format at up to 24 Mbps using dual SDHC cards, and features the micro 4/3 lens mount.
Ever since I first heard of the AF100 at NAB in April 2010, I’ve been putting out feelers with friends in the business trying to get my hands on one. Finally, last month Pete Abel and Andy Shipsides over at Abel Cine Tech let me know they had potential access to an AF100 prototype and wanted to know if I’d be interested in taking it for a test drive.
Abel facilitated the support equipment I’d need and also helped arrange a camera loan with Jan Crittenden, Panasonic’s product manager for the AF100. I’ve enjoyed a long-term professional and personal relationship with both Jan and Abel Cine Tech. Throughout the years they’ve both been incredibly supportive of both my efforts to get indie projects off the ground as well as sharing interest in exploring the latest technological advancements in moviemaking gear.
Abel and Jan worked together to supply me with the AF100 camera body along with a selection of Zeiss ZF.2 and Compact Prime.2 lenses along with a selection of Olympus and Panasonic zooms. I was given a week to try out the camera on whatever projects I could cram in. I have a full time gig up in the San Francisco Silicon Valley these days, but luckily it’s also video-related, so I was able to combine the two.
Coming up in part two, I’ll share my experiences in production with the AF100.
Noah Kadner was born in New Jersey and raised in New Mexico. He graduated from the MFA program in production at the USC School of Cinema-Television. Noah lives in Los Angeles and runs High Road Productions, a film, television, production and post-production company. He has directed several short films, commercials and music videos, and works as a DVD authoring specialist. His clients have included the U.S. Army, United Nations, NBC, PBS, Sony and FOX.
Noah writes for industry magazines like Videography, 3DWorld and HDVideoPro. He is also a longtime contributing writer for American Cinematographer. Noah is the author of RED: The Ultimate Guide to Using the Revolutionary Camera, the industry’s first book on the RED ONE 4K Camera.
Noah also hosts and produces Call Box, a series of HD and 24p digital filmmaker training courses. In addition, Noah also works as a forum administrator for 2-pop.com, CreativeCow.net and DVXuser.com. Noah is an Apple Certified Trainer.