Stereoscopic Storm - NAB 3D Cameras
CreativeCOW presents Stereoscopic Storm - NAB 3D Cameras -- Stereoscopic 3D Review

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Mirror Rigs in the past were usually one-off affairs that were only used by the 3D production company that built them. Element Technica has established their company by making available mass produced mirror rigs for sale. The initial Quasar model is available from many rental houses and was well represented around the show floor.

For NAB, they brought their much smaller and very clever "Neutron" rig. This small wonder switches very quickly from side by side mode to beam-splitter mirror rig with a slick hinged mechanism. A predecessor rig to the Neutron was recently used on Steadicam and in tight spaces for the upcoming feature film "The Mortician". This upcoming $2 million budget indie feature confirms that with these newer rigs, you don't need to have an Avatar budget to shoot 3D.

Element Technica 'Neutron' rig.
Element Technica "Neutron" rig.

P+S Technik was the third major presence in the beam splitter arena, and they also had a small beam splitter model to show off in addition to their "Standard" that's been for sale for awhile now. The Freestyle Rig, is meant for handheld and Steadicam work, although fully loaded with two cameras and recorders, even the SI-2k Mini and recorders, it's still going to be a lot more weight than most of us have become accustomed to in even high end 2D camcorders of the last ten years. I think this rig, with its fully motorized camera positioning will also find a lot of use on tripods and dollies.

Steadicam-mounted P+S Technik Freestyle rig, outfitted with two Silicon Imaging SI-3D cameras, and the Cinedeck SI-3D solid-state camcorder.
Steadicam-mounted P+S Technik Freestyle rig,
Outfitted with two Silicon Imaging SI-3D cameras, and the Cinedeck SI-3D solid-state camcorder.

The debate over whether it is better to set convergence while shooting or to shoot with cameras pointed straight out (parallel) continues unresolved. For the parallel camp, there is Screen Plane, a newcomer from Germany. They were showing two automated mirror rigs, a large one called the Production Rig, and one quite small for cameras like the SI Mini, called the Steady-Flex. Their automated rigs only work in a parallel mode, with the expectation that convergence is set downstream or in post. Part of the system is a PC or Mac-based previewing system, allowing stereographers to set convergence on set as desired.

Unlike other mirror rigs, the Screen Plane's tilt pivot is at its center of gravity, not at the bottom of the camera platform. The system will be available initially from rental houses in Europe and the US this year, and then for sale sometime after that.

The smaller automated mirror rig from Screen Plane, the
The smaller automated mirror rig from Screen Plane, the "Steady-Flex," mounted with two Canon 5D Mk II DSLRs.

Binocle was also showing a preliminary version of a small, automated rig they will be introducing soon. Like the other small rigs from Element Technica and Pace, they showed it in handheld mode; yet I think many will see this type of rig as their prime 3D camera, due to its relatively smaller size. Even if you have a studio dolly to mount the camera on, it's still a pain to have to position the larger rigs that are as big as a couple of desktop office copiers strapped together.

Early version of new rig from Binocle.
Early version of new rig from Binocle.

All over the show I saw this small piece of precision machinery for side-by-side shoots from StereoTec. Deceptively simple looking, it allows for repeatable manual setting of inter- axial distance and convergence using numerically calibrated knobs. It comes in both "Mini" and "Maxi" sizes. On a much larger scale, Stereo- Tec also had a much larger box frame mirror rig. The claim is that this box is so rigid, the cameras can be locked down, and won't need re-alignment when moved from location to location. If true, that's a big plus that may cause some to stick with a larger rig.

And no matter which camera system you use to shoot with, calculating your settings can be made much simpler with StereoTec's new Stereoscopic Calculator. They've got a Windows version now, with the Mac to follow soon.

Two SI-2K cameras on a StereoTec 'Side-by-Side-Rig-Mini'.
Two SI-2K cameras on a StereoTec 'Side-by-Side-Rig-Mini'.

Silicon Imaging impressed many with a complete system for their cameras that slickly synchronizes two SI cameras into a single control, processing, and recording platform that they claim enables simplified shooting and instant playback similar to what we're used to with tradiantional 2D cameras. It's good to see companies focusing on the entire chain of 3D image generation. Making all these components work together smoothly and quickly is a much bigger challenge than just strapping two cameras together and recording the outputs.

I've been a camera operator of 3D video for almost 20 years. In the 90s, most of that was on the revolutionary Ikegami LK 33 3D zoom lens camera. Though heavy, it was hand hold-able, or better yet, Steadicam-mountable. Though it had some limitations -- for one, the focus point was locked to the convergence point -- it was very reliable. It was great to have a camera that you could just pull out of a bag, assembled and ready to go, hook up to the recorders, and start shooting, just like any 2D camera. Surprisingly, Ikegami hasn't followed up with an HD version of the LK-33.

Ikegami LK 33 3D zoom lens camera.
Ikegami LK 33 3D zoom lens camera.

Panasonic picked up the challenge of an integrated 3D camera with the AG-3DA1. After teasing us for the past year with camera mockups then working cameras mounted high out of reach at tradeshows, Panasonic brought out functioning AG-3DA1's (title image and below) on the NAB show floor that we could get our hands on. They really showed off the mounting versatility of this under-7 lb. unit, by putting the cameras on small tripods, bare and with matte boxes and remotes, and on a jib arm.

Panasonic AG3DA1 3D solid-state camcorder.
Panasonic AG3DA1 3D solid-state camcorder. Promotional photo.

Their new 25" 3D production monitors (BT- 3DL2550 ) were also paired with the cameras so the pictures could be monitored live in 3D, using lightweight polarized glasses.

Panasonic BT 3DL2550 Monitor with glasses.
Panasonic BT 3DL2550 Monitor with glasses. Promotional photo.

This camera is going to feel very familiar to anyone experienced with the HVX20 or the HMC150. It records 1920x1080 60i/30p/24p (and 720 60p) as AVCHD files to SDHC memory cards. But on the AG-3DA1, it records on two cards -- left eye to one, right eye to the other. The files on each card are written with almost the same name, but the file name on the left card always starts with a 1, and the file name for the right card always starts with a zero, which should help to prevent left-right mix-ups in post.

At the back are two HD-SDI connectors for left and right outputs, which means that you don't have to live with the H.264 compressed files on the cards. You can record to anything that can record HD-SDI: VTR's such as Panasonic's AJ-HD1400, or PC's with HD-SDI uncompressed capture cards like Convergent Design's nanoFlash. Panasonic continues a feature from previous products -- a VTR start-stop signal is sent along the SD-HDI outs, so that when the camera trigger is pushed, those two outboard recorders will start and stop simultaneously.

Everyone wants to know more about the lenses -- but the glass on these pre-production models may not be the glass on the final unit, and the Panasonic reps on the floor didn't want to nail down any specs for them. They appeared to be at least 10 to 1 zooms, and did zoom out to a useful wide angle.

The real trick with the lenses though is with their synchronization. Synchronizing two zooms is particularly difficult. There are the obvious factors, such as matching image size and registration. But zoom lenses can normally shift around about their centers somewhat while zooming -- and this is normally not a problem. But if the images are being overlaid, it's a big problem. The images might perfectly overlay at one focal length and focus setting but not at another. So corrections have to be programmed into the lens control software for every point along the zoom and focus range.

As it was, it was obvious that the show floor protos were very much prototypes. If zoomed quickly, one lens lagged the other and lost focus during the zoom. I'm not a big believer in zooming in 3D, but the Panasonic reps claimed this would be fully synchronized by the time the real cameras are shipping in September.

In operation, one more adjustment is added to the camera operators' usual adjustments of Zoom, Focus and Iris: convergence. Instead of adding another adjustment knob to the side of the camera, the camera designers made it common with the iris adjustment knob, and placed an Iris/Convergence selector switch just below the flip out view screen.

The screen on the production model will display both left and right images overlaid, essential for setting convergence. At the show, we could only see this on the external 3D monitors fed by the dual HD-SDI ports. The side flip out screen won't show a 3D effect that can be viewed with glasses however -- only a L/R overlay mode, or each camera individually.

Many pro stereographers have expressed reservations about the camera's fixed inter-axial. At 60mm, it is close the same distance as average human eyes. But often we need to vary this distance, for close-ups or for distance shots. Or to keep very distant backgrounds from having an uncomfortable amount of divergence when the camera is converged on close subjects, say from 7 to 10 feet away. (The show cameras have a close convergence minimum of a little over six feet; this will likely change by when the camera ships in September.)

I believe this is something that can be worked around, either by moving the camera back and composing a shots to a tighter telephoto, or more ideally by using a separate rig for those few shots that demand it.

Panasonic showed a new HD switcher, the AGHMX100, for live switching 3D cameras. It can pair the 4 HD-SDI inputs so that two cameras can be switched, either L/R side by side, or sequential L/R, though without switcher effects. A four input switcher can be configured by synching to another AG-HM100. This isn't as expensive as it seems, as each switcher will be under $6500. Every switcher manufacturer was touting their 3D options, but this was the least expensive one I found on the floor. If you're called onto to do 3D live event work, this could be the way to go to make it happen on a medium budget. Most of the other traditional camcorder makers were showing how their cameras worked in other companies' rigs, primarily the ones from 3ality, Element Technica, and P+S Technik.

Panasonic AG-HMX100 Mixer Box offered in 3D.
Panasonic AG-HMX100 Mixer Box offered in 3D.

Panasonic Panasonic AG-HMX100 Mixer Box.
Panasonic AG-HMX100 Mixer Box. Promotional photo.

The one I was most disappointed in was Canon. In their booth they showed their XHG1 HDV camcorders mounted on a mirror rig from 21st Century 3D, but no indication that they had once put on the market for a very short time a pioneering 3D zoom lens for their XL1 series cameras. I'd hoped they'd dust it off and update it. But they're probably waiting to see just how real this 3D boom is outside of big budget movie production.

Canon 21st Century.
Canon 21st Century.

I was surprised that with Sony's much promoted big push into 3D, they didn't have their own camera system on the floor. As it turned out, they did show an early prototype on stage at the Digital Cinema Summit. Stressing that this wasn't a product announcement, they are working on an integrated camera that will remind most people of their EX-3. It has two 1/2 inch 3CMOS sensor blocks, a variable inter-axial of 1.5 to 3 inches and interchangeable lens capability. This unit records to SXS cards, but also has Dual HD-SDI outputs.

Sony is reportedly collaborating with Discovery Channel on it with contributions from 21st Century 3D. They plan to start field tests in July. If this is truly what Sony is thinking of for a product in the near future, it is very exciting, as it addresses the biggest issues with Panasonic's camera -- inter-axial adjustment and non-interchangeable lenses.

Fujinon was touting a new line of matched zooms for use with their Synchronous Control System. This is a system of five lenses, matched with a synchronous control joint box. The motors and encoders of lens position information are much more precise than on normal lenses, so that the controller can keep them in perfect sync. If you are thinking of building your own rig, these Fujinon lenses will be a big help.

There were many other camera systems showing that I missed. Many seemed deserve the criticism that many video veterans called "science fair projects" -- with unruly cables everywhere, and cameras hanging suspended like some absurdist sculpture. I'll end, though, with my favorite camera rig, which was two home camcorders strapped to a board, in the BluFocus booth. BluFocus is a BluRay testing and verification company and they were asking the question, "What is bad 3D?" This picture is a pretty good answer.

A good start to bad 3D.
A good start to bad 3D.



Steven Bradford, Creative COW Magazine

Steven Bradford
Seattle, Washington USA

Steven has been sounding out the edges of new media boundaries for nearly 30 years. He has produced videodiscs for NASA, filmed video game sequences for Northrop and Sierra Online, taped neurosurgery, the band KISS, and the Space Shuttle in 3D. Steven is also known to early web users for his popular bluescreen site. From 2004 to 2007 Steven was the director of the School of Film and Visual Effects at Collins College in Phoenix, Arizona. He currently spends his time forgetting obsolete technologies so he can learn more. You can find him in a dozen Creative COW forums, including Cinematography and Stereoscopic 3D.