The Perfect dSLR Video Camera

We had a lot of cameras at the Christian Film Academy this year. Lots of Canons, Sonys, Panasonics, a couple of REDs and the Panavision Genesis. But during my second lecture on cinematography, I spent more time talking about the Canon 5D MkII than any of the others. Canon EOS 5D Mark IINow, as I have pointed out, the 5D has some serious problems that make it far from an ideal video or cinema camera, but there’s something about the potential that it represents… It’s so close to being almost perfect that Canon’s second attempt should be truly exceptional.

So what would it take to build this next generation, this perfect video-enabled digital SLR? Here’s my basic list. I’ve got a lot of other ideas too, so if anyone at Canon is reading this, please email me!

Full Manual Control – All basic camera and lens controls which dSLRs offer in photo mode must be accessible in video mode. Iris, shutter speed, gain/ISO, everything. Ideally the camera doesn’t enter a totally different, crippled operating menu when recording video, it’s just offered as a third recording choice in addition to JPEG and RAW, and the camera continues to operate normally. The only real change should be that the shutter release becomes a toggle switch rather than a trigger.

Full Frame Sensor – this is what RED offers over most the other video camera manufacturers; an imaging sensor that is a Super35mm size, meaning it can be used with regular 35mm lenses (adapters permitting). And most dLSRs offer those same benefits, with greater resolution and better low-light performance than just about any video camera in any package. However, it should be noted that “full frame” means different things in photography and cinema.

The 5D’s full frame sensor is 36x24mm, and the RED One’s full Super35 sensor is 24.4×13.7mm. Because of the way that motion picture film is developed and masked, this smaller sized sensor still matches Super35 film’s exposed area pretty well. The interesting thing is that Canon’s cropped sensor dSLRs (like the 50D) generally have a sensor size of 22.5x15mm, which is also pretty close to Super35, and a lot cheaper for Canon to build. I’d consider a cropped sensor dSLR a pretty good digital cinema camera if the price were right.

Proper Debayering and Downscaling – the Nikon D90 and the Canon 5D Mark II have imaging chips capable of much higher resolution than the 720 and 1080 HD of their video modes. Rather than downscaling that big res to get a smaller res for the video file, the cameras just discards most of the captured pixels. This is the fastest, easiest way to get a smaller image, but it reduces smoothness and can create some jittery aliased edges.

Downscaling the full image requires a processor powerful enough to debayer the full sensor and then resize that giant megapixel image to the final frame size, but there could be a compromise. If the 5D’s (almost) 6K image sensor sampled every other pixel, the resulting 3K image could be downscaled to 2k or 1080p without noticeable quality loss. Ideally, however, the sensor would be natively lower-res, which would theoretically result in better low-light performance. On the other hand, somehow the 5D utterly annihilates the RED in low light even with the 6k chip…

Variable Frame Rates – 24fps is the magic number for cinema, and 30p would be handy for broadcast work. If you can get 30p, the ability to shoot 24p for film and 25p for PAL should be achievable and therefore selectable. Higher framerates would be handy, since slo-mo capability is always nice, but it requires a lot of overhead. The 5D obviously needs some work in this regard, since 30p is the only option.

Visually Lossless Compression – as great as uncompressed image files would be, I’m willing to make do with less. I believe that adding more processing power to the compression process could be cheaper than adding multiple RAIDed CF bays or new storage schemes to keep up with the bandwidth requirements of raw data. I’d also like this to be a non-proprietary codec – If I could pick, I’d say Cineform. It works with a variety of frame sizes and bit-depths, has adjustable quality settings, natively handles RAW images, is CPU efficient, easily licensed, already part of the DNG coalition, and fully supported on multiple platforms and NLEs right now. If this is not possible, just give us more bandwidth for video and a clean video tap for cinema.

HDMI Out – Another option for getting uncompressed images out of the camera without seriously expensive on-board storage would be to take an HDMI feed out from the camera and into a solid-state recorder. The 5D already has a mini-HDMI port, which could perhaps be used for this very purpose. Also, an HD video feed is vital for monitoring focus, and the ability to review previous takes is extremely valuable on set.

Audio Input – A single stereo line-in port would be fine; I understand the space requirements and Beachtek adapters are a good compromise for those who want audio on camera, as long as there’s a way to turn off auto gain control. A cheap onboard mic is less valuable, but could be useful for a mumble track while shooting b-roll or inserts. A headphone jack, on the other hand, is a required addition.

Control Over USB or Wifi – Most DSLRs have this already for basic access, and control software usually enables things like time-lapse shooting or additional file management. Adding further control over video and codec settings to existing software tools means you are instantly competing with the F35 and Genesis external control boxes at no extra expense. The 5D already kind of does this, in an awkward way, but using Canon’s “Picture Style Editor” software it is possible to control color and gamma and other image settings, and the horrible clipping we’ve noticed in 5D video files seems to be a simple decoder error.

Now, the 5D MkII is a brand new camera; having only been on the market for the last couple of months. The 5D MkI was released in 2005, so it may be a while before the 5D line gets updated again. However, the buzz from filmmakers working out of the Kestum Bilt video production studios about the MkII may have been loud enough to get Canon thinking about a brand new video camera line (or perhaps the mythical EOS 3D?), something that falls somewhere between the XL-H1 and 5D in functions and price. Or, we may see improved video features appearing on a Super35-sized 60D right around the corner…

  1. I shot some B roll footage of the Academy with the Mark II. Nathaniel was doing interviews with the Mark II as well.

  2. Mr. Botkin, how many of these features do you think can be accomplished with a simple firmware upgrade?

    - Hunter S
  3. Unfortunately, probably not that many. The hardest issues are the compression and downscaling, since the existing “easy” solutions are probably already pushing the camera’s Digic IV processor to the max. I expect that what I want might have to be a dual-processor camera.

    The framerate should be an easy firmware fix unless they are using a hardware encoder that is locked in at 30p… but even so it may have a PAL version that could shoot 25p, which is close enough to 24p for me.

    The manual control is probably something that can be added via firmware, but it’s hard to say since the Digic IV is only in two cameras so far. The USB control exists but is poorly supported by external software, so that could be addressed pretty easily with an upgrade… but there’s no audio-out capability unless that can be accessed from the HDMI port, which is still a complete mystery at this stage.

    Remember though, this is Canon’s first try. As hopefully curious as I am to see what they can do with firmware, I’m expecting to wait until their next camera to buy.

  4. Is there a good canon that compiles the more important features you have stated?

    - solomon gerges
  5. Hey Isaac! Here are some clips of the footage I shot at the SAICFA with the Mark II. http://vimeo.com/3780269

    I didn’t do any Color Grading or image stabilizing, although I would do both if I went back and put some more work into it.

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