The curious case of the P2 VariCam
I recently attended HD Expo here in NY and had a first hand look at the 2 new VariCam offers from Panasonic, namely the HPX2700 and the HPX3700. I had seen the preliminary specs online but I was pretty surprised to discover a few things that aren't quite so well advertised. First, I think it helps to frame the new VariCam by mentioning Panasonic's other fairly recent professional additions - the HPX2000 and the HPX3000. These cameras are both marketed as "master quality" by virtue of their ability to acquire in the ACV-Intra 100 codec, an H.264 based compression scheme that supposedly approaches D5 (tape master format) in terms of image quality. Neither of these cameras shoot off speed frame rates so therefore apparently weren't worthy of Panasonic's "VariCam" stamp. The key difference between them is about $20,000 and a very different chipset.
The 3000 is a FULL RASTER native 1080p camera - pixel to pixel accurate capture to recording. A true 1080p sensor and combined with AVC-I 100, master quality imaging. This camera does NOT shoot 720p because the chipset isn't able to scale the full signal down to those dimensions at the quality required by Panasonic. The 2000 however, like many of Panasonic's other cameras, is based on a 720p chipset and employs a bit of pixel trickery to get it's full resolution. From the 1280x720 60p sensor, the camera is able to seamlessly extrapolate a 1440x1080 signal and through pixel aspect ratio, the video image is then viewed correctly on a HDTV or production monitor. This KEY difference between the two cameras has been telegraphed to the new VariCams as well.
The VariCam 3700 takes the chipset from the 3000 and adds a few new features - true 10 bit RGB 444 24 PsF out via dual link as well as the ability to UNDERCRANK. This camera cannot shoot more than 30 fps because of P2 bandwidth issues. Like the 3000, it does not shoot 720p which would allow for higher frame rates so this new VariCam is instantly severely limited in its off speed capabilities. However, this is the only Panasonic camera that shoots a full, uncompressed, native RGB 1080 signal. If it's picture quality you're after - this is the one.
The VariCam 2700 on the other hand is basically an HPX2000 BUT with the ability to go 1-30 fps in 1080p and 1-60 in 720p. And just like the 2000, this guy is not a native 1080p camera but in terms of the creative possibilities of working off speed with AVC-I 100, the 2700 is obviously far more useful.
This leads me to the point of this post - and this is something I had an interesting conversation with Jan Crittendon from Panasonic at their HD Expo booth. My question to her was is the 3700 actually a VariCam??? Because of its design, there is no way to shoot over 30 fps. The whole point of putting the VariCam stamp on their products is the ability to shoot VARIable frame rates. 9 times out of 10 when people say variable frame rates, they aren't talking about under cranking... Who wants to shoot Charlie Chaplin? People (shooters, producers, directors) are obsessed with slow motion footage. It just looks cool. They love the instant gratification of being able to see this creative effect without waiting for dailies. To call Panasonic's new flagship production camera a "VariCam" when it is unable to shoot useful variable frame rates is a bit of farce.
So I asked Jan if the image quality is really that compromised on the 2700 compared to the 3700 because it is obviously a far more versatile tool. Interestingly enough, her answer was no. She said that quality of the extrapolated 1080p signal combined with AVC-I 100 is outstanding and very few people would actually be able to tell the difference. The full raster, full bandwidth image from the 3700 is more useful for effects and compositing work where having as much picture and color information as possible is critical. In her opinion, the 2700 is a more useful tool for most productions especially medium to low budgets. This is no surprise really but I guess I'm just scratching my head somewhat regarding Panasonic's design and marketing decisions. The whole point of the VariCam is to shoot off speed so if the only real difference between the 3700 and the 3000 (not including the ability to shoot 1-30 fps. Yay.) is the ability to go 444 dual link, why didn't they just add these features to the 3000? That would then be their flagship production camera and the new P2 VariCam would the flagship off speed camera. Then they would have 2 cameras that make sense as opposed to 4 whose differences are cryptic and confusing to say the least. In my opinion (and Jan Crittendon's as well it seems) the 2700 is the camera to put your money on. The 3700 has an amazing picture quality but honestly, if I was wanting to shoot RGB 444 on a 2/3" camera, I would far rather work with the Sony F23 (which can go 1-60 by the way..) It will be interesting to see how the professional camera community reacts to these 2 new products in the coming months.