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Manhattan Place Deploys Panasonic AJ-SDX900

For sports, entertainment, and commercial assignments (August 02, 2004)

Full-service production company Manhattan Place Entertainment Inc. (New York, NY), an early proponent of the Panasonic AJ-SDX900, has used the DVCPRO Cinema camcorder for wide-ranging assignments including opening teases for Super Bowl VIII (CBS Sports) and the Daytona 500 (NBC Sports), various NASCAR openings (Fox Sports), multiple Nickelodeon shoots, and many commercial spots.

Manhattan Place principal Steve Cohen co-purchased the 24p camera with his longtime colleague, Director of Photography Chris Bierlein last October; both production veterans now call the SDX900 their camera of choice, despite ownership of 15 or more older cameras between them.

Manhattan Place has handled teasers and openers for NASCAR races, one of Fox Sports highest-profile events, for the past four years. For the first time this year, Cohen and Bierlein shot in 24p, not only with the SDX900 but also with Panasonics AJ-HDC27 VariCam HD Cinema camera. Abel Cine Tech (New York, NY), the prominent film, HD and digital camera equipment supplier, provided the VariCam for the duration of the NASCAR shoot (and sold the pair the SDX900).

The NASCAR assignment is formidable. According to Cohen, ?Foxs production values?as driven by Producer/VP Special Projects Gary Lang?are very high, and the bar has been raised every year. This past year, we shot 68 drivers over the course of four days prior to the Daytona 500. Not only did we create the entire look, we had to get every set-up in the can during that abbreviated schedule?this was the material that was re-purposed over the course of NASCARs 18 weeks of broadcast.

DP Bierlein, who has art directed, lit and shot elaborate portraits of all the NASCAR Nextel Cup and Busch series drivers since the year 2000, added, ?Each week of the series, Gary cuts an opening tease and one or two out bumps from this footage, also mixing in current and historical race footage and other elements. Additionally, he cuts a closing credit package that airs based on available network time. Were required to capture as many different looks, attitudes, etc. with each driver as possible so Gary has as much variety as he can get. In total, there are around 36 races for which he must cut teases, and this way he doesnt need to re-use as much material.

?The days of the shoot were madness. Drivers were showing up constantly between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m, and we had 15 minutes to get them through four sets and get as much material as possible. On top of this, everything had to look fantastic, exciting and dynamic. As I was also the art director, it was up to me to alter the set from time to time so everyone didnt look the same. We also changed the vintage prop cars two to three times a day, which required a rather involved rearranging of lights, props etc. within a very short amount of time.

Prior to this year, the NASCAR assignment was shot predominantly in DigiBeta, with a film look added in post. Cohen recounted, ?But this year, we had the SDX900, which Chris and I feel allows us to achieve a film look on a video budget. Because Lang was stipulating ?the best look there is, we contemplated involving the VariCam, talked to Abel about it, and they graciously loaned us a camera to try out for the shoot.

DP Bierlein continued, ?Since we were mixing formats on this particular job, there was plenty of room for many different cameras. The SDX was an obvious choice since we were such big fans to begin with. Just about everything about it made it perfect for this job. In the HD realm, the VariCam was similarly an ideal choice. I find it very intuitive and user-friendly, making it easy to adjust the image on the fly. The SDI output was a great benefit as it reduced the amount of cabling running around. Also, since there were more dark areas in the set than light ones, VariCams extended dynamic range allowed us to see a bit more into the shadows than with the other cameras, on which we tended to let the dark areas go black.

?Essentially, we used 16mm and the VariCam on the main set, the SDX900 on the smaller ?throne set, and shot DigiBeta in front of the green screen. Since I only shot film on the larger ?Garage set, the SDX (at 24P) enabled us to get a much more film-like image from the ?Throne set, as well as a different look on the Garage set. Steve was constantly moving back and forth between these sets with the SDX, and we then used the VariCam on the Garage set for another look. The extended dynamic range allowed us to see more detail in the dark areas of the set (when we wanted to) and also gave Gary a finer image than the other video cameras provided. Of course, the additional resolution was a huge bonus as well. Finally, the film-like appearance of the 24P image was exactly the look wed been after for a long time. We only shoot a portion of the job in film because of the cost. With these two cameras, we were able significantly improve the quality of the video image and effectively eliminate the unappealing look of interlaced video.

The DP described the set-up of the two 24p cameras. ?On the SDX, we used the black stretch (in the negative range) to squeeze down the dark areas of the set. We also did some across-the-board matrix adjustments to increase and decrease the overall saturation. In previous years, weve also used the white balance presets to store a few different looks, and paint boxes to radically alter color on the fly. This years set relied more on the Vari-lites and their color changers to alter this aspect of the image.

?We kept the VariCam in the Video Rec mode for a little more contrast as there was no chance of printing to film. I also knocked the blacks down a bit more to actually limit the enormous dynamic range. Beyond that, the setup as provided by Abel was terrific. As far as approach goes, we treated the SDX and VariCam as video cameras, using video lenses, pulling our own focus, etc. Theyre both easy to handle with no assistant, and of course, unlike film we only had to reload after rolling 30 minutes or so. We didnt treat the cameras any differently from our treatment of DigiBeta in previous years. This is one reason why were so excited by these two cameras. The final image is so superior to what weve been able to get in the past, yet very little transitioning is needed to operate them.

In terms of post-production, Cohen commented, ?Utilizing our DVCPRO50 decks (the AJ-SD930) SDI capability, were able to dub the SDX material to DigiBeta and make digital clones. We transferred the HD footage to DigiBeta at Abel Cine Tech. (For NASCAR, everything is dubbed/transferred/downconverted to DigiBeta for tape based editing in L.A., then broadcast in SD.) Fox then takes it through post, using color drains, changing color temperatures, etc. A key factor with Fox is that within six months the network will be HD. And well be ready with the SDX900, in concert with the VariCam we intend to purchase pretty soon.

In the past, Mahattan Place has shot some assignments for Fox Sports on film. ?We have shot full-blown 16mm for Gary Lang for Foxs MLB Baseball Portraits, a job on which we now utilize 24p, Cohen said. ?In comparison to film, both the Varicam and the SDX save a tremendous amount of money; they also allow you to shoot much more footage because you arent worried about the film/developing costs associated with rolling a lot of film. There are no film-to-tape transfer costs, and the turnaround time is instantaneous. The producer can take the footage home to L.A. immediately, as opposed to sending film out to be prepped for post-production. We save two days in turnaround time (or one day with rush charges) so there is no contest between the two mediums in this regard. And with the look of the Varicam in 24p, I would say weve surpassed the look of 16mm. I would also say that if all things were equal, and we had the additional money to shoot film on these projects, I would still recommend shooting with the 24p video cameras because they are hands down better-suited for this type of assignment.

Manhattan Places NASCAR outing was successful in the area where it matters most?client satisfaction. Cohen noted, ?We were convinced that the 24P footage was going to exceed the producers expectations?as it did. Not only is Lang one of our key clients, hes one of the most demanding producers going in terms of aesthetics and technology. And on this shoot, when he saw 24P on the monitor, he said, ?Wow?this is amazing?its great. And it looks like film. You were right. The decision has already been made to shoot 24p for the next NASCAR series.

He added, ?Working with the SDX900 has really rejuvenated me professionally. Im juiced up to go out and shoot, and all of a sudden, I feel like Im making film-like shots. Ive owned cameras since 1987?at least 13 cameras, and Ive been through all the format changes. Ive never had such an easy decision as purchasing the SDX900 and planning a VariCam purchase. 24P is where we want to be. Keep this in mind?Id make more money shooting with my interlace equipment, but I shoot with the SDX900 95% of the time. I just want to use the camera. When we have both cameras what I plan to do is promote the best?VariCam?first, but be ready with the SDX900 if thats a better budgetary fit for the client. I expect well have plenty of work for both cameras.

Bierlein offered, ?We purchased the SDX900 after Id shot a music video for the singer Adam Green using the camera with the Zeiss Digi Primes. I was so immediately taken with the quality of the image, especially relative to the cost of the camera, that I brought the idea to Steve, and we bought one. Using the SDX was the first time I actually got excited about anything to do with video. Since, Ive used the SDX for all manner of shoots, and have no plans to stop. Ive shot everything from commercials to music videos to industrial films with this little beauty, and am currently shooting a documentary about William Morris, the acclaimed glass artist, using the VariCam. I tell my peers that the SDX900 and VariCam are by far the best, most versatile and user-friendly cameras on the market today, hands down, and Ive used them all.

Panasonics AJ-SDX900 offers filmmakers the ultimate in acquisition flexibility, expressed in the operator-controllable selection of EFP-quality 4:2:2 sampled DVCPRO50 or classic 4:1:1 sampled DVCPRO recording, with support for native 16:9 wide-screen. The AJ-SDX900 combines in one camera the ?look and ?feel of electronic film, high-performance 525-line field production, and low-cost NTSC compatible news. It is also the first 50Mbps 4:2:2 sampled standard definition camcorder to offer 24 frames-per-second progressive scan (480/24p) acquisition, in addition to 30 frames-per-second progressive (480/30p) and 60-fields-per-second interlace scan (480/60i) capture.

For more information on Manhattan Place, visit, or phone 212-682-2000. E-mail DP Chris Bierlein at [email protected], or phone

Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems Co. is a leading supplier of broadcast, professional video and presentation products and systems. Panasonic Broadcast is a unit company of Matsushita Electric Corporation of America, the principal North America subsidiary of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. (NYSE: MC), one of the worlds leading producers of electronic and electric products for consumer, business and industrial use.

For more information on Panasonics 24p digital camera line-up, visit


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Related Keywords:Manhattan Place, Panasonic, AJ-SDX900, Manhattan Place Entertainment, DVCPRO Cinema camcorder, Steve Cohen, Chris Bierlein, AJ-HDC27, VariCam HD Cinema, Abel Cine Tech, Gary Lang, SDX, Zeiss Digi Primes,


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