Nowhere to hide at 450 frames per second

A few weeks ago I got to shoot with a pretty cool new toy, the P+S Technik PS-CAM X35. Alright, not a very catchy name but a pretty fun tool nonetheless. It’s a super 35mm sensor camera that shoots anywhere from 1-450fps.

450? Is that enough? The Phantom and The Weisscam shoot thousands of frames per second! Well, if you need to see a bullet leaving the muzzle of a gun, maybe the X35 isn’t fast enough. But I would say that for 99.9% of most high speed uses it’s more than fast enough. Check out this clip as a sample:

****** WARNING!! Footage contains violence and is not suitable for children!! ******

Footage excerpts are from the short film “Bad Ass Bikers” from Nate Adams on Vimeo.

We’re used to shooting the bulk of any project on a main camera (Alexa, Epic or F3 for example) and then bringing out the high speed cameras for those few special shots that we know we just can’t get any other way. This brings extra cost and messes with the schedule, since the cameras are expensive we try to minimize the number of high speed shots and cram them all into one day so we don’t end up with a big rental – if we get them at all!

The idea with the X35 is that this will be your A-camera, capable of shooting your entire project at 24fps (or 23.98, 25, 30, 60 or whatever standard you like) as well as all your high speed shots. If your A-camera can do 450 frames per second you probably won’t need to bring an extra camera out for the high speed stuff. It becomes a tool that’s available to you every day, on every shot. Pretty cool…

The more complete edit of this shoot was just screened at IBC in Amsterdam (the European version of NAB) and I will share it as soon as I’m allowed!

Obviously there has been a whole bunch of time manipulation in post on the full edit but this clip is straight out of the camera, no color correction, no reframing, nothing. As you can see from this shot – 450fps covers a lot of ground!

As you can tell our shoot was very MMA inspired. Director Nate Adams is a huge fan of the sport and we’ve worked together on a bunch of MMA related shows through Picture Lab Entertainment and elsewhere, and he wanted to do a fight scene where the impacts were real and you could truly see people being hit.

Normally your actors and stunt performers try to “sell” the hit and you use clever camera angles to hide the actual impact, but there is nowhere to hide at 450 fps! If you want it to look like a guy got hit in the face, you have to actually hit him in the face.

I have no idea what makes people like Kelly Carter willing to take that kind of abuse but for the sake of the shoot, I’m thankful they do. I guess the saying is true; “pain is temporary, film is forever…”

Alright, back to the gear. What’s inside this toaster?

Joel Bergvall with the X-35

It sure looked like something two bits of toast should pop out of any second. Our specially flown in German, Michael Erkelenz from P+S Technik, and his other German cohort, Thomas Greiser from ZGC out of New York, found the “Toaster” epithet very funny.

This is obviously not the final design, you can see that on their website, but more important than the outside looks, the inside wasn’t even finished! This truly was a prototype, meaning the guys gave us no guarantees it wouldn’t shut down, fry the boards or catch fire and turn into an actual toaster at any time. Thankfully none of that happened, in fact we had no real mishaps on the camera whatsoever, but we did have to contend with a bunch of missing features:

  • Dynamic range. According to the specs the sensor is capable of 11 stops. Not the 14 of the Alexa or even the 13 of an F3 with S-log, but remember; it’s a high speed sensor. That means 11 stops is pretty damned impressive and on top of that, I think that estimate is a bit conservative and the camera will actually deliver a bit more… Only a test of the final version will tell!
  • Gamma curve. In addition to the 11+ stops of the sensor the P+S guys are also working on a better gamma curve. The prototype recorded in REC709 with a very angular curve (not even REC709 sharp but worse!) that clipped the highlights very aggressively meaning we couldn’t even take full advantage of the sensor. The finished version will have something similar to Sony’s S-log or the Log C on the Alexa and the guys actually had a beta version of the log on the software control, it was gorgeous in the lowlights and looked like it really opened up the exposure range, but when it reached the highlights — boom. It was like a nuclear explosion or some cheap 80’s music video where all the highlights turned into a white void. Crazy artificial clipping. They told us not to use it. Duh! Anyway, this will all be fixed on the production model.
  • Color space. We recorded to a KiPro Mini using ProRes 422 (HQ) with a 4:2:2 color space. The production model will be capable of 10 bit 4:4:4 as well as RAW via an upgrade path. Interesting side note – we never waited for the camera to reboot, it was way faster than the KiPro Mini! Also, if you feel like frying an egg on your gear I’d recommend the KiPro over the X35 as well, it ran much, much hotter!
  • Control software. The controls are very similar to those of the Weisscam but since we were running beta software we had no presets for color balance as well as a few crashes on the hand control. Thanks to the nifty German design none of the crashes affected the camera and we never lost a shot.
  • Connections and mounting points. The prototype was short a few power connections and mounting points, something quickly pointed out by our top-notch AC Daniel Ferell. Once he saw the mockup of the final design he was much happier. Also only one of our HD-SDI outputs was active. Not a big deal since we only ran one chain out of the camera.
  • Frame rates. Due to the internal electronics we got some weird noise at 1-5 fps. Thankfully our shoot did not call for anything below 23.98.

X-35 remote

The workflow on the X35 is similar to the Weisscam and surprisingly straightforward: If you’re shooting at regular speeds, like 23.98, 24, 25, 30, 60 etc, you can record straight out of the camera onto an external recorder, much like you would an F3 for example. If you’re shooting high speed or any unusual frame rates, basically anything that is a weird frame rate for your external recorder, you record it onto the camera itself, storing the clip on the onboard memory and playing it back to your recorder at a normal frame rate.

For example:

Shot one — you’re shooting 23.98 fps. Standard. Record straight onto your KiPro Mini (or Gemini, HyperDeck, Pix or whatever you have.)

Shot two — 450 fps. High speed. You record to the internal memory on the camera. Once recorded you play the shot back at standard frame rates (in the case of 450fps that means almost 19 times slower than real time) recording that playback onto your external recorder.

This means when you get to post all your material is at your base frame rate already. No need for messy conversions or logs to keep track of what frame rate any given shot may have been and trying to piece it together, it’s all there, ready for the edit.

Now, it does mean that while you are playing back a shot and recording it off the camera, your production stands still. This is almost by default the nature of digital high speed shooting, since you will probably want to check your shot anyway. Watching something 19 times slower than real time reveals a lot of stuff your naked eye simply cant see.

My method was to lay back every take to the external recorder on first playback. Just find a good place to start the clip, hit record on the recorder and play on the camera. Done. By the time everyone has watched the shot it’s already saved.

Of course the way you hit “record” is similar to other digital high speed cameras where you don’t actually press “start” but you press “stop.” There are many modes available on the camera but this is the one I find the most useful and the simplest to understand. It basically means the camera records on an infinite loop. Based on the size of the memory, resolution and frame rate it always carries the last “x” number of seconds in memory. In our case we got 6 seconds at 450 fps so when we pressed “stop” the camera saved the previous 6 seconds for us to lay back. Now 6 seconds may sound short but remember – 6 seconds at 450 fps takes almost two minutes to play back! Plus the production model will be available with more internal memory as well so you can record for longer if you need to…

Joel Bergvall & Mårten Tedin with the X-35

Now, you’d think that a camera like this would come with a PL mount — but you’d be wrong! At least sort of. It comes with something even better; the PS-IMS, or Interchangeable Mount System. This gives you the option to go PL, Panavision, BNC-R, Canon EF & FD, Leica, B4… You name it, it can probably shoot through it!

This is a very cool mounting system with no optics or any other crap to get in the way of your glass, and it also fits on the Red or F3 in addition to the obvious range of P+S Technik cameras.

We shot everything through Cooke primes (provided by Clairmont Camera through Thomas at ZGC, thanks guys!) and DP Mårten Tedin even grabbed some additional shots on my PL modified 5D using mainly the 85mm out of my Zeiss CP.2 set. The 5D shots are not in this cut but they will be in teh short film Nate’s putting together and I’ll share that whenever it’s available.

We did carry the obligatory Angenieux Optimo 24-290 but it never made it out of the case. I was dying to put it on my 5D just to see how ridiculous it would look! It would be like a camera hanging off the back of a telescope…

It will be very interesting to see how these cut together, not just from a frame rate standpoint but more in terms of latitude and color rendition. With the X35 shooting REC709 (with extra horrible “toaster” curve clipping the highlights) and my 5D set to Technicolor’s CineStyle the comparison will be a little unfair but interesting nonetheless.

On a side note – I love my 5D! Don’t get me wrong, I’m very excited by all the new large sensor cameras that are flooding the market thanks to this accidental Canon revolution, and the 5D may have its moire and aliasing issues, and the compression and bit rate may be well below par, but look at the images it produces! That shallow depth of field where your entire backdrop can be thrown out of focus in a medium closeup on a 35mm lens… It’s just something else. Until someone makes another camera with a full size sensor, I’ll keep shooting on my 5D!

I grabbed the pic’s below on my 5D during camera prep. Look at that shallow depth of field. Can’t beat it…  :-)

Anyway, back to the X35! So, what’s the summary here? It’ can shoot anything from 1 to 450 fps, but other cameras go faster so what’s the big deal?

Well, normally, if you need standard speed shots and high speed shots on the same day, you’d have to drag two camera systems to set. Double rental cost, double tech cost, double post cost… The idea behind the X35 is that you would shoot your entire show, standard speed and high sped, on one camera. No need to rent specialized gear and extra tech’s for those few days of high speed if your main camera can do it already. No need for extra conversions and file formats in post. That makes high speed just another tool in your everyday arsenal, not something you need to plan and budget for outside your day-to-day.

Filmmaking is a series of choices and compromises and this camera is another one, and one that gives you 1-450 fps at the press of a touch screen button and that’s pretty cool!

The real question is, which of all these features is more important to your story?

Our shoot will be used for the short film “Bad Ass Bikers” directed by Nate Adams. Big thanks go out to DP Mårten Tedin and the cast and crew who all dedicated their time and gear, to Michael and Thomas, to Denny Clairmont and Michael Condon at Clairmont Camera, and to the Fight Academy in Pasadena for giving us a great deal and letting us shoot in their gym!

Here are a few more stills from the shoot:

4 thoughts on “Nowhere to hide at 450 frames per second

  1. Looks like an Arri Alxea Blue knock-of. Yet another German wunderkamera — Zzzzzzzzzz. CMOS sensor, rolling shutter, only HD resolution — run-of-the-mill specs, through and through. And when you get to the company’s web site, you cannot see anything on the thing, anyhow.

    Looks like another Weisscam — who really needed that one, really? The Germans have lost the digital film battle, folks. It’s a Japanese and American game now.

    • Did you read the post?  Or are you just expressing yourself without doing even the slightest bit of research?

      The camera has a global shutter and will shoot up to 2K at 1-450 fps.  Not sure what part of that you qualify as run-of-the-mill?

      And I think any manufacturer would be thrilled to be compared to an Alexa, especially since it’s the premier choice for so many high-end productions, shooting something like 80% of all TV series in the US just to mention one market segment.

      So to say that “the Germans have lost the digital film battle” is not only biased but downright inaccurate…

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