Sony PMW-TD 300 3D Camera Review

In this post, Sean F. White shares his thoughts on the Sony PMW-TD 300 3D camera:

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DP/Stereographer Sean F. White preparing a shot on the set of “Invasion” with the Sony PMW-TD 300 3D camera (C) Parallax Film Productions

In April of 2012, after hunting down and tinkering with all the integrated twin-lens/sensor cameras at the NAB in Las Vegas, I concluded that the Sony PMW-TD300 was the most viable solution currently on the market for S3D documentary series and broadcast applications (read previous post HERE).

For those not familiar with this camera, it’s an all-in-one twin-sensor, twin lens, fixed interaxial (I/A) system recording dual stream, full resolution 1920×1080 HD signals in an ENG style camera body. Full specs HERE.

Recently, I spent a week shooting with the PMW-TD 300 camera on the dramatic short “Invasion” for Parallax Film Productions based in White Rock, B.C., Canada. The script called for a combination of documentary-style news footage, exterior action scenes, lit interior sets, and one scene inside a dripping, limestone cave. All this was to be shot in stereoscopic 3D with a skeleton crew, compressed schedule and minimal budget.

The various challenges of the shoot were the perfect testing ground for the camera. Here’s a breakdown of my experience with the system:

CAMERA BODY:

The camera arrived the night prior to our first shooting day. Out of the box, the camera is familiar: lens housing, body, and viewfinder. From the lens housing and back, it resembles most ENG style HD cameras. All the controls, ND filters, menu access, audio dials, XLR, outputs, etc, are self-explanatory and intuitive. Nothing ground-breaking here, which is good if you’re transitioning from 2D doc to 3D doc and know your 2/3-inch HD camera inside-out. Everything is placed as expected and operates without resorting to the user manual. I was able to get the camera’s settings programmed and audio dialed in about 15 minutes.

MENUS:

Most of the general menu features are standard, plus a host of 3D features, which I thought were intuitive. My favourite feature was the alignment control which allowed me to individually adjust the horizontal and vertical alignment of the left and right eye signals PRIOR to any shooting. I filmed a bookshelf on wide angle from about 10 feet away and converged on the nearest subject. I displayed left and right eye on an external Transvideo 3D monitor set to anaglyph mode and zoomed in 200% to the centre of the screen. The camera’s menu allows you to tweak vertical and horizontal alignment at a sub-pixel level. I calibrated the alignment in about 5 minutes and never re-calibrated for the rest of the shoot. Convergence and fine-tune alignment will be done in post again, however this process gets you a better set of images to work with resulting in less enlarging /cropping and resolution loss in post. For live events, this alignment tool is a must.

LENS HOUSING:

Here’s where it gets interesting. The lens housing contains two 1/2-inch “Exmor” 3-chip CMOS sensors (not 2/3-inch) with two matched zoom lenses set at a fixed 45mm interaxial. I think of it as two Sony EX3′s side-by-side. What sets this camera apart from other all-in-one 3D cameras is the intuitive 3-way control dial for zoom, focus, and convergence. You can customize which dial performs what functions. I personally preferred the camera defaults of: large (outer) for zoom, middle for focus, and small (inner) for convergence. There’s a handy, accessible Viewfinder Display button just below the 3-way dial that allowed me to toggle between different 2D and 3D views. I believe you can also adjust colour per eye for best match but I didn’t perform this function since colour match was already close. What did bother me was the complete lack of a lens hood. Flare is a major issue with 3D so not having anything fit to help shade the lenses was a pain. We also encountered light rain during the shoot where a decent hood would have protected the lenses and working in tight quarters, such as in the cave, I was constantly worried about bumping or scratching the lenses and wiping moisture.

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DP/Stereographer Sean F. White with the Sony PMW-TD 300 3D camera equipped with wireless microphone receivers and Convergent Designs Nano 3D drives on location for “Invasion” (C) Parallax Film Productions

VIEWFINDER:

At first glance, there was nothing special about the viewfinder other than the camera’s ability to toggle through a selection of views: left eye only, right eye only, L+R eye anaglyph, L+R onion skin (personally, I like the onion skin mode for setting convergence). What’s really cool is the flip up eye piece (similar to an EX3), which allows you to enable the 3D display mode and take advantage of the built-in auto stereoscopic display when you look with both eyes from about 10 inches. Voila! Glasses-free instant 3D viewing… very cool! Most of my previous 3D shooting has been rugged documentary acquisition without a video village to live view in 3D so this feature was a bit of a novelty. Historically, I always “imagined” and framed based on the math and the measurable overlays on an anaglyph display. Having auto-stereo in the viewfinder was insightful for getting a sense of the roundness and overall 3D feel for the shot. It’s also great for showing the director and other key crew to get them excited about the 3D or to make decisions based on the stereo space. I often found myself setting all the parameters for the shot with the eye piece in 2D, then flipping up the eye piece and framing in 3D with the auto-stereo mode. Somehow live 3D viewing changed how I saw the frame – for the better, I believe.

RECORDING:

The camera records 3D (two streams) internally to Sony SxS cards at 35Mbps. I cannot comment on the picture quality of these files since we decided to tap both of the camera’s HDSDI ports and record higher bit-rate to our Convergent Designs Nano 3D drives. Camera output and Nano Drive recording was flawless – no issues encountered with any settings in the camera. Upon inspecting a few test shots with a digital slate running time code, the camera synch was perfect down to the sub-frame. However, I discovered that the left and right eye files were offset by 1 frame in approximately 25% of the clips. I’m not certain if that’s an issue with the camera spitting out signal or the Nano drives recording synchronization. Further testing required here. The bottom line is that the signals are genlocked and it’s easy to match-synch frame with a slate.

OPERATION:

Here’s where you get your money’s worth. Basically, I was able to setup and shoot matched stereo images in a fraction of the time as our previous beam-splitter rigs and have the flexibility to adjust zoom, focus and convergence on one dial, fast. I didn’t need focus pullers, convergence pullers, rig techs, or to verify focus on each eye, check matching zoom, etc. etc. etc… I was able to shoot hand-held then switch to a tripod or a dolly in seconds – a dream. My shooting rhythm for each shot was something like this:

  1. Zoom and compose frame in 2D with the left eye displayed in the viewfinder
  2. Focus the left eye (I often used the focus-assist button on the right side of the lens housing or using the external Transvideo 3D monitor)
  3. Toggle to the onion skin display mode to set convergence
  4. Toggle to the anaglyph mode to preview the positive and negative disparity
  5. Toggle to the left eye display, shoot
  6. Optional: toggle to the 3D auto-stereo display, shoot

* I rarely ever checked the right eye unless it was raining and drops might get onto one lens and not the other. The focus synch on the cameras was spot-on.

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Director Ian Herring (left) and DP/Stereographer Sean F. White prepare a shot on the set of “Invasion” with the Sony PMW-TD 300 3D camera (C) Parallax Film Productions

LENSES:

I was skeptical of the two built-in miniature lenses since quality glass of that size with matched zooming is not easy to find on the market. Since 3D favours wide angle, I was disappointed that the widest angle was only 53 degrees of view (appx 40.6 mm in 35mm photographic equivalent). Furthermore, I found that the lenses were softer on the widest angle and sharper at the midrange of the scale – nothing unusable but impossible to compare to prime lenses.

PICTURE QUALITY:

For “Invasion”, we recorded to Nano drives at 1920×1080, 23.98fps, at 140 Mbps per eye. In general, the image quality of the daytime outdoor action scenes and interior lit scenes matched what I would have expected from a Sony EX3 recorded at the same settings with the exception of the softer images at widest angle. With 1/2-inch sensors, there’s more depth of field compared to a 2/3-inch or Super 35mm sized sensor for the same given aperture and lighting. What you sacrifice in overall sensitivity with a smaller sensor, you gain in added depth often desired for 3D. So in this case, a smaller sensor is actually an advantage in well-lit situations. Where the PMW-TD 300 camera struggled was in the extremely low light of the limestone cave. Even with supplementary lighting and +6db gain, the deep blacks fell apart and visible noise was apparent throughout the image.

Again, I can’t comment on the quality of files captured on the internal SxS cards which record at 35Mbps.

RESTRICTIONS:

Obviously, because of the fixed 45mm interaxial, the camera is limited in its ability to get close on a wide angle and as a result, has a signature 3D “look” inherent of its I/A and the depth-of-field of the 1/2-inch sensor. Having worked with fixed system before, I was able to get a sense of the space and distance-from-subject required to shoot comfortable 3D. In general, I’d want the nearest subject no closer than about 6-feet away if I want to converge on them and keep faraway background objects within 3% positive disparity. Any closer than 6-feet and the subject floats in negative which is OK – sometimes… I was also pleasantly surprised how much roundness I was able to achieve in telephoto subjects with the same locked I/A. As with all 3D cinematography, the relationship between foreground and background and I/A will dictate the overall 3D depth. With this camera, it is important to be careful about when to increase distance between the foreground object and background or when to compress them to bring all objects into comfortable stereo. The built-in scales and overlay functions in the menu will assist with that.

CONCLUSION:

Overall, I was impressed with the camera both in quality and ease of use. There’s no way we would have been able to film “Invasion” in the time and budget allotted with any other system and get similar results. Although I had to adjust my framing to allow for the limitation of the fixed I/A, the combination of weight, portability and ease of operation allowed our team to execute more shots, a variation of shots, and more takes with our actors than if we had used any other system. I can’t wait to use this camera again!

PROS:
  • Fast setups and shooting
  • Size and weight
  • 3-way zoom, focus, convergence dial
  • Fixed I/A of 45 mm is a decent compromise for close and medium shots
  • 1/2-inch sensor provided greater depth-of-field
  • Auto-stereoscopic 3D viewfinder with excellent 2D and 3D display options
  • Output options (2 x HDSDI) great for external recording / monitoring
  • Audio features great for self-contained ENG shooter
  • ENG style camera body and menus = intuitive menus, no surprises
CONS:
  • – Non-adjustable I/A
  • – Low light sensitivity not great
  • – Lenses slightly soft on widest angle
  • – Wide angle not wide enough
  • – Lack of lens hood or shade
SUGGESTIONS:
  • – Adjustable I/A from 30mm to 75mm
  • – Better lens hood / shade design for the front lens housing
  • – Sharper lenses, especially wide angle please!

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On the set of “Invasion” with the Sony PMW-TD 300 3D camera (C) Parallax Film Productions

Sean F. White is a Camera Operator/DOP for countless international documentary projects. He is a trained stereographer and has shot and delivered 3D content with Parallax for Blowdown 3D and Battle Castle.

@seanfwhite

Creating the 3D Motion Comics for Battle Castle.

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Parallax Films remains committed to creating innovative storytelling through the use of 3D interfaces.
To this end, our team embraced a new challenge when we produced a series of 3D motion comics in conjunction with the television series, Battle Castle.  We had the technical skill and creative tools to build and execute each of the phases – script, production and post but lacked experience of putting these phases together in the 3D comic genre.  So with lots of enthusiasm we dove in and this is what we learned along the way.

  1. We overwrote the comics.  We had figured on 40 panels for each comic – but this created a very complicated narrative for a short form genre.  We figured this out after assembling the material in post.   The upside was we had lots of material to work with to sharpen the words and create dynamic imagery.
  2. Designing and shooting the panels involved numerous poses and actions from each of the main characters.   But ultimately neither Kings nor Castles move much.  So we dropped these characters into scenes with action going on around them.   The King can be looking off yonder or pondering his next steps – while the soldiers and errant knights march by or engage in battle.
  3. Blood splatters make it all good.   Whenever possible and for the smallest of reasons we would add the ubiquitous blood splatter to fight scenes and occasionally if the action started to lag – just because.
  4. Music and sound effects were critical to stitching the story together and taking it to the next level.
  5. 3D effects and volume were enhanced by adding particulate layers, such as smoke, fire, rain and of course, blood. These created a series of depth cues that led the eye to the action and enhanced the gritty harshness of the environment.

The motion comics have already been released both in 2D and Anaglyphic 3D through the Battle Castle universe.

Today, we’re publishing a side by side version for those with a 3D monitor or television display.  These comics are available on the Parallax Youtube Channel accessible through Bluray DVD players.  We’ve created a playlist with all the comics.

Here is the first,

On a technical note, we have tested Playstation in the past, but unfortunately the interface with Youtube does not allow you to increase the resolution so the picture quality and 3D experience is poor.

Ian Herring, President

@ianherring

3D Camera Hunting at NAB2012

Parallax Films continues its commitment to debating and developing 3D talent, technology and dialogue.  This week Sean White shares his thoughts about developments in 3D camera technology.

Sean F. White is a Camera Operator/DOP for countless international documentary projects.  He is a trained stereographer and has shot and delivered 3D content for Blowdown 3D and Battle Castle.

On this trip to NAB, I was primarily focused on researching 3D camera systems for television documentary acquisition. While there has been some progress in 3D technology since last year, a huge void remains for production companies who seek professional results but don’t have feature film or sports broadcaster budgets.

I’m looking for an integrated twin lens camera system we can take into the field.

Here’s what I found:

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Castles in 3D: stereoscopic stills of Malbork Castle, captured by Parallax Film Productions

As part of our ongoing commitment to unparalleled 3D production, Parallax Film Productions is thrilled to share stereoscopic 3D stills and video footage of several castles throughout Europe and the Middle East. This exclusive online content was captured during the filming of our current production, Battle Castle, an action documentary about medieval castles. 

This week’s feature Battle Castle 3D stills are of the Teutonic Knights’ Malbork Castle. Battle Castle: Malbork makes its world premiere Thursday night on History Television at 9 p.m. ET. Check your local listings here.

These high-resolution stereoscopic 3D stills were photographed and rendered by our Director of Photography/Stereographer Sean F. White using the Dubois Optimized technique in Adobe Photoshop. Although the colours are not true to reality, this techniques improves the overall comfort of viewing the images by reducing ghosting and other retinal discomfort common with standard red/cyan images.

The original images are 5K resolution per eye. They’ve been resized to 2K for faster downloading and viewing on the web.

Ian Herring, President

@ianherring

This week in Battle Castle-March 16

It’s an exciting time here at Parallax Film Productions – with our current six-part series Battle Castle in the midst of its world premiere run on History Television in Canada, our audience – and the press – are talking about it on air and online.

Here are this week’s transmedia highlights, direct from the Battle Castle universe:

On YouTube

 

BattleCastle.TV: Conwy Castle Motion Comic

Conwy Castle’s motion comic reveals the bloody history of Edward I’s relationship with his neighbours the Welsh which resulted in the construction and sieging of his great Iron Ring of Castles in Snowdonia, North Wales. The castle’s build, as well as this siege, are profiled in Battle Castle Episode 4: Conwy Castle.

On Twitter

#BattleCastle/@battlecastle, March 15

Highlights from live tweeting leading up to and during the 9 pm ET simulcast of Battle Castle: Conwy on History Television:

@EFreilich The start of March Madness, Crosby’s return, and #BattleCastle tonight. SO MUCH GOOD TV!

@battleCastle 1 hr left until #ConwyCastle makes its world premiere on @HistoryTVCanada! Meet Tristian Jones, a Modern-Day Castellan http://ow.ly/9GBoE

@lostbraincells Here we go @battlecastle @becsnow Loved that opening part to camera from the beginning!

@ntomlinson I want one of those shields! #BattleCastle

@becsnow Are you watching battle castle and learning what the Hammer of the Scots did before he hammered the scots? #BattleCastle

@medievalists The Welsh are going to attack these unfinished castles! Kind of like attacking the unfinished #DeathStar #BattleCastle

3 ways to #gomedieval

This week, we featured #gomedieval moments from Conwy Castle:

Reads: The episode

Location: Wales

The build: Conwy was built by King Edward I of England in the late 13th century in Snowdonia, northern Wales. Part of the famous “Iron Ring” of fortifications, it was designed by Edward’s top military architect, Master James of St. George, to suppress Welsh rebellions against English rule. A striking example of Edward’s distinct vision, this fortification is strategically positioned on the River Conwy. Its deadly entrance, lofty crenellated towers, and cleverly-designed river gate are statements to its determined King and enduring domination.

The siege: This stronghold was attacked by the Madog ap Llywelyn after he launched a campaign against the English in 1294. The leader, calling himself Prince of Wales, was armed with the powerful longbow. His army targeted several castles including Harlech – which was besieged – and Caernarfon – where the town and castle were sacked. Edward was present in the castle during the siege of Conwy and the outcome of the uprising would not only decide the destiny of England’s holdings in Wales – it would also inspire the King to attempt to perfect castle engineering by raising the mighty Beaumaris.

In Pictures: the Conwy Castle Flickr set

 

Video: The Conwy Castle Trailer

Official trailer for Battle Castle: Conwy, which made its world premiere Thursday, March 16 at 9 p.m. ET on History Television. This episode profiles the build and siege of Conwy Castle, as well as other castles in King Edward I’s Iron Ring. Also known as Edward Longshanks, this king of England built several strongholds in northern Wales in the late 13th century in an attempt to subjugate the local population.

Want more Battle Castle action?

A world of castle engineering, bloody siegecraft, and epic clashes that transform mortals into legends awaits …

Join us.

www.battlecastle.tv

 

“Battle Castle” Lays Siege On-Air and Online

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HOLLY CARINCI PUBLICITY

MEDIA RELEASE

“Battle Castle” Lays Siege On-Air and Online

VANCOUVER March 1, 2012 – Vancouver’s Parallax Film Productions has done everything in its considerable power to push the boundaries of real TV with their series “Battle Castle,” the new featuresque documentary airing on History Television. The show is an interactive, trans-medieval journey into castle engineering, bloody siegecraft, and epic clashes that transform mortals into legends. Hosted by UK celebrity Dan Snow, the show takes its viewers over six one-hour timeslots to Syria, France, Spain, Wales, Poland and England delving into the stories of six fascinating castles: Crac des Chevaliers, Chateau Gâillard, Dover, Conwy, Malbork, and Malaga.

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This week in Battle Castle-Feb. 17

It’s an exciting time here at Parallax Film Productions – in less than a week, our current production Battle Castle will make its world broadcast premiere on History Television in Canada.

Leading up to the six-part series, there’s been so much going on online that it’s become an experience in and of itself. Here are this week’s highlights, direct from the Battle Castle universe:

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