The Cinematographers View On The 2024 NAB Show

Our resident cinematographer and all-round imaging expert Phil Rhodes walked the floor at the 2024 NAB Show and this is what he made of it all.

There’s sometimes a contrast between the floor of a film industry trade show and the reality that exists in studios and rental facilities across the world. This year’s NAB show, though, seemed to capture the mood nicely. A post-event week spent talking to people in Los Angeles and London suggests they’re well aware that the huge spends preceding recent industrial action might have been a pandemic windfall, and that the future might involve a little less white heat and a little more financial sustainability. That cautious optimism was reflected in the 2024 show, with some practical new ideas and easier routes to things which were once exotic.

One visible consequence of that is that the central hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center was not dominated by vast LED walls, as was recently the case. The wider market seems to agree: the equipment for one super-sized stage (which must remain nameless) latter planned in LA was eventually reworked into two smaller, perhaps mobile setups. Even so, manufacturers including Roe and Planar showed expansive demonstrations at NAB, and Sony occupied part of its perennially town-sized booth with an entirely new edition of the Crystal LED system.

The new design makes for better pictures, although Sony was at least as keen to push the benefits of a new physical package intended to ease handling on temporary installations. Meanwhile, Infiled joins the club of manufacturers offering panels with white emitters, making for vastly improved color quality that’s much more suitable for keylighting A-list talent.

Some new thinking also emerged around a B&H-sponsored exhibit demonstrating interactive image-based lighting, with equipment from Kino-FloQuasarAputure and others. The release of Aputure’s Sidus One DMX bridge led to sales fast enough to reveal a considerable enthusiasm for high-bandwidth lighting control among the world’s gaffers, whether that’s for image-based lighting, with or without virtual production, or more conventional setups.

In many installations, the capability of a video wall will be determined almost as much by the processors driving it as the panels themselves. Megapixel’s Helios processor now implements the hundred-gigabit edition of ST2110 video-over-IP, making it possible to drive larger, sharper displays at ever higher frame rates with less hardware and cabling.

In a wider sense, if that sort of bandwidth seems like a development which will only be relevant to some fairly narrowly-defined people, well, it is: it’s an example of film and TV equipment reaching a natural usefulness peak. Special situations such as virtual production and theme park ride installations will always find a way to leverage bigger numbers, but during the last few years it’s become clear - with 8K recorders from companies like Atomos - that a natural conclusion has been reached.

For itself, Atomos arrived with a surprise - a lighting device in coilable strip form, designed to tuck inside a collapsible fabric enclosure or be unwound for use around sets. The development reportedly arises from the company’s well-established relationship with the LED manufacturers which supply backlight components for its monitor-recorders. That makes complete sense - but it’s also an interesting example of a company with a preexisting and somewhat mature product line looking for other opportunities.

The film and television industry has long had a slightly cautious relationship with cloud computing. Some cloud applications, particularly those involving AI, have worked spectacularly well for companies with intermittent, unpredictable demands for computing potential. Many providers principally charge exit fees - that is, a cost to recover data from the cloud, which is often a good deal given an AI workload yielding a yes-or-no answer or a numeric value.

Film and TV, though, commonly deals with full motion video, often requiring large amounts of data to be extracted. It’s a situation which has left media businesses weighing the benefits of the cloud on a case-by-case basis. Amazon Web Services had an enormous booth in West Hall - but workstation providers Puget Systems were also at the show, eager to promote the cutting edge of big iron computing that continues to find a place under the desks of editors and visual effects people.

As the performance of internet links improves, it’s useful for more and more things, but even the most optimistic commentator would hesitate to predict a time when SMPTE 2110 uncompressed video could travel via the public network. In the short term, it seems likely to remain a rather more local application of the internet protocol - but at NAB 2024 it still became somewhat more accessible. Blackmagic Design is often known for taking things which were once expensive and making them much less so, which led people to query the company’s apparent disinterest in the less-demanding NDI protocol.

NDI is hugely popular in markets which would probably like to use 2110 but can’t justify the cost, and its affordability and effectiveness seemed like a very Blackmagic approach. Instead, the company has launched a range of 2110-compatible equipment at prices clearly intended to ease adoption. The numbers, inevitably, aren’t quite competitive with NDI, because it’s hard to undercut a system which can fit several camera channels down a single Gigabit Ethernet link and route them using off the shelf, consumer equipment. Still, it was always the hope that technological progress would make 2110 more approachable as time went on, and Blackmagic’s work represents a significant step in that direction.

Anyone visiting the FotoKem lab in LA immediately after last year’s show would have found its 70mm line busy producing prints for a film which was referred to by the codename “Gadget,” which was also the codename for an early atomic bomb. No prizes, then, for guessing the public name of that production, which was itself only the latest in a series of big-ticket movies to use big formats. The term “large format” has been used to describe a lot of things, but in Vegas one big surprise was Old Fast Glass and its redressing of Fujifilm’s GFX 100 II medium-format mirrorless stills camera into a 65mm production camera. Some companies might have been taken aback by this, but Fujifilm was sufficiently forward-looking to invite OFG onto the booth and engage the positive publicity.

The sensor on the GFX 100 II is not quite as large as a 65mm film frame, but it was just one of several exhibits which pushed sheer size. It’s difficult not to return to Blackmagic and its announcement of a 17K large-format camera, but it’s far from the only big-picture vendor. Stroll down to the bottom of South Hall and we find Lasergraphics with its large-format scanner hard at work on a 70mm print. As we’ve already seen, little of this is really to do with a technical demand for quality; even modest modern cameras exceed the standard to which cinema audiences have been accustomed for almost a century. If camera equipment is haute couture, though, it seems that sensors are being worn large this year.

The situation provoked a lot of activity on NAB’s seminar tracks, too, with people from IMAX itself presenting with lots of good news about revenues and installations. At the same time, there’s a certain realism at play: not everything that goes to theatrical exhibition can be a Dune or an Oppenheimer, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the immediate future to include a lot more of this kind of thing.

Going any bigger, though, hits practicality problems, and it’s perhaps no surprise that the experience which felt biggest actually took place inside Apple’s Vision VR/AR device. While technically very capable, the hardware has suffered a rather muted reception, much in the vein of the virtual reality hardware which preceded it. Ateme’s demo was principally of its new VVC codec technology, and showed a persuasively crisp, clear view of someone doing stunts atop a dizzying mountain abyss. It’s 360-degree video, not a true volumetric 3D representation of a space, but it works well enough to induce genuine vertigo.

For volumetric video, we need to go and see V-Nova. The company’s main push has been for MPEG’s LCEVC, the low-complexity enhancement video codec, which is designed to add quality to broadcasts as an optional layer atop more conventional compression algorithms. Bringing new technologies to distribution inevitably engages issues of standardization and manufacturer adoption which can be very hard work, but the SBTVD Forum recently published a quality assessment performed as part of a deployment in Brazil which is to implement LCEVC.

It’s the company’s PresenZ point-cloud codec, though, which has the potential to encode vast spaces and represent them using Apple’s head-mounted display, something that would fit easily in a small backpack. In a year where the watchword of consumer entertainment seems to have been bigger, the zenith of achievement, then, seems to be smaller. The long term effects of all these next-generation ideas seems likely to be influenced at least as much by our desire to share an experience as it is by the technology used to create that experience. And, if that’s too much philosophy for a technical trade show, there’s never been a better time to take refuge in the idea that bigger is better, even at a time when the industry is still spinning up.

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