Panasonic was the first pioneer of nonlinear motion-picture cameras with the legendary AG-HVX200, a camcorder released over a decade ago that quickly attracted the attention of filmmakers for its progressive capture on 3CCD 1/3-inch sensors. Once larger-sensor cameras made it to marketplace, however, Panasonic soon found itself at the back of the pack. February 2014 saw Panasonic return to the scene with the release of its VariCam 35, a robust studio camera with a Super 35mm MOS image sensor capable of 4K capture. But Panasonic soon found itself behind the pack yet again, as competitors offered smaller, more compact options in 4K.
In March of this year, Panasonic stepped up to the plate again, introducing yet another game changer with the VariCam LT 4K S35 camera, a compact, lightweight design for the burgeoning 4K market. A week before the official release of the new VariCam LT, I received a call from Doug Leighton, the Panasonic Cinema sales rep in Los Angeles. He asked if I’d be willing to shoot some test footage for demonstration purposes. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity, and here’s an overview of what I discovered.
First and foremost, the camera’s ability to capture skin tones, latitude and color palette was tested. At a list price of $18K ($24K with body and AU-VCVF10G viewfinder), the VariCam LT features a Super 35 17:9 sensor offering 4K (4096×2160) or UHD (3840×2160) recording. We used a modern lightweight system to move the camera around, with cinematographer Graham Futerfas stepping in to assist using his Freefly MoVi M15 system with Ready Rig vest. The VariCam LT fit into the MoVi M15 like a glove, in both normal and overslung positions, and we shot for over 10 hours with multiple setups and no issues.
In its most compact setup with viewfinder, short prime and follow focus, the VariCam LT was notably small enough to easily shoot footage from inside a vehicle’s passenger seat. This allowed for full ability to pan, look out the windshield and back toward the driver. This package even allowed for easy exit from the car with everything on the DPs shoulder to capture continuous shots.
The viewfinder is notably bright, crisp and very pleasing to the eye, with pertinent information available in screen. I’d venture to say the viewfinder is almost as impressive as the camera itself. The VariCam LT also has the ability of being a two-type ISO camera, set in 800 ISO native or 5000 ISO native. Within each setting, it’s possible to alter your ISO further—to a lower rating of 200 for the 800 ISO base and 12800 for the 5000 ISO base.
Furthermore, the VariCam LT offers a remarkable range of color temp settings from a low of 2000K to a whopping 15000K, allowing filmmakers to let their imaginations run wild. For scenes shot at 800 ISO, both color and latitude were exceptional, almost astounding, at times. When the camera’s color temperature was set to 2500K, it wasn’t just for aesthetic reasons, but because the blue temperature is the noisiest in the color spectrum and so perfect for examination.
One shot of the VariCam LT looking into a mirror reflecting sunlight was truly remarkable. There was no clipping, with highlights just rolling off into white. Within this shot was an unlit shadow, and with no bounce cards or lights, you could clearly see dust particles dancing and floating around in the air. Just this one shot alone is an amazing feat in digital image capture.
Pushing the camera further, I made a concerted effort to flare the image on various Leica Summicron lenses, analyzing how well the sensor handled severely corrupted images from a 2K Par lit directly into the lens. Yet again, the VariCam LT came through, scene after scene. Even with a hazer to diffuse the light, the camera continued to shine with plenty of contrast and pop.
We also tested different frame rates, cranking the camera up to its fastest 4K speed of 60 fps. At this rate, it records at a different codec, a variable of the AVC-Intra 4K-LT, but execution was simple and footage seamlessly matched the 24 fps AVC-Intra; 240 fps is also possible on the camera at 2K (2048×1080 or 1920×1080). While this resolution is sometimes undesirable, screened footage of the AVC-Intra 2K-LT at 120 fps on a 4K projector was impressive.
We returned to shoot more scenes inside the car, easily flipping the camera to 5000 ISO before enhancing the dashboard with some tiny LED strips. We also visited the streets of Los Angeles’ Chinatown to shoot late at night. This turned out to be the perfect ISO shooting at ƒ/2.8-4, capturing excellent exposure both inside the car, as well as outside on the streets. Color rendering and skin tones were excellent, with clean black levels. There’s grain, to be sure, but it honestly feels organic, no digital noise or artifacting, as seen in many digital cameras today.
As with any new camera, there’s a learning curve, especially with the menu. However, although the onboard controller feels intimidating at first, it quickly turned into an intuitive exercise, with the menu soon becoming easy to navigate. Large Home and Exit buttons made for quick resets on the camera, while the onboard controller was also useful as a monitor offering waveform and vector scope.
Gathering footage after the shoot, it was clear that a post workflow must be established, as Panasonic is rolling out codecs and updates faster than many can adapt. Currently, of note, DaVinci Resolve can easily read every codec the VariCam LT offers. Also of note, RAW output from SDI is planned to be supported by a firmware upgrade from Panasonic this summer.
Panasonic’s VariCam LT 4K is, to be sure, a real game changer, in my mind. With more and more demand for content originating in 4K, this camera offers the discerning cinematographer exceptional options with amazing end results. To further underline the importance of its camera, Panasonic is currently creating a Cinema division to support the needs of the professional cinema market—a comforting footnote for those embracing 4K filmmaking.
In the end, we captured footage that not only pushed the limits of the camera, but also revealed how the camera could be used in exceptional ways as a storytelling tool.
For more information about the VariCam LT, visit us.panasonic.com/varicam. Jimmy Matlosz’s short film shot for Panasonic is entitled “The Online Date.” Visit theonlinedate.net for updates and clips from the film, as well as more sample footage from the new camera.