A decade ago, the original Panasonic AJ-HDC27 VariCam was a ground-breaking technical achievement. It was the first 2⁄3-inch-CCD, high-definition production camera that was capable of variable frame rates. Featuring frame rates that were selectable from 4 fps to 60 fps in single-frame increments, the camera could also change frame rates during recording, allowing for in-camera speed ramps. Besides the VariCam’s frame-rate tricks, the original camera was known for its very cinematic, organic look that gained favor with many DPs and directors.
During the interim, between the tape-based AJ-HDC27 and the latest version, Panasonic introduced the AJ-HPX2700 and AJ-HPX3700. Both were P2-based cameras, but the 2700 was a 720p camera, and the 3700 could only record a maximum of 30 fps in 1080. The market also has changed since the first two generations of VariCam, as 2⁄3-inch, three-CCD cameras have been relegated mostly to the ENG and sports markets. Today’s hottest cameras mostly utilize a single Super 35 imager instead of three 2⁄3-inch imagers. In today’s era of the RED EPIC DRAGON, the ARRI ALEXA and the Sony F55, what could Panasonic do to differentiate itself in the high-end production camera market?
Panasonic went to the drawing board and started with a clean sheet of paper. The new VariCams (more on that plural "s" in a moment) are plainly ground-breaking in design strategy and execution. The camera is a modular system that features a recording unit that can interface with either of two new camera heads. The new VariCam 35 is 4K-capable, of course. The 4K camera module unit (AU-V35C1) is separate, but dockable to the recording module unit (AU-VREC1) to form an integrated S35 4K camera capable of recording up to 120 fps in 4K. The VariCam 35 utilizes a new Panasonic Super 35mm MOS sensor for 4096×2160 (17:9) 4K image capture, and when combined with the AVC-ULTRA 4K codecs, it allows for practical 4K production file sizes while retaining high-quality images. The VariCam 35 also has an impressive 14+ stops of latitude.
So why offer two different camera heads? The VariCam HS (High Speed) offers the clue in its name. The HS head utilizes three newly developed 1920x1080p MOS imagers with 14 stops of dynamic range. The HS camcorder’s key features are real-time high-frame-rate and off-speed recording to 240 fps in 1080p (using AVC-Intra Class100), plus the ability to ramp frame rates during recording. The VariCam HS is essentially a new, state-of-the-art reinterpretation of the classic first-generation, tape-based AJ-HDC27 VariCam.
"With VariCam V1, we introduced a camera with variable frame rates and a very appealing sort of image," says Steve Mahrer, senior technologist, Panasonic North America. "Fast-forward a few years later to the P2 VariCams. We had the 2700 and the 3700. The image quality was superb, and the features were nicely received, and the cameras recorded to P2 media. When we looked at what we could do for the latest version of the VariCam, we knew it had to have an S35 sensor, it had to have 4K. We also had the 2⁄3-inch market for sports and live broadcast, which we felt was underserved. So we worked on the modular concept to try to better serve both markets. People seem very excited about the dockable concept. So much production is now done with cranes, helicopters and planes, dash cams, and this modular design is appealing to many of these users."
As far as codecs, the VariCam 35 can output 4K RAW, 4K, UHD, 2K and HD, and can encode in AVC-ULTRA and ProRes codecs. The camera has four memory card slots, two 256 GB expressP2 and two microP2 cards. The expressP2 card can record up to 90 minutes of 4K/422 content. Interfaces include 3G-HD-SDI x4 for 4K QUAD output, an HD-SDI out for monitoring (downconverting from 4K), a dedicated VF HD-SDI output complete with all of the EVF status and display data, and two XLR inputs to record four channels of 24-bit, 48 KHz audio. The VariCam 35 package has a suggested list price of $55,000, while the VariCam HS has a list price of $46,000, so clearly, Panasonic is aiming at the higher end of the market. While the specifications are impressive, the VariCam 35 has a considerable array of new features, innovations and workflow considerations that aren’t apparent at first glance.