Going For The Gold

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In part two of our high-speed cinematography series, we take a more in-depth look at the Phantom HD high-speed camera from Vision Research. Recently, the Phantom HD camera has evolved into the second-generation Phantom HD GOLD, which improves overall handling and image quality.

But first a recap: The Phantom HD camera offers high-definition, high-speed capture with adjustable frame rates up to 1052 fps in HD (at 1920×1080 resolution) and a top shutter speed of 1/500,000 second. The camera can be used for a wide variety of imaging needs, including work on commercials, music videos, documentaries and sporting events. Its 2048×2048 CMOS sensor also can pump out 555 fps at full resolution, often plenty for the average high-speed shoot. There are currently over 130 Phantom HDs in the field around the world. The unit can be configured for live broadcast work with a continuous video output that includes 720p, 1080p and 1080i HD standards. The size and weight of the camera make it very useful for Steadicam, as well. Many Hollywood features are now using the Phantom camera, including Sherlock Holmes, Zombieland and The Green Hornet, the latter using anamorphic lenses for 2:40 ratio explosions and fight scenes.

"We sell into two markets at the highest level," explains Rick Robinson, division VP of marketing at Vision Research. "One is a market of scientists and engineers who are using the camera to acquire images that they use for data analysis, and the second market tends to be artists that are in the television or motion-picture production business. By having two different sets of customers with both demanding, yet different requirements, we’re able to provide both the requirements to the other. In other words, the people on the motion-picture side get the benefits of cameras with tight specs, good timing, synchronization capability and a very robust rugged design. People on the scientific and engineering side get cameras with the ultimate in image quality and with a very good workflow."

The new Phantom HD GOLD upgrades the unit’s hardware and firmware to improve the stability and quality of its captured image. "In essence, the image is now more stable, plus the upgrade contains updated memory cards and other internal circuitry," explains Robinson.

The CMOS sensor is still the REV-B chip (the earlier REV-A chip was present only in the first dozen or so Phantoms made). "The REV-B upgrade already improved the MTF [modular transfer function], and we also went to a different color-filter-array supplier to improve the image," adds Robinson. "There was a separate upgrade to the REV-B when it came out in 2008."

Vision Research listened to feedback from Phantom users for its GOLD upgrade. Relatively minor, but valid annoyances were fixed as a result, including the behavior of on-camera knobs and switches. Tweaks such as tighter springs and tougher knobs were fixed for a better overall feel.

The guts of the camera have obviously received the most attention on the GOLD. Fairly expansive firmware and hardware upgrades have improved the quality and stability of the image. "The REV-B sensor and the GOLD upgrade have resulted in a much crisper, much better image," offers L.A.-based, high-speed camera technician Michael May (The Green Hornet). "The heat issues have also been addressed because these kind of cameras are susceptible to it. It’s a sealed unit, but the beauty is that you can monitor the interior temperature of the camera."