The Digital Film Camera

Founded in 1993 by engineer John Abt, AJA Video Systems, up until now, was known as the company with all of the converters, rackmount frames, I/O cards and, more recently, external recorders (Ki Pro series). Now they’re following in the footsteps of Blackmagic Design, who have had recent success in releasing a number of digital motion-picture cameras aimed at the indie filmmaker market. At NAB 2014, AJA announced their first camera, the CION, and although it has taken awhile to come to market, the CION generated a ton of buzz in the indie filmmaker community. As I’ve stressed many times before, there never has been a better time to own your camera, and with the release of the CION, there’s a significant new player in the indie film camera marketplace.

What’s even better is that AJA recently launched a "Summer of Savings" promotion, reducing the already low price of the CION to just $4,995 (down from $8,995). This new price puts the CION in line with a fully loaded cinema-ready DSLR, yet significantly lower than your standard digital cinema motion-picture camera that can cost in the tens of thousands. Like Blackmagic’s cameras, the CION gives you tremendous bang for your buck.

So what is this new camera, and why should you be interested? The CION is a production camera that lets you capture "ready-to-edit" 12-bit, 4:4:4 internally. AJA sent over a review unit with a Zeiss CP.2 50mm prime lens, and after shooting with it just for a few days, I was greatly impressed by its simplicity, design and, most importantly, image quality. Perhaps more than any camera I’ve tested, it offers the most film-style features, reminding me of the Super 16 cameras I used to shoot with back in the day.

Two third-party accessories you’ll need for the CION include an EVF and a battery support system. ABOVE: There are six menu buttons that give you access to camera settings, and you scroll through menus with a large, round knob.

CION Key SPECS

• Can record 4K, UHD, 2K, 1080p or 1080i
• 4K APS-C-sized (22.5×11.9mm) CMOS sensor; electronic global shutter
• Can capture Apple ProRes files onboard or output AJA Raw to external recorders or Thunderbolt RAID/laptops
• Comes standard with a PL mount that you can remove for use with third-party-mount adapters
• Exposure index is 320, 500, 800 and 1000
• Captures onboard files to proprietary AJA Pak media
• Four 3G-SDI main outputs, two 3G-SDI monitor outputs and two HDMI outputs

FORM FACTOR & OPERABILITY

At first glance, the CION has an incredibly simple and straightforward design that some might mistake for a lack of features. The camera’s sleek ergonomics is one of its biggest strengths, with a rectangular form factor more in line with the ARRI AMIRA rather than the box-like shape of the RED EPIC DRAGON or Blackmagic Production Camera 4K. Having recently tested the Blackmagic URSA, the most welcome aspect of the CION is its weight (6.4 pounds) compared to the URSA (16.32 pounds).

Because of its longer chassis, the CION can be shoulder-mounted, making it much easier to perform handheld shooting than compact cameras, where you have to hold it out in front of you—a difficult task for long takes. I also really liked the CION’s padded and contoured shoulder support at the bottom of the camera, which made the camera more comfortable to shoot with. With the top Handle Grip accessory—included as standard, as well as the Handle Mount—I found it easy just to grab the camera, sling it over my shoulder, press record and shoot. I also used an extension arm and contoured handle to balance the camera with my right hand. (The extension arm and handle aren’t included.)

THIRD-PARTY NEEDS

Although the CION has a low price, you’ll have to drop some more dough to get it up and running. Although I love that AJA went all in on releasing a true cinema-style camera, they took a chance by releasing the CION with a standard PL mount instead of EF since most low-budget filmmakers already own Canon glass. The good news is that the PL mount can be easily removed to use third-party lens mounts for almost any lens. With a B4-mount adapter and a high-quality ENG zoom lens, because of its ergonomics, the CION can easily be used for sports or doc-style shooting.

Like most digital cinema cameras, the one thing you’re going to need is a third-party viewfinder. Since EVFs are out of AJA’s wheelhouse, it was smart of them to let you choose the viewfinder you’re most comfortable with, whether it’s the F&V SpectraHD 4 and Loupe Kit ($1,299) that AJA sent over with the review unit or the new Gratical HD Micro OLED EVF from Zacuto ($3,100).

Also, unlike a DSLR, you’re going to need a third-party battery support system. I used an Anton/Bauer Dionic HC Lithium-Ion battery. Although more expensive and heavier, a professional battery solution is going to power your 4K workflow system, which is something you don’t cut corners with.

The CION is a production camera that lets you capture edit-ready 12-bit, 4K ProRes files and comes standard with a PL mount.

Along with the EVF and battery system, another expense you may need to take on—especially if you shoot with cinema lenses—is a matte box. The CION doesn’t contain an internal ND wheel system, so you’re going to need ND filters to shoot in bright settings.

SETTING A LOOK

The CION’s menu is simple and intuitive to use, but doesn’t contain many of the bells and whistles a lot of new touch-screen menu systems have. But in regard to menu navigation, simple isn’t a bad thing. To develop your look in-camera, there are six menu buttons that give you access to camera settings, which include STATUS, CONFIG, MEDIA, FPS, EI (Exposure Index) and WB (White Balance). To navigate through the menus, on the left side of the buttons, you simply press and scroll menu selections with a large, round knob.

Before you shoot frame one, it’s wise to figure out which format is best suited for your project and whether or not you need to shoot 4K or UHD. AJA was one of the first companies to embrace an Apple ProRes workflow (the Ki Pro series all record ProRes). Using AJA’s Pak Media, you can capture ProRes 4444 (up to 30 fps), 422 HQ, 422, 422 LT and 422 Proxy. In my experience, ProRes 4444 files are indistinguishable to uncompressed files, and the CION can capture ProRes files onboard. For this reason, I’m going to guess the majority of CION shooters will capture ProRes files rather than outputting AJA Raw due to cost factors. Compared with onboard capture from cameras like the FS7, you’re actually recording a higher-quality codec in ProRes with more bit-depth than Sony’s 10-bit, 422, 50 Mbps XAVC-I. (For my tests, I shot ProRes 4444 UHD files at 23.98 fps.)

The CION was built from the ground up as a digital film camera, so you have to set your exposure index value. One of the shortcomings of the CION is that it doesn’t perform well in low light like many of the new mirrorless camera systems, such as the Sony a7S. Part of the reason why is that the CION contains a global shutter rather than a rolling shutter. Like a film camera, with the CION’s global shutter, you get a more accurate motion profile other than the jello effect you get from a full-frame-sensor camera with a rolling shutter. The CION offers EI values of 320, 500, 800 and 1000. In other words, you’re going to need a lot of light. For narrative cinematographers, this is a given, but for doc-style shooters who work mainly in available light, the CION may not be the camera for you unless you shoot mainly daytime exteriors. For outdoor daylight scenes, I shot at 320. For indoor shooting, 800 held up pretty well, although at 1000 EI, it was difficult to get a good exposure with practical lights.

The next thing you have to take into consideration is your gamma setting, which is also found in the EI section. There you have a choice of Normal, Normal Expanded, Expanded 1, Video and Disabled. In the WB menu section, you can create a couple of looks in regard to color correction, including Normal, Flat, Skin Tones and Video. If you’re a cinematographer who likes to set your look in-camera—bringing more control through the post pipeline—you’re probably going to want to use the Video gamma setting with Skin Tone color correction, especially when working with actors. The Video gamma setting produces blacks and colors with a bit more contrast, and the Skin Tone color-correction setting produces less saturation in skin tone values for a more natural (less video-like) look. If you expose correctly and select the right color temperature, you’ll save a lot of time in post.

If you’re a filmmaker who will have ample time in post for color grading and you don’t have total lighting control over your location (e.g., a contrasty day exterior), you’ll probably want to set your gamma setting to Expanded 1 with Flat color correction. The Expanded 1 gamma setting increases latitude—similar to Sony S-Log and Canon Log—and lets you build the exact look you want in your color grade. The Flat color tool gives you less saturation while still providing a warm feel to your images. For my tests, I added warmth, contrast and a Cinematic 1 Lumetri Look in Adobe SpeedGrade.

POST WORK

The CION’s post workflow was a cinch—simply eject your AJA Pak from your camera, insert into your Pak dock connected via Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 to your computer, and drag an "AJA" folder onto your desktop or external drive. If you captured ProRes files, you’re good to go, with no need to do any transcoding. As I indicated earlier, shooting indoors at 800 EI, my captured image looked a bit underexposed, but I was surprised by the amount of shadow detail I was able to lift without generating too much image noise—far better results than a 4K DSLR’s compressed H.264 or H.265 codec.

Unlike the Blackmagic URSA, Canon EOS C300 Mark II and ARRI AMIRA, instead of CFast 2.0 media cards, the CION uses the same AJA proprietary Pak media as the Ki Pro Quad system. At the moment, there’s currently 256 GB ($695 MSRP) and 512 GB ($1,295 MSRP) SSDs available, plus the Pak Dock ($395 MSRP). This is pretty much in line with the cost of a CFast 2.0 card and cheaper than Sony’s XQD cards. But because of the proliferation of cameras that employ CFast 2.0 media, the price of CFast 2.0 cards will drop consistently faster than AJA Pak media.

CONCLUSION

Just shooting with the CION for a few days, I can easily say it’s one of the best low-budget digital cinema cameras I’ve tested. If you think of it more like a film camera—and less like a compact DSLR or mirrorless camera—you’re going to capture truly cinematic images. At the moment, the cameras the CION will be most compared to are the Blackmagic URSA and the Sony FS7. (The upcoming Blackmagic URSA Mini also will be compared when it’s released.) Although the URSA can capture Raw Cinema ENG files internally, its weight and ergonomics make it more of a studio camera not suitable for run-and-gun use. The FS7 ($7,999 MSRP) is a great 4K run-and-gun camera—it also includes an LCD/EVF—but what I like about the CION is its ability to capture ProRes 4444, as well as its native PL mount for professional cine lens use. (The FS7 contains a Sony E-mount.)

For $5,000 for the camera body, at the moment, there’s simply no better indie camera around. Well done, AJA!

For more information on the CION, visit www.aja.com/cion.

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