Rule Boston Camera just received the Panasonic AG-3DA1 camcorder which I decided to take out this long weekend for a test drive. The camera is similar in shape and weight to the Panasonic HPX170 camera with the exception of its dual lens and longer lens hood. The camera is lightweight and has the core features of most camcorders with the exception that it shoots 3D and has dual HD-SDI outputs. The 3DA1 uses dual SDHC cards to record media with one card for left eye and one for right eye. One of the great things about choosing SDHC cards is that they fairly plentiful and inexpensive. Tracking down an HD deck with dual HD-SDI inputs is difficult and expensive so this camera embodies simplicity and ease of use by going with common media. Since the camera records AVCHD codec (MPEG4/H.264), SDHC cards are more than fast enough to write to and even a class 4 card will work. Each card is given a channel and fed time code so it stays in sync in post when locking up left and right channels. The camera has three methods of output, dual HD-SDI, HDMI 1.3 and cards via a card reader to transfer. There are no analog outputs for composite, component or S-video. Audio is handled via the on-board stereo mic or via two XLR audio inputs. Audio is embedded on the HD-SDI and HDMI and can be monitored via a 3.5 mini headphone jack on the back of the camera. The built-in mic picked up a fair amount of noise during testing so an external mic is essential especially if used on-set indoors.
First, I would like to say that if you have ever shot anything in 3D before with either a side-to-side or beam-splitter rig, you’ll find that this camera is very easy to use. Unlike the aforementioned rigs, you don’t need to worry about adjusting two lenses simultaneously for focus, zoom and iris. Left and right eyes must match in focal length, focus and zoom or the 3D effect is blown, so a lot of control is required with traditional rigs. The 3DA1 lenses are electronically and mechanically linked so focus, zoom and iris are tied automatically without the need for external hardware. The AG-3DA1 allows you the freedom to focus without the technicalities of 3D inhibiting the creative process (to an extent). With all that being said, this camera is not a run-and-gun camcorder. If your shots are not locked down but stationary, it will work fine. If you plan on Steadicam, dolly shots, zooming or any movement with the camera, you must plan for it in advance. You have the ability on the camera to dial in convergence (where the optical axes of the left and right lenses converge) which allows you to dictate what is in the foreground and what is in the background — providing a sense of depth. While this ability is great, if it goes unplanned your shots could become unusable because the left and right eye are separate channels and not multiplexed together. This can be corrected later (to a degree). Something else to consider is that the convergence adjustment utilizes the same dial as iris and is switchable, so you cannot adjust iris and convergence at the same time. As long as you plan for this it should not be a problem, but if you are shooting from room-to-room or outdoors-to-indoors, for example, you should plan on remaining equidistant to the subject at all times so you can adjust exposure without affecting convergence. There is a mix feature on the camera that will allow you to display left and right channels superimposed onto the swing-out viewfinder. This allows you to see any convergence adjustments you make that you might not otherwise see when monitoring on a single channel.
The Panasonic AG-3DA1 features I’m bringing to light are not to dissuade you, but to keep you informed so you can plan properly. The camera features a slower boot time than most camcorders (approximately six seconds). This could potentially be an issue but doesn’t really pertain to commercial work or feature work where the camera is turned on well in advance to shooting. The camera features two 3CCD 1/4.1″ chips, so if you are planning to shoot indoors, you will need to consider a light kit due to the nature of the smaller sensors. Noise in 3D is not pretty and can be very distracting, so it is imperative to have as much light as possible so you are not shooting at the lower threshold of the lens and sensors capabilities. The sweet spot seems to be f/5.6 and higher on the lens. Because the lenses are smaller there seems to be a bit more chromatic aberration than on an HPX170 for example. This can have a large impact if you plan on shooting for Anaglyph Amber Blue or Cyan Magenta as it will pop on the screen. There are post tools to reduce this, but, again, well-planned shooting and monitoring on set are probably the best ways to combat any potential issues. You should plan on using a Kesson 50′ measuring tape or equivalent on location as the minimal focal distance of the 3DA1 is only 3’97” but the reference plane adjustment range for convergence adjustment starts at 7’2″ and goes to infinity. You have to keep this in mind when shooting in order to maximize the 3D depth control as much as possible. The camera does a fair amount of control on its own but the convergence adjustment is on the user to adjust if you want your footage to have any real depth to it. There is a convergence display on the LCD that shows C00-C99 as a guide but its is only for rough estimation, and it is not accurate. It also does not correlate to any system of real measurement. The higher the number, the further away it is. I tried to figure out a way to calculate based on these numbers but it never seemed accurate when using the camera day-after-day. I used the shot marker whenever I racked convergence so that I would have a reference point in post when viewing in 2D single channel. The convergence dial that shares Iris is small but usable and takes some getting used too. After the second day of shooting, I got the hang of switching from iris to convergence and using the dial for both without taking my eye off the viewfinder, but it took a fair amount of practice. There is also a button that will turn on 3D guide display, but, again, this is only for rough estimation, and it has no accurate distance of measurement built in. Zooming with the camera requires manual convergence adjustment to keep your subject depth accurate. This is not automatically handled in the camera. It is highly recommended that you rent a 3D capable monitor if you rent this camera. If you plan on shooting well and if you measure everything out, this is less of an issue, but realistically there is more to consider than just distances and convergence. Another potential issue: reflections and highlights which in the 3D world really pop on the screen and can be distracting, ruining your shot. There were several shots I did that in 2D looked great, but when shot in 3D they were blown. If I had monitored on location with a 3D monitor like the Panasonic BT-3DL2550, a 25.5″ 3D LCD I would have caught these highlights immediately in order to see which adjustments could be made to correct them. This monitor will be available in the Rental inventory soon. This next point might seem obvious, but, because both cards record simultaneously, you cannot eject a card while shooting or your shot will be lost. In a world of cameras that shoot dual solid state media, many people forget that you must treat the two cards as one card. Luckily the cards are located behind a locked plastic door which will keep you from accidentally pushing into and ejecting a card. The next major consideration when using the camera is post-production. In my test case I used CineForm Neo 3D via FirstLight rather than as a plug-in on a MacPro 8-Core with 16GB of RAM. A decent amount of RAM is a good idea especially if you are making adjustments and want to have real-time playback in the viewer. Neo 3D works directly with the AG-3DA1 and allows you to bring in right and left channels independently. The main benefit of Neo 3D is that you can work with your footage in post without having a 3D monitor if you choose anaglyph and if you have the appropriate 3D glasses to match. Luckily 3D glasses are trendy again and you can find them almost anywhere! My local gas station sells cyan magenta glasses for $1. I picked up a pair and they worked perfectly. Once in Firstlight you can select side by side, stacked, fields, onion skin, difference, anaglyph cyan magenta, anaglyph black and white, anaglyph amber blue, etc. You can also swap eyes, monitor in 2D or just use left or right eye views. In passive mode you can adjust parallax using the built-in vectorscope which you can also burn into the video. Working in the 3D tab of Cineform Neo 3D, you can adjust horizontal and vertical which can correct any convergence mistakes that might have been made in addition to depth tilt. This is all keyframe-able as well. There is also correction for primary curves on the encode and decode as well as Debayering and basic looks that can be assigned to the footage. If you do not have Cineform Neo 3D there are other solutions that will work such as the Quantel Pablo, Avid Media Composer (3.5 and up), Final Cut Studio (with plug-ins), Iridas, Dashwood 3D toolbox, Adobe and others. A plug-in for CineForm Neo3D for Adobe will be released within a few months.
To sum up the experience, the Panasonic AG-3DA1 was great to work with. Again I cannot reiterate enough the importance of being prepared in advance with pre-production, production and post-production well thought-out before shooting. This should be the case with any shoot but more so with the special considerations of 3D. The idea of a 3D camera that can be used with little to no crew is unheard of and the 3DA1’s small form factor allows for shots you could only get with a SI-3D rig. If you are planning to shoot 3D but have no experience with 3D beam-splitter rigs or side-by-side rigs, and if you have a small budget, you really should check-out the AG-3DA1 camera. You, too, can make a 3D feature, short, commercial, web project or spot without significant training or budget. The Panasonic AG-3DA1 is now available in Rentals. Mike Sutton, Senior Account Manager Twitter: @MNS1974