Panasonic VariCam 35: First Impressions

Recently at Visual Impact we had Panasonic come in and demo their flagship 4K Varicam 35 and Varicam HS. We had a sneak peak at the camera back in the Summer, which was quite a treat. This past week Panasonic came in to our Teddington base, to demonstrate their new VariCam 35 and VariCam HS cameras for the first time.

At first when I heard, they are coming in to show the camera, I didn't know what to expect. I had seen some images and videos from NAB, but since then not much. I remember way back in 2012 at NAB, Panasonic teased us with a VariCam mock-up/prototype of sorts, which they kept at bay encased in a glass cage, as some sort of mythical ornament. As time passed since then, we didn't hear much from Panasonic about the new Varicam. Speculations were running wild as to whether they've abandoned the project or focused elsewhere.

We'll, it turns out Panasonic have been working hard behind closed doors and taking their time talking to industry professionals, listening to feedback and market demands. A lot changed in 2 years in the broadcast and film industry. If 4K acquisition was knocking on the door in 2012, two years later in 2014 it's not only entered, but in certain segments dominated the market.

More and more content in the high-end commercial market, pop promos and feature films is being acquired in 4K, despite the fact that in most cases clients demand delivery in HD or 2K for cinema projection.

Even though the finished working model I got a chance to play with didn't feel that different from the 2012 NAB prototype, at least not in the modular design concept. It would take a long time and a very long post for me to list all features of the new 4K VariCam 35 and the HS, or as Panasonic calls it the “high-speed” 2/3 Varicam.

So, I'll just focus on the few, I believe are either unique to this camera or a must have feature for a digital cinema camera of this range. Before, I walked into the demo room, I thought there'd be a grand unveiling with the Varicam 35 of sorts. I thought the camera would still in be in a glass casing, covered with drape, and all of a sudden the man Panasonic sent all the way from Japan would unveil the 9th wonder of the (4K) world in a spectacular fashion under some epic symphony and fanfare.

Far from it. There I walk in and I see the camera wired up on a massive tripod. It's out in the open. No glass casing, no fanfare, no fluff, no gimmicks - just a working model of the long-awaited Panasonic 4K flagship. And I think that was the point they were trying to make – it's here, and it works.

The Varicam 35 and HS (sitting quietly on a different set of sticks on the side) was just as impressive to see and play with in person, as it was on the brochure that was awaiting me on my chair. At first I thought it looked quite futuristic. It's black and it's made out of (mostly) metal, looking like it came out of Bruce Wayne's bat cave, more than out of Panasonic's lab.

Sporting the same modular design as on the prototype we saw 2 years ago behind the glass, the new Varicam 35 has all the professional features such as rugged I/O connectivity, Super 35mm sized CMOS sensor, and workflow options that made my head spin a bit from all the information overload the snappy dressed man from Japan was throwing at us. It felt like Panasonic had so much to tell us about the inner-working of this camera the've been developing for a long time, it felt like a technical triathlon trying to absorb it all.

Panasonic, obviously very proud of their achievement, shared some very interesting facts about the camera. They spent quite a bit of time coming up with a brand new Super 35mm sized CMOS sensor from the ground up to put at the heart of this 4K beast. Bragging 14 stops of dynamic range with a base ISO of 800 (or 640) by the time it starts shipping later in the year, looks like Panasonic have their basis covered here. Anything less than 14 stops DR would have been looked at as putting a V6 engine in a Ferrari, and for a camera that gets top billing, an Achilles heel.

Thankfully, this is a proper V8 engine – the only way to go in a camera of this size and range. Nowadays you can't even shot up on a large scale professional feature film production, or a major TV drama, high-end commercials or high-end broadcast programme where image quality is paramount, with an acquisition tool which lacks in DR and sensor size.

Standard PL mount in front, no surprises there. It's mounted on a stainless steel plate, which can withstand lenses up to 25 lbs, so that Angenieux Optimo 24-290 T2.8 should sit comfortably with its 24 lbs weight. The sensor housing is stainless steel as well, as to provide better heat dissipation and to keep it locked in place at heat levels above optimum operating temperature.

With all the horsepower under the hood, the 2 massive vents on the side provide an escape for the heat generated by the internal core of the camera. On feature, that was something I didn't expect to see is a back-focus adjustment with a single screw – a user adjustable back focus.

A first on cameras in the range, and something very unique to the Varicam system. And one should look at the (2) Varicam's as a system, as it comes in two configurations:

- 4K Super 35mm Camera module (or a head) – what in essence is the VariCam 35

- A “High-Speed” 2/3 type 1080p HD head – or the VariCam HS Both the heads record onto the same module.

The idea behind the modular concept being, you can swap the camera (sensor) heads and use the same recording module. Also, detaching the head and using it on a jib or a crane is an option (tethered only, at the moment) benefiting fro the modular design.

Looking on the operator side of the camera, the control interface sports a very similar and ergonomic design seen on a very popular camera made by a legendary camera manufacturer from Germany. It makes perfect sense to utilise a design with proper knobs and dedicated buttons for main functions, because it simply works, and on a high-end camera such as the Varicam, Frame range, White Balance, ISO and other key functions need dedicated one touch buttons and can't be buried inside an insanely complicated menu structure spanning ten pages or so.

The unique bit here though is that the control interface is also detachable. I can see this feature being used by AC's when the camera is in tight spaces or on a dolly or at an awkward low-angle. Probably done so AC's don't have to break their backs, but whatever the case, this is a genius feature, and I can't fathom why we haven't seen it earlier on other cameras.

The removable LCD control panel, once detached, is tethered via a cable about 5 feet, at least that's what the Japanese engineer demoed to us. Moving over to the 1280 x 720p OLED EVF I noticed it had an optical zoom. Again, a smile on my face, as I pressed a button on the side and the image adjusted forwards and backwards revealing an extra area over the menus, which can be very useful, and a blessing for ensuring the sound recordist has some space before his boom mic drops into frame.

I am starting to appreciate good viewfinders more and more after experiencing the one on the new Varicam 35. So what about 4K and 4K Raw? That's the next big thing right? Well, that may very well be, but it's no good if the camera can do just one flavour. It's kind of like ice cream to me.

Plain chocolate or vanilla is no good. So it makes sense for the VariCam 35 to do 4K on-board in both 4096x2160p DCI-compliant resolution for cinema and Quad/UHD 3840x2160p resolution for broadcast. In-camera, the VariCam 35 can do 4K/UHD up to 120fps in AVC-ULTRA (data rates around 400mbps, which are manageable enough) as well as 2K in AVC-Intra 100, and 1080p in AVC-Intra 200 at variable frame rates. 4K/2K/HD footage is recorded on expressP2 cards (2 slots), with simultaneous HD/Proxy recording on 2 x microP2 cards for a flexible and efficient workflow.

The VariCam HS is limited to 1080p and optimised for 2/3 type lenses, but it's blazing fast with frame rates up to 240fps. Recording options (minus 4K/2K) are the same as on the Super 35mm 4K version.

On the back of the VariCam 35, it doesn't get any more pro, than having 4 x 3G/HD-SDI outputs for 4K Raw capture up to 60fps which is done via a dedicated Codex external raw recorder. The 4K Raw is 12bit 4:4:4 for the gear-heads out there. Additional dual XLR inputs providing industry standard 24bit LPCM audio recording as well as dedicated HD-SDI out for external monitoring, time code, and genlock complete the package.

Overall, I could say that I am very much in love with this camera. It's as high-end and as versatile as it gets for both Cinema and Broadcast production. I'm glad to see Panasonic taking a no-nonsense approach to their “top dog” camera – S35 sensor, PL mount, rugged metal construction, modular design, all the professional connectivity you would need, multiple flavours of 4K/2K and solid HD on a reliable media, in a package that doesn't weight 50 kg's.

It actually weights less than expected – around 14 pounds barebones. Fully rigged – probably doubled, but still manageable. Still, it ticks all the boxes I would expect from a top camera, and yes maybe 16bit 444 4K raw out the back would have been a better option.

Additionally, some sort of a compressed 4K Raw in-camera recording option – probably perfect, but that's a word I'd rather avoid when talking about cameras. As no such thing exists. It simply comes down to ticking all the right boxes. For me the VariCam 35 does all that.

The VariCam 35/HS is to make an appearance at IBC in Amsterdam next month, and is due to ship later in the Fall. Panasonic are still finalising the price, and we'll keep you updated as to when that happens as well as any other news around the 4K Panasonic flagship.