Hardware Review- Panasonic AGDVX100 / Sony PD-150

January 20, 2002

Panasonic AGDVX100 / Sony PD-150 Comparison Shoot
by Noah Kadner



The arrival of the Panasonic AG-DVX100 camera heralds an exciting new chapter in the indie production world. To many eyes, the 24-frame progressive format represents video technology's closest approximation of the aesthetic qualities of motion picture film. For the first time, 24p acquisition is available in an affordable DV camera. As an independent producer and director, I wanted to find learn how this camera performed in a real world production environment. I also wanted to see how the DVX100 would measure up to the Sony PD150, an acknowledged favorite among independent DV features. Finally, I wanted to see how material from both cameras would look once transferred to 35mm film.

David Mullen was kind enough to volunteer his time as the cinematographer for this shoot. David is uniquely qualified for this test, having shot many features on film as well as a handful on professional HD 24p equipment such as the Sony HDW F-900. Michael Horton from 2-pop and the Los Angeles Final Cut Pro User Group also jumped on board to line up extra help and equipment donations.

We set up a typical interior dialogue scene in a bar at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood. Our crew and lighting package were small, reflecting the normal constraints of indie production. The equipment consisted of a couple of KinoFlo 4-foot 4 banks, some Kino singles, and two 150 watt Dedolight kits donated by KinoFlo. We also had a dolly, jib arm and monitor donated by Promax. Everyone who worked on the one-day shoot was generous enough to do so as a volunteer.

The DVX100 was set up in the 24p advanced mode, Cine Gamma, Cine Matrix and thin vertical resolution. As an experiment, David created a separate scene file for shooting tighter close-ups on the DVX100 where the sharpness was set almost to the lowest setting, instead of using any diffusion filters, for a softer look. The PD150 was set in 60i mode, with default sharpness and gamma settings. Since neither camera has native 16:9, we shot both in 4:3 while masking off the widescreen area on the camera viewfinders and our production monitor for latter matting in post.

Whenever possible we tried to align both cameras so that they were filming nearly identical shots for each take. We used our large production monitor to do A/B comparisons on set to guarantee similar shot sizes and exposure settings. On the monitor, the aesthetic effect of shooting 24p mode on the DVX100 was immediately noticeable in contrast to the more traditional 60i video look of the PD150. While the PD150 gave a more saturated color palette, the DVX100 looked more like film not just in motion reproduction, but tonal values. David felt that the DVX100 had more detail in the shadows and a smoother look in general, a little less harsh and edgy-looking compared to the PD150. For an indie director like me, that signature look was a welcome and exciting achievement.

We did discover some potentially major issues while shooting with the DVX100. David's strongest complaint was the DVX100's lens and its lack of certain crucial manual controls. Focus was a constant problem. The DVX100 provides a typical 'infinity servo' type of focus. This means you can turn the focus ring forever and it won't stop once you hit infinity or macro. It also has no barrel markings. This made hitting focus marks and pulling racks much more difficult than it would be with a traditional film camera or higher end video camera. Of course, the PD150 and most other prosumer DV cameras with the exception of the Canon XL1s have this same limitation. The DVX100 also doesn't have autofocus in 24p mode which makes dolly, crane and Steadicam shots difficult. Hopefully the manufacturers will someday realize this level of automation is a limitation not a plus.

All camera tapes were digitized via Firewire into Final Cut Pro 3.02 and set up in a 29.97 timeline. Future versions of Final Cut promise native 24p import from the DVX100. Selected takes were edited on a parallel timeline, which allowed us to switch back and forth between each cameras' view of the scene. The finished edit was output as a 29.97 FCP reference movie and then output back to DV tape via Firewire.

We also took selected takes from each camera and sent them to Marcus van Bavel of DVFilm in Austin, Texas for digital film recording. Marcus was kind enough to donate the film outs for our test. He also provided the use of the DVFilm Maker software which allowed us to remove the 2:3:3:2 pulldown from the DVX100 clips. We were then able to save true 24p QuickTime files from the DVX100 along with the 29.97 material from the PD150 onto CD-ROMs and ship them to DVFilm for film out.

Viewing the A/B edit of the test was quite illuminating. As it had appeared on set, the DVX100 footage exhibited an image approaching a traditional film look, while the PD150 rendered the scene more toward a documentary or news video look. Both cameras are capable of undeniably excellent imagery but to my eyes the difference was night and day.

The footage we sent to DVFilm arrived on 35mm film and we screened the print at a local screening room. Here the difference was much less pronounced. Both cameras produced a satisfying image with excellent color saturation and surprising sharpness. The DVX100 was somewhat sharper with greater shadow detail while the PD150 exhibited a warmer palette and moderately increased contrast. Marcus commented that his CRT film recorder was calibrated to normal DV gamma and he would be making new adjustments to account for the gamma curve of the DVX100. The motion of both cameras was remarkably similar. According to Marcus, this is due in large part to the improvements in the software he uses to interpolate 60i material to 24p.

The appeal of 24p is an aesthetic rather than technical one. While the PD150's capabilities are sound and the image is sharp, the DVX100 produced imagery I would normally expect to see from a film camera. Considering the drastic price difference between shooting on the DVX100 and shooting on film, this is an exciting time. If you want to shoot a feature that looks like a big budget Hollywood movie, but you don't have the funding to shoot on film, the DVX100 can provide an effective alternative. This camera will not give you that look out of the box, but when pressed it can achieve amazing results. There is always the possibility of shooting with a 60i camera and adding a filmlook process in post. The main disadvantage to this approach is the added post-production time as many film look plug-ins demand major rendering time to achieve the desired effect.

In order to reap the benefits of the DVX100, you need an excellent cinematographer who understands how to light and compose. You also need the time and talented crew to achieve high production value down the line. I look forward to more cameras as the major manufacturers begin to implement 24p on more cameras. The bounds between the dreams we have and the films we can achieve are no longer monetary but based purely on raw talent.

NOTES: Special thanks to Ken Stone and kenstone.net for hosting these QT movies. For a DVD featuring the test shoot in its entirety, please contact Promax.


High Road Productions Presents

Produced and Directed By
Noah Kadner

Written By
Herschel Arlo Faber

Director of Photography
M. David Mullen

Jamieson Stern
Davenie Petta

Sound Mixer
Bill Robbins

PD150 Operator
Terrence McCarthy

Debbie Peiser

Production Assistants
Kevin Mucha
David Chai

Production Equipment and Support Donated By


Special Thanks To:
Michael Horton
Charles McConathy
Marcus van Bavel

Noah Kadner lives in Los Angeles and runs High Road Productions, a film, television, production and post-production company. Noah's work, such as his award-winning short "Today's Life," has been screened at San Diego ComiCon, UCLA Shorttakes, USC First Look, Hollywood Shorts Film Festival, IFILM, AtomFilms and the Sci-Fi Channel -- in an interview that you can see here:

copyright©Noah Kadner 2003


This article was originally published at LAFCPUG and is reprinted here with permission.
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