When I was a teenager during the ’90s, there was one week a year I could always count on spending with my father – the week of the world’s largest B2B media show, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention.
Dad was an inventor and entrepreneur, and for much of my childhood his focus was on a product called the Tentelometer, which helped VCR repairmen gauge the tension of magnetic tape in order to diagnose problems. It might not sound sexy, but the fact is it was the only product of its kind, and it paid my way through private school.
Dad had employees, sure, but none quite as cost-effective or eager as his eldest son. So I found myself each Spring Break in the exhibition hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, awkwardly chatting with he dolled-up models Dad hired to attract convention-goers to our booth (I’m sorry, but it happened).
Soon the magnetic tape era ended, and we stopped going.
After spending nearly a decade working within the creative video/ad industry, I had developed many close friends on twitter with various other directors, writers, and camera geeks. After some peer-pressuring and friendly “words” between online friends, I bought a ticket and headed to Vegas to see what was happening on the floor these days. In the years since Dad and I had attended together, my interests had shifted to cameras and camera equipment, and NAB offered the latest and greatest in both those categories, set up and ready to touch, try, and compare.
It was a magical week, spent hanging out “IRL” with a bunch of fellow directors, editors, and gearheads I’d previously only known on Twitter. The whiskey flowed, and I think we all relished the opportunity to talk to people who weren’t bored by our detailed discussions of LED lighting CRI (that’s color rendition index if you didn’t know), Lens MTF (Modulation Transfer Function, who knew making images was so geeky), and other elements that we could probably spend all day arguing about. It’s always fun to geek out and build relationships with those you share interests in and I left that week feeling inspired about my choice to be a part of this constantly-developing industry.
A year later, I find myself back at NAB once again, browsing the acres of cameras, rigs, lights, and audio equipment from all of the world’s top manufacturers. Like any true cameraphile, I spend a good bit of energy to keep up with the industry’s every move on a daily basis, so very little of what I see on the floor surprises me.
Call me jaded, but it’s been a while since a camera has come along and truly revolutionized the industry. Maybe I’m partial (since I’m a proud owner/operator), but the RED One is the last example I can think of – a digital camera that produced an image close enough to film that legitimate directors started to switch formats.
This year, there are two clear trends dominating the new products at NAB:
Those things probably don’t mean much to the average reader, so let me explain.
4K is a very high resolution format, one step up from 1080, which is the highest resolution most TVs can present at the moment. A 4K video won’t look very different from a 1080 video on a TV monitor, but on a movie screen or a 4K TV, it will look eerily sharper. Like the RED, a few more cameras are now able to shoot in 4K, which also offers some advantages for editors (you never want to rely on “fixing it in post,” but the fact is, having a higher-resolution image allows you a little more leeway if you have to crop or adjust it).
Gimbals are a pivoting support that rotates around an axis. When you mount a camera to one, it enables the camera to balance at a steady angle, even when the operator is moving. This year, they’re appearing on remote-controlled drones and handheld rigs in increasing numbers. That’s a great thing, but we’ve joked that manufacturers have run out of ideas and have resorted to releasing the same products “Now with more gimbals!”
Still, there are some notably cool things happening on the floor. The “Jigabot AIMe” system helps cameras capture people and objects in motion (think water skiers or flying baseballs) without using a human camera operator. Just stick a small dot on the object or person you want to track and another one on the camera, and the camera will automatically adjust to follow the action.
I also had a chance to play with the DJI Ronin remote-controlled Gimbal rig and found it to be a smooth ride and much cheaper than the others on the floor (although that’s mostly because it’s made in China).
It’s a crazy thing to feel underwhelmed in the face of technology my dad and I couldn’t have even begun to imagine during the Tentelometer’s heyday. Analog devices have gone the way of the “booth babe,” both relics of an older and much more easily impressed era.
But the fact is, the magic of video never came from the gadgets and devices. With the playing field leveled by the much lower cost of entry into the film world, it’s become apparent that a person’s technology is not nearly as important as their creative vision. Not everyone with a handicam can become Darren Aranofsky.
Our equipment is just a tool, and our artistic vision is the only thing that can actually set us apart.
Growing up my father always pushed me to be as creative as possible. He wasn’t fooled by all the shiny new tech. He knew that no matter the job or the tool, success only comes with hard work and creativity. That’s just much harder to hold a convention on.
Love and miss you Wayne Graham, an amazing father and engineer. April 24, 1943 – January 20, 2013