Jason R. Johnston Jason R. Johnston

Panasonic AG-DVX200 Field Review

This past weekend I was invited to shoot a spec teaser trailer for a proposed horror film tentatively titled “The Asylum” written and directed by first-timer Israel Ybarra. The shoot would span two consecutive evenings: Friday and Saturday on location in the little Texas town of San Juan. The first day would be filming in and around the abandoned San Juan Hotel on Business 83 constituting all the scary scenes. The second day would consist of the setup: some exposition-serving drama at a house party before the fun begins. I decided to use my Panasonic AG-DVX200 video camera for this project as I hadn’t seen it used for anything cinematic online, to date.

The way I understand the camera, as far as Panasonic is concerned, the DVX200 can be configured to be a GH4 with more sensible motion picture camera ergonomics and usability, plus the speed of a fixed lens. I also knew that place would be dirty and I didn’t want to have to change lenses and worry about potentially damaging my clunkier, more expensive film gear for what is basically a “for fun” project. Despite the filthy conditions of the dilapidated building and the location’s ~90º F temperature (at night!), the DVX200 performed precisely as expected. Depending on the complexity of the scenes I would use anywhere between one and five small LED lights.

HD and Variable Frame Rates

I decided to shoot this project in 1080/23.97p 200 Mbps ALL-I Full HD (FHD) because after speaking with the director I knew I would need to do some undercranking (fast motion) and overcranking (slow motion). The DVX200’s Variable Frame Rate (VFR) mode gives me a wide range of choice from 2-120fps, but not above 1080p. I knew that DVX200 resorts to a sensor crop at frame rates higher than 96fps, which was too slow, anyway, so I kept the highest overcrank at 60fps. Going over the dailies later, this would wind up being a re-time of 150% on the editing timeline when ramping. I overcranked a reaction shot of a woman finding her boyfriend being attacked. I also undercranked on another attack at 20fps to give the scene more voracity.

Undercranking and overcranking, by the way, are terms carried over from film. It basically means that, in a 24fps environment, when you undercrank or allow the film to travel through the camera slower than 24fps then play it back at 24fps the action moves faster since it takes less frames for a normal action to be captured and thus the movement is exaggerated. Inversely, overcranking is to allow the film to travel faster through the camera, then when played back at 24fps the action is slowed down. Subtly under or overcranking film can have a huge effect on an audiences perception of a scene. Because the film travels at different speeds than what it was rated for, you must increase your exposure for overcranking or decrease it for undercranking. Shooting a scene at 60fps on a DSLR and slowing it down in post is not overcranking because the images was always intended to be 60fps in a 60fps environment. Overcranking or undercranking takes place inside the camera on the day.

The Image and Working with V-Log L

I have found that I enjoy working with V-Log L and DVX200’s interpretation of it. I have decided that using Scene 4, exposing and white balancing correctly, using the Natural color matrix and not going past ISO 2000 yields flat images that can be turned into some very nice-looking ones with only a little bit of love. The Varicam 35 to V709 LUT works very well in these situations and is generally a good starting point for a grade. The DVX200 internally only records to 4:2:0 8-bit at up to 200 Mbps ALL-I in FHD, so it’s a little better than shooting with a nice DSLR in terms of the digital file, but it also outputs a clean 4:2:2 10-bit image to an external device – so, you have that option. For a project with a quick turnaround that doesn’t need a lot of work because it was shot appropriately, then even an 8bit image will grade satisfactorily a lot of the time, but, again the option is there. Also, I have read that if you record a 4K or UHD image internally and scale it to a FHD editing timeline later, mathematically the image magically transforms from a 4:2:0 8-bit image to a 4:2:2 10-bit one. Regardless, it’s best to use an external recorder; Barry Green will back me up on that.

An example of DVX200's noise reduction ghosting artifacts prior to the v1.81 firmware update.
An example of DVX200’s noise reduction ghosting artifacts prior to the v1.81 firmware update.

I had recently updated the firmware to version 1.81 which adds the Noise Reduction (NR) Control Function which eliminates the terrible ghosting artifacts most noticeable in shadow areas of high contrast images, but in favor of more noise. More on noise later. But, speaking of firmware, I will briefly go over the update milestones that are most meaningful to me. By the time I purchased my DVX200 in May this year there were already no less than three updates that resonated with me.

First, v1.25 in November 2015 improved 4K and UHD modes by adding Fast Scan Mode which reduces the camera’s 4/3″ CMOS sensor’s rolling shutter artifacts (jello effect), made the shadow areas cleaner by reducing black dot noise and also cleaned up highlights by making overexposed areas roll off into white instead of yellow.

Next, firmware v1.51 in March this year added the Natural color tone reproduction setting and reduced noise in black-colored areas in FHD.

Lastly, the v1.65 update in April improved gradation in log, fixed the camera so it would remember your gain setting after a reboot, as well as adding Extended Sensitivity mode which introduced the concept of negative gain to the camera, granting up to -6dB gain and effectively dropping the noise floor about 2 stops. This results in cleaner images south of the base ISO of 500. This brings me to today and the most recent 1.81 update.

DVX200 with v1.81 firmware, +12dB gain 1/60 shutter at 1080/60i, Scene 4 STILL-LIKE, custom WB, with NR Control at -7. Manual zoom and focus. Aperture was at f/4.5 to prevent ramping whilst zooming.
DVX200 with v1.81 firmware, +12dB gain 1/60 shutter at 1080/60i, Scene 4 STILL-LIKE, custom WB, with NR Control at -7. Manual zoom and focus. Aperture was at f/4.5 to prevent ramping whilst zooming.

The noise of the camera from ISO 2000 and below, I have found, is well done and not the smudgy mess generally found in video cameras. The noise appears filmic at times; especially between the camera’s base ISO rating of 500 and the least sensitive rating of ISO 250 where, I believe, it is actually quite pleasing. For this project, I wound up shooting between 500 and 1000 ISO.

Clarity of the image, particularly at the slower ISO ratings, was generally sharp and well-defined. I don’t like my images to be excessively sharp in a digital way, rather I prefer to light with a lot of contrast to heighten an audiences’ perception of sharpness and to nail focus like a boss. In my experience this approach gives far more “cinematic” images than increasing the sharpness setting in the camera or sharpening the image in post. I like to see noise or grain when it’s pleasing and it reminds me I’m watching a movie.

The DVX200’s 5K sensor gives the image superb overall clarity. Color reproduction, when the camera is setup properly (read: exposed and white balanced correctly), is good. Of course, depending on the Scene settings, you could be going for the generic broadcast video camera look of Scene 1, or the more GH4 “cine” look with Scene 4. Either way, I have always found skintones to be rendered well in good lighting situations. In bad situations where you can’t help but shoot under a sodium vapor street lamp, then skintones will be rendered appropriately yellow. Either way, that’s the way it looked to my eye when I saw it live, and that’s how the DVX200 records it…again, when setup properly. Summed up: DVX200 does a good job of reproducing colors, particularly skintones, in the way I remember seeing them with my eyes in various lighting conditions.

The Body

I use my DVX200 naked with the big battery and a good-sized shotgun with deadcat hand-held with OIS all the time, for hours and hours. The camera is well-balanced and a joy to use. The size and weight actually make it easier to handle than HVX200 or DVX100 (or other similar types of camcorders). It might help that I’m used to full-size ENG cameras and digital film cameras like a big, fat Red One loaded up at somewhere between 30-50lbs depending on lenses and batteries…on my shoulder or hanging from my hands. As a videographer, DVX200 has never become a burden…though even a mostly plastic camera starts to feel like it’s 2-3x heavier than it really is after several hours of shooting, but that’s why you put it down every now and then. And if you simply can’t (wedding?) the weight still hasn’t been a deal-breaker…plus, again, the size and shape of it (including the central placement of the battery compartment) means that it’s very well balanced, especially with the heavier batteries. So, I’d say that for me, the weight has not yet been a problem at all and I don’t see it ever becoming so.

BTS with my Panasonic AG-DVX200 on location in San Juan, TX shooting spec teaser-trailer for "The Asylum" horror feature film. Used an LED Yongnuo YN-300 as an "Obie" light for a few shots.
BTS with my Panasonic AG-DVX200 on location in San Juan, TX shooting spec teaser-trailer for “The Asylum” horror feature film. Used an LED Yongnuo YN-300 as an “Obie” light for a few shots.

The ergonomic benefits of using a proper camcorder for video work are numerous. Gripping the handle for low-mode (or just resting the camera in the non-dominant hand) is a joy. The buttons and switches are intuitively places on the smart side, plus extra ones on the dumb side. Having the ability to assign nearly any function you could need to the User Switch buttons potentially makes the DVX200 an efficient camera to operate. Also, I sometimes forget the camera’s LCD flip-out monitor is also a touchscreen and I like that the menu system isn’t too difficult to navigate (DVX200 is just as much a computer as it is a camera) and setting it up for shooting doesn’t take long at all. SD card slot placement is fine, plus the manual audio controls are right where they should be. The rear viewfinder is extremely helpful in bright shooting conditions. I learned that pointing the EVF upward keeps the sensor from turning off the LCD accidentally. However, you are able to switch to EVF or LCD (or auto) so this phenomenon doesn’t happen at all unless you want it to. Also, because I’m old school I set up the EVF to show only grayscale. I have found the camera never seems to overheat, even in the hot Texas sun. As far as batteries are concerned, the included VW-VBD58 will last a conservative shooter over 3 hours of juice. I also have the AG-VBR59 which has a similar run-time, plus the bigger AG-VBR118G which, honestly, has lasted me an entire shoot day without complaint on more than one occasion.

The Lens

The affixed 13x Leica 12.8-67mm lens on the 4/3″ sensor has various focal lengths depending on what mode you’re in, but basically it’s about a ~29-370mm in 135 terms. It does have a digital zoom which uses the 5K sensor in FHD to perform the punch in. Also, un 4K/UHD the Optical Image Stabilizer (OIS) further uses the extra pixels to work. The lens is not parfocal, but it does some magic that gives the impression of a parfocal lens, though you can hear the mechanical elements shift inside the body (no worries) and you can see the camera try to catch up when performing snap zooms. It hasn’t been a problem yet and I don’t forsee it becoming one, but it is something I noticed.

The lens is rated at f/2.8 at the wide end and ramps to an acceptable f/4.5 somewhere in the middle of the zoom range. The depth of field is quite negotiable in terms of nailing follow focus. I have found that DVX200 has a pleasing depth of field and can appear quite cinematic at times. Flaring and other optical artifacts are controlled well. OIS is a joy in general as it makes a static handheld shot look like the camera is on a tripod, or it at least gives traveling shots the steadier look of a full-size ENG camera. The included lens hood has a mechanical barn door system that protects the front of the lens without fear of one day losing a lens cap.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the Panasonic AG-DVX200 is a great little camera that certainly has the capability to play alongside real cinema cameras in a lot of ways. The image quality is quite good and the ergonomics of the camera make it far more enjoyable to use than having to rig out a DSLR. Or, it certainly saves your back from having to deal with a 40lb cinema camera. I think the camera is a great solution for low-budget productions needing the look of a GH4 but don’t want to deal with it’s ergonomics in the field. But, don’t get your hopes up: if you need raw processing or for the camera to see in the dark because you don’t (or can’t) light what you’re shooting, then DVX200 might not be for you. But, at the end of that weekend shoot, the director and producer were very happy with the dailies straight from the camera. Once I see the trailer has posted I will post it here and possibly add BTS photos and stills.

 

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