FX9 Live Performance Shoot with Sody

“it gives a different view of the world… the world feels more alive”

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One rainy August afternoon in London, a locked-down Sony Music studio hosted a shoot featuring the only two functional FX9 cameras then existing. Hand built and hand carried from Tokyo, escorted by a phalanx of anxious engineers and painstakingly rigged for the shoot ahead.

It’s an ambitious production: shoot a complete music video using only three, long, moving cameras shots with set changes occurring during each shot. Eighteen-year-old singer/songwriter Sody is the star performing her heart-felt ballad ‘Maybe it was me.’

The shoot is the vision of director Charlie Sarsfield. In charge of the lighting and cinematography is Olan Collardy while Josh Brooks is flying the camera on his Steadicam. 1st AC Benji Kirkmam has already spent the morning prepping and rigging the camera. Alister Chapman is also on set to provide the below in-depth article.

We had low light scenarios, and when the camera came up close to the talent I could still see good colours, the skin still looked good.

Olan Collardy,
Director of Photography

Cue the music

The lights come up and the camera tracks in Sody sitting on a bed in a bedroom. Now we start to get a feel for what this camera is all about. We can see beautiful looking skin tones, we see deep noise free shadows and creamy highlights. It looks good, really good. The camera being used is the new Sony PXW-FX9, a 4K camera with a 6K full-frame sensor, designed to sit between high end digital cinema cameras such as the Sony VENICE camera and more traditional news and documentary cameras. In many ways it is very similar to the ubiquitous PXW-FS7, but it is also quite different.

No cine style camera would be complete without a lens. For the first part of the video a Zeiss Supreme 35mm full-frame prime lens was used. For the second part of the video a Sony E-Mount SEL35F14Z prime lens was used. Aperture throughout the shoot was maintained at f2.8 for a consistent look and depth of field. The FX9 has a locking E-Mount lens mount, so it’s plenty strong enough to support PL Mount cine lenses via a simple adaptor. This is one of the key E-Mount benefits – the user can quickly switch between different adapters to use just about any lens on the FX9. Plus, just like the FS7 and FS5 you are able to use the cameras Super35mm mode with optical adapters to increase the effective aperture of many full-frame lenses for low light shooting. But for this shoot full-frame lenses are being used, because this is a full-frame camera. The sensor is a brand new 6K sensor designed especially for this camera. We could see from the images on the monitors that this sensor is new. It has over 15 stops of dynamic range and a much lower noise level than earlier generations of similar cameras.

Between the lens and the sensor there is an Electronic Variable ND filter. This gives you the option of a clear setting and then a smoothly adjustable range of ND from 2 stops to 7 stops. The convenience factor is obvious, but its seamless operation in combination with the large frame sensor and fast autofocus is a creative game-changer. Extensive testing of the ND filter system revealed no changes to the colour of the camera’s output, accurate ND values and it does not polarise light in the same way that front of lens variable ND filters can.

Close-up of PXW-FX9 rigged for Sody music shoot

Behind the ND filter system is the new 6K full-frame sensor

This new state of the art sensor has several tricks up its sleeve. Like Sony’s flagship VENICE digital cinema camera, the FX9 has Dual Base ISO. When shooting log or raw it can shoot at both 800 ISO and 4000 ISO with no difference in dynamic range and almost no difference in noise. It’s remarkably noise-free at both ISO’s. You also have a choice of low and high base ISO’s in custom mode. Contributing to the low noise level is the way the camera down samples from the 6K full-frame of the sensor to 3840×2160 UHD for recording. Starting with a 6K image when recording UHD gives not only less noise but also greater luma and chroma resolution than possible from a similar 4K sensor. This is known as supersampling and the more I think about it the more it makes sense on a camera like this.

All of the current large sensor video cameras on the market use bayer sensors. Because of the way a bayer sensor works, the resolution of the captured footage is around 0.7x the sensor’s pixel count. Typically a camera with a 4K sensor will have an actual resolution of around 2.8 to 3K. Starting at 6K and downsampling to 4K or UHD means that the actual recorded resolution will be 4K. What this means is that compared to an FS7 the files will be more detailed and higher resolution. Yet the file size remains exactly the same and the workflow remains the same. If you could record the 6K directly from the camera, the files would be twice the size of the current files. But there will be almost no difference in the actual resolution of the footage. So for no real benefit you would have to deal with much bigger files that would require a lot more processing power in post production. So really down sampling in camera makes a lot of sense. Your workflow doesn’t change and you really will have a higher resolution image.

Rear-view of PXW-FX9 on shoulder of cameraman during shoot set-up

Behind the scenes

As is standard for new product introductions by Sony, a behind-the-scenes video is also being shot. This FX9 has one of Sony’s 28-135mm full-frame zoom lenses. At f4 this lens isn’t as fast as the prime lenses used by the main camera. But being a zoom, it’s more flexible. In addition, a lot of the BTS filming took place in some of the darker corners of the studio. But the ability to switch the base ISO up from 800 to 4000 really helped make up for this and there is virtually no noise penalty. The FX9 has a remarkably low noise level at both 800 and 4000 ISO so shooting at 4000 ISO was a perfect choice.

Another feature of the new sensor that really helped both the BTS film and the main shoot is that this sensor has been designed for autofocus. It has integrated phase detection pixels for a very sophisticated, hybrid phase and contrast AF system that has incredible performance.

The second scene to be filmed by the main camera features a complex shot that starts with a pull focus from a plant in the foreground of the shot to Sody’s face as the Steadicam mounted camera tracks in. Sody is surrounded on all sides by a sea of plants and flowers. Half way through the take the plants are pulled out of the way and the camera tracks out while the lighting changes dramatically. This scene was shot using autofocus and the AF system got it right every time. I really don’t think that a human focus puller could have done it any better. This new Fast Hybrid AF system, designed specifically for video is able to measure the focus precisely without hunting. If you choose, it can be programmed to only focus on faces. Plus, you can control the focus response speed and sensitivity. The end result is an autofocus system that not only works exceptionally well but also gives you enough control to ensure that any focus changes look natural. For one-man-bands using gimbals, Steadicams, jibs and cranes this is going to be a tremendous help. For wedding and event videographers working in dynamic and fluid situations it will make their lives so much simpler. 

Many have written before about how much better this or that autofocus system is, so you may be reading this and thinking – “sure, it’s probably a bit better than before”. But you really need to see this to believe it. It’s breathtakingly good, everyone on set is finding it hard to believe just how good it is. DP Olan Collardy was surprised by how well it worked and said that autofocus was normally something on video cameras that he looked down at. But he felt the autofocus on the FX9 was very good, that it felt organic and had a very human look. For a while the crew had a lot of fun trying to break the autofocus. Running at the camera, moving in and out of the frame, waving hands in front of the lens, bringing the subject extremely close to the lens. Not one of these caused a problem for the autofocus.

Cameraman with PXW-FX9 on Steadicam shooting singer-songwriter Sody

For a while the crew had a lot of fun trying to break the autofocus. Running at the camera, moving in and out of the frame, waving hands in front of the lens, bringing the subject extremely close to the lens. Not one of these caused a problem.

Colour Science, LUTs & S-Log3

As there will be both standard dynamic range and high dynamic range versions of the video it was shot using S-Log3. Like the FS7 and F55 the camera has a CineEI mode that allows LUT’s to be used when working with log and raw. For this shoot the LUT that was used was the S709 LUT in the FX9, the same LUT used by VENICE. This LUT combined with this new sensor produces some really beautiful images straight from the camera. The FX9 shares much of the VENICE’s colour science in both CineEI and its standard settings in Custom Mode. The end result is great looking skin tones, a buttery smooth highlight roll off and amazing details and textures even in the darkest shadows. This most definitely isn’t an old school Sony TV camera, this is a next generation digital cinema camera. Of course, if you do still need that TV look or need to match the FX9 to an FS7 you do have the ability to change the gamma and colour settings when using the cameras “Custom” mode.

When shooting in the CineEI mode the FX9 brings lots of extra flexibility to the way it handles Look Up Tables (LUT’s) and white balance. For a start the white balance is fully adjustable. Just like VENICE, you are no longer tied to just 3 presets. You can dial in your own colour temperature and tint or you can use the white balance push button on the front of the camera with a white or grey card to set the white balance.

To allow you to see what your final image will look like, when using CineEI you can add a LUT to the cameras output. There are very few instances where LUT’s are not available. Even when shooting using the cameras S&Q (Slow and Quick) mode to slow down or speed up the action LUT’s are still normally available. If you do happen to find one of the few combinations of modes, frame rates and outputs where it is not possible to add a LUT then the camera reverts to a viewfinder gamma assist mode that provides a Rec-709 type image in the viewfinder. This is a big improvement over the FS7 as you can always have a normal looking image in the viewfinder and this makes checking and judging exposure really easy.

Also, it takes longer to read out 6K’s worth of pixels than 4K’s worth, so the sensor readout speed is a little slower in the 6K mode and the camera is currently limited to record up to 4K30p when set to readout the full-frame 6K. The camera can go up to 4K60p in S35 4K scanning and in 2K S&Q up to 120fps. While testing high speed S&Q motion where the sensor is read out differently to the regular modes it was good to see that aliasing and moire was well controlled.

PXW-FX9 6k full-frame camcorder

Digital audio, RAW & FS7 accessory compatibility

The FX9 has Sony’s MI shoe technology and this takes audio directly from the radio mic receiver into the camera. The radio mics used are Sony’s new compact UWP-D series microphones that are twenty percent smaller than the previous generation and feature a digital audio output. The FX9’s MI shoe supports this new digital standard for highest quality audio.

The FX9’s capabilities can be further extended with the new XDCA-FX9, which has been designed with both film style and ENG type applications in mind. A key feature is support for raw output with a suitable external raw recorder. The extension unit also takes a drop-in radio mic receiver and it adds USB ports for 4G or live streaming, FTP uploads and XDCAM air functionality. It can also provide a 12V DC feed for accessories via both D-Tap and 4 pin connectors. For studio shoots and multicamera shoots the FX9 has connections for both external timecode and genlock on the camera body. This will also be very handy for keeping audio recorded on an external recorder in sync with the camera.

Like the FS7 the FX9 records using XQD cards. XQD cards are both reliable and fast. The fast offload speeds allowed the DiT (Digital Imaging Technician) John Philips to very quickly offload the cards between takes. Then using DaVinci Resolve and Sony’s own Catalyst Browse software the S-Log3 clips could be played back with a LUT applied so that everyone could check the shots. Again, everyone was really pleased with the images appearing on the screen.

Another thing that helped 1st AC, Benji Kirkman was the similarity between the FX9 camera body and the FS7’s. The majority of FS7 accessories will fit the FX9. The base of both cameras is the same, so you can use the same shoulder pads etc. It’s the same at the top, most of the mounting holes are exactly the same, so most FS7 top plates will also fit the FX9. There is a small change to the FX9’s handle and the connector on the top of the FX9. This is because the FX9 features a very high degree of weather sealing. There are gaskets and O Rings around any openings to help keep dust and moisture out of the camera body.

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FX9 Control Redesign

Sony’s industrial design team spent a lot of time gathering customer feedback and FX9’s menu system is a significant advance. There’s still a lot of options to choose from – S&Q, interval record, cache record, sensor scan modes – but the layout is more logical and follows conventions adopted for VENICE.

Interacting with the menu system is also enhanced. There are directional buttons on the side of the camera, plus a large scroll knob right at the front of the camera with a push to select function – when the camera is on your shoulder it’s exactly where you want your main menu control to be. The joystick on the redesigned SmartGrip also provides for direct control over key features – displayed in the viewfinder – without the need to ever open the full menu.

The SmartGrip uses micro-USB to reduce lag – the same as Sony Alpha cameras – but a traditional 2.5mm remote terminal socket is retained for compatibility with 3rd party devices. Another FX9 innovation are small LED indicators which help you see how the camera is set-up; enable an automatic mode such as auto shutter and a LED illuminates. This should help prevent accidentally selecting an auto mode or auto function.

After a long day’s shoot, Benji certainly felt the camera was more intuitive and easier to work with than the FS7. He particularly liked the ability to alter the white balance in CineEI – enabling the Director and DP to view an image as close as possible to the end result live on set.

DP Olan commented that for him skin tones are hugely important and critically he was very happy with what he saw. Even in the low light scenarios, he felt the skin tones looked really good – not muddy like some other cameras. I have to agree with him. We see Sody’s face all through the video, sometimes very close up. It looks good, really good. Olan was also impressed by the Sony 35mm E-Mount lens (SEL35F14Z) feeling that it produced a beautiful image while the high-speed autofocus function makes Sony lenses an interesting option compared to more traditional cine lenses.

Close-up of PXW-FX9 showing intuitive control layout

Conclusion

So, who is the FX9 for? It won’t be replacing the FS7, it will co-exist alongside it. 

The FX9 will obviously appeal to anyone looking for a full-frame cinema camera that can’t afford Sony’s VENICE camera. But it may also find itself a place on some big budget productions thanks to the truly amazing autofocus. Certainly, the image quality is good enough for a lot of high-end work and this should only get better once the 16-bit raw output is enabled, the XDCA-FX9 extension unit and a suitable external raw recorder will be required for raw. 

While a good colourist can make almost any camera look good, this takes a lot of skill and a lot of time. The new colour science makes it easy for anyone to get truly beautiful images quickly. If you don’t have time to grade then Custom mode and S-Cinetone™ means you can achieve similarly beautiful images without the need to grade. Downsampling from 6K means the UHD images will have decreased noise, more detail and greater resolution than possible from a 4K sensor without a file size or workflow penalty.

For those shooting news or documentaries the full-frame sensor will allow for a shallower depth of field while the autofocus will take away many of the challenges of shooting with such a shallow DoF. If you already have a large collection of super 35mm lenses then you can use those too. You won’t be able to use the 6K full frame mode with lenses designed for super 35mm, but you will still benefit from the improved colour science, increased dynamic range and lower noise. Those improvements alone make the FX9 a very nice proposition.