Hooray for Burbank! Highlights of Videomaker Expo West 2003

Videomaker Expo West filled the Hilton Burbank in California with four days of seminars, panels and special activities; and as usual, the exhibitors provided lots of action. MacroSystem US (Casablanca) delivered seven hours of training on its Avio, Kron and new Prestige systems; then topped itself with "An Evening in Casablanca" the following night. Edirol offered a special seminar on its DV-7 standalone system, along with three other seminars on nonlinear editing, digital post business opportunities and professional audio. Pro-Tape fielded three different sessions that clarified the often confusing subject of recording media and applications. Meanwhile, all the exhibitors stuffed their floor booths with products to examine and savvy staffs to consult.

Camcorders and Digital Post

Now that Mini DV camcorders are well-established, the biggest news is price. Canon, in particular, showed three camcorders with features like image stabilization, 18, 20, or 22X optical zoom ranges, remote control, wide-screen mode and separately processed 1024×768 pixel snapshots stored on a memory card.

The cost? Suggested retail prices of $600, $500 and $400! This means that casual shooters and school classrooms can easily afford camcorder features that recently demanded $1,000 and up way up. The Canon booth was also notable for the number of camcorders available for testing and the expertise (and patience) of their large staff.

Over in post production, the biggest news was the Casablanca Prestige stand-alone editing system from MacroSystem US. This new black box (well, silver, in fact) is positioned between the affordable Avio and the flagship Kron systems, editing native DV with new Smart Edit 2.0 software. With features like swappable hard drives and DVD capability, the newest Casablanca is a heavy hitter.

Starting just about where Casablanca leaves off, Edirol delivers a fine stand-alone system in its Video Canvas DV-7, complete with professional refinements like a separate editing controller. Though the hardware isn’t brand new, Version Two software made its debut at Expo; DV-7 Professional Version.

Camera Support

Bogen was out in force, as always, with a broad line of tripods and accessories, mainly from their parent company, the Manfrotto Group. They have redesigned their classic ball-level adapter; and anyone with a head-plus-legs design tripod that lacks a built in ball level should run, not walk, to add this marvelous adapter.

Sports and nature videographers will love their carbon fiber monopod: light, rigid and fast. You can fit it with about ten accessories, including small tripod feet that disappear into the monopod shaft when not needed.

For true tripod applications, the Manfrotto Lanc remote control moves critical camera functions like zoom, focus and record to a box on the pan handle. Two different versions are available to fit either Sony or Canon camcorders.

Microdolly Hollywood is famous for dolly/track systems so compact they look like curtain rods laid on the floor. But rolling on them, a thirty-pound camera plus tripod move as majestically as a 500 pound studio dolly. They also make a nifty camera boom, and now they’ve added a remote control power head that lets an operator track a subject perfectly from any height or position.

The remote head mounts on a spider device with three big suction cups, each mounted on an extremely versatile leg. This suction mount kit will adhere to any smooth surface, especially to windows and car sheet metal. In addition to shooting subjects inside vehicles, you can mount it, say, on a van tailgate to make a horizontal mobile camera platform, just like the big guys.

Perhaps the coolest camera support was the Steddiepod designed by Eddie Barber. Though it looks and operates like most stabilizers, it also works as a monopod, tripod, camera boom, and doggycam (so that the standing operator can move the camcorder at rugrat elevation).

Camcorder Accessories

Eddie Barber also designed an elegantly simple prompter so light that it fits on a hand-held camera. Light shining through a horizontal plate projects a page of text onto a half-silvered mirror in front of the camera lens. When I read the sample text aloud in Mr. Announcer style, I found that the single page can hold over a minute of copy.

For decades, Century Precision Optics has been making ultra-high quality equipment for Hollywood. Now they’ve added a wide range of accessories for the entry level professional videographer. Their polarizers, matte boxes, sun shades and doodads are wonderful gadgets; but their greatest strength lies in optics. Century builds an endless range of wide-angle adapters and telephoto extenders as good as or better than the original camera lenses. They offer different series, specially matched to Canon, Sony or Panasonic camcorders.

If you want dramatic, dynamic depth, their wide angle adapters range all the way to fisheye. If you need more reach for sports or wildlife, their 2X teleconverters turn a 22X zoom into a 44X and without the quality loss of digital zooming.

Hoodman has greatly enhanced its line of light shields for external viewfinders. Their sides are stiffer so they don’t sag, and some models have built-in (but removable) magnifying lenses to make the image easier to see. A new collapsible rubber hood also has a removable lens. Even without the glass, though, it provided the best sun shading I’ve ever seen. Hoodman also makes a varied line of shades for location monitors — not to mention laptops, PDAs and even telescope objectives.

Audio don’t get no respect, so let’s not forget two useful products from Beachtek. Their DXA-6 audio mixer provides phantom power to condenser mikes, accepts XLR plugs, and mounts between camcorder and tripod. They also make an LED VU meter that reads two channels and covers -21 to +6 dB.

Lighting

In the lighting department, Cool-Lux deployed a complete line of instruments and accessories, including a camera-mounted "broad" light. Meaning? A half-barrel scoop design usually used on large studio lights. With a hood, it can throw a much softer-edged light than the usual camera-mounted spot. Cool-Lux also makes a three-headed on-camera spot. Each head is individually switched for 1/3, 1/2 or full power, and the units include spot-to-flood focus. This "Tri-light" can take diffusion screens, daylight conversion filters and other accessories.

Photoflex was worth visiting, not only for their line of lighting equipment, but for their CD-ROM-based catalogue with illustrations so good that they serve as an excellent introduction to lighting techniques. Their answer to hard on-camera spots is their "ActionDome," a tiny fabric softbox that rides on the camera light and diffuses it wonderfully.

…But Not Least…

Entry-level professionals are always asking where to get the flags, scrims, silks, grip equipment and other tools they learn about in our seminars. Well, MSE Studio Equipment, Inc. has got it all of it. Their catalog is an encyclopedia of studio accessories. And if you buy only one of their hundreds of products, invest in a C-stand, a collapsible, telescoping rig with a pair-of-plates clamp at the top, usually holding an arm with its own clamp head, which, in turn, holds flags, reflectors or just about anything else. Next to gaffer tape, it’s the most useful accessory a gaffer or grip can have and MSE can sell you over a dozen varieties.

Finally, check out Hash Inc.’s Animation: Master. Though highly sophisticated it is much easier to learn than high-end 3D programs like Maya, and much less expensive — so much less that you should get it if only to experiment with 3D. It’s cool.

[Sidebar: Multi-Product Vendors]
Some of the best booths were presented by exhibitors offering a wide range of products from many vendors. Companies like Unitek and Unique Photo laid on a smorgasbord of cameras, lighting, audio, software, videotape and turnkey systems optimized for Pinnacle, Matrox, Avid or Canopus editing packages — take your pick.

One of the biggest spreads was offered by Bel Air Camera of Los Angeles, who displayed plenty of products like specialized reflectors and plenty of lights and space to try them out with. In an era when video enthusiasts often have to select big ticket items without any real ability to try them out, these multi-product exhibitors did noble service.

[Sidebar: New Jersey in June]
Be sure to join us on the East Coast for Videomaker Expo East, which will be held at the Sheraton Meadowlands Hotel in East Rutherford, New Jersey on June 19, 20 and 21, with a pre-show Wedding and Event Videography conference on June 18. Visit www.videomaker.com/events to register or to obtain more information.

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