Back in June 2014, my friend Dabling Harward mentioned he was about to embark on his first narrative project as director. Dabling generally doubles as director and DP on small music video shoots, in addition to post, so he’s one who knows exactly what he needs. With the task at hand, efficiency would be a must. 20+ pages, day exteriors, six characters, and fantasy make-up effects all crammed into two shoot days in Burbank, where the weather was frequently hitting 110. The weekend before the shoot, Dabling called me with a request- he’d like to hand the DP reigns to someone else so as he could focus on working with actors for a change, and would I take over? Then came a curveball: details were scant, but he wanted to shoot on a new camera… the AJA Cion.
I saw myself as a guest on the production, so I didn’t want to steal the director’s thunder by discussing it any sooner. It would have been entirely premature for me to give any public evaluation of the camera operation, because such notes would be irrelevant due to the model being a work in progress.
Nearly five months after the shoot, footage from the film has found its way online, and the AJA has finally posted their own demo footage, so I reckon it’s finally time to give a few basic impressions of my experience with this early prototype. Keep in mind that this is not a review. I’m just a DP who had a prototype camera dropped into my lap for two days, and made my way with it. The video above has some examples or original vs graded clips, as do the screen grabs below. Massive thanks our colorist Dan Judy for his post work.
But first, a quick caveat regarding the trailer, which was color corrected by Dabling, the director, using FilmConvert. I notice some heavy color casts in some of the shots that have already been commented on by readers on DVXuser, and I just want to help clarify what they’re seeing: We used Schneider Platinum IRNDs, which introduced a green cast with the 1.2, 1.5, and 1.8 NDs. I would say that these have been overcorrected in the trailer, resulting in several shots with a magenta bias. These shouldn’t be attributed to the camera, and the ProRes444 codec provides enough color depth to comfortably grade the color bias out while still maintaining proper color contrast. In retrospect, I could have performed a custom white balance when swapping out filters to correct for the heavier NDs, but any camera setting changes had to be performed by on of the two AJA techs, and as we were moving at such a fast clip that I chose to just keep the color balance preset to daylight. With that disclaimer out of the way, onto my experience…
I was excited to lay hands on new tech, but I was also walking into a blind situation. I’d normally like to familiarize myself with a new camera’s strengths and weaknesses via reviews by more technically-savvy persons than myself, or perform a test shoot, but the film itself WAS the test shoot, both for myself the DP, as well as the AJA engineers to see what walls I might hit. From what I understood, this was to be the camera’s initial outing in the hands of a non-AJA engineer (though the camera traveled with two, including AJA project manager Jon Thorn).
The CION I shot with was locked to ISO 200, with no LOG setting. Menus were non-operational, and any FPS/shutter adjustments had to be performed by the AJA techs themselves.
Accustomed to basing my image capture on LOG images, the CION’s Rec709 image gave me initial concern. With only 12 stops to work with, I initially let some of the wide shots go with clipped skies in order to ensure the dark-skinned talent were captured with flattering tones.
By lunch on the first day, I had significantly changed my exposure strategy in order to retain highlights. Jon Thorn acted as DIT on set, and demonstrated the crazy degree to which shadow information could be salvaged thanks to the robust nature of ProRes444. I proceeded to ignore the image on the production monitor and rated the camera at ISO 800, thereby underexposing the picture 2 stops. This was something of a leap of faith, as without the aid of a LUT box, and the various talents’ dark skin tones (in shaded exterior areas against backgrounds in full sun, no less) essentially gave the director silhouettes to view on monitor.
How’s the footage hold up? Headroom is limited, but it’s unreal how well the shadows lifted in PR444 while remaining noise-free. This is essentially the opposite of shooting/grading footage from the Sony A7s… Of course, there’s quite a difference between Rec709 gamma at ISO 200 versus SLOG2 at ISO 3200+, so it remains to be seen whether the exposure strategy will be similar to shooting with a RED MX sensor (I’d rate the MX’s native ISO 320 sensor at ISO 1000 to protect highlights on day exteriors). This is entirely speculative so far, as the final Cion release will have working feature sets not available on the prototype I used.
It was apparent Jon Thorn has experience as a camera assistant, as he lent a hand and knew what I’d need as an operator. This gives me confidence that ergonomic and operational considerations have been taken into account in the Cion’s design.
The Cion is remeniscent of an Aaton XTR camera body. The camera wants to live on the shoulder, and it does so comfortably.
Its longer length does throw its weight with greater torque, so even though the body starts at 7.5lbs (before any accessories), a lighter tripod head will experience balancing issues quite quickly. A heavier head like a Sachtler Video20 is a minimum requirement for proper production use.
Its build is very solid. Like the Alexa, I suspect much of its weight and size is due to much of it being a heatsink. I’m certain the magnesium body can survive frequent abuse of production far better than the plastic builds of Canon C-series and Blackmagic cameras.
Performance-wise, the camera did not suffer any overheating issues in the sweltering summer heat in Burbank.
My design wish list had to do with the I/O port placements. XLR and SDI connectors are positioned perpendicular to the lens, subjecting them to snags. I also massively missed the option for internal NDs, making the Cion a far less desirable camera for doc use.
Of course, the most significant feature of any camera is the image itself, which I was finally able to fully gauge in the color grade suite. The Cion’s 12-stop image aspires to punch above its technical weight class when pitted against the Alexa and RED boys. It’s not going to beat them out in terms of latitude or highlight roll-off, but it does make a valiant effort. ProRes444 is no RAW, but it comes close where it matters. ND’d shots polluted with heavy green came back to life with pleasing color separation in the grade, and our colorist was able comfortably grab secondary keys, as seen in an especially quirky fantasy look.
Cion’s skin tones are naturally reproduced with a richness that can be difficult to achieve on RED without some heavy massaging, which may be more important overall than dynamic range to some.
Highlights died an unpleasant death in the footage I shot, but I confess that I could achieve better results now that I’ve had my first dance with Cion. According to Jon Thorne, the camera has come a long way since that first outing, so hopefully we’ll see even better highlight handling to come.
Finally, if you’d like to see the Cion in action, here’s a BTS from the shoot. Please ignore the perpetually goofy look on my face; it happens when I’m focused on my work (and don’t realize I’m on the wrong end of a camera lens).
*Originally published Nov 8, 2014