We still have a load of NAB-related product stories to bring you but, in the meantime, Phil Rhodes concludes his reports from last week’s NAB Show 2023 by looking at some of the major themes on the showfloor. Did it hit the jackpot? Probably not. But sometimes it’s just all about playing the game.
There’s a sort of inexpressible melancholy to the end of a big event, as the crowds depart and once-bustling corridors echo to the sound of equipment trucks and claw hammers. The last day of the NAB 2023 show featured the the unwelcome news that attendance, at about 65,000, had improved only slightly from last year’s. The show floor felt fuller than it perhaps should have done given those numbers, though. Pre-pandemic, headcount was edging into six figures, suggesting that the show really should have felt half-empty this year. It’s hard to tell, given South Hall is currently under construction and the spaces are a different shape, but it didn’t feel much more bustling back then.
The statistics are based on the number of registrations rather than the number of people who actually showed up [And historically always has been. IBC does it the other way round and counts people in through the door - Ed.], so we might speculate that a larger proportion of the people who booked tickets actually went to the event than usual. Either way, idle chatter on the Las Vegas monorail suggested a certain enthusiasm for the meat-space meet-up, inviting us to reconsider the idea that trade shows are relics of the past.
Summing up the substance of the show is easy if we’re interested in information technology. Anchoring the vastness of West Hall was the two-storey booth of Amazon Web Services, surrounded like a medieval keep by a serfdom of companies using AWS’ capabilities to their own ends. AWS itself generally shies away from writing too much code that’s designed to turn its cloud platform into a usable application; the company sees its role as providing the bulk processing and storage facilities by filling nondescript warehouses all over the world with computers.
As something of a departure from that approach, AWS showed Studio in the Cloud, which allows people to use applications such as Resolve remotely, using the significant muscle of AWS’ servers. The downside of this kind of thing is encapsulated in the phrase “exit fees,” a reference to the practice of cloud providers to charge people not for what they upload to online storage, but for what they download out of it again. That might be fine so long as we’re uploading our original material and downloading only relatively small compressed final files. It might be a bit less fine if we’re interested in retrieving high-quality, high-resolution results for further processing elsewhere.
Moving data around
It’s probably not quite fair to pick on AWS and Studio in the Cloud, which are just one of the many examples of cloud applications for film and TV work which were shown at NAB 2023. They all suffer similarly from the fact that film and TV inevitably deals with large data sets. In the end, though, it seems inevitable that large amounts of film and TV infrastructure will eventually be replaced (if that’s the right word) with generic IT infrastructure.
The NDI network video protocol, now spun off from the original developer NewTek given its vast success, has turned out to be a very, very, very popular way of moving video around. Credit where it’s due - JVC was probably among the very first organisations to do something like this with its Connected Cam architecture. This year, AJA was among those to adopt NDI; Blackmagic conspicuously wasn’t, preferring to release devices intended to handle SMPTE 2110 full-bandwidth video. In the end, this might end up being an issue of primacy. If the high-bandwidth (often ten-gigabit) Ethernet switches required to make 2110 practical become ubiquitous quickly, then there may be less need for NDI; however, if the world continues to find the convenience of compression more useful, 2110 might remain preserve of the high end.
Cameras going live
But what of the toys for single-camera drama, we might wonder? Well, the aforementioned Blackmagic seems determined to maintain a hundred fingers in a hundred pies, and released a 6K revision to its broadcast camera range - the layout with the almost tablet-like built in viewfinder on the back. That’s reportedly the same sensor as used in the Ursa Broadcast, bringing a really large amount of capability to a pretty compact and well-priced system. It’s worth remembering that the rest of the truck’s worth of stuff is shockingly affordable too - the 40-input variety of the ATEM vision mixer is under five figures (though a proper control panel involving cut-rows, T-bars and a lot of mechanical engineering, is inevitably spendier).
Whether or not any of this is realistically likely to perturb the likes of Sony or Grass Valley remains to be seen, although ARRI has similar ideas, dedicating a considerable portion of its display to a demonstration of live production. Pairing the Amira camera with Fujifilm’s gargantuan 25-1000mm box lens creates a hugely capable camera system, although the long end of that lens, on a Super-35mm sensor, will inevitably be the domain of studio camera crew whose relationship with the focus controls reaches a sort of Zen mysticism.
The background to ARRI’s studio production display (featuring a live band) was made up of a matrix of Skypanels, abused via DMX control to create the sort of high-energy lightshow more at home on a Someone’s Got Talent final than a film set. The increasing crossover between live and single-camera production is hard to ignore.
The differentiator is technique
The grassroots, of course, continue to grow. In this context, that means yes, there were new lenses and new LED lights and some buffs to camera equipment which are all useful and laudable and represent a huge amount of hard work on the part of the people who built them. One such is Sony’s BVM-HX3110, an improvement to the BVM-HX310 which itself replaced the marvellous but thoroughbred BVM-X300 OLED. The 3110 - as your narrator was informed by a miffed PR person shortly after mentioning the company in a previous article - improves black levels over the previous model, chasing the enormous performance of OLED more and more closely. The X300 was wonderful. The HX310 was wonderful. The HX3110 is likely to be wonderful, too. Do any of them really change the world? Well, if you’re in the market for a five-figure grading display, sure, inasmuch as that’s what’s on sale.
In a more general sense, though, it’s hard to shake the feeling of creeping maturity in cameras and lights. We’ve experienced a decade or two of almost constant, large, meaningful improvements in their performance. While there’ll always be a specialist application for bigger and bigger numbers, in the context of conventional film and television production, it feels very much as if picture-generation equipment has reached the point audio gear reached fifteen or so years back, when the fundamental capability of most equipment was more than good enough for most uses.
If that sounds apocalyptic to the wellbeing of manufacturers, reflect that it didn’t turn out that way for audio gear (Sound Devices, Zoom et. al. are going strong). Technique has always been more crucial than technology. If the 2023 NAB show represents a point in history where the tech is so good that technique is even more of a differentiator than it ever has been, then it’s hard to object.