Hands on: Four months in Iceland’s wilderness with the Varicam LT
In May 2016, nature film producer, cameraman and film maker Tobias Mennle embarked on a four-month trip to Iceland with his new Varicam LT. He also tested similar rival products – Arri Mini, Amira and Canon C300II.
A September night in the highlands of Iceland. Boiling water hisses in clouds of steam from the ground and there’s the sound of bubbling everywhere. Normally, I’d film natural wonders like these in the early or late sunlight. Unfortunately, this is a rare sight deep in the Icelandic Low. Tonight, however, the sky is clear, the first Northern Lights are dancing and an almost full moon is rising above the horizon. I set my Varicam LT to native ISO 5000 and the 24 mm lens to F1.4. The view through the viewfinder is incredible! I can hardly see my feet but in the camera image the landscape is lit up in amazing beauty – like at sunrise, only on another planet. For the first time ever, I film the Northern Lights in real time. A new camera, new rules and totally new possibilities!
During the four months I spent on Iceland, the Varicam LT has revolutionised my work as a nature film producer. The pictures: high end reference quality in 4K, 65 mm film look at ISO 800, 35 mm film look at ISO 5000. The workmanship and handling: outstanding. The reliability: four months in the rain, dust and steam from the fumaroles without complaining once. Wonderful super slow motions, while the image signals remain “rich” and the colours finely differentiated even with the LT codecs. Perfect highlight rolloff. Great four-channel sound even on autopilot. Most importantly, however, the Varicam comes with a built-in timer, a three-second PreRecord at all bit rates up to 240 frames per second.
Nature film production is one of the most difficult areas of film making. It’s impossible to make plans. Every day of filming – and I set aside around 200 days for just 50 minutes of film that can be marketed internationally – brings new problems. Fighting against adversity is usually pointless. What you need is stamina and the ability to tolerate frustration. Often, the weather or light isn’t good enough and there may be logistical problems. One of the most difficult things, however, is dealing with the shy wild animals. This can be a very time-consuming process. Or wondering whether the Arctic fox mother will accept me in her habitat so that I can film her family’s fight for survival at close range.
I have produced footage in UHD for films and film scenes which can be marketed around the world for many years. You spend days or weeks waiting for a moment which captures the life of an animal like a magnifying glass – a moment which is so beautiful, frightful or funny that it almost makes your heart stand still. When a moment like this occurs, you have to get it on film. After all, moments like these are what move the viewer emotionally later on. If not, you’ll have to come back next year. An unsuitable camera is always too expensive, regardless of what it initially cost
Having spent years working on them, my film projects are part of my life. They’re fed by my love of filming and nature. For passionate film makers and photographers, the big screen is your lifeblood – it’s the driving force behind your work. From a technical perspective, we’d like to know one thing in particular: what does the Varicam LT offer compared to the industry standard, the Arri ALEXA, with its golden Kodak film Hollywood look? Panasonic has set the bar much higher with better 4K, native ISO 5000 and a colour palette that I find more natural. It brings a breath of fresh air to my work: “out of the box” more Fujifilm than Kodak colours, with beautiful skin tones and wonderful colours in the entire spectrum, even the difficult greens. After spending several days filming, editing and grading material from the ALEXA Mini and Amira (in 3.2K ProResHQ), I’m even more convinced about the outstanding quality of the Varicam LT. In UHD, it delivers equally dynamic, pleasantly sharp images which are much more detailed and have even more nuanced skin tones than the ALEXAs which are optimised for 2K/HD.
After filming aerials in Iceland with the help of a Shotover F1, I was disappointed at how much softer the Arri Mini’s image is compared to the Varicam LT – even in 3.2K mode. In Berlin at night with difficult mixed light, the Amira with ISO 3200 was unusable, while the LT with ISO 5000 produced a smooth looking film with perfect colours. Generally speaking, the Panasonic delivered much more neutral blacks than most other cameras – an excellent basis for grading.
With a three-second PreRecord even at 240 images, the Varicam allows me to capture moments that I would miss with the Arris (at 200p they only have a 0.9 second cache). Although the Varicam LT is compact – much smaller and lighter than an Amira in my configuration or even an Arri Mini rigged up for me and ready to shoot – the image quality is excellent.
The Varicam LT is really unique. No other video camera in the world combines top-quality workmanship with outstandingly beautiful, reference-level images even at ISO 5000, with a three-second PreRecord feature even at 240 images per second, and with internal grey filters for quick and precise exposure and operation. As far as cameras go, it’s a masterpiece.