Aaton, the innovative French camera and audio manufacturer, has recently released two new and remarkable productsthe Cantar digital audio recorder, and the A-Minima Super16 film camera. The A-Minima is a film camera built to operate like a DV camera, while the Cantar is a digital audio recorder that operates much like a standard reel-to-reel recorder, but records to an internal hard drive in a way that surpasses other digital means like DAT or DV cameras. Where DV cameras (or their operators) regularly produce timecode errors, these new products from Aaton, a known pioneer in creating timecode recording products specifically geared toward reliable use of the media in post-production, result in a more exacting process.
In November, Aaton loaned me both a Cantar and an A-Minima for a few days to try out for this article. Rather than running dry technical tests in a controlled environment, I decided to actually shoot a short narrative film. After working with the equipment for three consecutive twelve-hour days of production, I can attest that the Cantar and A-Minima are both stable and useful products. However, as with many products, they are in some ways ingenious, and in others less than ideal.
The Cantar is a great piece of equipment that could very possibly revolutionize the way location sound is recorded. Not only does the Cantar record high quality digital audio but it saves important information that proves invaluable during post-production. The Cantar saves the audio onto files that can be easily transferred to a computer for immediate use in editing or mixing. Of all the ways I have seen audio recorded onto a separate device during production, the Cantar provides the smoothest and best method.
With its large control knob and circular meters on the front, anybody familiar with location sound recording will notice how much the Cantar looks like the standard analog recorders from Nagra. But thats where the similarities end. The Cantar is a specialized computer that processes audio digitally and records it to a file on its own hard drive along with timecode, scene and take, and the time of day. A complete rundown of the Cantars technical features could take up this entire magazine, but the key things to know about the Cantar are that it can record up to six analog inputs along with two digital inputs in either 16-bit or 24-bit audio formats. It can also mix tracks together during recording, and offers both regular potentiometers for level adjustment and linear faders for controlling the mix. A full rundown of the Cantars features and technical specs can be found on Aatons website (www.aaton.com).
Before I tested the Cantar, I was apprehensive about several aspects of its design. Recording to a hard drive allows for the potentially catastrophic loss of all recorded audio when the hard drive fails. The Cantar is basically a specialized computer with many of its features implemented as software that could end up being buggy and fail to work properlyespecially since Aaton is not known for conducting much software engineering. After three days of using the Cantar (and an unfinished pre-release version to boot), however, its clear that Aaton has developed a product that can be counted on to record critical production audio.
The Cantar has a built-in DVD/CD recorder that allows for backing up audio files, even while running around on a location or documentary shooting. Even better, a built-in FireWire port allows backing up files and re-recording to a second hard drive for redundant recording. The Cantars method is even better than recording to a magnetic tape because it is built to create multiple copies of recordings with very little hassle and no generation loss in quality.
Though the Cantar is constructed to mimic the controls of a standard audio recorder, even an experienced audio recordist may not feel immediately comfortable setting up its initial configuration. Cantars feature set is so deep that it could potentially take hours of practice use before employing it effectively on a production. Once the technical controls of the Cantar are understood and set up, though, it is actually quite simple to operate.
Where the Cantars features really shine is in post-production. At the end of each day, I connected the Cantar into my Mac via FireWire and copied the files from the Cantar onto the computer. Once the files were in the computer, I imported them into Avid Xpress Pro and they immediately showed up in a bin logged with information like timecode, scene and take, and the time it was recorded. With each recording already logged, its much easier to work with the sound at the editing stage than with unlogged audio files from an analog or digital tape that need to be listened to for determining which shots they correspond to.
As to be expected, there are a few things that could be improved about the Cantar, starting with its price. Though the Cantar is a great piece of equipment, $15,000 is a lot of money for an independent filmmaker. Professional sound recordists who are paid for their work on a regular basis might not find the price much of an obstacle, but for independents to use it on a regular basis, the price would have to be about half as much. Hopefully, the units price will drop as the technology evolves.
Beyond the price, my only major complaint was that we found it difficult to scan through files as we played back our takes on set. Other than that, I was very impressed with the Cantar and regretted having to give it back. I am now in Cantar withdrawal.
I didnt have as great an experience with the A-Minima as with the Cantar. Though the A-Minima is by no means a bad product, it is not the ideal camera for many types of shoots. About the size and weight of a DV camera like the Sony PD150, the A-Minima is clearly designed primarily for people who need a small and light high-quality film camera outside of a studio environment. Though it looks like a DV camera, the A-Minima shoots 200-foot Super 16 film rolls that can be printed to 35, regular 16, or transferred to HD video. The widescreen aspect ratio of Super 16 is a good fit with the wider frame of HD video. Kodaks web site even lists the A-Minima as the worlds smallest, most affordable HD camera.
The A-Minima does offer an impressive array of high-tech features. It generates timecode that can be used to slave other timecode devices like the Cantar; it has a built-in intervalometer that allows for any frame rate up to 50 fps; and it records AatonCode timecode to the film. With all these features built into a small and light camera, the A-Minima appeared at first to be the ideal camera for independent production. However, my experience with the A-Minima, while far from a complete disappointment, did not live up to my expectations.
My number one complaint with the A-Minima is that it is awkward to load. My crew and I made several attempts to load it, only to find several times that it was loaded wrong and in need of reloading. To see the process of loading the A-Minima, watch the video on Abel CineTechs web site (www.abelcine.com). Adding to our frustration with the A-Minima is that it is surprisingly loud. Even after blimping the camera with a towel and jacket, the sound of the camera can be heard in the background of all our sync-sound shots.
Part of what makes it possible to produce such a small camera is that Aaton partnered with Kodak to package their film on a special 200-foot roll made exclusively for the A-Minima. 200 feet of film provides twice the amount of film as the regular 100-foot daylight spool used in other small cameras, but it is still half the amount of most cameras which use a full 400-foot roll. The result was that we ended up taking more time to reload the camera and often found ourselves at the end of a roll without enough film left for a full shot.
Since Kodak worked with Aaton on the A-Minima, only Kodak stock is available for the A-Minima. Personally, I prefer Kodak stock so that was not an issue during my test shoot. Considering that the A-Minima is especially suited for filming in documentary and location environments, it makes sense that Aaton worked with Kodak to provide filmmakers with access to Kodaks Vision stock that is more forgiving of varying lighting situations. Still, it would be nice to have access to a broader variety of stocks.
I would suggest the A-Minima as an MOS (shooting without sound recorded at the same time) camera where a small and light camera would be best. If you do plan on using the A-Minima as your primary camera where sound will be recorded, make sure you are prepared to cover the camera with something to keep its sound from reaching the microphone, and make sure that whoever loads the camera is comfortable with the challenge of its loading procedure.
As I write this article, we are about to begin post-production on the film we shot while testing these products. After any production is finished, the only thing that really matters from a technical perspective is how your picture looks and how your sound sounds. In this case, everything looks and sounds great. Though the A-Minima may not be a perfect camera, it certainly provides a better image than any non-HD video camera and makes it possible to create a 35mm print. The Cantars 24-bit sound surpasses the quality of any DAT or DV camera and can be loaded directly into 24-bit audio workstations. I applaud Aaton, and cant wait to see what they do next.
The following companies provided assistance with this article:
Equipment: Aaton & Abel CineTech
Film Stock: Kodak
Laboratory Services: Metropolis Filmlab
Telecine: Minds Eye Media