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Buyers' Guide: Field Monitors, Monitor/Recorders, and Recorders

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Strange as it seems, there are other essential production tools used in the field besides camcorders, microphones, and the switchers and encoders for live-switched streams. Historically, field monitors were luxuries that most crews didn’t use except on higher-end shoots. One reason for field monitors’ former scarcity was that portable CRT monitors that could be hooked up to cameras were expensive and too bulky for run-and-gun productions. Until about 20 years ago, even the idea of a color viewfinder or color flip-out viewscreen on professional gear was fan­tasy.

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When I started out with VHS, I had a 9" TV slung between my tripod legs. Eventually, I switched to a 5" Sony consumer TV monitor that burned out after about 5 years. Around 2002, I replaced it with a 5" off-brand (Action) LCD monitor. While I do not use it for production anymore, I still use it to test VCRs when I go looking at new “old” machines and troubleshooting equipment for my video transfer business.

While just about every pro­fessional camera or camcorder has a built-in screen ranging from 3" to 5", some camera people and producers require more. Many producers want something they can see without straining, so a number of companies have popped up over the last decade or so with not only lightweight field monitors, but also monitors that record to flash media. Going back to the 1980s and 1990s, many directors used low-quality VHS and Video8 recorders hooked up to the video assist out of a film camera for reviewing takes. Currently, I have a Blackmagic Design Video Assist 5" HD from the first generation. The recording monitors of today not only record so the crew can replay takes, but most are capable of recording higher-quality video than the camera’s onboard recorder.

Aside from the Video Assist for on-camera use in the field, my company has a few more uses for it. We do many conferences that involve multiple cameras and often PowerPoint presentations. For this setup, I feed the two cameras and laptops for PowerPoint and video playback via HDMI or HD-SDI into a Lumantek HD switcher. Of the switcher’s two outputs, we send one out to projection screens and the other to the Video Assist to record the video and audio mix to cut down on editing and backup.

blackmagic videoassist

Back in my office, I occasionally use the Video Assist to record high-quality videotape transfers from various professional and consumer formats. We recently used one of Blackmagic Design’s Teranex processors to “up rez” some U-matic and Betacam tapes to HD and record them to ProRes HQ for a documentary on one of the most well-known pock musicians in the world. The producers were very happy with the results.

See Table 1 to check out what companies are offering for viewing and recording in the field.

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