May 21, 2018

Demo Test: Alpa PL Mount for Hasselblad Opens Possibilities for Medium Format

Alpa Platon
Is there finally a viable option for true medium format cinema cameras?

Alpa has gone and done it: a PL mount on a Hasselblad. Before we get too excited, let's start with all the caveats.  First off, the Alpa Platon PL Mount we tested is a prototype, so this is still purely a thought experiment, a design study. Yes, many design studies show the next steps coming from a company, but sometimes they turn out to just be the concept car that never arrives, like VW releasing designs for a new Bus every few years but never actually delivering. It's important not to get too excited too soon. Alpa doing a PL mount body for the Hasselblad H6D could be a sign of the next wave of things to come. Or it could be the Aston Martin Lagonda.  But even the Lagonda pointed the way to what we now see with the Culinan, albeit from a rival company. This prototype could mean that true medium format (as opposed to full frame, which is larger than Super35mm but still not a medium format like we get digitally in stills with the Hasselblad and Fujifilm GFX platforms) could be finally an option for filmmakers.

Credit: Charles Haine

Those car references are all luxury cars because, to be honest, medium format is going to be a niche market targeting high-end production at first. But what is interesting is that some of the same forces that put full frame in the hands of indie filmmakers first (with the 5D Mark II way back when) before it finally arrived at the high end (in the last year or two) could potentially put medium format cinema in the hands of a larger audience than we might have normally assumed. While the H6D already does video (we covered it last year and were blown away by the images, with the rolling shutter and ergonomics being the biggest issues standing in the way of next steps), it hasn't taken fire as a capture platform. This design study is built around the same H6D body, so it will have the same rolling shutter artifacting. That being said, it is a fascinating—and frankly, near production-ready—look at solutions to some of the design problems.

Credit: Charles Haine

Body design

Alpa has been making cameras for more than 70 years and has a long history of high-quality design work. The Platon system is built around an aluminum main camera body which you mount the H6D back to. However, on top of that aluminum main body, Alpa has built production-ready additive manufacturing, or 3D printed accessories. While most of us think of 3D printing as purely a prototyping system and not yet a tool for released products, these felt ready for life on set. The sunshade, mounted by magnets, felt both durable and gently flexible, in the way you want for a life on set where it can be useful to occasionally give instead of being so stiff as to crack at the first sign of trouble. Discovering it was a 3D printed object, and that the design could be refined continually throughout its production run (or even customized for a specific job or user), was impressive.

Credit: Charles Haine

The aluminum body itself serves as an all-in-one unit keeping the lens mount, rod mount (classic 15mm), and even the baseplate (ARCA Swiss) all together in a single package. While this might be odd to some filmmakers, it was actually quite pleasant having all the units together in a single package, especially since two parts that are normally locked together (lens mount and camera body) on a cinema platform are separated out into modular units here. One small tweak we noticed was that the 3/8" threads on the Arca plate (designed if you want to use another tripod plate) were slightly too recessed, and we needed to switch out our tripod screw for a longer one for it to grab purchase and secure the body. Not a major issue, but a minor surprise.

PL mount

The PL mount was secure and smooth. Often with lower-end PL mount adapters it can feel tight getting lenses in and out, but this felt completely smooth, well built, and we never worried about trapping our lens in the body permanently. With a larger sensor, the flange focal distance (the distance from the lens mount to the sensor plate) needs to be even more precise than on a smaller sensor camera, but we had great results as we played with the camera and the mount felt ready for delivery.

Credit: Charles Haine

Power supply

One innovative solution was power. One of the frustrations of using a stills camera for motion work is the difficulty of constantly unmounting the entire camera for the frequent battery changes required by motion picture jobs. Alpa has custom-built an external power supply, running off of the "big" Sony NP batteries mounted to the rear rails, that gave amazing performance throughout our testing.

Battery Mounted to the RailsCredit: Charles Haine

What's next?

What comes next?  Release cycles in medium format are hard to predict. Sometimes Hasselblad updates in three years, sometimes in six. To be clear, Hasselblad remains a stills-focused company with a large stills business to maintain and support, so the company isn't going to go chasing the even smaller motion business if it doesn't think it can do it well. However, with faster processors rolling out all the time, rolling shutter can be worked on.

One of the big hurdles is big sensor video is dealing with the massive volume of data coming off the sensor and making sense of it: it requires a lot of processor horsepower to do it. That's why cameras like the Alexa 65 and LF are physically larger than the plain old Alexa. The little H6D body doesn't have room for the horsepower. But if it offloads some of that work, for instance, by pushing the raw recording to an external recorder, more resources could be focused on dealing with all that data off the sensor. Interestingly, this could dovetail well with the recent release of ProRes Raw, which is supported in the Atomos Shogun. The other major player to support the new format? DJI, who not so coincidentally, owns Hasselblad. If 'blad wanted to develop support for raw output, surely DJI could offer some expertise either on internal or external functionality. Even audio processing could be offloaded to an external. Maybe even power could be routed from the external unit into the body, making it a single battery solution.

A Hasselblad with a ProRes RAW ready output (HDMI or SDI), with these accessories, could make a compelling package. It might not be quite ready to be your A-camera on a feature in the next few years, but as a C-camera on a big show, or A-cam on a music video, commercial, or fashion spot, and this could be a really compelling option.

While the unit we played with was pre-production, Alpa appears intent on releasing it in the near future.  The kit (camera body/lens mount, with lightweight support, battery holder, sunshade for display, NATO rail adapter) in a hard case with room to hold the Hasselblad body will be 9,800 Swiss Francs, or currently $9,780.78 USD. Not the kind of money we throw around easily (or at all; this will be a rental unit for most of us), but for a full-on medium format cinema body that packs up into a single small case, it's a reasonable pricetag.     

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