Contrary to its name, the Ninja drew a lot of attention to itself last year at the National Association of Broadcasters Show. I was there myself to see a live demo of the unit in action. The Ninja is three things in one: an audio/video monitor, recorder, and organizer. Built with a green light from Apple, the Ninja takes an uncompressed HDMI feed and converts it directly into Apple’s ProRes format for high quality, edit-ready footage that it stores on its own hard drive. At the relatively low price of $999, the Ninja promised to help bridge the gap between independent and big studio productions. At that time, however, the Ninja’s usefulness was limited by the number of cameras it supported: camcorders, high end cinema cameras, and the venerable Panasonic GH2. There were no full-frame HDSLR’s on the list. Sadly, this was not a problem that Atomos could fix; it was completely up to camera manufacturers.
The Ninja relies on a “clean” HDMI signal to work properly. The problem with HDSLR’s at the time was that they didn’t just output the live video signal, but all the information overlays as well. This means that the information display would be recorded as part of your video file on the Ninja’s hard drive. Additionally, most HDSLR’s were not outputting a full HD signal, anyway. It was disappointing to say the least, as the Ninja otherwise seemed to be the perfect companion product for an HDSLR. While the Ninja worked beautifully with the GH2, full-frame shooters were left in the dust.
With the release of the Nikon D800 and D4, filmmakers finally have access to full-frame cameras that output a clean, full HD live signal over HDMI. Atomos has said themselves that the D4 and D800 have finally allowed the Ninja to become the product it was built to be. I have to agree. Last year, I felt that Atomos’ vision for the Ninja reached beyond the current state of the industry. It is nice to see the industry is catching up.
While the touch-screen operated Ninja is definitely one of the coolest gadgets out there, it is important to fully understand what it does and how it works before adding one into your workflow. Firstly, as a monitor, the Ninja leaves much to be desired. At 4.3″ and a resolution of 480×270, it is smaller and lower resolution than many other offerings on the market. The Ninja does offer one significant advantage for playback, however: it can be completely disconnected from the camera, as the footage is stored on its internal hard drive. Shots can easily be reviewed by the director, client, or anyone else in this manner, without everyone having to gather around the camera rig.
Secondly, many people get the idea that by recording to 200mbit/sec ProRes, their video is somehow going to look twice as good as it does when recorded in camera. This simply isn’t possible. While the Ninja is seeing and capturing every bit of information off the camera’s sensor, the perceptual difference in quality will be minor. High contrast edges may be cleaner, and low detail areas like shadows may appear less “blocky.” Typically, this difference will only be noticeable when viewing your footage at 100% or larger. Consider your final output: if you’re shooting for the web, especially if you’re planning on down-sampling to 720p, ProRes will be virtually indistinguishable from your camera’s MPEG codec. If, however, you’re shooting for a large screen, you’ll probably want to get every bit of detail you can, as any artifacts of compression will be magnified. Also, if you plan on doing any serious color grading, shooting straight to ProRes will give you more latitude to work with in your files—although, again, this likely won’t appear to be a night and day difference for most people.
So, yes, the Ninja can make your video higher quality, but its primary use is how it can simplify your workflow. By recording direct to ProRes, you can drag-and-drop your video files straight into your Final Cut Pro or Premier projects. No conversion necessary. ProRes was built to be as edit-friendly as possible, meaning playback will be smooth and rendering will be quick. The Ninja even includes a FireWire 800/USB 3 dock for its 2.5″ hard drive. Just swap the drive from the Ninja to the dock, and drag your video files to your desktop. Even better, the Ninja allows you to organize video files into folders based on Shot, Scene, and Take right on the unit itself. When you get to your computer, everything is already organized—saving time in an otherwise arduous logging process.
Despite the Ninja’s seemingly unadulterated awesomeness, it is still not the perfect product. Firstly, Canon shooters are still in the dark as even the 5D Mark III doesn’t output a clean HDMI signal. Fortunately, Canon has included a high-bitrate codec in the new 5D which should bring the video quality pretty close to what’s possible with the Ninja. Unfortunately, the other benefits of the Ninja still remain unavailable to Canon shooters—unless you have the budget for a 1D C. Nikon shooters are limited to either the D4 or D800, for which the Ninja works extremely well. However, when recording off the HDMI output, both the D4 and D800 cease to write to the camera’s memory card. This is not necessarily a problem, but it would have been nice to have an automatic backup of any footage recorded. Especially when you consider the Ninja is writing to a 2.5″ hard drive. These drives are great as they are much cheaper and larger capacity than memory cards, but because they have moving parts, they are also prone to “skipping” if jostled. You can get by this issue by using solid-state drives in the Ninja, but they are relatively expensive.
Overall, the Atomos Ninja remains a very exciting product with great potential. It could be a game changer for filmmakers with compatible cameras. For professionals currently suffering through agonizing import and logging procedures, the return on investment is clear. The Ninja’s only imperfections lie in the limitations of the cameras themselves. For owners of dedicated video cameras or compatible HDSLR’s (GH2, D4, D800), I highly recommend checking out the Ninja.
Daven Mathies is a sales associate at Pro Photo Supply.
You can reach him for question or comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also owns 4sight Photography with fellow photographer Corey Bennet. Their work can be seen at www.4sightphoto.com.