Origin of the Species – Evolution of the Digital Cinema Camera

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The large sensor digital cinema camera that we know and love today has followed an interesting history of evolution and convergence. By its very nature, it is digital video—it is not film, and even the term “digital film” doesn’t truly make a lot of sense. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to use the term “digital video” in an all-encompassing sense that should include broadcast and DSLR/mirrorless cameras as well as digital film/digital cinema cameras.

Understanding the history of the digital cinema camera is a helpful starting point in understanding why we have so many different cameras today, why they have converged on some fundamental similarities (a single super 35mm Bayer sensor for example) but also why there are so many differences.

Why do some cameras seem to prioritise internal compression, while others prioritise internal RAW?

Why do some feature a built-in ND filter wheel, and others don’t?

Why the difference in form factors and ergonomics?

For each different form and combination of features, there is a different corner of the market. Different cameras serve specific needs and function well for the demands of their owners. Therefore, there isn’t really any such thing as the “perfect” one-size-fits-all camera.

So what does this evolutionary tree look like?

Rooted in Video

From the miniDV home camcorder to the Canon XL1 and popular Sony PD150, from interlaced SD to professional HD broadcast cameras the truest bloodline of today’s large sensor digital video cameras comes from television/broadcast roots. We may not like to admit it, but our digital cinema cameras are more closely related to DV than to celluloid film.

However, it’s the desire for a more cinematic image with more “film” like characteristics that gave digital video technology a major change in direction. This desire did not come from broadcast professionals, but from the deep discontent of a generation of independent filmmakers.

It all started with heavy and awkward cine lens adaptors, effectively projecting a super 35mm image from a PL cine lens onto a ground glass, which in turn was focussed onto the much smaller prism of a 3-chip camcorder through the camcorder’s zoom lens. This provided the optics, and the rest was down to the camcorder.

The P+S Technic Mini-35 and Pro-35 adaptors opened up a fantastic new world of possibilities for filmmakers stuck with DV.

Panasonic DVX100

Around the same time, we started to see progressive scan modes and a “film” 24fps frame rate options on some digital video cameras. Panasonic’s DVX100 was the first and most popular camera to support 24p recording and became the catalyst for things to come. The DVX100 was SD only and recorded to tape but it empowered a generation of young independent filmmakers to create films—achieving a cinematic feel that was impossible before.

Sony CineAlta

The digital cinema revolution had slowly begun and it was not entirely lost on Hollywood and the major camera manufacturers. In June 1999, George Lucas announced that episode II of the Star Wars prequel trilogy would be shot digitally. Sony and Panavision created the Sony HDW-F900, the first HD 24p CineAlta camera. The Sony HDW-F900 and more advanced F950 (subsequently used to shoot Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) were however still rather compromised and early crossovers from what was essentially still an HD broadcast camera system.

The Digital Cinema Camera – From DALSA Origin to RED One

Today’s true digital cinema camera is a result of the most progressive of yesterday’s digital video technology chasing down 35mm celluloid film. This is the first major branch to split the digital video family tree into two distinct and different species. The original trunk continues to this day and provides us with the latest HD and UHD broadcast television cameras and broadcast zoom lenses.

The new branch led to the 35mm digital cinema camera, developed to operate within the existing 35mm film camera ecosystem and to satisfy entirely different needs. These were the needs of the big screen, where image quality is paramount, and ergonomically the camera needs to suit the film set and the existing film camera department, not a single operator, television or news crew.

A little-known company involved in developing medical imaging devices, Dalsa, unveiled the Origin in 2003. This was the world’s first 35mm 4K digital cinema camera. Origin was a beast of a camera, but was further proof to a small but passionate scattering of creative technicians within the embryonic beginnings of digital cinema, of what was possible, what was to come, and the fact that no-compromise digital cinema acquisition was not only possible but inevitable.

The Rise of The Owner/Operator

When RED Digital Cinema announced a 4K 35mm camera system capable of recording RAW that would cost $17,500 for the body alone, they were met by disbelief and accusations from all corners. Despite it all they started taking pre-orders in unprecedented numbers, effectively selling only a serial number to every person to put down a deposit. This was the genesis of the owner/operator.

RED Digital Cinema delivered on every promise, and literally changed everything almost overnight for an entire industry. Every imaging professional in cinema from cinematographer to technician to editor, VFX artist and colorist felt the impact sooner or later. Roles that were entrenched in their ways and methods for almost a century were forced to adapt, roles that never existed before were invented (the DIT) and this adaptation continues to this day.

Maximum Image Data

With a true super 35mm sized sensor and PL lens mount for cine lenses, digital cinema was ready to shift focus from compromise and adaptation to making priorities of its own. The priorities for a 35mm digital cinema camera were not the priorities for a broadcast ENG camera. Apart from being designed to accommodate cinema prime and zoom lenses, matte boxes and follow focus units as well as all other cinema camera style systems and accessories, there was a huge shift from compressed video formats well suited to broadcast production to recording uncompressed and RAW sensor data.

Broadcast cameras needed to accommodate tape and solid state recorders matching existing broadcast standard infrastructure, codecs and prioritise speed of ingest, editing and delivery for tight newsroom turnaround. Cinema required uncompromised image quality and data bandwidth in the quest to match or exceed high-resolution film scans.

The first 35mm digital cinema cameras were all about maximum image data. The first Dalsa Origin had to be connected to large RAID hard drive arrays, hardly well suited to portable use. The ability to record uncompressed RAW sensor information at high bit depth came right from the word go with 35mm digital cinema acquisition.

To this day, the high-end cinema cameras all prioritise image data and integration into a more or less traditional film set, and style of working. However, some interesting cross-breeding has occurred which has expanded the market far beyond giving Hollywood a digital alternative to film.

The VDSLR

I’m sure we all remember our first time watching Vincent LaForet’s groundbreaking and cinematically shot video “Reverie” shot with the Canon 5D Mk ii. It was viewed more than 2 million times in its first week.

The result of the unexpected cross-breeding of digital cinema and digital photography was nothing less than explosive. This was the start of the VDSLR movement, perhaps a revolution by its own merit, as much as that of 35mm digital cinema itself, because we have all taken huge benefit from it in the years since—even those of us who have never shot video with a DSLR.

Canon accomplished something fundamentally important to the highly developed and thriving owner/operator marketplace we see today. Canon brought full HD, large sensor 35mm video with interchangeable optics and shallow depth of field to the mainstream enthusiast. Thank you Canon! Sadly after making such a massive and quite possibly accidental contribution, many feel Canon have been drifting, as if slightly lost in the very world they helped to create.

What RED Digital Cinema did for those who could afford to drop $25,000 +, Canon did for everyone else who couldn’t.

The result can be seen every year on the show floor at NAB and IBC as well as every other major trade show. Not too long ago, if you wanted a follow focus and matte box, you had to shell out for an Arri FF-4 and an MB2o. Nobody privately owned a follow focus or a matte box—these items were rented, but thanks to Canon and RED we can now buy everything and more, at whatever price and quality point we can afford.

Entirely new categories of accessories now exist thanks to the Canon 5D Mk ii that were not imagined before. Nobody ever considered the need for a camera cage, a low cost follow focus, gear rings for photo lenses or a host of brand new stabilizers, until the video capable full frame DSLR.

Super 35mm Camcorder/Run & Gun

The other major cross breed is the result of 35mm digital cinema imaging combined with the ergonomic sensibilities and video compression of the broadcast world. This is the type of camera the established manufacturers clearly felt would meet the likely needs of a significant share of the explosively growing owner/operator market.

Canon, Sony, Panasonic and JVC were (with some exceptions especially from Sony) slow to influence the “purer” breed of film industry centric digital cinema cameras like those developed by Arri and RED, and instead held out long enough to simply drop a 35mm CMOS sensor in the kind of cameras they already knew best for a market they had already captured and knew would expand quickly.

Sony especially has attempted to cater to both and has successfully created what I consider a range of crossover type cameras, but the results of market preferences are clear. We are not seeing the likes of Sony or Canon on film sets in the same way we see Arri and RED alongside the continued use of 35mm film in Hollywood. Even the likes of Sony’s F65 with its “True 4K”, exotic color filter array and RGB 4:4:4 workflow didn’t quite manage to have the impact on film sets they had hoped for. However we are seeing both Sony and Canon cameras on documentaries, TVC’s, corporates and in television production as well as many smaller independent films.

Compressed Codecs

Where a pure cinema camera prioritises image quality, recording RAW or at the very least high bandwidth, high bit depth, inter-frame only codecs, this is not a need or priority for many working owner / operators. In fact, the number of situations where recording to a robust compressed codec providing high enough image quality combined with manageable file sizes far outweigh the real-world scenarios where dealing with terabytes of RAW data is really necessary.

Lightweight Ergonomics

The traditional broadcast ENG camera is designed to be shouldered easily and although historically the overall weight of a camera/recorder and zoom lens was not necessarily low, today we expect a camera made for this style of use to be lightweight and set up for ease of use and operation when shouldered and handheld. These considerations have not gone entirely ignored on the full blooded cinema cameras with Arri having maintained a concern for this style of operation on the Alexa and Amira especially.

Built-In Filtration

The cry for built-in ND filters can be heard far and wide from this corner of the market every time a manufacturer launches an otherwise well-featured camera without any thought for those who may not want to attach a matte box and use cine style filter trays all the time. It’s a decision however that goes into defining the intended purpose of the camera. Blackmagic Design for instance have never included built-in ND filters, and with a priority clearly for high-end and heavier recording formats, CinemaDNG RAW and Apple ProRes, it can be deduced that they are primarily building cameras with cinema style users in mind. That’s simply something to keep in mind when making a camera purchase, comparing intended use, with individual needs.

Self Sufficiency

It is not unusual to see a stack of large and heavy flight cases unpacked for a cinema shoot. The camera body itself is only one part of a multi-component, multi-person assembly that becomes the camera. Of course, this is not suitable for many non-film set scenarios and so the super 35mm “camcorder” archetype is built to be far more self-sufficient and operated easily by a single operator.

The Expanding Universe of Digital Cinematography

This is just a brief overview of the first chapters in the “big bang” of digital cinematography that exploded over the past decade. You are reading this post, on this website only because of the very chain of events you have just read about. All of the websites, social media groups and pages, even the various camera and workflow experts and personalities we know and follow exist only because this technology exists and was able to create a mainstream market for all levels of filmmakers—professionals and enthusiasts alike—to work with and enjoy.

You have more choice in equipment and accessories, over a wider range of price and features than we could have imagined ten years ago. The expansive digital cinema camera market you are a part of simply did not exist before.

There is no such thing as the one-size fits all camera. They have all evolved in shape, features and function to fulfil their own specific niches, but nowadays you are guaranteed to find more than a few options that will suit your individual requirements—whatever they may be.

I wrote this article for cinema5d and was first published on there on 1st Feb 2016.

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