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How Hollywood Quality Cameras went from Costing More than a Lamborghini to Less than a Secondhand Moped

The Hollywood quality digital cinema revolution

Ten years ago, when I was directing TV commercials in Australia, there was one game in town if you wanted to shoot a feature film and have it play in cinemas: film. You had to buy undeveloped stock by the foot; you had to rent a film camera (because no one owned them) and pay a professional cinematographer to make a lot of educated guesses on set on how to expose it, so the stock wasn’t ruined. You then you had to have the film processed (expensive), then you had to have the film Telecined, meaning transferred from film to video.

All those steps were costly and time-consuming, but that was a there was no real way to get a cinematic image without them. The only alternative to all that expense and time of film was a video camera. These were big bulky things, like the Sony Betacam. They had fixed lenses that were very slow (they needed a lot of light) and have a very deep depth of field. They were also very contrasty they didn't have much dynamic range. In short, they looked like television and not like film.

Video cameras had made some strides in looking better, but few manufacturers wanted to develop a more filmic image and instead settled for video cameras with more features. Filmmakers wanted an image that looked like film because film looked expensive and prestigious.

Interestingly, the first couple of video cameras that shot a filmic image didn't solve the expense problem but were made to overcome other limitations of shooting on film. The Thompson Viper was the one of the first used on feature films, used on Collateral and Zodiac. It cost more than $100,000. It was very pretty large and needed a team of technicians to keep it running.

The two main reasons that the that those directors, Michael Mann and David Fincher, used that camera used it was that it could do more extended takes than the eight or the twelve minute take that a film camera was capable. David Fincher could do his 400 takes without cutting to get the performance he wanted. They could also shoot much more low-light and get shots of cities at night (which is the primary setting for both of those films).

Then the guy that founded Oakley Sunglasses, James Jannard, wasn’t happy with the cameras he was using for his commercials and decided he wanted to be in the film business. Unlike all the other camera manufacturers, he had no existing business to lose by doing digital, and he developed the Red camera.

The red one came out it was $20,000. You had to spend around $40,000 in accessories like hard drives and all the things you need to use it, but it had interchangeable lenses and gave by far the best digital image so far and was cheaper than shooting on film. You could attach very high-end PL lenses, the same lenses that film cameras use

The Red One got an image that was versatile, and easy to grade. It was a pain to use though, taking three minutes to start up. It would overheat or shut down in the middle of a take. It was cutting-edge technology, and that isn’t always what you want when you’re burning through money on a film set. Another problem was that the image that it produced was very digital – it felt cold and impersonal. It wasn’t video, but it didn’t feel like film either. It wasn’t immediately apparent how to make Red footage look like film.

A company called Arri which made most of the film cameras saw the writing on the wall and decided to develop a sensor and create a digital film camera before Red got their act together and put them out of business. They came up with a camera called the Arri Alexa This fulfilled all the hopes that people had had for the Red camera. It was dependable, efficient to shoot with, the image was beautiful and very gradable and very filmic straight out of the camera.

Around 2010 Alexa transformed first the advertising industry, then was adopted by most TV shows. By 2015, most of the film nominated for best picture at the Oscars were shot on the Alexa, and it had become the industry default instead of film.

The Red and Arri systems still cost $60,000 and up. At the same time this was happening, Canon, which made stills cameras decided they would enable video mode their new camera, the 5d mark ii. This camera cost under 5k and had interchangeable lenses like every DSLR. People worked out how to get an amazing image out of this camera and the indie film industry was really transformed, almost overnight. People were able to get use incredibly fast, cheap stills lenses to get an incredibly shallow depth of field and make an image that was much more filmic.

In the wake of that camera being released in 2008, every other manufacturer rushed into the market and tried to produce digital cinema cameras. A couple of years later, a new class of camera emerged that had interchangeable lenses, sophisticated audio inputs and shot an image that was not made to come straight out of a camera but was made to be graded in post-production.

The footage these cameras shot gave control in post-production, rather than something that was ready to upload right away. Probably the last the last big thing to come to digital cinema cameras was a raw workflow. Still, photographers had been using raw for years at this point. Raw means capturing images separately in red, green and blue so that you can mix the colors in post and have a lot more flexibility.

When the first digital cinema cameras appeared, they were in the tens of thousands of dollars range. The second generation was around $10,000 and now Canon and Panasonic have released $7000 versions that shoot Raw in 4k and has a whole bunch of other tools that let you create a cinematic image.

The latest cameras also have tools that film couldn’t even be dreamed of. Dual pixel autofocus means that the camera is able to pick an object, like a person's face, then track with it without having to manually adjust the focus.

Filmmakers used to have to replace street lamps when they want to shoot a scene outside at night. Digital video cameras are able to get ISO images, then clean up the graininess and post with different algorithms.

Digital cameras do have some downsize. The more flexibility you want in post, the more you have to pay for that in file sizes and processing times. This camera produces huge files, almost 500gig per.

At the end of the day, a filmic image was always about more than the camera. You will always need preparation, great lighting, camera movement and all manner of other things to create images that seem ‘cinematic’, but one of the biggest hurdles, the camera itself, is now within the reach of most aspiring filmmakers.