President’s Desk: The Repeal of Moore’s Law

Kees Van Oostrum, ASC (Photo by Jacek Laskus, ASC, PSC)

It’s been announced that the pace of Moore’s Law is slowing down and shows little promise for acceleration in the years to come. Based on the 1965 observations of Gordon Moore — a semiconductor pioneer and co-founder of Intel — the “law” originally predicted that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit would double every year. In the ’70s, Moore revised the prediction to doubling every two years. 

After its introduction, the law was referenced in many articles and presentations, and it soon took on a life of its own. It became a roadmap and, lo and behold, an accurate one. It kept working, and people kept using it to plan for the next generation of advancements across the spectrum of technology. 

When our industry went digital, we became instantly familiar with this pace of development. But now, in motion pictures as in the semiconductor business, the road of “multiplying improvement” seems to be approaching a dead end. In audio technology, for example, after years of breakneck improvement in recording and playback devices, Dolby Atmos seems to have docked the boat, as the experience of sound in relation to the capacity of human hearing has reached such a point that further advancement seems superfluous. In our own field, high-resolution sensors with extensive dynamic range seem to be heading toward a similar conclusion, and playback systems including laser projection and 8K displays simply start to surpass what the human eye is even capable of perceiving.

Where can we, the “aesthetic guardians of cinematography,” go in the near future, after desaturating an image, using vintage lenses, deconstructing a “perfect shot” into one that pleases our intended vision? No one really knows. For years now, manufacturers have told us how their improvements were unique and necessary, how one would be able to deliver a better image, more defined, and capable of reproducing a perfect cinematographic vision that we had to achieve. 

The bottom line is that, in the next few years, there will be hardly any difference between digital camera systems. In a way, we are returning to the era of film, when there were just a few stocks with fairly similar characteristics, and basically two modern 35mm camera systems — Panavision and ARRI — that offered no differences in the looks that they produced. We would choose one or the other based on its size or shape, or maybe because one was compatible with a specific line of optics — although that difference, too, was ultimately negated. As a matter of fact, Panavision was ARRI’s most significant customer, as the latter’s cameras complemented Panavision’s rental inventory.

Now, after almost two decennia of competing digital cameras, we seem to have nearly come full circle, where there is hardly any difference anymore. Of course, there is still metadata implementation, higher frame rates and various other technological enhancements to the systems that continue to develop, but they have nothing to do with the actual image quality and display.

Maybe we are now re-entering a period, as cinematographers, where we can leave behind the constant crusade of camera and lens tests, the endless discussions of resolution, dynamic range and color reproduction, and concern ourselves again exclusively and peacefully with the creative part of our work — camera movement, framing and lighting.

When I was shooting film with either the latest Panavision cameras or the most recent Arricams, I would frequently sneak in shots with my decades-old Eclair CM3, grinding away like an old-fashioned coffee grinder. And in the end, no one would notice the difference on the screen — there simply was none!

It is comforting that, probably soon, we will be there again — and, hopefully, a little more in control of our images. In the end, Moore’s law just might lead us back to an analog and sensitive mindset. 

“To view the world with a poet’s eyes is to see in it unseasonable splendor and unreasonable gladness where other eyes see only bleakness, only blankness.” 
                                                                                       — Maria Popova

Kees van Oostrum        
ASC President

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