New Breeds of Movie Cameras --

thefilmbook is a brand new blog. Actually, I should call this space a “web column,” for it is in fact a tall, narrow rectangle of words and images... Across these 500 pixels I will write about the art and technology of filmmaking, with a special emphasis on the image.

This column is an extension of the virtual book that I am developing on thefilmbook web site, where you can find more detailed accounts of the subjects treated here.

I must add that the opinions expressed here, along with any errors or omissions, are mine only. I hope to take full advantage of the web's fluidity, striving to perfect my posts over time, and to include corrections offered by you, the reader.

Let's start then with CAMERAS...

2010 may well be remembered as the year of the new motion picture cameras, as highlighted by 3 cameras from Aaton, Arri and Red presented for the first time at the NAB show in April:


ALEXA-EV from Arri

-- 0.75 - 60 fps

-- 3.5 K Bayer CMOS sensor

-- 2K or HD output

-- in-camera recording of ProRes 422 HQ or 444 HD

-- future external recording of Arriraw 


EPIC from Red

-- up to 120 fps

-- 5 K Bayer CMOS sensor

-- 5 K output

-- in-camera CF card recording of Redcode (compressed Raw)



-- up to 50 fps ?

-- 4 K+ Bayer CCD sensor

-- 4K output

-- in-camera recording on SSD of uncompressed Raw

-- in-camera recording on SDHC card of Avid DNxHD proxies


The Alexa should be released this month, but has already been used by cinematographer Anna Foerster on the feature Anonymous by Roland Emmerich, which is wrapping soon. The Epic was tested in May on a shoot by photographer Kenneth Willardt. We have yet to see test footage from the Penelope-∆ (the triangle is the Greek capital letter Delta).

I hasten to add that there are many other camera possibilities, and NAB also featured fresh upgrades of existing cameras and glimpses of future models by P+S Technik, Panasonic, Sony, and Vision Research, among others. Naturally I will discuss other cameras in future posts, including 3D imaging systems. I will also devote a column to that new cross-breed: the still camera that shoots HD, exemplified by the Canon 5D.


Key specs

So how then can we classify these new breeds of cameras?
Although price is often the most decisive feature, key technical aspects include:

  • Sensor size & lenses used
  • Sensor geometry: Bayer or RGB
  • Sensor type: CCD or CMOS
  • Latitude ( aka dynamic range)
  • ISO ( aka sensitivity)
  • Resolution: 2K, 4K and beyond
  • Compression versus uncompressed
  • Workflow options


800 ISO

Aaton, Arri and Red are all promising more than 13 stops of latitude for their new models. Arri gives an 800 ISO equivalency for the Alexa. Aaton announces an intriguing "dual sensitivity" of 800 and 100 ISO for the Penelope-∆ , without revealing how this will be achieved. Epic's specs from Red asserts a “wide range ISO 200-12800.” Yet all 3 manufacturers promise a clean image with the cameras rated at 800 ISO. In the end, latitude and sensitivity are qualities that most cinematographers will want to evaluate for themselves. Indeed ISO rating is as much a technical as an artistic choice, as it will determine the amount of noise in the image.


Bayer pattern

4 lines of Bayer pattern pixels

The Alexa, Epic and Penelope-∆ all use a Bayer pattern sensor which has twice as many Green pixels as Red and Blue ones. This is a form of color compression equivalent to 4:2:2 (or "422"), giving more information to the green colors which our eyes are most sensitive to.

Bayer pattern images require de-Bayering, a process that creates the missing lines of Red and Blue pixels by a complex, often arduous interpolation. While de-Bayering is getting faster, it has sometimes marked a workflow slowdown in the past. Penelope Delta's choice of a Bayer pattern CCD distinguishes it from Arri and Red (Bayer CMOS) and from the Panavision Genesis and Sony F35 (RGB CCD).


Immediate editing

The most revolutionary aspect of these new breeds of cameras is the simplification of recording and editing. In the past many digital filmmakers have been frustrated by the complexity of delivering the camera original to the edit room and DI suite. These new cameras allow for the creation of in-camera dailies, and for immediate editing.

The Alexa provides a brilliant workflow solution by incorporating twin SxS ("S by S") cards in the camera body that can record Apple ProRes files in either 422 or 444. This means that you can literaly eject the SxS card, insert it in a laptop and immediately start editing.

In similar fashion, the Penelope-Delta records compressed proxy footage in Avid's DNxHD format, and you can immediately edit. In addition the Penelope Delta also records uncompressed Raw on removable solid state drives in-camera, making it a self-contained system.

Avid has also announced a new capability for proxy cutting of scaled-down Red files (.r3d ) without transcoding.


Converging cameras

Another striking aspect of this year's cameras is the cross-breeding between film, digital and photography.

The Penelope-Delta system will use a digital magazine that adapts to the existing Penelope 35mm film camera, thus enabling the same camera front with lens and optical viewfinder to be used to shoot either 35 mm or digital. Penelope-D is a true hybrid camera combining classic and new technologies. (P+S Technik is doing something similar with a 16mm SR body, a concept first proposed by Joe Dunton).

In a different vein, Red announced a few years ago that their product was a DSMC, a Digital Still and Motion Camera, to be used for both photography and cinema. Canon and others are getting to the same place by gradually transforming still cameras into movie cameras. (That particular convergence will be the subject of a future column).


Resolution: 2K or 4K ?

Both the Epic and Penelope-Delta are designed for 4K or more -- like the Red One. The Alexa, by contrast, is designed for a 2K output, a resolution similar to the Panavision Genesis and Sony F35. 4k versus 2K is one of the fundamental distinctions when looking at the imaging possibilities of 2010.

2K proponents, like Arri manager Stephan Schenk, argue that 2K and HD are the current output standard and that they will remain so for some time, adding of course that 2K uses less bandwidth and storage, with the added advantage of facilitating latitude and sensibility.

4K proponents, like Aaton inventor Jean-Pierre Beauviala, argue that more resolution means added finesse now, and also helps to future-proof images, adding that the technology will rapidly evolve to handle the increased speed and space required.

Peter Jackson sent a video greeting from New Zealand to Red aficionados at NAB. The director of Lord of the Rings took time out from writing The Hobbit to tell the Red people how much he liked the new MX sensor, and to make an argument for 4K, likening it to the 65mm used by David Lean.


Compressed or uncompressed ?

Another divide exists between proponents of uncompressed versus compressed digital originals. The Panavision Genesis has gone a long way to establishing the "light" compression of HDCAM SR videotape as a viable original format for dozens of features, at some 440 Mbps (Megabits per second).

Alexa's on-board recording of the ProRes 444 at some 330 Mbps may well tempt many filmmakers to forego uncompressed for the immediate editing of ProRes. These filmmakers might elect to use ProRes 444 as their "master", deeming it good enough quality for TV, HD and perhaps even film distribution. In this scenario the Alexa is a self-contained camera with no need for an external recorder. It will be interesting to see the finished quality of the ProRes 444 image, especially after the signal is pushed and pulled in color timing.

Alternatively, the Alexa can output an uncompressed Arriraw signal to be recorded on external devices. Penelope Delta offers in-camera Raw recording with no compression on to removable SSDs (solid state drives). With Bayer-pattern cameras, recording uncompressed entails an additional de-Bayering step, on the set or in post, to transform the image into RGB.

The Epic uses Redcode, a Raw signal with "visually lossless" wavelet compression that also requires de-Bayering. Redcode will be recorded on-board to Compact Flash cards or SSD, with at present, a top data rate of 300-something Megabits (42 MegaBytes per second).

All 3 cameras will also permit monitoring, and/or off-camera recording, of uncompressed HD-SDI.


Sensor size & lenses

The new breeds of cameras are designed to use existing 35mm movie lenses, with sensor areas similar to 35mm motion picture negative. The relationship of the lens to the sensor area determines angle of view, depth of field and perspective. By maintaining a sensor size similar to 35mm, the new cameras allow filmmakers to work with the same optical vocabulary that has defined the tradition of 35mm filmmaking.

At the same time, I also hope to see new optical formats continue to evolve, like the return of 2-Perf film, and, in digital, Canon 5D's huge sensor, Vantage's 1.3x squeeze, and Arri's MScope. Increased diversity can only help to expand the language of cinema.

Today the two dominant 35mm film negative formats are 3-perf Super-35 and 4-perf anamorphic. To illustrate this, I mocked up a frame from Contempt by Jean-Luc Godard that shows Raoul Coutard operating a Cinemascope camera, a new breed in its day. (The image is shown reframed for 1.85, and in its original squeezed wide-screen format.)


Two 35mm film formats

3-Perf Super 35

4-Perf anamorphic

with twofold horizontal squeeze

on left is black area for 2 optical sound tracks

click on image for unsqueezed 2.39:1


Super 35 family - PL and PV lenses

The Epic and Penelope-∆ are designed with 16 by 9 (1.78:1) sensors with an area similar to 3-perf Super 35mm. This allows filmmakers to use the same Angenieux, Cooke, Primo and Zeiss lenses they already use with 35mm cameras, with similar depth of field, angles of view and perspective. This is also true of the Panavision Genesis and Sony F35. The Alexa's sensor can be configured to image either the entire surface of its 4 by 3 sensor, or just a 16 by 9 portion.

The standard lens mounts for this family are PL or PV ( Panavision). The Super 35 family of cameras also benefits from the precision of 35mm lens focus scales and the sophistication of follow focus, mattebox and other accessories that have evolved over a century of filmmaking.

Actual film frame sizes


4 by 3 family - Anamorphic lenses

Anamorphic lenses were designed half a century ago to squeeze a wide screen image alongside the sound track into the standard 35mm frame of the time. Anamorphic is a form of optical compression whose artifacts, like the out of focus ellipse, have become part of the language of cinema.

It is to Arri's credit that they put a 4 by 3 sensor, with an area similar to the anamorphic frame, on their existing D21, and on the upcoming Alexa-OV (which will be available at the end of 2010). This will allow digital filmmakers to continue to use JDC, Hawk, Panavision or Technovision anamorphic lenses to create the unique look of the anamorphic frame, with the same angles of view, depth of field and perspective as in 35 mm.


Filmmaking DNA

As we look back at the amazing evolution from the Cinemascope camera with its parallax viewfinder to the Alexa, Epic and Penelope-Delta of 2010, I would like to conclude by stressing the importance of preserving the richness of our cinematic language. The new breeds of digital cameras should marry the best of existing film, video and photography technology with new solutions. Anamorphic filmmaking is one example of filmmaking DNA that we should preserve and allow for in the new breeds of tomorrow's cameras.

For filmmakers, the wonderful range and variety of 2010 camera choices, both new and older, means ever more possibilities to continue to redefine the art of cinema with its technology.

And for that, we owe a debt of gratitude to all the people who continue to make motion picture cameras.


Your comments and corrections are most welcome...

My thanks to Jean-Pierre Beauviala from Aaton, Stephan Schenk from Arri, and Alan Piper from Red Europe for the information they supplied.


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