Over the couple of weeks a lot of camera announcements have been made – some very exciting, and others not so much. The Canon 7D MKII, Samsung NX1 (which shoots 4K encoded to H.265), and the Sony FS7 are just a few of the highlights. I will be posting some of my thoughts on these cameras over the next little while, but for now I wanted to take a step back and look at some of the most influential and game changing cameras in the history of independent cinema to put things in context.
The term “game changer” gets thrown a lot these days, and just about every camera manufacturer wants their camera to be the next big thing. More often than not though, the features, specs, or overall quality of the images that these cameras produce are far from game changing, even if the cameras themselves are impressive. Take the Lumix GH4 for instance (a personal favorite of mine)… This is a camera that is making huge waves in the low budget independent scene, and is undeniably an extremely powerful and valuable tool – but that doesn’t in itself make the camera revolutionary. In my opinion, for a camera to truly shake things up in the independent film world it not only needs to deliver beautiful images, but also offer innovative technology that we haven’t seen before and package it in an affordable way.
With all that said, below is my list of the Top 6 Game Changing Film & Video Cameras Of All Time.
Shooting on film today can be tremendously expensive, not only because such little film stock is being produced but also because there are so few labs out there that can actually process the footage. And while you might imagine that years ago shooting on film was much easier and more accessible, the truth is that it has always been a fairly expensive medium – especially when it came to shooting on 35mm motion picture film. In fact, in the early days of cinema, filmmakers needed access to a significant amount of financing to create even the simplest of projects, and there was really no alternative for aspiring artists that wanted to make a movie of their own but couldn’t afford to. That was at least until cameras like the Bolex H16 hit the market.
Bolex had been making film cameras since the late 1920’s, but it wasn’t until the late 30’s/early 40’s that they made their biggest splash with their H16 camera. The goal with this camera (and the rest of Bolex’s offerings) was to provide an affordable consumer level film camera (in this case using 16mm film) that produced images that could rival true cinema cameras. What the company couldn’t have imagined at the time that they created the H16, was that it would later go down in history as one of the most iconic movie cameras of all time. The camera worked flawlessly (many people compared it to a Swiss watch due to it’s intricate and robust mechanics), and was capable of producing images that closely resembled those coming off of the higher end 35mm motion picture cameras of it’s time. For many decades the Bolex H16 was the camera of choice for filmmakers on a budget, and is even still used today. Some of the most iconic filmmakers of all time (including Steven Spielberg and Darren Aronofsky) shot their early work on this camera, and countless music videos, documentaries, and indie films of years past made use of this amazing camera. In many ways it was the precursor to some of the digital cinema cameras that we have today which are offering huge results at a low cost.
Arriflex SR II-E
The Bolex H16 had developed and matured over the years and Bolex had continued to release various iterations of the camera, but by the late 1970’s it was starting to show its age. That said, as I mentioned above the camera continued to be employed for years after (and even to this day), but it was still based around a design that was created decades before and as such it wasn’t as well suited to the independent filmmaking landscape as it was in previous years. There were new techniques, approaches, and technological developments that required filmmakers that wanted to shoot on 16mm film to look for alternate solutions to the H16, and arguably the best choice at the time (and for many years to come) was the Arri SR II-E.
The SR II-E was released in 1982 and offered some truly revolutionary functionality in an affordable package. Arri had of course been manufacturing a wide array of film cameras for years at this point, but the SR II-E proved to be one of their most widely adopted offerings as it boasted an incredibly rich feature set housed in an excellent form factor. Like it’s predecessor (the SR I), this camera not only performed beautifully, but was capable of high frame rates, and built with a symmetrical body that was adaptable to the ever changing needs of filmmakers. When the SR II-E was released, it was priced out at $3400 less than their standard SR II, and was nearly an identical camera with the exception of a few functions (such as automatic exposure) that weren’t available. Ultimately the impressive features, build quality, and affordable price point made this camera a go-to solution for many filmmakers. Countless features, television shows, music videos and documentaries have been shot on this camera (and the original SR II), including such recent films as Black Swan.
With just about everything being shot digitally these days, we often forget that it really wasn’t too long ago that shooting digitally was taboo. Up until the late 90’s and early 2000’s, there were very few (if any) digital video cameras on the market that were capable of producing an image that even remotely resembled one that was shot on film, and the few offerings that were available were extremely expensive and certainly not affordable to the independent filmmaker. For this reason alone, cameras like the Bolex H16 and Arriflex SR II-E continued to be heavily used on independent productions even many decades after they were released. That is under the Panasonic DVX 100 was released.
The DVX was the first affordable camera that truly offered a viable alternative to shooting on film, as it’s 24p mode (which at the time was amongst the best there was) allowed filmmakers to shoot progressively the film standard of 24 fps – something that very few cameras offered. But it wasn’t simply the fact that this camera could shoot in 24p that made it so great… There were so many other factors. The Leica zoom lens that came on the cameras was superb, the overall versatility of the camera was unmatched, and the film-like image quality that it produced was incredible. In many ways this camera marked the beginning of the end of 16mm film (at least as far as lower budget productions went), as many projects that were commonly shot on 16mm film (notably music videos, documentaries and low budget indies) started to consider the DVX as a viable option. It was even used on the Courtney Cox film ‘November’ and on Richard Linklater’s ‘Waking Life’.
Canon 5D MKII
There were a number of cameras that were released after the DVX100 that stole some of it’s thunder (including some of Panasonic’s HD offerings, like the the HVX200), but it wasn’t until the 5D MK II was released that things really started to change. Up until this point in time just about every popular video camera being used in the independent film scene had one major issue – they had fixed lenses. What this meant was that in order to get a more filmic depth of field, or make use of a really great piece of glass, a clunky and expensive 35mm lens adapter needed to be used. For any of you out there that had to make use of 35mm adapters, you know how brutal the experience could be at times! Clearly independent filmmakers were starting to outgrow their fixed lens HD cameras, and needed something else.
That’s where the 5D MKII came in. Canon admittedly created one of the most revolutionary cameras in recent history completely by fluke. While they did of course intentionally add a video mode to their cameras (and actively promoted it), they could never have imagined the ripple effect that this camera was going to create. Canon likely wanted to integrate video functionality into the MK II as a bonus feature so that photographers and photo journalists would have that option available to them if they felt like getting some extra content. I doubt however that they ever intended the MK II to become an independent filmmaking machine, but that is exactly what happened once indie filmmakers started to see the benefits of shooting on an interchangeable lens camera and a full frame sensor. All of a sudden it was possible to achieve a cinematic depth of field and to shoot in extremely low light situations with ease, allowing filmmakers to keep their lighting setup time and cost to a minimum.
While the 5D MK II is certainly not the best DSLR for video today and is undeniably quite flawed, at one point it simply was the best. More importantly though, it was the first one out of the gate (at least the first to become widely accepted) and it will go down in history for the impact that it made on the industry.
The 5D MK II spawned the DSLR revolution and before long nearly every low-budget independent production was choosing to shoot on DSLR. Even larger scale feature films and television shows at one point were using DSLRs for specific situations in order to take advantage of their small footprint and low-light capabilities. But on the higher end of the independent filmmaking spectrum, there was still a void that needed to be filled. DSLRs were capable of producing pretty great images, but they weren’t ideal for professional use on a large scale set, as most of them lacked some basic video and audio functionality (such as a headphone jack, zebras, etc.), that ultimately deterred much of the larger scale independent productions from wanting to go down the DSLR path. So for a while there was a big gap in the camera market, and the more well funded independent productions needed to choose between dealing with the shortcomings of a DSLR, or shooting film and trying not to blow their budget.
That was until RED Digital Cinema first released their flagship camera, the “One”, and everything changed again. That gap between DSLR and 35mm film started to close… Now there was an alternative to shooting on a DSLR that did cost more (especially in the early years), but wasn’t nearly as costly as shooting on film in most situations. When the RED One first came out it was well out of the price range of the vast majority of independent filmmakers, but it didn’t take long before the camera became much more accessible. Within a year or two of it’s release, prices started to drop and even smaller independent productions were able to afford to rent the camera for a couple of weeks on end, ultimately allowing them to capture a filmic image that was previously only reserved for the highest end productions. Much like the Canon 5D MK II, the RED One was eventually outdone by other digital cinema cameras (like the Arri Alexa, or RED’s own Epic), but at the time that it was released it was truly groundbreaking. It goes without saying that if it wasn’t for the RED One, we likely wouldn’t have seen the development of the next camera on this list.
Blackmagic Cinema Camera
While the RED One gave independent filmmakers the ability to shoot cinema quality images at a low cost, for many filmmakers that cost simply wasn’t low enough. When compared to film there is no denying that the RED One provided a cost efficient solution, but at the end of the day it was still an expensive format for many to shoot on. Even if a production was intending to rent a RED package, things started to get pricey really quickly… Mainly because RED has always created their cameras in a way that requires the end user to use proprietary RED hardware. So if a production wanted to just rent a RED One and use existing peripherals that they already owned or could borrow, that wouldn’t be possible. Expensive RED Mags (media), monitoring, and other accessories were required to run the camera and ultimately all of these little costs ended up being a prohibitive factor for so many filmmakers.
Then came along the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. A $3000 camera that could produce images comparable to RED but at a far lower cost, and came with the most powerful color grading software in existence. It wasn’t just the cost of the camera that was revolutionary though, it was also the fact that it was designed from the ground up to be used with third party hardware. Rather than spending thousands of dollars on a RED Mag, you could go out and buy a standard computer SSD for a fraction of the cost and start rolling right away. And since this camera was designed by Blackmagic who also make DaVinci Resolve, it signalled the start of a new era with regards to digital cinema cameras – where hardware and software applications were starting to merge together. Like any camera, the BMCC wasn’t without it’s quirks (it took a couple years just to see how much recording time was left on the cards!), but nonetheless it has forever changed the independent film world – at least when it comes to camera tech. It has truly disrupted the cinema camera market and in many ways challenged other camera manufacturers to lower the cost of their cinema cameras, or provide more innovative solutions in their cameras in order to justify the price difference.
Looking at the cameras on this list, there is a pattern that starts to emerge. All of these cameras were not only capable of producing images that rivalled cameras many times their cost, but they all were pushing technological boundaries in one way or another – even if the companies behind them didn’t realize it at the time. And perhaps most importantly (as it pertains to independent filmmakers), is the fact that all of these cameras offered tremendous value. Even in the case of the RED One, which was undeniably an expensive camera – it still offered a cost effective solution for producing high end motion pictures that was far more accessible than shooting on 35mm film.
It’s inevitable that we are going to see an exponential growth in the world of digital cinema as a result of the current technological landscape. A camera like the Bolex H16 was relevant for many decades, yet cameras today will be outdated in many cases within months. For this reason alone, manufacturers will need to continue to push technology forward and create new products that are innovative enough to be disruptive and make a real dent in the filmmaking landscape of today. Where things will go in the future is anyones guess, but one thing is for sure – cameras are going to keep producing better images than ever in packages that cost less and less every year.
There are some really incredible cameras (both film and digital) that could have made this list, but didn’t one for reason or another. For instance, the Arri Alexa (which is my favorite digital cinema camera) didn’t make the list as it hasn’t necessarily affected the low budget independent community in the same way that many of the other cameras on this list did. That said though, if you feel I’ve missed any important film or video cameras of years past, be sure to let me know in the comments!
And for those of you that are chasing that filmic look, be sure to check out my Guide For Capturing Cinematic Images With Your DSLR here!