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Have Digital Cinema Cameras Started To Plateau? Here’s Why It May Be A Good Thing.

Without a doubt, cinema camera technology has continued to get stronger and more affordable with each passing year. It was only several short years ago that many of us were struggling to get a clean 480p image out of our miniDV cameras, or that 4K was only reserved for the highest end film productions. But even though we have seen dramatic leaps in quality and features across the board in cinema cameras over the years, I am starting to feel that we are reaching a plateau… And that may be a very good thing.

There is no denying that the barrier to entry has ever been lower for independent filmmakers looking to invest in a camera system. Today’s cinema cameras are more powerful than ever, and cheaper than ever, which is liberating for filmmakers on a budget. That said, although 2016 has still shown us that there is lots of room left for innovation and progress in the cinema camera market, it hasn’t brought any groundbreaking technology to the masses – and I think this trend will continue.

Since the digital revolution, we’ve seen camera technology improve by leaps and bounds nearly every year. In many ways, it started with cameras like the Canon XL1, which offered a viable alternative to Super 16mm film for many filmmakers on a budget. Then there were cameras like the DVX100 that gave us incredible 24p performance – so much that even some feature films (notably the Courtney Cox film “November”), starting making use of it.

Then there was HD. All of these great 24p cameras started to get re-worked into high definition versions that could shoot in full 1080p, which held some of us over for a good year or two until we experienced the DSLR revolution.

The Canon 5D and every other DSLR that offered video recording suddenly solved a major issue for filmmakers – lens adapters. In the days of small sensor camcorders, many of us were struggling with 35mm adapters in a desperate attempt to achieve shallow DOF and use high quality glass on our cameras. But adapters were always clunky and a nuisance to work with… DSLRs fixed that.

It wasn’t long before the DSLR revolution inspired a whole new wave of products, like the Canon C300 or the Sony FS100 – essentially “best of both worlds” cameras for their time. These types of cameras gave us the interchangable lens capabilities of a DSLR with the form factor of a more traditional camcorder.

And last but not least, we saw the RED ONE and the Arri Alexa. Two ground breaking cameras that each in their own way helped to push larger scale productions into the digital world.

All of this change happened quickly. In what felt like a few short years, digital went from being a taboo format that most professionals wouldn’t touch, to the industry standard.

WHERE IT SLOWED DOWN

In my opinion, every innovation that came after the RED ONE and Arri Alexa was incremental. Don’t get me wrong, a RED DRAGON is more capable than a RED ONE, and an Alexa SXT is more capable than an Alexa Classic. Not to mention, DSLRs and mirrorless cameras now have 4K, internal stabilization, and loads of other bells and whistles that simply didn’t exist a few years ago.

But none of these improvements are as monumental as what we’ve seen in the past. A film shot on an Alexa Classic can look as good as a film shot on the Alexa SXT if it’s in the hands of the right DP. The same comparison could be made on the lower end – a 4 year old Lumix GH2 can still hold up well in 2016 – even though the Lumix GH4 clearly is “better” in almost every way, at least from a spec perspective.

So while we continue to see new features added to our cameras every year: higher resolution sensors, better codecs, higher frame rates, and so on… We haven’t really seen cinema camera technology evolve in the way it had in the past.

There are exceptions to this statement that are worth pointing out. For instance, there are several 8K capable cinema cameras now, which are certainly proving to be useful on some niche productions. But how many of us actually need 8K? The leap from SD to HD was monumental. The jump from HD to 4K was noticeable, but not groundbreaking. The small hop from 4K to 8K though? Not nearly as dramatic.

I think we are seeing camera technology slow down for two main reasons: 

  1. The high end cinema cameras we currently have available to us (the Arri Alexa in particular), are so strong and have less room for improvement than ever before, and the low end market isn’t far behind.
  2. Virtual Reality is here, and it will be here to stay. Camera companies are putting a ton of R & D into VR camera technology, and they have barely scratched the surface. Inevitably, this will take the focus away from cinema cameras in some regards.

With all this in mind we will of course continue to see improvements on camera technology in every way. Prices will come down further, internal stabilization will improve, higher DR will be possible on more cameras, better color science will be available on the lower end, and so on. But none of this will really have an affect on the way we tell stories.

WHY IT’S A GOOD THING

The point here isn’t to complain that we aren’t seeing more technical innovation in cinema cameras today. In fact, my point is exactly the opposite.

Technology in this business is incredible and can open up many possibilities for filmmakers, but in many ways it can distract us from what matters most – being creative. Many filmmakers spent years obsessing over incremental camera updates, and not focusing enough (or at all), on lighting, story, direction, or any of the other fundamentals.

I know lots of filmmakers that could tell you the exact bit rate that their camera shoots at, it’s precise rolling shutter performance, and how much dynamic range it has, but who don’t understand even the basic fundamentals of a 3 point lighting setup. This is something that I hope will change in the near future.

This seemingly slower time in the camera industry should give us all good reason to step back and work more on our craft. Technology will continue to improve and we will all continue to be excited by it – I certainly know that I will. That said, what’s far more exciting is that we now have cameras that can fit in the palms of our hands that can shoot better quality footage than the multi-hundred thousand dollar cinema cameras of years past.

Have we hit a plateau? In some ways, yes – at least in my opinion. There will always be newer and better cameras, and that will never change. But it truly feels like we are in a time where we have all the technology we need right at our fingertips, and now it’s up to us to put it to work.

Personally speaking, I will always be a camera junkie and I’ll always follow the latest trends in this industry. At the same time, I spend far more time than ever developing my approach to directing and writing, experimenting with lighting techniques, and expanding my color and post-production abilities, as that is what I feel matters most.

That’s about it for now!

For those of you looking to brush up on your color grading skills – Be sure to click here to check out my 3 Cinematic LUT Packs that I just released a few days ago.

 

About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

14 Comments

  • Dean Butler
    July 17, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    I think in the recent two years the most noticeable upgrades have been in low light ability. At the low end the A7s and A7s II, at the high end the Panasonic Varicam

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      July 19, 2016 at 2:14 pm

      Low-light has been huge. As has dynamic range. I think we’ll keep seeing improvements on both fronts, although at the same time I think both low-light and DR capabilities are already so strong, that they may start to level off soon too. For instance, if we go any higher than 16 – 17 stops with dynamic range, we are going to start getting an HDR look on our footage, which many people aren’t going to love.

      Great points, and thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  • Dean Butler
    July 17, 2016 at 2:54 pm

    Great post. You are 100% correct. I’ve been on a Scarlet MX for 3 1/2 years now. Bought it used. So far resisted the GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) for something newer. Certainly don’t NEED more resolution, but I’m not a fan of cropping the sensor for slow-motion which I find I’m using heaps for paid work. So may finally look at Scarlet-W (50fps slow motion in full S35) . It’s a great time to be shooting. I think it’s important not to lose our s*&t everytime a new camera is announced. But when we can see that we could do a better job or a camera will make our job easier (and it’s financially viable from a business perspective) then it may be worth looking at an upgrade. But the way cameras are evolving it’s only really worth it / necessary to upgrade every 2nd or third generation. Certainly not every new generation (depending on your business model – obviously makes sense if you hire out your gear).

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      July 19, 2016 at 2:11 pm

      Thanks a lot Dean. You’re absolutely right that there is still a time and a place to upgrade your gear, and as you said it just has to be for the right reasons. When you legitimately outgrow your gear, or have a need for a feature that your camera doesn’t have, then it’s time to upgrade. Too many people upgrade their cameras when they don’t really need to, often because they are buying into the hype or marketing of a new camera. But when you force yourself to use your gear until you know for certain you need something more substantial – you’ll always make better investments. Thanks again for the note!

      Reply
  • Curtis boggs
    July 17, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Great article, Thank you very much.
    I too would like to see you review a Kinefinity camera.
    At 6k res they seem to have an “Alexa” look to the images.

    Interesting where this tech has started and where it seems to be going. I think the chase to 8k, 10k etc seems to be overkill at this point.

    Curtis

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      July 19, 2016 at 2:08 pm

      Thanks Curtis! Couldn’t agree more with your points. As for the Kinefinity – I’ve had quite a few people ask me to review/test it, so I hope I have the opportunity soon. I’ll report back on this soon if there’s any movement.

      Reply
  • Liam
    July 6, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    Definitely agreed!

    I wish I spent less time thinking how to spend my hard earned cash, it’s a bit silly really. I’m getting there though, and starting to think more about production than the camera itself. There are so many capable cameras out there now, and comparing them all is fruitless. You see those ‘What camera were the Sundance winners shot on’ posts and essentially all that they show is that you can shoot on LOADS of different cameras these days.

    Another point is…our eyes. The human eye isn’t good enough to see 8K, it can’t even tell the difference between 4K and HD once you step back a couple of feet. So we’re also meeting the limitations of our own physical makeup.

    Good post. Thanks

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      July 6, 2016 at 7:28 pm

      Thanks Liam! Great points all around, especially with regards to the “Sundance cameras”. Festival films are a great case in point in that they are shot on such a wide variety of cameras – from 7Ds to Alexas. In the end, if your story is strong, your cinematography is on point, and your film can move an audience, that’s all that really matters. That said, it’s still fun to shoot Alexa when we can 😉

      Reply
  • Dylan Kronen
    June 29, 2016 at 10:44 am

    Thanks for all the reviews and great information! Any further thoughts on the Digital Bolex and more from your latests shoots with it? There is something so fascinating about this camera.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      June 29, 2016 at 10:39 pm

      Thanks Dylan! I love the Digital Bolex and am very eager to share the project that I shot on it recently. I haven’t shot with it since my last film project, but the initial thoughts that I had after using it certainly haven’t worn off. It can be a quirky camera at times, but it delivers an image unlike any other. It really is one of a kind.

      Reply
  • Kim
    June 28, 2016 at 6:53 pm

    I hope there would be more cameras like Blackmagic Micro Cinema, cameras that focus to the essentials, yet keeping the price affordable. It looks like there is very little interest for less than 4k cameras. I understand that for real film productions, but think that many would do better with less, they do not just realize it when looking for the next “future proof” camera. I am one of them and just starting to realize less can be better for many uses.

    I have feeling that 2.5k would be pretty optimal for many uses. It would allow lens correction and some cropping for videos that are anyway published 1080p. Hopefully BMMCC will be developed to this direction + full MFT size sensor (i.e. crop 2, not 3)

    So why not 4k, simply because:

    – huge file sizes, especially if RAW, but even compressed. This comes a problem especially when storing and backing up the files. I have this problem with GH4 4k files. Creating optimized media when importing to FCP X and the file sizes get pretty huge. (and I have done some unwise importing and created a 12 T file management problem and it is only growing)

    – 4k is slower to edit, it requires a powerful computer. Proxy files can help, but I doubt many “normal users” uses them. I do not, just too complicated. GH4 4k is ok on Mac Pro 2013, BMMCC ProRes LT is ok on Mac BookPro 2010, that is huge difference on the calculating power required. I much like a camera that provides Apple ProRes directly, keeps the FCP X libraries small and simplifies many things.

    The Virtual Reality will require higher resolutions and frame rates and more powerful computers. it will give the computer industry a boost, new requirements for more powerful computers, that will help also the video editing and file storing and maybe in less than 10 years 8k video is the affordable standard, until then, I would be very happy with a BMMCC updated with 2.5k crop 2 sensor, at least for some time.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      June 29, 2016 at 10:21 pm

      Hey Kim – great points here. Like you, I hope that as the higher end starts to level off (technologically speaking), we continue to see more improvements in the mid-low range market. There is certainly still a case to be made for 2.5K or even HD cameras, and I’m sure that we’ll have at least another year or two of innovation on that level before 4K is the standard across the board.

      Reply
  • Tom
    June 28, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    Hi Noam, I fully agree with you in that we are reaching a plateau and that expanding the own abilities should be the top priority.

    I had shoot with the Sony PD-150 (SD only), then in 2088 I got the Canon PowerShot S5IS for photo and video capability. But then I discovered that the video quality from the last was cleaner and better than the Sony… wow I was inmediately converted.

    A question: had you ever shoot with the Kinefinity cameras?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      June 28, 2016 at 6:03 pm

      Thanks for the note Tom! I haven’t shot with the Kinefinity cameras, but would love to. They seem like an excellent alternative to the RED Scarlet-W or RED Raven, at least from what I’ve seen so far. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to test them out in the future.

      Reply

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