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:
- 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.
- 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.