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Cinematography: History of Cinematography


Every Advance has a Sense of Déjà Vu

Peter Ludé CTO, Mission Rock Digital San Francisco

The seemingly continual barrage of press releases, blog posts, and reviews about new digital cinematography cameras often emphasize their revolutionary new technology. Certainly, there have been remarkable advancements in camera technology over the past few years. However, when put in historical context, today’s achievements appear as simply the next chapter in a continuing stream of innovations intended to free the motion imaging industry from creative and financial limitations. If there had been blogs 100 years ago, cinematographers would have posted rave reviews of the Bell & Howell 2709, a new camera that replaced the beautiful (but impractical) Victorian wooden camera bodies of the Lumière and Pathé models with one machined from cast aluminum. The 2709 had a four-lens turret, through-the-lens viewfinder, and a novel film movement that increased stability. By the 1920s, the Mitchell Camera Company introduced an even more dramatic series of technical advances that would change feature filmmaking in Hollywood and beyond. Innovations such as the planetary gear-driven variable shutter, improved rackover systems, fixed register pins for film, and quieter operation brought operators new levels of stability, convenience, and performance while enabling precise through-the-lens viewing and focusing. With these advances and other refinements, new cameras cut the time required for filming by as much as half while providing new opportunities for special effects work and high-speed shooting. As they made state-of-the-art technology available, easy-to-use, and economically feasible for camera operators of the time, these cameras were adopted by renowned cinematographers throughout the 1920s and used on the majority of classic Hollywood motion pictures. The motion picture industry at the time saw these as revolutionary new technologies.

Red Digital Cinema’s first versions
Red Digital Cinema’s first versions
     Red Digital Cinema’s first versions

Now, nearly a century later, the evolution of the camera has again come to an inflection point where breakthrough technology has become economically and practically accessible, making it possible for a much broader range of users to make beautiful pictures. Though electronic digital cameras have been around for 20 years, only in the past few years have they offered the quality and performance necessary, not only for television but also for motion picture production. One key innovation was the use of a CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) image sensor that relies on a single chip using a Bayer pattern color filter array rather than the previous three chips arranged in a complex prism. Red Digital Cinema was instrumental in introducing high-resolution cinema-grade CMOS cameras seven years ago, and Canon made great headway in introducing a digital SLR camera that made it very economical. Today, manufacturers including Arri, Sony, Red, Blackmagic, Vision Research, and Canon offer a range of digital cameras that share in common the single-chip CMOS, compatibility with very high-quality optics from the lens manufacturers familiar to cinematographers, and form factors ideally suited for cinematography, documentaries, and episodic television programming. One impact of this innovation has been the democratization of high image quality. Ten years ago, principal photography for television or cinema involved expensive equipment that was difficult to operate. That model demanded that the director of photography have extensive experience, and it required costly film stock, processing, and post-production services. This meant that a great deal of funding was needed before a project could move forward. When it became affordable for most independent filmmakers to purchase cameras that provided both high image quality and more intuitive operation in a compact design, many limitations to the creative voice fell away. By reducing the need for significant financial backing, new digital cameras gave filmmakers greater freedom to stretch the limits of motion images and to explore the topics about which they are passionate. In fact, expansion of the cinematographer’s “vocabulary” of creative tools is proving to be another significant impact of today’s digital camera technology. For years, movies were shot and projected using 35mm film at 24 fps, and everyone learned to love it. Digital technology has no such constraints. While first-generation digital cameras and production workflows were designed to mimic the look and feel of film, with the same number of stops and dynamic range, the current generation of digital cameras has been designed to take advantage of higher frame rates, greater dynamic range, increased spatial resolution and expanded color gamuts that were impossible with motion picture film.

The Mitchell BNC was a workhorse film camera for decades.
The Mitchell BNC was a workhorse film camera for decades.

From the CMOS sensor to the digital laser projector in the theater, the technology being implemented today is enabling content creators to provide images in ways never before seen. Which of these capabilities will be embraced by producers and directors for various projects is not yet known, but the realm of possibility is wide open. Both the financial and creative aspects of filmmaking and television production are being influenced by the reduced cost of capturing digital images. Prior to adoption of the digital camera, a filmmaker might have used 250 feet of film on every take with an actor, and there was a specific – and nontrivial – price tag associated with that footage. With digital cameras, it is now possible to capture much more “footage” with almost no incremental costs. For this reason, it’s not uncommon to begin shooting in rehearsals. A shot formerly done in five takes with film might now be captured with 20 or 30 takes. Filmmakers thus have a wealth of footage, captured cost-effectively, to draw on in creating the film or program they envision. In the realm of documentary filmmaking, cinematographers take advantage of low-cost acquisition to keep cameras on and capture images constantly. Because it now is affordable to record real-life activity continuously and use only a fraction of this footage for the final product, filmmakers have made tremendous strides in documenting dynamic and unpredictable events, whether it’s a volcanic eruption or the lion chasing the gazelle. The creative impact has been enormous. Of the 2014 Oscar-nominated films in the categories of Directing, Cinematography, and Best Picture, two-thirds were shot on a digital cameras using single-chip CMOS technology, rather than film. Articles from the SMPTE digital library (http://journal. smpte.org) from 1916 through the present time clearly demonstrate, the technical innovations brought to market today are leaps and bounds beyond those introduced a century ago. Nevertheless, all of these innovations have been fueled by common objectives: the desire to create the most immersive and engaging images and/or to remove any limits from the creative vision of the director and cinematographer. Always, as filmmakers have worked to convey the emotional impact of a story, they have bumped against the wall of technology. Always, engineers in the motion-imaging field have worked to knock down these walls and allow filmmakers to move in any creative direction they wish. As the evolution of camera technology continues, everything positive about today’s cameras will get even better. Cameras will become smaller, more flexible, and less expensive while offering, at the high end, extended capture, storage, and processing capabilities. Exploration of new areas, such as light field photography and computational cinematography, promises even more amazing advancements in the future. Driven by the same impetus behind development of the very first motion picture cameras, the motion-imaging field moves forward still, harnessing remarkable technical achievements to further enhance creative expression and viewer engagement. Pete Ludé is past president of the SMPTE.

March 25, 2014