It is clear that more is more when it comes to the latest high-end cinema camera technology. More pixels, more dynamic range, larger sensors, and more data. Enough will never be enough.
This means more options for us as creators and far more flexibility when it comes to how we can manipulate our images. Digital cinematography has well and truly come of age.
I believe we are on the verge of a significant generational evolution of the digital cinema camera.
IBC 2015 is about to kick off, and I want to take a moment to reflect on the trends and announcements from the major cinema camera manufacturers to date that project a well defined development path the industry seems to be taking.
Cinema camera technology is always improving, capabilities and features are always migrating from the very top down to the rest of us with prices that follow, however there are points at which the technology changes so significantly that a very definite generational evolution takes place.
Next Generation Cinema Camera Technology
Here’s the trends that I believe will define the next generation of digital cinema cameras.
More Pixels – Oversampling
8K is already here. Red announced the Weapon 8K FF earlier this year.
News of an 8K Cinema EOS camera in development from Canon, and an 8K reference display have started circulating just today in this article on NoFilmSchool. Canon is Developing an 8K Cinema Camera & 120 Megapixel DSLR. According to this post by Convergent Design, it seems that the camera does output Canon RAW. Convergent Design Supports New Canon Prototype 8K Camera.
This time it’s not just about more pixels, although of course that is inevitable. It’s also about better pixels.
Sony have employed higher photosite counts than most with some interesting color filter arrays (CFA) in their flagship cameras. The Sony F35 provided a full bandwidth RGB 4:4:4 1080p output with a vertically striped CFA, recording an RGB value for every pixel. By not employing a bayer pattern sensor, color information is not interpolated from neighbouring pixels however other issues are introduced as the three channels are not spatially aligned.
Sony took a different tack with the F65, this time employing a modified bayer CFA (rotated 45 degrees) with twice the number of photosites, and twice the samples in producing a 4K output image. This way Sony achieved a full 4K luminance resolution in the green channel, and twice as many red and blue samples as a 4K Bayer CFA, ensuring far less guesswork in the resulting demosaicked image.
The main reason DSLR’s have been so successful with Bayer color filter arrays is their high resolution sensors. Oversampling is one way the weaknesses of a Bayer CFA can be minimised.
It is clear that more manufacturers are now thinking beyond 4K when it comes to ensuring as much image data is sampled and recorded as possible for a given exposure area, and leaving the options open when it comes to how that data is used, interpolated and interpreted.
Red Digital Cinema obviously are the first that come to mind with 5K, 6K and now an 8K VistaVision prototype. Red started down this road long before anyone else knew what was coming, and are still leading the way.
I’ve already mentioned Canon’s announced 8K camera in development, and of course Arri’s rental only Alexa 65 at 6.5K maximum open gate resolution. There are also rumors that Sony may have a new 8K CineAlta camera in the works.
More Sensor – Full Frame and Medium Format Imaging
This brings us nicely to my next point. We’ve reached the pinnacle of digital super 35mm, meeting and even exceeding the technical goalposts we first set ourselves in matching motion picture film.
Super 35mm no longer defines the upper limit of our digital imaging aspirations.
We want more, and the next two notches in the quest for bigger and better will be full frame cinematography, and true 65mm “medium format” beyond that.
The two players in this arena are currently Red and Arri (not including a few DSLR’s and full frame mirrorless cameras). Leading the pack when it comes to innovation at the edge, Arri introduced the Alexa65 last year currently available rental only, and Red announced the Weapon 8K FF due to start shipping later this year. In my opinion these are the two to watch.
More Dynamic Range – Quality and Quantity
It’s not all about quantity, the demand for quality has never been greater. Our insatiable appetite for ever higher dynamic range and better low light performance is one of the key driving factors for more samples and larger sensors.
While sensor technology is constantly improving, we’ll always be hitting the limits imposed by the laws of physics. In the case of photons and photosites we’re talking physics at the quantum scale. As photosites get smaller and packed more densely, the spacing between them (pixel pitch), electrical interconnects, and on-chip signal conversion become ever more critical in minimising noise and maximising dynamic range.
Simple mathematics also provides a solution, instead of making smaller photosites, make bigger sensors. Larger sensors with a higher number of larger photosites (compared to squeezing more and more onto a super 35mm imager) may allow us to keep pushing into new territory.
Luckily for those of us who won’t be moving into larger sensor territory anytime soon, it’s not the only solution, and we know that manufacturers already have new sensor technology in development to squeeze even more out of the super 35mm format.
There’s been a lot of pressure within the industry over the past couple years for new standards and wider gamuts in digital color for cinema and broadcast. For post production and delivery we have DCI-P3 and Rec.2020 is on the horizon. However we need to capture and encode more color information in the first place.
Hand in hand with higher dynamic range comes the need for higher bit depths to accurately describe more luma and chroma information in our recorded camera files.
More resolution, higher dynamic range and wider color gamuts mean a lot more data but the key will be actually recording all of the data so we can use it, not throwing it away. This is where things will get interesting. I believe recording losslessly compressed RAW sensor data will remain the best method for retaining maximum flexibility in post. The ability to interpret the sensor data in a variety of ways will allow for the best possible image results whether it’s a full raster debayer, or perhaps a “super-pixel” debayer to a lower final resolution image.
Thankfully for us all, storage technology is also improving in leaps and bounds with faster, higher capacity solid state media suited both to camera and storage array use.
The Future Is Bright
The past few years have been a bit slow, it’s been a period where some major manufacturers who lagged behind the super 35mm digital cinema revolution have caught up. We’ve witnessed some new players such as Blackmagic Design bring disruptive products to market that have democratised high-end features and capabilities.
It’s an exciting time again to be in this field. It feels as though finally some significant new cinema camera technology is under active development.
Watch this space.