DISCLAIMER: I’m writing this post in english on my german blog, because of the simple fact that the current hype about the Digital Bolex – project is happening first and foremost within english language – blogspheres (unless i missed something) … I published the german version here! Also, i marked the nerdy stuff italic, so that all non-camera geeks and video professionals can skip over it quickly (it’s not really necessary for understanding the article!). EDIT: I want to point out, that in this article I use the term „politics“ in a very universal way, and I do that on purpose.

Digital Bolex D16

Digital Bolex D16

When earlier today I read the headline The Digital Bolex D16. Raw 2K for less than a cost of a 5Dmk3?“ on Philip Bloom’s Blog, my first reaction was disbelief and suspicion, i thought: „there’s gotta be something fishy about this“. When I read through the technical specs, this didn’t really change (in short: 2k resolution on a Super 16mm sized CCD chip, 12 bit 4:4:4 Raw Video output in Adobe DNG, TIFF or JPEG; XLR inputs for decent audio; lenses: C-mount as standard, but others – like EF – possible too). For all the non-geeks: The Digital Bolex is supposed to be the no-compromise digital version of a Bolex Super 16mm film camera, which has proven to be capable of producing great movie images, if combined with good lenses and people who know what they are doing. The quality of the video that it records is supposed to compare to that of far more expensive video cameras like the RED Scarlet. I thought to myself: who are these guys, and how do they intend to pull this off for roughly € 2700 US $ 3300? (Sorry, had the wrong exchange rate before, so I think I better keep in the original currency of US $.)
So I looked further and found out some quite interesting facts.

The first one is, that you can actually watch some images of the prototype of the Digital Bolex on the web – here’s a trailer to the first short film shot on that camera:

Here you can find some behind the scenes – footage of the same movie (that one not in HD). (unfortunately both videos aren’t in HD, but Digital Bolex have promised to change that quickly) Those pictures look really promising!

Digging a bit deeper, I found more details – the technical issues are covered quite well by Stu Maschwitz in this Article, where he offers some mostly justified technical concerns, (some of them are cleared up here) and in this one by Philip Bloom, which i already mentioned above. That’s why I won’t go further into the technical side of this in this article. Also, because I promised to talk about the political dimensions of this camera idea (ok, it’s a bit more than an idea, but they haven’t quite pulled it off yet – I certainly hope they will!).

What do I mean by „political dimensions“? Here I have to drift off from the original topic for a moment.

I’m the owner of 2 Canon EOS 550D (aka Rebel T2i) cameras, that produce quite high quality video images at a very low price point (roughly €500 per camera). But it’s not as simple as that. There are many issues with those video DSLR Cameras, that make them less than perfect as video cameras. Ok, one has to admit, they were never really planned to be video cameras in the first place, they merely were laid out to be photo cameras with an additional video function.
But then: along came the indie filmmakers, who had discovered, that those little DSLR things could do some awesome tricks (high quality, high resolution video images, shallow depth of field, incredible low light capabilities – to mention the most important ones) at very low cost. So, they thought to themselves, can’t we really do anything about the shortcomings of the EOS – series and other DSLRs with video capabilities, like limited recording time, fixed video bit rates, fixed frame rates, hardly any live view information displayed, no audio features (sometimes not even level control!) and so on? The geekiest geeks amongst them said: yes, we can! and they programmed a hacked firmware for a few cameras of the EOS series called Magic Lantern, that doesn’t only fix the mentioned shortcomings, but also adds a whole lot of additional feature-goodness, given that you’re ready to install software on your camera that comes with no warranty at all, but still has proven to work tremendously well! Looking at all the things that Magic Lantern added to my 550D, you would have to take A LOT more money into your hands to be offered the same capabilities in a video camera on the free market.
Also, some geeks who are only a bit different from the previous ones, developed color profiles, that would allow the Canon DSLR – using filmmakers to take their images to a whole new level during post production by giving them tremendous dynamic range while preserving details and colours very well (my favourite one currently is the Technicolor Cine Style, but I also use others, like Marvels Advanced).

Enough of the drifting off, let’s start getting back to the point: I described a camera manufacturer (Canon), who builds camera hardware, that is capable of a lot of great stuff, but refuses to implement most of these functions. Why is that a political dimension? Because cheap, good video cameras are an incredibly important factor for people, especially artists, being capable of expressing themselves in a globalized, digital world that’s being increasingly dominated by audio-visual and multi medial communication. Put differently: making audio – visual production equipment affordable is a matter of giving people better means of being heard, which is an important basic principle of communication in a democratic society. So you see: we’re dealing with a highly political topic here.

The free market, of course dominated by the large companies, gives us all the means for professional video production, but at a certain price level only. Great example: the rather new Canon C300, or the RED Camera Series, or the Arri Alexa, just to mention a few.
The small independent filmmakers with their very limited means (hardly any money and other resources) are the ones to deliver professional quality equipment in very affordable price ranges, because they are the only ones with enough interest invested to have that. Magic Lantern and custom colour profiles are entirely free and mostly rely on good will, some voluntary financial support and a few indie filmmakers testing and helping to develop them.

Elle Schneider and Joe Rubinstein

Elle Schneider and Joe Rubinstein

The Digital Bolex will be available at a very low price. That’s because of a political decision, that the makers of this camera (Joe Rubinstein and Elle Schneider) made: being filmmakers themselves, they wanted to offer the possibility of shooting on such a camera to a lot of other filmmakers too, even though they know that they could be charging a lot more for such a camera. This idea fits their business concept very well, which, for one part, is micro funding, (they have launched a very successful campaign on the micro funding platform Kickstarter), and, for the other part, is crowd sourcing (they talk to a lot of people for input on the camera development). By the way, Rubinstein and Schneider explain those things (and a lot more, technical stuff too!) in a very interesting Telephone Interview that Philip Bloom had with them.

Taking a look back at Canon, one could see a different political decision, that this company has taken: it’s decided to protect it’s high end market by not implementing professional grade functions in their cheap, but highly capable hardware. That’s a perfectly understandable and logical decision. Canon would be stupid to do so, looking at some of their main competitors like Nikon, Sony and Panasonic – they don’t do so either – it simply doesn’t work well along with the classic principles of a free global market.

What this all means is: technically, it is no problem to offer cheap professional grade video equipment, even with very few resources at hand (as proven by Magic Lantern and – most likely – by Digital Bolex), but politically it very well is. BUT: politics in that area actually seem to start changing! The interesting thing about that is, that they are not being changed by the very few large policy makers, but by quite a few small ones. EDIT: I want to point out: if this works and maybe even other projects like this follow, it might just have the effect that certain large companies will be forced to overthink their price politics on the area of professional video gear… that’s where the classic principles of a free global market come in handy!
Still, keep in mind, that all this is only about a very small, specialized group of people – the group of independent filmmakers. But also keep in mind, that technical AND social hacking works on a lot of different levels as well.

My conclusion, with the Digital Bolex in mind, is, that maybe we (independent movie guys) might actually be starting to step out of the „dark days“ of video – cinematography on our own terms:

All that’s left to say is that I wish all the best to the Digital Bolex project, I hope they succeed!

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