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A Decade of Vanguards, #1

Feb 8, 2010 12:00 PM, By D.W. Leitner

Large-sensor video capture.

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With its Origin, Dalsa was first to introduce a large-sensor digital cinema camera.

With its Origin, Dalsa was first to introduce a large-sensor digital cinema camera.

Surveying the latest in digital cinematography cameras at NAB 2006, I wrote: "What they share in common is a single-CMOS sensor with Bayer color filter, PL-mount lenses, capture to non-video RAW files (no encoding). ... They include promised products from Kinetta (skipped NAB this year), Red (vapor so far), Silicon Imaging (theirs actually worked).

"Meanwhile, ... Dalsa prepares its next design, Arri deploys D-20s in the field, ... Vision Research joins the fold with their 1000fps CMOS Phantom HD camera, and Sony sneak-peeks an upcoming RGB 4:4:4 2/3in. [CCD] camera that resembles a Panaflex."

The Red Digital Cinema Red One delivered on its promise, upending digital cinematography in the process.

The Red Digital Cinema Red One delivered on its promise, upending digital cinematography in the process.

What a difference four years makes! Pioneering Kinetta failed to bring a product to market. Canadian CCD manufacturer Dalsa, which initiated the large-sensor era with the stunning debut at NAB 2003 of its suitcase-sized Origin camera, retreated from digital cinematography in late 2008 without a single feature to its credit (although VFX plates in Tim Burton's upcoming Alice in Wonderland are Dalsa).

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Meanwhile, Arri introduced its second-generation D-21 and Vision Research's Phantom triumphed as an essential high-end tool. So what about that 2/3in. Sony camera resembling a Panaflex? Although the Sony F23 went on to set high bars for 2/3in. image quality and videocamera body design, Sony announced within a year of its introduction a large single-CCD version of the same camera, the F35. And at last year's NAB, Sony previewed the SRW-9000, a fully modular HDCAM SR camcorder with a 3CCD 2/3in. sensor block upgradable to the same "Super 35mm" CCD used in the F35. Then a little over a month ago, Sony announced the same upgrade path for the F23.

Credit where credit is due: It was upstart Red that upset everyone's apple cart, introducing a $17,000 Red One body that, per founder Jim Jannard, simply captured 4K RAW stills at 24fps. Many at NAB 2007 scoffed at Red's circus-tent atmosphere and H.R. Giger design influences, not to mention the secretiveness surrounding its 35mm-sized Mysterium CMOS sensor (jokes at the time connected it to Jim Cameron's unobtainium), but Red has redefined the playing field, altering expectations of what a digital cinema camera can be while introducing a new postproduction paradigm.

Used PL-mount lenses, once plentiful on eBay, have since grown scarce and now command a premium, with new designs arriving from many manufacturers.

Only last month, Red debuted its new M-X (Mysterium-X) sensor with dramatically lowered noise and doubled sensitivity. New Epic and Scarlet cameras wait in the wings.

But this is a revolution that shows no sign of slowing. As anyone keeping up with our Decade of Vanguards series is no doubt aware, large-sensor HDSLRs from Canon and Panasonic are the new disruptive technology in town. At half the cost of pro HDV camcorders, they deliver images that nearly match those of digital cinema cameras costing 50 times more.

Remember that curse about living in interesting times?

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