DCS > Essays > It’s the Pioneers Who Get the Arrows In the Back: The Plight of Innovators in Cinema Technology

It’s the Pioneers Who Get the Arrows In the Back: The Plight of Innovators in Cinema Technology

JM Headshot2014Med
by James Mathers
Cinematographer and Founder of the Digital Cinema Society
(Excerpted from the October 2017 Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter)

Entertainment Technology is advancing at an ever accelerating pace, and the tools available for us to create and distribute content keep evolving and improving. But what about the folks who labor long and hard to bring us these great innovations?

ByeByeOZONews of the recent demise of the impressive OZO VR camera system after debuting with much fanfare less than two years ago, prompted me to consider the downside of creating pioneering technology in our business. Over 300 Nokia employees in the US and Europe will lose their jobs, and the company will be forced to take a huge financial loss, but not because there was anything wrong with the product. It’s more a function of how fast the technology is changing, and the limited market for truly professional level tools.

OZO AloneOnTripodPriced upwards of $60,000US, the OZO was one of a very few premium systems to capture high resolution stereo 360° with accompanying spatially aware audio recording.  The system also included high resolution post stitching software as well as a compressed live output so that content creators could see in real time what they were capturing and even webcast in VR.

However, systems that were able to also shoot 360° video, selling for under a few hundred dollars, were also coming to market. Although they were much lower resolution, didn’t shoot stereoscopically, or offer the live stitching technology of the OZO, they were deemed suitable for turning out quick content best consumed on ubiquitous mobile devices.

GoGoVRWith Omnidirectional Stereo capture tethered headsets were required to fully appreciate OZO’s immersive quality. However, headsets have been a bottle neck in the adoption of VR due to the associated cost, discomfort, and fatigue that occurs after wearing them for any length of time. It’s much like the dilemma that helped keep 3D from realizing its full potential; only worse. Since almost everybody has a 360° viewing device in their pocket, most content has been geared toward viewing on mobile devices, leaving a very small market for higher end VR production.

It’s not just in VR; developing any high end tool for content creation is often a thankless endeavor fraught with financial peril, especially considering the relatively small market segment that professionals make up. Without the reward of selling to a mass market, it is tough to recoup the substantial R&D investment that is required. I’m grateful, but somewhat surprised that companies even take the gamble.

Apple newtonI’m sometimes frustrated that Apple, a company which I’ve been a loyal customer of since the mid 1980’s, doesn’t pay more attention to our specific needs in the Entertainment Industry, but I guess they didn’t get to be the most valuable company in the world by catering to their Pro market. Rather, it’s all about empowering the masses with such products as the iPhone. Perhaps they learned their lesson with the Newton, an early PDA which was considered quite technologically innovative when it debuted in 1993. However, with a high price and applications only useful to certain specialized professions, sales were limited and the project was cancelled as soon as Steve Jobs returned to Apple. It was a project of John Sculley's during the period where Steve Jobs forced out of the company, and one of the few misses in the history of Apple.

Entering our 15th year, it’s remarkable how much has changed in the relatively short lifetime of the Digital Cinema Society. DCS actually pre-dates such transformative innovations as the iPhone, Facebook, and Netflix, to name a few. Those are all great successes, but what about the many companies who toiled long and hard to raise the bar, but have fallen by the wayside in the march toward technological progress?

Group47Rob Hummel is a friend and founding DCS member who has long been on the bleeding edge of technology. He’s currently enjoying much success with his company, Group 47, which has acquired and is commercializing the IP behind DOTS, an archival storage system which combines digital and celluloid technologies first developed by Kodak. Clients include the Library of Congress, NARA, and even the CIA. (A link to a short video describing the technology follows this essay).

Dalsa3Several years before founding Group 47, Rob Hummel was running what turned out to be a less successful endeavor. Remember the Dalsa? It was an early Digital Cinema camera that featured the first 4K Bayer pattern sensor and even a through-the-lens optical viewfinder that many traditional film Cinematographers claimed was essential if they were to transition to digital. In fact, optical viewfinders are only rarely, if ever, seen on digital cameras today. They were a costly implementation in terms of price and exposure because they required a mechanical shutter spinning in front of the sensor. But this was Dalsa’s approach, in a word, “uncompromising”.

According to Hummel, Dalsa felt that if they were going to ask filmmakers to give up celluloid, then they had to make a system that was technologically superior to shooting film. Their data recording format was completely uncompressed which required massive files. The tethered recorder was literally the size of a small refrigerator. I’m not saying they even approached their goal of being technically superior to film, but given the cost and complexity of the Dalsa, you had to ask yourself why not just keep shooting film?

Had the system had a chance to mature, I’m sure it would now be competing on price, performance, and ergonomics with other advanced Digital Cinema cameras, but its life was cut short. Around the same time, Dalsa was providing the camera sensors for the iPhone, which was a much more lucrative endeavor for the company and the small Digital Cinema division was shelved shortly after. (Interestingly, another Digital Cinema camera manufacturer, Sony, now provides sensors for the iPhone, and that division is one of most profitable in the company).

Viper2There were a few test projects shot with the Dalsa, but to my knowledge no major features or commercial productions. That, however, was not the case with another camera system that has also since faded into obscurity. The Thompson/Grass Valley Viper camera was responsible for such major motion pictures as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which was nominated for Academy Awards in both Best Picture and Best Achievement in Cinematography, as well as “Zodiac”, and in 2004, one of the earliest digitally acquired features, “Collateral”. Although the Viper was somewhat more practical that the Dalsa, it did rely on an uncompressed recording format, with the digital recording workflow usually handled by a company known as S.two, another victim of the constant evolution of Cinema technology.

SI 2KminiThen there was a much more compact camera system from Silicon Imaging. Their acquisition credits include “Slum Dog Millionaire,” which won both the Best Picture and Best Cinematography Oscars for 2009, as well as the movie “127 Hours” which took advantage of its very small form factor.  In fact, the camera is occasionally still used today in some VR and 3D rigs due to it's compact size.

RedGroup2LRMany of these camera technologies were helped along the road to obscurity with the release of the RED Digital Cinema camera. The quality may not have been as high as some of the others when it debuted, but compression helped it to be far more practical and it was priced at a point that would allow much greater adoption. RED still doesn’t release just how many cameras it has sold, but I would guess the number of all motion picture cameras, (including film cameras), went from counting somewhere in the hundreds to the tens of thousands in a very short time period beginning in late 2007. I have long since left the RED camera game, but I can tell you that my first RED One had the serial number 30, and my second, ordered shortly after, was in the six thousands, and that was now over ten years ago.

Although it can’t be considered a mass market item per se, it was certainly sold in much larger numbers than what was previously extant in the Industry. Everybody and their dentist was buying their own camera, far in excess of the real needs of professional filmmakers. Whatever your opinion of the camera or the company, it is safe to say that RED was a disruptive technology. Please know that I don’t mean to infer any negative connotation when I say, “disruptive”. Although it may not have been welcomed by blacksmiths and saddle makers, if Henry Ford had not disrupted the transportation industry, we might all still be riding around today in horse-drawn carriages.

A shake out after the birth of a new technology is inevitable. The automotive industry began in the 1890s with hundreds of manufacturers who pioneered the horseless carriage. Then Henry Ford pioneered mass production techniques to dominate the market with the Model-T. Today, the industry is highly consolidated with only a handful of major corporations owning nearly all of the world's major car brands. Although it can be painful for those offering displaced technologies, such is the way of progress, and companies rarely go broke catering to the masses.

KodakLogoI don’t like to pick on Kodak, but it’s interesting to note that they actually invented the digital sensor which eventually made all digital photography possible. Kodak Engineer Steven Sasson created the first digital camera back in 1975 using a charge-coupled device (C.C.D.). Whether Kodak management couldn’t see any practical use at the time, or were afraid that the technology would spell the demise of their bread and butter photochemical business, it was left undeveloped, (pun intended), until the turn of the century. The company was also responsible for the Bayer Pattern sensor, patented by Kodak Engineer, Bryce Bayer in 1976, which is used in most high end Digital Cinema cameras today.

Although the digital camera patents eventually helped earn billions for Kodak, when they expired in 2007 and 2008, the company had been concentrated on protecting its traditional business model and was not prepared to compete in the mass consumer camera market. Five years after the first patent expired, what was once a household brand and the world’s biggest film company filed for bankruptcy. After exiting legacy businesses and selling off patents, Kodak re-emerged from bankruptcy as a much smaller company in 2013.

Thankfully they continue to produce motion picture film, but that is a boutique business and has not been enough to fully sustain the kind of mass market business Kodak was built on. Theatrical distribution on film is now practically nonexistent, and most television shows and feature films are now digitally acquired, which has resulted in a 96 percent drop in motion picture acquisition film sales at Kodak. In 2014, a concerned group of high profile filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams, and Judd Apatow joined forces in an effort to protect the future supply of celluloid. They lobbied the major studios into striking a deal with Eastman Kodak to buy a quantity of film stock every year for the next several years to sustain the motion picture division and save the company's factory in Rochester, N.Y. This is an effort that we at the Digital Cinema Society strongly support.

It has been suggested that with the digital transition of the motion picture business now mostly in the rearview mirror, the Digital Cinema Society is no longer relevant, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. DCS was never about advocating for digital or fostering the transition. Instead, our purpose has always been to help the Industry just to keep up. As the pace of development for new technology continues to speed up exponentially, our mission is now more critical than ever before. If you think a lot has changed in our business over the last 15 years, hold on to your hat, it could be a bumpy ride going forward. In any case, we’ll continue to follow and report on emerging cinema technology.

 

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Video describing Group 47’s DOTS Bit Plane Image Archiving System:
https://vimeo.com/213093888