RedShark Replay: This article was first published back in 2015, but while some things have changed for the better, some of them haven't. It's one thing for cameras to be modular, that's a good thing. But should we really have to design our own custom rig for every new device?
If there is one word that I think sums up the thinking behind modern camera design it is modularity. When the Red One was released into the world it was seen as a revolution. It was conceived as an infinitely configurable camera, with a number of add on modules available for it. Since then many cinema style cameras have followed suit. Add on recorders have become normal, with Sony’s latest cameras being designed to take additional modules that blend in seamlessly with the body design. Arri’s Alexa has taken things further and designed so that the sensor is field replaceable, and the recording media type is also upgradeable. However modularity in video cameras is not a new idea.
Not so very long ago Sony’s DXC-D35 series was bought as a camera head to which a matching recording “dock” could be mounted. With the plethora of formats available an ENG shooter could dock either a DVCAM, BetaSP, or Beta SX recorder thereby being able to shoot any format required by the broadcaster. Panasonic had their own variation on this concept too with the AW-F575. The concept never really took off at the time, but the thinking behind it was sound.
There are lots of advantages to modular design. In the examples above it allowed the camera to record multiple format types. These days this isn’t such a problem because all newly released camcorders record to a file system, and most NLE’s will take most formats depending on the age of the software.
Cameras such as the PMW-F5 can be enabled with Raw recording and higher bitrates through the use of the optional modules. On paper modularity sounds like a very good idea, and there have been some good examples in practice, but on what road has the concept currently taken us?
Move your lenses over
A few years back you would purchase an EX3, a PDW-350 or equivalent and that would be the end of that. You would move your old lenses over if you had some and needed to, put the camera on your existing tripod and away you would go. With the exception of newcomers such as Red and the aforementioned Sony dockable cameras, modular cameras were in the minority.
So how have we now arrived into a situation where we have to purchase an equivalent in price to the camera itself in additional accessories simply to get a workable system?
Unfortunately we have all become unwitting participants in a game. Some very vocal people out there in forum land ensured that we now have to purchase a Mechano set whenever we get hold of a new camera, and the manufacturers love us for it.
The quest to look as if we know what we are doing and the image that we present has often come top of the table in some peoples eyes. Separate sound recording on every single project? Well, that’s how feature films work, and therefore so should we when we are interviewing John the farmer for a community information film. Matte box? All the big boys have one. Cage and rails? Who cares if we don’t actually need them, but hey they make our cameras look cool whilst giving ergonomics that should have been designed into the camera in the first place!
The focus on such things mainly arose from the DSLR revolution. Such cameras were never designed for video. However there are some additional factors in play.
We are all familiar with value. We place value on things every day. We value our cars, we value our houses, we value our lives.
We should also be familiar with the way that value works in business. Many of us will be familiar with the way that well known branded products cost more to buy than a lesser known make. This is particularly the case if the brand in question has purposefully placed themselves in the minds of consumers as being the top tier.
Prepared to pay a little more
Often such products may not cost any more to manufacture or develop than a lesser brand. In fact sometimes over time a company may lose their focus on quality but still retain high sales values based on their past reputation. Consumers still purchase those products because they value the brand, and they are prepared to pay a little bit more for them.
Indeed in order to make more money a lot of focus should be placed on making sure that your customers and clients value your skills and services. If you are successful in doing this then you will be able to command higher rates because the value that you bring to them exceeds monetary value alone. If your client base does not value you then they will not be prepared to pay anything like as much and instead they will be focused entirely on monetary outlay.
This very human trait plays right into the camera manufacturers hands.
There was a time when we had film cameras, ENG style cameras, and prosumer style palmcorders. It was nice and neat. In the video industry you were considered top tier if you were using a Digibeta, or eventually HDCAM and SR. Even a DSR500 was out of bounds for many.
Still, such cameras produced footage that distinctly cried out “video”. Harsh highlight cut off, overt digital edge enhancement, and limited dynamic range amongst the drawbacks. While many of them started to offer film style gamma curves and increasingly added more configurable settings, the average indie filmmaker a wanted something more. Much more.
Ground Glass Adaptor
It took a few inspired individuals from an online forum to start playing around with the idea of projecting the image from a lens onto some ground glass and then somehow getting the camera to film it. Thus the 35mm ground glass adaptor was born. A very clumsy yet effective way of giving a much more film like aesthetic to an ordinary video camera.
Some people even made films for the cinema using such devices, such as Gareth Evans who went out to Indonesia and funded an action film shot on a Panasonic HPX500 with a ground glass adaptor called Merantau. Evans has since gone on to direct the popular "The Raid" action film which was shot on Panasonic AF100’s and its subsequent sequel, shot on Red Epic’s.
However when Canon introduced video modes to its DSLR range the writing was on the wall for the ground glass adapters.
Despite the Canon 5D Mk2 video mode being an afterthought designed for journalists, it still created a storm. Suddenly despite the limitations users could shoot very film like video with shallow depth of field, a wider dynamic range, and far superior low light capability than many traditional camcorders that may have cost many times the amount. Even more users could get on board the revolution with the lower priced 7D. There remained a problem though. A DSLR was a pig to use for video out of the box. It needed additional modifications.
A whole industry sprang up
Suddenly a whole industry sprang up around the video DSLR market, including that new species the "Camera Guru" who could tell you what was written in the camera manual, and would go onto exert a lot of influence on the accessories that you would buy. Huge opportunities sprang up for companies like Zacuto and Redrock Micro who had previously had to rely on the ground glass adapter market. As new cameras were released by Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic all manner of new accessories could be produced. The market just got bigger and bigger, helped in no small part by the camera gurus who could help sell the latest must have gadgets.
This didn't go unnoticed by companies like Sony. Even Canon themselves realised that they were perhaps doing themselves out of an opportunity.
The rabid take up of the accessories market told them how people were prepared to buy their cameras. Camera owners seemed to lap up the idea of buying lots of extra bits. Gradually the DSLR market started to be taken over by affordable large chip cameras that were now designed solely for video. Devices such as the FS100 and the C300 lead the initial charge amongst many less expensive and decidedly average models.
However things were afoot where design was concerned. These new cameras didn't look like anything that had been released as a video camcorder previously. Instead we were presented with what has become to be known as the cinema camera form factor.
Oddly this new form factor offered no known ergonomic benefits. Switches and controls were all over the shop and were in a completely different place on each camera model. In fact to be able to use such cameras in any practical way demanded that you spend a lot of extra money on rigging and even viewfinders.
This new design paradigm allowed these new cameras to offer less for the same money or more as the previous generation of video cameras. The manufacturers can do this because we place our values on aspects such as the big sensor and even the kudos of owning a "Cinema Camera".
Sensibly placed EVF
In the short scheme of things a manufacturer can now make extra money from all the optional features that used to be standard such as a decent sensibly placed EVF, and even a shoulder pad. The new paradigm is that if you want ergonomics you have to pay for it.
What was set in motion was a race to see how many wires and other crap you could hang off your camera in an effort to look like a "Cinematographer".
The end result is that now the purchase of a new camera is fraught with complicated decisions such as which cage system is best, which follow focus is best, which external recorder is best, and can my computer even cope with the footage?
While such complications line the pockets of the camera gurus and manufacturers it does rather turn the idea of being a cameraman, DP, or whatever you prefer to call yourself into a technical exercise of knowing which camera Mechano set is best.
What of the future? Is the opening up of such a market for essential add-ons a good or a bad thing? In many ways, in spite of what I have said above, it can be a good thing. It can be good to have a choice and competition. The bad aspect of it all is that there is no standardisation.
ENG camcorders used to have a pretty standard layout no matter which manufacturer you purchased it from. The ENG form factor placed a priority on the ergonomic placement of controls. In a world where a camera operator is expected to use many different types of device some sort of standardisation of form factor and control layout is required. It may be a pipe dream, but a standardisation of modular accessory form factor and design would be nice too. The ability for external recorders to look like they are part of the camera system would be welcome.
We now need simplification
What we need now is simplification because at the moment we have camera setups that look more like impressions of the Greek Hydra.
Of course the likelihood of such a thing happening is very slim because it would require new camera designs and co-operation between all manufacturers.
Perhaps the way of future modularity is to eschew all of these extra bits of hardware in the first place. Sony already has in place paid for software upgrades for cameras to add new capabilities. In fact the idea of renting new capabilities that are temporarily enabled in firmware is already on the cards.
From my own perspective a new camera should be usable out of the box. At the very least it should provide an ergonomically sound design with a sensible control layout, a decent viewfinder, and a nice recording format from the beginning. With SSD’s becoming ever cheaper the need for proprietary cards between the manufacturers is becoming less and less.
A standardised SSD recording ability would allow easy transfer of recording media between camera types. Clients who wish to take away the footage at the end of the day could provide their own SSD drives. The limitation on recording format could therefore be in the firmware, which manufacturers could charge for to enable. Maybe we could have slot in codec cards that handled the encoding processing.
Field changeable sensor blocks would also be a good thing to have. Purchasing the camera with a basic block, if you needed to upgrade to a global shutter capable sensor in the future, or take advantage of newer technology you could do this without having to upgrade the whole camera body. A new block could simply bayonet into the camera body without having to fiddle around with screws.
Just rent a 4K sensor block
Need 4K for a shoot when you normally only need 1080p? Just rent the 4K sensor block for the day. Need ultra high speed shooting? Rent or buy the high speed sensor.
It is probably about time that we thought about modularity in terms of more integrated camera capability rather than otherwise essential hardware and ergonomic functionality such as cages, handles and awkward external recording boxes. With the design of the new Varicam 4k manufacturers may well be starting to think this way too.
We have reached a point where things have become very complicated indeed, and a path of simplification and streamlining should be placed high on the list of priorities. In the days of film a DOP used to think creatively. The type of film stock used was a creative decision. Film cameras could only set the shutter angle, the film speed, exposure, and focus. The rest was lens choice and lighting.
We should be aiming back to a period where the focus on camera use is a creative one. As camera users we shouldn’t have to give technical thought to issues such as aliasing, moire, which recording format to use etc, etc. These are all things that have been foisted upon us by technological limitations.
These days the technology is very good and we should be starting to move beyond this so that the focus can move back to the use of the camera as a creative tool, and not a technical device that we have to work around.