Wednesday, March 12, 2014

It's tough out here for a camera (maker)

Over the last seven years, we've seen a number of companies jump into the professional cinema camera market. Some have had an easier time of it than others. Red launched its first camera, the Red One, at NAB 2006, and a small number shipped to customers more than a year later. Red announced its Scarlet camera in late 2008 but didn't ship a much different (and more expensive) Scarlet model until about three years later. Canon's first cinema camera, the EOS 300, shipped in January 2012, and the EOS 100 and 500 followed in the fall of 2012. Blackmagic Design launched its Cinema Camera at NAB 2012 but didn't start shipping in quantity for almost a year; Blackmagic's Pocket Cinema Camera was announced at NAB 2013 and started shipping small quantities in August 2013. Its 4K Production Camera, also announced at NAB 2013, has only just recently begun shipping in small quantities. Finally, there's the Digital Bolex D16, which started as a Kickstarter project in April, 2012 and started shipping to early supporters at the end of 2013.

Of Red, Canon, Blackmagic Design and Digital Bolex, only Canon shipped its cameras close to when they said they'd ship. All four companies shipped cameras with problems, but Canon's were minor. By comparison, Red spent two years debugging the firmware in its Red One and subsequent cameras, and Blackmagic's cameras are missing essential features, such as audio meters, an indicator of how much storage is available and the ability to format storage in the camera, that should have been there when they shipped. Digital Bolex's D16 shipped late, but so far, it seems to be working reasonably well.

It's interesting, but not surprising, that Canon was the only company that shipped its cinema cameras on time and with relatively few bugs. After all, Canon shipped its first camera in 1936, its first camcorder in 1981, and its first digital DSLR in 1995. They knew how to make or integrate everything needed for a Cinema Camera when they launched the EOS 300 in 2012. (Some of you may be wondering why I didn't mention Arri and its Alexa cameras, but the story is much the same as Canon: Arri launched its first film camera in 1924, and its first digital camera, the Arriflex D-20, in 2005.) Red and Digital Bolex, on the other hand, were founded specifically to make cinema cameras, while Blackmagic Design made an extensive line of video hardware and software before gearing up to make cameras.

My point, which I admit it's taken a long time to get to, is that it's hard to make a good cinema camera. You can't simply go through parts catalogs and find all the pieces you need to build a camera; in some cases, you can't even depend on a parts manufacturer to build the parts you need to your specifications. Blackmagic ran into problems with CMOS imagers on both its original Cinema Camera and 4K Production Camera. Both Blackmagic and Red ran into integration problems--getting all the parts to work together as designed--and both struggled with firmware needed to implement promised features. Blackmagic's cameras use too much power--third-party tests show that its 4K Production Camera can burn through its internal battery in 20 minutes.

I'm not saying that any of these companies shouldn't have entered the cinema camera market; Red changed users' expectations for price and imaging quality, and Blackmagic pushed prices far below where they'd been for comparable cameras from competitors. However, they (and their customers) have learned how hard it is to build a good cinema camera. Given what's happened since 2006, I'd say that other than lenses, cinema cameras are the hardest broadcast or cinema products to design and build.

As we prepare for NAB 2014, we're likely to see a new round of camera introductions. When a company with no previous camera design or manufacturing experience announces a new cinema camera, my recommendation is to not be one of the first customers in line with a preorder. To be safe, you should add at least a year to the company's announced release date, and probably a year after that for the camera's firmware to be stabilized and for all key features to be implemented. The frustration you save will be your own.
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