HDR: Part 27 - Creative Technology - The Ends Of Invention - Cameras

It’s nothing new for technological change to make things obsolete, but a camera manufacturer in the early 2020s might be forgiven a little nervousness. Just look at a catalogue from any electronics retailer in the late 80s. Bedside clock? More or less displaced by phones. Radio? Same. Walkman? Cellular communication devices do that, too. Dictaphones? You guessed it. And cameras? Well, holiday camcorders are a distant memory, as are point-and-shoot stills options.

The high-end world of cinema and television, at least for the time being, is a holdout. Is that going to last?

What we’re talking about here is nothing more than convergence, which is being expressed in film and TV by huge swathes of technology being replaced by general-purpose computers. With the advent of cloud technology, which really just means rental computers which are far away and connected via the internet, we don’t even need space for the computers anymore. Color grading hardware and tape decks are two examples of things that have been more or less erased as task-specific hardware. Even their replacements may soon move toward the cloud, even if they haven’t already.

It’s often very easy for at least some people to see this sort of thing coming. For instance, the first people who knew that this sort of convergence was going to change post-production out of all recognition were people who knew post houses and post gear but were also video gamers – people who played the likes of Quake 3 Arena. A seminal 1999 title from id Software, it was among the first which absolutely required specific hardware to render its 3D visuals – a graphics card compatible with OpenGL software.

Gaming Graphics Acceleration

It was also a very early example of the use of shaders, which would soon be reimplemented as hardware devices on a graphics card and, eventually, as the general-purpose computational resources we use on GPUs today. When Quake 3 Arena emerged – before the turn of the millennium, no less – it had already become abundantly clear to people who knew what they were looking at that the days of color grading systems which relied on six-figure processing racks were numbered. At that time, the people who ran post houses were generally not video gamers, but that’s another story.

The oncoming juggernaut of change is not always so obvious, but the outcome is hard to ignore. Resolve, having been created by a company reliant on selling those processing racks, now ships with a Blackmagic logo. That which remains of Snell and Wilcox and Quantel went through a series of mergers and effectively vanished. Kodak has undergone a massive financial restructuring since the demise of photochemical emulsions as the universal high-end motion picture acquisition medium. That even happened despite the fact that Kodak, keenly and admirably cognizant of the writing on the wall, had actually made some fairly perceptive moves towards electronic image capture technology in the late twentieth century. The late Bryce Bayer, of the image sensor color filter design, was a Kodak employee.

Given all this, camera manufacturers might be forgiven for feeling a little uncomfortable in the awareness that, in general, convergence has decimated several film and TV industry stalwarts, and more specifically that the vast might of cellphone development is snapping capably at the heels of high-end cameras. Worse, what’s making those cameras good is free to replicate, because it’s software. The only reason phones and adjacent technology such as very small action cameras look as they do is because of the aggressive application of postprocessing. It’s a concomitant of the early twenty-first century that we often tolerate technology that does only an average job, then fix the problems with clever mathematics.

Competing With Massive R&D Budgets

Our ability as a society to do that will only grow. The sheer weight of research and development effort being applied to this kind of consumer technology is almost unimaginably huge, and it’s that which might scare high-end cinema camera manufacturers, who generally don’t have the same R&D budgets or the same experience with image processing software. Yes, modern film and TV cameras generally have noise reduction, but in general there’s nothing like the level of sophistication of many phones.

Might that spell Armageddon for the world of high-end cameras? There are reasons to think not. Post processing has limits and that, along with, probably, a some rather conservative professional inertia from the people who make these decisions, means that high-end moving picture cameras have stood in the face of technological revolution.

But frankly, it’s been a while since performance was the big issue anyway. At the time of writing, it’s still generally possible to show that high-end cameras do have genuinely better performance than cheaper options, often being less noisy and with better ability to distinguish similar colors. The separation, though, is not huge. Camera technology really has now advanced to the point where those differences are very, very small. Unless some unanticipated revolution utterly changes the way film and TV works, the absolute performance gap between midrange and high-end cameras is likely to narrow to meaninglessness if it hasn’t already.

Evaluating Needs

The argument becomes about how much it matters, especially given the vested interests of many people in persuading us that it matters a lot. Even midrange modern cameras massively outperform the high end of old, to the point where YouTubers are regularly shooting on much better equipment than certain Star Wars instalments. In terms of picture quality, objectively, we’re way beyond camera scarcity and yet the high-end divide endures.

So, if the midrange is rising to meet the high end, making the postprocessing less relevant, what is making the difference?

Consider Aaton, a manufacturer, once, of both 35mm film cameras and audio recorders. The company retrenched rather effectively into audio, and while that’s a big change in outlook, it’s revealing because audio is so much less technologically-stressful in terms of sheer volume of data than video. The technology is therefore more mature, and the industry further along the road that we might reasonably expect cameras to follow.

Ergonomics And Quality

In an audio recorder the things which control the absolute performance are in the low-noise microphone amplifiers and analogue-to-digital converters. The things that control usability, though, are in the user interface, the physical layout, and the ergonomics. Whether or not magical software techniques ever do to audio recorders what they’ve done to cellphone cameras, the high end will still score with full-time professionals for all those reasons.

That doesn’t mean progress will pass cameras by. It certainly didn’t pass audio by; it just changed the market, gifting sound recordists huge capability in a compact, cost-effective box. Nobody’s seriously proposing that future movies will be shot on cellphones, though it’s been done, and people will probably keep doing it every so often as a rather masochistic exercise in exhibition camerawork. What’s likely is that cameras will get small, cheap, and capable, as if they haven’t already, in the same way that audio recorders have. It’s already happened to a degree. Or, at least, that’s what’ll happen if camera manufacturers handle things well, and there’s no reason they can’t. There’s no great technological innovation in marrying new technology to a bigger, more easily handled chassis and some more battery power.

What’s unavoidably true is that we will need cameras of some kind. Anyone worried by the slow cloudification of more or less every piece of equipment in the edit suite can relax. The situation with cameras is nothing like the same situation as VTRs. We needed VTRs because the mechanism of exchanging program material between facilities was on physical media. Flash may have obviated tape, but the cloud has obviated physical media. We don’t need a VTR not because we’ve replaced it in its role; we’ve replaced its entire role. And we can’t do that for cameras, much as we can’t do it for audio recorders. Even if we one day become capable of shooting directly to the cloud from a device anywhere on the planet, we’ll still need that device, with a battery for power, and a lens to gather the light, just as we need a microphone to gather the sound, and some careful electronics to ensure those signals are captured cleanly and treated well.

Conclusion

If this discussion seems tinged with a mote of regret, well, just on the basis that human effort has value, it’s a shame that so much technological specialism has been subsumed into a commoditized provision of technology by the yard. Convenient, of course, but there’s not much of a business building that technology, unless that business is Amazon’s web services division or a job changing burned-out fans in the warehouses which represent Microsoft Azure.

At the same time, and in an ideal world, the convenience of the new technology, which should be lighter, faster and longer-lasting even if it’s still an upscale digital cinema camera, should free us up to concentrate on what’s going on in front of the lens, which, in the end, is what it’s really all about.

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