HDR: Part 42 - Creative Technology - Surviving Evolution

2021 saw the end of a British lighting institution with the demise of Photon Beard. The company has existed since the founding of R. R. Beard Limited, founded in 1882 by a man who reveled in the fantastic name of Robert Royou Beard.

It had been in continuous operation ever since, surviving 138 years of technological changes from gas lighting to the modern day. The company's last products were remote-phosphor LEDs, at the zenith of color quality, designed for field production and studio installation. Many of them will capably continue reducing power consumption and the demand for air conditioning in studios for years to come.

Photon Beard is unlikely to be the last victim of an event on such a vast scale, and we're lucky that something of the memory of the company survives in the form of the people at Projects Department Ltd. The company will also be remembered as a rare and encouraging example of a commercial organization that managed to ride the wave of technology - several large waves, in fact - for a very, very long time, from gas lamps to LEDs. It's hard to object to an increasing rate of change, which we rely on for perpetual improvements in technology, but the way in which the film and TV industry has handled big changes in the past can also shed light on what the future might hold.

Unforeseeable Challenges
Photon Beard, though, only fell to a problem way, way outside the range of circumstances a company could reasonably be expected to plan for. The situation with famous film lab DuArt had some parallels; the company was an institution of the New York film scene, and its former premises on West 55th Street is still known as the DuArt building. The very fact that the company actually owned its home in such a fantastically expensive part of the world says something about its success and longevity; having been around for not quite as long as Photon Beard it had seen practically every major innovation in film technology and coped ably with them all.

DuArt weathered many storms of new photochemical technology throughout the best years of the twentieth century and made a determined effort to diversify, having wound up photochemical processing in 2010. The company offered edit and audio facilities as well as restoration and other film-handling services which employed large numbers of skilled people, the supply of which had often dwindled in the post-film world. Sadly, it shut down just this year, possibly a victim of both circumstance and the pandemic.

Not every organization can muster the sort of sturdy response to change boasted by Photon Beard and DuArt. Da Vinci Systems was once a purveyor of very exclusive, very high-end post production technology. The company became hugely successful in a time when real-time color manipulation of moving pictures required racks full of programmable logic devices. In at least some implementations of real-time, high-definition color manipulation, adding another layer of color correction would require another wedge of rack space. It was a truly excellent system, with the snappy, low-latency performance of a device implemented in rank upon rank of silicon chips, though a complete telecine setup easily reached into seven figures.

Software Power
The company launched something vaguely recognizable as the now-ubiquitous Resolve software in 2004, at a time when it had long been obvious that developments in general-purpose computing might plausibly make desktop computers capable of much the same work as those racks of extremely expensive processing electronics. More than one company in high end post production was stubbornly reluctant to admit that the latest Playstation, or at least its technological siblings, could be a threat to big-ticket color grading hardware, but by the mid-2000s no crystal ball was required to see the future.

For a few years, using a graphics card to do general-purpose mathematics involved what were effectively workarounds, but when, in 2007, Nvidia officialized the practice with CUDA, the new direction was already inevitable. Da Vinci was bought out wholesale by Blackmagic in 2009. The much-modified scion of the Resolve software thrives; Blackmagic did not continue selling any hardware under the Da Vinci name, with the possible exception of control surfaces associated with Resolve.

While it's possible to imagine that situation having played out differently, it's harder to see what Kodak could have done that it didn't do. Photochemical film had long been recognized as an expensive, longwinded and delicate, if beautiful, way to make either still or moving images. Every company involved in the field, which included at least Agfa, Fujifilm and Kodak, can reasonably be said to have received at least a two-decade warning that electronic capture would soon take over. Kodak, for its part, had made moves toward digital photography by producing prototypes in the almost unimaginably early days of the mid-70s.

Predicting The Future
The company had made plans to make a deliberate move toward digital over the decade of the 1990s, and if a mistake was made it was possibly that this was done, at best, half-heartedly. With photochemical revenues holding firm, a move to digital might legitimately have been seen as undermining the company's own core business. Initially Kodak did well with its digital cameras, but quickly lost its position to cheaper options. A brief dalliance with consumer inkjet printers faltered quickly, and in the end, only the popularity of film as a medium for art – and particularly the tendency of the motion picture industry to cling to its old favorite – kept things going until January 2012. Kodak's filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection was, in the end, a reorganization rather than an outright failure, but it's hardly controversial to observe that it was provoked by changes in technology.

Given all this, it's not particularly hard to come up with at least a few reasonable suggestions about the thought process behind Rosco's 2017 acquisition of DMG Lumière. Rosco, like Photon Beard, enjoys more than a century of history, and technology companies in particular don't tend to achieve that without exhibiting flexibility. Rosco has always done a lot of different things, but with a current product line including scenic and effects supplies, paints, gobos and flooring materials, it would already seem admirably diversified away from its well-known line of filters.

Whether the DMG acquisition suggests anything more than a lack of confidence in the future market for lighting filters - which would not be an unreasonable fear - is necessarily known only to those inside Rosco. It's certainly given one of the world's best-known filter companies access to some of the world's best LED color technology. DMG lights from the Mix range review spectacularly well in terms of their color quality. There's a counterargument here in that theatrical performance spaces and other live events seem to be clinging to white lights and filters harder than almost any other industry, mainly because the cost of low-energy replacements has historically been swingingly high. That problem is probably self-resolving in time, though, as development costs amortize, and the required technology is better and better understood.

Surviving Change
If there's a poster child for riding the wave of technology like a champion surfer, though, it's Arri, which has generally innovated its way through changes in its field without having to massively reorganize or to purchase help qualified in a new field. We should certainly recognize the contributions of collaborators such as Zeiss, on Arri-branded lenses, or sensor manufacturer ON Semiconductor, if only because Arri made exactly that recognition in a statement by the company's Franz Kraus when the Alexa won its Scientific and Technical Academy Award in 2017.

Yes, a degree of brand loyalty is involved, and yes, the company has produced less-than-perfect products, but in general it's been able to maintain a high-margin position at the high-end of the industry for decades by dint of regularly releasing attractive products. The traditional approach, at least within the traditionalist confines of an industry like high-end single-camera filmmaking, seems to be effective.

The threat, if any, is the skyrocketing performance of less exclusive cameras. Alexa, and particularly that ON Semiconductor sensor, is the product of some design decisions that were not intended produce a particularly saleable consumer camera with high resolution and sensitivity figures, so it's easy to misunderstand the things that make it work so well and assume it'll be easier to outdo than might really be the case. Nonetheless, nothing lasts forever. What's crucial is that Arri seems to know that, having briefly mentioned, as if by mistake, a 4K, Super-35mm Alexa just pre-pandemic.

With digital camera systems, LED lighting, and the explosion in streaming video on demand, the film and television industry has arguably changed more in the last ten years than it has since the dawn of sound, the best part of a hundred years ago. The fact that we've seen the stability that we have is surprising, but what Robert Royou Beard would have thought about it is necessarily academic.

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