The quest for the elusive “film look”

I see this or this picture and I am getting jealous. There is no consumer small-sized camcorder or even a prosumer one that will give you that background blur out of the box without some serious/expensive tweaking with 35mm adapters and lenses. I (and most other enthusiasts) need a consumer-priced HD camcorder that will give us out of the box that elusive “film look” instead of “Johnny records his dog taking a piss at his living room” look. It is the holy grail of indie filmmaking.

Yeah, I know. The consensus is that cameras that cost less than $20,000+lenses don’t give you that film look out of the box. Which is why there is a whole “geek” filmmaker community that tweaks the hell out of their cheaper cameras to get close to that elusive professional movie look. Now, these guys are just *accepting* the situation, sit tight and do with whatever hardware and software filters they got in their disposal. I can’t just do that. Being the perfectionist that I am I want a product that is able to do exactly what I need. The real problem is that most people think that it is not physically possible to create a small camcorder with good background blur and the right contrast values to achieve the “film look”. That’s what they think.

But in reality, IT CAN be done. And it can be done by using a big APS/DSLR-sized sensor (or bigger) instead of the tiny sensors currently found on the consumer/prosumer camcorders. If you have a big sensor and a good-enough built-in lens, you can achieve the film look just fine — and without ugly hacks. Problem is, nobody manufactures such a camera, possibly because of the following five reasons:

1. In order to achieve good background blur in a small-sized body you need to sacrifice the zoom. For example, while even the cheapest camcorder will be able to do 24x optical zoom, such a camcorder I am proposing wouldn’t go above 4x. It’s how it is. But the thing is, that’s acceptable! Such a camcorder would be used by filmmakers and enthusiasts, not tourists who would want to zoom to the Great Wall of China from 2 miles away. IMO, Companies are *afraid* to release a camcorder with only a 4x zoom, it’s a risk of their image.

2. Creating a big sensor, is more expensive than creating a smaller one. You see, the bigger the chip physically, the more “dust” & “errors” it can accumulate during manufacturing resulting in a higher amount of “bad” chips straight out of the factory. However, while price would be higher, don’t expect it to be more than 30% than let’s say, Canon’s tiny Digic-II.

4. They are afraid that such a $1000 camera would kill their $3500 cameras.

5. They are idiots. They never did a market research to try fill up that niche, or their ‘ingenious’ engineers never thought about the problem.

To backup my claims, here are two digital *still* cameras that have the hardware features I am after: the Sony DSC-R1 and the Sigma DP1. These guys recognized that there was such a specific niche in the digital photography and they created the appropriate cameras — although they are not well-sold because in the digital photography space you can get a DSLR plus the right lens that will give you background blur for less than $1000, so it makes sense to go for a DSLR rather than these specialized digicams. But in the camcorder space there is no “DSLR equivalent” for a thousand bucks, so such a product would immediately catch on with enthusiasts. And yet, no one has created anything like that…

In my opinion, such a camcorder would easily sell for $1000 with a bad-ass body look similar to this and the following features: 1920×1080 24/30p, 1440×1080/60i, 1280×720 24/30/60p, Compact Flash as a medium, h.264 recording format (even if it doesn’t create as good quality as HDV’s mpeg2), no need for viewfinder, flexible focus, image stabilization, enough manual options and other standard conveniences. As long as I get my background blur out of the box, I don’t need support for external lenses, although if the right steps would be taken during design, they could make it easier for accessory companies to create 35mm adapters for lenses — although this could just be an extra option.

For those who don’t have enough experience with optics are probably thinking “Eugenia is dreaming, if such camcorder doesn’t exist there is a good reason why it doesn’t“, but that isn’t true. I am ranting over this because the technology to create such a camcorder (on the cheap even) exists and there is an established niche market for it too. It’s just that no one took the steps to put the pieces together and create one for some strange reason. If someone decides to go for it, it would be similar to what Google did with Gmail. Here you had about 100 email services online competing with each other giving from 1 to 10 MBs of online email space, and then, there you had Google coming out of the blue giving away 1 GB. They blew their competition away without using any alien technology, but just by going “big”. I am just waiting for that company — or department at Canon — to go for it too.

The RED guys have announced that they are going to be releasing a “pocket professional camera” next year, so let’s hope that it’s designed with that in mind — and in the right price.

Update: Good discussion with directors and cameramen about the issue.


Stephen Stagg wrote on July 23rd, 2007 at 1:48 AM PST:

I’m not sure that the RED camera would fit in your price constraints tho. They don’t seem to be the sort of company to release a sub $10,000 camera, especially a compact, high-spec one.

As far as the concept of a portable 35mm digital camera goes, I could imagine some fairly serious(expensive) technical barriers to production.

Even a low focal-length lens would take up most of the camera’s size/weight allowance, And to have a variable-focal length at the apertures needed would make the lens very bulky. 3-CCD blocks are pretty bulky so it would have to be a single CCD to fit in with the lens, and this would increase on-chip noise.

Further, the way that a CCD shifts its charge between elements could well be a barrier to expanding the size of each element. And putting a high-resolution sensor in would cause extra bandwidth and processing issues.

As far as CMOS goes, There might be an solution, but CMOSs tend to have higher noise ratios and lower sensitity than CCDs.

Finally. There are not many different CCD/CMOS chips being produced in the world. The unit cost is kept low by the very high volume of identical sensors that then go into different consumer units. The cost of developing and producing a unique chip may be far higher than you imagine.

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Eugenia wrote on July 23rd, 2007 at 2:01 AM PST:

Personally, I am not interested that much in 35mm lenses or adapters, as long as the built-in lens is a good all-arounder and the chip is big enough to compensate.

As for the pocket RED, I don’t think they can afford to sell a pocket camera for more than $5000.

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