Filed in: Camera, Featured, Film, Gear
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The Lessons of DALSA Digital Cinema

October 28, 2011 | By

As the industry waits with bated breath for major announcements from Red and Canon on Nov. 3, Below the Line talks with Rob Hummel about one of the camera industry’s ill-fated pioneers.

Rob Hummel currently serves as president of Legend3D.

The first time I saw 4K footage was in DALSA’s screening room in their well-appointed rental and training facility in Woodland Hills. The interior of the building had been designed to look like a film set of a street scene with various faux storefronts for the staff offices and a promenade running across the facility.  There was a spacious setup and training room for clients, and they had a great team of energetic, intelligent people.

The 4K images were stunning. The test footage included fields and flowers and the detail was incredible. If anything, the images were almost too “perfect.” They still looked digital to me. But that was the moment when I realized that digital cinematography would eventually be able to match celluloid. It would just be a matter of tweaking algorithms and perhaps improving bit-depth. Certainly, it would be a massive undertaking, but the film industry is a massive industry. It would only be a matter of time.

Around the same time I had the opportunity to attend a screening of a brand new 70mm print of Patton, the 1970 classic starring George C. Scott. It was, quite simply the most beautiful filmic imagery I had ever seen. It was not just the detail, but the depth and warmth of the colors which filled the massive screen. It was mesmerizing.

In terms of quality, DALSA’s uncompressed 4K camera was often compared to 70mm film cameras. In fact, one of the first DALSA projects was Postcards from the Future – an IMAX film for science centers and museums.

Cinematographer Eric Adkins lensed one of the first Dalsa films - Postcards from the Future.

So what happened to the camera that, it could be argued, first showed us the potential of digital cinema? Those who remember the story know the obvious problems: the DALSA Origin camera was too big, the workflow seemed too complicated at the time, and it was too expensive.

The eventual closing of DALSA coincided with the introduction of the new RED camera, which seemed to be everything that DALSA was not: cheap, light and – if you chose to believe the hype – easy to integrate into the workflow.

DALSA, which specializes in manufacturing semiconductors and image sensors for digital cameras of all kinds, first introduced the Origin in 2003, with high hopes. The company invested millions in R&D on the camera and eventually bought up Broadcast Plus‘ former facility across the street from Panavision in Woodland Hills, Calif. to serve as a home base for the company’s line of uncompressed 4K cameras.

“DALSA did their homework when they developed this camera,” said industry veteran Rob Hummel, who served as president of DALSA Digital Cinema from 2006 until 2008 when the division closed. “They knew that to bring cinematographers on board the camera had to have 4K resolution and a rotating shutter with an optical viewfinder.” (Hummel currently serves as president of L.A.-based Legend3D).

Unfortunately, DALSA did receive one piece of bad advice when developing the specs for the camera: they were told that the size of the camera “didn’t matter.” While it turned out that size did matter, in some ways going big allowed them to pursue optimum image quality above all else. The camera featured a 35mm Bayer pattern sensor with an astonishing fill factor of 86%. There are still no cameras that come even close to capturing this much data on the sensor surface area.

DALSA had lenses built for the camera by A&S Precision using Leica glass. The C-mount could accommodate other lenses. “We even had a set of anamorphic lenses,” recalled Hummel. “They were outstanding.”

Since education was going to be key to their success, the DALSA facility offered training and provided first-rate support for prep and equipment. But that came at a price: rental rates for a camera were around $3,000 per day, and that was just the camera. The Codex box to record the images was another $500 per day.

It was soon clear that for most filmmakers the camera was too big and awkward. Cinematographers wanted a form factor more like a video camera than a Mitchell BNC, while producers balked at the price and worried about trusting an “untested” 4K workflow.

“There was a lot of misinformation around at the time,” said Hummel, “but the camera’s DPX files worked just as if you’d scanned film. People didn’t realize it was that simple. It was a brave new world then. 4K tended to scare people.”

Dalsa's Evolution camera was introduced in 2007, but it may have been too little, too late.

The smaller, lighter DALSA Evolution was introduced in 2007, but it may have been too little, too late. Red was already sitting on hundreds of purchase orders for its new 4K cameras, sight unseen.

“Once our camera was on its game, it ran like clockwork,” enthused Hummel. “You could just take a light meter reading, select your F-stop and you were good to go. Nowadays we have people slavishly checking everything on the monitors, but the Evolution was simple. There were no fancy settings. You could treat the digital sensor like it was film because it had such great dynamic range.”

Hummel added that “anyone that shot with the camera was startled by its dynamic range. The fact that you could treat it like film made it so easy to work with. There was no need for a ‘video village’ to check every shot and recalibrate the camera over and over again.”

Time ran out on DALSA in the economic slump of 2008. Shareholder pressure to close the digital cinema division became too great. Most of the 14 cameras that had been built were sent to Ryerson University in Toronto. Two Evolutions remain at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Pickford Centre in the care of Joe Digenaro. In fact, they were used for shots of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, (which seems vaguely ironic). “They haven’t even required any servicing – that’s how well they were built,” said Hummel.

Hummel is convinced that the DALSA camera would have succeeded if the company had not pulled the plug. “The Evolution was a big step in the right direction and we had a smaller model in the works.” But that is now in the past and it is for other manufacturers to pick up where DALSA left off.

“There are three things that matter in building a great camera,” said Hummel, “form factor, an optical view finder and image quality. People get hung up about a whole lot of technical factors that they don’t actually understand. Just look at the image. When Kodak came out with a new film no one talked about the emulsion, but they try to do that with digital. Everyone is qualified to look at pictures. Everyone can tell when an image is good.”

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