Let’s start with a fact: a Sony F35 recently sold on eBay for around one-fortieth of its 2008 release value, which is a depreciation rate only a tax accountant could possibly love.
To own camera equipment at the moment is to be exposed to a rate of technological change that can be described, with only slight hyperbole, as without equal in the history of cinema. On one hand, it’s hard to complain: much of this represents real and genuine improvement, and nobody’s upset by the general concept of progress – of getting better pictures faster for less effort. What’s more problematic is the fact that the human effort required to build, say, a high-end, theatrical-release movie camera is much as it ever was. So, for that matter, is the box office take. In between are squeezed the companies and individuals who must make one pay for the other, and what’s changed is the time in which they’re expected to break even.
This situation has come to a head in the last decade. Release after release has provoked at first frowns, and then an aggrieved airing of frustrations, especially in the mid-to-late 2000s. The shouting often came in a surprisingly incautious manner, from companies whose blushes we’ll spare, concerning products we’ll gloss over, but which cost a lot of money and were obsoleted in months. This practicality shortfall is what has forced the price of very capable cameras down from the low six figures to the low five, which nobody’s complaining about, and it’s difficult to find malice in the actions of competitive participants in something that’s clearly a close-fought race. Even so, there’s a problem for equipment owners – and thereby, indirectly, everyone else – with the feasibility of a 12 month camera that’s probably still up to a hundred thousand dollars for a workable package.
And at the same time, production budgets are squeezed down while ambition is pushed upward by the increasing achievements of high-end television and the enormous increase in the achievable (if not regularly achieved) results from the low end of pocket-money cameras. These, though, aren’t always the most ideal solution from the perspective of a crew used to chunky, easily-operable professional equipment. As much as we can complain about this problematic combination of circumstances, there is actually a fairly straightforward solution, albeit one that requires unprecedented solidarity and unity of purpose from producers, crews and rental facilities. It is this: how about we make this equipment last a little longer?
It’s self-evident when we state it so plainly, but not every show needs to be shot on an ARRI Alexa. Consider something like Sony’s seminal F900 camera, which was used on dozens of highly successful projects in the early 2000s – projects which looked good and made money. It was, notoriously, a superb camera suffering the indignity of an indifferent recording format, the cost of servicing which was out of all proportion to the results. Now, though, excellent recording, onto pocketable flash cards, is trivial, and probably more reliable than the tape decks ever were. F900 made good pictures then. It can make better pictures now. Tastes have not changed so radically as to invalidate it as an acquisition device.
One could, with care, construct circumstances such as a high-contrast day exterior in the woods, with no realistic hope of flying in sufficient diffusion to control the hot spots of sunlight leaking through the canopy. These might try the older technology rather hard. So, consider an F35, sold today for pennies on the dollar. The difficulty is, though, that it’s likely a production would quite literally need to buy its cameras, because high-end cameras more than a few years old disappear quickly from rental inventories. A mutual recognition, from suppliers and producers, of the usefulness of this approach is required, and achieving that recognition in such a field driven by fashion and vague artistry is no mean task.
The idea creates few victims. Rental facilities concerned over devaluing the package can take comfort from the fact that rental income from yesterday’s camera is income based on hardware that might otherwise have been sold off at a considerable loss or scrapped entirely. Reducing the demand for the latest equipment might not overjoy the manufacturers, either, but if we accept the thesis that the current situation is on the brink of unsustainability, that’s inevitable to some extent.
Producers, as ever, also need to solicit the opinions of senior crew with care, as yesterday’s camera will certainly not always do for today’s production. Nevertheless, it remains worthwhile to ask whether a camera from five minutes ago, viewed as stellar then, might be just as stellar now. In many circumstances – certainly not all, but many – money could be saved, or a lighting package expanded, or a favored piece of specialist equipment brought in for that crucial day, while simultaneously alleviating the amortization problem for the owner. The only requirement – and the key point about this whole subject – is a recognition that equipment does not become obsolete and unusable simply because it has been superseded.