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Aaton's Penelope Delta Camera: Innovation, 3.5K RAW, and Time Travel (Sort Of)

10.23.12 @ 3:08AM Tags : , , , , ,

Upon its eventual release, the Aaton Penelope Delta just might be the most innovative digital cinema camera on the market. The Delta features 14 stops of latitude, onboard 3.5K RAW recording in CinemaDNG (with simultaneous proxy recording ability), the world’s first optical viewfinder for a full-res internally-recording camera, an ISO 800 base sensitivity, a mechanical shutter able to reduce that sensitivity by 3 full f-stops, a revolutionary sensor package that simply boggles the mind, and all within a quiet, operator-friendly body. This machine means business — and it’s not going to be cheap, either — but the specs and design plainly speak for themselves. Read on for the full details.

Here is Aaton’s founder Jean-Pierre Beauviala on the camera at this year’s IBC:

The camera’s origins can be traced back to when the Delta project was aimed at equipping Aaton’s final Super 35mm film camera — the original Penelope — with a digital magazine. With film’s longevity rapidly coming to a close, the project shifted gears. Delta, the (almost) final product, is clearly the result of aggressively original thinking. Just by looking at it, you notice the blend of technologies and design philosophies at work, both old and new. Here’s a larger version of the beauty shot most of the articles on the Penelope Delta have been displaying:

Here’s the run-down of features and specs as outlined by the leaflet Aaton released, last updated April 2012:

  • 14 stops of Latitude with its ISO 650/800 3.5K Super35 Dalsa CCD image sensor (more on this later)
  • Internal recording of Uncompressed RAW in 16-bit linear CinemaDNG onto slide-in ‘DeltaPack’ SSDs — with simultaneous edit-ready proxy-recording ability
  • True mechanical rotating mirror shutter (with the ability to reduce the sensor’s effective ISO rating to 80/100 if need be — more on this later too)
  • The aforementioned optical viewfinder
  • Top-mounted selector wheel allowing simple menu navigation for both operators and assistants
  • Aaton’s ‘Cat on the Shoulder’ philosophy drives ergonomics. The shoulder-snug Delta weighs only 17 pounds
  • 3D-ready
  • 2-5 hour autonomous operation via onboard 14V Li-Ion batteries
  • Large side-screen allows playback, plus allows assistants easy access to operating parameters such as LUTs, Timecode, ISO, white-balance, frame rate,  and general diagnostics
  • Sub-19dB noise profile for air-cooling, in both standby and operation

The Penelope Delta is not the first or only camera to offer the mechanical shutter alone or in combination with an optical viewfinder. The Sony F65 features a real shutter and the Arri Alexa Studio features both — not to mention the latter’s base ISO 800 sensitivity and 14 stops of DR — but the Penelope is not only capable of 3.5K RAW recording superior to the Alexa, it’s also the only camera to have all these features in an all-internal recording design. This is major, because there will never be a need to rent or buy an external recorder, which keeps the entire package mobile and compact.

The specs list is really only the tip of the ice-berg, though. Some of the other unique design elements that make the Penelope Delta so note-worthy require a bit more in-depth explanation.

The Shutter

The major side-effect of the low-light revolution is, well, our imaging chips naturally being really sensitive to light. This can become a problem in well-lit conditions, traditionally necessitating the use of neutral density filters. A problem we discuss a lot less is the infrared pollution that regular ND filters can create. Aaton’s solution to this problem is ingenious because it almost literally reexamines and reinvents the wheel, so to speak: the shutter.

In addition to allowing you full mechanical control over shutter-angle, the Penelope Delta allows you to switch from a traditional half-moon spinning mirror to another set of blades which transmit exposure through many tiny slits. This reduces the ISO 650/800 sensitivity of the shutter down to about ISO 80/100, all mechanically/optically, and without affecting the shutter angle itself. A render of this design, courtesy of Aaton, is pictured to the right. This method also circumvents the loss of dynamic range that occurs with the attenuation employed by DSLRs at sub-base ISOs.

The Sensor

The sensor itself is another, well, marvel, really. A number of things make the Delta’s imager special, not the least of which is its Dalsa origins (anybody?) and the fact that it’s a CCD — an acronym we haven’t heard attached to new cinema camera descriptions for far too long in my opinion. The way things have been going for a while now seems to dictate that CMOS sensors are less expensive and, in terms of bang-for-buck, more potentially light-sensitive than would be their CCD counterparts. To be honest, I really never thought I’d have a chance to say this — but we now have a 3K+ Super35 sized ISO 800 CCD at the head of a motion picture camera.

The reason Aaton chose a CCD over CMOS has to do with another thing we don’t usually talk about — photosite fill-factor. As John Brawley explains in a great post on the camera, CCDs have a greater pixel-fill potential than CMOS sensors do, because less of a CCD’s surface area must be dedicated to transfer circuity rather than light-capturing elements. This means the Penelope Delta will possess smaller “gaps” in the image it gathers, as its sensor has a 90% fill-factor versus the 75% commonly found in CMOSs. This will help to eliminate aliasing potential, for one, as well as produce a more all-around “full” image (visual explanation of sensor fill-factor from Dalsa in Links below).

Something even more space-age about the Delta’s sensor, though, is an option which allows the sensor to actually move in place. This capability oscillates the imager by a half-pixel offset each frame, randomizing the noise structure of the image. Fixed noise structure is a difficult problem to bypass in the digital world, but it seems as though Aaton has done so to a point never before achieved. Moreover, Aaton claims that the resolution created by this sensor movement actually increases the effective spatial resolution of the imagery over time. Though any given single frame will resolve whatever a debayered 3.5K image equates to, in motion the consecutive frames combine to virtually resolve an estimated 7K before debayering. That’s right — the Penelope Delta’s sensor can resolve 7K RAW through a method of time-travel (not really but you can understand what I mean).

The Results

After all of this mind-bending innovation, what do the images created by the camera actually look like? Film and Digital Times got a chance to check out some test clips shot by Caroline Champetier, AFC, and had this to say about the footage:

Racing from IBC hall 11 to Marquise technologies in hall 7, we looked at the dailies. Filmic and gorgeous. An available-light scene in a cafe held noiseless detail in deep dark shadows under the chair (below, left) while highlights in the silver espresso machine did not burn out (right). Apologies to Caroline–my graded jpeg below doesn’t do full justice to the original DNG file.

Here’s the graded jpeg in question (courtesy Jon Fauer, FDT):

You may access the CinemaDNG clip this still is from and others from the links below.

As mentioned earlier, when this camera comes out — and there doesn’t seem to be any definitive release dates thus far, though John Brawley estimates that five working prototypes will ship in December — it’s not going to sell for pocket-change. Mr. Brawley’s post says the target price will be around 90,000 Euros, which is about $120,000. That’s more than a little outside the realm of short-term ownership for me, but I’ll be pleased if I have the opportunity to work with the Penelope Delta on a rental basis before I turn 71 years old.

Are you guys as excited about the technologies at work here as I am? Do you think the Penelope Delta will be able to cut a sizeable share out of the RAW digital cinema market once it comes out?


[Dalsa's Image Sensor Architecture for Digital Cinema (PDF) via John Brawley]


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Description image 49 COMMENTS

  • This is really cool. A camera that acts more like a film camera.

  • Even though there are so many absurdly interesting things happening with digital cinema technology these days, this camera has me far more excited than anything else on the market. I mean, It’s just so damn innovative!

  • Im not excited about the new technologies, I m tired, technology must be practical and affordable.

    • Someone is grumpy because they can’t afford it :P

      Chances are if you could it would be a waste of such a good camera. Same with me, too.

      • JkMorganChase on 10.23.12 @ 6:33PM

        A camera is nothing more than a tool, with that sad the specs read like the “Bugatti” of cameras, but honestly no one person would never be able to actually use and harness all of the power of the Veyron. IMO sony F65 is the beast of all digital cameras in terms of technology, and global shutter for cmos rolling shutter. While it may not be exactly affordable, for $65k price tag it isnt exactly far fetched to rent or even own one logically at some point for a serious FIlm maker or production company

    • Wow, impressive. This is the new technological front runner, that’s for sure. And although the price makes it a mere dream for, uhm, everybody, it’s gonna do great in rental, but also, it will inspire new and affordable technologies for our market. See it as innovations in Formula 1 racing that eventually improve normal cars.

    • This camera will practical and affordable for rental house’s.

  • Wow, man to bad I’ll never get to use it in my life lol

  • It looks like a worthy successor to 35mm film!

    George –

    • JkMorganChase on 10.23.12 @ 10:49PM

      Agree but lets wait until we see it in action first, THIS is the “MIAMI HEAT” equivalent of a camera on paper, but a great director , DP, and colorist with an alexa or f65(greatest digital camera IMO) could match this baby.


  • Isnt it funny how we look at a camera this amazing but then choke when we see the $120k price…forgetting all the while that not that long ago you would have been shelling out over half a million for something not even half as good.

    Great stuff!!!

  • john jeffreys on 10.23.12 @ 5:32AM

    See you later, Alexa.

    • Soosan Khanoom on 10.23.12 @ 7:06AM


      • Really? You really think so?


        • john jeffreys on 10.23.12 @ 3:09PM

          I dunno, that screenshot is pretty damn filmic if you ask me. And a real shutter is standard, as far as i know only the fancy high-end alexa has that.

          • and the Sony F65

          • Sony has only sold some ~150 units on the F65. Got that news through the grapevine at work today, confirmed by a Sony rep. No one wants to use it because of the difficulty of the post process. Sony forces you to use their process. The Alexa has market share at the moment. I don’t see it going anywhere.

          • @MichaelmMarkham

            That’s true, I have a friend at a very big rental house, and no one rents the F65 while the Alexa and the Epic fly off the shelf.

  • what are the frame rates?

  • There’s still the 5D3 for uncompressed raw in April 2013 …not as robust as this camera but more affordable.

    LAKE SUCCESS, N.Y., October 23, 2012 – Canon U.S.A., Inc., a leader in digital imaging solutions, today announced a new firmware update for the EOS 5D Mark III Digital SLR camera that significantly improves the camera’s performance and usability. In response to requests from professionals working in the fields of cinema and television production, the firmware update enables the use of uncompressed HDMI Output support, making possible more efficient video editing and monitoring procedures. Additionally, the upgrade supports the advanced needs of photographers through improved AF performance when capturing still images.
    Uncompressed HDMI Output Support
    When shooting video, HDMI Output makes possible the recording of high-definition uncompressed video data (YCbCr 4:2:2, 8 bit) from the EOS 5D Mark III to an external recorder via the camera’s HDMI terminal. This, in turn, facilitates the editing of video data with minimal image degradation for greater on-site workflow efficiency during motion picture and video productions. Additionally, video being captured can be displayed on an external monitor, enabling real-time, on-site monitoring of high-definition video during shooting.
    Improved AF Functionality
    Even when the EOS 5D Mark III is equipped with an extender and lens making possible a maximum aperture of f/8, the firmware update supports AF employing the camera’s central cross-type points (currently compatible with maximum apertures up to f/5.6). Accordingly, the update will allow users to take advantage of AF when shooting distant subjects, benefitting sports and nature photographers, particularly when using telephoto lenses.
    The new firmware update will be available, at no charge, in April 2013 from the Canon U.S.A. website and can be downloaded by end users or through Canon Factory Service Centers.

    Back to top

    • VINCEGORTHO on 10.23.12 @ 11:36AM


    • People need to stop referring to HDMI or even regular 3G/HD-SDI output as “raw.” It just confuses people.
      The update to the 5D3 will let you record 4:2:2 8-bit footage in whatever form of compression an external recorder puts it. Video data from the HDMI is technically “uncompressed” relative to the camera output, but as soon as it’s recorded in a usable form it becomes compressed. It’s not possible to record full-quality image data from the HDMI stream, so the quality won’t increase past being 4:2:2 8-bit. Information like ISO, white balance, etc. is still burned into the image.
      This Aaton Delta records in 4:4:4 16-bit RAW files that, even after they’re recorded, are still completely uncompressed and of maximum quality.

  • konstantinos on 10.23.12 @ 11:30AM

    I was wondering when will you guys cover aaton.Delta is the single most interesting digital camera and yet I am not really convinced its gonna do well in this already saturated market.I think it is going to raise the bar among manufacturers but not really make itself profitable unless they come up with an equally genious marketing plan.In my mind it resembles some amazing elite car manufacturers that got lost since they never catered to the masses.

    • Daniel Mimura on 10.29.12 @ 6:06PM

      I think any rental house that’s been around since the days of film will be getting these.

      I mean, smaller houses often would just get an Arri 16SRIII or 416, but most film rental houses have been using Aaton for years.

      Advertising shouldn’t even mean much b/c it’s more industrial business to business stuff, not like Red going after the individual owner/operator market.

      • konstantinos on 10.29.12 @ 7:12PM

        Well hopefully you are right.But i think a lot have changed and the market is not the same anymore.The development of this camera took forever and for good reason but in the meantime:

        1) A myriad of low budget options are putting pressure on production companies to keep the costs down as much as possible.
        2) Rental houses rent the cameras that are in demand.Namely Alexa and Epic,One MX.Marketing has a lot to do with this and producers dont necessarily understand the differencies between the systems or why would they have to pay a premium for something with less k’s.
        3) Then of course they have to prove themselves in terms of image quality and workflow.It may seem obvious but it is not actually.Arri has done these with the Alexa and something more: they have Deakins swearing by them.That is amazing marketing.You could say that its Arri and they don’t need it but they obviously don’t think so.No one is above the laws of market no matter how good a product is.

        They don’t have to compete with Red maybe.Delta is obviously not for owners/operators.But if you ask me the same could be said for the epic.So maybe its more a company thing than a money thing.But they do have to compete with Sony and Arri.And they have been absent for some time.

        They have catching up to do and i hope they make it because i think Jean-Pierre Beauviala is a genuine dreamer and this camera seems amazing.

        • Daniel Mimura on 11.1.12 @ 8:32PM

          I hope I’m right too!

          Yeah, you’re right…they have been absent for a long time. I think their innovations have given them a good reason to take awhile. I suspect the Digital Bolex is taking so long b/c they don’t know what they’re doing, whereas w/ Aaton, I think it’s b/c they’re innovating…the mirror “ND” system is brilliant. And the pixel shifting vibrating thing or whatever seems like a good way to avoid those sterile looking locked off wide shots you get with digital.

          I just hope that, since they’ve been taking so long to come out, that they don’t fall behind and that the camera will be modular enough or adaptable enough to stay current.

          Arri has Deakins glowing about them, and Red has Cronenweth. Aaton will no doubt have it’s enthusiastic users. The fact that it doesn’t use a touch screen and has physical buttons and a good shape and optical viewfinder standard will entice many film-era DP’s…it’s just a question of image, and based on specs, my expectations are high.

          There have been Sony’s and Arri’s and Aaton’s for decades, so I don’t see them disappearing anytime soon. They are taking a long time, though, which is sort of troubling.

  • This will be a great camera for someone who have an opportunity to decide between this one and F65. But the majority of projects will still be shot on RED/Arri cameras.

    Unfortunately, Aaton is kind of late with this offering and at this price point I can only see this camera on major feature productions or multimillion commercial shoots, and that’s if the DP in question will have the pull to convince producers to use this camera, instead of Epic.

    • Since epic costs substantially less, the more obvious competitor is Alexa. Alexa has huge market share. If it loses even some to Aaton that might be profitable for Aaton. With the features described, it’s at least plausible that Aaton will offer a quality that DPs will push for.

    • I don’t think it’s way too late for Aaton. It’s not the end. Not yet… :)

  • Not quite my cup of tea, but images from the camera are nice.

  • Can’t wait. Aaton have never dominated in the English speaking world. The Alexa will still control the market for a while yet, and look for Arri to release a higher grade camera Q4 next year or soon after.
    This will be the choice of a lot of DPs for features though, and if 3D workable, will cream off a lot of EPIC work. Camera hire cost is a negligible line item on a serious 3D budget.

    Look forward to seeing the first serious work shot on it.

  • JD Holloway on 10.24.12 @ 9:05AM

    Very interesting application of the vibrating sensor. Surely an idea borrowed from the pro 35 adapters need to hide the fine grain pattern of the ground glass. I would really like to see a noise test of this camera. “Native” ISO 80/100 is fantastic. Big ups for the mechanical shutter.

  • Looks like the new Zacuto Shootout will be very interesting.. Will be great to see cameras like the Aaton, The alexa studio, Red Epic with Dragon Sensor and Meizler module, BlackMagic Cinema Camera, F65, and new 4K options coming out of Sony and Canon.

    I would say though that as far as physical tech this camera is pretty great. Workflow tech however I still find the overall workflow more robust through the features announced in the great post about the RED Sync app (via ipad) in the new Meizler module… Should be cool to see actual in the field footage coming out of the new updated machines.

  • Man this reminds me of an Alexa!! I still think the Alexa will rain king….and I doubt Arri will let Aaton step all over them…Resolution isn’t everything remember….BUT the idea of a 7K CCD probably is a better idea to begin with to keep the rolling shutter down and the randomized grain is an awesome idea that I wish was implemented in other cameras…still I don’t think I will ever get a chance to shoot on this camera and I think for allot of low budget movies you can get allot more out of something like a RED One MX or RED Scarlet or an Alexa…honestly the Alexa is a very safe choice and right now we are seeing allot of TV shows switch from RED One’s to Arri Alexa’s because of the whole Shoot > Edit concept using ProRes/DNxHD. I’d like to see in camera RAW with the Alexa though or at least 2.8K ProRes.

  • Daniel Mimura on 10.29.12 @ 6:13PM

    So…does the spinning shutter mean that we’ll actually get flash frames (and sped up footage) as the camera gets up to sync speed again?


  • This new era of film making is bringing very harmful bad habits into the industry. There is nothing compared to the concentration and focus of a 35mm film crew. I think the camera looks amazing just by watching it one can imagine that it i’ll create a big bang in film making, can’t wait to see some tests.