What Defines a Cinema Camera?

cinema camera
What makes a camera a cinema camera? Some of today's biggest names in cinematography share their thoughts. Join the discussion. 

No Film School recently wrote about a camera and one of our readers commented the following: "If it was called a video camera, I'd understand why it shoots UHD only. But since it's called a Cinema Camera, it should shoot in DCI 4K. It doesn't, oh well!..."

Reading comments, the good, the bad, all of it, is not only a way for us to learn what you are interested in reading but it also informs us about topics to consider exploring further.

This particular No Film School reader inadvertently brought up an important topic worth discussing. What makes a camera a cinema camera? The comment is interesting for a variety of reasons, the main reason being that a "cinema camera" needs to shoot 4K DCI in order for it to be called a "cinema camera." It made me wonder how many people similarly think this way—that resolution defines a camera—that a single spec can determine what cinematic is.

The History of 4K

In March 2002, the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) was created. It's a joint venture between the major motion picture studios to create uniformity under the 4K format on both a technical and quality control level. While there are variations in resolution, the group behind DCI notes that standard 4K formats are 4K DCI 4096 x 2160 and 4K UHD 3840 x 2160. The 4K format saw its first public appearance in 2003 by Teledyne Dalsa, who created the Dalsa Origin. It was the first-ever 4K digital camera with a sensor resolution of 4096 x 2048.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962)

The reason why we bring the history of 4K up is because the format is not very old. The history of film dates back to the 1800s. The Golden Age of Hollywood began around 1913. Films like Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, every Alfred Hitchcock film, every Stanley Kubrick film, The Godfather, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope... all were photographed with cameras that could not record 4K DCI natively.

Does that mean the cameras those directors and cinematographers used are not cinema cameras? Are analog film cameras no longer considered cinema cameras? Has the digital age brought on new ways to categorize cameras? (e.g. Analog film, Digital 35mm, Digital Full-Frame?)

The "Cinematic Look"

There are features, qualities, and specs that separate one camera from another, but any image capture device can be used to tell a visual story. What some storytellers try to achieve is a "cinematic look" that we as moviegoers have been conditioned over the years to understand is the "look". There are a number of different visual elements in a given production that help inform what a cinematic look is, including production design, lighting, location, shot selection, scope, scale, and more.

On the camera side, there are technical attributes that contribute as well. Some include sensor size, color, and depth of field. If you adhere to the Steve Yedlin school of cinematography, cameras are looked at as data collection devices and what you do in the post-processing pipeline defines the look more than the camera itself. 

So, What Makes a Camera a Cinema Camera? 

Manufacturers play a role in this just as much as filmmakers do since they create products and market them to influence our perception. When 4K reached the market, it created a resolution race we still talk about today with 8K and beyond. So, we reached out to a dozen cinematographers and all the major camera companies to ask them what makes a camera a cinema camera. Below are the responses we received. 

Filmmakers 

  • Robert Arnold
  • Chris Chomyn, ASC
  • Kees van Oostrum, ASC (Current ASC President)
  • Jaron Presant, ASC

Manufacturers 

  • ARRI 
  • Blackmagic Design 
  • Canon 
  • Panasonic 
  • Sigma 

Robert E. Arnold
Work: Furious 7, La La Land, Terminator Salvation

“I think digital cinema cameras have similar characteristics as when the industry used to shoot on Kodak and Fuji film. The ARRI Alexa sensor has a Kodak film stock look whereas the RED looks more like Fuji film stocks and the Sony VENICE is a unicorn hybrid. However, that's my opinion toward these cameras before you apply a LUT; I think once a LUT is applied all bets are off. A cinema camera's advantage over a prosumer camera is its latitude. Having 14-16 stops of latitude is a game-changer compared to a non-cinema camera."

'La La Land' (2016)
'La La Land' (2016)

Chris Chomyn, ASC
Work: Lockdown, Como Caído Del Cielo, Count Me the Stars

"To me, something that is cinematic is something that tells a story, conveys a mood or relates subtext through the nuanced use of visual and aural elements.  What that is exactly, depends on what the filmmaker is trying to communicate at any given moment. With this in mind, any camera that succeeds in this pursuit is a cinema camera.  

I think there are common assumptions about what makes a camera a cinema camera.  For some, a cinema camera must have a minimum resolution and minimum data rate. Some expect a certain color gamut. Some consider a cinema camera to have a specific form or shape. Some require specific functionality. Some require manual controls. But cameras are tools, and not every tool is a screwdriver or a hammer. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention and tools are designed to serve a purpose for which pre-existing options were inadequate. 

Every iteration of a camera exists because someone thought they needed a better tool. So while an ARRI or a Panavision or a Sony camera may be preferred, sometimes one reaches for the Panasonic, the Canon, the Fuji, the Blackmagic, the GoPro, or your phone or even the backup camera on your car. And when the existing cameras don't work, new cameras are created to solve the problem at hand. And at that moment, a new tool is born and that is also a cinema camera."

'Como Caído Del Cielo' (2019)
'Como Caído Del Cielo' (2019)

Kees Van Oostrum, ASC - Current ASC President
Work: Miss Rose White, Gettysburg, Spartacus,

"Resolution has nothing to do with cinema and setting a standard for cinema through pixels is putting the horse behind the cart. Cinema in its purest sense validates an emotional and storytelling expression. The image in cinema evokes creativity and whether you record that on a single pixel or a multitude of pixels is in the end totally immaterial if the pixel number you choose conveys the intent.

There have, for example, been various great projects that shot on an iPhone, and in my professional opinion, from a technical point of view, some in the audience might be aware of a difference in quality between standard definition and 1080 high definition. Beyond that, the 2K to 6K approach comes down to splitting hairs and certainly does in no way diminish a dramatic experience. Let’s concentrate on the art of cinema and give technology a respectful second place."

'Gettysburg' (1993)
'Gettysburg' (1993)

Jaron Presant, ASC
Work: Brick, Self/less, Rampage

"When we are talking about cameras and camera choices, the single most important factor is sensor response. When we talk about digital cinema cameras, to me there is an understanding that the sensor has to yield a large dynamic range (also referred to as latitude), something in the range of 13 or more stops. This is sometimes fudged by manufacturers because the bottom end of sensor response is a difficult thing to judge as the response nears the noise floor. So, when I say 13+ stops I mean that the sensor set to an ISO setting producing an acceptable amount of noise in the image will have 13 or more stops of response from black to white.

In addition to this, we need to know that the camera isn’t going to compress the image to the point of impacting our ability to access real information about the sampled values. So, it needs to have enough bit depth (generally at least 10 bit) to yield accurate rendition of colors and tones, and low enough compression to not smear values together thus losing necessary information. If the above elements are covered then we can take the resulting code values and push them wherever we’d like. From that point, the question of camera selection becomes one of functionality."

'Rampage' (2018)
'Rampage' (2018)

ARRI
Marc Shipman-Mueller, Product Manager for ARRI Camera Systems

"The idea that one image quality parameter is the all-deciding criteria is simplistic and born from marketingnot from what is really needed on a set. The most important ingredient in making a good movie is and has always been [telling] a good story...and that CAN be done with a small budget and an iPhone. But if we are planning on producing multiple projects professionally, we need tools that are more appropriate to the task in order to produce these projects in as efficient a manner as possible with the highest quality results.

Here is my personal list of what kind of tool is needed to achieve this:

  1. A cine camera must capture the highest possible overall image quality. Image quality is composed of many parameters, some more important than others. Arguably, the most important parameter is dynamic range. A wide dynamic range not only allows the cinematographer great freedom in post-production but also makes the images usable for modern High Dynamic Range (HDR) displays. The next important parameter would be good color science (including a wide color gamut), which affects the representation of colors and specifically skin tones. Then come sufficient sensitivity (EI), sufficient resolution, bit depth, and others.
  2. A high-end recording file type, high-end media, download-stations, and an efficient near-set workflow. The recording file type should be either uncompressed raw data and/or a high-end compressed full-color codec. The media should be robust and reliable, with a high data rate. Download stations should be fast, and the near-set workflow should be simple and easy to understand.
  3. Robust and reliable usage in all environmental conditions. A wide operating temperature range. A dust and splash-water proof housing. Shock resistance. A camera you can use in the Arctic as well as in the Amazon without any problems.
  4. Simple, easy operation. Professional film crews work long hours, sometimes under very adverse conditions, so their tools must be simple and easy to operate.
  5. Professional interfaces. A camera is one part of an existing infrastructure on a set. The camera must interface with professional batteries, monitors, video transmitters, remote controls, tripod heads, cranes, Steadicams, etc. This means power inputs that take a wide range of voltages and that use connectors that do not come out on their own, SDI monitor outputs, and lots of 3/8" -18 screw holes (ideally with dual location pins to avoid rotation).
  6. Accessories. A cinema camera is never just a naked camera on a set. Many items are attached to and communicate with the camera, and those items should fit mechanically, power-wise, and data-wise as best as possible to the camera. We are talking about lenses, base plates, handles, matte boxes, monitors, wireless remote controls, wireless video transmitters, and camera support. 
  7. Support. A camera is a complex piece of gear, and if something goes wrong, you want to be able to contact a knowledgeable service technician who understands the movie business and can react quickly."​
ARRI Alexa LF
ARRI Alexa LF

Blackmagic Design
Grant Petty, CEO

“It's not about resolution. It's about producing pictures that can be color graded to get a film look. It’s about producing pictures that are not all clipped like from a consumer camera, so you cannot do anything with the pictures later. It's also about professional cine features such as 3D LUTs built-in, formats such as Blackmagic RAW, metadata and other monitoring features such as focus peaking, false color, zebra and frame guides.

It's about being able to adjust camera features manually, such as audio input levels so the AGC does not wreck your audio recordings. Or being able to set focus, iris, and zoom manually, setting shutter angle and ISO manually, etc. Even professional audio inputs, better microphones, bigger screens for monitoring, external monitoring outputs with overlays for crew viewing when used on set.

Giving filmmakers control over the camera so they can set up shots to be captured well and graded later is why we got into cameras. Before, people were trying to grade from video cameras and all the images were clipped and the results were not good. We tried making color correction more affordable and even by making it free, it was hard to get more color correction used in people's work. So, we had to build cameras designed for color correction.

That’s what digital film is. It's not resolution at all. An HD camera is digital film if it does all these things well.”

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K
Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K

Canon USA
Alex Sax, Specialist, Marketing

"Technically speaking any camera that shoots in HD or higher and is engineered for motion, I would consider a cinema camera. Definitely every camera in the Canon cinema line. However, you can achieve a cinematic look from almost any camera. I have seen beautiful footage from a Rebel or 90D as well as 5D, EOS R, and 1D series cameras. It is hard to consider these cinema cameras, but they produce beautiful cinema-quality images."

Canon EOS C500 Mark II
Canon EOS C500 Mark II

Panasonic
Mitch Gross, Cinema Product Manager, Panasonic System Solutions Company

"It’s a loaded question, because really you COULD shoot with anything, get a picture and call that a cinema camera if you’re willing to use it. Movies have been famously released to the cinema that were shot on cell phones, shot on standard-definition camcorders, shot in interlace at broadcast video frame rates, etc. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

What really makes a cinema camera is control. Control of color, exposure, focus, depth, contrast, aperture, recording, etc. People can say, “you can shoot a movie on an iPhone,” and while that’s technically true, you lose all sorts of control of the image. And with control comes art and craft. Panasonic’s GH5 and S1H cameras answer the question of control just as the EVA1 and VariCams do. They do so to different degrees based on the tool that is appropriate for the task, but that’s why we offer different models. A VariCam Pure Uncompressed RAW camera offers incredible control, but it might not be appropriate to squeeze in a small space like one of our other models.

Control means that you can shape and manipulate the image the way you wish. Otherwise, you are simply documenting or recording events, not interpreting them in an artistic fashion. Cinema is about telling a story, even in nonfiction. There is a point of view and you want all of your tools to work with you to help form and deliver this message. Having control means that you get to express your art through craft. That is what makes a cinema camera."

Panasonic VariCam LT
Panasonic VariCam LT

Sigma
Jack Howard, Marketing Department

"At its essence, cinematography is ruled by functionalism, and the best creative tools should reflect an elegance in design that effortlessly enables the creator’s vision. The Sigma fp embodies this elegant functionalism in its feature set, Cine and Still menu structures, and the overall extensibility of the system. The clean, crisp interface, the director’s viewfinder, the supported filetypes, including 4K 12-Bit CinemaDNG, and the ability to rig and mount the camera in a multitude of configurations all help light the creative spark. Additionally, the release of the 3D schematics for the camera and its original accessories helps jump-start the ecosystem and allows for incredible customizations, from underwater housings, remote cages, and virtually limitless configurations."

Sigma fp
Sigma fp

Final Thoughts

The responses highlight that not one thing makes a camera a cinema camera. Cinema itself is not one thing. It's whatever the filmmaker needs to present in order to connect and affect the audience. Cameras are tools designed to focus on the story and subtext. Any camera that services that can be a cinema camera.

Maybe its time to consider thinking about cameras in a different way—not whether or not one camera is better than the other but whether or not it can serve the purpose of your story.

But we want to know what you think. What makes a camera a cinema camera to you? Let us know in the comments below.      

Your Comment

14 Comments

So. Much. Information.

February 20, 2020 at 9:09AM

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Jason Hellerman
Copywriter
Writer

You use it to shoot a film.

February 20, 2020 at 9:12AM

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Kevin Lawrence
Post Production
91

I understand where this article is coming from, but I think there is a chance the author is misinterpreting key information from the original comment. The difference between a camera that shoots 4K DCI and a camera that shoots UHD (but not 4K DCI) is that the second camera literally cannot produce an image that is projectable (without scaling, etc.) at the highest current standard of digital theatrical display. The difference is literally about images designed with theatrical cinema as the pipeline end and images designed with television as the pipeline end. UHD is a TV standard. 4K DCI is a theatrical standard. One is television. One is cinema. Hence, the argument that a camera that cannot shoot 4K DCI should not be called a cinema camera.

Of course, most DCPs are projected at 2K and you can upscale UHD for 4K. I'm not suggesting that there is a necessity to shoot 4K. I've never done it, and I've made several feature films. But, there is a simple technical distinction there that might be getting obfuscated in the broader discussion about resolution.

February 20, 2020 at 9:58AM

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A cinema camera to me is a camera that’s able to record in true 24fps and not just 23.98fps, the ability to shoot 4096 x 2160 (DCI) and some form of log. Everything else is preferential. I love my GH5.

February 20, 2020 at 11:51AM, Edited February 20, 11:53AM

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Freddy Long
Writer-Director
338

Exposure latitude, color rendition, high-bit/RAW recording, and reliability are my primary criteria for digital camera selection. I can work around everything else.

February 20, 2020 at 1:13PM

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Chris Toll
Production Manager / Producer / DP
162

Searching For Sugarman, won the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary at the 66th British Academy Film Awards in London Academy and the Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood. It was shot in Super 8 and on an I phone. It's all about story... period. You can have the best hammer in the World... and keep hitting your thumb.

February 20, 2020 at 1:28PM

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Jerry Roe
Indie filmmaker
1534

In my class studies we spent quite a lot of time understanding what ISO means. Here's the Google: "The International Organization for Standardization is an international standard-setting body composed of representatives from various national standards organizations. Founded on 23 February 1947, the organization promotes worldwide proprietary, industrial and commercial standards. It is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, and works in 164 countries."

These standards can be applied to films, the chips in the cameras, the optics the cameras use and plenty of other "parts" of the secret sauce.

If you are a producer this kind of knowledge comes into play when you have defined the end product. When I did a NASA piece a couple years ago, I was required to output an MXF file because it was going up on the big screen.

I knew from the beginning I had to reach certain kinds of defined resolution before I began production, unfortunately some of the elements were lesser than.

As story makers, and viewers we are pretty tolerant of whatever the story uses to tell the story. Think of your own first attempts at a story on any camera type, then think of clips you've seen from before 1930, then think of Guardians of the Galaxy, that movie had about the clearest, most detailed resolution I think I've ever seen.

You chose Lawrence of Arabia.

Highest quality film stock probably ever produced.

Digital is still made with pixels, little color dots on a chip.

Film is chemicals. The size of a silver molecule on a film is much smaller than current pixels on a chip. Film stock of high quality is going to be king for a long time yet to come. It is incredibly expensive. As far as I know, and technology being what it is I am being careful what I say here, chemical resolution is far and away finer than any digital composition currently is.

Digital though, is VERY efficient, and cost effective. And is a pretty good imitator of film. Especially with good color matching and look up tables.

And Japan has had 8k for a few years now. And Hasselblad makes their acquisition chips at 100 megapixels.

Let your end products define what your production needs will be up front. Then think like a painter, and make whatever it is you want us to see harmonize with the story line.

February 20, 2020 at 2:17PM, Edited February 20, 2:18PM

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Charles Baldwin
Director of Photography
79

I think this question gets answered in unique ways by individuals, not consensus.

Personally, I don't think the camera answers the question of cinema at all. In my experience, cinema actually happens outside the camera and that process begins with a pencil and paper.

If I shot a static bowl of fruit sitting on the table with an Alexa (choose your flavor) it would be the most gorgeous bowl of fruit movie that approximately no one paid admission to see. If instead I took out my smartphone and told a story around that bowl of fruit it might collect an audience.

I'll offer one more. Every Pixar movie is not shot on any camera (besides the software versions) and that never stopped anyone of their movies from packing theaters across the globe.

Story, story, story. This was true circa 1800's as it is in 2020. Give me a story, and I'll give you my $15 and 2 hours of my life.

February 21, 2020 at 4:26AM

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This is the most sensible and straight to the point answer I got here. All the Brand reps were selling us on their products and I totally understand but this comment seals it all. In the end, it's story and when one has the budget to use which ever camera, sure he should go on with it.

February 21, 2020 at 7:39AM

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Stanley Makafui
Indie Filmmaker
74

Nice!

February 21, 2020 at 8:03AM, Edited February 21, 8:03AM

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Vicki Bates
Writer
81

right, every brand maker try to push to its angle.
cinema camera should be a camera to tell story, that help you to tell without big problems, with lights (good dr, but remember that filmstrip for movie in past use since 5-6 stop of dr), with good quality of picture (35mm is good enought at 2k, 4k is not necessary, a lot's of movie are shooted with alexa 2.7k or open gate 3.2), with easy setup and use but also strong and well thought (cinema like fitzcarraldo couldnt be done with a dslr or tv camera), weight balanced (the big mistake of most of rig are the ability to grab camera and use it easely, balance weight on shoulder, tripods or gimbals), and record in a good codec (raw or DI) to allow enought space to post.
every other things to me are only marketing spec.

February 21, 2020 at 12:37PM

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Carlo Macchiavello
Director (with strong tech knowledge)
1073

By classing a cinema camera as the highest standard of cinema projection is really ignorant. 35mm was the highest standard of general release cinema projection for decades but 16mm film isnt any less of a cinema camera. Neither is Imax any more of a cinema camera.

The resolution and sensor size is not a function of whether something is a cinema camera or not. They are a function of the image being created, and this image can be cinematic regardless of the acquisition source. Cinema has a history of outsiders doing different things with different cameras and creating unique cinematic art. The Dogmne 95 movement, the mumblecore movement and now theres, especially in the doco world you film it with whatever you have available. Theres a whole genre of films that take place on a computer screen, Ive only seen SEARCHING but its absolutely cinema and is fantastic and that acquisition form is a webcam and a macbook screen...

This whole argument is a product of the gross online gear fetishisation that started in the 35mm adaptor error, which to me was using cameras to create a new interesting image from a cheap camera. It wasn't making them more or less cinematic of camera just making the image appear differently based on the lens configuration. Follow this by a canon 5DII with Nikkor 50mm 1.2 lens shooting the plants in your backyard. A more cinematic camera? A more cinematic image? Was Reverie more cinematic than Dancer in the Dark? Was Act of Valor cinematic?

Heres a good list of films shot on consumer grade equipment, plu Linklaters TAPE, they are all entirely cinema.
https://elfsjapan.com/blog/ten-successful-feature-films-shot-on-consumer...

I think a focus on the cinema the camera creates is more helpful than the gear fetishisation

February 24, 2020 at 12:07AM, Edited February 24, 12:22AM

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Isaac Elliott
Director - Producer
612

Interchangeable lenses, SDI out, timecode out, recording resolution equal or 1:2 scaled from actual sensor resolution.

March 4, 2020 at 10:07AM

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Nathan Tranbarger
Videographer, DP, Editor
168